Archive for September, 2008

Polish Documentaries: City on Islands (1958)

Miasto na wyspach
1958, black and white, 9 mins

  • Directors: Jan Dmowski, Bohdan Kosiński
  • Camera: Antoni Staśkiewicz
  • Editor: Marian Duszyński
  • Sound: Halina Paszkowska
  • Music: Zdzisław Szostak
  • Narrator: Janusz Kilański
  • Production Manager: Andrzej Liwnicz
  • Production Company: WFD

The rebuilding of the Polish capital is one of the most frequent themes encountered in Polish documentaries of the late 1940s and 1950s, as demonstrated by such films as Brzozowa Street/Ulica Brzozowa (1947), Return to the Old Town/Powrót na Stare Miasto (1954), Warsaw ‘56/Warszawa 1956 (1956) and Where the Devil Says Goodnight/Gdzie diabeł mówi dobranoc (1956), many of which use such tactics as realism, sarcasm and oblique social commentary to describe a process that was nowhere near as smooth as the government propagandists would have preferred the people to believe.

City on Islands reaches similar conclusions, but takes a different approach to constructing its thesis. Initially, it seems to be presenting a topographical study of Warsaw on several planes - the electric cables overhead, the tramlines cutting through the streets, and the various pipes under the surface. The opening high-angle shot of the junction of Aleje Jerozolimskie and Marzałkowska establishes the shape of a cross pointing in all four directions of the compass - an image that introduces the nearby signpost indicating the distances to other European capitals. “But where is Warsaw?”, the commentator wants to know, and it’s not as absurd a question as it seems, since the film’s disturbing central thesis is that ‘Warsaw’ as an entity has changed beyond recognition since 1939 - and not just because it was bombed flat in 1944.

A contrast is immediately drawn between the way the same tramline begins running through wide asphalt streets of the city centre, then along the more traditional cobblestones of the suburbs, and finally the grassy meadows of the outskirts. But far from consisting of old-fashioned villages, they actually feature large housing estates with thousands of inhabitants - and it’s standing (or rather clinging) room only on the trams at the end of the line. The commentator reveals that Varsovians use the trams six times more frequently than they did before the war, and as a result the city centre has essentially become a gigantic tram interchange - hardly anyone walks any more, they merely hop on another tram, and head out somewhere else. The commentator laments that “the city centre does not absorb those who commute there” over a montage of trams marked with suburban destinations, anonymously passing each other like the proverbial ships in the night.

So much for transport. Now, housing - and a lively upward xylophone glissando implies that new developments are springing up all over the place. But where? As far from the centre as possible, on the extreme periphery that was formerly occupied by meadows, clay pits, forests and villages, the old-fashioned dwellings now dwarfed by anonymous blocks of flats, anything up to an hour away from the centre. Can this also be called ‘Warsaw’?

A revelatory montage of photographs from 1939 shows how things have changed. Then, the streets of the city centre were crammed with pedestrians, and the city itself was a single homogenous unity. (The commentary could have made more of this, since Warsaw 1939 was also a far more multicultural environment than it was two decades later). This Warsaw also had suburbs, but they were only built once the centre was too full - “the rules of logic”. This domestic part of the city centre was destroyed in 1944, and while the rubble has been mostly cleared away, it now consists of vast empty spaces, practically denuded of people. A woman blithely pushes her pram along the middle of a road, since there is no visible traffic to pose a threat. It’s hard to believe that these are the same streets.

The film then takes us around various compass-points only a few hundred yards from the city centre. The area is still largely in ruins, and statues look down (one raising an admonishing finger) at people eking out an existence as aimless as that of the pigeons that alight on the roof of a makeshift shack. The commentary has almost fallen silent by this point, popping up only to identify the angle from the centre (north, north-west, west, etc.) - and this is understandable, as the images are more than eloquent: there’s no need for the shock tactics of Warsaw ‘56 or the sarcasm of co-director Bohdan Kosiński’s earlier The Lublin Old Town (Lubelska starówka, 1956).

Finally, after yet another shot of urban emptiness, the commentary quotes one Engineer Zelent, Deputy Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Social National Council: “In the centre, what is in the ground - the laying of gas, water and sewage pipes, electricity - is worth almost half the value of the development on the surface. Each unused square metre of ground will start screaming”. Fine words, but there’s not much screaming here - just supreme indifference of planning authority and inhabitants alike. This is Warsaw, 1958 - thirteen years after reconstruction began. As the title suggests, it’s no longer a city, merely an archipelago of only loosely connected islands.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). The source print is one of the best ones on this set, with a very sharp, clear and generally blemish-free picture with a wide dynamic range from pure white to deep black without ever falling prey to overexposure or loss of shadow detail. The sound is typical 1950s mono, but otherwise fine. The subtitles, too, are above average, with only the very occasional idiomatic eccentricity (a reference to “subvarsovian villages”, for instance) betraying that their author may not have been a native English speaker.

Posted on 30th September 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Bohdan Kosiński, Jan Dmowski | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: Article Zero (1957)

Paragraf zero
1957, black and white, 16 mins

  • Director: Włodzimierz Borowik
  • Camera: Antoni Staśkiewicz
  • Editor: Maria Orlowska
  • Sound: Bohdan Kajan
  • Music Editor: Stefan Zawarski
  • Text: Jerzy Bossak (as Jerzy Szelubski)
  • Narrator: Tadeusz Łomnicki
  • Production Manager: Andrzej Liwnicz
  • Production Company: WFD

It says something for the social stigma associated with prostitution that this is apparently the only documentary of the ‘black series’ to tackle it. Very different in tone from Włodzimierz Borowik’s rural Rocky Soil (Skalna ziemia, 1956), this is set in a far more enclosed series of urban spaces: dimly-lit streets, squalid flats, interrogation cells. As with such films as Warsaw ‘56/Warszawa 1956 and The Lublin Old Town/Lubelska starówka (both 1956), the film begins by showing Warsaw as we would like to imagine it: populous and civilised, well-lit and regulated, even at night. But the narrator invites us to take a closer look at a particular coffee house - when a man approaches two young women sitting on their own, is it a straightforward chat-up situation or the prelude to a more businesslike arrangement?

At 11pm, the crowds have mostly gone home, leaving only a few lone women on street corners. We jump to the obvious conclusion, but the narrator admonishes us: “Prostitution does not exist in our country, our legislation has successfully eliminated it”. He goes on to explain that it’s precisely because of this official line that it’s impossible to come up with workable remedies: the state has no business enquiring after the health of a woman, even though her profession is obviously a risky one (and not just her sexual health: screams from a patch of derelict ground betray other dangers). It’s only when a non-prostitution-related crime such as assault or murder is committed that the militia is legally allowed to take action. They know perfectly well where the various assignations are conducted, but most of them are behind closed doors: they only have access to public spaces.

Antoni Staśkiewicz’s high-contrast cinematography relies, Weegee-like, on suddenly shining a spotlight onto the subject and watching them react - sometimes they hide their faces, at others they scuttle away, but they usually reveal something about themselves, whether it’s a group of empty bottles on the floor, discarded underwear, a bed made up of rags and old newspapers. Many of the prostitutes wear headscarves, which seems as much a means of preserving one’s anonymity as from protection against the elements (the street prostitutes are well beyond making any kind of fashion statement). There’s something uncomfortably voyeuristic about this approach, but it certainly reinforces Borowik’s overall message: if prostitution doesn’t exist, how come we’re getting material like this?

The film’s second half takes place in one of the buildings run by the Citizen’s Militia, its staff having to deal with a bevy of drunken prostitutes (and their pimps) on a nightly basis. Shooting from a concealed vantage point, the camera films the confrontations between the militia men and the women, who are often angry enough to trigger sporadic outbreaks of violence, though these are swiftly brought under control. The heart of the film lies in the subsequent interrogation scene in which a variety of women - their eyes obscured by a jittery black rectangle (virtually all the footage in the film features genuine prostitutes) - are asked their ages and social circumstances.

The first is just sixteen and hasn’t even finished school, and her mother (also present) wants her put in an institution - though the narrator tempers the bleakness by pointing out that sixteen isn’t too late to repair the damage. The second is older (twenty-three), more confident, and claims to be happy with her existence, though the narrator wonders whether this will still be the case a few years later. The third is older still, and works as a prostitute because her fiancé is in prison. When she claims she makes virtually no money from prostitution and that it’s cold and uncomfortable, the interrogator asks why she does it, and is told that she was forced into it by a friend who got her drunk on vodka. The fourth is middle-aged, and has been a prostitute since 1939 after leaving an unspecified institution - in one of the film’s rare moments of black comedy, she says that a friend of hers from that period is now a nun. The narrator predicts that this is how the younger prostitutes will end up, wandering among the ruins of Warsaw looking for clients.

Contrary to what was probably the popular view, the interrogators themselves are women, their questions and their demeanour suggesting that they’re not unsympathetic to the plight of their charges. But as the narrator points out, while some can certainly be saved, others can only be treated - but both remedies require legislation that admits to the existence of the problem in the first place (the film’s title refers to the absence of any such article in the Polish penal code). As with Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski’s equally hard-hitting The Children Accuse (Dzieci oskarżają, 1956), the film’s final shots of cold, shivering women trying to get comfortable on a bare cell floor before being expelled en masse tell their own story and point an equally accusing finger at the system that permits it. The final shot, of a woman walking down an otherwise empty street into encroaching fog, would be eerily beautiful if divorced from the rest of the film, but instead it’s intensely unsettling - especially as an overlaid title confirms that every shot in the film aside from the coffee-house opening depicted actual situations.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). The source print is generally in very good condition, bar the odd faint tramline and a brief splice at approx. 3:10: it’s probably safe to assume that the high-contrast images with their looming, noirish shadows are presented as intended, especially as the lighting in the second half is much softer. There’s a modicum of hiss underpinning the soundtrack, but this is easy enough to tune out. The subtitles have a few typos (”Militia uses gentle persuation”), but I never felt short-changed by the translation. The mid-point scene where the prostitutes argue with the militiamen is left unsubtitled, presumably because everyone’s yelling at once - but a translation is hardly necessary.

Posted on 30th September 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Włodzimierz Borowik | No Comments »

Back to Sarajevo

When I get a spare moment, I’m going to finish writing up my Sarajevo Film Festival reviews (I haven’t even mentioned the documentaries yet, of which I saw a great many), but in the meantime here’s Dominic Ambrose’s blog - he also attended the festival and wrote capsule pieces on many of the films, including a few that I didn’t see.

Posted on 30th September 2008
Under: Bosnia-Herzegovina | No Comments »

Green Hair, German Sausage and Headless Chickens

Today’s Mail on Sunday has an extract from Maureen Lipman’s forthcoming book Past-It Notes in which she describes working with Roman Polanski on The Pianist (2003) and encountering his somewhat unorthodox methods - which, amongst other things, involved her hair turning green and her distinguished co-star Frank Finlay being smeared with sausage. Catherine Deneuve and Mia Farrow clearly got off lightly.

Posted on 28th September 2008
Under: Poland, Roman Polański | No Comments »

The Ghost of Munich

The Prague Post reports on a potentially intriguing film collaboration between two of the elder statesmen of Czech culture: playwright and former president Václav Havel and director Miloš Forman. Inspired by (as opposed to based on) the novel The Ghost of Munich by French journalist Georges-Marc Benamou, it’s an account of the British and French abandonment of what was then Czechoslovakia to the Nazis in September 1938.

If the project goes ahead, it won’t be the first example of a major Czech director exploring one of the darkest periods of his country’s history. While still in exile from communist Czechoslovakia, Jan Němec co-directed (with Otto Olejar) a lengthy documentary-cum-dramatised reconstruction, Peace In Our Time? for Britain’s Channel Four (broadcast on 8 September 1988), the casting of John Cleese as a fumbling, incompetent Neville Chamberlain making it a bitterly ironic comment on the man who notoriously described the place as “a faraway country of which we know little”. If the Havel/Forman project gets off the ground, it would make a terrific DVD extra.

Posted on 28th September 2008
Under: Jan Němec, Czechoslovakia, Czech Republic, Miloš Forman | No Comments »

Snow Q&A

One of the better films I saw at this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival was Aida Begić’s feature debut Snow (Snijeg) - but though I attended the press Q&A the next day, it was all in untranslated Bosnian (or at least the first ten minutes was: I’d made my excuses and left by then).

So I was delighted to find Michael Guillen’s English-language Q&A with Begić on his The Evening Class blog - not least because it cleared up a couple of the film’s mysteries. I’m still not totally convinced by the magical realist elements, but it’s now clearer that the young boy’s miraculously quick-growing hair had a more definite narrative function than I picked up on at the time.

Posted on 27th September 2008
Under: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Aida Begić | No Comments »

Gdynia garlands

One of these days I’ll make it to the Gdynia Film Festival, the largest annual round-up of the Polish film industry’s output - but in the meantime, these were the competition winners.

  • Grand Prize (Golden Lion): Little Moscow (Mała Moskwa, d. Waldemar Krzystek - IMDB)
  • Silver Lion: Before Twilight (Jeszcze nie wieczór, d. Jacek Bławut – IMDB)
  • Polish Filmmakers Association Award: 0_1_0 (d. Piotr Łazarkiewicz - IMDB)
  • Best Direction: Małgorzata Szumowska for 33 Scenes from Life (33 sceny z życia - IMDB)
  • Best Screenplay: Michał Rosa for The Scratch (Rysa, d. Rosa - IMDB)
  • Best Directing Debut: Maciej Pieprzyca for Splinters (Drzazgi, IMDB)
  • Best Actor: Jan Nowicki for Before Twilight
  • Best Actress: Svetlana Khodchenkova for Little Moscow
  • Best Supporting Actor: Eryk Lubos for The Offsiders (Boisko bezdomnych, d. Kasia Adamik - IMDB)
  • Best Supporting Actress: Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik for 33 Scenes from Life
  • Best Acting Debut: Karolina Piechota for Splinters
  • Best Cinematography: Michał Englert for 33 Scenes from Life
  • Best Music: Paweł Mykietyn for 33 Scenes from Life
  • Best Art Direction: Marek Zawierucha for Four Nights with Anna (Cztery noce z Anną, d. Jerzy Skolimowski - IMDB)
  • Best Sound: Federic de Ravignan, Philippe Lauliac, Gerard Rousseau for Four Nights with Anna
  • Best Editing: Leszek Starzyński for Splinters
  • Best Costume Design: Katarzyna Lewińska and Magdalena Rutkiewicz for The Offsiders
  • Special Mention: Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak and Krzysztof Stroiński for The Scratch, and Jerzy Skolimowski for Four Nights with Anna

(Full list here)

As ever, whether any of these get any play in the West outside film festivals remains to be seen…

([b]UPDATE:[/b] I’ve since seen a number of these films, and have linked to the relevant reviews)

Posted on 26th September 2008
Under: Poland | No Comments »

Wajda in New York

Truth or Dare: The Films of Andrzej Wajda is playing in New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center from October 17 to November 13 - and offering a much more extensive programme than the recent BFI Southbank retrospective. In fact, a quick glance down the line-up suggests they’re offering almost everything, including some made-for-television rarities like Pilate and Others.

(hat tip: Clydefro)

One exception (unless it’s a supporting short and I haven’t spotted it yet) is the bizarre Przedkładniec (1968), whose English title has been rendered variously as Hodge Podge, Layer Cake and Roly Poly. But someone’s uploaded it to YouTube in its entirety - sadly without subtitles, but if you want a passing glimpse of what an Andrzej Wajda sci-fi comedy looks like, now’s your chance. (I think you’ll agree he hasn’t missed his true vocation).

Here’s a brief summary: Based on the work of sci-fi master Stanisław Lem (whose works were often adapted for film and television in eastern Europe, most notably by Andrei Tarkovsky in Solaris/Солярис, 1972), this is set in the 21st century. Racing car driver Richard Fox is ‘reconstructed’ by transplants after an accident and his lawyer helps him solve the mystery of whether he is himself or his brother, killed in the crash.

Meanwhile, Polish Radio reports that Wajda has just finished shooting his latest feature, titled Sweet Flag (Tatarak), based on a story by one of his favourite writers, Jarosław Iwaskiewicz, whose work Wajda previously adapted in The Birch Wood (Brzezina, 1970) and The Young Ladies of Wilko (Panny z Wilka, 1979). It also reunites Wajda with Krystyna Janda, who gave pretty much unarguably the strongest female performance in any Wajda film in Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977). Wajda’s own website has a page on the new film, but it’s a little skimpy at the time of writing.

Posted on 26th September 2008
Under: Poland, Andrzej Wajda | No Comments »

Skolimowski returns

Of all the important European filmmakers, Jerzy Skolimowski has been one of the most shabbily treated by distributors, with many of his films still nearly impossible to see - but the situation has improved dramatically with the release of a four-disc box set of his four major Polish films - apparently with English subtitles. Hopefully, I’ll be getting my hands on a copy next week, and will report back then.

In the meantime, here’s Edward Champion’s lengthy and guardedly positive review of Skolimowski’s new film Four Nights With Anna (Cztery noce z Anna), his first in nearly two decades, which has just played at the New York Film Festival. Plus much more upbeat takes on it from Andrew O’Hehir (Salon) and Erene Stergiopoulos (

Posted on 25th September 2008
Under: Poland, Jerzy Skolimowski | 3 Comments »

Polish Posters revisited

One of the first posts I ever made on this blog enthused about Polish posters (one of the most underrated authentically great art forms of the last century), so I’m delighted to see that Andrew Lindstrom’s design resource Well Medicated is hosting a superb online exhibition of fifty Polish film posters, plus the option to leave comments.

And I see some people have been taking advantage:

I don’t like any of them. (Osama)

These are pretty crap like. (xxxxxx)

i thought some of these were really good,but most of them were just disgusting (Atama)

i am on lsd currently and this shit makes sense (Sok)

I don’t find posters great or amazing. All of them are kid’s posters. Poor stuff. (Virte)

pretty depressing lot. some frustrated soul working on them. didnt like any. morose and not really communicative. (abcd)

More detailed technical criticism:

Are u ppl blind? These are garbage. It looks like they were drawn with pencil crayons and markers by a ten year old. We live in a world of photoshop now. These poters look to be drawn in Microsoft Paint. Get with the times man. I like vintage design just as much as anyone else but these are just terrible excuses for art. Very lazy designs here that seem to be whipped up in minutes by whoever created them. If this is what it looks like throughout Poland, then they are missing out big time. (Bukator)

And, the most heartfelt:

Many of you may call these “art”, but maybe you are just giving them too much credit because they are old. To me, they just remind me of all those dirty, boring, drab things from decades ago. Like watching TV shows from the early 90’s. I love good art, and don’t get me wrong. The modern hollywood posters are not that great, but at least they have some vibrant color! Nowadays, all that these posters would do is depress people and make them think that the films were boring! I’m surprised that so many people like these. It just gives me a sinking feeling in my gut. Uggh! (jkillah1)

…though a rather more constructive comment links to a similar collection of Czech posters.

(Hat tip)

Posted on 20th September 2008
Under: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Czech Republic | 3 Comments »

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