Archive for February, 2008

Six capsules

Here’s a quick round-up of films seen recently that were either reviewed in more depth elsewhere, or which I’m unlikely to get round to writing up in full.

Katyń (d. Andrzej Wajda, 2007, Poland)

A good film from a director who’s made several great ones. The reason for my slight disappointment is twofold. Firstly, no mere film could possibly live up to the colossal weight of expectations engendered by both its subject (the ruthlessly cynical Soviet-perpetrated slaughter of at least 12,000 of Poland’s intellectual and military elite in the early days of World War II) and its all too personal connection to its creator (Wajda’s father was one of the victims). Secondly, Wajda’s understandable urge to be as direct and communicative as possible means that Katyń lacks the ambiguity and subtlety of his greatest work, with the characters rarely developed beyond basic archetypes. But individual set-pieces are often inspired (especially at the beginning and end), it’s clearly impossible to deny its historical, cultural and national importance, and I hope it gets proper distribution in English-speaking countries. (At the time of writing, it lacks UK or US distribution, but it’s getting a big-screen airing at BFI Southbank in London on April 22, in Wajda’s presence). My full review of the Polish DVD can be found at DVD Times. (IMDB)

The Conductor (Dyrygent, d. Andrzej Wajda, 1980, Poland)

Another Wajda that I hadn’t seen before, this turned out to be as minor as its reputation, and though it’s initially intriguing seeing John Gielgud as a Wajda protagonist, his performance is badly handicapped by atrocious dubbing whenever his character speaks Polish, and even his English voice (Gielgud’s own) bears little resemblance to what one would expect an expat Pole who’s spent much of his creative career in America to sound like. This constant distraction works against one of Wajda’s key themes, of overwhelming nostalgia trumping international fame, though the other main strand, whereby Gielgud is one point of a triangle involving violinist Krystyna Janda (the daughter of his lost love) and her talentless martinet of a husband (who’s achieved his position through official preferment), is much more effective. I’m happy to confirm that the Polish DVD (Vision, Region 0 PAL) does have English subtitles, even though this doesn’t seem to be acknowledged by any of the Polish online retailers. (IMDB)

Freedom’s Fury (d. Colin K. Gray/Megan Raney, 2006, US)

Quentin Tarantino has lent his name to a wide range of projects, but a feature-length documentary about Hungarian waterpolo must be one of the more eccentric entries in his filmography. Co-produced by expat Andrew G. Vajna at about the same time that he made Children of Glory (see below), this absorbing 90-minute US-made documentary goes behind the scenes of the notorious “blood in the water” match at the Melbourne Olympics (so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page). There, the Hungarians and the Soviet Union clashed for the first time since the failure of the revolution, with results hinted at by the game’s nickname. Sibling filmmakers Colin K. Gray and Megan Raney also offer a useful overview of the revolution as a whole, and a wide range of interviewees includes most of the surviving players from both teams (who have a touching reunion at the end). The Hungarian DVD includes the original English version of the film, with narration by Mark Spitz. (IMDB)

Children of Glory (Szabadság, szerelem, d. Krisztina Goda, 2006, Hungary)

A mammoth box-office hit in Hungary, where it seems to have been as cathartic as Katyń for some, this was the biggest and flashiest of a group of films made specifically for screening at the time of the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Loosely based on the story told by Freedom’s Fury (see above), it turns the material into a high-concept blockbuster by giving the waterpolo team’s star player a somewhat contrived romance with a fiery female student revolutionary and finds himself trapped in Budapest as the Soviet tanks roll in. These scenes, brilliantly staged by veteran stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong, are by far the film’s high point, though it’s also strangely fascinating seeing a Hungarian-language film made absolutely according to the Hollywood stylebook (the producer was Andrew G. Vajna of Rambo fame/notoriety, and the screenplay was adapted from a story by fellow expat Joe Eszterhas). Likeable performances from actors who previously gelled with director Krisztina Goda in her earlier hit Just Sex and Nothing Else (Csak szex és más semmi, 2005) also keep things ticking over nicely. My Sight & Sound review will be published in the next issue, coverdate April 2008. (IMDB)

Mansfeld (d. Andor Szilágyi, 2006, Hungary)

Watched as background for Children of Glory, this was also made for the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, but takes a very different approach. Strongly reminiscent of the British film Let Him Have It in both tone, content and sense of moral outrage, it’s a dour, sobering study of the reasons whereby teenage misfit Peter Mansfeld (Péter Fancsikai) became the revolution’s youngest martyr, executed shortly after his 18th birthday even though he was under-age at the time he committed his relatively minor and generally botched revolutionary crime. Since the target audience would almost certainly have known about his fate well in advance (Mansfeld seems to have the same level of recognition in Hungary as Jan Palach in the Czech Republic), director Andor Szilágyi wisely prefers to concentrate on the political and judicial machinations behind the scenes. There’s a particularly memorable overhead shot of an appeal court judge eating a meal more or less in real time prior to pronouncing sentence, as if to emphasise his real priorities. (IMDB)

Midnight Talks (Rozmowy nocą, d. Maciej Żak, 2008, Poland)

A very pleasant but almost instantly forgettable romantic comedy, I actually had to check my notes to remind me of what happened, even though I only saw it a fortnight or so ago (in a first for a Polish film, it opened simultaneously in Warsaw and London, naturally in the week of Valentine’s Day). In a nutshell, fiercely independent Matylda (Magdalena Różczka) decides to have a child without any male input other than the fundamental one at the start of conception, and places a personal ad accordingly. The man who replies, earnest chef Bartek (Marcin Dorociński), is of course perfect for her, but it takes the rest of the film and numerous only very mildly amusing misunderstandings for the penny to drop. Joanna Żółkowska steals most of the laughs as Bartek’s mother, whose desperation to convince the world that she’s still a teenager at heart makes Absolutely Fabulous’ monstrous Edina seem like a model parent. This should also be reviewed in the next Sight & Sound. (IMDB)

Posted on 28th February 2008
Under: Reviews, Poland, Andrzej Wajda, Hungary, Krisztina Goda, Andor Szilágyi, Maciej Żak | 1 Comment »

Katyń DVD: good news and bad news

I’m delighted to confirm that the ITI Home Video release of Wajda’s Katyń has English subtitles - or at least the single-disc edition does; I didn’t bother with the double-disc one as there’s every likelihood that the extras aren’t English-friendly.

The bad news, though, is that the image has been cropped to 16:9 from the theatrical 2.35:1 - though on closer examination it makes less difference than one might imagine.

I’ve just uploaded a lengthy review to DVD Times, which includes comparative frame grabs so you can make up your own mind.

Posted on 27th February 2008
Under: Poland, Andrzej Wajda | 8 Comments »

Polish poll

Despite being considered a hot favourite in some circles, Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń failed to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar, being beaten at the final hurdle by the German film The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher). However, Polish Radio’s English-language news service puts on a positive spin by pointing out that the largely Polish-made stop-motion animated film Peter and the Wolf won Best Animated Short Film.

The same source highlights a recent poll conducted by the daily newspaper Polska that nominated Katyń as the best Polish film ever, followed by Knights of the Teutonic Order (Krzyżacy, d. Alexander Ford, 1962) and The Deluge (Potop, d. Jerzy Hoffman, 1974). The fact that all three are historical costume dramas, and that this genre regularly tops the Polish box office when it comes to domestic productions (Wajda’s 1999 film Pan Tadeusz was a colossal domestic hit that barely played abroad), neatly illustrates the gap between Poles’ own perception of their great films and the international consensus.

Posted on 25th February 2008
Under: Poland, Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Hoffman | 3 Comments »

Miklós Jancsó - UK tour details

March 17 sees Second Run’s long-awaited DVD release of Miklós Jancsó’s masterpiece The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965), and to mark the occasion, the 86-year-old Hungarian master is coming to London, Cambridge and Edinburgh to give a series of interviews and presentations.

The schedule is as follows:

Friday 14th March – 6.30pm
Curzon Mayfair, London
The Round-Up (1965) plus Q&A with Miklós Jancsó, hosted by Tony Rayns

Saturday 15th March – 2pm
Curzon Soho, London
My Way Home (Igy jöttem, 1964)

Saturday 15th March – 6pm
Curzon Soho, London
Miklós Jancsó: An Illustrated Talk by John Cunningham

Sunday 16th March – 12pm
Curzon Soho, London
The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, 1967)

Sunday 16th March – 2pm
Curzon Soho, London
The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest (Nekem lámpást adott kezembe as Úr Pesten, 1999) plus Miklós Jancsó in discussion

There are also two screening events outside London:

Monday 17th March – Time tbc (evening)
Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge
The Round-Up plus Q&A with Miklós Jancsó

Wednesday 19th March – Time tbc (evening)
Filmhouse, Edinburgh
The Round-Up plus Q&A with Miklós Jancsó, hosted by Mark Cousins.

Second Run granted me a sneak preview of the work-in-progress DVD of The Round-Up recently, and I was absolutely floored by the film. I can’t discuss technical issues in much detail as I haven’t seen a final copy (I also haven’t seen the interview with Jancsó that was shot especially for the DVD), but I’m delighted to confirm that the source print is very clean and that Jancsó’s mesmerising compositions, using the full width of the 2.35:1 Scope frame, seem to be intact. Even more commendably, I’m told that the final DVD will be authored in such a way that the (optional) subtitles won’t overlap the picture. Instead, they’ll be restricted to the black bar below the frame, allowing full appreciation of Jancsó’s unique visual style, owing as much to intricate dance choreography as it does to conventional mise-en-scène.

Jancsó is an extremely prolific filmmaker, and much of his output remains unavailable on DVD - he hasn’t even had a UK cinema release since Private Vices, Public Virtues (Vizi privati, pubbliche virtù, 1976) over thirty years ago. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that some fourteen titles, including many of the major masterpieces, are already available with English subtitles on assorted British, American, French and Hungarian labels. (Others are available too, but you need Italian for La Pacifista and Hungarian for the rest). Workload permitting, I’ll try to cover as many of these as I can throughout March, in a similar vein to my František Vláčil and (ongoing) Andrzej Munk surveys.

In the meantime, far and away the best English-language commentary on Jancsó available online is hosted by Kinoeye in two parts - covering the earlier and later halves of his career.

Posted on 20th February 2008
Under: Hungary, Miklós Jancsó | 5 Comments »

Man on the Tracks (1956)

Człowiek na torze
1956, black and white, 80 mins

  • Director: Andrzej Munk
  • Script: Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Stefan Stawiński, based on a story by Stawiński
  • Camera: Romuald Kropat
  • Production Design: Roman Mann
  • Editing: Jadwiga Zajiček
  • Sound: Józef Bartczak
  • Costumes: Halina Krzyżanowska
  • Production Manager: Wilhelm Hollender
  • Production Company: Zespół Filmowy Kadr
  • Cast: Kazimierz Opaliński (Władysław Orzechowski), Zygmunt Maciejewski (Tuszka), Zygmunt Zintel (Witold Sałata), Zygmunt Listkiewicz (Stanisław Zapora), Roman Kłosowski (Marek Nowak), Kazimierz Fabisiak (Konarski), Ludosław Kozłowski (Karaś), Janusz Bylczyński (Warda), Stanisław Marzec-Marecki (party secretary), Józef Para (railwayman), Stanisław Jaworski (Franek), Celina Klimczak (Zofia Sałata), Natalia Szymańska (Orzechowski’s wife), Józef Nowak (Jankowski), Janusz Paluszkiewicz (Krokus), Leon Niemczyk (passenger - uncredited)

Notwithstanding the fact that The Stars Must Burn (Gwiazdy muszą płonąć, 1954) and Men of the Blue Cross (Błękitny krzyż, 1955) were arguably closer to drama than documentary, Man on the Tracks is generally recognised as Andrzej Munk’s first fiction feature. And in many ways this is appropriate, as his approach here represents a far sharper break with the Social Realist propaganda films of the past than anything he had previously attempted. Although he had gradually been shifting attention from collective to individual achievements, up to now his stories had been told by a single voice, usually in the form of an omniscient narrator. Here, though, the same events are recounted from three different perspectives, an approach presumably inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) - and by the end, our initial impressions of a seemingly straightforward event have been turned upside down.

A brief series of opening scenes sets up the situation: a passenger train driven by newly-qualified engineer Stanisław Zapora is forced to brake hard, after a man is spotted on the tracks frantically waving. The train collides with the man, killing him instantly. He is rapidly identified as Władysław Orzechowski, a former railway engineer who was widely seen as being uncooperative and divisive. Once it’s established that one of the lamps in a nearby signal was extinguished, it’s assumed that it was either a spectacular suicide or an act of deliberate sabotage, designed to cause a train crash in revenge for being forced into early retirement.

The way stationmaster Tuszka tells it, this seems an entirely plausible course of events. From the moment they first met, he and Orzechowski never got on, and relations deteriorated when Tuszka replaced his assistant with his own protegé Zapora, whom Orzechowski regards as a spy. Things came to a head during a mass meeting when Orzechowski flatly refused to go along with a planned economy drive that would involve running the trains on inferior quality coal. In Tuszka’s version of events, Orzechowski is the physical embodiment of the forces that hold back progress.

But when Zapora and Sałata, the two other members of Orzechowski’s team, are grilled, they build a more rounded portrait of a man who, while nobody’s idea of a congenial companion, is nonetheless clearly more complex than Tuszka’s dismissive impression would suggest. And as their versions of events are dramatised in flashback, it becomes increasingly clear that for all Orzechowski’s surface unpleasantness (he’s a stickler for procedure and protocol, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and ranks the well-being of his locomotive considerably higher than that of its human operators), he is ultimately more victim than villain.

In the year when Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes sent shockwaves around the world, Andrzej Munk and his writer Jerzy Stefan Stawiński (who also wrote the novel on which Andrzej Wajda based his film Kanał the following year) offered a subtle parable of how easy it is to jump to conclusions and damn without evidence. They also offer an explicit critique of collective action that would have been unthinkable until very recently - Orzechowski’s “crime” is to be too wedded to the notion of delivering the best possible service in an environment where five-year plans and targets reign supreme. Though Orzechowski is a conservative traditionalist, and the film becomes increasingly sympathetic towards him, it’s not in any sense an anti-Communist film - rather, Munk’s position is like that taken by Mateusz Birkut, the fictional Stakhanovite bricklayer protagonist of Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1976), who also turns out to be a truer socialist than those who profess to represent the ideology in positions of power. Tuszka in particular is rapidly exposed as a grudge-bearing opportunist who is only too happy to compromise his own principles in order to toe the party line and secure his own advancement.

The drama is more psychological than visceral, though Munk pulls off three impressive set-pieces in the opening near-crash, an elaborate bit of fare-dodging by Zapora (who dodges inspectors by clinging to the doors outside the moving train), and a sequence in which Zapora repairs the locomotive while it’s in motion, to score points off Orzechowski. Though perhaps the most impressive bit of narrative rug-pulling comes towards the end, when Munk shows us the real reason for the problems with the lamp. Though this is nominally part of Sałata’s story, he doesn’t witness it himself, as he’s momentarily distracted, and it’s only thanks to an astute member of the railway investigation committee putting two and two together that the correct verdict on Orzechowski’s actions is finally reached.

Working largely with his regular documentary team, Munk makes good use of his experience working with trains in the earlier, very different 1953 documentary The Railwayman’s Word (Kolejarskie słowo). Romuald Kropat is once again the cinematographer and Jadwiga Zajiček the editor, and they both create a powerful sense of a world dominated by giant and impersonal machines: there’s scarcely a shot that doesn’t feature a steam train. This is further emphasised by Józef Bartczak’s soundtrack, which plays out to a constant background of clanking machinery and hissing whistles, an effect enhanced by the total absence of music.

The performances are generally excellent, with Kazimierz Opaliński and Zygmunt Listkiewicz outstanding as the rivals Orzechowski and Zapora. Two scenes underscore the subtlety of Munk’s direction and Opaliński’s performance - when Orzechowski meets and reminisces with an old friend, and when he accidentally encounters Zapora in a park on their day off, treating him with impeccably old-fashioned courtesy and charm as though their daily power-struggles had never happened. And it’s not the least aspect of Munk’s considerable achievement that he ends up treating Orzechowski - a character who could easily have remained the crude archetype peddled by Tuszka - with equal courtesy. Munk was presumably not blind to the irony that he would have to turn to fiction in order to tell something closer to the truth - Krzysztof Kieślowski would make the same discovery over two decades later.

DVD Distribution: There are two DVD releases of Man on the Tracks, though the apparent absence of subtitles on the Polish edition (Best Film Co, Region 0 PAL) means that the only viable option for non-Polish speakers is Polart’s edition (Region 0 NTSC).

Picture: By the standards of this variable label, this wasn’t at all bad, if hardly demonstration quality. The source print is a little battered, and some shots are greyer than others, but on the whole Romuald Kropat’s black-and-white photography comes across well, and the 4:3 aspect ratio appears to be correct. Although it’s a PAL-to-NTSC transfer, the drawbacks are nowhere near as pronounced as they were with Polart’s edition of Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers - there’s a bit of motion judder at times, but it’s easy enough to tune out.

Sound: Typical 1950s mono, but entirely adequate for the purpose, and with no audible flaws worth noting.

Subtitles: A pleasant surprise. Although there are a couple of typos, and they occasionally spill over onto three lines, these are minor niggles compared with the fact that they’re white, clear, idiomatic, properly synchronised and optional.

Extras: The only extras are a short text biography of Munk, a filmography, and a copy of Stanislaw Zamecznik’s original poster from 1957 (which, like most Polish film posters, is a work of art in its own right, and is reproduced at the top of this piece). ‘Also Available’ links to cover scans of other Polart releases, but no trailers or other video material.


Posted on 18th February 2008
Under: Reviews, Poland, Andrzej Munk | No Comments »

Derek Malcolm’s Century of Cinema

While researching something else (as is always the way), I stumbled upon former Guardian critic Derek Malcolm’s A Century of Films - a survey of his personal Top 100, with a robust defence of each film’s inclusion.

And on glancing down the list again for the first time since 2001, I notice that nine of his choices came from central and eastern Europe (or, in the case of Blanche, from a Polish filmmaker adapting a Polish play). This is perhaps unsurprising for a critic who came of age in the 1960s when Jancsó, Tarkovsky and the Czech New Wave dominated cinematic proceedings, but it’s gratifying nonetheless.

So here’s a direct link to his individual reviews:

Posted on 17th February 2008
Under: Poland, Andrzej Wajda, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union, Walerian Borowczyk, Jiří Menzel, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Sergei Eisenstein, Yugoslavia, Miklós Jancsó, Andrei Tarkovsky, Károly Makk | No Comments »

Katyń in Berlin

Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń has just had its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, with Leslie Felperin’s Variety review broadly in line with what seems to be the critical consensus:

The 1940 massacre by the Soviets of some 15,000 Polish Army officers at Katyn, Russia, reps the hub from which spokes of drama emanate in the WWII epic “Katyn.” First work in five years by Andrzej Wajda, Polish cinema’s leading eminence grise, doesn’t feel like the personal project one might expect from the son of one slain at Katyn. Instead, this plays almost like an academic master class, meticulously exploring the event’s ramifications but only catching full fire at the end. Foreign-language film Oscar nominee did boffo biz domestically last year, and should make a victory lap around arthouses offshore.

Other substantial English-language pieces include one in The Economist, and especially Anne Applebaum’s magnum opus, ‘A Movie That Matters‘ in the New York Review of Books.

The film will be opening theatrically in Britain in April, but it’s out on DVD in Poland next week. I’m getting conflicting reports as to whether it has English subtitles, but I’ve ordered a copy anyway, as I have enough Polish friends to palm it off onto if I’m unlucky. There are two versions, a single-disc edition with just the film, and a double-disc one crammed with extras, but long experience with Polish DVDs suggests that they probably won’t have English subtitles, regardless of whether they’re on the main feature.

Posted on 16th February 2008
Under: Poland, Andrzej Wajda | 2 Comments »

Polish Documentaries: A Walk in the Old Town of Warsaw (1958)

Spacerek staromiejski
1958, colour, 18 mins

  • Director/Script: Andrzej Munk
  • Camera: Kurt Weber
  • Editing: Jadwiga Zajiček
  • Sound: Zbigniew Wolski
  • Music: Andrzej Markowski
  • Production Manager: Michał Horowic
  • Production Company: Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (Documentary Film Studio)

By 1958, Andrzej Munk had already begun his second career as a maker of fiction features, and although A Walk in the Old Town of Warsaw was classified as a documentary short (and even won first prize in that category at the Venice International Documentary Festival), it works just as well as a fictional psychological study of a young violin student whose studies have made her hypersensitive to the creative potential of the sounds that she hears during an otherwise routine walk between lessons. It was based on an original idea by the composer Andrzej Markowski, whose electronic score is a substitute for any meaningful spoken content. The few words we hear are deliberately distorted and incorporated into the overall aural texture, the lack of subtitles confirming that they’re not meant to be understood.

We first meet the unnamed protagonist in a class full of fellow violin students. Unsurprisingly, given the lack of attention paid to anyone other than the boy playing at the front of the classroom, her mind quickly wanders, and when she starts looking out of the window at a crane swinging over the city, the sound of her classmate’s violin dissolves into electronic chirruping, which in turn is interrupted by the bell signalling the end of the lesson. Quickly changing her shoes to something more suited to walking, she sets off on a trip through Warsaw’s old quarter (is that Munk himself in the telephone box near the start of her journey?), encountering all manner of aural stimulation along the way.

Hearing a massed verse recitation from another classroom window, accompanied by the (electronically-heightened) sound of a besom broom sweeping the courtyard, she impulsively starts to “conduct” the end result. Popping into a church, she is enraptured both by the sight and sound of an organ being installed (the craftsman painstakingly testing each of the pipes before putting them into place) and the potential offered by the building’s echo - she takes out her violin and experimentally plucks the strings before being interrupted by a stern-looking priest.

After hitching a lift on a passing tractor, she hears a trio of cobblers at work, their tapping and leather-working taking on a distinctive rhythm, which she augments by playing with the bottles on their window sill. A walk past a fortress triggers an aural fresco of its past defensive activities, the camera mounting a whip-pan visual accompaniment around its architectural features. The water flowing out of the two spouts of a drinking fountain (a more recent film would undoubtedly have exploited their stereophonic potential) leads to a pitch-altering experiment with unfortunate consequences for the uniformed man who ends up being sprayed. Children play games in a ruined building, their rhythmic chants and huddled whispering suddenly erupting into full-on battle cries - which in turn are cut short by real fighter planes flying overhead. These and a barking dog introduce overtones of menace, abruptly changing the lyrical mood.

Finally, after racing up a spiral staircase, she reaches her destination - she’s having another violin lesson, only this time presumably on a one-to-one basis. Aside from the brief pizzicato interlude in the church, we never get to hear her play her instrument - but in many ways this would probably be a disappointment. At her age, she’s clearly not going to be able to translate her hyperactive aural imagination into anything meaningful - at least not yet. But the potential is clearly there.

By all accounts, this was one of Munk’s most personal films, and it’s easy to see why: the lack of any spoken content makes it far more open to individual interpretation, and its explorations of the creative potential of pure sound rank among the most inventive of any film of its era. Munk was a long-term music lover, and had already experimented with musical ideas informing a film’s structure in his second fiction feature Eroica (1957). Aside from its central scenario, it’s valuable both as a record of old Warsaw as it stood in the late 1950s, and it could also conceivably be screened as a visual demonstration of the principles of musique concrète, as natural sounds are usurped by Markowski’s electronic reimaginings. It’s certainly the most original of the Andrzej Munk documentaries that I’ve seen, and arguably the best.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: Andrzej Munk double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). Although the original colours were doubtless more vivid than what’s presented here, the fading is less marked than was the case with its companion-piece One Sunday Morning (Niedzielny poranek, 1955), and the print is in excellent physical condition. Crucially, there are no serious issues with the soundtrack other than some very faint background crackle. The film doesn’t really need subtitles, though the childlike animated opening credits are given a full translation. Online commentary is provided by this overview of Munk’s career, which briefly mentions A Walk in the Old Town of Warsaw.

Posted on 4th February 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Andrzej Munk | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: One Sunday Morning (1955)

Niedzielny poranek
1955, colour, 19 mins

  • Director/Script: Andrzej Munk
  • Camera: Romuald Kropat
  • Editing: Halina Kubik
  • Narrator: Kazimierz Rudzki
  • Sound: Zbigniew Wolski
  • Music: Jan Krenz
  • Production Manager: Wilhelm Hollender
  • Production Company: Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (Documentary Film Studio)

Andrzej Munk’s second film from 1955 is very different from the first, The Men of the Blue Cross (Błękitny krzyż), and marks another decisive break with the tenets of Socialist Realism that had dominated his early work - in particular, the sardonic humour is much more in line with reports of Munk’s own personality. Nominally, it’s a portrait of a Sunday morning in Warsaw, as primarily seen from the point of view of a number of people travelling on the 133 bus. The narration pays lip service to the notion of highlighting the work of transport staff (”They must stay on duty so that we may take our Sunday ride to the park”), but the tone is low-key and jokey, the commentary as likely to adopt the first person as anyone else’s viewpoint.

We first see Warsaw waking up, the streetlights extinguishing themselves and one or two hardy individuals setting out early. The music by Munk’s regular composer Jan Krenz picks up speed and adds a jaunty piano motif as a bus disgorges a load of transport workers, and reveals that the narration is reading the thoughts of a blond bus driver. He’s waiting for his bus to emerge from a thorough clean from the depot before boarding it with a woman at whom he’s been making eyes all morning - his conductor.

While bleary-eyed, still pyjama’d citizens can be glimpsed through their windows, their more energetic counterparts cycle en masse or get the bus. Not only is a seat guaranteed at this time of the morning, but also a lively chat with the conductor. Jealous, the driver speeds up the bus, almost winging a passing car, to shorten their conversation. This is one of many mischievous touches that would have been unimaginable in po-faced propaganda like Munk’s strictly party-line Destination Nowa Huta! (Kierunek Nowa Huta, 1951), another being the moment when the driver deliberately vibrates the bus while his colleague is applying her make-up (though here she has a speedy revenge). They’ll spend much of the rest of the film winding each other up in various ways: she seems distinctly cooler towards him than vice versa, though he has plenty of attractive young passengers to chat up.

Munk then shifts to a study of these passengers: the man reading another’s newspaper over his shoulder, the woman who’s lost her ticket when asked to produce it during an random inspection, two young boys who time their exit to perfection as the inspector boards, the woman who sits in the seat reserved for mothers with children, at the expense of a genuine child-carrying parent - but he’s a father, so isn’t catered for - at least not until a bevy of Paddington Bear-style hard stares from fellow passengers persuades her otherwise. A man waits anxiously for his beloved by a bus stop, while another - a Hitchcockian cameo from Munk himself - drops off to sleep and nearly misses his stop.

Along the way, Munk also gives us a tourist-guide view of Warsaw, the still scaffolding-bedecked Culture Palace, the popular meeting-point of Zygmunt’s Column by the Royal Castle, promenading citizens, gossiping women (”They haven’t seen each other for ages - not since last night”), tree-lined avenues, squares and parks. Witty trompe l’oeil effects include a bus apparently caught in a downpour (it’s being cleaned) and a hand seemingly about to pick a pocket (it’s a woman alerting a friend to her presence). The bus runs alongside a tram, and two of its younger passengers smile shyly at each other - later, the man will ask the driver to slow down at the exact point when the tram rounds a corner, so he can switch vehicles.

“What is this film about?” asks the narrator at the end. Nothing much, he disarmingly admits. But his second question, about whether we had a good time on the bus, is answered far more positively. In particular, the brief coda is a model of deftness compared with the stentorian propaganda of both Munk’s earlier work and the admonishing Are You Among Them? (Czy jesteś wśród nich?) - the narrator draws attention to the youth of the driver and conductor, and then lets them on their way. Without spelling its message out, the film becomes an optimistic paean to the importance of young Poles in rebuilding their city and ensuring that it functions smoothly, its use of humour rather than sledgehammer ideology ensuring that it lingers far longer in the mind. It duly won many international awards, including prizes at Edinburgh and Mannheim as well as Warsaw.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: Andrzej Munk double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). Once upon a time, it was in full colour, but fifty years of fading has left it mostly in blue-tinted monochrome with the occasional hint of red and green. It’s certainly not unpleasing to the eye, but it looks much more stylised than I imagine Munk intended. The sound is, as ever, typical 1950s mono, but with no technical problems to speak of. The English subtitles are mostly fine - the meaning of a couple of untranslated sentences can be worked out from the context. Online commentary is provided by this overview of Munk’s career, which briefly mentions One Sunday Morning.

Posted on 4th February 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Andrzej Munk | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: Men of the Blue Cross (1955)

Błękitny krzyż
1955, black and white, 56 mins

  • Director: Andrzej Munk
  • Script: Andrzej Munk, based on the story by Adam Liberak
  • Camera: Sergiusz Sprudin
  • Editing: Jadwiga Zajiček
  • Narration: Karol Małcużyński
  • Voice-Over: Gustaw Holoubek
  • Sound: Zbigniew Wolski
  • Music: Jan Krenz
  • Production Manager: Wilhelm Hollender
  • Production Company: Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (Documentary Film Studio)
  • With the participation of: Stanisław Byrcyn-Gąsienica, Stanisław Wawrytko, Stanisław z Lasa Gąsienica, Ludwik Ziemblic, Józek Krzeptowski, Józef Wawrytko, Elżbieta Polkowska, Wojciech Siemion

Even more than The Stars Must Burn (Gwiazdy muszą płonąć, 1954), The Men of the Blue Cross blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. So much so, in fact, that at 56 minutes this is effectively Andrzej Munk’s first solo feature, essentially an adventure story about a real-life rescue mission carried out by the Voluntary Tatra Mountain Rescue Service towards the end of World War II. Although Munk’s treatment was adapted from Adam Liberak’s short story, this in turn was sourced from one of the Rescue Service’s official diaries, and additional verisimilitude was added by tracking down many of the real-life participants and persuading them to relive their experience on film. If it’s not quite a Polish Touching the Void (2003) - its narrative is far more straightforward, with nothing approaching that film’s appalling central dilemma - it’s nonetheless squarely in the same genre, as emphasised by the opening scene of a man staggering across snowy wastes before tumbling down an icy slope.

It’s set in early 1945, when the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt but sporadic fighting was still going on. Three wounded men are trapped in a ‘field hospital’ (actually a rickety shack halfway up a mountain) in German-controlled territory, dangerously near a newly-constructed outpost. Repiszczak was shot in the leg, which he now cannot bend, while Russian paratrooper Maxim Oleynikov has severe frostbite in both legs (in one painful scene, he has to have his toes amputated without anaesthetic to avoid gangrene). Partisan fighter Sedyakov (aka Tikhon) is more mobile, but being shot in the lung has affected his stamina. The hospital’s entire staff consists of Slovak-born Dr Juraj and his foster-daughter Bożenka, and they have to get their patients out to nearby Zakopane if they’re to have a chance of recovery.

So Juraj rounds up a six-strong team of experienced mountaineers, led by Stanisław Byrcyn, who has worn the Rescue Service’s distinctive blue cross armband for half a century. Less helpfully, there’s Byrcyn’s dog Bass, which tags along with them and repeatedly threatens to betray their position to the Germans. The bulk of the film consists of the rescue mission, and aside from the reliance on Gustaw Holoubek’s voice-over narration (there’s very little synchronised sound), it could easily have been shot for a dramatic feature, consisting as it does of a series of action sequences including a close encounter with an avalanche, some high-speed skiing, and a shootout with a passing German patrol. It would take a filmmaker of rare incompetence to fail to do something with the spectacular Tatra scenery, and cinematographer Sergiusz Sprudin rises to the challenge with a series of increasingly vertiginous camera positions that suggest that Munk and his crew took just as many physical risks as the people they were filming.

One immediate difference between this film and its predecessors is that the narration no longer takes a God’s (or state’s)-eye view of the proceedings. By quoting directly from the rescuers’ official diaries, Holoubek effectively becomes a member of the team, drawing the viewer into the operation. The dearth of synchronised sound precludes much identification with individuals (there’s clearly something going on between Maxim and Bożenka, but it’s restricted to sidelong glances), but that’s in line with what was still the dominant Socialist Realist mode of stressing the co-operative element - in this case an international one, as the Soviets, Slovaks and Poles are effectively as one. But this time round, Munk almost entirely rejects the ideological lecture: the narration is as likely to single out achievements of individuals like Byrcyn as it is to champion the work of the Rescue Service as a whole.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: Andrzej Munk double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). For the most part, the source print is in superb condition: there’s some very minor print damage at times, but for the most part the image is virtually pristine. The contrast range is sufficiently wide to bring out the black and white cinematography to its best advantage, but without ever losing detail in the highlights and shadows. The soundtrack is typical 1950s mono, with a certain amount of hiss and crackle but no seriously distracting problems. The subtitles are comprehensive and generally excellent, with only a couple of minor typos and an inconsistent approach to spelling the name ‘Juraj’. Online commentary is provided by this overview of Munk’s career, which briefly mentions The Men of the Blue Cross.

Posted on 3rd February 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Andrzej Munk | No Comments »

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