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


Polish Cinema. A Story of History

Iwona Kurz

the cover of Marek Haltof's book  

Marek Haltof, Polish Cinema. A History, Berghahn, New York–Oxford 2019

Marek Haltof’s book is the only comprehensive study of the history of Polish cinema available to non-Polish readers. This obviously puts the reviewer in a difficult position, as we should be truly glad that such a publication even exists and try to refrain from making a “wish list”, that is, putting forward ideas suggesting a different take on the matter or a litany of issues that the author could have or should have mentioned, but failed to do so. Additionally, synthesis is a difficult genre, even more so when it is addressed to readers who are not necessarily familiar with the sociopolitical and cultural context, which, in this particular case, has a significant bearing on the nature of film production. As a matter of fact, the book’s bibliography alone indicates how few academic studies concerned with Polish cinematography are published in languages other than Polish (apart from Marek Haltof’s books, it is worth mentioning works by Ewa Mazierska, Elżbieta Ostrowska and Aga Skrodzka). This does not pose a problem to the author, who obviously knows both the Polish context and the body of writing, but it does demonstrate that his book is published in the context of a rather limited discussion, which is purely academic or unprofessional, involved in the debate in a way that is unlike the way film is discussed on home soil. “At home” or “locally”, films are usually about life while being larger than life.

Therefore, the basic question concerns the dominating perspective adopted in the book, the viewpoint from which the author develops his narrative. Marek Haltof, a professor at Northern Michigan University, is an outside observer, looking from a geographical distance and adopting a neutral (or neutralizing) rather than a critical approach. The title underscores the key decision made by the author which is the composition of the book – it is a description of Polish cinema in a “historical” arrangement, that is, divided into selected eras. The national aspect of cinema is used functionally; the films and filmmakers mentioned here have essentially been making films in Poland and within the native organizational structure. Haltof is aware of the current ongoing discussions about the concept of national cinema, but he is practical about this issue. Naturally, such an approach is justified; it is ill-advised to go into battle on too many fronts, even if – hence my military imagery – it is precisely the national issue, national heritage and national identity that are identified as the major themes of Polish cinema.

The second big decision made by the author concerns constructing the narrative around two different perspectives at the same time, or, with the use of two presentation styles. On the one hand, there is the wide shot: a panorama aimed at presenting the general historical and political background of Poland and its connection with the cultural debates taking place. This includes a basic description of the way cinematography functions in Poland, of its model and the organizational transformations that impact film production. On the other hand, we have a close-up: on details – such as selected films or filmmakers and their reception in Poland and abroad – on the foreground, that is, on what is characteristic of a certain movement or style, and, at other times, on the contrary, on something hidden in the background, something isolated, unique, but necessary to complete and enrich the image.

The proposed chronological classification covers the period from the early days of cinema (up until the sound revolution and after), through cinema during World War Two and the following years, a few subsequent decades of People’s Poland, up until the transformation period after 1989. The choice of dividing lines or cut-off moments for that classification is based on various and varied criteria. It is a mixture of factors related to the dynamics of different cinematographic changes, both technological (the division of the interwar period into the silent and sound era) and institutional ones (choosing the year 2005 as the final turning point, when the Polish Film Institute was established), as well as historical and political circumstances external to cinema (such as World War Two, the Stalinist era or the period of martial law). What Marek Haltof also adds to this mix are stylistic criteria connected with the prevailing aesthetic styles or themes characteristic of each period. This lack of “purity” of criteria is understandable – not least because a shift in cultural processes is sometimes driven by a purely political impulse and, at times, results from a decision of different actors within a specific cultural institution. In fact, it is precisely “processes” that we are talking about; in many cases turning points are bound to be arbitrary. World War Two, for example, made an undisputable cut in the continuity of Polish cinematography, but, at the same time, it is hard to discuss post-war artistic production without reverting to the past. This applies to both the then operating model of national cinematography, as dreamt up by the pre-war Society of the Lovers of Artistic Film “START”, and to popular cinema produced by filmmakers of the “industry” in the 1930s.

Nevertheless, the proposed classification imposes a certain vision of the nature of the changes, creates a timeline marked not only by dates, but also by themes or issues. In such a context, the choice of some of the turning points does raise some doubt. The first reservation concerns silent film, as its functioning before 1918 complicates the adopted national criterium. One must ask how such productions are considered Polish cinema. Indeed, they weree created on Polish territory, but not necessarily by artists who identified themselves as primarily Polish, or for audiences who, unlike what Marek Haltof claims, were not necessarily looking for patriotic content. The first directors adapted their films from Gabriela Zapolska or Stefan Żeromski’s Story of Sin, but education through national literature went hand in hand with social and moral themes. As a matter of fact, the cinema of that time was part of a whole system of urban entertainment and attractive forms of spending leisure time (which has been explored in the works by, among others, Łukasz Biskupski). Therefore, we can only partially agree with the claim that cinema used to serve as a tool of patriotic education, especially in places where books or the press could not reach due to a high illiteracy rate – in the places where the scale of illiteracy was at its largest (that is, in the Eastern and Southeastern Polish territories), the access to a nickelodeon and, later, to movie theatres was also lowest (n.b. the implementation of the plan to popularize travelling cinemas was interrupted by the outbreak of World War Two).

The second doubt concerns Haltof’s treatment of the turn of the 1960s and 1970s as a single era. This period has often been separated into two, in keeping with the political calendar and the critical year of 1970 which divides modern Polish history into two eras marked by the governance of two First Secretaries of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party: Władysław Gomułka (the so-called “small stability”) and Edward Gierek. A political breakthrough does not have to be a convincing argument in itself, but both cases involved major changes in the organization of cinematic life, as well as in the authorities’ attitudes towards cinema (and, since 1971, also television). At the same time, partly as a result of the events of March 1968, the late 1960s and early 1970s are marked by the birth of a new cinematic language and a shift towards a meta-narrative and a self-reflective approach towards the Polish Film School – such as Andrzej Wajda’s Everything for Sale (Wszystko na sprzedaż, 1969) or film debuts by Marek Piwowski and Krzysztof Zanussi, to mention just a few.

The third and final problem concerns the time after the so-called transformation of 1989. The author sections off a short period between 1999 and 2005, yet in the way he defines it, there seems to be nothing particularly characteristic about it. This choice appears as a mere pretext, and, incidentally, causes the thirty years since 1989 to fall apart in this narrative into a mosaic of bits and bobs, where, for example, the subject of reclaiming the past appears only twice – once as a chapter’s subtitle and once as a section heading. It also interrupts the continuity of such phenomena as the development of the gangster film genre  starting with Dogs (Psy, dir. Władysław Pasikowski, 1992; also known as Pigs) up to The Debt (Dług, dir. Krzysztof Krauze, 1999) – which was important for the characterization of Polish reality of the times, as well as the audience’s choices. In the approach proposed by Haltof, contemporaneity as a cinematic subject matter clearly escapes consideration.

The second edition of the book was revised – it was updated (as the first edition came out in 2002) and its structure was made uniform. In the previous version, alongside the historically-ordered chapters, there were two theme-driven chapters – one dedicated to the Holocaust in Polish cinema, whereas the other – to a reckoning with Stalinism. In that context, a question that hangs over such a synthesis is about its structure and, consequently, about its goals – it aims to give an overview of cinematography, using it as a means to talk about Polish culture as a whole, giving a broad description of different phenomena, even mapping out selected characteristic trends and styles. In the newer edition, the aforementioned chapters did not so much disappear as were put back into the chronological order; in all fairness, we might agree that in the early 2000s, they indeed signal new, or rather, newly-explored themes. In fact, the topic of the Holocaust in Polish cinema is based on Marek Haltof’s more detailed research, as he authored such books as Screening Auschwitz: Wanda Jakubowska's The Last Stage and the Politics of Commemoration (2018), as well as Polish Film and the Holocaust: Politics and Memory (2012). The Holocaust is one of the major and most heated topics of public debate in Poland, to which cinema also contributes. However, the author does not delve into this dispute, assuming, as was already said, a rather neutralizing attitude, perhaps in keeping with a handbook-like style.

The central topic explored throughout the book is, of course, Polish romantic heritage, both in its popular version – including Leper (Trędowata, dir. Jezry Hoffman, 1976), Hubal (dir. Bohdan Poręba, 1973) and The Deluge (Potop, dir. Jerzy Hoffman, 1974) – and a critical one reaching its peak in the masterpieces of the Polish Film School, which stylistically refrained from neither pathos nor irony. This is undeniably a dominant motif in Polish cinema marked by numerous twists and polemics, including disputes over the “true end of the Polish Film School”. In Haltof’s book, Polish Film School is treated like a period rather than a trend or a style, which makes it lose its distinctness as a result of associating it with the whole film production of the second half of the 1950s (the fact that the main point of reference in this context is Stanisław Ozimek’s perspective, clearly tainted by the times in which it was developed, is startling).

I am citing this example, because it allows us to clearly see the implicit assumptions (and consequences) of the approach proposed in Polish Cinema. Above all, in the context of abundance of post- and neoromantic film productions, it is clearly visible that the author is leaning towards a “theme-based” approach, rather than styles or aesthetics. What is lost in the perspective adopted here is, in my view, one of the most important phenomena of Polish Cinema, that is, the so-called Polish New Wave. Obviously, both films and filmmakers associated with the “new wave” do appear in the book (Jerzy Skolimowski, Andrzej Żuławski, the beforementioned “early” Zannussi), but the ideas and cinematic practices connected with this phenomenon are not singled out as a distinct and separate theme. This is precisely the perspective that has been adopted over the last twenty years in an attempt to rewrite the history of Polish cinema. A substantial body of detailed research and re-readings have appeared since the first publication of Haltof’s book. The works are concerned with a re-modelling of the prevailing pedagogical view on cinema (the aforementioned writings by Biskupski), studies of genre cinema and popular filmmakers such as Stanisław Bareja, the above-mentioned “new wave” directors, the cinematographic institution, as well as women’s cinema and, more broadly, the issue of gender in Polish cinema.

Obviously, a synthesis will always be rather anachronic compared to detailed studies – it is impossible for its author not to fall behind. However, the question remains whether the anachronism applies to details (such as, for example, Ina Benita’s death, which, as we now know thanks to Piotr Gacek’s research, did not occur in 1944 in Warsaw, but many years later in the United States) or to the choice of dominant themes. The word “history” used in the title of the handbook proves to be more than just a generic term – it also defines the subject of the book, which is preoccupied mainly with history in Polish cinema and, at the same time, reproduces the history of its self-description within this perspective.


Translated by Małgorzata Szubartowska

Iwona Kurz  works in the Institute of Polish Culture at University of Warsaw. Main field of interests: history of Polish culture of XX century in visual perspective, anthropology of body and gender, anthropology of visual culture. Author of Twarze w tłumie (Faces in the Crowd. Views of the heroes of collective imagination in Polish culture 1955–1969; Bolesław Michałek Award for the best film studies book in 2005; Nike Literary Award: short-listed for the best book in 2005), co-author of Obyczaje polskie. Wiek XX w krótkich hasłach (Polish Everyday Culture. 20th Century in Short Entries, 2008), editor of Film i historia. Antologia (Film and History. Anthology, 2008), co-editor of readers Antropologia ciała (Anthropology of the Body, 2008) and Antropologia kultury wizualnej (Anthropology of Visual Culture, 2012).

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