Artykuły

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

 

An Alternative History of Polish Cinema

Małgorzata Bugaj

cover of Ewa Mazierska's book  

Ewa Mazierska, Poland Daily: Economy, Work, Consumption and Social Class in Polish Cinema,
Berghahn Books, New York 2017

Ewa Mazierska’s Poland Daily: Economy, Work, Consumption and Social Class in Polish Cinema casts Polish film against the backdrop of the country’s political and social economic situation, and its impact on everyday life, categories which, according to the author, have been critically neglected in Polish cinema history. The book sees these concepts as dynamically changing in response to the economic realities of the country and the divergent programmes of successive governments. Mazierska follows the recent growth of interest in the relationship between cinema and market forces; however, rather than focusing on the business of film production, as is typically the case with other publications addressing this topic, she tightly frames her analysis within the context of a relatively small number of selected films. This approach provides tangible example works illustrative of wider trends as well as notable deviations.

The book is divided into three parts devoted to discrete periods of the economic and political doctrines prevailing in Poland: “Interwar Cinema”, “The Cinema in People’s Poland” and “Postcomunist Cinema”. It progresses chronologically, each of the eight chapters articulating the character of national cinema in a given decade. Discussion of the Polish political and economic situation is more extensive than in most other national film histories and constitutes, by the author’s own account, about a third of the book. This context – likely to prove invaluable to the international audience of this English language publication – provides the backdrop for a discussion of the development of the Polish film industry and its relationship to the state. The Marxist framework employed throughout the book is useful, as Mazierska explains, to describe the two systems prevailing in Poland during the time covered in the book: capitalism (interbellum and post-1989) and state socialism (post WW2 – 1989); this approach also provides an opportunity to explore the complex relationship between Poland and Marxism.

The introduction offers an extended discussion of the theory underpinning the key concepts of the book. Mazierska re-examines class politics and class identity and evidences the Polish postwar hostility to class as a category of social inquiry (p. 2). She seeks to identify whether Polish cinema reveals a specific class bias by privileging the representation of certain social strata and also, conversely, points to groups that are under-represented or even absent entirely. Class, she argues, is inseparable from the consideration of gender and Poland Daily devotes substantial attention to a discussion of the changing place of women in Polish film. Also considered is the notion of the everyday – work, leisure and consumption patterns – contrasted with the rarefied world of “the elitist”. Hence the book is concerned mostly with popular cinema as the cinema of the common people. Mazierska devotes ample attention to the divide between popular and art film addressing the shifting attitudes towards both. Throughout the decades covered, popular films were often derided by critics as the work of conformists and pandering to the low taste of the audience (p. 99), a position which Poland Daily attempts to rectify. The author suggests that this scornful attitude to popular cinema reveals a wider contempt for the working class amongst largely middle class critics who tended to elevate the similarly middle class auteurs. In this sense, the book counters the usual auterist focus of most Polish film histories. It is also worth mentioning that aside from tracing the various fiction genres prevalent in each decade, Mazierska includes case studies of documentary films: less expensive and quicker to make, they were ideal to capture the everyday and react to the changes in politics and economy.

The first part of Poland Daily explores the interwar period when Poland regained its independence after over 100 years of partition. While the emerging capitalist country struggled with harsh economic and political realities, it was also able to begin building its own film industry, the bulk of Polish film production and distribution being in private hands. In the first half of the 1920s, the state considered that the chief role of Polish cinema was to boost patriotism; the dominant historical nationalistic films of that era portrayed Poles as victims of Russian and German colonisation. Mazierska argues that this focus came at the expense of such themes as the economy, work or social class which were largely neglected. In the second half of the decade, when the Polish state became more stable, Polish cinema audiences developed a taste for dramas based around violent crimes of passion, such as The Strong Man (Mocny człowiek, dir. Henryk Szaro, 1929) or Souls in Bondage (Dusze w niewoli, dir. Leon Trystan, 1930). This chapter establishes that it was the wealthy classes who were most frequently depicted on screen, with those lower in the social strata often living the life of a struggling artist or a prostitute, but usually, by an act of fate, granted a better life.

With the introduction of sound to Polish cinema in the 1930s, national productions came to be dominated by romantic comedies and melodramas, frequently with musical elements. Part of their allure laid in their opulent sets and costumes as well as dance and song, which Mazierska links with the idea of the carnival as a distraction before the approaching catastrophe (i.e. the Second World War). These productions offered a brief escape from harsh economic realities and a glimpse of hope for a better future, but they noticeably lacked any meaningful reflection of everyday life. Chapter Three looks at romantic comedies and melodramas concerned with upward social mobility, typically that of ambitious women, such as in Girls from Nowolipki (Dziewczęta z Nowolipek, dir. Józef Lejtes, 1937) or The Leper (Trędowata, dir. Juliusz Gardan, 1936). Although the Polish film industry in the interbellum flourished as a cheap form of entertainment, critics considered popular cinema as formulaic and kitschy entertainment for female cooks and shopping assistants (p. 60). Its aim was to attract large audiences, which explains the popularity of genre cinema, especially melodramas and comedies, as well as reliance on adaptations and stars such as Jadwiga Smosarska, Eugeniusz Bodo and Elżbieta Barszczewska. As this section points out, in the interwar period the life and work of the peasantry – the largest class in Poland at the time – was missing from the screen. Mazierska also mentions that a different strand of 1930s films – simultaneously realistic and artistic – was offered by the left-leaning Society of the Lovers of Artistic Film / Stowarzyszenie Miłośników Filmu Artystycznego (START), illustrated in the book by the documentaries of Aleksander Ford which deal with the marginalised topic of the relationship between work, politics and class presented from a critical stance.

Part Two moves to Post-war Poland. Under Soviet influence, the country re-emerged as a socialist state with nationalised industry and a planned economy. Political events inevitably affected the film industry: cinemas became nationalised – a move which, as Mazierska claims, saved the film industry – and the state exerted strict control over film production and distribution. In spite of post-war difficulties, the author insists that Polish cinema of state socialism is widely seen as a success story, both in terms of quantity and quality (…) In the Eastern European context Poland was seen as a mini- cinematic “empire” (p. 96). Under state socialism Poland was supposed to exist as a single, working, class, but in reality was heavily stratified, a fact overlooked by both historians and filmmakers who, as Mazierska puts it, adopted a somewhat myopic vision of Polish society as that of (almost) the whole nation united in its opposition against the ruling elite (p. 3). What is significant is that despite official ideology stating that class was the most prominent marker of human identity, its discussion was not prioritised in Polish film. Nevertheless, cinema was intended to play a major role in moulding the socialist characters. Mazierska investigates whether it was indeed heroic new men or simply conformist homini sovietici that were portrayed in Polish cinema of that era.

The aim of socialist realist cinema from the 1940s until the mid-1950s was to promote state ideology and present work in a positive and exciting way, as an adventure or pleasure, as for instance in Two Teams (Dwie brygady, dir. Eugeniusz Cękalski et al., 1950), Matter to be Settled (Sprawa do załatwienia, dir. Jan Fethke and Jan Rybkowski, 1953), and An Adventure at Marienstadt (Przygoda na Mariensztacie, dir. Leonard Buczkowski, 1954). A focus on the countryside – mentioned briefly in An Adventure at Marienstadt with regards to the migration of the peasantry into the city – and the issues of collectivisation were advanced by The Village Mill (Gromada, dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1952). Documentary films gained in importance after the Second World War mostly due to their perceived educational and propagandistic value. Mazierska asserts that the short productions repeated the pattern in which groups of workers from different parts of Poland united to complete a challenging task in adverse conditions, often with some assistance from the Soviet Union. The majority of these featured off-screen narration to reinforce on-screen images. Close-read examples here include Andrzej Munk’s documentaries from the 1950s and Jan Zelnik’s Women of Our Days (Kobiety naszych dni, 1951). Nevertheless, towards the end of 1958 films began to appear criticising state ideology and the economic plan, such as The Depot of the Dead (Baza ludzi umarłych, dir. Czesław Petelski, 1959) and the so-called dark series / czarna seria (e.g. Man on Tracks [Człowiek na torze, dir. Andrzej Munk, 1956]). Set in a socialist realist aesthetic, these documentaries dealt with negative phenomena in the post-war reality.

Chapter Four engages with the Polish Thaw of the 1960s followed by the “small stabilisation”. This gentler version of state socialism and its improved living conditions were reflected in film. Mazierska notes that Polish cinema became dominated by auterism (p. 99), especially the Polish New Wave which garnered critical praise both in Poland and abroad but was not especially popular with Polish audiences. The works belonging to the current analysed here include Walkover (Walkower, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, 1965), The Pier (Molo, dir. Wojciech Solarz, 1969) and Gold (Złoto, dir. Wojciech Has, 1961). These films attracted comparisons with socialist realist cinema (they showcased the country in its industrial might), but in reality marked a significant shift by portraying unenthusiastic manual workers now subservient to the technical intelligentsia and women relegated to secondary roles, typically those of a friendly barmaid or a supportive housewife. Walkover, Pier and Gold additionally offered a new type of character in the small stabilisation reality devoid of economic pressures: a drifter, an outsider with no specific goal (which, as Mazierska suggests, can be seen as a metaphor for the whole decade). A novelty and exception in cinema of that time was Knife in the Water (Nóż w wodzie, dir. Roman Polański, 1962) which took the leisure and pleasure of privileged lifestyle as its main theme.

Mazierska proves that it was in the 1960s that Polish popular cinema was born. Represented mainly by the comedy, the genre moved away from socialist realist conventions by introducing the “petit bourgeois” character (and further pointing to the downgrade of the working class) and showing “houses and culture” rather than production sites. The films investigated in this chapter include Stanisław Bareja’s comedies: A Husband of His Wife (Mąż swojej żony, 1960), Wife for an Australian (Żona dla Australijczyka, 1964), Marriage of Convenience (Małżeństwo z rozsądku, 1966), Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski’s The Gangsters and the Philanthropists (Gangsterzy i filantropi, 1963) and Janusz Morgenstern’s Adam’s Two Ribs (Dwa żebra Adama, 1963). Mazierska observes an important shift also in the documentaries of the decade: workers became more important than work, which, in turn, was now shown as less heroic and more monotonous and tiring. Crucial here were films by Kazimierz Karabasz eschewing both the voice of the narrator and the image of workers following the grand socialist plan: The Musicians (Muzykanci, 1958) and The Year of Franek W. (Rok Franka W., 1967), but also Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Office (Urząd, 1966). 

The 1970s saw improved living conditions and a more liberal atmosphere, which kindled hope for more film productions and an investment in infrastructure. In Poland, much like the rest of Europe, the 1970s belonged to television; as a result, overall cinema audience numbers dropped, while new niches emerged thanks to specialised cinemas (kino studyjne) and film festivals. After the end of socialist realism, Polish cinema broke into two strands: auterist and popular. The cinematic discourse cultivated that gap and attempted to consciously manufacture [popular cinema] to fulfil specific social needs (p. 186). However, in the 1970s stylistically bold mainstream cinema critical of the prevailing politics blurred this division. Such experimental popular films, as Mazierska suggests, deserve the label “Cinema of Moral Concern”, even more so than the films of Kieślowski, Holland and Falk (p. 187). Her argument is supported by analyses of Cruise (Rejs, dir. Marek Piwowski, 1970), Girls to Pick Up (Dziewczyny do wzięcia, dir. Janusz Kondratiuk, 1972) – both offering a slightly patronising caricature of working class social climbers – and A Brunet Will Call (Brunet wieczorową porą, dir. Stanisław Bareja, 1976) presenting the availability of leisure for all as an awkward gift (p. 187). Simultaneously, the films traditionally considered the Cinema of Moral Concern – such as Personnel (Personel, dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1976), Dance Leader (Wodzirej, dir. Feliks Falk, 1977) and Camera Buff (Amator, dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1979) – focused on cultural rather than industrial production, reflecting, in Mazierska’s reading, Poland’s ambition to become a post-industrial society and a need to reflect on the position of a cultural worker as an intermediary between those in power and ordinary people.

The 1970s relaxation of censorship was reflected in the documentaries of that era commenting on the heroes of Stalinism. Mazierska illustrates this statement with A Story of a Man Who Filled 552% of the Quota (Opowieść o człowieku, który wykonał 552% normy, dir. Wojciech Wiszniewski, 1973) and Bricklayer (Murarz, dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1973), both seen as an inspiration to Wajda’s fictional Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977). A number of documentaries of that decade followed the “propaganda of success”, largely associated with the television of 1970s, especially television news, and conveyed the affluence and hope of that era (Krystyna M. [dir. Kazimierz Karabasz, 1973] and Foreman on a Farm… [Sztygar na zagrodzie…, dir. Wojciech Wiszniewski, 1978]).

Chapter Six looks at the worsening economic conditions which triggered a wave of strikes, their political demands leading to the establishment of Solidarity / Solidarność (August 1980) and the introduction of martial law (1981–1983). Voices began arguing for the liberalisation of Polish film industry. At the same time the video cassette players became available and as a result, films which were previously banned began to appear on VHS. Through Solidarity the working class re-established its position as the leading force for change in society (as it had been in the 1950s) but as the decade went on, this position would gradually diminish. This part describes the anti-system working class movement as dominant in the cinema of that time, as for instance in the unique documentary, Workers 1980 (Robotnicy ’80, dir. Andrzej Chodakowski et al., 1980), about strikes against the government. Mazierska is critical of its companion piece, Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza, dir. Andrzej Wajda, 1981) – undoubtedly the best known film about the Solidarity movement – suggesting that Wajda’s controversial blend of fiction and documentary footage is disingenuous, questioning the director’s apparent identification with the intelligentsia rather than the workers and his marginalisation of female Solidarity members. As a counterpoint to “Solidarity films”, Mazierska cites Roman Wionczek’s Dignity (Godność, 1984) and Time of Hope (Czas Nadziei, 1986), both defending martial law and failing to gain popularity amongst workers. While the above works sounded an upbeat note hopeful for the future, films concerning the working lives of women – A Woman Alone (Kobieta samotna, dir. Agnieszka Holland, 1981) or two documentaries by Irena Kamińska: Workwomen (Robotnice, 1981) and Day after Day (Dzień za dniem, 1988) – were decidedly more pessimistic. Also important were productions foreshadowing a neoliberal future, with typical themes of flawed characters, the misdeeds of the ruling class and substandard work under socialism. This chapter considers Teddy Bear (Miś, dir. Stanisław Bareja, 1981), Moonlighting (dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, 1982), Without Love (Bez miłości, dir. Barbara Sass, 1980) and Hero of the Year (Bohater roku, dir. Feliks Falk, 1987).

Part Three begins in 1989 when the replacement of state socialism with capitalism changed the class structure along with work and consumption patterns in Poland. Neoliberalisation impacted not only the economy, but also culture; in the case of cinema it began in the early 1990s when a number of film studios and cinemas were privatised. Post-transition films commented on the new reality by assessing the impact of rapid economic liberalisation on individuals. This period saw the flourishing of “bandit films”, centred around “feral capitalists” or lucky entrepreneurs who exploited the new opportunities of rapid privatisation for personal gain. Mazierska discusses Capital, or How to Make Money in Poland (Kapitał, czyli jak zrobić pieniądze w Polsce, dir. Feliks Falk, 1990), Stroke of Luck (Fuks, dir. Maciej Dutkiewicz, 1999), First Million (Pierwszy milion, dir. Waldemar Dziki, 2000) and Three Colours: White (Trzy kolory: Biały, dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1994). Likewise, many popular comedies took the form of a mock manual, instructing the naïve viewer how to become rich (p. 265). Examples include Better to Be Beautiful and Rich (Lepiej być piękną i bogatą, dir. Filip Bajon, 1993) and The Hitman (Kiler, dir. Juliusz Machulski, 1997). The documentaries – not so numerous and less favoured by Polish state television which was the chief commissioner – provided a glimpse into the less attractive side of neoliberalisation (This Wonderful Work [Ta wspaniała praca, dir. Piotr Morawski, 1993] and The End of the Epoch of Coal (Koniec epoki węgla kamiennego, dir. Tomasz Dobrowolski, 1993]).

As the final chapter suggests, the films of the new millennium focused more on what was lost as a result of the transition, a shift which Mazierska attributes to both the economic crisis and the re-emeregence of auterist cinema, typically more pessimistic. Under analysis here are some of the auterist films which embraced the conventions of popular cinema: Dogs (Psy, dir. Władysław Pasikowski, 1992; also known as Pigs) showing post-communist stasis rather than enthusiasm, or The Debt (Dług, dir. Krzysztof Krauze, 1999) and The Collector (Komornik, dir. Feliks Falk, 2005) taking up the theme of dispossession. While the productions mentioned above take place firmly within a middle class milieu, the 2000s and 2010s did not eschew the on-screen plight of working class, as, for instance, in Women’s Day (Dzień Kobiet, dir. Maria Sadowska, 2012) and Supermarket (dir. Maciej Żak, 2012), both portraying the dire working conditions of female employees. The book also engages with films tackling problems linked with international migration (A Bar at Victoria Station [Bar na Victorii, dir. Leszek Dawid, 2003] and Silesia [Śląsk, dir. Anna Kazejak-Dawid, 2006]), or the movement of population from rural areas to the city (Warsaw Available [Warszawa do wzięcia, dir. Karolina Bielawska and Julia Ruszkiewicz, 2009]).

Mazierska finishes with Solidarity, Solidarity (Solidarność, Solidarność, 2015), an omnibus film made by 13 directors of different generations to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the strikes of 1980 and the legalisation of the Solidarity trade union. Most of its segments are set in the present looking back at the beginning of 1980s, with some of them dismissive of the Solidarity revolution seeing its fallout as the decline of the working class. Mazierska chooses to focus on the segments by older directors: Ryszard Bugajski’s showing that the ethos of solidarity has disappeared from Polish life, and Robert Gliński’s arguing that Solidarity ultimately failed the workers. By discussing them in place of the book’s conclusion, the author implies that these two episodes provide an apt summary of the post-1989 era.

Mazierska’s Poland Daily: Economy, Work, Consumption and Social Class in Polish Cinema can be considered as complementary to Marek Haltof’s now seminal Polish Cinema: A History, the updated second edition of which was published in 2018. Mazierska has adopted a fresh perspective, suggesting an alternative Polish cinema history based on case studies of popular films little known abroad. She has also demonstrated how the political, social and economic transformations shaped the representation and perception of class, gender and political economy. Such an approach questions the dominant Polish film canon, reclaiming popular films, often derided or omitted by critics and historians, and reframing their significance within a wider context. As such, Poland Daily can be read as a history of Polish film from a socio-political perspective, or, conversely, as a socio-political history of modern Poland told through its films. Mazierska takes a sympathetic view of the post-war communist era and lends her voice to those arguing for a rehabilitation of the state socialist period. The author does not shy away from bold and sometimes controversial statements on Polish history, drawing from her own experiences to contrast the era of state socialism, and the films it gave birth to, with the post-1989 free market and its radically altered cinema landscape. The post-1989 era is arguably the book’s weakest area, perhaps reflective of a post-transition Polish film industry finding its footing after the sudden shock of neoliberalisation and international competition. A follow-up would seem to be a natural step, as Poland, now 20 years into this era, finds itself trying to balance a desire for critically acclaimed auteurist works with an increasing number of home-grown box offices successes.

 


Małgorzata Bugaj – graduated in Polish philology/cultural studies and English philology at the University of Gdańsk. She completed her PhD in film studies at the University of Edinburgh, where she currently works, conducting classes on Polish cinema, European cinema, avant-garde film and cinema theory. In addition to the abovementioned areas, her academic interests and publications also relate to the relationship of cinema with other arts and the sensual theory of film.

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