Archive for the 'Edward Skórzewski' Category

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 »

The Polish Documentary Movement 1947-60

(This is the text of a presentation I gave at the BFI this afternoon, on the early history of the Polish documentary movement 1947-60 - I’ve deleted some scene-setting preamble that was only relevant to that particular audience, but otherwise this is pretty much verbatim.)

One thing that becomes very clear very quickly when one starts to delve into the subject is that the history of the Polish documentary is incredibly rich and complex - in fact, much like the history of British film, one could argue that its non-fiction work is just as distinguished as its fiction, if not more so, and the only reason it’s been practically invisible to non-Poles is down to distribution and access issues rather than lack of quality.

There have been sporadic attempts over the years to promote Polish documentaries to British audiences, starting with the fourth Free Cinema programme - ‘Polish Voices’ was an all-Polish programme, and its fiftieth anniversary falls in September. In 1967, Lindsay Anderson was invited to visit the WFD documentary studio in Warsaw, where he became the first foreign director to make a film for them - ‘The Singing Lesson’. Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to see this: the Archive has two 35mm prints, but both have master status. More recently, the international success of the later films of Krzysztof Kieślowski has sparked a modicum of interest in his early work - from the late 1960s to the early 1980s he worked almost exclusively in documentary, and a few key titles have turned up as extras on the DVDs of his better known films. There have also been sporadic festival screenings and even more occasional seasons, including one that’s running at the Imperial War Museum this very month. So the Polish documentary movement hasn’t been entirely invisible over here, but I think it’s probably fair to say that until very recently it’s been largely inaccessible to those not prepared to have a rummage through various Polish archives.

So, where to start? And, more to the point, where to stop? Well, I was struck by a comment that Kieślowski once made when he said that the period from about 1959 to 1968 was the golden age of Polish documentary filmmaking, where both industry conditions and relative freedom of both subject matter and filmic approach combined to create a perfect working environment. As you’ll see from the title of this talk, that’s not actually the period I’ve chosen to cover - instead, I’ve picked 1947-60. This is partly because, Maria von Trapp style, I thought the very beginning was a very good place to start, but also because I was interested in what led up to the creation of Kieślowski alleged utopia - especially given that only a few years earlier documentary-makers were anything but free.

Poland had had a reasonably thriving film industry in the run-up to the Nazi and Soviet invasions of September 1939 but, much like the BBC’s fledgling television service, it was more or less shut down for the duration of World War II, and aside from a handful of Soviet-backed propaganda films there was practically no filmmaking activity there until 1945. Since Poland would lose a truly staggering 22% of its population, accompanied by what seemed at the time to be the total and permanent destruction of a state that had only been in existence since 1918, it’s easy to see why filmmaking was considered an unaffordable luxury. Cinemas continued to function, but they generally showed pre-war Polish films and Nazi propaganda, the latter leading to the Polish resistance calling for a boycott of cinemas and a stink-bombing campaign, accompanied by a slogan that translates as “Only pigs go to the cinema”.

Unsurprisingly, by the end of the war, most of the pre-war Polish filmmakers had either emigrated or been killed, and because it was clear even then that a communist government was all but inevitable, most of the emigres chose not to return: Polish film historian Marek Haltof claims that just one established pre-war director returned to make films under the communist regime. Even more relevantly, one of the first acts of what became the Polish People’s Republic was to erase as many links with prewar Poland as possible. In other words, 1945 was effectively Year Zero for the Polish film industry.

With this in mind, combined with the lack of resources available in a ruined country, it is truly remarkable that Polish documentary filmmaking got off the ground so quickly to the point when a Polish film won the Palme d’Or for Best Documentary in 1947. This was The Flood, directed by Jerzy Bossak and Wacław Kaźmierczak, and was a completely wordless look at the devastation wrought when the Vistula river burst its banks. Here’s the opening sequence:

CLIP - The Flood

I’m going to show you clips from two other films from 1947, to give you some idea of the range being attempted. First is The Coal Mine, directed by Natalia Brzozowska, one of the tiny handful of women working in Polish cinema at the time. Like The Flood, it has no spoken content, but while Bossak and Kaźmierczak had some genuinely extraordinary images of destruction and devastation to film, Brzozowska’s material is much more run-of-the-mill - so she beefs it up with strongly rhythmic compositions and editing that hark back to 1920s Soviet montage while also anticipating the work of Geoffrey Jones over here.

CLIP - The Coal Mine

And the next clip is from Brzozowa Street, directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has, the future director of the altogether more fantastical The Saragossa Manuscript, and Stanisław Różewicz, which takes us behind the scenes of the Warsaw Old Town and sees people scraping a living in bombed-out buildings:

CLIP - Brzozowa Street

This promising beginning didn’t last. Although elements of all three films, particularly the last one, seemed to be pointing towards a cinema of genuine social concern, the problem with such a cinema is that by definition it has to have something to be concerned about. And, by equally logical extension, that means that it has to admit that there are failings somewhere in the system. Although communists were in a minority in the Polish government in 1945, their influence was disproportionately large thanks to Soviet support. In 1946, so-called ‘rightist’ parties were banned, and between 1947 and 49 the communists took control. As far as the film industry was concerned, this meant both centralised control - it had been nationalised as early as November 1945 - and total subservience to the Stalinist doctrine of Socialist Realism, which had dominated Soviet culture since 1934.

The Polish version of Socialist Realism was first outlined in a December 1947 speech by Bolesław Bierut, the then President of Poland. It was formally approved exactly a year later when the two main socialist parties merged to form the dominant Polish United Workers’ Party, and in November 1949 a filmmakers’ congress with some two hundred participants condemned much of what had been made in the four years after the war, and agreed to the compulsory imposition of Socialist Realism more or less across the board. Incidentally, The Coal Mine was one of the victims: it was banned for alleged ‘formalism’, a charge already familiar to many Soviet artists - it was famously levelled against Dmitri Shostakovich in 1936 in an article entitled ‘Chaos instead of music’ that was said to have been penned by Stalin himself.

As you can probably imagine, this created some pretty fundamental problems for documentary filmmakers, as the one thing Socialist Realism was not was especially realistic - there’s a famous quip by the great Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó when someone asked him if he’d had any problems switching from documentary to fiction after ten years, and he laconically replied that since he started out making documentaries under Stalinism, he was effectively making fiction from the start. Socialist Realism demanded total and uncritical adherence to the Communist party line, an emphasis on class and the struggle between old and new, the rewriting of history from a Marxist perspective, and the complete elimination of anything perceived to be reactionary and bourgeois.

Not too surprisingly, this produced films like Destination Nowa Huta!, made in 1951 to extol the virtues of a town being constructed specifically for steelworkers. It has lots of bare-chested Polish construction workers coming together with the aid of equipment generously donated by the Soviet Union, to build a workers’ paradise near Krakow, while triumphant music and a stentorian narration declaim lines like “Brighter days are no longer pie in the sky - each working day and each thrust of the shovel brings them closer!”.

CLIP - Destination Nowa Huta!

So, as we can see, “realism” in this context didn’t refer to what was actually apparent, but to what an idealised People’s Poland should look like, and anything that conflicted with this utopian vision simply wasn’t allowed to appear on screen. Another film extolling a major construction project, Return to the Old Town from 1954, had a different dilemma - on the one hand, the reconstruction of Warsaw’s Old Town was undoubtedly an incredible feat of logistics and effort, and clearly a perfect subject for a Socialist Realist treatment. On the other hand, various architects, archaeologists and historians were rebuilding it as a near-perfect replica of how it had appeared before its destruction by the Nazis, and any film account would have to acknowledge its long history in some way. So here’s what happened:

CLIP – Return to the Old Town

So there wasn’t enough time to mention more than a handful of key historical events, but they somehow managed to find room for Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Polish-born founder of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police that would eventually become the NKVD and the KGB.

I deliberately picked those two titles because they were made by genuinely talented directors, who were just as forced to compromise as were the hacks. Andrzej Munk, who made Destination Nowa Huta!, would go on to become one of the most distinguished of Poland’s postwar documentary and feature film directors, and might even have become one of the all-time greats had he not died in a car crash in 1961, at the age of just 39. And Return to the Old Town was made by Jerzy Bossak, who made The Flood and could probably be regarded as the most distinguished exponent of Polish documentary at the time.

But Return to the Old Town was made in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death. Although an official cultural thaw was still some time off, a handful of younger filmmakers began to make hesitant moves towards genuinely realistic, genuinely critical documentary filmmaking. One of the earliest examples is Are You Among Them?, by recent film-school graduates Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski, and here’s a sample:

CLIP - Are You Among Them?

When I first saw this, I naively assumed that it was a straightforward Polish equivalent of one of those finger-wagging COI public information films that we all know and love - but in fact it’s more important than that. We’re still in the era of socialist realism, but nonetheless here is a yob spitting on the pavement, and a woman neglecting her duties as wife and mother to natter away to her friends, with disastrous consequences. Though the finger of blame is firmly pointed at them, as opposed to the government, and their “crimes” are due to carelessness rather than actual malice, the film nonetheless hints that all is not well in the supposed socialist paradise of People’s Poland.

But it does so in a calculatedly jokey, almost apologetic fashion, a tentative toe in the water compared with Hoffman and Skórzewski’s next film, made in 1955. The only thing that Look Out, Hooligans! has in common with Destination Nowa Huta! is the exclamation mark in the title. While the earlier film is all clear skies and sunlit construction sites with happy workers making a collective effort for People’s Poland, Look Out, Hooligans! is dark and crepuscular, mostly set at night. And in terms of presentation it couldn’t be more different, looking more like a violent exploitation vehicle from the decadent capitalist West than anything from behind the iron curtain. Look at the first minute and a half:

CLIP - Look Out, Hooligans!

This is now recognised as being the first film in what became known as the “black series”, a documentary movement that comprehensively broke with the past. Like most such revolutions, it was fairly short-lived, fizzling out around three years later, by which time there had been a cultural thaw across the board - but it injected new blood and new life into the Polish documentary. Instead of idealised Utopian visions, the “black films” looked at hooliganism, prostitution, alcoholism, child neglect, unemployment, and, most controversially, the gap between rhetoric and reality in such areas as housing and healthcare planning.

It’s probably time I showed you a complete film, and this is a particularly good example, as it crams most of the key elements of the “black series” into just seven minutes. The title is the deceptively innocuous Warsaw 1956, and it’s co-directed by our old friend Jerzy Bossak, this time with Jarosław Brzozowski - I should mention that by this stage Bossak had become a bit of a mentor to the younger “black series” directors and had got into trouble with the authorities, at one point even having to work under a pseudonym. In fact, the film that you’re about to see was initially scheduled to be shown at Cannes, then abruptly withdrawn when the authorities decided to watch it beforehand. You’ll also notice that it explicitly returns to the territory of Brzozowa Street nearly a decade earlier, and I suspect this was deliberate.

COMPLETE FILM - Warsaw ‘56.

So at the beginning, we have the narrator - who is in fact the same one as on Destination Nowa Huta!, Andrzej Lapicki - constructing what appears to be a familiar party-line view of Warsaw and its new houses, squares and playgrounds, accompanied by cheerfully upbeat accordion music. So far, so generic - but then the narrator offers to do something different. As he puts it, rather disingenuously, “the chronicler watches more carefully, and sees what he earlier tried not to see” - which of course translates as “the filmmaker shows what he was earlier prevented from showing”. And we then get this bizarre cross between Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey’s Housing Problems and a particularly sadistic child-in-peril thriller, and I think it’s very safe to say that even the dimmest viewer would have got the point.

In addition to shock tactics, the makers of the black documentaries had another trick up their collective sleeve. Like Monty Python’s Dinsdale Piranha, they used sarcasm. Have a look at this:

CLIP - The Lublin Old Town

Just as Warsaw 1956 seemed to quote Brzozowa Street, so The Lublin Old Town is clearly a parody of Return to the Old Town, using the same dogmatic socialist realist clichés on the soundtrack, though their function here is very different.

Now, all this is fascinating stuff, and it’s easy to appreciate and sympathise with the sheer glee with which filmmakers exploited their hard-won freedom - but shocks and sarcasm have their limits, and diminishing returns could well have set in if the black series had continued indefinitely. In fact, the movement was largely over by 1958, by which time the Polish documentary had made another, much more decisive and far-reaching transition.

Kazimierz Karabasz is not a name that’s widely discussed outside Poland, which is a pity as he’s arguably the single most important figure in the history of the Polish documentary, which in terms of achievement ranks him alongside John Grierson, Edgar Anstey and Humphrey Jennings - and he actually combines elements of all three as theorist, teacher and filmmaker. Professor Karabasz, to give him his academic title, taught at the Lodz Film School for decades, and his proteges include such crucial figures as Marcel Łoziński and Krzysztof Kieślowski. Now in his late seventies, he’s still active as a filmmaker and elder statesman of the Polish documentary movement, and he was lucky enough to graduate in 1955, thus largely escaping the socialist realist apprenticeship suffered by his slightly older peers.

Alongside Hoffman and Skorzewski, Karabasz and his early filmmaking partner Władysław Ślesicki made the most important films of the ‘black series’, though they took a very different approach from the shock-merchants and one which laid the ground for future development. The title of Where the Devil Says Goodnight sounds as though it’s going to be just as hard-hitting and sensationalised as the other ‘black series’ films, but it’s actually a quiet, contemplative piece about a run-down suburb of Warsaw, Targówek, and the progress - or lack of it - of the House of Culture that was announced with much fanfare in 1949, even though the locals said they’d have preferred better housing. Seven years on, the place is still a building site, offering only a tiny, cramped gym, where amateur dramatics rehearsals occupy the same space as ping-pong players, while the promised “cultural revolution” in Targówek amounts to a travelling cinema that visits once a month. That makes it sound like another polemical film, but in fact it’s much subtler - Karabasz later admitted that the House of Culture issue was merely an excuse to get permission to shoot in Targówek, and the film’s lasting value lies in the unvarnished presentation of the lives of the people who live there. Here’s an example:

CLIP - Where the Devil Says Goodnight

What’s interesting here is that the film is neither a Utopian socialist realist fantasy, nor a piece of polemical propaganda - the commentary is at considerable pains not to offer any suggestions or solutions to Targówek’s problems. This is even more true of Karabasz and Ślesicki’s follow-up, People from an Empty Zone, which is so self-effacing that the title is spoken, not printed, and doesn’t appear until the very end.

These films are arguably much closer to John Grierson’s definition of a documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”, and indeed Karabasz cited Grierson’s writings as a key inspiration, alongside the films of the Italian neorealists. At the time, he was unable to actually see much in the way of British documentary filmmaking, but he did catch a programme that was screened in Warsaw in 1956 or 57: I’m still trying to find out exactly what was shown, but I managed to find an interview with Karabasz dating from 1961 in which he said that “The English documentary school and especially its classics remain a source of lasting admiration for myself and my colleagues”, and he singled out Lindsay Anderson’s Every Day Except Christmas and Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon for particular praise. Karabasz and Grierson even had a brief correspondence in the early 1960s. Karabasz was also a fan of the Free Cinema movement, which he believed offered a good example for Polish documentary cinema as it recovered from the Stalinist period, and When the Devil Says Goodnight was itself shown in the NFT’s ‘Polish Voices’, the fourth Free Cinema programme, alongside two other black series documentaries and more surreal fantasies by Roman Polanski, Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica.

The mere fact that artists as avant-garde as those three were being exhibited as part of a showcase of Polish cinema shows how rapidly things had changed. The turning point was the so-called Polish October of 1956, when a reformist government led by Władysław Gomułka took power in the wake of workers’ protests in Poznan. Since both Stalin and his main Polish champion, Bolesław Bierut, had both been dead for some time, there was little opposition to this, and the result was an across-the-board liberalisation of Polish society and culture. Its effect on cinema was dramatic: up to then, filmmakers had been hugely compromised, but within the next few years major masterpieces such as Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, Andrzej Munk’s Eroica and Passenger and Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, the last of which was nominated for an Oscar, would establish the international reputation of Polish cinema.

At the same time, though the impact tended to be more domestic, there was a similar liberalisation of Polish documentary – by the late 1950s filmmakers were tackling subjects that had been completely off limits only a few years earlier, such as the Polish jazz scene, or the work of a satirical theatre company. Personal expression was, if not warmly encouraged, at least tolerated, and younger filmmakers like Karabasz took full advantage, largely expunging narrators and their imposed ideological interpretation of events, preferring to let their images speak for themselves. Although a few subjects were still off limits, such as a flat-out denunciation of communism or an attack on the policies of the Soviet Union, this was the start of the golden era that Kieślowski extolled – where filmmakers had the magical combination of unprecedented artistic freedom and a system that would fund their work without taking commercial considerations into account.

To give you an example of how far Polish documentaries came in the five years since the very first black series films, I’m going to end this talk with a complete screening of Kazimierz Karabasz’ The Musicians, a film that is to Polish documentary what Night Mail or A Diary for Timothy are to its British counterpart: both a benchmark and an inspiration. It’s also had a modicum of international recognition thanks to the support of two of Karabasz’ most distinguished pupils. When invited to vote in Sight & Sound’s 1992 poll of the best films ever made, Krzysztof Kieślowski polemically included The Musicians alongside the likes of Citizen Kane and La Strada.

Karabasz’ other protégé, Marcel Łoziński, who also went on to become one of Poland’s greatest documentary-makers, also singled out The Musicians when asked to pick his favourite documentary by the Danish magazine Dox. He said “There are films in which there appears to be nothing, yet it turns out there is everything. There are films, in which it seems there is everything, and yet there is nothing. And very rarely, one encounters films in which there is everything, and it truly means everything. I first watched The Musicians when I was 20 - and I experienced a strange feeling that I had seen something that was not on the screen at all. I could see those people from the tram-drivers’ orchestra in their homes and I could clearly see their wives; I could hear what they were talking about, what they were worried about, what they were laughing at. I could see their flats, windowless kitchens and feathery beds; I could see what pictures were hanging on their walls, see their grandchildren doing their homework and see their Sunday dinners. I could even hear the noise of their neighbours. After that I watched The Musicians numerous times - and the feeling remained. I could always see and hear much more than there really was on the screen. Because on the screen it was merely an orchestra rehearsal and some faces - nothing more. But it was that ‘nothing’ that meant everything to me. And it is still the same today.”

COMPLETE FILM: The Musicians

Posted on 12th May 2008
Under: Documentary, Poland, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Kazimierz Karabasz, Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski, Jerzy Bossak, Wacław Kaźmierczak, Natalia Brzozowska, Wojciech Jerzy Has, Stanisław Różewicz, Władysław Ślesicki, Bohdan Kosiński | 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 »

Polish Documentaries: Are You Among Them? (1954)

Czy jesteś wśród nich?
1954, black and white, 8 mins

  • Director/script: Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski
  • Camera: Bogdan Chamczyk
  • Sound Editing: Marian Duszyński
  • Narration: Andrzej Łapicki
  • Production Company: Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (Documentary Film Studio)

To a British viewer of a certain age, Are You Among Them? will look extremely familiar, as it’s the exact Polish equivalent of one of those stern finger-wagging lectures masquerading as ‘public information films’ that the Central Office of Information churned out in vast quantities from the mid-1940s onwards. “Are you among them?” asks the title over a shot of a recently-broken window, “them” being someone whose miscreant behaviour ranges from petty vandalism to litter-dropping to a failure to queue properly at the bus stop.

We first see a party in a Warsaw square, with young people dancing, playing music and generally enjoying themselves (”this is poetry”, says the commentator). But in the morning, hapless cloth-capped workers have to clean up after them (”this is prose”). A nameless yob walks along the street, spitting out the remnants of the cherries he’s eating. In a rather implausible bit of slapstick staging, a woman walks nonchalantly out of a building, slips on one as though it was a particularly potent banana skin and falls on another, soiling her previously immaculate white dress. But there’s an amusingly unsubtle punchline as the yob suddenly rediscovers his conscience, only to slip on a third cherry and bang his head on a litter bin (but of course!).

It’s not just in the streets that people are thoughtless: housewives cause chaos as their gossiping leads them to leave taps and showers running, causing the limited water supply to run out elsewhere and forcing one man to shave with the aid of a soda siphon. Worse still is the “scruffy housewife” who overflows the sink upstairs, causing water to drip through the floor right into her husband’s (already burnt) soup. It’s not made clear if that’s a worse crime than wrecking the ceiling.

And then there are graffiti artists (or “autograph lovers”), petty teenage vandals (shown smoking as they commit their crimes, though this probably wouldn’t have quite the same association with terminal delinquency to a Polish viewer in 1954), people who ignore Keep Off The Grass signs and steal flowers for loved ones (”This couple is especially dangerous in the spring”), people who fail to queue properly for buses, crushing women and children as they scramble to get on, and damaging the buses for good measure once they succeed (a rather cutesy bout of anthropomorphism crops up in a visit to a scrapyard, where damaged buses are “anxiously thinking about repair and return to service”). “Soon we are going to travel unsafely in the air”, predicts the commentary, though it’s unlikely Polish planes would tolerate quite so many people hanging off the sides.

You, the viewer, are of course not “among them”, and will duly be horrified by the statistics, presented on screen via punctuating zooms into garish tabloidesque headlines. If no buses were vandalised, Warsaw could afford twelve more. Trampled grass amounts to the cost of a whole new park each year. Sweeping up litter requires 7,000 dustcarts. One month’s wasted Warsaw water could fill 4,000 swimming pools. Housing estates could divert their repair bills to build 100 new rooms a year.

So far so amusing, but there are two more serious points to make, one of which forms the film’s coda: which is that because Warsaw suffered so much destruction during World War II, it’s singularly insensitive of its citizens to damage it further, especially as it’s still being rebuilt. And the other is that this is one of the first examples of what would later be known as the ‘Black Series’ (’Czarna seria’), in which a group of young filmmakers began to break away from the idealised tenets of Socialist Realism in favour of hard-hitting explorations of social problems - directors Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski (whose debut this was) would go on to direct some of the most important examples, beginning with Look Out, Hooligans! (Uwaga Chuligani!) the following year. Compared with that film’s far more complex and ambiguous presentation of a current social malaise, Are You Among Them? is ultimately just as simplistically didactic as any other documentary from the Stalinist era. But even here, the seeds of change are clearly beginning to be sown.

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 acceptable condition, relatively light on spots and scratches, tramlines and exposure fluctuations. The only consistent problem is an overall lack of contrast: I can’t believe the film was originally supposed to look this grey. The soundtrack is sometimes a bit muffled, but perfectly comprehensible given that it only consists of music and narration. The same is true of the subtitles, the muffling in this case coming from occasionally infelicitous phrasing.

Posted on 30th January 2008
Under: Documentary, Reviews, Poland, Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski | 2 Comments »

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