23rd 06 - 2014 | 2 comments »

The Last Day of Summer (Ostatni dzien lata, 1958)

Director/Screenwriter: Tadeusz Konwicki

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Winner of 1958 Grand Prix at the International Festival of Documentary and Short Feature Films in Venice, The Last Day of Summer, author Tadeusz Konwicki’s first foray into filmmaking, radically altered how the world saw him. While still a noted writer with more than 20 titles to his name, he is now perhaps more famous as Poland’s first experimental film auteur. At a little over an hour long, The Last Day of Summer has the brevity of most experimental films, and it creates a dreamlike ambiguity that makes an almost too-subtle comment on World War II, particularly as compared with his anarchic Salto (Jump, 1965). At heart, I don’t think film was really his metier because these films are so derivative of experimental masters Maya Deren and Luis Buñuel, but especially with Last Day, Konwicki shows a touching regard for his characters that is something all his own.

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Voiceover narration by the unnamed female protagonist (Irena Laskowski) suggests the hardships of war, talking about trains packed with what might be refugees or condemned Jews, with no traces left except dogs’ paws. Three planes flying in close formation buzz overhead, as the woman emerges from the ocean naked and covering her breasts. As she tries to zip herself into her bathing suit, she becomes aware of a young man (Jan Machulski) observing her. He is playful and boyish, but she angrily demands to know how long he has been watching her. He answers “two weeks,” ever since she first showed up on the beach. He is smitten with her, but she is wary of him. Besides, it is her last day by the seaside before returning to her everyday life.

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She pins her wet hair and lays down to nap in the sun. After a fade, she awakens as the young man watches her nearby. With an overabundance of energy, he runs into the sea and starts to flounder. The woman goes in and rescues him from the rushing surf. When they are safely on land, he tells her that when he ran into the water, he forgot he couldn’t swim. She briefly softens to him, but then is unhappy that she is all wet again. She tells him to avert his eyes, which he mostly does, as she changes into a skirt and blouse. They build a fire together to dry off their wet things and cook a fish she has packed to eat, and he sets up a sundial in the sand using small pieces of driftwood to measure off her last day of summer.

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The film consists of a dance of approach and withdrawal, as the woman alternately enjoys the young man’s attentions and fights to be practical. She was abandoned by her sweetheart during wartime—he went to England, apparently—and broken-hearted, she has remained alone, which the young man has surmised by her solitary visits to the beach each day. Every time she tries to break away, she ends up following him, their circling intimacy getting tighter and tighter. But when push comes to shove, the woman refuses to abandon her plans in order to live on the beach, idle and free, with the man. His subsequent disappearance has her wading into the ocean searching for him as the movie fades out.

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Konwicki doesn’t set any impenetrable traps with this conventional look at the psyche of a lonely, aging woman. Her emergence from the sea at the beginning of the film is like a birth—imagine swimming nude to keep one’s bathing suit dry!—and her successive returns to the water are plunges into the unconscious, a chance at rescuing her youthful, buoyant animus unfortunately thwarted by her caution and doubt. It seemed fairly certain to me that the young man did not exist at all, but was sent by her unconscious to keep her from taking the final plunge into the darkness to which she eventually succumbs—the flattering admiration of a handsome, younger man a balm for her ego, a proposed escape from her drab existence a proffer of liberation and fulfillment. The shot of her after she has donned her clothes showcases the soft beauty elicited by his attentions.

Cinematographer Jan Laskowski composed many beautiful landscape and overhead shots, and his close-ups capture every nuance of emotion. Nonetheless, between him and Konwicki, the visuals are a pretty close rip-off of Maya Deren’s At Land (1944). Take a look:

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The intrusion of the airplanes may have been intended as a grounding device similar to the dinner party in At Land, but it was much less coherent. Without some tie to the woman, these scenes did not have the perhaps desired effect of offering a tangible foreboding. Much more effective was the man’s use of a pocket knife, repeatedly throwing it idly to stick in a log near the sleeping form of the woman. Interestingly, when she gathers up their belongings in preparation for going back to her hotel to pack, she removes the knife and returns it to the man. Unlike the old saw that a gun produced in the first scene will be fired by the last, the knife is never used directly. Instead, it implies that the woman’s life may be in danger, but as the film progresses, the danger is really only from herself.

This film, part of the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, shows Sunday, June 29, 3 p.m., and Wednesday, July 2, 6:15 p.m., at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.


16th 06 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Night Train (Pociag, 1959)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Kawalerowicz

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Perhaps the last thing one would have expected from the director of Pharaoh (1966), a drama set among the elite of ancient Egypt in the expansive setting of the Sahara Desert, is an examination of the desperate lives of the professional and working classes of then-contemporary Poland set on the claustrophic confines of a train. Yet, despite leaps across time and space, Jerzy Kawalerowicz proved himself to be a master of the interior landscape of the human heart, a constant no matter what the setting. Night Train, an early, black-and-white effort from the director, offers Kawalerowicz’s and cinematographer Jan Laskowski’s exquisite eye for beautiful visual composition and interesting camera angles that set the physical and emotional spaces for a range of characters trapped by regret and need.

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Much like the opening of Pharaoh, Night Train starts with an overhead shot of a Polish train yard bustling with people looking not unlike the dung beetles tumbling across the barren desert floor in Egypt. A middle-aged man (Leon Niemczyk) with sunglasses and a shock of gray hair at the temple hurries to board the train; he has no ticket, but buys both berths in a sleeper cabin because he wants to be alone. To his surprise, when he reaches his cabin, a beautiful blonde, who we much later learn is named Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), has moved in. She tells the overwhelmed train conductor (Helen Dabrowska) that she bought the ticket from a man, and though the conductor tells her it is a men’s only cabin, she refuses to leave. Wishing to avoid further unpleasantness, the man decides to let her stay. Nobody seems too bothered by strangers of the opposite sex sharing a cabin, except for a neighboring passenger (Teresa Szmigielówna) who is bored with her lawyer husband (Aleksander Sewruck) and hoping to have a fling with the man as she struts around him with her comely breasts pitched forward by a permanent arch in her back.

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We learn very early in the film that a woman has been murdered and that her husband is being sought by the police. We are encouraged to believe that the curiously morose man who wants to be alone might be the murderer, and this planted idea seems designed to jack up the suspense of the film—particularly after Marta is alone with him in the cabin—if you judge by the advertising for the film that compares it to The Narrow Margin (1952). There is indeed a murderer on the train and a tense chase to apprehend him occurs, but the film is more interested in the secret pain and yearning of its characters than in being a thriller.

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Marta is a woman haunted by a love affair gone wrong and a persistent admirer (Zbigniew Cybulski) who stalks her onto the train and rather violently insists that she not dispose of him after their two-week fling. The man is gentle and gentlemanly with Marta, surmising her unhappiness in love after seeing scars on her wrists. Her overall sadness, however, permeates her like a strong perfume, her mournful countenance visually caressed by her then-husband, director Kawalerowicz, as he peers at her reflection in a mirror, though a sliver from the top berth to the bottom berth where she lays, in her distant gaze out the open window suddenly exploded by the wind and noise of a train passing in the opposite direction.

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The man, too, seems distracted and violently haunted when he shouts at Marta to kick the sheet covering her legs away. His explanation for his outburst is to ask her if she has ever seen a body in a morgue. I guessed that he was a doctor based on this detail, his reaction to her wrist scars, his comment about how much Marta smokes, and his ease spending money, but was kept in doubt about his profession until the end of the movie. Indeed, the movie does not seem anxious to give up its secrets—like any group of strangers sharing a space by necessity, no one is presented as an open book. All we get are impressions, bits of information. Kawalerowicz stamps this point on the film silently, as a young sailor in third class gazes fondly on a young girl, who shyly returns his regard—who they are and what will become of the flirtation is pure speculation, though the terminus of the train is a seaside resort where it appears the lawyer’s wife intends to tryst with whichever lover she lines up from the journey. Amusingly, her cuckold of a husband remains a disembodied voice for a good deal of the film until Kawalerowicz decides to let us sympathize with them both a bit by putting their mismatched temperaments together in their cabin as they bed down for the night.

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Despite what Freud said about trains and sex, I was not expecting all the amorous goings-on on the train, but I have been informed that pociag means “train,” but it also means “attraction” or “desire,” a clear double entendre. The train appears to be a microcosm of the world, with cabins filled with religious pilgrims and holiday makers from every walk of life. Seeing people standing in the narrow passages in third class because there is no place to sit down reminded me of my work commute, people jostled and tired and bored, fitfully sleeping in the company of strangers and their cargo. So, too, does Kawalerowicz take on the issue of mob mentality. When the murderer pulls the emergency brake and jumps from the train ahead of the police, a number of passengers pursue him across a field in a scene that beautifully opens the film up to offer the great expanses Kawalerowicz handles expertly. Again we get an overhead shot after he is cornered and brought down, like a swarm of ants taking down a grasshopper. An earlier reveal of a man who can’t sleep in his cabin because the berths remind him of his four years in Buchenwald takes a poke at the rush to judgment and mob action that Kawalerowicz softly critiques in the murderer subplot.

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In the end, the man and Marta have found some solace in each other’s company, though the painfully adrift Marta is disappointed that their association cannot last beyond the end of the line. Marta, still caught in her melancholy, alights on the seaside of the train and climbs awkwardly along the sandy shore, trapped at land’s end in the bright light of day.

This film, part of Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, shows Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m., at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.


23rd 05 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Eroica (1957)

Director: Andrjez Munk

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Andrzej Wajda is arguably Poland’s best-known director, the much-revered chronicler of Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Poland with an honorary Academy Award under his belt and a slew of other recognitions from Cannes, Britain, Italy, and other parts of the cinematic world. While Wajda claims Luis Buñuel as his earliest inspiration, it is easier to see a resemblance between the scathing satire of Buñuel’s films and those of Andrjez Munk, a filmmaker whose life-ending car accident at the age of 40 foreshortened his film legacy and cast him into the long shadow of Wajda, his contemporary. Now, Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has brought Munk back into the spotlight with a new restoration of the director’s film in two movements: Eroica.

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Riffing, no doubt, on Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the so-called “Eroica” (heroic) symphony in four movements, Munk’s two-movement “symphony” is only half as heroic: Scherzo alla polacca, referring to the brisk nature of the action, but also indicating, in a slang translation, “the Polish joke;” and Ostinato lugubre, indicating a persistent, mournful theme. Whatever heroism can be found in these two movements is strictly accidental, as the insanity of war is translated through the individual foibles of members of the Polish Uprising and Polish officers in a Nazi P.O.W. camp.

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The main protagonist of the scherzo movement is Dzidzius Gorkiewicz (Edward Dziewonski), or “Babyface” to the women in his life. He is a member of the Uprising who might become an accidental hero near the end of WWII by sneaking in and out of Warsaw to try to broker a deal between the leaders of his organization and Hungarian forces who are willing to join with the rebels to drive the Germans out. Babyface’s first action, however, is to break from the ragtag group of volunteers flubbing their formations to call the drill sergeant’s attention to an aircraft descending to strafe them. When the clueless sergeant finally yells to his “troops” to take cover, Babyface walks off, unwilling to risk his life just to run inane drills. He heads for his home away from his abandoned apartment in Warsaw—a country house that he finds has been requisitioned by some Hungarian officers, one of whom (Tomasz Zaliwski) Babyface’s wife Zosia (Barbara Polomska) has given their room—though she continues to occupy the bed. The officer asks Babyface to accompany him outside, and fearing that he will be shot so that the officer can have Zosia, he runs into a curtain of clothes that hides a cannon. The officer offers to join with the uprising—cannons and all—if Babyface can square it with his superiors. Overjoyed that he is not to be shot, Babyface indulges in his favorite pastime—drinking with whomever is nearby. The scene ends with Babyface shoving a half-empty bottle of booze down the cannon barrel.

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Walking through checkpoints, explosions, and gunfire with his off-white suit and glib excuses, Babyface seems a hapless freedom fighter indeed. He acts like someone who has been whisked from a vacation in Hawaii and dropped into a war zone: he keeps looking for the hula girls and the mai tais, and hopes to take advantage of every situation—drinking a case of booze he finds in a barn where his former sweetheart Jogodka (Zofia Czerwinska), codename “Blueberry,” is running a switchboard, trying to convince his fellows to take advantage of the Hungarian troops’ offer (“as long as they’re here”), and escaping from a group of townspeople being displaced while their German guards are chasing another escapee. The latter incident offers the movement’s most over-the-top burlesque, as Babyface, on orders from a Nazi officer, tries to carry an old woman’s (Eleonora Lorentz) bag, only to find it loaded down with heavy metal objects. As with most of the film, Dziewonski displays precise, comic movement as he buckles and weaves under the weight and then pays the old woman 5 rubles to leave it behind. Even more funny, she takes the money and then tries to lift the bag herself—as stubbornly unmovable as her bundle. If ever there was an illustration of “life goes on,” Babyface’s almost casual attitude to the insanity around him is it—ending with a decisive action of a personal nature that brings the battle of the sexes into the war.

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The second movement is equally absurd, but more desperate in tone. The action begins with the arrival of a new group of captured Polish officers at a mountain P.O.W. camp. Lt. Kursawa (Józef Nowak), an amiable, gentle-looking officer of about 30 and Lt. Szpakowski (Roman Klosowski), a brash youngster who moved up the ranks as officers above him were killed, join a cell block with veteran officers who have been locked up for about five years. Space is available in the block because Lt. Zawistowski (Tadeusz Lomnicki) has become the only person to escape the camp in its history. Zawistowski is held up as a paragon of bravery and ingenuity by the men on the block, but only two of them know the truth: Zawistowki, learning that the Gestapo were about to get their hands on him, went into hiding in an empty boiler in the ceiling. Kursawa learns of their deception by accident, but joins in the effort to keep him alive and undetected while the lives of the other members of the block spiral into madness.

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A fugitive from Grand Illusion, Lt. Krygier (Henryk Bak) is all about military protocol, wondering whether Szpakowski should be allowed to fraternize with officers and regurgitating the dictum that it is an officer’s duty to try to escape, something he and his toady, Lt. Dabecki (Bogumil Kobiela), have yet to attempt. He goads Lt. Zak (Józef Kostecki), half-mad at the impossibility of being alone in a quiet place, into attempting to escape. Zak successfully negotiates two rows of barbed wire in broad daylight while his fellow officers create a distraction, only to be grabbed by two women passing by the camp and returned to his hell hole. His failure seems to have been an inevitability for him, and he gives away the 1,000 cigarettes—valuable as barter currency—he won for completing the dare. He goes into a plywood box that looks like a half-finished latrine to retreat from his blockmates and slams the door, a tragicomic moment he repeats many times during the movement. As the curtain falls on this farce, Zak is the only officer who truly takes escape seriously.

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Munk’s penetrating gaze sees the touching humor in the maze of human relationships that we all must negotiate, no matter the circumstance. The possibility that the Hungarian troops could join the Polish Uprising is quashed because the Russians moving into Poland won’t work with the Hungarians. Babyface is rueful about the weakness of flesh as he watches the woman he married out of lust be true to her nature; she’s a slut, says Babyface, but that’s her appeal. Zak, Zawistowki’s best friend, is kept in the dark about the deception because he’s too unstable—or perhaps he’d try to take Zawistowki’s place in the ceiling just to get away from the other men. Life goes on, Munk tells, us, but the things it does to us in its course will have us weeping through our laughter.

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A word must be said about DP Jerzy Wójcik, whose widescreen work on Pharaoh (1966) was both epic in scope and yet quite intimate, a skill he certainly mastered with Eroica. I was enthralled by the way he filled the more traditional dimensions of this black-and-white film, creating a particular mise-en-scène that luxuriated in the stands of long grass as a fleeing man disappeared among the stalks, and communicated the cramped chaos of the cell block with bits of paper and clothes, objects crammed on ledges and hung on walls, and a small window with a sketch of the mountains framing it along the width of the room.

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The performances of the ensemble casts were peerless. Dziewonski was a perfect everyman who certainly would have been a hippie if he had been in the right place at the right time. Kostecki had a Felix Ungerish prissiness to him, but underneath, his tormented, highly insulted soul gave him the kind of substance one needs from a tragic clown. Lomnicki, though he had only one real scene, gave a very moving description of his isolation—rather than complain about the physical challenges, he seemed more bothered by the darkness and loneliness, the inability to see his own face. He brought home the human toll of war economically and effectively.

Eroica is a black comedy that never forgets it’s also a war flick. It’s one of the best of its kind I’ve ever seen.

Eroica is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, May 25, and Wednesday, May 28. It’s perfect for this Memorial Day weekend.


12th 05 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Pharaoh (Faraon, 1966)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Kawalerowicz

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has come to Chicago. The Gene Siskel Film Center is presenting most of the 21 films, curated by Mr. Scorsese and restored with the help of his Film Foundation, now through July 3 as part of the traveling show that audiences in 18 lucky cities (so far) in the U.S. and Canada will have a chance to view. Pharaoh, an Academy Award nominee, is a film that, up to now, has been treated very poorly. The long, rather slow film has been available almost exclusively in truncated, dubbed, or faded versions and as hard to see, even in a bastardized version, in Poland as it has been in the rest of the world. The new DCP version reveals the majesty of this adaptation of Bolesław Prus’s late 19th-century novel about the fictional Ramses XIII at the fall of the 20th dynasty and New Kingdom of Egypt. Although I can’t be sure, the story appears to be based on the reign of Ramses VIII, a pharaoh who ruled for no more than two years and about whom almost nothing is known—the perfect blank canvas for a writer whose complaints about the authenticity of most historical novels allowed him to provide the best available information about ancient Egypt at the time without needing to worry in the least about being accurate about his characters.

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In what is surely one of the best prologues to a film I’ve ever seen, the opening credits roll over a parched patch of earth as the clashing, atonal score of Adam Walachinski sounds. The portentousness of this introduction finally resolves as a pair of dung beetles push a round turd from one side of the screen to the other, battling to possess it. A functionary’s face rises into the frame, and he runs the length of several regiments to the high priest Herhor (Piotr Pawlowski) to inform him that the sacred scarabs are in the direct line of the advancing troops. Herhor orders the troops to go around the beetles to avoid trampling them, to the protests of Ramses (Jerzy Zelnik) and the despair of a Hebrew slave (Jerzy Block) who spent 10 years digging a canal that Herhor now tells the troops to fill in so that they can advance. This opening perfectly communicates on both symbolic and literal levels the clash between governmental and religious leaders, the latter a frequent whipping post for director Kawalerowicz, as well as the puniness of their struggle in the face of the vast, uncaring forces of nature and history.

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Ramses is a young, ambitious man who craves his own military command and the chance to wrest control of Egypt from the priests who have both the confidence of his parents, Osiris-Ramses XII (Andrzej Girtler) and Nikotris (Wiesława Mazurkiewicz), and control of a vast cache of gold held in the temple labyrinth for a “time of great need.” Ramses has modern ideas, believing in science and in using the gold to better the lives of ordinary Egyptians and pay for a first-rate military force to help Egypt regain its stature and power on the world stage. Instead, he must go to Dagon (Edward Raczkowski), a sleazy Phoenician merchant, to borrow enough money to pay the soldiers to whom he rashly promised bonuses. Thus, when Ramses XII dies, the stage is set for a power struggle between the new pharaoh and the priests.

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Pharaoh provides a heady mix of stunning visuals and set pieces that bring this ancient world of sand and superstition vividly to life, while at the same time concentrating on its intimate human drama with an expositional style that has much in common with Shakespeare’s works—indeed, the scene with Dagon seems almost directly lifted from The Merchant of Venice. Contrasting it with C.B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which was reviewed below by Rod, is a useful exercise because Pharaoh actually conflates its story with the story of Passover while making obvious reference to the Nazi Holocaust to form a continuum of Jewish suffering that, while much more understated, actually packs a powerful punch.

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Whereas DeMille, the grand showman, created a world so fantastical that his film is a legend in its own right, Kawalerowicz creates an almost alien and primitive world in which the power of myth and ritual is real and rather terrifying. The entrance of Ramses XII to court is handled with great chanting and solemnity, his every move as stiff and controlled as a hieroglyph. A complete believer in his own place in the divine line of Egyptian pharaohs and thus seeing the priests as enablers of his strength, he puts down young Ramses’ earthly concerns about being denied a military command with a simple, but crushing authority that the heir to the throne, no shrinking violet himself, cannot oppose. Ramses XII’s final ritual—his burial—is a dread affair, with female mourners leading the procession down a passageway to his tomb with wrenching wails, turning to face the walls to allow the funeral bier to pass them as a downward shot lends a claustrophobic angle to the scene; while we do not see these retainers locked in the tomb to serve their lord in the afterlife, the implication is there.

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At the same time, Kawalerowicz takes pains to suggest that the priests are charlatans. After the opening scene, Ramses meets Sarah (Krystyna Mikolajewska), a beautiful Jewish slave who came out to the desert to see the army, and has her brought to the palace as his mistress. She gives birth to a son who, during Ramses’ absence, she names Isaac at the insistence of the priests. With this evidence of his son’s Jewishness, Ramses demotes Sarah to servant of Kama (Barbara Brylska), the priestess-mistress chosen for him by the priests, who seduced him in her temple by appearing and disappearing as if by magic (or, if you prefer, cinematic magic tricks).

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Later, when the Egyptian people are induced by Ramses to storm the temple labyrinth, Pentuer (Leszek Herdegen), a prophet sympathetic to Ramses, tells him that an eclipse of the sun is about to occur. Herhor mounts the high wall of the temple labyrinth and stretches his arms to the sky, and the day goes dark. While the populace panic, screaming and running from the scene or digging in the sand to try to hide themselves, Ramses reminds himself to elevate the priests who study the sky to a higher position at court, deflating a dramatic moment with his modern mind. This eclipse, along with a bit of hyperbole from Nikotris that the water has turned to blood, as well as the murder of Sarah and her son, Ramses’ firstborn, echo the plagues visited upon the Egyptians by the god of the Hebrews that DeMille gave so much divine force.

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The Hebrews themselves are hardly seen, apart from Sarah and the canal digger. The former seems much beloved of Ramses, but there is no salvation for her or her son inside the palace walls. The canal digger, told he and his family would be freed once the canal was finished, commits suicide following the order to fill it in. The echo of the slogan of Auschwitz, “Work Makes (You) Free,” certainly cannot be mistaken by a modern audience, and the image of the man hanging from a tree limb outstretched above the canal looks less like a suicide than a lynching—it is an image that comes to haunt Ramses, and with the counsel of Pentuer, a peasant elevated to priest, sets him on a course of public welfare that ensures his reign will be a short one.

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There are moments that, in DeMille’s hands, would provide entertainment and thrills of the highest order. Sarah sings a Hebrew song to Ramses. Ramses drives his chariot through the desert. Ramses’ army attacks an Assyrian force many times its size and wins. Ramses and Hebron (Ewa Krzyzewska), the fiancée of Ramses’ right-hand man Tutmosis (Emir Buczacki), flirt while Tutmosis hovers nearby. Tutmosis, sent to arrest Herhor and Mephres (Stanislaw Milski), another high priest, is speared in the back by a traitor to Ramses. I can just hear the music punctuating each exciting moment, every footfall sure and rapid, a grin of pure abandon on Ramses face as he races to his destination. In Kawalerowicz’s film, however, each scene is as life itself. A scene of troops running up and down sand dunes shows it to be a slow, clumsy affair. Tutmosis doesn’t clutch himself and keel over as sinister music signals his death—he twists and squirms as his attacker continues to jab him, taking forever to succumb. Sarah sings a slow lament with her back to the audience, as though praying at the Wailing Wall. The complete lack of prudery in the film normalizes Ramses’ promiscuous sexual appetites and frees the other characters from jealousy. And driving a chariot takes concentration—it’s not a ’50s hot rod. Each of these scenes is beautifully realized by the stellar cast and DP Jerzy Wójcik, but we feel as though we are actually part of the scene rather than voyeurs looking for some thrills.

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Kawalerowicz offers brutal reality on a personal level as opposed to mass slaughter. Ramses makes good on his vow to take 100,000 Assyrian hands, as baskets of severed hands from the fallen enemy soldiers are carried off the field of battle. A captured Assyrian horse becomes the target of one, then another, then another spear as Ramses gets his men into a fighting spirit. A confederate of Ramses who says he knows the path to the treasure chamber gets hopelessly lost in the labyrinth before taking poison upon his capture. Ramses shoots birds with arrows with the superstitious notion that if he hits each target, he will get what he wishes for. I can’t but think that this is how ancient Egyptians lived, and Kawalerowicz took great pains to stick as close to the historical record as possible, even building a boat for a scene on the Nile according to 4,000-year-old plans.

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Kawalerowicz combined shooting at Łódź studios with location shooting in Uzbekistan and Egypt. The latter location provided him with some strangely poetic moments: Ramses laments that he will never build his own grand tomb to stand with the pharaohs of ages past as we look at the Great Pyramids, their outer skins ragged and time worn, a head of an ancient pharaoh toppled to the ground. These details make the story more lamentable, the greatness of this civilization—like all great civilizations—perishable. Even before his demise, Kawalerowicz seems to suggest, Ramses is already finished.

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I was utterly captivated by the use of wigs in this film—Mazurkiewicz even went so far as to shave her head to wear one as it must have been worn in ancient times. Apart from the opening credits, music is only used diagetically, which cannily prevents us from soaring above the drama. The entire cast, led by a regal and rash Zelnik as the strong core of the film, is superb, communicating a great deal with a single look or movement. The villians, particularly Dagon and Kama, were a bit stereotypical, but not distractingly so, nor were Ramses and his compatriots glowing paragons of virtue. None of us will ever have the chance to experience life in ancient Egypt, but thanks to Pharaoh, we can at least imagine this remote time and its concerns. Moreover, Kawalerowicz has given us another approach to epic filmmaking that allows for our empathy and participation. With so few filmmakers working in this manner, the return of this film to its full glory is a welcome addition to the library of world cinema.


7th 10 - 2013 | no comment »

CIFF 2013: Papusza (2013)

Directors/Coscreenwriters: Joanna Kos, Krzystof Krauze

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This seems to be the year for biopics among the Polish entries to the Chicago International Film Festival. Wałęsa: Man of Hope is a stimulating look at the life of the working-class electrician who went on to make huge changes in Polish society and receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Papusza is a much different film about a much different person, a published poet of Romy-Polish descent named Bronisława Wajs. Papusza, which means “doll” in Romy, was born in 1908 and died in 1987, thus making her a witness to both world wars, the occupation of Poland by the Soviets, and the forced settlement of the nomadic Romy in permanent homes. That she learned to read and write is remarkable in itself. That her poetry found a wide audience and acclaim in Poland and other countries is a near miracle. Yet, unlike Lech Wałesa, her life did not change for the better, and the hardships she suffered as a Romy woman dogged her to the end of her life.

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The film begins in 1971, when the assistant to the Polish cultural minister goes to a prison where Papusza (Jowita Budnick) is incarcerated. A performance of her poetry set to music is about to take place, and the assistant tells the warden that she will not tell the minister that the guest of honor can’t attend because she stole a chicken. After securing Papusza’s release, the women get in a car that will take them to the venue. We flash back to 1909, to a young, pregnant Romy who walks through a muddy street and out to a meadow. She lays down and yells for her mother, followed by a baby’s cries. The scene cuts to the new mother cradling her child and giving her the name Papusza. A fortune teller says the child will live a momentous life, but she cannot say whether it will be one of greatness or despair. In fact, it will be both.

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The film jumps to 1949. Papusza’s much older husband, Dionizy Wajs (Zbigniew Walerys), watches as his friend and harp tuner Czernecki (Artur Steranko) rows across a lake, harp upright in the boat, to the Romy camp. He asks Wajs to hide a young man who is on the run from the police. Wajs is reluctant to take in a gadjo (outsider), but he owes Czernecki the favor. The man, Jerzy Ficowski (Antoni Pawlicki), is a writer who travels with the Romy for two years, until he learns the warrant for his arrest has been vacated. He becomes a natural companion for Papusza, who, we learn in another flashback, got a Jewish woman to teach her to read and write when she was of school age. “Little Brother” encourages Papusza to write down the poetry she composes orally. Once he gets established in Warsaw, he collects the poems for publication. By this time, the Wajses and others in their camp have been forced to abandon traveling and have settled in a slum in a small Polish town.

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The film’s scrambled chronology keeps us waiting to see what is only mentioned in the 1949 section—the extermination of the Jews and Romy by the Nazis. We see little graphic violence, but the Romy are clearly being hunted. The Wajses and some of their camp hide in the woods in dugouts covered by leaf mats; Papusza ventures out of her hole and into a barn where a group of Romy have been herded and killed. She finds a baby crying, almost an echo of her own birth, and brings the boy back to Wajs as the son they haven’t been able to conceive. Later, when Papusza is shunned by the Romy for helping Jerzy share their secrets with other gadjo in his book The Gypsies in Poland, written in Polish and Romy, her son disavows her as his mother because he is a foundling.

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There is a great deal more to the film, filled with details of Romy life, that make it seem more interested in Ficowski’s work than in telling the story of a remarkable woman. In many ways, the approach is intriguing. The beauty of the lush black-and-white cinematography brings both a harshness to Romy life, particularly when they are cooped up in their tenement, and the romance and beauty of the open road and living in nature. We see a Romy orchestra play at a posh event in the 1920s, reminiscent of how African Americans were allowed to entertain white Americans, but were persecuted outside the performance arena.

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The superstitions of the Romy come out in everything from fortune telling to pouring wine on the ground before drinking. The subjugation of Romy women to their men is shown in the segregation of the sexes, the commonplace of child brides, and a king making rulings for the entire community. Wajs threatens Papusza with a beating when she says she is not a poet and will not attend the state performance in her honor, and it’s clear this is a default position for him.

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As much as I enjoyed looking at this film and learning about how the Romy lived during most of the 20th century, I kept looking for Papusza and her poetry to take center stage. Her art was barely quoted, and her life was massed in with the rest of the Romy, to the point where, despite a great performance by Budnik, it seemed like her husband was the main character. We do see her grieving over her marriage to a man 25 years older than she and falling for Jerzy. She is put in a mental hospital at one point, something that seems to go with the territory when a woman tries to do something her society finds offensive, like speak for herself through her art (see Séraphine [2008] for more on this type of narrative). But this film doesn’t really get at the heart of the woman who made such a deep impression on Ficowski and the outside world. She just becomes more abject and poor, doomed and demented, setting her poems on fire on her kitchen table and begging for a few złotys in her old age in exchange for a tarot reading. She becomes a figure of pity when she should have been someone women could look to for inspiration. While I can encourage people to see this film for the richness of its imagery and scope of its story, both of which might have been meant to evoke Papusza’s writing, if you want to know who Papusza is, read her poetry.

Papusza screens Wednesday, October 16, 6:25 p.m, Thursday, October 17, 5:30 p.m., and Friday, October 18, 2:455 p.m., and at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Actress Jowita Budnik is scheduled to attend all three screenings. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)

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1st 10 - 2013 | 1 comment »

CIFF 2013: Wałęsa: Man of Hope (Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei, 2013)

Director: Andrzej Wajda

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The biopic genre is one that most film fans approach with a certain amount of caution. Rarely are they historically accurate, and oftentimes, they fall into a template that seems to predestine their subjects with a greatness that separates them from the pack almost by birthright. Poland’s greatest living filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda, most recently made a 2010 documentary tribute to his own cinematographer Edward Kłosińsk, thus setting him up nicely to approach the momentous life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. While largely complimentary to the still-living, elder statesman of the working class, Wajda’s biopic moves meticulously through the major events of Wałęsa’s life with a bracing veracity and the perfect pacing of a master craftsman.

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Wajda chooses an interesting framing device for his survey of Wałęsa’s history—an interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci (Maria Rosaria Omaggio). The screenplay makes clear that it is not the interview she conducted for her 1977 book Interview with History, but rather one following the success of the Solidarity movement. Fallaci, a probing, sometimes confrontational interviewer, challenges Wałęsa (Robert Wieckiewicz) about the appropriateness of accepting comfortable housing from the government, testing whether fame and power will corrupt the people’s leader with this and other questions that check his level of hubris. Wałęsa waves off the concern, and when we see throughout the film how many months he spent in prison from the time he witnessed the 1970 massacre of dock workers in Gdansk to the 1980 lockdown strike he led at the shipyard and beyond, it’s clear that government housing of one kind or another has long been a part of Wałęsa’s life.

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His story begins on the eve of his first arrest in 1970. Working as an electrician at the Gdansk shipyard and expecting the birth of his first child (the film chronicles the arrival of six of the eight children the Wałęsas have), he learns a labor action is about to commence. He feels his place is at the dock, where he ends up trying to stop the workers to prevent the killings that follow, gets arrested, and is released only after promising to spy for the government, a pledge he soon fails to keep. Before he leaves, he removes his wedding ring and watch with instructions to his wife Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska) to sell them if he doesn’t come home; this wholly inadequate substitute for a wage-earning husband becomes a running routine throughout the film, as Wałęsa’s growing involvement in the emerging Polish labor movement leads to more and more absences and the loss of one job after another because of his activism.

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Wałęsa seems to know how to talk to people to get them to listen—he tells Fallaci that the right words just come. He also is a practical man who knows how to negotiate and win. When he falls in with a group of intellectuals who are talking about staging a hunger strike, he asks them forthrightly what good their starvation will do. It’s not practical, it won’t get results, he says, and he’s right. The movement was far from unified at that point, and few would have cared about their sacrifice. At the same time, however, Wałęsa feels the intellectuals can help him craft language and strategies; he’s not anti-intellectual, only pro-results. His agreement with the police teaches him never to sign anything, advice he passes on to other activists.

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The major set-piece of the film is the 1980 lockdown strike. The action begins before Wałęsa is in the shipyard, and the police are hellbent on keeping him from getting in. He manages to slip away, but is only a few meters ahead of his pursuers when he manages to climb over the fence to join the workers. He quickly organizes them, and word of the strike reaches throughout Poland, where transportation workers, miners, and others join them in a general strike. Wałęsa has secured several modest demands for the dock workers, but when a trolley car driver begs him not to abandon them by ending their strike, the gates to the shipyard are closed again as the Solidarity movement wins major concessions from the government, including having their union legalized. This section is nail-bitingly brilliant, as Wałęsa appears to be improvising his way to a revolution of sorts.

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Things look bad for Solidarity, however, when the Soviets decide to flex their muscles by declaring martial law in 1981 and outlawing the union. Wałęsa is imprisoned for nearly a year, but the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 brings an end to martial law. In 1983, Wałęsa wins the Nobel Prize, but fearing exile, he sends Danuta to accept it. Wadja uses stock footage of Brezhnev’s funeral, but dramatizes part of Danuta’s delivery of Lech’s acceptance speech and shows the humiliation she suffers when she is stripped for a full body-cavity search by Polish customs officials at the airport.

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Wadja is a crowd-pleaser with this film, bringing an energetic mise-en-scène to the Gdansk shipyards and Wałęsa’s crowded home filled with children and union activists. He shorthands relationships, particularly that between Danuta and Lech, with homey touches like the ring and watch and a handmade “typhus” sign he proposes to hang on their door to keep the world away. Wieckiewicz seems to channel Wałęsa’s natural leadership and charisma, portraying a perfect man of action who seemed driven to make the changes he did despite the hardships to himself and his family, particularly as communicated by Grochowska. Important events that helped strengthen the movement, not the least of which was having the Polish Pope John Paul II come home to preach to the faithful, show how one man does not a movement make, though Wieckiewicz makes it clear that Wałęsa was not a terribly humble man. His homophobia is not included in this film, which ends before his pronouncements on homosexuality were made publicly, but Wadja avoids—just barely—straight hagiography simply by letting the events speak for themselves.

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As a Chicagoan whose city has the largest population of Poles of any city other than Warsaw, I remember well seeing the Solidarity flags and banners waving up and down Milwaukee Avenue, the main drag of Polish Chicago, during the 1980s. Wałęsa, thus, is a part of my personal history and a figure of great interest to me. But in these times of union-busting and worker exploitation, it would be a great salvo against corporate elites if this film opened widely and played to sold-out audiences. I highly recommend that CIFF attendees fire the first shot by selling out every showing of this highly entertaining and instructive film from one of cinema’s grand masters.

Wałęsa: Man of Hope shows Friday, October 11, 5:30 p.m., Sunday, October 13, 2:15 p.m., and Wednesday, October 16, 3:20 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


28th 09 - 2011 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2011: George the Hedgehog (Jeż Jerzy, 2011)

Directors: Tomasz Leśniak, Jakub Tarkowski, and Wojtek Wawszczyk

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Hollywood has been making comic book movies for a long time, and the pace has reached frenzied proportions in the last few years. Much of this product is watered down, mindless, and badly executed, a disappointment to fans of the comics and of films alike. Well, here’s one film made from a comic book I can unreservedly recommend, and it’s the very first animated feature of a comic book to come out of Poland. As a film, George the Hedgehog carries on in the raunchy, irreverent, edgy tradition of such classics as Fritz the Cat and television’s The PJs. Yet, the script is pure Hollywood comedy-action cinema at its best.

In a grungy underground lab, a mad scientist (Grzegorz Pawlak) is feeding American pop culture images and sounds into a computer. The scientist hopes to develop a clone that will be a surefire superstar, win him the respect of the scientific community that has scorned him, oh, and garner him fame and fortune, too. The computer runs like a slot machine through hundreds of possible models and stops on the image of a hedgehog. A hedgehog? Well, the computer can’t be wrong. The scientist sends his assistant (Jaroslaw Boberek) to find the animal and get some DNA.

As it happens, there is a hedgehog in town, a beer-guzzling, skateboarding, womanizing slacker named George (Borys Szyc). He is having an affair with the beautiful blonde Yola (Maria Peszek), who is bored with her nerdy husband but can’t divorce him because she’s Catholic. He is also set upon regularly by Stefan (Marcin Sosnowski) and Zenek (Michal Koterski), unemployed neo-Nazis who pick on him because they can’t get all the women he can.

The assistant notices Stefan and Zenek and offers them a substantial amount of money to grab some blood, saliva, and quills from the hedgehog. He also instructs them to kill George, something they are reluctant to do because he is the only target in the neighborhood they can stomp for being different. In a comic fight, George defends himself with his skateboard, but Zenek bites his ass to draw blood, and Stefan collects his drool and quills. Leaving George to lick his wounds, the pair takes their “harvest” to the scientist who drops it into a machine that whirls him out a clone of George—a vulgar moron who vomits and farts profusely and humps anything in sight. The scientist sets his scheme in motion by shooting a music video of clone George and turning his hedgehog into an Internet sensation and Polish pop hero. But the real George will have to be dealt with sooner or later.

Hypersexed animals and gross-out jokes aren’t my usual cup of tea, but when they are mixed with pointed satire and killer animation, I’m all about it. George the Hedgehog, stripped of the local and timely topical humor of the comic book, takes on bigger fish and fries them black in a way that a worldwide audience can understand. For instance, the idea that a hedgehog could be an international internet star makes perfect sense in the era of YouTube sensations Surprised Kitty (54.2 million views and counting) and Maru (11 million views for just one of his videos). In another example, a sleazy politician (Leszek Teleszynski), who on first glance reminded me very much of Mayor Richard J. Daley (with Chicago being the city with the second-largest Polish population in the world, I have to wonder if this was more than a coincidence), hitches his wagon to the hedgehog to court the youth vote and affects rapper gestures. Anyone who has watched the steady parade of politicians on Letterman, Conan O’Brien, The Colbert Report, and similar shows will recognize the tactic and, if they haven’t given it much thought, become aware that they are being marketed to, not served.

The intelligentsia get a thorough drubbing as they pontificate on a talking-heads program about the bravery of clone George’s performance art—actually surveillance camera footage of him breaking into a sex shop, puncturing with his quills the blow-up doll he starts to screw, and burning the whole place down, thus releasing anatomically correct blow-up dolls to float like fantasy helium balloons over the city. While clone George’s performance had nothing to do with art, the flying dolls are really quite beautiful.

In an interview on Badass Digest, director Wawszczyk said the animators used a cut-out style of animation, or what was pioneered by UPA in the States as limited animation. Unlike the relatively simple cartoons I’ve seen using limited animation, the complexity of the background layering and detail work on the moving figures is very intricate in George the Hedgehog, both grotesque and beautiful.

The send-ups of Hollywood films are many. For example, the showdown between George and clone George at a stadium-style rock concert plays like a cross between the climaxes of Black Sunday and Valley Girl. George’s battles with Stefan and Zenek use the same type of slo-mo found in the Matrix movies. The filmmakers are also inordinately fond of car crashes, starting with a doozy when two policewomen who recur throughout the film see George drinking a beer on a public median strip and run across a busy street to ticket him, causing a major pile-up as drivers try to avoid hitting the women.

The focus on the inconsequential, on celebrity, that had Americans in a lotus eaters’ haze through the past two or three decades has infected Poland as well, only 20 years after throwing off the yoke of Soviet oppression. A truly free and anarchic soul like George exemplifies the genuine pleasures and possibilities of that new sense of freedom, but the creators of George the Hedgehog suggest that Poles are more interested in off-the-truck knock-offs.

George the Hedgehog will screen Friday, October 14, 10:45 p.m., and Saturday, October 15, 10:45 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)


4th 06 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Famous Firsts: A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Andrjez Wajda, director

By Roderick Heath

The agonies of the Second World War were, inevitably, a critical subject for Poland’s filmmakers after the war. Andrjez Wajda, who would become one of the country’s most admired and awarded filmmakers, emerged in the mid-1950s and reestablished Poland’s national cinema—at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned—with his epic “War Trilogy” about the travails of Polish partisans. His interest in the milieu was highly personal, having lost loved ones in the grand calamity, and his films are shot through with ironies, paying a certain lip-service to the triumph of the communists over the Nazis when his father had been executed along with thousands of other Polish army officers by the Russians. A Generation, featuring a teenaged Roman Polanski in the cast, certainly encapsulates the crucial mix of burgeoning energy in the postwar generation and its collectively haunted sensibility. Based on the autobiographical novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also scripted A Generation, the film is as much noir thriller and coming-of-age tale as it is a war movie. The most affecting and original quality of A Generation, and its most influential aspect on subsequent decades of similar movies, is the way it manages without much sentimentalising to depict the regulation rites of passage of a young man in the context of an awesome, consuming struggle.

The central exemplar of the title generation is Stach Mazur (Tadeusz Lomnicki), a slum brat edging into manhood in the context of the German occupation. At the outset he’s seen engaged in a competition of knife tricks with his friend, the more handsome and accomplished Kostek (Zbigniew Cybulski). But when Stach, Kostek, and Zyzio (Ryszard Ber) go about their favourite sport of stealing hunks of coal from the moving trains that pass by their shanty town, Zyzio is shot by a German guard, and Kostek runs off. Stach has to abandon Zyzio’s body on the train and jumps off, too. In a quietly mourning and confused state, he meets amongst abandoned brickworks Grzesio (Ludwik Benoit), an injured, homeless veteran who introduces him to some working men in a tavern. They offer to get him an apprenticeship at a nearby woodworking factory. He replaces Jasio Krone (Tadeusz Janczar), who’s just graduated as a journeyman, and whilst worked hard as a flunky around the factory perpetually fetching pots of glue for the craftsmen, he also finds friends, including Jasio and Mundek (Polanski), and is taken under the wing of communist coworker Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz). Everyone at the factory is involved in something on the sly: some are smuggling, and others are members of two competing groups of resistance fighters. The boss (Janusz Sciwiarski) both gladhands the Germans who buy bunks for soldiers from him and funnels money to the resistance, and he’s especially nervous because of some of his workers who belong to the noncommunist army are keeping a load of weapons in his storerooms. Stach discovers a pistol from this stash, and when he’s inspired by Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), a girl who makes an appeal to students on behalf of the resistance, starts moving toward becoming an underground warrior.

Whilst A Generation is clearly a product of a particular cultural moment and heightened artistic sensibility, it’s also a young film school brat’s ode to cinema. As such, it anticipates any number of neophyte directorial works from the likes of Breathless (1959) to Reservoir Dogs (1992), in trying to enthusiastically blend an observational tone, based on personal experience and sensibility, with a narrative mediated through generic quotes. A Generation is spotted with visual and story quotes from such canonical gangster films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1937), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and White Heat (1949), but blended with a terse, ambient approach to emotion and action reminiscent more of Roberto Rossellini and neorealism in general. There are the early petty crimes, the confederacy of the spurned, doomed outsiders, and the final “big heist.” There’s also a lot of the attitude characteristic of eastern European literary traditions of the coming-of-age tale. Stach goes through familiar rituals of becoming a man: finding a community of working men and learning a trade, being schooled in the unfairness of capitalist economics by Sekula, and meeting, romancing, and finally losing his virginity to Dorota. Dorota appears as a proverbial dream girl with a touch of the warrior that makes her all the more sexy and alluring, a valkyrie on a pushbike, as well as symbolising the call to arms of an elevated, politically radical creed.

Jerzy Lipman’s superbly clear, unaffected cinematography helps Wajda keep the world he presents lucid and contiguous yet frosted with the lightest edge of a semi-abstract menace in places, be it in the cheerily busy confines of the factory or in the eerily quiet streets. Wajda presents twinning moments when the battered remnants of defeated armies appear to the heroes, lurching out of or disappearing back into shadows like spirits to urge the commitment of the living, with an edge bordering on expressionism. The film’s first image, a long panning shot behind the opening credits depicting an industrial wasteland dotted by shacks that prove to be a resilient kind of community, possesses an anticipatory quality as well as an analytical one. One can sense the early impulses of the kind of modernism fascinated by the expressive possibilities inherent in superficially dead places and cinematic frames that filmmakers like Antonioni and Polanski himself would expand upon, even as the texture of Wajda’s subsequent film looks back as much as it looks forward. Later on, cityscapes, with their sparse, eerie, drab multiplicities of concrete and brick, begin to entrap and terrorise the characters with Kafkaesque efficiency, particularly in a climactic suspense sequence, and the horrors of the repression of the Warsaw Ghetto are conveyed only by rolling blankets of smoke glimpsed over high walls, and over a fairground operating in blithe ignorance.

Wajda’s influence on both the French and British New Waves is hard to estimate, but certain. Reportedly, A Generation was a favourite film of British director Lindsay Anderson, and aspects of it are encoded in the DNA of Anderson’s If…. (1968), inevitably recalling the images of youth in violent uprising. Indeed, Wajda’s vision seems, oddly enough, to present his “generation” as a distinct youth movement, politically aware, radicalised, and ill at ease with the status quo. A Generation possesses a contextual awareness that is rich and feels less related to the quality of many ’50s English-language war films, which viewed war as a way to restore stability and the status quo rather than as a process of dynamic reconstruction. In this regard, it’s striking and thought-provoking that Wajda, considering his history, presents here a tale in which the communist guerrillas are depicted as being in competition with a villainous nationalist underground whose representatives in the factory are the most unpleasant and insensitive—one makes a sarcastic crack about the “Yids” finally bothering to fight when the Ghetto revolts—and who finally threaten Stach in a manner indiscernible from any Gestapo thug.

The youths fight war with the trappings and disguises of the everyday, and familiar experiences of the young are all sharpened and heightened by war. The underclass heroes take delight in how the war gives their impulses to anarchic acts of violence and crime social legitimacy. This is at first basic, as Stach describes himself somewhat sarcastically as a “real patriotic thief” in stealing from the coal trains. The long opening shot presents the veritable wasteland on the edge where Stach has grown up, and his manner of dress, with a jacket spotted with dozens of patches, seems like something almost out of prehistory. Stach evolves, as do the film’s visuals, from the fringes to becoming the representative for the continuation of a culture of resistance. The initial decrepit isolation Stach suffers living alone with his mother (Hanna Skarzanka) gives way to slowly developing, almost familial relationships, as the value of community is both emphasised and even promoted by the wartime setting. The younger characters are contrasted with older ones, like the paternal, knowing Sekula, and Jasio’s talkative but pathetic father (Stanislaw Milski), who works in the factory as a night watchman but who’s being forcibly retired. He was a former soldier himself, a veteran of the Tsar’s army, who was posted in Manchuria when he was his son’s age. Stach finally decides to take action after a vividly personal humiliation: Having picked up a load of lumber, he had an altercation with a grumpy gate guard, who took revenge by falsely reporting Stach for stealing to the German reservist officer or “Werkschutz” (Kazimierz Wichniarz) supervising the lumber yard. Stach was beaten and hounded out by laughing Germans, and the enraged Stach talks his young friends into assassinating Werkschutz when he visits his favourite local prostitute. The boys pull off this mission, though it’s Jasio who does the actual killing.

Whilst Stach is the narrative’s focus, Wajda eventually seems more interested in the conflicted Jasio, who prefigures the existential angst of Zbigniew Cybulski’s character in Ashes and Diamonds (1956). Torn about the risks to his hard-won place in the proper working class and leaving his father without his income, Jasio, initially hysterically proud of himself for shooting the German, is actually the first of the young lads to test his mettle and discover the terrible ambivalence of murder for patriotism’s sake. Later, when he anxiously decides to opt out of helping Stach and the others when Sekula asks them to help in getting people out of the Jewish ghetto during the uprising, he has a haunting encounter with Abram (Zygmunt Hobot), a Jewish friend who used to live in the same building as Jasio and who escaped the battle consuming the ghetto, covered in soot and filth. When Jasio seems uneasy about the prospect of him hiding out there, Abram promptly leaves, deciding to head back to the battle. Jasio, in a sudden flurry of fellowship, chases after him, only to see him disappearing into the darkness. The next day he joins the other partisans in their mission, hauling ghetto escapees out of the sewer, but Jasio is cut off from his companions and chased down by the Germans in the film’s set-piece sequence, a stunningly staged chase through hemming laneways and inside buildings, with Jasio finally cornered at the top of a grandiose flight of circular stairs. Rather than be caught, Jasio, in a moment of Cagney-esque defiance, leaps to his death, plunging down the stairwell as the Germans gaze down over the rails in bewilderment.

It’s to Wajda’s credit that he’s capable of perceiving the tragic, the heroic, the absurd and grubby, and the deterministic pathos in his heroes all at once, achieving transcendence and humiliation in singular fleeting glimpses. Jasio, whose death is the result of accidents, fumbling, and ill-fortune, finally dies as the very image of resistance. Whilst the story doesn’t give any easy out clauses for its heroes who, once they commit to action, bear the consequences stoically—they are killed off with a chilling casualness that anticipates Jean-Pierre Melville’s equally grim, unsparing take on resistance warfare, Army of Shadows (1969)—nonetheless it retains a tone of humanistic good cheer that borders on the Capra-esque when the residents of Stach’s slum instantly rally when Stach and his mother are threatened by the rival resistance men looking for their stolen pistol, and see off the intruders with blunt implements. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, an effervescent humour bubbles throughout the film, as when Grzesio shows off his combat scar on his belly only to be told off by a barmaid for lewd behaviour, and Krone rambling on with old war stories distinguished by the fact that nothing actually happened to him. After the managers of the factory give Stach a lecture about the value of hard work, Krone assures him, “Work and pray, and you’ll grow a hump!”

Stach’s attempts to work up something more than awed, dutiful fellowship with Dorota edge gently into familiar teen romance fare, as he’s initially awed not only by Dorota’s looks and self-containment, but also by the fact that she knows what she’s doing in the war far more than he initially does, telling Stach and his buddies off for killing a man in their own area, and lecturing partisans of all stripes in their vital military and ideological matters. Nonetheless, he finally charms her enough so that she becomes his lover, at which point Wajda deliver his most devilish twist: bouncing out in the early morning from her apartment to buy what pathetic trifles he can at a wartime store to give her a surprise breakfast treat, he returns in time to see Dorota being led away by the Gestapo. A telling difference between the mood Wajda tries to conjure and most of the war films being made in the West at the time is the terse, stoic attitude of the heroes, the lack of tears and fireworks when tragedies and transcendences come, particularly apparent in this moment: Stach’s silent horror and despair as he watches her from behind a closed door, only his eyes visible through a grate, and Dorota’s unfussy cooperation with her captors highlight the awareness in the characters of the innate danger and transience of what they’re doing. The film’s final scene is a brilliant culmination, as Stach sits, alone in his grief, with a teenaged boy ambling towards him in curiosity in the background. He proves to be one of a new band of youths, looking distressingly young and cheery, looking to join the partisans, and Wajda fades out on the sight of Stach, now the wise leader for the next generation, facing up to his task and putting aside his sorrow.

Grade
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15th 05 - 2010 | 4 comments »

The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1965)

Director: Wojciech Has

By Roderick Heath

In a town in war-torn, Napoleonic-era Spain, a French officer is distracted from the important business of killing when he discovers an old book in a building in which he takes shelter and is fascinated by its old-fashioned illustrations, especially the image of two harem girls in a suggestive embrace. He’s so absorbed by this he pays no attention to the Spaniards who try to take him prisoner, and their officer is soon fascinated enough to sit down and thumb the pages with him. The Spaniard recognises that the book has been annotated by his ancestor, Alfonso Van Worden, and offers his account of what happened to Alfonso (Zbigniew Cybulski) when he tried to make the journey across Spain to Madrid. He followed a dangerous trail in the rugged, depopulated Sierra Morena and stopped at the notorious Venta Quemada, an abandoned, haunted tavern. Within, he found a gateway to a hidden harem populated by two princess sisters, Emina (Iga Cembrzynska) and Zibelda (Joanna Jedryka), and their coterie of lesbian houris, who greeted Alfonso as their cousin and implored him to take up the Islamic faith and marry them both.

That’s just the first 15 minutes of this extravagant product of Polish cinema’s renaissance in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Resembling up to this point a bawdy soldiers’ fantasy, The Saragossa Manuscript deepens and broadens almost exponentially whilst never losing the sly, teasing edge with which it commences. Saragossa became iconic for some of the cine-literate counterculture of the ‘60s, and directors as diverse as David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Neil Jordan, Lars Von Trier, and Martin Scorsese had all venerated it. Although it’s a more playful film than any he’s made, it’s not hard to see why it would delight Lynch, nor its influence on the odyssey of bewilderment suffered by the protagonist of Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) or the stories-within-stories structure of Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. Buñuel paid it the unheard-of compliment, for him, of going to see it three times.

The Saragossa Manuscript fits in neatly with other Eastern European works of semi-surreal fantasy, possessing the same open-ended, free-flowing, dry-witted, sexually and intellectually knowing sensibility that often defines the native varieties of magic-realism beyond the Danube. It was, in spite of its antic ’60s disposition, adapted from a 19th century novel by Jan Potocki, and there’s a discernible influence of the rambling experimentalism of Laurence Sterne and the picaresque tradition (which the Spanish setting almost certainly pays tribute to) on the story’s practically post-modern enquiry into the nature of storytelling itself, and how it connects the human world. Alfonso’s accounted travails worsen as he tries to keep the promise he gave to the sisters to not speak of them to anyone, in spite of not knowing whether he merely dreams them; each time he sees them, he ends up drinking a potion that knocks him out, and then awakens alongside the bodies of two hanged bandits, the Zoto brothers. Alfonso is then continually prodded, by the anecdotes of others and by threats and pressure, to divulge his own secret.

When he receives shelter from a stern, but kindly hermit priest (Kazimierz Opalinski), Alfonso listens to the cautionary account of Pasheko (Franciszek Pieczka), a nutty nobleman missing an eye, after falling into a similar situation with two sisters, in this case his father’s young second wife and her sibling. He also met them in the haunted inn before awakening and having his eye gouged out by the ghosts of the Zoto brothers. When he leaves the priest’s house in the morning, Alfonso is arrested by members of the Inquisition, who torture him to learn the whereabouts of the sisters. But the sisters and the Zoto brothers, seemingly very much alive (the bodies on the gibbets were, they claim, shepherds hung as scapegoats) rescue him and spirit him back to the harem. This time, however, the outraged entrance of a sheikh forces Alfonso to again drink the potion, and when he awakens, he falls into the company of an airy, cryptic Cabalist, Pedro Uzeda (Adam Pawlikowski) and an Enlightened intellectual, Velasquez (Gustaw Holoubek), whom the Inquisitors, mistaking him for Alfonso, accidentally try to arrest. Alfonso and Velasquez stay the night at the Cabalist’s villa, as the patron commands his sister Rebecca (Beata Tyszkiewicz) to aid him in distracting Velazquez and hiding from Alfonso the very book from which his memoir is being read, which seems to outlay all he’s going through but not the reasons why, the game needing to be played through to make sense.

As the disparate coterie settles down for dinner in the Cabalist’s enchanted villa, they listen to Señor Avadoro (Leon Niemczyk), a hardy, wise, poor aristocrat, and his anecdotes about his life in Madrid, which eventually brought him into contact with Alfonso’s famous duellist father (Slawomir Lindner). This story requires constant divergence into anecdotes within anecdotes to describe the net of narratives that, as Velazquez perceives, is the nature of the world: Rebecca prods him to recognise that ghosts and poetry are necessary to really capture the essence of life. Avadoro’s insanely complicated, but finally coherent tale explicates a knotty situation that involved his friend Don Toledo (Bogumil Kobiela), a rakish but spiritually fearful gadabout; Don Lopez Suarez (Krzysztof Litwin), the wet-behind-the-ears son of a Cadiz businessman (Stanislaw Igar); Frasquetta (Elzbieta Czyzewska), a conniving coquette; and Don Busqueros (Zdzislaw Maklakiewicz), a tricky but brilliant stage manager of fortunate outcomes.

The Saragossa Manuscript is divided into two distinct halves, and, in some ways, plays as two (or three, or a half-dozen) films in one. The plot that compels the film in the first half is set aside for most of the second as Avadoro tells his stories. Finally, all the pieces have some, occasionally barely discernable, relationship to the core narrative of Alfonso proving his fidelity to the princesses. Whilst the film is about the power of storytelling, it’s also about the spaces between stories, the indescribable, and the necessarily secret. Keeping the princesses’ secret is key to all the pleasures of paradise for Alfonso, but whether he’s in for paradise or damnation is kept cunningly vague until close to the end, when both realms suddenly seem irrelevant to the mystical circle of death and rebirth Alfonso becomes a part of. The cautionary tales he listens to prove to be mere flim-flam, in which moral instructions give way to their opposites, and barriers of time, the soul, and society crumble away. Even the sheikh, whose daughters the princesses are, proves to be the hermit priest, and possibly a version of Alfonso himself.

Potocki, who reportedly wrote the tale to entertain his wife, was fascinated by the occult and took inspiration from the structure of collections like Arabian Nights and Il Decameron, and Has’s adaptation anticipates Pasolini’s versions of those works. The film flows with a stately pace, and, at a hair over three hours, there are points during Saragossa where one wishes for less divergence and more zip. In spite of the teeming bizarreness and humorous flourishes, it’s a film that’s certainly beholden to its literary roots, with the act of telling requiring each anecdote to be set up in terms of teller and listener. Has seems to have worked with great enthusiasm and a not very high budget to recreate Spain on a Polish backlot, but there are few films that blend the matter-of-fact and the mystical with such ease. The inherent sensuality and sliding sense of truth and overcharged mysticism inherent in the tale only find rapturous realistion at carefully spaced intervals, when the film does wield genuinely disorientating creativity, for example, at the very end, when reality loses its shape for Alfonso in the harem cave, and when Alfonso glimpses the sisters, one beckoning as the other sits with his son, reflected in a hovering ornamental mirror.

Has nonetheless offers landscapes of sun-blazed rocks, of the mountains dotted with piles of skulls, rough-hewn gibbets and leering vultures, the luxuriant confines of the princesses’ harem, and the halls of the Cabalist’s villa, which may have had an imagistic influence on many directors who saw them. They employ the same kind of play-act surrealism that Buñuel liked, and the character interactions are expounded in some remarkably composed extended shots that are almost invisible in their physical fluidity.

Saragossa is very much a product of 1964: the mixture of classic literature with historical bawdiness suggests the immediate influence of Tom Jones (1963), with the cast’s females gleefully thrusting forth overflowing décolletages. The humour that runs through the film is constantly ribald and satirical, like Pasheko’s appearance, moaning in madness to alarm Alfonso, giving way to easy conversation such as when the priest tells him to stop wasting time. When the sisters tell him that they’ve never seen a man before, so they and their fellows in the harem “gave each other their love,” with all that implies, Alfonso has to admit: “This is beginning to sound interesting.” One anecdote describes Alfonso’s duellist father getting himself skewered by an opponent in a moment of clumsiness, the two men awkwardly apologising to each other with refined politeness before the father collapses. In another, Busqueros recounts Frasquetta’s punishing her husband for trying to kill her lover by faking a haunting, scaring him with a plethora of tricks, like making her voice resound in an amphora to sound otherworldly, and setting up a jack o’ lantern. The constant gag of Alfonso’s rude, disappointing awakenings after nights with the princesses, has a quality of bitter, but funny disappointment, and, as he admits to them, “Every time I see you two, I worry I won’t ever see you again!”

An undercurrent of menace in the main story is nonetheless apparent, as Alfonso is continually segueing from the fecund wonderland of the harem to the blasted, apocalyptic mountainside and the gibbet’s victims. In flashback, after receiving that near-fatal duelling wound, Alfonso’s father had cried out that he would sell his soul for a drink of water, at which point the woman who became Alfonso’s mother walked out of the hills to give him a drink. Is Alfonso a devil’s child, and are the sisters trying to claim back for the devil the soul he’s still owed? The answer, as the film’s closing moments suggest, is far less medieval and far more pagan: having learnt everything he’s been through was a sham to test his capacity to keep the sisters’ secret, and seeing the possibility that the sheikh is Alfonso’s own mirror image, Alfonso glimpses a world of pure spirit beneath the world he’s in, a refined metaphor for a cosmic chain of fathers and sons in a world with far more multiplicities than mere Manichaeism can contain. Alfonso is finally visited by a vision of the sisters with his child, inspiring him to throw away his memoir and ride back to Venta Quesada, giving in either to beautiful madness or to the call of a richer plain of existence where he’s fulfilled his natural duty of keeping the life cycle going. It’s hard not to cheer him on his way.

Cybulski was often called the Polish James Dean for his electric channelling of postwar angst in his performances for Andrzej Wajda, youth appeal with his trademark dark sunglasses—this is one of the few films where he discarded them—and early, tragic death just three years after making this film. He delivers a terrific performance as Alfonso, partly comic fool of fortune, part swaggering young gay blade, even if he disappears for a long stretch of the second half: he manages to make Alfonso neither overly knowing or ludicrously naïve, leading to the delightful moment where his protests of religious scruples give way to dizzied yelps as the sisters push him back forth and plant voracious kisses on him. He’s not alone in offering hilarious turns, with Kobieda’s Toledo and Maklakiewicz’s Busqueros particularly good, and Czyzewska’s Frasquetta in all her saucy, naughty glory. Niemczyk as Avadoro suggests a Polish Harrison Ford waiting to cut loose with some swarthy swashbuckling, though, unfortunately, he never does. The most exciting formal element is the score provided by Krzysztof Penderecki, the great Polish avant-garde composer; the score mixes delirious snatches of classical forebears with spare, bizarre musique concrete flourishes. The Saragossa Manuscript is a hell of a fun ride. l


17th 03 - 2010 | 10 comments »

Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (1981)

Director/Screenwriter: Walerian Borowczyk

By Roderick Heath

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like many famed, oft-filmed horror-genre properties, has never been accurately adapted. Stevenson’s story possesses a cool, serpentine suggestion of elemental evil living within the brick and stone of Victorian London’s hidebound certainties, a low-key power that I had not actually encountered in any of the film versions, partly because of Stevenson’s strength of prose, and perhaps because most of the films follow Jekyll on his journey, and make it explicit and coherent, rather than view it from without in alarming, menaced snatches. In addition, unlike many of the film adaptations, Stevenson’s story almost completely lacks female characters. For example, the seminal 1932 Fredric March version provided Jekyll with a decorous fiancé and Hyde with a tart to harass, to extend and embody the schism behind the antihero’s cryptically described debaucheries. Stevenson himself had no time for the suggestion his story was about sexuality, and many such adornments in fact came from Richard Mansfield’s infamous stage production.

Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk, who would make this bizarre and savage takeoff on the Stevenson story, could be described as an infinitely less lucky Roman Polanski or Miloš Forman. Borowczyk made a name for himself in the 50s and 60s as a maker of surrealist, short, animated films. He influenced Terry Gilliam, amongst others, who named his Jeux des anges (1964) one of the best animated films of all time. Borowczyk then gained significant acclaim with his first few feature films, including Goto, l’île d’amour (1968), Blanche (1971), and the Palme d’Or-nominated Dzieje grzechu (1975), but his career was generally perceived as losing steam in the later 70s, and his later work was dismissed as mere grindhouse fare. His short film Une Collection Particuliere (1973), a wry catalogue of the peculiarities of Victorian-era pornography, saw him drift perhaps out of personal taste toward sexuality-themed films like Immoral Tales (1974), and particularly, his variation on Beauty and the Beast variation La bête (1975); he eventually made Emmanuelle 5 in 1987 in final consummation of his drift into skin flicks. And yet prominent Australian film critic Scott Murray suggested in 1998 that Borowczyk’s oeuvre was ripe for reappraisal and that Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (aka Dr. Jekyll and his Women; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne; The Blood of Dr. Jekyll; and Bloodlust), a fruit of the officially debased end of his career, looked like his greatest film.

Borowczyk’s Jekyll makes no pretence of fidelity to the Stevenson’s story—in fact, it’s surely the loopiest adaptation ever—and yet it captures the threat lurking within the tale to a degree that dwarfs all rivals. Borowczyk had an antiquarian streak that infused his films with a highly physical evocation of the intangibly appealing past, and Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes displays this quality with an alternately grimy, ghostly, and hazy beauty evoked in the period Victoriana that’s comparable to a full-colour The Elephant Man. Borowczyk’s take on the story begins with a dread-provoking, mysteriously filmed sequence that conflates two incidents from the book: an adolescent girl runs for her life from a shadowy man through alleys and dark buildings before he finally chases her down and beats her with his cane, which shatters. He starts tearing her clothes off, but an interloper scares him away.

A short distance away, at the house of Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier), guests start arriving to celebrate his engagement to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). Osborne’s mother presents a unique dowry to Jekyll’s limping, pianist matriarch: a Vermeer painting recently discovered in Glasgow, which one invitee, Rev. Donald Reagan Guest (Clément Harari), proclaims to be a summit of human achievement. Other guests include General Carew (Patrick Magee) and his daughter Charlotte. Fanny is looking forward to a chance to spend the night with Jekyll as the couple’s sensual enthusiasm strains the boundaries of the acceptable: when they kiss with illicit glee in Jekyll’s laboratory, she flinches at the sight of Jekyll’s father’s portrait staring at them from the wall.

Jekyll’s recently published The Laboratory and Transcendental Medicine, a book that lays out his new theories of metaphysical medicine, is hotly debated about the dinner table by Jekyll, Reagan, and Jekyll’s colleague and critic Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon, an ubiquitous figure of Euro-exploitation). Borowczyk suggests what’s coming as, throughout the dinner conversation, flash cuts reveal glimpses of atrocities that will be committed by night’s end. For the evening entertainment, Victoria Enfield, the daughter of one the guests, dances, but the frivolities are interrupted by news of the discovery of the fatally beaten young girl.

All hell begins to break loose when Victoria, resting in an upstairs bedroom to recover from faintness after her dance, is raped with startling savagery and left for dead by an intruder. The men immediately presume the man who attacked the girl has infiltrated the house, and the General takes charge, ordering the women to lock themselves in their rooms and then setting out to track the man down; instead, he accidentally shoots the Osbournes’ coachman. The General is then sprung upon and tied up by the intruder, who tears off his medals and stamps on them, prongs his surprisingly willing daughter in front of him, and dashes off to do more mischief, including sexually assaulting one of the young male guests. Jekyll, who has seemed to have been outside tending to the coachman, returns at last in an exhausted state, and the servant he sent to fetch the police turns up dead. Now in a state of siege, Lanyon has the women take a sedative so they can more easily be kept locked together. Fanny avoids taking the draught and sneaks down to Henry’s lab, where she watches him bathe the solution that he uses to transmogrify into Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg).

It’s a touch of inestimable cheek on Borowczyk’s part to name Jekyll’s fiancé after Stevenson’s real-life wife, whose criticisms of the work reputedly inspired Stevenson to burn his first draft of the novella. And yet explicitly setting the drama in a blurry mid-ground between reality and fantasy helps signal that this is a riff on a familiar tale, and it then proceeds to conjure a bold and troubling fever dream out of Stevenson’s raw material. Whilst the besieged set-up and single-night structure is original, Borowczyk, like the original story, keeps the identity of Hyde mysterious for more than half the film, with Hyde’s appearances fast, obscured, and punctuated by unnerving glimpses of perverted savagery. Hyde’s killings aren’t just symbolic of sexual aggression as they are in so many horror movies: they are sexual aggression, for in the course of the film he kills at least one man and one woman by sexual penetration (or so we’re told) with his gigantic, animalistic phallus, as Lanyon notes with increasingly queasy apprehension. Lanyon realises they’re up against a creature not only brutal in nature but completely lacking in all sense of behavioural prohibition.

Some critics had, amusingly, condemned Borowczyk in his earlier films for making erotic films that weren’t erotic, and Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes extends this contradiction at least to the extent that Borowczyk is completely uninterested in the usual brands of eroticism or violent hype. Only in one scene, that in which the General’s daughter eagerly presents herself to Hyde, the beast fumbling with his colossal silhouetted penis, does the film slide into clumsiness, although the image of the prim Victorian lass eagerly giving herself to a monster to taunt her trussed-up, tyrannical father fits into the anarchic structure neatly. When she unties the General after he promises not to punish her, he immediately slaps her and then bends her over to whip her arse with unchecked fury. Magee, a tremendous actor who delighted in playing grotesques, had played the Marquis de Sade in Peter Brook’s similar, if far more self-consciously highbrow Marat/Sade (1967). Borowczyk’s film explores a genuinely Sadean side to Stevenson’s parable, which bears more than passing resemblance to 120 Days of Sodom and the film version Salo (1975) by Pasolini. Docteur Jekyll is not that grotesque, though some moments, like swiftly employed, nightmarish visions of Hyde’s victims hanging, their bloodied genitalia on display, evoke the furthest reaches of Sadean imagery.

Stevenson’s story contributed to the growing strain of psychic pessimism in late Victorian fiction that also manifested in H.G. Wells’ scientific romances and, finally, clearly breached the walls of symbolist fiction in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Borowczyk’s film successfully closes that circle, as the film’s remarkable final 20 minutes build a mounting sense of apocalyptic threat. Like Conrad, Borowczyk suggests the dissolution of civilisation through the totems of colonial conquest in Africa, in this case, poisoned arrows the General has brought back him from the “Black Continent” and given to Jekyll as his wedding present, a martial man’s gift that stands in opposition to the art of Vermeer. Hyde makes eager use of the arrows, shooting Fanny with one, and then making a pin-cushion out of the General, to his daughter’s giddy delight, until Hyde casually riddles her with barbs, too.

Borowczyk realises with power and integrity the implicit dichotomies of Stevenson’s text, as Jekyll’s “transcendental medicine” unleashes a force of utterly barbaric nihilism, yet still remaining, in a curious fashion, transcendental. The acting isn’t very important, with Kier and Pierro dubbed. Pierro, nonetheless, embodies Fanny with panther-like force, and both Borowczyk and Jean Rollin, to whose films Borowczyk’s display much in common, used her several times. As alarming and fascinating as Jekyll is until this point, the film doesn’t entirely hit its stride until the last 10 minutes, when Jekyll reconstitutes himself with Lanyon’s aid. Lanyon has saved a small amount of a substance needed to work the restoration from a batch Hyde has destroyed; the revelation that his friend is the monster so horrifies Lanyon that he falls dead from a heart attack. Jekyll then picks up a wounded and bewildered Fanny and takes her to his laboratory, explaining his system not with shame and self-hatred but with enthusiasm about being the first man to truly present two dichotomous faces to the world. He immediately sets about making another bath of his solution, unable to and uninterested in resisting the call of Hyde again.

Rather than being mortified by his revelations, Fanny declares she must take the bath herself. To save herself from the arrow’s poison and to join with Jekyll in his barbaric liberation, she dives right in and turns into a yellow-eyed demon who, with Hyde, sets about laying waste to the house and murdering the rest of the inhabitants. Fanny enthusiastically knifes her own mother, and the pair burn books and destroy artworks, including the Vermeer and the picture of Jekyll’s father. In its sheer unleashed anarchy, Jekyll bests anything Godard came up with to suggest the crack-up of Western civilisation in Week-End (1967).

In the film’s final mad moments, the couple flee in a coach, rutting on the floor of the carriage and lapping the blood streaming from each-other’s wounds, as Bernard Parmegiani’s driving electronic score pulses to ecstatic rhythms and then runs down like a steam engine losing force to the film’s final puff. This is utterly brilliant filmmaking that packs a tremendous wallop. l


11th 11 - 2009 | 3 comments »

PFFAmerica 2009: Earthly Paradise (Droga do Raju, 2008)

Director/Co-Screenwriter: Gerwazy Reguła

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Once upon a time, there was a lady who was SO good that everywhere she went, the sun followed her and shined its light so strongly that nobody and nothing ever cast a shadow. Bad things happened, sometimes even to the good lady, but the sun, doing its job, was so bright, that no shadows could ever fall on the lady. And the lady had such a cute smile that everyone else just had to smile, too, and that made them feel better. And so the lady got everything she wanted, because she was SO good, and lived happily ever after.

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The good lady in Earthly Paradise, Ela (Ilona Ostrowska)—you don’t suppose that could be short for Cinderella, do you?—is a single mom living in the small town in southern Poland where she was born and raised. She supports herself and her very cute, well-behaved son Damian (Przemsław Łaba) by working at a meat-packing plant, and lives with her invalid mother (Boźena Adamek) in the house in which she grew up. Ela is a culinary school graduate who dreams up recipes and writes them in an elaborately bound notebook to keep hope alive that one day she will be able to cook professionally. In a short dream sequence, we see her laying her table with elaborate salads, desserts, and other assorted goodies.

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Ela has a best friend, Kasia (Aleksandra Woźniak); a very nice boss who amid massive layoffs, about which he is extremely apologetic, always keeps Ela on; and Mirek (Przemysław Sadowski), a garbage truck driver she flirts with every day at the plant dumpster. One day, Ela finds an injured hawk near a dam. She picks it up and pets it, and it miraculously flies off—in fact, it flies back and forth in front of Ela several times so we get the idea that it is completely cured. Later, when Mirek doesn’t show up at the dumpster and stands her up for a date, Ela tracks him down through his well-to-do father (Krzystof Stelmaszyk) to a hospital, where Mirek is dying of blood poisoning. She holds his hand, and he is cured. People start lining up at her house for faith healing. Ela is perplexed and embarrassed by this apparent divine gift she has been given. Or maybe it’s just that perky smile she never loses.

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Earthly Paradise is a calorie-free dessert that depends so much on the likeability of its main character that it ignores everything else. We see Ela’s mother once, and then she conveniently dies so we can have a confrontation with the wicked sister who hasn’t visited mom and sis for 8 years and comes to the funeral to demand half of everything. We have this confrontation so that Mirek can stand up for Ela and Damian—we never see sis or her shot-drinking husband again. Kasia is beautifully played by Aleksandra Woźniak, who came out of a 10-year retirement for the role; she needn’t have bothered, as her unlucky character’s fate is to get hit by a truck. We don’t witness the accident, and she isn’t given a funeral. She’s just gone. Mirek is a cipher. An Iraq war veteran apparently with no demons at all, he returns to this tiny village mainly to be the handsome hunk Ela can fall in love with. There is a scene of him driving bumpily down a dirt road with some buddies in a three-car caravan. I had to ask the producer, Marta Plucińska, who did a Q&A after the screening, what the hell they were doing. It took a lot of fractured English and translation for her to tell me it was a joyride. O-kay. And Ela, a trained chef, NEVER COOKS, not even once, in this entire film.

It flabbergasted me to learn that this film was made within the mainstream Polish film industry for €4 million. That seems like enough money to shoot a few transitional scenes, develop at least a couple of the dozens of plot points this script throws our way, make these characters come to life instead of treating them like the pieces of meat the plant workers cut into cubes for purposes unknown, add a little shading. But, Plucińska, whose idea this was and who cowrote the script, really wanted that sun blazing at high noon 24/7. Bad things happen, but they are forgotten. Ela isn’t a cockeyed optimist like Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Truth is, we do want to spend time with her because she’s genuine, even if everything does just fall into her lap. It’s producer Plucińska and her proudly mainstream attitude—this is what Łódź is turning out these days, heaven help us—who’s the fake. l


8th 11 - 2009 | 6 comments »

PFFAmerica 2009: The Forest (Las, 2009)

Director/Screenwriter: Piotr Dumała

2009 Polish Film Festival in America

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It is not Kieślowski, Wajda, or Pasikowski who are the most sought-after, loved, and welcome of Polish filmmakers at almost all of the world’s festivals. It is Piotr Dumała.

The renown of premier animator Piotr Dumała may not have reached many English-speaking countries, but it should. My first film of the PFFAmerica, and my first Dumała film, was a deep—very deep—experience. Prefaced by an impressionistic, almost experimental animation of snatched moments and the ever-grinding gears of time that, for want of knowing its real title, I’ll call When Father Is Six Feet Under, Dumała has created a disorienting, mournful prologue for this, his first live-action feature film.

The first of the many, many gorgeous images in this black-and-white film is of a tree lizard clinging vertically to a tree, just barely distinguishable from the bark on which it hides. A closer look shows the lizard scrambling higher, away from prying eyes. We are directed to the ground, as a scruffly-looking old man (Stanisław Brudny) and his equally scruffy companion (Mariusz Bonaszewski) stalk through the mist-draped forest, the old man confidently leading the way, the younger man crouching, looking warily around, intemittently clinging to the large leather bag slung over the old man’s shoulder.

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We next see the two men, clean-shaven this time, in a small room. The younger man is holding and sponge-bathing the older man’s back. We can see when the younger man has to secure the older man to the chair with a leather belt so that he can wash the front that the older man is either paralyzed or too weak to sit up himself. This protracted scene of a very thorough scrubbing ends when the younger man asked the older man to try to hold onto him as the younger man lifts him onto the bed he has meticulously prepared. Clearly, from the loving care the younger man shows, he is tending to his father.

We are given no background on these two men—why they live in rather primitive circumstances we assume must be in the forest, whether they have neighbors, what they do to get by. All of our attention is focused on the project that preoccupies them both—the father’s impending death. The film shifts back and forth between the pair’s journey through the forest and the son tending to his father—the former occurring in the old man’s thoughts and dreams, the latter the attempts by the son to keep his father with him. In one scene, the son tries to feed his father. After two mouthfuls of gruel, the old man falls asleep. The son fusses with the food, putting the pot over the wood-burning stove several times, thinking that it is not warm enough, and returning to his father’s bedside to try to feed someone who has clearly gone past the desire to eat and lays asleep, truly suspended between life and death.

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The forest scenes have subtle references to the Torah, or to some other mythic symbology. The father stalks, kills, and filets a snake, much to his son’s disgust. They make camp for the evening, and the father unwraps the snake meat and fits it on a fork to cook in the blazing campfire—looking a bit like a burning bush—he has built. The son reluctantly takes two pieces, but pushes away the third. It lands in the fire; the father fishes it out and devours it. This seems an allusion to the tree of knowledge—the son does not wish to fully awaken to his father’s impending death, but the father is ready. In the next scene, the father shaves himself with a knife, views his image in the river, and goes back to slay his son. He builds a huge pyre for his dead son and sets it ablaze; we awaken from this scene to find that the father has died.

I thought of the sacrifice of Isaac in this scene. The forest scenes leading up to this final rejection of his son show him hitting and talking harshly to the younger man, as though he were impeding the old man’s journey. When the father completes the sacrifice, so to speak, he has truly let go of what was dear to him in life and given himself over to God.

There is a harshness to this film that I know from experience accurately replicates the feelings loving children have when a dying parent turns inward, indifferent to them and their feelings. I commend Dumała for not giving us the candy-coated deaths mainstream films traffick in and thereby preparing us realistically for death the way it really happens for most of us. The lush black-and-white photography—something I’m starting to expect from Polish films after seeing Time to Die—is evocative and absolutely perfect for this film. The spare score and dialogue almost seem unnecessary, but lend some details about the relationship of father and son that help flesh out the picture somewhat. I’ve seen other rich evocations of the passage to death—the aforementioned Time to Die and a psychedelic film from Mexico called Vera. For my money, however, it will be a long time before any filmmaker tops this auspicious feature debut from Piotr Dumała. l

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25th 03 - 2008 | no comment »

Time to Die (Pora umierać, 2007)

Director/Screenwriter: Dorota Kędzierzawska

2008 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When one crosses the 50-yard-line of life, as I have, and the adults one grew up with leave this mortal coil one by one, thoughts of the end of life are inevitable. Will I still be able to remain independent, or will I be sick, feeble, or even lose my mind to dementia or Alzheimer’s? How will my younger family members regard and treat me? Will I lose my place in the stream of life before I die? How can I make my old age and death joyful and meaningful? For older movie enthusiasts, those rare films about the aged that avoid caricature and offer advice and comfort become the narratives we seek.

Until yesterday, I thought the only working film maker with a real interest in the elderly was Paul Cox. He wrote A Woman’s Tale in the space of a week for 75-year-old Sheila Florance, who was near death from cancer and found inspiration to live long enough to complete the picture and receive the 1991 Best Actress award for it from the Australian Film Institute. I was reminded of that superbly human motion picture and Florance’s indelible portrait of a feisty free spirit as I watched the 91-year-old Danuta Szaflarska give life to the refined, independent-minded Mrs. Aneila, the strong center of Time to Die.

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Mrs. Aneila lives in a large, old house in Warsaw. She is flanked on one side by a McMansion owned by a nouveau riche couple and by a rundown music club for children on the other. During the Communist regime, she was forced to share her home with other “comrades.” Just after the film’s opening, we watch the last of them moving out. She can’t take the piano and offers to sell it to Mrs. Aneila. Then she remarks, “What would you do with a piano? I’ll send the buyer over when I find one.” As the moving truck pulls away, Mrs. Aneila says out loud, “But it’s my piano!”

Finally, blessedly alone save for her adorable border collie, Philadelphia, Mrs. Aneila goes to the kitchen to make tea and toast. She butters the toast, cuts it into several rectangles, and offers a piece to Phila. “You like toast, don’t you,” she says as Phila gobbles up her offering. The pair goes to the upstairs sunroom of the rambling house, where Mrs. Aneila takes up her binoculars to see what her neighbors are up to. While she watches, Phila eats the rest of the bread.

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Mrs. Aneila’s adored son Wituś (Krzysztof Globisz) comes for his regular visit. Mrs. Aneila asks him to come live with her. “You always said tenants were a nuisance. Now they’re gone!” Wituś says his wife Marzenka (Marta Waldera) wouldn’t approve it. He leaves, with his mother thinking his wife is a real pill. But, in fact, Wituś is eager to get his hands on “his house,” demolish it, and sell the land to the highest bidder. Only his mother’s insistence on staying in its familiar, faded glory stands between him and the good life. What Mrs. Aneila does when she learns of his disloyalty forms what remains of the plot.

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The film, however, uses this storyline as a frame to observe the daily life, thoughts, and memories of this ancient and beautiful woman. Children are a focal point. Mrs. Aneila conjures many images of her young son (Wit Kaczanowski Jr.), a soft-faced lad with tender eyes. She encounters another young man (Kamil Bitau) nicknamed Dostoyevsky because his last name is Fyodor after he climbs up the side of the house and comes into her sunroom. He has a broad, mischievious face—a budding Huck Finn—and lives up to his looks by saying he planned to take something from the house and sell it. When she sends him away, he asks her for a fiver. She doesn’t understand the term, but when he descends the way he came, in a shot that emphasizes the height of her sunroom, she watches him fearfully and tells Phila she should have given him the fiver, her heart warmed by his simple, honest cheerfulness.

Mrs. Aneila is truly a tender-hearted woman who can be wounded and who tends to strike out when it happens. Her 10-year-old granddaughter, a fat and thoughtless child, rejects her offer of an ancient toy, saying she’d rather have her grandmother’s ring. She repeatedly calls Mrs. Aneila “grammy” instead of the preferred “grandma,” even after being corrected several times, and crushes walnuts in her hands. Bruised, Mrs. Aneila tells her if she doesn’t stop eating, she won’t have any admirers, and sends the child into an angry tantrum.

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Shot in exquisite black and white by cinematographer Artur Reinhart, the film is visual poetry to match the reveries of its main character. For example, she spies the young couple who run the music club quarrelling near a tree and then tenderly mending fences with a kiss. Mrs. Aneila remembers herself as a beautiful, young woman dancing with her handsome, young husband. The camera is in focus, sharply showcasing the attractiveness of the couple, but slowed to the speed of a willed and wonderful memory. Many scenes are shot through the uneven glazing of the many glass windows in the house, blurring and distorting the images like the edges of a cloud would. Many interesting camera angles are used to suggest space and height within the shrub-choked grounds of the house.

Of course, the review wouldn’t be complete without discussing Philadelphia, who has almost as much screen time as Szaflarska. The dog, often shown in close-up, frequently licks her lips when hunger strikes, cracks walnuts in her teeth and digs out the meat, and does her best to take care of her mistress. Mrs. Aneila usually has to run down the stairs to answer the phone, getting there just as the caller hangs up. Phila runs ahead of her and pulls the phone off the hook so she won’t miss the call. Mrs. Aneila constantly asks Phila if she’s lost her mind when she barks, but these alerts always mean that someone is around who shouldn’t be. This is one of the finest human-dog portrayals on screen.

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At Mrs. Aneila’s lowest point, she decides not to commit suicide, but just to will herself to die. She recites part of Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet. I quote it here in toto because it sums up what this film is all about:

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark, at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my fate with kings.

I’m not at all sure this charming and wise film will be available in theatres or on DVD. I hope it is. At least, view the trailer. See a woman who swings on a swing, who loves to walk in the pouring rain, who remembers dancing as a young bride, who loves her house filled with memories.

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