Archive for October, 2008

Short Animated World

I’ve just discovered the Short Animated World blog, dedicated to chronicling all 100 entries on the recent Annecy Film Festival/Studio Magazine/Variety poll of thirty animation historians to establish the best animated films of all time. There’s no original critical material, but each entry offers links and - in most cases - a streaming copy of the actual film.

Unsurprisingly, central and eastern Europe animators loom large in the poll, notching up the following entries:

  • 3. Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu, d. Jan Švankmajer, 1982, Czechoslovakia)
  • 6. Tale of Tales (Сказка сказок, d. Yuri Norstein, 1979, USSR)
  • 18. Tango (d. Zbigniew Rybczyński, 1980, Poland)
  • 25. The Hand (Ruka, d. Jiří Trnka, 1965, Czechoslovakia) - Kinoblog review here
  • 31. The Cameraman’s Revenge (Месть кинематографического оператора, d. Władysław Starewicz, 1911, Russia)
  • 33. Hunger (La faim, d. Peter Földes, 1974, Canada)
  • 35. Satiemania (d. Zdenko Gašparović, 1978, Yugoslavia)
  • 44. Franz Kafka (d. Piotr Dumała, 1991, Poland)
  • 47. The Grey Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood (Серый волк энд Красная шапочка, d. Garry Bardin, 1990, USSR)
  • 49. Hedgehog in the Fog (Ежик в тумане, d. Yuri Norstein, 1975, USSR)
  • 65. Monsieur Tête (L’horrible, bizarre et incroyable histoire de Monsieur Tête, d. Jan Lenica/Henri Gruel, 1959, France)
  • 68. Repete (d. Michaela Pavlátová, 1995, Czech Republic)
  • 69. Hen, His Wife (Его жена курица, d. Igor Kovaliyov, 1989, USSR)
  • 83. The Lion and the Song (Lev a písnička, d. Břetislav Pojar, 1959, Czechoslovakia)
  • 85. The Roll-Call (Apel, d. Ryszard Cekala, 1970, Poland)
  • 86. A (d. Jan Lenica, 1964, West Germany)
  • 88. Tuning the Instruments (Strojenie instrumentów, d. Jerzy Kucia, 2000, Poland)
  • 89. Le Pas (d. Piotr Kamler, 1974, France)
  • 95. Le Concert de M. et Mme. Kabal (d. Walerian Borowczyk, 1962, France)
  • 97. Hotel E (d. Priit Pärn, 1992, Estonia)
  • 98. Film Film Film (Фильм, фильм, фильм, d. Fyodor Khitruk, 1968, USSR)
  • 99. Les Jeux des Anges (d. Walerian Borowczyk, 1964, France)

Posted on 26th October 2008
Under: Animation, Jiří Trnka, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union, Russia, Jan Švankmajer, Walerian Borowczyk, Jan Lenica, Czech Republic, Władysław Starewicz, Yugoslavia, Estonia, Priit Pärn, Piotr Kamler, Piotr Dumała, Jerzy Kucia, Ryszard Cekala, Břetislav Pojar, Igor Kovaliyov, Michaela Pavlátová, Yuri Norstein, Garry Bardin, Zdenko Gašparović, Peter Földes, Zbigniew Rybczyński | 2 Comments »

Andrzej Wajda showreel

Courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, here’s a two-and-a-half minute showreel of Andrzej Wajda’s films, originally made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to accompany the presentation of his lifetime achievement Oscar in 2000.

Posted on 24th October 2008
Under: Poland, Andrzej Wajda | 1 Comment »

Polish Documentaries: Sopot 1957 (1957)


1957, black and white, 16 mins

  • Director/Script: Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski
  • Camera: Antoni Staśkiewicz
  • Editor: Ludmila Godziaszwili
  • Sound: Bohdan Jankowski
  • Commentary Text: Stefania Grodzieńska
  • Narrator: Jerzy Wasowski
  • Production Manager: Andrzej Liwnicz
  • Production Company: WFD

Between 1954 and 1956, Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski issued a series of hard-hitting cinematic challenges to a Polish documentary movement that was only just beginning to emerge from the crushing impact of World War II and the more consciously stifling period of Stalinism that followed. Films like Are You Among Them? (Czy jesteś wśród nich?, 1954) and especially Look Out, Hooligans! (Uwaga chuligani!, 1955) and The Children Accuse (Dzieci oskarżają, 1956) virtually rubbed their audiences’ noses in their various subjects (vandalism, hooliganism, crime, murder, alcoholism, child abuse) in a memorably head-on, calculatedly sensationalised fashion that was designed to be as bluntly provocative as possible.

As a result, it’s initially hard to believe that this relaxed and cheerful study of Poles holidaying at the popular Baltic beach resort of Sopot was made by the same directors. Whereas in the past the titles of Hoffman and Skórzewski’s films would slam onto the screen as if spraypainted, here they saunter from all directions, imprinted over the laughing, cheering faces of a crowd watching a decorative parade. Mikołaj Jazdon’s notes for PWA’s DVD release helpfully identify this as the opening ceremony of the second Polish Jazz Festival, staged in Sopot from 14-21 July 1957 - one of the banners advertises the Komeda Sextet, which can be seen performing in Andrzej Brzozowski’s film Jazz Talks (Rozmowy jazzowe), made the same year. This sequence, and the equally joyous one that follows in which Polish jazz bands perform with visiting American musicians Albert Nicholls and Big Bill Ramsey, couldn’t be further removed from Hoffman and Skórzewski’s alarmist use of jazz as a pounding, rhythmic accompaniment to violence and degeneracy in Look Out, Hooligans! - here, the crowd shrieks as though rehearsing for the possibility that the Beatles might turn up a few years later, and the atmosphere is wholly benign.

The most revealing indication of a change of direction comes in the subsequent sequence on Sopot beach, where Hoffman and Skórzewski make a point of showing how they concealed their cameraman, as though they were wildlife filmmakers shooting exotic but shy species. This is deceptive: there are plenty of camera angles and movements that could only have been obtained by shooting up close to their subjects (indeed, filming the cameraman himself would have necessitated a second camera positioned outside the ‘hide’), but the implied message is that unlike their previous films (which deliberately staged events for maximum impact, sometimes with actors), they’re trying to capture authentic slices of life which would go on regardless of their presence. The playful tone is carried over into the commentary, finding spurious anthropological justification for a montage of bare female legs before cutting to the male equivalent - and then panning up to reveal a shaven-headed quintet (Yul Brynner’s The King and I was a big recent hit). The filmmakers aren’t biased: they seem equally fascinated by young and old, fat and thin, and the naked breasts of comely young women and overweight middle-aged men get more or less equal screen time.

The camera then decamps to Sopot’s famous pier, followed by the town centre, through which assorted couples, some unmarried (as the commentator tartly highlights over a close-up of a roving male hand lacking a wedding ring) either promenade or relax. Relaxation isn’t on the minds of various Miss Poland beauty contestants, though, as a montage of assorted treatments, massages and applications of nameless unguents shows what they have to go through in order to look convincingly fresh and natural on the catwalk. When night falls, the inhabitants of Sopot come out to dance. The commentator hints darkly that we may be in for a re-run of Look Out, Hooligans! as he talks of “moving to the battlefield”, though it turns out to be an entirely metaphorical one, as couples dance the night away - aside from a lone man who’s apparently waiting for Brigitte Bardot (who just become a major star in Roger Vadim’s scandalous Et Dieu créa la femme, released a few months earlier).

The upbeat mood of the film’s first two-thirds of the film change when the rain starts falling, becoming more wistful and reflective, Sopot’s visitors and inhabitants distorted behind rivulets running down café windows. But this largely commentary-free introspection doesn’t last long, as the film concludes in the sweaty huddle of a basement jazz club, a spotlight swinging across performers and dancers to accentuate the high-contrast noirish feel. Finally, as a lone whistler segues to a full-on jazzed-up version of Kurt Weill’s ‘Mack the Knife’, the holiday ends.

Sopot 1957 could easily be mistaken for a travelogue, especially if watched with the sound turned down - but it’s worth noting what it leaves out, given that Hoffman and Skórzewski’s earlier films were rather keener on context. We’re not told, for instance, that this jazz-driven film (which infuses the entire soundtrack, not just the onscreen performances) is paying tribute to a musical art form that had been banned outright in Poland until very recently, and neither are we given any sense of Sopot’s long history. The commentary even eschews the kind of statistics that normally pepper images like this (such as the fact that the pier was and remains the longest wooden one in Europe), and any sociological observations are deliberately pitched at a trivial, jokey level. Hoffman and Skórzewski’s priority is to capture fleeting impressions from the summer of 1957, living very much for the moment.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). Happily, this has one of the better source prints on these discs, with only a modicum of minor spots and scratches and a sharp, nicely contrasted image with plenty of detail even in the highlights and shadows. The soundtrack is the original mono, and technically perfectly adequate, neatly balancing the commentary with a near-continuous jazz-influenced accompaniment. There are a few typos in the subtitles, but their overall quality is generally above average for this release.

Posted on 22nd October 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski | No Comments »

Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák in London

On the weekend of 7-9 November, London’s Riverside Studios Cinema (probably the most consistently supportive of all British venues when it comes to central and eastern European cinema) is hosting a season of ten films featuring one or both of the father-and-son team of Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák, who will also be appearing in person.

The full line-up is:

Friday 7 November
6.40pm - Daddy (Tatínek, d. Jan Svěrák, 2004)
8.30pm - Empties (Vratné lahve, d. Jan Svěrák, 2007)
(Empties has an introduction and Q&A by Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák)

Saturday 8 November
4pm - The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (Život a neobyčejná dobrodružství vojína Ivana Čonkina, d. Jiří Menzel, 1993)
6.05pm - The Elementary School (Obecná škola, d. Jan Svěrák, 1991)
8.05pm - Kolya (Kolja, d. Jan Svěrák, 1996)
(Kolya has an introduction and Q&A by Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák)

Sunday 9 November
2pm - Three Veterans (Tři veteráni, d. Oldřich Lipský, 1983)
4pm - My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková, d. Jiří Menzel, 1985)
5.50pm - The Oil Gobblers (Ropáci, d. Jan Svěrák, 1988) plus The Ride (Jízda, d. Jan Svěrák, 1994)
8.05pm - Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět, d. Jan Svěrák, 2001)
(Dark Blue World has an introduction and Q&A by producer Eric Abraham)

The Riverside’s website is here, but their November programme hasn’t been published yet.

Posted on 20th October 2008
Under: Czechoslovakia, Czech Republic, Jan Svěrák | No Comments »

Night Train

Pociąg
1959, black and white, 93 mins

  • Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
  • Script: Jerzy Lutowski, Jerzy Kawalerowicz
  • Camera: Jan Laskowski
  • Production Design: Ryszard Potocki
  • Editing: Wiesława Otocka
  • Sound: Józef Bartczak
  • Costumes: Michelle Zahorska
  • Production Manager: Jerzy Rutowicz
  • Production Company: Zespół Filmowy Kadr
  • Cast: Lucyna Winnicka (Marta), Leon Niemczyk (Jerzy), Teresa Szmigielówna (lawyer’s wife), Zbigniew Cybulski (Staszek), Helena Dąbrowska (conductress), Ignacy Machowski (passenger), Roland Głowacki (murderer), Aleksander Sewruk (lawyer), Zygmunt Zintel (insomniac passenger), Tadeusz Gwiazdowski (conductor), Witold Skaruch (priest), Michał Gazda (passenger flirting with lawyer’s wife), Zygmunt Malawski (policeman), Józef Łodyński (plain-clothes policeman), Kazimierz Wilamowski (passenger sleeping in the conductress’s car), Jerzy Zapiór (boy fooling around), Andrzej Herder (sailor), Barbara Horawianka (Jerzy’s wife), Joanna Jóźwiakówna (girl with a transistor), Ludwik Kasendra (passenger), Janusz Majewski (Janusz), Czesław Piaskowski, Henryk Staszewski, Mieczysław Waśkowski (passengers)

By the time Jerzy Kawalerowicz made his sixth feature in 1959, overnight trains had long been established as an ideal setting for scenarios of intrigue and suspense: Alfred Hitchcock in particular had very much made the genre his own. But although a fair amount of Night Train (also known as Baltic Express, both titles more evocative than the blunt Train, a literal translation of the original) seems to seems to be running along effectively Hitchcockian lines, Kawalerowicz seems more interested in the psychological make-up of his various characters and the way in which their behaviour and conversations reveal things about themselves that they’d rather keep hidden. Though there’s a murder subplot, it’s presented in a distinctly low-key fashion (the murder itself happened in the past), and is dispensed with long before the end.

The bulk of the film is set in a single sleeper carriage, and much of that within compartment 15/16. Due to a mix-up (one of the tickets was purchased on the black market), this is inadvertently occupied by two people of the opposite sex, who turn out to have much in common. Marta (Lucyna Winnicka, the director’s future wife) is simultaneously travelling to meet her former lover in the Baltic resort of Hel, and trying to escape the attentions of Staszek (Zbigniew Cybulski), a brief fling who has followed her onto the train and is bent on stalking her (at one point even hanging outside her window as the train is moving, a scene given additional - albeit unintended - tension given that Cybulski would meet his real-life death eight years later while running to catch a moving train). Physical evidence on her wrists suggests at least one suicide attempt, revealing a woman given to passions and impulses, swinging wildly between emotional peaks and troughs.

Her unexpected companion Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk) is harder to read, not least thanks to the dark glasses that he insists on wearing for much of the early part of the film. This ambiguity is key to much of the film’s psychological tension: it’s known from the start, thanks to a widely circulated newspaper article, that a murderer is on the loose, and Jerzy has turned up on the train in a hurry, requesting that he have a compartment to his own and being prepared to buy two berths for the privilege. Even though he eventually agrees to let Marta share with him, he says that this is because he doesn’t want the no-nonsense conductress (a scene-stealing Helena Dąbrowska) to cause a fuss. He’s also visibly jittery, erupting in fearful rage when he sees a white bedsheet over Marta’s feet, as though she was already lying in a morgue.

The film’s rich supporting cast is made up of several character types. Next door to Marta (Aleksander Sewruk) and Jerzy’s compartment is a lawyer and his wife (Teresa Szmigielówna) - he’s obsessed with an upcoming case, so she spends much of her time hanging around in the corridor behaving more than a little flirtatiously with the other passengers (and clearly has eyes on Jerzy - whenever his door is open, she’s invariably visible). The corridor on the right-hand side of compartment 15/16 is also permanently occupied by an insomniac (Zygmunt Zintel, the foreman in Wajda’s A Generation/Polokenie, 1954), and occasionally by a priest and various others, with almost everyone offering caustic comments on the proceedings at some point.

The suspense-thriller elements mean that I shouldn’t discuss the plot in too much detail, but it’s worth highlighting the way the film can also be read as an allegory of life in post-Stalinist Poland. The black market’s existence is acknowledged, and rules are no longer rigidly imposed (as demonstrated by the conductress’ willingness to allow Jerzy and Marta to continue sharing a compartment when they make it clear they don’t mind), but there’s still widespread concern about the knock on the door in the middle of the night - justifiably so, in Jerzy’s case, since he ends up handcuffed mere seconds later. Above all, a key set-piece two-thirds of the way through illustrates the terrifying power of a mob fired with righteous anger - emphasised visually by an aerial shot looking straight down on them as they wreak their revenge, and dramatically by the fact that we’ve come to know and like many of these people individually, though here they’re reduced to unreadable dots.

Kawalerowicz and his cameraman Jan Laskowski film these various encounters in an oppressively claustrophobic way, using wide-angle lenses to achieve greater depth of field while still making foreground characters stand out from their surroundings. The high-contrast lighting recalls film noir’s use of toned-down Expressionism. Ryszard Potocki’s production design is beyond praise - although created almost entirely in the studio, and some of the more elaborate camera movements clearly couldn’t have been shot on an actual moving train, the illusion is wholly convincing. The back projections are state of the art, augmented by carefully-designed lighting on the actual set, and whenever a character leans out of the window, powerful fans suggest high winds - small wonder that the film won the Venice Film Festival’s Georges Méliès award for its technical achievement.

Equally resourceful is the improvised jazz score, inspired by Artie Shaw’s ‘Moonglow’ and making extensive use of wordless female vocals and vibraphone. The effect is very similar to that of the Miles Davis score in Lift to the Scaffold (L’ascenseur pour l’échafaud, d. Louis Malle, 1957), which may have been its direct inspiration - but whatever the source, it works brilliantly here, not least because its upbeat, almost yearning tone contrasts so much with the crepuscular images and suggests that there’s much more to what we’re seeing than initially meets the eye. Which, presumably, is exactly what Kawalerowicz intended.


DVD Distribution: There are at least three DVD releases of Night Train, though the single-disc Polish edition (Best Film Co, Region 0 PAL) doesn’t appear to have English subtitles. However, the version included in the same company’s box set 50 Years of the Polish Film School volume 2 (50-lecie Polskiej Szkoły Filmowej 2 not only has English subtitles but also a well-produced 36-page booklet in Polish and English. There’s also a US edition available on the Polart label (Region 0 NTSC), which I haven’t seen.

Picture: The source print is in more than acceptable condition for a 50-year-old film - the occasional white dust spot can be tuned out, and more severe damage is kept to a minimum. However, shadow detail is virtually nonexistent in this extremely crepuscular film - this isn’t a major problem when we’re actually on the train, as the high-contrast lighting ensures that faces and other key details are always visible, but when the action shifts to a nearby field in the early dawn, it’s virtually impossible to make out what’s going on below the line of the horizon.

Sound: Two soundtracks are on offer: a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track - probably the original mono. The latter has more hiss and crackle, but also sounded more “natural” to my ears - even over and above the artificial surround sound of the 5.1 track, it comes across as over-processed.

Subtitles: The English subtitles have a few typos, but the translation is always perfectly clear. Subtitles are also provided in French, German, Russian and Polish

Extras: The on-disc extra is a short six-minute featurette about the film, presented in unsubtitled Polish. Far more useful to English speakers is the accompanying booklet, a well-produced 36-page affair that includes a lot of background information about the film, a biography of Kawalerowicz, full credits and some very high quality stills (rather too high quality, in fact, as they put the DVD transfer to shame!).


Links

Posted on 16th October 2008
Under: Reviews, Poland, Jerzy Kawalerowicz | No Comments »

Polish Documentaries: From Powiśle… (1958)

Z Powiśla…
1958, black and white, 10 mins

  • Director/Script: Kazimierz Karabasz
  • Camera: Stanisław Niedbalski
  • Editor: Helena Białkowska
  • Sound: Halina Paszkowska
  • Music: Zbigniew Jeżewski
  • Narrator: Tadeusz Łomnicki
  • Production Manager: Jerzy Dorożyński
  • Production Company: WFD

After making short films at the Łódź Film School (among them Day In Day Out/Jak co dzień…, 1955) and collaborating with Władysław Ślesicki on Where the Devil Says Goodnight (Gdzie diabeł mówi dobranoc, 1956) and People from an Empty Zone (Ludzie z pustego obszaru, 1957), Kazimierz Karabasz made his solo professional directing debut with this lyrical, poeticised portrait of the run-down Warsaw suburb of Powiśle, originally part of a series entitled Walking Around Warsaw (Wędrówki po Warszawie). It touches on a lot of topics familiar from other Polish documentaries - notably the bombed-out ruins from Brzozowa Street (Ulica Brzozowa, 1947), Warsaw ‘56 (Warszawa 1956) and Lublin Old Town (Lubelska starówka, 1956) and the topographical concerns of City on Islands (Miasto na wyspach, 1958) - but Karabasz seems completely uninterested in exploring wider social/political issues. Indeed, the commentary here is reduced to mere wisps, and many of Karabasz’ subsequent films would dispense with it altogether.

This is hardly surprising, when one considers the eloquence of Stanisław Niedbalski’s images when married to Zbigniew Jeżewski’s wistful woodwind score (which runs more or less continuously throughout). This combination is first seen in the opening shot, as the camera adopts a high vantage point to pan around the city’s skyline before slowly zooming in to the buildings in Powiśle as the main title comes up on screen. A cat strolls across an otherwise deserted courtyard that is otherwise only populated by cushions. A tap drips aimlessly onto the ground, filling a visibly eroded dimple, and a small girl carries freshly-filled bottles of water (one of many simple, unforced images of children that pepper the running time). The music swaps woodwinds for a barrel-organ, and the soundtrack becomes diegetic, as an elderly man sets up in the courtyard and cranks old folk tunes out of it. The apartment block’s windows are mostly open, but there’s no visible sign of any appreciation.

In the commercial centre of Powiśle, Karabasz and Niedbalski seem as interested in a passing dog, a flock of pigeons or a pair of children’s overalls hanging outside a shop window, than they do in human passers-by. The music is occasionally interrupted by the sight and sound of a train passing on an overhead line, which the narrator highlights as the only visible means of counting the hours. A woman yawns and shields her eyes from the sun. A man pulls a heavy cart by himself, his female companion merely steering it. Two elderly women gossip, one grabbing the other’s wrist to emphasise a point. Patients in the Solec hospital sit on the balcony and look aimlessly out into the distance - one watches a blonde woman as she leans out of the window of one of the trains, a fleeting connection with the outside world.

Powiśle, according to Karabasz, seems frozen in time, though not in a way that seems especially attractive or useful to nostalgists. Several decades ago, an unnamed writer claimed that no other part of Warsaw had so much charm and ambience, but Powiśle was bombed almost flat during the Uprising of 1944 - this is dealt with obliquely, presumably because Karabasz assumed that a contemporary Polish audience wouldn’t need the details spelt out a mere fourteen years after the events. The signs of daily life amid the ruins recall similar images in Brzozowa Street, though the effect is inverted: instead of life thriving among the rubble, here narrator idly muses on why anyone would want to live in Powiśle when other parts of Warsaw are clearly more appealing.

Somewhat anthropomorphically, Karabasz attempts to ascribe human characteristics to Powiśle: it’s been “badly wounded”, and is “lonely”. City on Islands had a similar concern for the character of its locations, but Karabasz is more interested in poetry than polemic. His quiet, understated film is in sharp contrast to the stridency of many of the other documentaries in the so-called “black series”, but it points the way towards a far more lyrical approach to documentary that would burst into full flower with Karabasz’s masterpieces of the early 1960s (The Musicians/Muzykanci, People on the Road/Ludzie w drodze, both 1960), other films that show rather than tell, evoke rather than explain.

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 good physical condition, though occasional exposure fluctuations cause the picture to flicker slightly, and there’s a modicum of minor surface damage. The soundtrack is fine by 1950s mono standards, with the music coming across well. Subtitles are generally easy to follow, the occasional typo notwithstanding - though the phrasing is occasionally somewhat awkward and there’s a jarring bit where the line “Ruiny jak rdza wżerają się w życie z tępym, milczącym uporem” is translated by the subtitles as “On each step, the ruins bite the life like rust, with dull, silent obstinacy” but in the booklet as “Like rust, the ruins come to life with dull and silent obstinacy.”

Posted on 4th October 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Kazimierz Karabasz | No Comments »

Hungarians in Hollywood

The 8th Los Angeles Hungarian Film Festival is to be held between 15 and 23 October. It has four sections, and I’ve linked to Kinoblog reviews where they exist.

New Hungarian Films: 9 and 1/2 Date, Adventurers, Bahrtalo - Good Luck, Delta, Dolina, Eszter’s Inheritance, The Eighth Day of the Week, Girls, Iska’s Journey, Nosedive, Opium - Diary of a Madwoman, Out of Order, Tranquillity, Virtually a Virgin, Without Mercy

Spotlight on Miklós Jancsó: The Red and the White, Red Psalm, The Round-Up, Silence and Cry

The other two sections cover recent Hungarian documentary, and Hungarians in Hollywood - the latter including director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider) and composer Miklós Rosza (Spellbound).

And for a tangentially related overview of what Hungarians contributed to British cinema, here’s my Screenonline piece Magyars in Mayfair.

Posted on 4th October 2008
Under: Hungary | No Comments »

Retro-futurism

On his magnificently-titled blog Sit Down Man, You’re a Bloody Tragedy, Owen Hatherley has published an incisive analysis of Dom (1958), the collaboration by Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica that’s now regarded not just as their own breakthrough but the film that kick-started serious Polish animated cinema in general - though, as Hatherley argues, the film is inspired as much by earlier media including Alice in Wonderland, modernist architecture and Surrealism and a general “fetishistic affection for the apparently obsolete”.

The post also includes an embedded YouTube version of the film itself, but those who want a (much) higher-quality copy should snap up PWA’s bargain-priced, 100% English-friendly Anthology of Polish Animation, which also includes other early works by Borowczyk (The School/Szkola) and Lenica (Labyrinth/Labirynt, 1963)

Posted on 1st October 2008
Under: Animation, Poland, Walerian Borowczyk, Jan Lenica | 2 Comments »

Polish Documentaries: Place of Residence (1957)

Miejsce zamieszkania
1957, black and white, 16 mins

  • Director: Maksymilian Wrocławski
  • Script: Z. Wróbiewski, Maksymilian Wrocławski
  • Camera: Tadeusz Korecki
  • Editor: Jadwiga Zajiček
  • Sound: Halina Paszkowska
  • Music: Augustyn Bloch
  • Narrator: Tadeusz Łomnicki
  • Production Manager: Zygmunt Rybarski
  • Production Company: WFD

Of all the “black series” documentaries presented on PWA’s collection, Place of Residence is most explicitly indebted to the Socialist Realist tradition that dominated Polish cinema from the late 1940s to the mid 1950s. Taking its cue from wide-eyed celebrations such as Andrzej Munk’s Destination Nowa Huta! (Kierunek Nowa Huta, 1951), it takes a closer look at the actual lifestyle of the workers being eulogised as heroic exemplars of People’s Poland - and, to no-one’s surprise, uncovers what after three years of the “black series” is an all too familiar chasm between official rhetoric and observed reality.

We first see a group of men heading to what appears to be some kind of employment office - a nearby tannoy is broadcasting output statistics - but it’s actually a bar serving its customers through a small hatch. As the tannoy talks about “the great effort and dedication of our brave team who have stood at the construction site to create a city worthy of our epoch”, one purchaser laces his and his companions’ beer with what appears to be vodka. Something already seems awry. The tannoy goes on to boast about the workers’ new housing conditions, far superior to those in the villages from which they originally hailed, and equipped with the latest mod cons. So why are large numbers of them cooking soup outdoors using makeshift stoves comprising bricks, scraps of wood and a bucket? They don’t look like tramps, and indeed they’re not - they’re the workers who built the furnaces and steelworks of Nowa Huta, the industrial complex hailed as a model working and living environment.

The administrator of the housing estate of Pleszów gives us a carefully regulated guided tour, stressing the twin emphasis of culture and sanitation, showing off the impeccably maintained buildings, bedrooms and bathrooms. But then Augustyn Bloch’s music takes on a darker tone, pounding piano chords in the lower register matching an equivalent change in visual mood as we see a couple communicating, Romeo and Juliet-like, via her window. Actually, they’re married already, but they can’t live together, as they’re both required to live in segregated workers’ accommodation. Trysting in shared bedrooms is rendered impossible by fellow workers trying to sleep and - in a somewhat bathetic touch - a romantic stroll outdoors is ruined by rain. Later, a man frantically bangs on the door after hours - normally strictly verboten, but his wife is about to give birth.

A pan across a table crammed with cooking equipment reveals why many prefer the alfresco arrangement, especially when lengthy queues and resulting rows are thrown into the mix - the upshot of just one kitchen per five storeys, or forty families. Cultural facilities have been equally poorly thought out, allocated by timetable rather than individual need, so gangs of rowdy youths burst into a song recital and start a fight - an understandable way of relieving tension when they have to share tiny rooms and listen to snoring and dripping taps all night.

A great many classic Polish documentaries have highlighted the shortcomings of housing in 1950s Poland. But what separates this film from Brzozowa Street/Ulica Brzozowa (1947), Warsaw ‘56/Warszawa 1956 and The Lublin Old Town/Lubelska starówka (both 1956) is that while the earlier films highlighted the dangers of living in ancient, crumbling, war-blasted accommodation, Place of Residence is about facilities constructed within the last few years, allegedly according to the highest modern standards. Ironically, those parts of the Pleszów complex that really are up to scratch tend to be ignored, because the workers feel intimidated by the cavernous lounge. Far better to go to the bar, drink more vodka-laced beer and ignore the tannoy: after all, nothing it says has any relationship to their lives as they actually live them. Meanwhile, the anonymous administrator relaxes in his office, with its dual phone lines and padded door (to keep out the sound of disgruntled residents), writing works of fiction masquerading as official reports.

The film is included on PWA’s Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series double-DVD set (Region 0 PAL). Aside from a few spots and scratches, the source print is generally in excellent condition, and the soundtrack perfectly acceptable, bar a modicum of faint hiss that’s absolutely characteristic of a late 1950s recording. The subtitles have quite a few typos and other idiosyncrasies, but they don’t significantly affect appreciation.

Posted on 1st October 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland | No Comments »

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