Archive for April, 2008

Polish Documentaries: Little Town (1956)

1956, black and white, 10 mins

  • Director: Jerzy Ziarnik
  • Script: Krystyna Gryczełowska
  • Camera: Antoni Staśkiewicz
  • Editor: Krystyna Rutkowska
  • Sound: Halina Paszkowska
  • Music: W. Kotoński
  • Narration: Tadeusz Łomnicki
  • Production Company: Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (Documentary Film Studio)

The gauntlet is thrown down from the opening title, a quotation from the then recently deceased poet Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński (1905-53) that says “How to speak the truth about Poland…” (”Jak tu prawdę o Polsce powiedzieć…”) - the largely correct implication being that Polish documentaries prior to the mid-1950s ‘black series’ did no such thing. This is followed by a montage of what initially appears to be a series of calculatedly picturesque shots of the little town of the title, the idyllic feel enhanced by a lazily-paced guitar accompaniment. But the commentary puts us right with a more than usually pessimistic opening line: “Sinking ships send an S.O.S., the signal calling for help, but little towns die out with no groan.” Although shot in Staszów in the Kielce region, the location is a surrogate for thousands of similar towns across Poland, the narration making it clear that ‘Wincentowo’ is a pseudonym.

What becomes equally clear is that the men and women lounging in doorways soaking up the heat on what appears to be an idyllic summer’s day are there because they have no alternative in a place where unemployment is running at 20%, and anyone even halfway talented has either left already or is planning to - “and no-one ever returns”. Formerly productive lime kilns are overgrown with grass, the brickyard has vanished altogether, and most of the work is carried out by small local cooperatives, their orders decreasing and their wages dropping steadily - though such organisations still have administrative advantages over people who work as sole traders. The weekly market is the only time when the town really comes to life.

Wincentowo used to be a specialist shoe-making town, with centuries-old legends about catering for the feet of King Stanislaus Augustus in the sixteenth century. But it’s not a business to be in during times of economic hardship, as raw materials are expensive. As the film demonstrates, the deceptively thriving market is essentially a front for the black market in leather - a risky trade, since the penalties for getting caught are severe, and uniformed inspectors prowl the stalls. A man is caught and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a hefty fine, and his weeping wife leaves the court on her own, to break the news to her two children.

Is there anything in Wincentowo that’s doing well? Yes, says the narrator, switching to bitter sarcasm: secretaries and administrators have plenty to do, since the bureaucracy governing every aspect of life in the town has mushroomed - and a key factor in driving people out, unless their ties to the town are so deep-rooted that it’s emotionally impossible, or their family circumstances make it too much of a risk. But the shadow of a man swigging from a bottle, cast over a poster promising sun and adventure, makes it clear what the only option is for entertainment - when they’re not pacing aimlessly down the street. (The music, while not changing in essence from before, now accentuates the impression of drift).

As with the early films of Kazimierz Karabasz and Władysław Ślesicki (Where the Devil Says Goodnight/Gdzie diabeł mówi dobranoc, 1956; People from an Empty Zone/Ludzie z pustego obszaru, 1957), there’s little direct finger-pointing, though debutant director Jerzy Ziarnik and scriptwriter Krystyna Gryczełowska (both of whom would go on to be ranked amongst the most important Polish documentary-makers) make it clear that wholly unnecessary legal and administrative red tape is strangling the life out of a town that was already struggling. One of the most telling details comes when the commentary says that almost every house in Wincentowo contains someone who has a criminal record, usually for attempting to circumvent official channels.

Unlike the other key rural title in the ‘black series’, Włodzimierz Borowik’s Rocky Soil (Skalna ziemia, 1956), there’s not a hint of optimism: the only way these people’s lives will be improved is through wholesale reforms that are entirely outside their control. Over the final, all too symbolic image of shutters slamming shut, the commentator asks whether the truly courageous people aren’t so much those who decide to leave as those who are prepared to return?

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). Apart from some slight exposure fluctuations and minor spots and scratches, the print is in very good confition for its age, and the fact that it’s mostly shot outdoors in broad daylight ensures that the picture is rather sharper than many of the more crepuscular entries on these discs. The optional English subtitles are also fine: seemingly comprehensive (covering onscreen text as well as narration), well-written and properly synchronised.

Posted on 18th April 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Jerzy Ziarnik | No Comments »

Another Wajda update

I’ve just heard, courtesy of John Riley’s new (and excellent) COUNTERpoint blog, that although Andrzej Wajda is too ill to attend the Censorship as a Creative Force panel discussion at London’s Barbican Arts Centre on Friday next week, he’ll be recording a ten-minute video address for it.

His physical place will be taken by Agnieszka Holland, whose credentials are pretty much impeccable - and because she’s worked extensively in the West (France and the US, most recently directing episodes of the outstanding US drana series The Wire), she’s had wider experience of various different film-production systems (communist Polish, subsidised French, capitalist US) than has Wajda. Also, she speaks English, which presumably gives the Barbican less of a translation headache (I have to confess that I’m slightly dreading this aspect of the discussion - the translation during the recent London screening of Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-Up was so fast and seamless that it set a standard that’s going to be very hard to live up to).

I still don’t know who - if anyone - is replacing Wajda at Tuesday’s British premiere of Katyń, but I understand the Polish Cultural Institute is working on it.

Posted on 17th April 2008
Under: Poland, Andrzej Wajda | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: Rocky Soil (1956)

Skalna ziemia
1956, black and white, 16 mins

  • Director: Włodzimierz Borowik
  • Script: Włodzimierz Borowik, Marcin Goląb
  • Camera: Antoni Staśkiewicz
  • Editor: Maria Orlowska
  • Sound: Bohdan Jankowski
  • Commentary Text: Karol Malcużyński
  • Narration: Miecysław Stoor
  • Production Manager: Andrzej Liwnicz
  • Production Company: Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (Documentary Film Studio)

Many of the films in the ‘black series’ of Polish documentaries from 1955-58 sought to expose the reality behind the official rhetoric, and Rocky Soil offers a particularly good example. Set in and around the rural hamlet of Gorce, the film’s unnamed protagonist (and first-person narrator, though the latter role was taken by actor Miecysław Stoor) is an idealistic doctor who is trying to bring the benefits of up-to-date and seemingly well-funded medical technology to a population that distrusts and fears them. Even the doctor’s motorbike seems out of place in a peasant society that hasn’t changed much since the 1850s.

The first thing he has to do is counter a widespread popular belief that the best thing to do with sick children is to lock them away to stew in their own germs. Health advice and invitations to attend his clinic are broadcast on public loudspeakers, but overheard conversations reveal the scale of the opposition, fuelled by ignorance, rumour and dubious logic (”My little Ewa died three months after weighing, so weighing must be harmful”). Even a 50% infant mortality rate in one family is accepted as just one of those things. The doctor’s well-meaning lecture about growing vegetables for vitamins is ignored by women more interested in beating the dirt out of their wet clothes in a fast-flowing river. (The film is packed with similar shots of local colour, and although the doctor was played by an actor, the villagers are almost certainly the genuine articles.)

But some of the inhabitants are eventually persuaded to venture through the doors of the nearby Kamienica medical centre, whose white walls must have looked unnervingly pristine to their eyes. While their attendance shows that the first stage of their distrust has been conquered, the doctor still faces challenges to his authority: one patient refuses to take medicine because the local healer has said it will do him no good. (”Obviously, the healer is always wider than a doctor”, the latter acknowledges ruefully). Vocabulary is a problem, as the locals are vague or evasive about their specific ailments, so time-consuming top-to-toe medical check-ups become the norm. During these, the doctor sometimes finds evidence of less expert “treatment” - an elderly man covered up a carbuncle with resin, causing a major infection. Warned that this sort of thing might kill him, he interprets it as a threat, and flees (through a cemetery studded with large wooden crosses).

One night, the doctor is visited by one of the locals, to tend to a sick child in the mountain retreat of Chotnice. The doctor complains that they only call him at the last minute, and never articulate the precise problem - and, in another neat touch of black comedy, they summon the priest at the same time. After a three-hour journey in an open cart in the pouring rain, he finds that the boy has been seriously ill for ten days, being treated for “inflammation” (it’s actually diphtheria) by his grandmother. Her hands still covered with manure from her daily farming chores, she is convinced that blowing on his face will somehow help. The precise nature of the herbal remedy she’s boiling up is never explained: the doctor finds her attempting to pour it down the hapless youngster’s throat when he arrives. In the event, though, only the priest’s services are required: all the doctor can do is pre-emptively inoculate the child’s siblings and hope for the best.

The doctor’s commentary becomes increasingly weary at this point, bemoaning the sheer scale of his task, and how nothing in his training prepared himself for these situations. But on the way home, he meets Kasia, a young girl who initially had to be forced into hospital with the aid of the militia, but who is now in the peak of health. It’s a small but potent victory - as he puts it, “how little is necessary for a man to regain self-esteem: one smile of a child is enough for a whole day”. Compared with the bleak despair that suffuses most of the other ‘black series’ documentaries, it’s a surprisingly upbeat conclusion - as well as an implicit rebuke to those in authority who think that drastic changes can be implemented overnight.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). Aside from a spot of damage around the central reel change, the print is in very good physical condition, with an contrast range that’s appreciably wider than many of the films in the ‘black series’. The soundtrack is 1950s mono, but no worse than expected, and the optional English subtitles are generally presented to a higher standard than with many of the films on this DVD.

Posted on 16th April 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Włodzimierz Borowik | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: Where the Devil Says Goodnight (1956)

Gdzie diabeł mówi dobranoc
1956, black and white, 11 mins

  • Director/script: Kazimierz Karabasz, Władysław Ślesicki
  • Camera: Stanisław Niedbalski
  • Sound: Halina Paszkowska
  • Narration: Tadeusz Łomnicki
  • Production Company: Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (Documentary Film Studio)

The first professional film by then recent film-school graduates Kazimierz Karabasz and Władysław Ślesicki, Where the Devil Says Goodnight is considered one of the key films of the ‘black series’ of documentaries that opened a debate about Poland’s social problems in the mid-1950s. However, it’s quite different in tone and content from the in-your-face shock-tactic approach of Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski in Look Out, Hooligans! (Uwaga chuligani!, 1955) and The Children Accuse (Dzieci oskarżają, 1956). While they thrust the viewer into the thick of the action from the start, Karabasz and Ślesicki prefer to open with a slow pan across what initially appears to be a rural landscape, gradually revealing the buildings of Targówek, the film’s location - “the forgotten district of Warsaw”, according to the commentary (read by Tadeusz Łomnicki, the lead in Wajda’s A Generation the previous year).

In 1949, construction began on Targówek’s House of Culture, despite an unresolved controversy of what it was actually for, and whether it should be a greater priority than providing decent flats for the locals. Years pass, more plans are drawn up, walls are constructed and demolished - and by 1956, eight years after the foundations were first dug, the House of Culture is just as much of a building site as ever, offering just a tiny, cramped gym as a minuscule part of the original prospectus.

Amateur dramatics rehearsals are conducted in the same space as table tennis games and even pigeon fancying, not to mention meetings of the social committee to allocate who does what when - and as they deliberate, the original drawings appear on screen to show what they were promised. The “cultural revolution” in Targówek amounts to a travelling cinema that visits once a month. “Who is responsible for this?” asks the commentary, and is given no answer, as hooligans similar to the ones in Hoffman and Skórzewski’s film menace a young woman in the dimly-lit night-time streets.

However, Karabasz later admitted that he and Ślesicki were only marginally interested in the question of cultural provision in Targówek: it was just a convenient excuse to get permission to shoot there. Their film’s real value lies in its seemingly unvarnished presentation of the lives of those forced to live in Targówek: the marketplace as the centre for local gossip, the boys huddled together for a smoke in the Jewish cemetery (or, as popular local slang would have it, the Cholera Cemetery, presumably after the disease that carried off most of its inhabitants), the people filling their buckets with water from a communal tap, teenagers of both sexes meeting each other for trysts by the railway tracks (some more mutually consenting than others), a man helping his paralytically drunk friend down the street… into another bar.

In contrast to the slam-bang editing of Hoffman and Skórzewski the takes are longer and more measured, the setups less contrived, the sense of lives as they are actually lived far stronger, for all the signs of postproduction manipulation. A case in point: the gossiping housewives sequence was clearly shot at a different time to the recording of the unsynchronised soundtrack - but this deserves credit for attempting what in terms of Polish cinema seems to have been an unusually experimental approach to onscreen narration (albeit one familiar in British documentaries of two decades earlier: Paul Rotha attempted something similar in his 1935 film Shipyard when he superimposed the shipbuilders’ sometimes subversive thoughts over footage of them at work). The only music is a folksong, which Mikołaj Jazdon’s note in the booklet accompanying PWA’s DVD edition identifies as ‘Jam złodziej czarodziej’ (’I am a Crook and a Conjurer’).

In terms of the film’s underlying message, Karabasz and Ślesicki eschew direct finger-pointing - “we” are apparently to blame for deceiving the people of Targówek, not any specific planning body. If one hadn’t been told, one would never have guessed that this film was shot in Warsaw: the wooden shacks and mudbath roads seem to come from somewhere much more rural. If contemporary reactions are any guide, the message got through: the film’s initial audiences and critics were genuinely shocked to be exposed to the reality behind years of utopian rhetoric of a kind that undoubtedly accompanied the original announcement about Targówek’s House of Culture.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). PWA’s source print is a little battered, but the transfer is fine. One minor complaint about the subtitles is that they leave the phrase meaning ‘Cholera Cemetery’ in the original Polish, though in mitigation they make a fair stab at translating the lyrics of the opening solo song, at least when it’s not interrupted by narration. There are also a few typos, one of which charmingly renders ‘hooligans’ as the original Slavic ‘chooligans’.

Posted on 16th April 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Kazimierz Karabasz, Władysław Ślesicki | No Comments »

A Generation

Poland, 1955, black and white, 83 mins

  • Director: Andrzej Wajda
  • Producer: Ignacy Taub
  • Screenplay: Bohdan Czeszko, based on his novel
  • Photography: Jerzy Lipman
  • Editor: Cseslaw Raniszewski
  • Design: Roman Mann
  • Sound: Józef Koprowicz
  • Music: Andrzej Markowski
  • Cast: Tadeusz Łomnicki (Stach), Urszula Modrzyńska (Dorota), Tadeusz Janczar (Jasio Krone), Janusz Paluszkiewicz (Sekuła), Ryszard Kotas (Jacek), Roman Polański (Mundek), Ludwik Benoit (Grzesio), Zofia Czerwińska (Lola), Zbigniew Cybulski (Kostek), Tadeusz Fijewski (German guard), Zygmunt Hobot (Abram), Cezary Julski (coachman), Bronisław Kassowski (speculator), August Kowalczyk (priest), Jerzy Krasowski (Władek), Zenon Laurentowski, Stanisław Milski (Jasio’s father), Juliusz Roland, Hanna Skarżanka (Stach’s mother), Janusz Ściwiarski (manager), Kazimierz Wichniarz (Werkschutz), Zygmunt Zintel (foreman Ziarno)

It’s easy to overrate A Generation. Always one of the most straightforward of Andrzej Wajda’s films to get hold of, thanks largely to its regular bundling with the far more accomplished Kanal (Kanał, 1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (Popiól i diament, 1958) as an artificial “war trilogy” (which could just as easily have commenced with Kanal and ended with his fourth feature Lotna, which also has a World War II setting), it’s garnered a formidable reputation as the fount from which postwar Polish cinema sprang. While it was certainly a groundbreaking film, and its historical significance is impossible to ignore or deny, it’s ultimately a lesser entry in Wajda’s canon, a film of considerable promise rather than a fully achieved masterwork.

It’s compromised partly by his inexperience (though its visual confidence in particular is most impressive), but mostly by the need to pay at least lip service to the still-pervasive, creativity-sapping doctrine of socialist realism. Greatly to Wajda’s credit, he tempers this with a genuine lyricism that seems inspired by Italian neorealism, but he’s still forced to include scenes where his protagonist Stach (Tadeusz Łomnicki) is given a crash course in basic Marxist economics by his older mentor Sekuła (Janusz Paluszkiewicz), the film’s overall interpretation of history that cleaves to the Communist Party line rather than the factual record, and the closing shot of various youths staring into the middle distance as though contemplating a brighter socialist future was already the worst kind of Eastern European cliché. But Wajda was hardly unique in having to include such material: at the time he made A Generation, his older colleague Andrzej Munk was only just emerging from Stalinist-imposed aesthetics via such films as The Stars Must Burn (Gwiazdy muszą płonąć, 1954) and Men of the Blue Cross (Błękitny krzyż, 1955).

Adapted by Bohdan Czeszko from his own novel, A Generation begins as though it’s going to develop into a light-hearted adventure, a teenage Boy’s Own romp as our plucky heroes run rings around the flat-footed Nazis. This initial impression is quickly undermined when Stach and his friends Kostek and Zysio board a German train with the intention of stealing its coal (or giving it back to the Polish people: “we were patriotic thieves”), a prank that leaves Zysio shot dead by a guard, Kostek missing, and Stach hiding out in an abandoned brickworks. (A shot of Kostek running to catch a moving train is somewhat unnerving in retrospect - because he’s played by Zbigniew Cybulski, who would die in real life in near-identical circumstances just over a decade later).

This incident triggers a series of life-changing events that will see Stach get a job as a carpenter’s apprentice and become indoctrinated both as a Marxist and a resistance fighter with the Union of Fighting Youth, a communist group affiliated to the Red Army. Along the way he also discovers that despite near-universal opposition to the Nazis, there’s widespread disagreement about how best to combat them - Stach’s foreman Ziarno (Zygmunt Zintel) prefers the Home Army, loyal to the Polish government in exile. One of their colleagues observes that the younger generation seems to be “starting politics early”, but this is as much a question of necessity as anything else: knowing whom one can trust is the key to one’s survival.

Though the film seems to be based around the growing closeness between Stach and Dorota (Urszula Modrzyńska), his resistance co-ordinator, in many ways the subplot revolving around Stach’s colleague Jasio (Tadeusz Janczar) leaves a stronger impression. While Stach is happy to do whatever the war effort takes (and not just because of his clear attraction Dorota), Jasio is far more hesitant, claiming repeatedly that as a civilian he should be above such things. But after being taunted as a coward, he’s the first to actually kill a German, although the fact that this assassination wasn’t sanctioned by Dorota serves to alienate him further from their group - which also includes Jacek (Ryszard Kotas) and Mundek (Roman Polański).

But they’re not the only people Jasio is alienating himself from - when a childhood friend (Zygmunt Hobot) approaches him asking for shelter, he refuses to help, the friend’s name (Abram) betraying his racial origins to us and underscoring the peril Jasio will put himself in if he agrees to help - Wajda doesn’t spell it out, because he doesn’t need to. (This is the first of what will be a great many Wajda films that grasp the nettle of Polish-Jewish relations, a subject usually avoided by his fellow countrymen). Clearly rattled by this incident, and the guilt that dogs him thereafter, by the end of the film Jasio will become the most overtly heroic character, fighting off a group of Germans on a spiral staircase straight out of a Robert Siodmak film noir.

Wajda’s early training as a painter is put to good use in a series of striking images and concepts, many motifs weaving themselves throughout the narrative. The glistening, swivelling eyes of the figure adorning the bar-owner Aunt Valerie’s clock will later be echoed by Jasio’s hunted expression as he contemplates his first killing. Similarly, a line of hanged men arranged as a warning to others is mimicked by the dangling fish-shaped sign overhead as Jasio runs for his life. Wajda’s eye for distinctive faces is already much in evidence: just look at the scene in which Ziarno and his unnamed fellow agent confront a mob of hostile neighbours for a small masterclass in how to convey maximum information with minimal dialogue.

Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman is the film’s largely unsung hero, his black and white images and high-contrast lighting combining with Wajda’s careful blocking of his characters to make this one of the most visually distinctive Polish films of the mid-1950s. Wajda is also no slouch when it comes to the staging and pacing of action scenes that open the film and comprise much of its final act. The performances throughout are first-rate (Wajda would work again with Łomnicki, Janczar and of course Cybulski in subsequent films), though Polański’s relatively low-key appearance has tended to be amplified out of all proportion to its actual importance, thanks to his subsequent fame behind the camera. Many years later, he would play the lead in Wajda’s very different costume drama The Revenge (Zemsta, 2002), in part as a thank-you gesture for kick-starting his career.

DVD Distribution: Criterion (US), NTSC, no region. I haven’t seen the Criterion DVD (it’s only available in the expensive Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films box, which I couldn’t justify buying as I already have Polish DVDs of Kanał and Ashes and Diamonds and a perfectly decent off-air recording of A Generation), but it appears to be the only commercial DVD release anywhere in the world - surprisingly, given that most of Wajda’s other major films are released in his native country, it’s not out in Poland. A UK release from Arrow Films (presumably Region 2 PAL) is due at the end of May 2008.

The Criterion box has been reviewed by Digitally Obsessed (Matt Peterson), DVD Beaver (Gary W. Tooze), DVD File (Mike Restaino), DVD Savant (Glenn Erickson), DVD Talk, DVD Verdict (both by Bill Gibron)


Posted on 15th April 2008
Under: Reviews, Poland, Andrzej Wajda | 1 Comment »

Polish Documentaries: The Children Accuse (1956)

Dzieci oskarżają
1956, black and white, 10 mins

  • Director/script: Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski
  • Camera: Antoni Staśkiewicz
  • Editing: Ludmiła Godziaswili
  • Sound: Hamila Paszkowska
  • Commentary: Karol Małcużyński
  • Narration: Andrzej Łapicki
  • Sound Editing: Stefan Zawarski
  • Assistant Cameraman: Jan Wileński
  • Production Manager: Andrzej Liwnicz
  • Production Company: Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (Documentary Film Studio)

The second ‘black series’ (’czarna seria’) film by Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski seems to start in a more sedate fashion compared with the throat-grabbing immediacy of Look Out, Hooligans! (Uwaga chuligani!, 1955), in that it begins with a mother and daughter doing (Christmas?) shopping and admiring the attractively decked-out window displays. But before the first minute is up, the mother is lying dead in the street, a victim of a drink-driver who smashes into her without any warning. As in the earlier film, the title suddenly jumps onto the screen as though graffitied onto the celluloid, this time over the face of the traumatised girl.

But she’s not the only child who suffers. The trial scene that follows establishes that the driver also had two children, and when he’s locked up for ten years (on top of a lifetime driving ban), they become equally innocent victims of his drinking. While Look Out, Hooligans! looked at teenagers destroying themselves through their own (albeit naïve and misguided) lifestyle choices, The Children Accuse is far more disturbing in that its victims are unimpeachably innocent, yet end up psychologically and sometimes physically scarred for life.

After such a despairingly gloom-drenched opening, it’s hard to watch the successive montages of happy, smiling, laughing and playing children without worrying (usually justifiably) about what’s about to happen. A new baby is born, and the proud parents and their delighted friends and relatives celebrate - which naturally involves drinking alcohol. What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing at this stage, but when the child reaches the age of seven, his father compels him to join in and swig a shot of vodka. As he does so, the camera scrutinises his face in close-up, as it registers both his distaste and his tearful realisation of what it’s doing to his parents.

Soon afterwards, he’ll be running errands for them, collecting vodka from the nearby bar, the proprietress blithely ignoring the sign insisting that it be drunk on the premises. Unsupervised and open to temptation, is it any wonder he takes a surreptitious swig on his way home? And is it surprising that his eighteenth birthday should consist largely of teenagers like himself, lying slumped on the sofa and in the corner, smashed out of their brains? When the record starts skipping, no-one notices. And thus a new generation of alcoholics is created.

This story shows the effects of casual neglect over a long-term period, while the next episode depicts a single instance of selfishness, as Janicki accepts the offer of a drink with workmates instead of collecting his son. One drink inevitably becomes several, the child is forgotten entirely, crying quietly on his own as the school caretaker sweeps up in the distance. It’s not even clear if Janicki gets home alive, as the close-ups of the tram wheels intercut with his blind stumbling suggest otherwise.

Finally, we hear a child’s first-hand account as he narrates the experience of living with two alcoholic parents in a slum that barely passes for human habitation, having to rear his four younger siblings almost single-handed. As he goes out to buy vodka, there’s a return to the shop-window motif of the opening scene, only this time there’s no loving mother to indulge her child’s desires. Though they themselves don’t necessarily indulge, his siblings and countless other children like them have been irreparably damaged by their parents’ alcoholism - and the most disturbing montage is left until the end, as we see (presumably genuine) footage of severely traumatised children, the horrors of whose lives don’t bear thinking about.

Although clearly made by the directors of Look Out, Hooligans! (the films are twin souls in terms of their mise-en-scène, crepuscular lighting and emphatic editing), The Children Accuse is more sparing in its shock tactics yet blunter in its social criticism. As before, neglectful bar-owners and shop proprietors are just as culpable in the way they cynically turning a blind eye to what’s going on. The music score (sadly uncredited) is subtler than before, bordering on atonality at times in order to add an unsettlingly off-kilter feel to even the most outwardly unexceptional shots. Alcoholism is a subject that often crops up in Polish cinema (most recently in Marek Koterski’s 2006 feature We’re All Christs/Wszyscy jesteśmy Chrystusami), but its devastating effects have rarely been caught so powerfully as here. Back in 1956, its impact must have been tenfold.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). As with Look Out, Hooligans!, the picture is dark and grainy, but it suits the subject to perfection. The subtitles are occasionally awkwardly worded, and the odd typo creeps in from time to time, but they seem to translate everything and are properly synchronised.

Posted on 15th April 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: Look Out, Hooligans! (1955)

Uwaga chuligani!
1955, black and white, 12 mins

  • Director/script: Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski
  • Camera: Antoni Staśkiewicz
  • Editing: Ludmiła Godziaswili
  • Sound: Hamila Paszkowska
  • Commentary: Karol Małcużyński
  • Narration: Andrzej Łapicki
  • Sound Editing: Marian Duszyński
  • Production Company: Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (Documentary Film Studio)

Although signs of a thaw could be discerned the previous year (Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski’s sternly moralistic lecture Are You Among Them?/Czy jesteś wśród nich? did at least acknowledge the existence of petty crime and other forms of antisocial behaviour), their second film Look Out, Hooligans! is recognised as their most important breakthrough in the field of Polish documentary. It inaugurated what became known as the ‘black series’ (’czarna seria’), a movement that ran for roughly three years, during which filmmakers tackled subjects that would have been completely unfilmable when Stalinist socialist realism and its associated vision of an impossibly perfect, universally co-operative society was imposed on Polish cinema across the board.

Indeed, the calculatedly sensational title marks a break with the past in its own right, as does the opening scene, a vicious knife fight between rival gangs that could have come straight out of an American International Pictures teen exploitation film (complete with tilted camera angles, noirish lighting, punctuating zooms and stabbing orchestral chords). The voiceover only starts after a grieving mother has been informed of the fight’s outcome.

Even though the film then settles down into a sober sociological analysis, complete with open questions (”When will they take measures to stop it? How did this happen? How could this happen?”), the cutting is nervous and jittery, as though similar eruptions of violence could take place at any moment, even on a crowded street in broad daylight. In such a crowd, the commentary singles out teenage truants and follows them to the park, where they meet an older mentor who plies them with cigarettes when he’s not making advances to equally wayward teenage girls (the commentary calls him “that dandy”, though anyone less impressionable than his targets will agree that we’re not exactly talking Beau Brummell).

Unsurprisingly, Polish teenagers ultimately have exactly the same desires and concerns as their western counterparts: the need to spend disposable income on consumer goods. Black markets thrive in everything from alcohol to tickets for sold-out shows. But how to raise the necessary funds? Legitimate employment being off limits to the youngest, they’re taught to steal by their suppliers, the less adept ones getting caught, or worse.

Janek is an example of the latter: he came to Warsaw from the countryside (i.e. naïve, easily led) and ended up working in a factory - he’s therefore a wage-earner, but has no idea what to do with his money. So he hangs out in bars, where he’s quickly adopted by the same miscreants seen earlier. There, he drinks himself into a stupor and participates in increasingly wild, jazz-fuelled dances (the cutting gets especially frenzied at this point), finally getting caught up in a large-scale brawl.

Having drunk his first pay packet, he turns to muggings, first in dark alleys, then on trains in full view of passengers - who do nothing, even when a ticket collector is pushed off the train, presumably to his death. We return to the brawl seen in the opening scene and learn that one of the gang members was killed - one assumes that the Jan Podgórski of the police report is our own Janek from earlier on. The final shot superimposes his grieving mother over a line-up of his killers (the oldest just eighteen), as the commentator asks “Why did this happen? Which of them is guilty? And are they the only guilty ones?”

What most impresses about Look Out, Hooligans! is the way that it’s honest about the appeal of a gang and crime-fuelled lifestyle: the sensationalised (”westernised?”) style isn’t so much eye-catching as lapel-grabbing, as if to say “Look! This is what your kids get up to! And can you blame them?”, the shock tactics designed as much to stimulate debate as to provide illicit thrills. The film’s moral message grows organically out of the drama, and is nuanced enough to avoid comparisons with the kind of Manichean good-versus-evil conflicts between ‘feral’ kids and law-abiding adults that provides the staple daily diet of readers of the tabloid press.

There’s a telling detail in a scene where a couple of clearly underage kids buy vodka - the commentary sarcastically explains that it’s “for their parents”, though a pan to a chart showing the shop’s sales figures suggests that they probably didn’t need to give an excuse: the owner would have been happy to take their money regardless. 14-year-old Wladek is shown getting involved with gangs because they provide a more congenial environment to his traumatic home life run by a violent alcoholic father (Alcoholism would be the subject of Hoffman and Skórzewski’s next, even harder-hitting film, The Children Accuse/Dzieci oskarżają). Similarly, the film shows the lack of alternative options available to Janek - the youth club only offers chess, table tennis and magazines, while there’s nothing in the library aimed at teenagers apart from vacuous posters seeking to educate them about electoral regulations. As the commentary implies, if we don’t care enough about them to provide attractive alternatives, do we have the right to express outrage when they turn bad?

If the film’s style has inevitably dated, it’s all too easy to appreciate the impact it must have had at the time: the only thing it has in common with, say, Destination Nowa Huta! (Kierunek - Nowa Huta!) and its implausibly utopian vision of Polish youth selflessly banding together to create a brighter future is (WFD’s in-house commentator) Andrzej Łapicki’s voice on the soundtrack and the exclamation mark in the title. Like the film’s subjects, Look Out, Hooligans! didn’t so much throw down a gauntlet as kick in the door, smash up the cinema’s interior, slash its seats and daub paint on the screen - and Polish film as a whole would never be quite the same again.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). The picture is far from flawless, but I suspect the dark and grainy image closely reflects the original - certainly, it doesn’t work against the film in any way, and the exposure in the tiny handful of daylight scenes is spot on. The subtitles aren’t quite as polished as they’ve been on, say, the Andrzej Munk set (one even mixes up its languages when it refers to “15-letni Jan Podgórski”), but they’re perfectly comprehensible, and both coverage and synchronisation are fine.

Posted on 15th April 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski | No Comments »

The Struggles of František Vláčil

Anyone who’s planning to visit Prague between now and the end of May might well be interested in the exhibition František Vláčil: Zápasy (or The Struggles of of František Vláčil), a multimedia tribute to the great Czech director of Marketa Lazarová (1967).

Those of us trapped elsewhere will have to make do with its bilingual (Czech-English) website, though at least that offers plenty to get your teeth into, including a series of stunning photogalleries.

Talking of Marketa Lazarová, it’s receiving two rare 35mm outings in Britain, at London’s Riverside Studios this Sunday (April 20) and at the Edinburgh Filmhouse on May 23. Anyone who goes will earn my undying jealousy - I still haven’t seen the film on the big screen yet, but the London show directly clashes with my niece’s christening.

Posted on 15th April 2008
Under: Czechoslovakia, Czech Republic, František Vláčil | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: Return to the Old Town (1954)

Powrót na Stare Miasto
1954, black and white/colour, 20 mins

  • Director: Jerzy Bossak
  • Camera: Franciszek Fuchs
  • Editor: Wacław Kaźmierczak
  • Sound: Bohdan Jankowski
  • Music: Stanisław Skrowaczewski
  • Text: Karol Małcużyński
  • Commentary: Andrzej Łapicki
  • Production Manager: Bolesław Witanowski
  • Production Company: WFD

In essence a documentary about the recreation of Warsaw’s Old Town, all but destroyed during World War II, Jerzy Bossak’s film has enough genuinely powerful images of the large-scale restoration and reconstruction process to compensate for the commentary’s attempts at rewriting Warsaw’s history from an almost exclusively Communist perspective - the price a Polish film from the early 1950s had to pay for being allowed to conduct an unashamed celebration of the past.

The film begins with shots of ruins silhouetted against time-lapsed clouds, deftly providing a visual suggestion of the passage of time as Andrzej Łapicki’s narrator says that it took seven centuries and thirty generations of artists and master craftsmen to build it. In an initially startling sequence, the surviving façades of the buildings then start to collapse in rapid succession, though it’s quickly established that this is a deliberate act, not of vandalism but as the prelude to wholesale reconstruction.

Workers straight out of the most archetypal Socialist Realist propaganda then march into the frame (accompanied by a suitably martial song), and the digging and bricklaying begins in earnest, while the commentary assures us that the Old Town will be rebuilt brick by brick, to match people’s memories. Historians, conservationists and architects pore over archive documents to try to establish what those were, before drawing up plans to replicate them, which masons and craftsmen translate into physical reality.

As the builders work, the commentary stresses that they’re up against a deadline: the Old Town reconstruction must be finished on 22 July 1954. (a crucial public holiday), and the sense of urgency propels what would otherwise be routine shots of construction sites in operation. (That said, the sequences of the Old Town literally rising from the ashes have an evocative force of their own). The editing becomes increasingly rapid, in line with the commentary’s prompting - “Attention, comrades! It’s already July!”. Finally, as a crowd of workers shins up the scaffolding to start taking it down, the film cuts to its second, very different reel.

As Stanisław Skrowaczewski’s music becomes gentler and more lyrical (at one point incorporating the sound of onscreen bells), the film shifts from black and white to colour (albeit charmingly faded in the print under review), and the deadline-driven emphasis on progress turns into a nostalgic celebration of Warsaw’s past as the Old Town comes to life once again, its streets and squares full of happy residents, workers and visitors - including Poland’s first Communist President, Bolesław Bierut.

Unsurprisingly for the period, the commentary continues to take an explicitly Socialist Realist line when alluding to the opulence of the buildings and the aristocrats who occupied them as compared with the suffering of the downtrodden poor. But though it’s a predictably selective vision of the past (the commentary says “it’s impossible to count all the events”, but finds space for the Polish-born founder of the Soviet secret police, Feliks Dzierżyński, and his address to Warsaw workers), there’s little on screen to support it, and it’s easy enough to tune out the party-line soundtrack and just admire the images, especially the aerial shots of the entire Old Town towards the end, emphasising what an extraordinary achievement its reconstruction was.

The film also makes for an instructive comparison with The Lublin Old Town (Lubelska starówka), made by Bohdan Kosiński two years later - this also documents a major reconstruction project, but from an altogether more sarcastic perspective that was presumably out of the question in 1954.

Posted on 14th April 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Jerzy Bossak | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: Brzozowa Street (1947)

Ulica Brzozowa
1947, black and white, 9 mins

  • Director/Script: Wojciech Jerzy Has, Stanisław Różewicz
  • Camera: Władysław Forbert
  • Music: Henryk Swolkień
  • Commentary: Jerzy Piórkowski
  • Production Company: Film Polski

One of the key documentaries of Poland’s post-World War II pre-Stalinism era, Brzozowa Street takes its name and setting from one of the front lines of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 - just three years before the film was made. Although Warsaw itself (at least according to Jerzy Piórkowski’s breathless commentary) is thriving, Brzozowa Street itself presents a more complex set of scenarios, being essentially a collection of crumbling buildings surrounded by piles of rubble, and whose weeds are doing at least as well as the hapless human inhabitants.

The commentary is right to pause at this point and emphasise the place’s beauty and poetry - these aren’t just any derelict slums, and a 1947 viewer would have been well aware of the reasons why the buildings are in such poor condition and the numberless acts of heroism that were carried out within them. Initially, it seems unlikely that anyone would voluntarily live here today, but the presence of fresh washing pegged out on a series of lines, and steam emerging from a pipe, quickly puts us right.

We’re then introduced to young Hania, who runs out of one of the buildings because, as the commentary puts it, “she’s nostalgic for the sun” (a need doubtless felt far more acutely by the resistance fighters in the Warsaw sewers three years earlier). She spots other children playing hopscotch and joins them. Floors are cleaned and flowers arranged - if the buildings are ruins, that shouldn’t prevent them from looking their best. An old woman slices open a largely rotten apple, but as it was presumably home-grown, its emotional value clearly trumps any defects. The cellars and basements are repurposed into flats - if they provided effective shelter from German bombs, they have no problem keeping out the weather. One inhabitant’s Alsatian keeps out various other things too, including prying documentary crews. In other words, as the commentary says, life goes on.

But after this oddly picturesque bit of scene-setting, the film moves into its second act: the reconstruction of Brzozowa Street. Builders begin to clear the rubble, and local businesses reopen - in the montage of Warsaw that began the film, we were treated to the sight of expensive handbags in the window of a shop in the fashionable Marzsalkowska Street. Its Brzozowa Street counterpart can’t hope to compete on luxuries (except children’s sweets), but it does at least provide basic staples. But, far more crucially for the area’s future, new buildings are beginning to be constructed - the commentary’s highlighting of the fact that they come complete with roofs shows how even something as basic as that couldn’t be taken for granted in this bombed-out environment.

Brzozowa Street offers a fascinating fusion of what would become two dominant trends in Polish documentary over the following decade. It anticipates Socialist Realism in its cheerfully upbeat and optimistic presentation of Warsaw’s reconstruction and the contribution everyone can make: a boy is shown making an elaborate toy glider (thus highlighting his potential as a construction worker), while towards the end of the film a group of children gaze skywards as though looking to the sun for inspiration. However, the film’s warts-and-all presentation of the often dreadful living conditions endured by the inhabitants of Brzozowa Street is closer to the ‘black series’ of documentaries from 1955-58 that lifted up the socialist realist stone and peered at what was writhing underneath. It’s very close in tone and content to Jerzy Bossak and Jarosław Brzozowski’s Warsaw ‘56 (Warszawa 1956), one of the movement’s key titles, though it lacks that film’s memorably ruthless shock tactics.

Brzozowa Street also merits a minor footnote in Polish film history for being the professional (co-)directing debut of Wojciech Jerzy Has, who would go on to become one of the most distinctive Polish auteurs with such bizarre and fantastical masterworks as The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1965) and The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą, 1973). But, as with the early documentaries of Andrzej Munk, there is little hint here of his future career and preoccupations, except perhaps in the poeticised treatment of the Brozozowa Street ruins, something a more workaday director might have ignored.

Posted on 14th April 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Wojciech Jerzy Has, Stanisław Różewicz | No Comments »

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