Every description of Polish cinema must contain two important messages: the first – on the condition of the artists’ consciousness. The second – on specific films, which exemplify best the specific desires, skills and significance of the film art.
Possibly it is Polish specificity but that „condition of consciousness” is still the most essential matter. Unmistakably we can recognise „creative energy” or „social fatigue” with the cinema as such. It is also possible to discern the weight attached to the „omnipotence” of art at the given moment. All the complexes, difficulties and longings for the former significance of the Polish film art are clearly evident in it. The form of art that provided the fullest and the most attractive social response.
And so it was – as an art which as the only one was able to present the picture of the „whole nation’s participation” in history, politics and in the world itself.
I am writing about it because after a period of chaotic and shoddy film making, which had as its sole objective emulation of American entertainment cinema, while its only concern was to clear its own consciousness from any serious thought content – we are witnessing the sentimental return of the old values.
Such unexpected „weakness” may affect even the toughest ones.
The latest and the most touching example is the reaction of our greatest and best known producer, Lew Rywin, who donated his own capital to save the annual Polish Film Festival in Gdynia when he had learned about its possible suspension due to lack of funds.
Thus he saved an event which not only provides an opportunity to show new films once a year but also is a platform for a „non-productive” debate on the condition of Polish cinema. That debate creates the right atmosphere and motivates to be active. How touching it is then that „the lonely, white shark” as once the producer of Spielberg’s „Schindler’s List” was dubbed – turned out to be a tender lover of art, which he tries to serve.
Thus I also suggest to include several come-backs in the evaluation of the present condition of our cinema. Those come-backs will not be a sentimental sequence of wishful thinking, but a true, though often surprising rediscovery of long-forgotten values.
Fortunately Polish cinema – both exonerated and praised – still provides a wide panorama of activity. That alone may be a prediction of its new character despite the sentimental returns.
THE FIRST RETURN: TOWARDS SIMPLICITY
It may sound paradoxical, but it is highly desirable that the present Polish cinema continues to be under a growing influence of the magic of Krzysztof Kieslowski. The unrepeatable nature of the director’s films and their great success at the world market could be a final satisfaction of our all complexes: the „lack of appreciation”, absence in the world, neglect by festival juries etc. Hopefully that completed creativity may become a challenge to the present, creative ambitions. Or provide the form of so much needed intellectual and artistic mobilisation for our cinema.
I have always been an adversary of drawing benefits from events that are independent of our actions. I reluctantly recall the Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdynia in 1996, dedicated to the recently deceased Author of “Decalogue” – where even in the official announcements the films were segregated into those that Kieslowski „managed to see” or „managed to give advice on” – and those „others” he had never visited. Those others were supposedly worse – by the nature of it.
Naturally, when the emotional situation of our silver screen has changed, also because of the passage of time – we have become the witnesses of a deeper and more intriguing but also unexpected presence of Kieslowski in the Polish film making. His name can be seen now both as an intellectual standard for a new cinema and a need to return to questions and issues forgotten by now. There is discernible a certain readiness in film directors to consider Kieslowski’s passing away a spontaneous declaration to continue the art, commitment and sincerity by those who remained. That the fact may be deemed optimistic should not come as a surprise to anybody wishing Polish cinema well. It is sufficient to look back and recall the suffering of the recent years, when Polish cinema could not find its place, torn between the traces of the lost ambitions and the recipes for facile Americanisation.
That optimistic invocation refers mostly to one of the new Polish premieres, i.e. Jerzy Stuhr’s new film – “Love Stories „.
That production, officially dedicated to Kieslowski is a natural presentation, in the film’s texture itself, of the intellectual and artistic relationship it has with the late director. The relationship which is justified in Stuhr’s artistic biography. Everybody still remembers that he was the most sensitive actor in Kieslowski’s films accompanying him from „The Scar”, „Peace” and „The Amateur” through the tenth commandment of the “Decalogue” to „The White”. He was his actor – but also a very apt observer of his skills. For instance – they wrote the dialogues together several times. But not only that. Kieslowski had become – what Stuhr often stressed – a true teacher of film making. He taught him that „simplest description” of the world (since it’s difficult to live in the world that has not been described – as Kieslowski often said) and also the ability, so rare in Polish film, to report the simplest human reactions in the visual image.
„Love Stories” look exactly like the artistic demonstration of those skills. In his four short-stories Stuhr presents both the quotidian, in a quasi-reportage type of regular life description – as well as an ease in symbolic reading of those scenes. That is why , as in „Decalogue” and „veronica ? Double Life „- regular reality appears to be „a part” of reality. Somewhere „underneath”, one can feel what can always appear. In a dream? Or in a recollection? Or is it another way which is not worth considering, since its symbolic nature will appear so naturally.
It is true however, that Jerzy Stuhr – acting four leading roles in this film, who also wrote the story and directed the film – invented and put together the plot of his film very consistently and competently. His four stories take place in one, common place of action; in a huge multi-wing building, where each protagonist is called to in order to answer, as it turns out, a particular type of a questionnaire. But, in no time, that building, as in a dream, would turn into everything: a court, a school, a military headquarters, … a church? Every of those four contemporary but also common protagonists gets a chance of acting his own story in front of us. There are more differences between „an academic teacher”, „a prisoner”, „a high ranking military” and „a priest” than similarities. And each of those men is seen at the same moment: when he gets the gift of love and must sacrifice something in order to be saved, that is to be worth of this love.
The measure of Stuhr’s mastery of the whole idea is the fact that the romantic and the common both serve as a way to prove one thing: that love has the supreme value in life, that approval of that feeling requires sacrifice and that loneliness is the only alternative to love. Isn’t it surprising that Polish cinema was able to approach such a topic?
The measure of the bravery in the plot is the ability to use metaphor, poetry and even …. symbols. Particularly amazing is its symbolic description of loneliness – a long, drab corridor, like purgatory or hell, where a special carrier, like mythical Charon, brings the losers, in a very contemporary way, by means of an ugly and grim elevator.
I am describing those scenes, because, in such a simple account it is best visible how all that is located at the border of „reality”. How easily it could slip into fantasy for fantasy’s sake. However, the film is so precise, that any interpretation is simply very natural. Stuhr’s movie is also important to the image of the new cinema for another reason. It allowed us to become present in Western festival shows, after a long absence, and on top of it, received an award at the IFF in Venice.
THE SECOND RETURN: TOWARDS NATIONAL MISSION
That return is even more surprising than the previous one. It concerns the director who would not be considered sympathetic towards the national mission of the film art. I mean Krzysztof Zanussiand his newest production – “Brother of Our God”.
Zanussi is our only truly international director moving with ease in the world. As any modern and open European he likes to travel and to speak in almost „all” languages and to make his films in English, if possible, because it is convenient for their further global distribution. All that proves the lack of any useless, national barriers in his approach.
However, there is a single person that the director wants to see only from the Polish point of view – might it be so since that person has a special meaning for Zanussi personally? John Paul II is that person. Looking from the perspective at this new film, which was not justified by any special cognitive aspect or any particular emotional message to be carried by it, one can suspect that Zanussi still feels responsible to himself, Poland and the world for the clarity of the message of the Pope’s Polishness. And that might be the most profund reason for this film’s appearance.
Some time ago the same director provided the world with the information on the Polish Pope, viewed from the angle of our country, its history and culture. Such was the origin of the film “From a Distant Country”. It is very interesting that after years of pontificate, when such information is no longer as needed as it was 20 years ago, the director still finds it important to emphasize the Pope’s Polish origin and the drama of that identity on which the film was based. It is dealing with the Polishness of the Catholic saint, whom the Polish Pope adored in his drama. In this context Zanussi’s second film on the Pope represents his conscious return to emphasizing the significance of national character in Polish art. Even in such an unusual and apparently unappealing subject.
Might there be an unexpected longing for the years when films could communicate important cultural truths, and directors were able to enthral the viewers by means of their creative powers?
In the film “Brother of Our God” we find many more of such returns. One of the most important is the investigation of the doubts common to intelligentsia – a perennial subject of Zanussi’s interest.
The characteristic skill with which the director watches all aspects of the intelligentsia universe is well known. But that film is also a story of an intellectual who having made a mistake in his life is attempting to correct it in front of us.
It is true that previous investigations of the intelligentsia by Zanussi were more natural. Just a short time ago he made the most touching , intellectual treatise on survival. He told a warm and flamboyant praise of intelligentsia at the backdrop of a grim reality of the 1950s in Poland. He spoke of its ideals, its always conscious and skilful way of preserving essential social values, and in effect the praise of its indestructibility. That was the recent film „The Canter”.
“Brother of Our God” is not such a simple praise of the intelligentsia. But it is an expression of its choices in life told in a visual medium and at the concrete, extreme example of „sainthood”. Who knows if the author’s admiration for those choices is not an expression of his cherishing its doubts and hesitations?
The attractiveness of the subject matter, that is the philosophical opposition between „the act” and the „intention” is made specific here in juxtaposing „creativity” and „act”, „art” and „life” – but it is not a truly contemporary dilemma of modern intelligentsia. That is the one that exists as creative scepticism. As the sense of art’s helplessness when faced with the „excesses” of life.
Is it possible that such a return and such an interpretation has a chance to become the inspiration for the new cinema? It might well be. After all Polish cinema, regardless of the fact if it had been interesting or not – was always intellectual in its larger part. Every trend, starting with the Polish film school until the cinema of moral distress – had an intellectual origin. Wajda, Kawalerowicz, Zanussi, Kieslowski, Holland, Marczewski, Bajon, Falk, Zaorski, Kijowski – and so many other more or less contemporary artists – all of them are concerned with the Polish intellectual – lost in the past or the present. Maybe those others are simply an exception? Maybe Kazimierz Kutz, who quarter of a century ago had such power that he was able to oppose the whole intelligentsia-oriented cinematography with the beauty of a romantic Silesian worker. He was the one who actually introduced his Silesia into Polish gentry mythology. Or another original director, Jan Jakub Kolski, who sits quietly at the wayside. He does not participate in the discussions of the milieu and he simply sculpts for himself and all of us amazing tales of the Polish countryside. The countryside on the verge of dream and reality, truth and fairy tale, where both “Johnny the Nix” and Commander Pilsudski awaiting his soldier in heaven, are possible.
Well, yes. They all exist. And all of us hope that Kazimierz Kutz, although a senator now, will return after his perfect, flamboyant and all-Polish „Colonel Kwiatkowski”, which took all the possible awards at the Gdansk festival two years ago – to his black Silesia in the screen, since nobody can do that better than him. And everybody hopes that the author of „Johnny the Nix” never leaves his village. Unless he manages to tell all the stories. There is also an opportunity to meet that other, “strange” and unconventional film maker, who cannot be even classified, since he has been stuck in his own “family cinema” where even his own rules and ways of seeing are valid. I have Andrzej Kondratiuk in mind, of course.
Why then Zanussi’s last adventure is to be so special? Is that so because it is surprising and completely unjustified? There must be something to it, since a movie director, if he is an artist, must surprise first of all. Even with his own failures. And with Zanussi, who is a perfectionist, it is almost improbable!
THE THIRD RETURN
„Fresh blood” is needed in any art. In cinema, too. Polish film making is not able to use either new faces of actors or totally new creators and their ideas. It is probably caused by the fear that they will outdo the classics, i.e. true and tested artists who could still do something new. Thus, in spite of the global tendency to open the world to the young – Polish film is the last bastion … of personal caution. Unless a new person turns out to be not very new, or he is already „tested”, possibly in another type of artistic field and he could enter movie making forcefully, with an individual idea and true tour de force. Such people are loved deeply by Polish cinema.
Jerzy Stuhr turned out to be such a man. After many years of acting on the stage and in the screen, truly distinguished as an actor, but almost a debutant as a director, though quickly developing. It has been just three years since his „List of Adulteresses” appeared but how „childish” does that film look in view of the intellectual and artistic maturity of „The Love Stories” discussed above.
The shock of the last weeks appeared to be a new – yet not new, and still young as a man, Olaf Lubaszenko, a well known film actor, this time making his debut as a director – creator of the film entitled „Sting”.
Theoretically that „Sting” is similar to many other „Americanised” pictures. Entertaining and sensational, dynamic in its action and topic, approaching dark American movies with its well known motifs. Only when viewed from a close distance one can see that it is, fortunately, neither next Pasikowski, nor Zamojda with Slesicki – but that it is an old- new story of a light sentimental kind, as if both belonging to the Polish cinema (of the 1970s) and American one (of the 1930s). And though some crooks are chasing other crooks in the screen, the demonical poker does not follow any noble rules, and the object of desire is there, as always, a suitcase full of dollars, most probably counterfeit ones – we still receive the whole difference we might expect. Is it because, this world is a bit sentimental, that „the old” experienced crook (an excellent role of Jan Nowicki, unexpectedly nice, as he was only in the ’ memorable „The Great Szu”) plans his cons in a clever way, and his „disciple” is not only smart but also has the admiring look of Cezary Pazura?
There must be something to it! But mayby the reasons are different? We may see in this sensational action, where there is not a single brutal scene – a chance for a true, slightly „childish” street game. As in thieves and policemen, or „hide and seek”? Maybe in this game there is an unexpected opportunity to return to one’s own childhood but also to the early days of the cinema? Can this be, though, a new direction for not quite new direction of our own, though „slightly American” film making?
It has been so for a few years that each attempt to embrace and take stock of the „Polish cinema condition” evoked a natural reflex of dislike with the observers. And the paradoxial aspect of this emotion is the fact that it is connected to a lesser degree with the true evaluation of the cinema’s successes and failures but mostly it is the expression of the disappointment with a total helplessness of this form of art in our country. Could we still succumb to that sick and hubris-ridden, romantic notion the nation’s representatives endowed with prophetic talent were able to express its deepest complexes and the bravest protests of captured minds by means of the cinema? That is why it is so difficult today to come to terms with a shift in its function and objectives. The more so that film has stopped being „the chronicler of the history”, nor it is a cure for national complexes, nor the artistic fantasy any more, although we have never lacked artists.
What is it then?
Shall we consider it to be a misbegotten example of shoddy activity, which gave up on its dreams swapping cultural needs for market ones – being aware at the same time that it cannot cope with it?
That would truly be an example of a tragic mistake.
However, it is not that bad after all, although, when we follow the debate on the Polish cinema, we are astonished with the strange ping-pong of mutual accusations, no longer
having any substantial character. Not so long ago film makers tried to follow the public taste by making films „similar” to the American ones which were successful with the public. Today, the same people not only make no films but they accuse the critics for their neglect of public interest.
Maybe it should not concern us? After all mutual complaints are a fundamental form of interpersonal communication in our country. It seems appropriate to recall the veteran Rej of Naglowice who wrote:
„The Lord blames the Priest,
The Priest – the Lord.
While the simple folk
have no bed or board „
That is why I consciously gave up on complaints, blames and even statistics, although there might have been the source of satisfaction to mention that there were 31 films presented at the last year (1997) Festival in Gdynia (in 1996 there were only 18).
Maybe Poland is slowly becoming „a film power”, after all?
Expectations of that future greatness might have made me to look for the „new soul” of our eternally tired film making. Have I succeeded…?
Translated by Marek Szopski
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