"Pleograf. Kwartalnik Akademii Polskiego Filmu" no. 5/2019


Cinematic Bodies, Senses and Images: On Wajda’s Three Men

Aleksander Kmak


The issue of male body has already been touched upon in theoretical analyses of Andrzej Wajda’s films, however, the topic has seldom been explored independently. Although Wajda’s filmography consists of a wide array of distinctive and predominantly male characters – after all, even Wajda’s most famous female protagonist, Agnieszka in Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1976), played by Krystyna Janda, is often interpreted as an emancipated, post-gender androgynous figure[1]  their bodies are usually treated instrumentally by film critics. Even in analyses that took a fresh look at the director’s classic films from the perspective of male studies a critical consideration of the male body played a minor role in multiplying new interpretations of male identity.

Andrzej Wajda on the set of Polowanie na muchy

Andrzej Wajda on set of Hunting Flies, fot. Renata Pajchel, source: Fototeka FINA

One of the first to attempt to problematize masculinity in Wajda’s films was Christopher Caes, who used a psychoanalytical approach to interpret the way characters were portrayed in Swift (Lotna, 1959) in order to point at the tension experienced by men who aspired to the existing ideal of masculinity. By taking a close look at the famous scene in which Polish cavalry attack German tanks during the September Campaign, Caes notices that Wajda reproduces romantic ideals of heroism in an extraordinary way that leads to their deconstruction and a fetishization of their remnants in the collective imagination[2]. According to Caes, inherent to the military masculine ideal (drawing on the tradition of uhlanship, which evokes a certain homoerotic desire expressed by the love of war or a particular bond between soldiers) is the urge to continuously reenact death, which testifies not only to the paradoxical condition of masculinity, but also to its performative nature[3]. The final remark, although not elaborated on in the article, seems to be the most vital from the viewpoint of the analysis of the status and significance of the male body. After all, as claimed by Judith Butler, it is the body and the language that are the two fundamental media of reenacting social roles and even though they may often seem obvious or neutral, we should remain suspicious of the cultural meanings that they carry[4].

In his groundbreaking publication, Sebastian Jagielski took up Caes’s analytical intuitions regarding conflicted manhood in Wajda’s cinema[5]. The scholar re-interprets Polish cinema by looking at the motif of homosocial bonds – that is, relationships between men that carry an erotic load, but which can never become homosexual (the concept drawn from the works of, among others, Eve Kossofsky-Sedgwick) – as well as the representations of different forms of manhood, their mutual relations and the changing optics on expressed homosexuality. It must be noted that Jagielski’s book, however crucial to the interpretations proposed in the following article, focuses more specifically on manhood rather than the male body. The body plays an important role of course, but, due to the methodological approach adopted by the film historian, it is merely one of the tools for expressing different kinds of relationships between men. Engaging in discussion with Jagielski’s interpretation of The Birch Wood (Brzezina, 1970), I do not wish to contradict it, but rather elaborate on it and enrich it in new aspects which emphasize how Wajda’s film adaptation resonates with what Iwaszkiewicz’s story is – explicitly or implicitly – about.

Drawing on Caes’s and Jagielski’s claims, but also distancing myself from them, I would like to look at the male characters in Wajda’s Hunting Flies (Polowanie na muchy, 1969), The Birch Wood and Without Anesthesia (Bez znieczulenia, 1978) – films which are fundamentally different, but which all attempt to deconstruct the mythological ideal of manhood. They share certain noticeable characteristics, such as the frailty of attitudes and the uncertain identities of the characters, but also the prominent status of their bodies in the cinematic image – bodies that provide a new context for the films’ narratives (for example, Staś’s disguise in The Birch Wood or the redoubling of Jerzy’s image on a television screen in Without Anesthesia) and, most importantly, indicate a material presence of the film itself, as well as of its embodied viewers. I believe that the question of who is doing the looking in the film and the way in which they do it, as well as how the processes of looking, glancing at the body, of showing or obscuring it are presented in the film, requires us to use a discourse related to sensuous film theory. This approach is founded on the claim that there is a strong link between the cinematic image and the spectator’s body – a link which cannot, by any means, be reduced to a passive act of watching, but which is understood as multisensory or even synesthetic[6]. After all, making the film’s narrative understandable does not rely only on intellectual capacities, but, perhaps mostly, on physical reactions towards the perceived images, in which the intellect is inevitably immersed. According to Vivian Sobchack – the main representative of sensuous film theory – knowledge, imagination and cognition are embodied, inherently subjective and multisensory[7]. From its inception, film was definitely a multisensory spectacle, as noted by Richard Dyer who draws a comparison between the legend of the early cinemagoers terrified reactions to the moving image of a train in a Lumière brothers' film and the experience of the contemporary audience, benumbed by IMAX and other immersive techniques[8]. Reducing a movie screening to an arena of sight only, as well as removing the body from the perception process, is, as sensuous film theorists suggest, not only reductive but also going against the nature of the cinematic medium, which has always problematized the body and demanded corporeal responses.

Olgierd Łukasiewicz as Staś in

Olgierd Łukaszewicz as Staś in The Birch Wood, fot. Jerzy Troszczyński, source: Fototeka FINA

Cinema has accompanied and sometimes even inspired twentieth-century attempts to offer a philosophical redefinition of the body which gained an unprecedented level of visibility in the moving image. As stated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the relationship between the body and the external world, between the body and consciousness, as well as its coexistence with other bodies not only outline the horizons for the most current philosophical inquiries, but also correspond with the very essence of cinema, a medium fascinated with the body’s movement and the way it coexists with space and with other bodies[9]. Therefore, if the deep topic matter of every film is the visualization of the body, then sensuous film theory seems to be a particularly adequate discourse for its description, especially as it allows us to break the deadlock created by the false alternative between fundamental realism (following André Bazin, Bela Balázs and Siegfried Kracauer’s tradition) and formalism (following Rudolf Arnheim’s tradition) in film. Sensuous film theory focuses on the crossing points between the artificial and the real – noticing the inseparability of the constructed body of the film and the all-too-real bodies of the spectators[10] by investigating these moments in the diegesis in which the physical and cognitive activities of the viewer are represented. It is not a coincidence that such moments are, for example, pornographic depictions of sex and violence or detailed portrayals of physiological functions – body in action and extreme bodily experiences are ones that most directly connect the viewer with the depicted reality, as evidenced by either the need to turn one's eyes away from the screen or, conversely, arousal. According to Linda Williams, body genres – like those whose names derive from bodily reactions, such as horror [pol. dreszczowiec – chiller] or melodrama [pol. wyciskacz łez – tear-jerker][11] – incorporate the viewer into the reproduction of preconceptions about the body, gender and sexuality[12]. In Williams’s view, melodramas and pornography, even though often disregarded as genres, do not simply distribute the dominant models, but rather testify to the unstable and displaced relations between gendered bodies, which remain conserved in an unchanged form only in filmic fantasies[13].

Another example of the entanglement of the real and the artificial could be the tension between the body of the character and that of the actor, which, as a matter of fact, is often explicitly thematized. Such is the case of The Woodpecker (Dzięcioł, dir. Jerzy Gruza, 1970) in which, as Jagielski claims, it is the very non-discernibility of the body of Violetta Villas and the character which she portrays – Mrs Tylska – that is the source of a subversive comedic effect[14]. In the analysis of the film, the meanings attributed to the Polish diva herself – fantasies of consumption, living in luxury and following Western fashions – come to the forefront, as if the character of Mrs Tylska was just a scarcely noticeable medium intended to allow Violetta Villas to play herself. Such liminal moments are of particular interest to sensuous film theory, which explores how close the bodies are to each other and to images. After all, it is the sensual delight taken in Villas’s glamour which initiates what Jagielski calls "performative identification", that is, an identification with the diva from the perspective of a minority group, which opens up the possibility of a subversive reading of the film[15].

By noticing how entangled the body is in the cinematic image, sensuous film theory ties the body presented on screen with the body of the viewer not through classical projection-identification or physical mimicry, but through an almost organic contact with the texture, color and composition of the film image, which affect the embodied viewer. At the same time, it enables a cinephilic admiration of the film’s fabric, as well as a multiplication of visual contexts suggested by the physical knowledge of the viewer, which resonates with the physicality of the film itself[16]. I will adopt a similar approach when analyzing the three male characters from Wajda’s films – Włodek, Staś and Jerzy – and attempt to prove that the way they are portrayed and the way they function in the context of their stories opens up a space for the viewer’s activity, when they become aware of themselves engaging in sensual relations with the cinematic image. In each instance, this process will be dictated by other means related to the body and to the meanings attributed to it. The moment of this self-referential turn will be made apparent by the weakness, clumsiness and deformity of the body (Hunting Flies), by the way in which the protagonist’s face and eroticism are portrayed (The Birch Wood) or by reflections (Without Anesthesia).

The aforementioned categories which organize the presence of the male body in Hunting Flies are explicitly problematized in the movie. The film tells the hardship story of a middle-class student of Russian studies named Włodek (Zygmunt Malanowicz), who has an affair with a young student Irena (Małgorzata Braunek). The protagonist’s home life in a cramped apartment with his wife and in-laws is contrasted with the freedom of a sexual adventure until Irena turns out to be equally as oppressive as his demanding wife. Włodek ends up finding himself in numerous situations in which he is dominated and forced into submission. When analyzing the polarity of the attitudes of weak men and strong women, Agnieszka Wiśniewska claims that Hunting Flies is a deeply misogynistic film, depicting an emancipated, mantis-like female character who deliberately manipulates men only to reject them later without remorse[17]. This reading was corroborated by the director himself, who apparently said that the film was designed as a satire on women trying to shape our – male – lives[18].

The passivity of the male protagonist in Hunting Flies is revealed mainly through his relationships with women – and, to be fair, with other incompetent men – but many more subtle details expose this. Even though in the film there are a number of meaningful love scenes to which I shall return later, the most sensual images that make Włodek’s clumsiness almost palpable are those in his cluttered apartment inhabited by three generations. Genre scenes – taking place in a dense thicket of plants resembling a tropical jungle, with a fly trap hanging from the ceiling, and the table at which Włodek is working, located between the kitchen and a constantly flickering television – are all depicted with a strong sense of every-day reality, which is uncommon for Wajda. An accumulation of details filling up the tight frames conveys a convincing impression of stuffiness and heat, which also corresponds with the inertia and helplessness experienced by the characters. The camera’s gaze slides from one object to another in long shots, portraying the bodies of the lodgers as just another item in the grotesque inventory. The camera pays special attention to Włodek’s body – moving gracelessly across the obstacle course that is his household, whipped by the plants and the fly trap, bumping into other house dwellers. These scenes are obviously comedic, resembling, to a certain extent, a slapstick comedy – like in early comedies, the viewer laughs at the exaggerated mismatching of the protagonist’s body and his surroundings, his awkwardness and impracticality, as well as all the struggles of the body against the resisting, untamable matter. This is in fact one of the universal film themes, which has been recurring in film theory, for example, in the works of Karol Irzykowski, who wrote that cinema reflects, both philosophically and aesthetically, the strained relationship between the human body and the surrounding reality[19]. The same is emphasized by the meaningful absence of the protagonist’s entire body in frames – when talking to his father-in-law, Włodek speaks from the edge of the frame, covered by the attacking thicket of plants, which he is trying to get out of  in vain.

Polowanie na muchy

Hunting Flies, fot. Renata Pajchel, source: Fototeka FINA

The presence of the male body, impossible to ignore and defined either by its over- or under-visibility, is emphasized most strongly in the famous scene of a party in Nieporęt – a parody of the snobbish world of the hoity-toity “Warsawville” ruled by connections. Dressed in keeping with the counterculture fashion, in a flowered shirt and an amaranth scarf tied around his neck, Wajda’s protagonist engages in some small talk and wanders about the club, looking clearly lost among the festive decorations. Włodek’s figure, which fills up the frame a lot of the time, distinctly contrasts with the backdrop of dark suits worn by all the other men. What also comes into play is the excellent casting choice to make Braunek, who with her ease and natural looks perfectly fulfills the hippie ideal, play alongside the pale and rough-looking Malanowicz, whose face throughout the film looks blank and inscrutable. Of course, this contrast is also one of the sources of comedy in the love scenes. While Irena feels completely at ease with her body in all circumstances, Włodek cannot stop moving, tossing and turning, changing his position constantly. Even when resting, he seems quite ill-at-ease in his own body. The sex scenes – or rather, the scenes of all that accompanies sex – lose any erotic potential.

Portraying Włodek’s body as one that very often fails, refers to the intensified sensuality of the cinematic images. The camera’s gaze sliding across the richly furnished apartment or the distracted narrative of the lavishly decorated party in Nieporęt trigger associations with Laura U. Marks’s haptic gaze, which she writes about in the context of sensuous film theory. This particular mode of looking consists in resting your eyes on the surface of an object rather than exploring it profoundly, in noticing blurry patches of color rather than the outlines, in concentrating simultaneously on details and on the whole object, in not being able to distinguish the background from the foreground[20]. Even though Marks’s main interest is avant-garde video art, in which the haptic qualities are due mainly to the poor quality of the VHS image, her theory can just as well be used for other media if they attempt to challenge the dominance of the sense of sight in the cinematic experience. Marks herself points out that a haptic reception of a film is by no means meant to compensate for the visual poverty of the images, nor does it aim to create an utopian sensual totality of film perception[21]. The goal of haptic perception is to use sensory cognition to think about the relations existing between the image and the reality, between the viewer and the diegesis[22]. It also determines the erotic nature of film experience, in which, as quoted by Marks after Sobchack, the boundaries of an embodied subject are broken up and a close, skin-to-skin contact is established between the one who is watching and that which is being watched[23]. It must be stressed, however, that sensuous film theory proposes an important redefinition not only of the embodied and active viewer, but also of the cinematic image, which is no longer an ontologically stable, autonomous being imposed onto the viewer, but rather a performance made possible by the involvement and interpretative efforts of the viewer. A powerful image exerting complete control over the viewer’s imagination is replaced by an image that is weak, incomplete, suspended and that problematizes the very act of being looked at.

Therefore, it is quite meaningful that in Hunting Flies it is precisely incompetence and weakness which are represented by the extremely sensual and powerful imagery of a cramped, greenhouse-like apartment or by close-ups of the agitated body of the protagonist, a body that clearly does not match its surroundings. Coming into tactile contact with Wajda’s images brings their particular status to the forefront: visual representations that can be touched and held are, after all, weaker images, devoid of special power[24]. According to Kuba Mikurda, images require the existence of an impermeable boundary – a frame – which distances the perceived object from the perceiving subject, its invulnerability breached by any sensual – thus, often forbidden – experience of the representation through tasting or touching[25]. At the same time, reducing the distance destroys the uniqueness of the image – only a representation that is carefully guarded, isolated from the viewer can carry a surplus of meaning, can be unique and uncanny. Touching an image brings it down to the level of the viewer, makes it dependent on its reuse, but also, importantly, opens up new possibilities for putting it into a different context, using it differently than originally intended[26]. Hunting Flies seems to me like an attempt to appreciate the weak images aware of their ordinariness or even shallowness (even the very title of Wajda’s film implies a certain pitiful ridiculousness and a rescaling of means compared to the goal), which come into sensual contact with the viewer and use all of those senses to tell not a misogynistic story of a man manipulated by all encountered women but rather of the sensual attractiveness of an artificially constructed cinematic body in all its coarseness and shapelessness.

While in Hunting Flies, the eroticism of love scenes is neutralized, in The Birch Wood the erotic visual rhetoric is used in quite unexpected moments, that is, in the extremely sensual scenes when watching the tuberculosis-stricken body of the dying Staś. Iwaszkiewicz’s short story illustrates Staś’s reunion with his brother Bolesław in a countryside forester’s house belonging to the latter to say his goodbyes and to come to terms with his imminent death. The prolonged visit of the ever weakening Staś leads to a growing conflict between the brothers who represent two completely different models of manhood: Staś, formidably portrayed by Olgierd Łukaszewicz, is a cosmopolitan city-dweller, dressed in fancy extravagant clothes that are grotesquely mismatched to the wet and muddy forests around him, whereas Bolesław (Daniel Olbrychski) is a grumpy man all-too-familiar with the difficulty of a countryside life, quietly mourning the death of his wife and struggling to take care of his young daughter. Wajda illustrates the relationship between the two men even more clearly by visualizing the opposition of the characters in numerous mirror-like, yet divergent, sequences. One of them being in the opening scenes in which the brothers are eating a meal together – long shots are accompanied by classical shot/countershot close-ups of the men’s faces. Those two images of faces, however similar, seem to belong to two different realities. While Olbrychski’s character is shown through subtle chiaroscuro, which emphasizes his chiseled features, but blurs the boundary between Bolesław’s thick coat and the grey surroundings, Staś is presented in an unnaturally strong spotlight, lighting his equally artificial, whitened face with a sickly blush and a beige jacket sharply contrasting with brown wooden walls. Those differences are accentuated mainly in the composition and the use of color, but also in the editing. This is clearly visible in a later sequence, in which the scenes of both brothers playing the piano are put together. In the first scene, we can see Bolesław returning from his wife’s grave and passionately playing a violent, romantic and painful piece. Here the character is also pulled from darkness with the gentle use of light, highlighting the white sleeves of his shirt and his stern face leaning over the keys. Soon after, we can see Staś playing – seemingly lost in thought, he soon becomes visibly amused by the lively jazz melody. The focal point of this scene is the camera gradually zooming in on the man’s face split into a ridiculous grin as he repeatedly bows to an imaginary audience. After a while, the camera’s gaze zooms out and the scene cuts to the image of our protagonist dancing in front of the piano. The nervous editing style used in this scene of hysteria is in strong contrast to the dull, nocturnal image of the widower sitting by the piano, which not only emphasizes the fundamental differences between the brothers, but also signals a subjective mode of storytelling – those strongly sensual scenes are not meant to just push the narrative forward, but even more so, to highlight the significance of images as a sensual performance. This, in my opinion, explains the overabundance and visibility of the means of cinematic expression used especially in the second scene – such as the long shot with an artificial zoom in and zoom out on the face of the clowning Staś, which reminds us of the intermediary nature of the medium of film.

Olgierd Łukaszewicz as Staś in Brzezina

Olgierd Łukaszewicz as Staś in The Birch Wood, fot. Renata Pajchel, source: Fototeka FINA

The very choice of the protagonist’s face as an element introducing self-referential thought about cinematic representation deserves some attention. According to Jagielski, a visual fetishization of Staś’s mask-like face, as well as his clothing, establish the fundamental difference between him and the reality of the forester’s lodge – an exaggerated man, illuminated by flat lighting, impersonates the foppish admiration for the artificial and for the overload of conventions, whereas his face splitting into a disturbing grin, which does not disappear even after the announcement of his impending death, is supposed to keep him from feeling his own fragility[27]. However, there is an essential dimension to turning the body into a performance that exceeds the story told in the film – as noted by Jagielski, the gaze of the camera contemplating Staś’s studied pose halts the chain of events, creating elaborate, sensual representations that do not push the action forwards[28]. Indeed, activity is mainly the domain of Bolesław and of other supporting characters, who often get themselves into tense and ambiguous relations with the widower – the unfulfilled affair with Malina (Emilia Krakowska) or the bitter feelings towards her hyper-masculine fiancé, Michał (Marek Perepeczko), mixed with a homoerotic fascination with him. The status of Staś in that environment – partly a patient, partly a child – corresponds with his retardatory function in the narrative. Jagielski argues that the gaze in the film, fascinated with the presentation of the male body, is not by any means transparent, as this is the type of gaze that cinema typically reserves for women. Drawing on Laura Mulvey’s theory, the scholar claims that every halt in the narration is accompanied by an aesthetic shift in the film, which consists in adding value to the pose, the performance and the stillness at the cost of the development of the plot[29]. The English film theorist calls it the feminizing gaze since historically it has been connected to the image of a beautiful woman presented to a male audience and, as such, it opposes male activity in film, which the scholar identifies with the power over the story and the events presented[30].

Jagielski uses Mulvey’s theory to paint a very convincing picture of homosocial bonds between the three male characters in The Birch Wood. However, we shall consider the possibility of a reading focused more closely on Staś’s body and face. As I pointed out before, sensuous film theory demands the recognition of those elements in a film that refer to and problematize the embodied viewer of the images, but also the question to what extent the body of the film itself is marked with eroticism. Although The Birch Wood cannot by any means be considered an erotic film, it is impossible to ignore the erotic load of the gaze contemplating Staś’s mannered body. It is not a coincidence that the type of gaze discussed by Mulvey is realized fully in pornographic films, which are focused on providing sensual pleasure rather than constructing a plot. Linda Williams openly claims that the spectacle of the naked (…) body (…) retards any possible forward narrative drive. It seems in effect to be saying, ‘Let’s just feast our eyes and arrest our gaze on the hidden things that ordinary vision, and certainly ordinary filmic vision, cannot see: a penis, a breast, a vulva, looking right at us. Who needs more?[31]. Jagielski is certainly right by saying that the odd facial expressions and the awareness of acting a certain part are turning Staś’s face into a mask. It must also be added that the face of the protagonist, while becoming an erotic trophy for the film, accepting the concentrated gaze of the spectators, also becomes a crack through which the embodied film itself sensually communicates with the viewers. It is impossible not to notice that Staś’s contorted face, which recurs in different scenes which problematize the acts of perceiving and of being perceived, clearly functions as an allegory of cinema as well as of the act of looking. In one of these scenes, the protagonist is staring at his own reflection in the water, just like Narcissus, which is shown from the perspective of the very reflection – Staś is therefore looking straight into the camera and at the viewers. The mirror metaphor, on the other hand, is one of the most popularly mentioned in film theory – as an illustration of the surface of the cinema screen, both permeable and impermeable, transparent and non-transparent[32]. This comparison is a foundation for one of the key concepts in psychoanalytical film theory: the projective identification process which consists of the false recognition of the mirror image as an autonomous reality[33].

Thus, the mirror reflection of the protagonist’s face can be read as the shifting of attention back onto the spectators, especially since it is the face that acts as the plexus point for all relations that tie them to history, to the characters and to the filmic body. This is something that Gilles Deleuze pointed out when writing that a close-up on a face represents a particularly strong concentration of affect in film[34]. According to the philosopher, a close-up on a face is in itself a strong feeling, dictated by the fundamental change in the dimension of representation – a close-up is not as much about taking an element out of a bigger whole as it is about putting it outside of any actualizing coordinates straight into the state of pure potentiality[35]. Although psychoanalytical film theory linked face close-ups to the negative impossibility of reproducing the gaze, Vivian Sobchack interprets this Deleuzian affect as an affirmation of the sensual coexistence of the viewer and the image, as well as of relational, reciprocated gazes of the embodied subjects[36]. This is precisely why Staś’s face in The Birch Wood is never simply an artifact – even if Jagielski’s reifying interpretation might imply it – on the contrary, the foppish mask is filled with a body that exceeds the boundaries of the screen. Staś’s pose proves so suggestive not because his body does not measure up to the rigor of artificiality, but precisely because it is hyper-corporeal, based on the exaggeration of gestures, facial expressions and body movements. Looking straight down the camera emphasizes the non-transparent corporeality of the protagonist and brings our attention to the embodied reception of that film – this is what the erotic gaze directed at Staś, yet passive towards the events and the narration, is really about. At the same time, the sensuality of images is at its most obvious when the presence of the medium of film is most strongly accentuated – for instance, when Staś is staring at his own reflection or in the overly posed scene with the two brothers playing the piano – which confirms the ever-recurring claim in film theory that there is a strong link between cinema and corporeality and that cinema is a medium that evokes a completely new visual quality of human corporeality[37].

Just like the mannered and affected Staś from The Birch Wood could exist only in the eyes of those who were watching him, the existence of Jerzy Michałowski, the protagonist of Without Anesthesia, is also determined by the gaze of others, including the viewers. The film, which dates back to the late 1970s, clearly represents the so-called Cinema of Moral Anxiety movement in terms of both theme and form, especially since, as pointed out by Adam Kruk, it contains many references to Barwy ochronne (eng. Camouflage, dir. by Krzysztof Zanussi, 1976), which is considered a film that begins a new chapter in the history of Polish cinema[38]. The choice to cast Zbigniew Zapasiewicz in the type of role which at the time was his specialty – an intellectual in the prime of his life who is morally torn between getting involved in a repressive system based on lies and an utopian isolation from a degenerated reality at the cost of an active life – was an obvious one. In Wajda’s film, Zapasiewicz portrays a distinguished, globetrotting journalist teaching at a university who experiences job-related struggles – as his wife leaves him taking his daughter away, he gets fired from his work and is harassed by the art and science community. Michałowski’s ruthlessly emphasized weakness, resembling the Kafkian state of permanent, inexplicable danger rather than the comical ineptitude of Włodek from Hunting Flies, has been instantly read as a metaphor for life under the Soviet regime in a system under surveillance and in conditions dictated by party hardliners, but it has also received other more detailed and subtle interpretations. One of them sees Without Anesthesia, along with other films connected with the Cinema of Moral Anxiety movement, as a diagnosis of a severely tarnished – after March 1968 – image of Polish intelligentsia, which was incapable of providing a convincing critique of the system, not to mention taking any firm action[39].

From a visual perspective, Michałowski’s body certainly plays a leading part. It does not mean, of course, that it never disappears from sight – on the contrary, it often turns out that the viewers see the protagonist through other people’s gaze or through other means of mediated sight. Excellent examples are the continuously reappearing excerpts from a television program starring our protagonist, which is, at least at first, being watched by his wife Ewa (Ewa Dałkowska) just as she is about to leave him, or the scenes of conversations between characters, which are critical to the film. One of them is Michałowski’s discussion with his wife’s cynical attorney (Jerzy Stuhr), who openly rejects the notion of truth as inadequate for the realities of lawmaking. The scene is shot mainly from Michałowski’s point of view – Stuhr’s face fills up the screen with only a dark smudge left in the corner, which represents the journalist’s body. And yet, there is no doubt that it is him opposing the lawyer’s sophistry who is the main point of reference for the viewer. The implied partial identification of the body of the viewer and that of Michałowski is supposed not only to lead to an identification with the man of increasing sorrows and accepting the protagonist’s perspective as one’s own, but it also signals the character’s unstable and uncertain status as someone almost nonexistent on screen. It is only the attorney’s gaze that seems to bring Jerzy to life for the viewers, which, by implying his deep entanglement with the oppressive reality, agrees with the pessimistic message of the film ending with, as we suspect, the protagonist's suicide.

Zbigniew Zapasiewicz in Bez znieczulenia

Zbigniew Zapasiewicz in Without Anesthesia, fot. Renata Pajchel, source: Fototeka FINA

Even more evocative are the scenes with the student Agata (Krystyna Janda), who, however remaining silent almost until the very end of the film, becomes somewhat of a companion for Jerzy, as she gradually moves in to his apartment. What seems significant is that whenever we can see the couple on screen, the camera’s gaze usually concentrates on Agata as she intensely and mysteriously stares at the man. Paradoxically, an indirect presence of Jerzy’s body on screen increases his impact – in one of the most emotionally intense scenes, he is walking around the apartment ranting about his failures trying to make sense of them while Agata is watching his every movement. Even though Janda’s passive character remains immobile in the frame, she seems to be portrayed as an agent around which the unstable Jerzy is constituting himself. Agata’s immobility, by law of contrast, emphasizes the mobility and distraction of the male body. In this scene it is perhaps easiest to identify with what Paulina Kwiatkowska calls the somatographic rhythm, that is, the rule of constructing the body in film through strategies of showing, hiding and composing. The scholar distinguishes three levels of cinematic corporeality – the body of the actor, the body of the character and the body of the protagonist – only to conclude that the move from a real-life person to an imagined protagonist is mediated by the key layer of filmic visuality – the transformation of the body into image[40]. The transformation seems smooth and consistent thanks to the intuitions of the viewers themselves, who are used to ignoring the stitches in the body of the film, as well as due to the aforementioned somatographic rhythm, responsible for the coherence of visual representation in film. The scene contrasting Jerzy’s agitated body with the almost stone-dead, inscrutable body of Agata strongly implies that the rule organizing the presence of the male body can be called pulsation. For pulsation assumes the interchangeability of intense presence with the disappearance and withdrawal, but also, more importantly, it is semantically linked to the biological, and thus, corporeal life or even a sign of life. Therefore, the nonuniform way in which Jerzy’s body functions in the film emphasizes the coming and going explosions of Zapasiewicz’s character’s vitality – after a period of depression and discouragement comes rage after which he sinks into apathy yet again. The interpretation of Jerzy’s body as bipolar can be linked to the very title of the film, which remains, after all, very close to corporeality[41]. Anesthesia carries a connotation both of pain relief and of numbness which makes it impossible for an individual to participate in reality (as in "insensitivity"). Jerzy, who lives without anesthesia, communicates it by refusing to accept the title substance in a surprisingly comedic scene of a visit to the dentist, a friend of Ewa – he suffers a lot of pain, but at least his life seems more real, devoid of a safety net, he experiences it fully through his body. The pulsating somatographic rhythm of his body – constantly appearing and disappearing – could corroborate this ambivalent interpretation[42].

In Without Anesthesia, the self-referential awareness is signaled through scenes in which the viewer has contact not with Michałowski himself but rather with his doppelganger, his double or his reflection. It is important because a confrontation with a reflection of a body could be interpreted as an identity-establishing experience, as it is argued by Jacques Lacan in his theory of the mirror stage. In his theory, the consistency of image as a homogenous body results from an infant’s fascination with its own reflection, which simulates a wholeness of the body-image[43]. In the process of gradual identification with this mirror imago, the unordered experience of pure flesh – which, for Lacan, exists in the Real order – is replaced by a coherent experience of a cultured body, located in the symbolic and imaginary orders and paving the way towards the formation of subjectivity[44]. If meeting your doppelganger can be seen as a formative and empowering experience, it seems to undermine the apparent, deeply pessimistic message of the film, an interpretation which was already signaled by the ambivalent combination of anesthetization, vitality and pulsation. Therefore, Jerzy’s hesitant body is not necessarily an expression of destructive fragmentation. On the contrary, it may imply a not-yet-developed potential of an intermediary state, of change and of a creative process. It is most likely an expression of both alternatives at once, just like living without anesthesia refers both to the experience of increased pain and to living life to the fullest, if only for a short while.

Another ambivalent plexus which expresses the film's self-referential themes are the coming and going images of multiple screens – when the television screen is displayed on the cinema screen – which, on the one hand, remind us of the essential artificiality of the cinema experience and, on the other, testify to multiplied sensuality, and thus, somewhat, to the reality of that experience. Expressions of doubt in the agency of filmic images is a motif that keeps coming back in Wajda’s films – like the existential crisis of the director named Andrzej in Everything for Sale (Wszystko na sprzedaż, 1968) or Agnieszka’s failed film project in Man of Marble, to mention a few – but it is weakened every time by its ambivalence. Therefore, it is impossible to read Without Anesthesia as clearly pessimistic – an interpretation that became common because of tagging it as a Cinema-of-Moral-Anxiety film – because the skepticism towards the image’s power of representation is balanced by the possibility of sensual affirmation – both sentiments tied by the image of Jerzy’s body appearing in the film in a pulsatory rhythm.

The bodies in Hunting Flies, The Birch Wood and Without Anesthesia – expressing a crisis of masculinity, whether being over- or under-visible, impotent or strong – are connected mainly by their relation, as seen by sensuous film theory, to the body of the viewer, who is being inscribed into the cinematic image by many different means. Włodek’s awkward body reminds us of the particular status of tactile, sensual representations, which also turn out weak in a way, dependent on their corporeal reception. The theatrical body of Staś – put on display – makes us think about the erotic nature of film and of the viewer’s gaze, reflected as if in a mirror back towards the viewer. Whereas Jerzy’s body, which operates in a pulsatory rhythm, testifies to the duality inherent in the cinematic experience – the viewer always succumbs to the illusion, but its sensual reception guarantees, to some extent, its realness. The bodies of Wajda’s characters play a significant part in the definitively real seduction of the viewer as it is in them that sensual desires, feelings, knowledge and imagination are condensed.


Translated by Małgorzata Szubartowska

[1] U. Kurnik, “Agnieszka z Człowieka z marmuru Andrzeja Wajdy – androgyn ze skazą,” [in:] Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim, ed. S. Jagielski, A. Morstin-Popławska, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Kraków 2009, p. 185. [back]

[2] Ch. Caes, Widowiska katastroficzne: trauma historyczna i męska podmiotowość we wczesnych filmach Andrzeja Wajdy, trans. Ch. Caes, Z. Batko [in:] Filmowy świat Andrzeja Wajdy, ed. E. Nurczyńska-Fidelska, P. Sitarski, Universitas, Kraków 2003, p. 144. [back]

[3] Ibid., 178. [back]

[4] J. Butler, Uwikłani w płeć. Feminizm i polityka tożsamości, trans. K. Krasuska, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Warszawa 2008, p. 80. [back]

[5] S. Jagielski, Maskarady męskości. Pragnienie homospołeczne w polskim kinie fabularnym, Universitas, Kraków 2013. [back]

[6] V. Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts. Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, University of California Press, Berkeley–Los Angeles–London 2004, p. 58. [back]

[7] Ibid., 73. [back]

[8] R. Dyer, Action!, „Sight and Sound” 1994, issue 10, p. 7. [back]

[9] M. Merleau-Ponty, Film i nowa psychologia, trans. M. Zagajewski, [in:] Estetyka i film, red. A. Helman, Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, Warszawa 1972, p. 198. [back]

[10] T. Elsaesser, M. Hagener, Teoria filmu: wprowadzenie przez zmysły, trans. K. Wojnowski, Universitas, Kraków 2015, p. 15. [back]

[11] M. Stańczyk, “Zmysłowa teoria kina. Vivian Sobchack i sensous theory,” Ekrany 2015, issues 3-4, [15.02.2018]. [back]

[12] L. Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 1991, issue 4, p. 12. [back]

[13] Ibid. [back]

[14] S. Jagielski, “Performatywne identyfikacje,” Kwartalnik Filmowy 2013, issues 83-84, p. 70. [back]

[15] Ibid., 61. [back]

[16] K. Jachymek, Film – ciało – historia. Kino polskie lat sześćdziesiątych, Wydawnictwo Naukowe Katedra, Gdańsk 2016, p. 102. [back]

[17] A. Wiśniewska, Wajdy rozprawy z kobietami, [in:] Wajda. Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Warszawa 2013, p. 140. [back]

[18] Ibid. [back]

[19] K. Irzykowski, Dziesiąta muza oraz pomniejsze pisma filmowe, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1982, p. 71. [back]

[20] L.U. Marks, Touch. Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis–London 2002, p. 8. [back]

[21] L.U. Marks, The Skin of the Film. Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Duke University Press, Durham–London 2000, p. 192. [back]

[22] Ibid. [back]

[23] Ibid, 193. [back]

[24] K. Mikurda, “Touching Images. Proszę dotykać,” Widok. Teorie i Praktyki Kultury Wizualnej 2015, issue 12, [17.02.2018]. [back]

[25] Ibid. [back]

[26] Ibid. [back]

[27] S. Jagielski, Maskarady męskości, op. cit., p. 221. [back]

[28] Ibid., 222. [back]

[29] Ibid. [back]

[30] L. Mulvey, Widz zawłaszczający, trans. M. Stuczyński, [in:] L. Mulvey, Do utraty tchu. Wybór tekstów, ed. K. Kuc, L. Thompson, Ha!art, Kraków-Warszawa 2010, p. 293. [back]

[31] L. Williams, Hard Core. Power, Pleasure and “the Frenzy of the Visible”, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1989, p. 71. [back]

[32] T. Elsaesser, M. Hagener, op. cit., p. 81. [back]

[33] Ibid. [back]

[34] G. Deleuze, Kino. 1. Obraz-ruch 2. Obraz-czas, trans. J. Margański, słowo/obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2010, p. 108. [back]

[35] Ibid. [back]

[36] V. Sobchack, “Rozszerzone spojrzenie w zawężonej przestrzeni. Kieślowski i kwestia transcendencji,” trans. K. Kosińska, Kwartalnik Filmowy 2004, issue 45, p. 94. [back]

[37] W. Frąc, “Cielesność filmu, filmowość ciała,” Kwartalnik Filmowy 2013, issue 83–84, p. 149. [back]

[38] A. Kruk, Inteligent musi umrzeć, [in:] Wajda. Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej, op. cit., p. 110. [back]

[39] T. Lubelski, Historia kina polskiego 1895–2014, Universitas, Kraków 2015, pp. 425-426. [back]

[40] Ibid. [back]

[41] Great thanks to the editor, Klaudia Rachubińska, for suggesting that line of interpretation. [back]

[42] P. Kwiatkowska, “Rytmy somatograficzne – Lucyna Winnicka w filmach Jerzego Kawalerowicza,” Kwartalnik Filmowy 2013, issues 83–84, p. 82. [back]

[43] P. Dybel, Urwane ścieżki. Przybyszewski – Freud – Lacan, ed. M. Sugiera, Universitas, Kraków 200, p. 227. [back]

[44] Ibid, 240. [back]



The cinematic bodies, senses and images: on Wajda’s three men

The aim of the essay is to examine how three of Andrzej Wajda’s male protagonists’ bodies are portrayed within their films. Using notions of the human body as the main point and theme of cinema itself and the unprecedented sensuality of film bodies, I describe weak body and haptic images (Hunting Flies), performance body and eroticized images (The Birch Wood) and mediated body and subjectively inflected images (Without Anesthesia).

Keywords: body, male, Wajda, senses, sensuous film theory

Aleksander Kmak – art critic and cinephile who is currently doing his PhD at the University of Warsaw in the Department of Film and Visual Culture of the Institute of Polish Culture. He is interested in film theory and history, as well as some aspects of image theory and image-related practices. He has published articles in Widok and is a regular columnist for Szum.

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Klaudia Rachubińska
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