"Pleograf. Kwartalnik Akademii Polskiego Filmu" no. 5/2020


The Age of Auteurs.

Elders’ Cinema and the Twilight of the Polish Masters

Sebastian Smoliński


The last few years have seen significant generational changes in Polish cinema and the emergence of narratives describing these changes. The subject matter of one of the recent issues of EKRANy (eng. Screens) was accompanied by the headline: Polish cinema: here comes the new[1]. The title of the opening essay of the issue by Grzegorz Fortuna Jr. — There are no limits. Polish cinema debuts — is symptomatic of this change, as is the title of an article on this phenomenon written by Marcin Adamczak from the perspective of production — Gardeners and bees. Keys to success for young Polish cinema. The researchers’ emphasis on novelty, youth, and debuts definitely serves to highlight the transformations occurring in many domains of our audiovisual market. Film journals are discussing with increasing accuracy young producers and distributors with access to international contacts, debutants crossing the boundaries of genres, programmes and courses that facilitate the creation of debut films, and other elements of this revolution. The fact that the new generation of filmmakers is coming to the fore was symbolically confirmed by the awarding of the Golden Lions[2] at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia to two important debuts: The Last Family (Ostatnia rodzina) by Jan P. Matuszyński in 2016 and Silent Night (Cicha Noc) by Piotr Domalewski a year later. If we were to add to this the international success of Agnieszka Smoczyńska, Jagoda Szelc, and Michał Marczak, the dominance of directors who are only now building their careers seems obvious.

Aleksandra Konieczna, Andrzej Seweryn and Dawid Ogrodnik in The Last Family, dir. Jan P. Matuszyński,
Photo by Hubert Komerski, production: Aurum Film

However, a map of Polish cinema drawn in this manner would be incomplete: it would not show the reference points which, for decades, have determined its character — both aesthetically and institutionally. Alongside the blossoming of young filmmakers, we also observe the twilight of the Polish masters — the ageing of renowned creators (who are almost exclusively men) and their craft. Though most are still making films, which often pack cinemas, it seems as if the creations of these hoary directors were made in a circuit parallel to that of the young creators — they are interested in different subjects, they have a different approach to the form, and, in different ways, they continue the model of cinema developed during the Polish People’s Republic period. The films by elder directors (let’s assume that this refers to creators over the age of sixty) that premiered in 2018 encourage one to take a look at an aspect of politique des auteurs and auteur theory that is usually left in the background — the relationship between the age of a director and the style and quality of their films.

Genius burns out

The question of the passage of time and the associated change in an auteur’s status is a recurring theme in the best-known articles devoted to the criticism or defence of politique des auteurs. André Bazin, while noting the benefits of the strategy developed by the editors of Cahiers du Cinéma, also pointed out its few limitations. In his balanced essay, he asks whether great directors are always of the moment: Within that same period, its [cinema’s] technical development has been of a kind that cannot compare with that of any traditional art within a comparable period (except perhaps architecture, another industrial art). Under such conditions, it is hardly surprising that genius will burn itself out ten times as fast, and that a director who suffers no loss of ability may cease to be swept along by the wave. This was the case with Erich von Stroheim, Abel Gance and Orson Welles. We are now beginning to see things in enough perspective to notice a curious phenomenon: a film-maker can, within his or her own lifetime, be refloated by the following wave. This is true of Gance and Stroheim, whose modernity is all the more apparent nowadays[3]. It is likely that Bazin listed these three particular auteurs for a reason. Each of them is, in some sense, an enfant terrible of World cinema, and each gained true recognition only many years after making their most important films.

Moreover, this fragment of Bazin’s essay includes some potential paradoxes, which echo loudly in subsequent paragraphs. On one hand, the filmmaking genius burns out incredibly fast, while on the other, it is refloated and the auteur’s modernity is all the more apparent. However, Bazin does not add that this refers to the modernity of the early works of the auteurs in question. And so, is it the genius that refloats? Or is it only some portion of their creations? Or maybe, in that case, the auteurs should not be separated from their work? And, anyhow, why should genius burn out so quick — if they do, do they deserve to be called a genius? Moreover, since a genius’s star may shine only seasonally, how come it sometimes comes back in favour after a while? Bazin does not clarify these issues and leaves a margin of understatement that is characteristic of politique des auteurs[4].

Bazin’s attempt to grapple with the problem of film auteurship — an attempt to defend the art of criticism practiced by Cahiers du Cinéma, but on his own terms — is particularly visible in his judgements about ageing creators. Bazin attempts to dismantle the popular premise of politique des auteurs — that the stature of a film is proportional to the experience of its creator. He sums it up like this: Until it can be proved to the contrary, it [Confidential Report by Orson Welles] will be considered a priori a superior film because it is more personal and because Welles’s personality can only have matured as he grew older[5]. Before Bazin looks at this statement critically, he states firmly: In fact, the few exceptions one could mention only go to prove the rule. A great talent matures but does not grow old. There is no reason why this law of artistic psychology should not also be valid for the cinema. Criticism that is based implicitly on the hypothesis of senility cannot hold water[6]. Let us pause for a moment on this “senility” and juxtapose it with the aforementioned observation that a director who suffers no loss of ability may cease to be swept along by the wave. Bazin is suspicious towards those who use the argument of age to discredit an auteur’s later work. In his opinion, talent matures, but the process of ageing itself does not affect talent at all. It is not clear how to square this observation with the thesis about the quick burning out of genius. What else could this burnout while suffering no loss of ability be, if not the ageing of a style, the ageing of the particular vision of cinema proposed by an auteur?

The way in which Bazin attempts to nevertheless challenge the judgment according to which Welles’s Confidential Report has greater value than Citizen Kane sows even more doubts: But, always remembering this, one has nevertheless to accept that certain indisputable ‘greats’ have suffered an eclipse or a loss of their powers. I think what I have already said in this article may point to the reason for this. The problem has to do with the ageing not of people but of the cinema itself: those who do not know how to age with it will be overtaken by its evolution[7]. We thus return to the argument about the diverging paths of the creator and the speedy development of cinema itself. Bazin, however, makes a bewildering inversion: it is not the creator that ages, but rather the film itself — the medium in which the auteur works. Is it then the eclipse or loss of their powers that characterises the elderly auteurs, or is it the cinema that becomes senile (which in Bazin’s time, was not even that ‘old’)?

It is possible that the rhetorical paradoxes in which the French critic becomes involuntarily entangled stem from the fact that, in the politique des auteurs, directing is considered to be a purely intellectual profession, rather than one that combines physical activity on the set with intellectual efforts. An auteur in these texts is not embodied, their body does not age — just like their mind, which retains its briskness throughout life. Meanwhile, it is possible to articulate the thesis that without understanding (or at least taking into account) the physiological dimension of a director’s work, we cannot understand the phenomenon of the late works of the masters, or even those of the average craftsmen, whose later films often bear many imperfections. Obviously, it is frequently an auteur’s later creations that are considered their greatest works. However, for the purposes of this reflection upon the twilight of the Polish masters, I would like to focus on the eclipses and loss of powers which Bazin mentioned briefly, but did not problematise. In the specifically Polish context, as we’ll see, they take on new meanings and allow one to see the rarely-analysed countenance of our contemporary cinema.

For the French theoreticians, as well as for Andrew Sarris (who transplanted politique des auteurs onto American soil, creating auteur theory), the auteur is encrypted in the films they make — and thus is more of a discursive text written out across a body of works than a media phenomenon or a human doing earnest work on the set. Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962 is a polemic with the aforementioned critique by Bazin; however, importantly, Sarris does not want to disprove the arguments of his adversary at all costs. In the part devoted to the relationship between an auteur and the passage of time, he summarises the diagnoses made by his predecessor: Bazin agrees with Rohmer that it is inconsistent to attribute senility only to aging film directors while at the same time honoring the gnarled austerity of Rembrandt’s later style. [...] However, Bazin immediately retrieves his lost ground by arguing that whereas the senility of directors is no longer at issue, the evolution of an art-form is. Where directors fail and fall is the realm not of psychology, but of history. If a director fails to keep pace with the development of his medium, his work will become obsolescent. What seems like senility is in reality a disharmony between the subjective inspiration of the director and the objective evolution of the medium[8].

It is worth noting the two aspects that appear in the discussion by Sarris. First, old age and ageing are called “senility” and are evaluated as unequivocally negative — it does not befit an auteur to age; there is no question of a dignified creative retirement. The embodied existence of an auteur in time (i.e., their health and physical condition) is something that auteur theory is simply not interested in. Second, such a reconstruction of Bazin’s thought leads to an interesting definition of old age: merely a set of lines in a coordinate system indicating the divergence of the paths of the creator and the evolving medium. In such a theoretical approach, the problem of the actual ageing and death of auteurs disappears, and is replaced by a focus on aesthetic theory.

Timothy Corrigan suggested escaping the trap of equating the auteur with their text and the text with the auteur in his essay The Commerce of Auteurism. Corrigan describes an auteur not as an intention and expression verbalised in a text or a convenient interpretative category, but rather as a paratext accompanying concrete works of film. It is about the business of being an auteur: the use of an auteur’s brand for commercial purposes (by the auteur themselves or other entities)[9]. The researcher presents his theory using the example of Francis Ford Coppola, primarily analysing not the films made by the director, but rather interviews with the director. Coppola’s strategy is summarised as the economics of self-sacrifice[10]. From this perspective, the auteur is the effect of a self-narrative, a media-promotional construct created by the auteurs themselves that helps the audience to orient themselves in the barrage of audio-visual messages.

Physical workers

Corrigan is also not interested in the bodily dimension of a director’s work. According to him, while an auteur might not be located only in the film’s text, they are still a discursive and logocentric entity. The diagnoses made in The Commerce of Auteurism serve as good descriptions of the situation of Polish auteurs, who often confirm their master status by giving extensive interviews — for instance in the Film Magazine of the Polish Filmmakers’ Association (Magazyn Filmowy SFP). As in the classic essays by Bazin and Sarris, Corrigan also overlooks the important influence on the film industry of the ageing of the directors. The concluding chapter of a promising title, The Age and Aging of Auteurs, refers only to the temporal dimension of an auteur’s career, that is to say the life of the works in their portfolio, and the potential mutations the works undergo over the years.

It is, however, possible to think of an auteur in yet another way. Thus far, the conceptualisations of the figure of director have omitted from their reflections the most quotidian dimension of a director’s work: activity on the film set and outside of it, the need to quickly react to surrounding stimuli, for speedy decision-making, and for coping with everyday challenges. In a nutshell, they failed to consider film directing as an activity that is deeply rooted in the material world and that requires some physical prowess (or outside help in the form of assistance, if one lacks such prowess) as well as resilience to stress. It may be that a practical perspective on this line of work cannot be reconciled with the elegant auteur theory, or perhaps such a perspective makes it impossible from the outset to form a theory that meets academic standards. However, looking at the problem of auteurship from this perspective allows one to pose different questions and get closer to understanding the phenomenon of films made by ageing directors. Linking auteurship to the physical body tackles an issue that is not publicly discussed in Poland — our masters may get older, but this is not a factor that influences interpretations of their works.

It is undoubtedly possible to find testimonies and texts that emphasize the importance of one’s physical condition in the process of making a film. Slapstick comedy was a genre that fetishised physical ability. In the article The Demise of Physical Comedy, New Yorker critic Richard Brody attempted to answer the following question: why is comedy like that made by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd impossible today? In his opinion, the reason for this was the proximity to death of the comics performing the dangerous gags. Actor–directors paid a high price for their bravado. Brody also quotes what was said by Jerry Lewis in 2002, who, after his fall in 1965, experienced chronic pain on a daily basis[11].

In the case of Lewis, it was the performer who had to shoulder the burden of most of the risk. The language of suffering and sickness is also visible in the biography of Edward Żebrowski, written in the auteur key by Jakub Socha. One of the chapters of The Hypnotist (Hipnotyzer) is entitled “Man of Pain” and it describes the influence of Buerger's disease (inflammation and thrombosis of blood vessels) on the life of the director[12]. Socha does not hide the fact that the poor condition of Żebrowski’s health had an impact on the frequency and the shape of his artistic work. Salvation (Ocalenie, 1972) and Hospital of the Transfiguration (Szpital Przemienienia, 1978), which are both set in hospitals, borrow directly from his personal experiences. The Hypnotist gives a master of Polish cinema his body back and talks about the profession of film director as a line of work that is to a large extent physical — requiring grit that not everyone has.

Elżbieta Strzałkowska and Edward Żebrowski in Salvation, dir. Edward Żebrowski,
photo by Roman Sumik, source: Fototeka FINA

At the forefront of an institution

Giving back auteurs their right to get old and retire (closely associated with the recognition that there is a mortal human behind the theoretical or media construct of the auteur), and the belief that an artist’s health and age is an interesting reference point for the interpretation of their art, allows one to outline a programme of critique that would serve as an answer to the recently popular narratives about the domination of younger creators, new Polish cinema, and generational changes in the Polish film community. Taking into account the age of a film director cannot lead to the discrimination of aged masters or be the main premise for the assessment of their later films. However it allows us to describe a set of films that we could tentatively refer to as the elders’ cinema (as a counterweight to the juniors’ cinema).

For this article, I would like to select titles that took part in the main competition in the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia in the years 2016–2018 and were made by creators over the age of 60. In 2016 these were: Forest, 4 am (Las, 4 rano) by Jan Jakub Kolski and Blindness (Zaćma) by Ryszard Bugajski. In 2017: Keep Watch (Czuwaj) by Robert Gliński, Spoor (Pokot) by Agnieszka Holland, and Volta by Juliusz Machulski[13]. In 2018, as many as six such films were selected, including the winner, Cold War (Zimna Wojna) by Paweł Pawlikowski, 7 Emotions (7 Uczuć) by Marek Koterski, Ether (Eter) by Krzysztof Zanussi, A Cat with a Dog (Jak pies z kotem) by Janusz Kondratiuk, Pardon (Ułaskawienie) by Kolski, and The Butler (Kamerdyner) by Filip Bajon. Thus, in the last three years the number of films directed by elders with a large body of work has gradually increased. I limited myself to the Gdynia festival as it is a prestigious and opinion-forming event for the Polish film industry. The opportunity to show a new work in the main competition is considered by most creators to be a success and a prelude to the wide distribution of the film throughout Poland.

The greater number of elders competing for the Golden Lions may be linked with changes in the festival’s operating model. In 2017, the organisational committee of the event in Gdynia removed the function of artistic director, which was held by Michał Oleszczyk in previous years. The functions of programme director and festival director (which Leszek Kopeć retained) were combined. The head of the programme committee (counting several dozens of members) was Wojciech Marczewski. Some commentators, for instance Anita Piotrowska, a critic from Tygodnik Powszechny, saw this as an attempt to consolidate the power of those who have defined the framework of the functioning of Polish cinema for many years[14]. The lack of an independent artistic director — who could have a significant influence on the shape of the programme — may have led to the more-generous-than-usual inclusion of those who deserved to be there on the basis of their body of work or their standing with the audience, critics, and friends from the industry[15].

Interestingly, only three of the directors from this group built their reputation and had their biggest successes after 1989. These were Jakub Kolski, Robert Gliński (Hi Tessa [Cześć Tereska] from 2001 can be considered his most important film), and Paweł Pawlikowski, who, until the creation of Ida (2013), had worked outside of Poland. The remaining directors — Ryszard Bugajski, Agnieszka Holland, Juliusz Machulski, Marek Koterski, Krzysztof Zanussi, Janusz Kondratiuk, and Filip Bajon — attained their auteur status in the 70s or 80s. Thus, this is a set of creators who were moulded by the production system of the Polish People’s Republic. Although their careers had various directions and an international character, as was the case for Agnieszka Holland and Krzysztof Zanussi, they have particular recognition in Polish cinema. The history of the Polish School also reached a kind of symbolic finale in Gdynia in 2016, when Afterimage (Powidoki) — the last film of Andrzej Wajda, who died two weeks later — had its Polish premiere.

Andrzej Wajda and Bronisława Zamachowska on the set of Afterimage, dir. Andrzej Wajda, 
photo by Anna Włoch, production: Akson Studio

It is the elders — the leading directors of the late Polish People’s Republic — who have the institutional support that young creators lack. Jacek Bromski (born in 1946) has held the function of the chairman of the Society of Polish Filmmakers continuously since 1996. Wojciech Marczewski (born in 1944) is the programme director of the Wajda School and the head of the programme committee of the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia. Krzysztof Zanussi has led Tor Film Studio since 1980. Filip Bajon has been the director of Kadr Film Studio since 2016. Juliusz Machulski is the founder and the director of Zebra Film Studio, founded in 1988. Agnieszka Holland was the first president of the Polish Film Academy in 2008 (now Dariusz Jabłoński has this function). Jerzy Kapuściński (born in 1954) is the artistic director of Munk Studio, an incredibly important organisation that supports and produces the professional 30-minute debuts of novice creators.

The above overview of the roles of the most important elder directors is definitely not exhaustive, but it illustrates an important tendency. Even if the attention of the critics, journalists, and film experts is directed towards the debutants, the biggest influence on the functioning of the Polish cinema belongs to creators whose directing careers are slowly coming to an end, or who don’t even make films anymore — Wojciech Marczewski, for example, has been creatively silent since Weiser, which he shot in 2000. Some still make film after film (Agnieszka Holland), while others focus on production (Jacek Bromski and Juliusz Machulski). Thus, if we’re talking about a generational transformation, it has not happened in key film institutions.

The status quo is also reinforced by the Film Magazine of the Polish Filmmakers’ Association, issued by the Polish Filmmakers Society. This publication is devoted to the successes of Polish cinema, cultivating the memory of meritorious filmmakers as well as providing a digest of the latest events in Polish cinematography. Tomasz Raczek (born in 1957) is the editor-in-chief. Almost every cover of the monthly magazine (apart from issues 5/2016 and 10/2018) between January 2016 and November 2018 featured a photograph of a Polish director, producer, or actor. In 2016, 12 issues of the magazine were published, 11 issues in 2017, and 9 in 2018 up to and including November. Apart from two covers that did not feature any people, the magazine showed 30 faces in this period of 3 years: 21 of the 30 photographs depicted elder filmmakers, including Agnieszka Holland, Ryszard Bugajski, Roman Polański, Paweł Pawlikowski, Jerzy Skolimowski (two covers), Andrzej Wajda (two covers, one in an issue after the director’s death), Juliusz Machulski, Filip Bajon, Janusz Majewski, Jerzy Gruza, and Jerzy Hoffman[16].

The Film Magazine of the Polish Filmmakers’ Association is obviously not primarily devoted to promoting new talent in Polish cinema. However, the proportion of covers favouring elders with large bodies of work who are also institutionally well-established may leave the impression that current Polish cinema exists mainly thanks to the masters, and it is they who are at the centre of our cinema life. However, does the symbolic dominance of the elders translate into the quality of the cinema they create?

Eclipse, senility

The part of Bazin’s essay that talks about the “eclipses” and senility that may appear in the works of prominent filmmakers opens the gates to a reflection perpendicular to the politique des auteurs — to the extent that it focuses on consolidating the body of work and status of a given artist. The crevice revealed by Bazin allows one to look at the cinema of ageing masters (as well as their entire bodies of works) from a new, critical perspective, taking into account the bodily dimension of auteurship and the physical character of the directors’ work. The disharmony between the filmmaker and the objective evolution of the medium, as Sarris paraphrased Bazin, may thus result in peculiar, old-fashioned, and unsuccessful cinema, which is worthy of attention for these particular reasons. What do Foreign Body (Obce ciało, 2014) and Ether by Zanussi, Blindness by Bugajski, The Eccentrics: On the Sunny Side of the Street (Excentrycy czyli po słonecznej stronie ulicy, 2015) by Majewski, The Anatomy of Evil (Anatomia zła, 2015) by Bromski, A Cat with a Dog by Kondratiuk, Volta by Machulski, 7 Emotions by Koterski, and The Butler by Bajon have in common? They are some interesting examples of the late style of each of the directors, indicating the ongoing depletion of their creativity, their inability to find a plausible creative path in an industry that is being conquered by “the young” — by generations of creators who were shaped in a completely different social and media reality. These and other films shot by elder directors are a testimony to the creeping twilight of the meritorious auteurs — continuing to make “the same film”, but, at the current stage, not free of the touch of senility. It is possible to identify three main strategies used in recent years by elder Polish directors: hyperbole, confession, and nostalgia[17].

Agnieszka Grochowska in Foreign Body, dir. Krzysztof Zanussi, photo by Robert Pałka, production: SF TOR

By hyperbole, I mean the dense use of the motifs and extreme stylistic tactics and tricks that brought the auteur popularity and recognition. We can observe this strategy in Foreign Body, Blindness, The Anatomy of Evil, and The Butler. Each of these films resembles previous works by the auteurs, but takes an exaggerated form which borders on caricature. Foreign Body is a particular case, because Zanussi has, for many years now, been perceived as an elder — a creator who, as he ages, moves himself away from reality and towards his own, hermetically constructed worlds of intelligentsia. Afterimages of The Constant Factor (Constans, 1980) and Camouflage (Barwy ochronne, 1976) – the most important films with themes of temptation by Zanussi, both about a young protagonist enticed by older men — return here in an unconvincing conflict between a young Italian man (bearing the telltale name “Angelo”) and women working in a corporation. The schemata of the plots resemble parables and balance on the brink of self-parody, especially in the way in which Zanussi combines the tale about the redemptive power of Catholicism with an overt criticism of feminism. The director, better than anyone else, knows the business of being an auteur described by Corrigan, which is why the cinema release of each of his films is accompanied by vast paratexts (interviews in the press, on radio, and on TV) in which he shares his vision of the world and helps viewers with their interpretative work, giving them a ready-to-serve explanation of his creation on a platter. The auteur world of Zanussi is based on continuous repetition of several starting points and problems, no longer accompanied by the interest in the medium itself that characterised his 60s and 70s films. Hyperbole is also used in Ether, which reveals Faustian inspirations every step of the way and presents a world in which all the cards are already dealt.

Blindness is a rewrite of Interrogation (Przesłuchania, 1982) — the film that gave Bugajski legendary status in Polish film. The Anatomy of Evil is Bromski’s attempt to return to his initial success, namely Kill Me, Cop (Zabij mnie glino, 1987), while The Butler can be read as the contemporary version of The Magnate (Magnat, 1986), which was probably Bajon’s biggest project during his Polish People’s Republic career. In Blindness, the hyperbole strategy makes the director not only restage Stalinistic terrors, but also enrich them with subplots consisting of visions and ostentatious and disturbingly kitch Christian symbolism and naturalistic images of the suffering, wounded human body. One of the reasons for the popularity of the hyperbole strategy among elder auteurs may be the fact that it allows them to move across well-known terrain. Thus, this gives the ageing creators a sense of safety, steering them clear of any confrontation with the present, which they presumably don’t know or do not fully understand. Hyperbole is also a gesture that betrays a sort of desperation — the filmmakers return to what they have already tamed, but present it in an amplified and multiplied form, overwhelming the viewer with an abundance of cliches from the auteur themselves.

The confession strategy is also linked to this. Despite the fact that various autobiographical links are often extracted from films by the proponents of auteur theory, confession is a different gesture, closely associated with the cinema of masters in their twilight. It is represented in signs and images that we can find in the film’s tissue, sometimes accidentally or when looking awry. These signal the auteur’s stance better than the overt discourse that occurs on the surface of the story. The “eclipses” mentioned by Bazin are visible in this very strategy, which may diverge from the auteur’s intention. An interesting example of this is a scene from A Cat with a Dog, in which the alter ego of director Janusz Kondratiuk (director Janusz, played by Robert Więckiewicz) teaches a class of students. They sit nonchalantly opposite the lecturer, who shares his private philosophy of cinema, saying, for example, that a director creates his own cosmos in a film. A second later, a student asks, in a blasé manner, How do you do flying [on a greenscreen]? Janusz is indignant at the mundane character of this question — he ridicules the student and cuts the class short, throwing as a parting shot: next week we’ll talk about Bergman, a Swedish car manufacturer.

We can surmise that, at the level of the auteur's intention, this scene was supposed to be a satirical image of the daily life of a mature director. A Cat with a Dog almost equates the lives of the protagonists and the lives of the Kondriatuk family. According to some commentators, this is the strength of the film, whose subject is the passing away of a loved one (namely the director’s brother, Andrzej Kondriatuk). However, at the same time, this stylistic device is disturbing, as it displays a reality almost unprocessed by the work of fiction — fiction that could create a distance between the auteur’s biography and its on-screen version. This is why the scene becomes a real “eclipse”: it tells us more than the auteur who distributes meanings would like it to. The resentment towards the youth this scene projects (unknowledgeable, ignorant, focused on tricks instead of the “depth” of the profession of director) mostly exposes Janusz Kondriatuk himself, who sees his alter ego as a successor to Bergman, a member of the intelligentsia raised on ambitious cinema, a connoisseur of modernism in film. The fact that the filmography of Janusz Kondriatuk does not attest to such influences, rather indicating that his art stems from the popular comedy tradition, gives this scene an intriguing character. The joke about Bergman as a car brand is telling. But rather than illustrating the students’ ignorance, it is telling of the fact that, even after several decades, it is still Bergman who is the most obvious metonym of cinema as high art to many Polish creators.

Robert Więckiewicz and Olgierd Łukaszewicz in A Cat with a Dog, photo by Hubert Komerski, production: Akson Studio

While there are many more such moments in A Cat with a Dog, we also find them in most of the other films by older directors mentioned previously. Once again, Zanussi’s films seem to perfectly illustrate the strategies of the ageing masters. The confession represents the unintentional revelation of a well-kept secret, “spilling out by accident” — this signifies the moment when the auteur no longer has the same control over the meanings of their films that they used to have. Interpretations of Zanussi’s films that focused on homoerotic plots in his works have “revealed” meanings dormant in Camouflage and The Silent Touch (Dotknięcie ręki, 1992). In the late works of the director, the homosexual subtext is no longer encrypted or deeply sewn into the story’s fabric. Ether, the most recent film by the director, is filled to the brim with half-naked muscular male bodies; the presented world is populated almost exclusively by men and Jacek Poniedziałek plays a campy seductor who dresses up in a black, shiny costume for his medical experiments. A striking Ukrainian man plays the role of his naive student. Despite the fact that, in interviews, Zanussi speaks about a fascination with evil and the need to search for the truth, his film is not interesting on the philosophical level. The most interesting aspect of this film is the moments of confessions, when unexpectedly — as in the scene with fake sculptures made by freezing men as entertainment for the coach passing by — the beauty of athletic male bodies seems to be what draws the most attention from the camera.

The third strategy that undergirds older auteurs’ films is resorting to nostalgia. It is one of the key categories in contemporary reflections about culture. In the case of cinema made by ageing directors, nostalgia is, however, not directed outwardly, in the direction of other aesthetics, epochs, or genres, but rather inwardly, towards their own work and their glory years. The nostalgic mode is characterised by the auteurs repeating their favourite narrative and stylistic gimmicks, which are supposed to awaken memories of the directors’ greatest achievements in the viewers. One can sometimes get the impression that the elders have stopped in time and continuously hover around their outdated, worn-out symbols, gestures, jokes, and storylines. In A Cat with a Dog, Janusz Kondratiuk presents a quite mythopoeic image: an audience completely filled with people laughing while watching his and his brother’s films during a retrospective for both artists in Warsaw. This short scene works on the principle of an idealised projection, creating a nostalgic vision of the “good old cinema” that will be gone once the two masters are no longer with us.

In Volta, Juliusz Machulski uses nostalgia to appeal to his favourite gimmicks from Kiler and Hit the Bank (Vabank), consciously adding to his filmography a fifth film starting with the letter V. At the same time, the creator of King Size (Kingsajz) ignores the changes which have occured in the last few years in popular Polish cinema, as can be seen, for example, in the more colloquial style of dialogue, the construction of a represented world that is less simplistic and more saturated with social details, and a less obvious structure to the screenplay that takes into account the audience’s intelligence (a good example of such a comedy is Paweł Maślona’s 2017 debut, Panic Attack [Atak paniki]). We don’t find these elements in Volta. Instead, Machulski gives us a signature mix of themes, but the entertainment value turned out to be particularly low this time.

Majewski’s The Eccentrics: On the Sunny Side of the Street sends us back to the refined period dramas created by the director in the 70s, but the archaicness of the storytelling and lack of vigorous narration is jarring. The nostalgic staffage of The Butler expresses Bajon’s yearning for the impressive, original historical sagas he used to shoot in the 80s. In case of this particular film, we can also talk about the ambition to return to the auteur premier league. After quite unrefined comedies — Maiden Vows (Śluby panieńskie, 2010) and Mmes Dulskie (Panie Dulskie, 2015) — Bajon realised a project which was supposed to have greater panache than any of his previous ones. The Butler is a perfect sum of the works and a formally incredible return of the auteur to his favourite subjects and obsessions, using nostalgic gimmicks to bring back to life the style developed by the director in Inspection of the Crime Scene 1901 (Wizja lokalna 1901, 1980), Daimler-Benz Limousine (Limuzyna Daimler-Benz, 1983), and The Magnate (1986).

The age of auteurs

The cinema of elders is a broad and multidimensional phenomenon. It is in no way possible to argue for the thesis that late films of the Polish masters are generally characterised by disappointing “senility”. We would then get close to the argument that was attacked by André Bazin in politique des auteurs. Neighborhooders (Sąsiady, 2014) by Grzegorz Królikiewicz and Essential Killing (2010) by Jerzy Skolimowski are two examples of late works in which an active, creative attitude towards the fabric of film captivates one with freshness and unpredictability. Paweł Pawlikowski’s career shows that advanced age may be the period in which a filmmaker wins his greatest fame and recognition. In the case of the director of Ida and Cold War, it is not about the rediscovery of the creator’s earlier works (which was touched on by Bazin in his discourse about the cycles of the auteur’s life). It was not that Pawlikowski was finally “discovered” (he had been an internationally recognised filmmaker working with the biggest stars for years), it is more that he reinvented himself as an auteur, developing an austere but captivatingly photogenic model of black-and-white cinema that became his signature.

Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot in COld War, dir. Paweł Pawlikowski, photo by Łukasz Bąk, production: Opus Film

The power that elders have in many Polish institutions, commissions, and production studios allows them greater access to the funds needed to produce films than young creators with no such privileges. Despite this, the late works of the elders leave one unsated. They no longer provoke lively discussions about Polish cinema and are usually interpreted in the auteur key, as yet more creations of renowned masters that are best read in the context of their entire body of work. The imbalance between the influence of the elders on the functioning of Polish cinema and the diversely understood value of their subsequent films is striking. The iconic words of Andrzej Wajda about the director of Pigs (Psy, lit. “Dogs”, 1992) are surprisingly relevant today, resembling the confession strategy: Pasikowski as such does not particularly interest me. However, I am interested in his audience. Because he knows something about this audience that I not only do not know, but also maybe even would not like to know[18]. Indeed, the elders are not interested in the works of the juniors and willingly stay in a state of ignorance when it comes to the expectations and needs of contemporary audiences. It is perhaps the case that never before in the history of Polish cinema have there been two such different formations of directors creating in parallel.

One could pose the thesis that together with the successive retirement of masters whose art blossomed in the late People’s Republic period, the intelligentsia model of cinema based on literature – which shaped them and which they, in turn, themselves shaped – will also disappear. The twilight of the national auteurs is underway. The elders themselves oppose it, focusing on retaining their own status and exploiting the forms of storytelling they know best. Meanwhile, allowing one to see the age of the auteurs may have a cathartic value — it may help articulate the plurality of Polish cinema, especially when it depends on so many generations of filmmakers.


Translated by Monika Folkierska-Żukowska

[1] See “EKRANy” 2018, nr. 2 (42). [back]
[2] Translator's note: Prize in the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia. [back]
[3] A. Bazin. La Politique des Auteurs. “Cahiers du Cinema” no. 70, April 1957; retrieved from: [back]
[4] From today’s perspective, the overuse of the word ‘genius’ also sounds archaic, making Bazin’s deliberations seem mystical and romantic. [back]
[5] Ibid. [back]
[6] Ibid. [back]
[7] Ibid. [back]
[8] A. Sarris, Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962; in Simpson, P., Utterson, A., & Shepherdson, K. J. (Eds.). (2004). Film theory: Critical concepts in media and cultural studies (Vol. 4). Taylor & Francis.; p. 26 [back]
[9] T. Corrigan, The Commerce of Auteurism, [in:] Critical Visions in Film Theory, Ed. T. Corrigan, P. White, M. Mazaj, Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston 2011, p. 419. [back]
[10] Ibid, p. 422–427. [back]
[11] R. Brody, The Demise of Physical Comedy, “The New Yorker”, 23 June 2013, [back]
[12] See: J. Socha, Żebrowski. Hipnotyzer, Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2018, p. 83–94. [back]
[13] I have not included Birds Are Singing in Kigali (Ptaki śpiewają w Kigali) in this list because Krzysztof Krauze, who directed this film together with his wife, Joanna Kos-Krauze, died at the age of 61 in 2014, three years before the premiere of the finished work. [back]
[14] A. Piotrowska, Grupa trzymająca władzę, “Tygodnik Powszechny”, 13 February 2017, [back]
[15] Not featuring Foreign Body by Krzysztof Zanussi in the main competition was one of the controversial decisions made by Michał Oleszczyk in 2014. Commentators who disagreed with this move suggested that a director so important to the history of Polish cinema simply deserves to be in the competition. [back]
[16] The younger filmmakers and actresses whose pictures were on the covers of Film Magazine of the Polish Filmmakers’ Society during these years were: Tomasz Wasilewski, Marta Nieradkiewicz, Piotr Domalewski, Karolina Bielawska, Małgorzata Szumowska, Dariusz Gajewski, Zofia Wichłacz, Jagoda Szelc, and Dorota Kobiela. [back]
[17] These three do not exist in harmony in every single one of the listed films: moreover, these are of a tentative character and are meant to build a synthetic (but malleable to change and corrections) image of the cinema of elder directors. [back]
[18] T. Sobolewski, Pojedynek z dniem dzisiejszym. Z Andrzejem Wajdą rozmawia Tadeusz Sobolewski, “Kino” 1993, no 4, p. 6. [back]



The Age of Auteurs. Elders’ Cinema and the Twilight of Polish Masters.

In the face of a large group of young filmmakers setting the tone for Polish cinema, it is worth considering the place of masters and experienced filmmakers. This article reflects on the problem of old age in cinema, with reference to the writings of André Bazin and Andrew Sarris. Emphasising the importance of physical capacity in the process of making a film, the author tries to capture the specificity of the late cinema of Polish masters, distinguishing three strategies used by elder directors: hyperbole, confession, and nostalgia. Detailed descriptions of these strategies, as well as an analysis of the relationships of ageing filmmakers to Polish film institutions, allow the construction of a picture of recent Polish cinema in which elders are in the center, not on the margins of the critical narrative.

Keywords: André Bazin, Andrew Sarris, Krzysztof Zanussi, “Cahiers du Cinéma”, old masters, politique des auteurs, late work, Polish People’s Republic cinema, hyperbole, confession, nostalgia

Sebastian Smoliński – a graduate of Cultural Studies and American Studies from the College of Interdisciplinary Individual Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Warsaw; film critic. He regularly publishes in Kino, EKRANy, Tygodnik Powszechny, Polish Film Magazine, and on Filmweb. He is the coauthor of books in the area of history of cinema: a Spanish-language monograph La doble vida de Krzysztof Kieślowski, edited by Joanna Bardzińska, Kino afroamerykańskie, edited by Ewa Drygalska and Marcin Pieńkowski, and David Lynch. Polskie spojrzenia edited by Anna Osmólska-Mętrak and Radosław Osiński. He received a scholarship from the Polonia Foundation of Ohio (during a semester of film studies at Cleveland State University in the USA). Winner of the Krzysztof Mętrak competition in 2017.

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