‘It Wasn’t Black And White; Just Black’ – Polish Cinema Of Moral Concern

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My time in university wasn’t entirely wasted. Whilst most likely too much of it was spent nursing hangovers, watching Takeshi’s Castle or complaining about whatever was most popular to complain about at the time, it was the setting in which my eyes were opened to the wonders of World Cinema. I’m sure this came out of complaining about films in the English language. It was either that or the titles of some of the films really caught my eye. The main one to grab me initially was the cheerily titled ‘A Short Film About Killing’, by some chap called Krzysztof Kieślowski.

I watched the film with a certain degree of apprehension, admittedly expecting a bloodbath. Instead what I got was a beautifully paced take on capital punishment in the modern age, a movie that was shot beautifully and contained so much moral concern that I couldn’t help falling in love with the thing. I can honestly say with my hand firmly placed across my chest that this was the first film I ever felt like analysing. It was also the first time I actively began to search out other work by an individual director. I grabbed everything I could find by Krzysztof and loved each film more than the last, with the exception of ‘The Double of Life of Veronique’ which was boring as heck. Kieślowski was my window into the wonderful world of Polish cinema.

Along with Kieślowski, Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski (among others) would go on to find international acclaim in cinema. Polish cinema has a reputation that sits among the best in Europe, and for good reason. Much like the country that has spawned all these glorious films, the history of Poland’s film is an up and down one, albeit with more of the latter in recent times than the former. It is a history of ideological conflict.

The first truly important Polish film maker was Władysław Starewicz. He was born in Moscow to Polish emigrants, and grew up in Kaunas (now Lithuania). He was one of the first stop-motion animators, and is known for making the first puppet animated film in the history of time and space in 1912. He frequently used insects as the protagonists in his films, replacing their legs with wire and attaching wax to their thorax. ART HURTS. This technique was so convincing that one critic, after watching the internationally acclaimed ‘The Beautiful Lukanida’, believed that the stars of the film were actually brilliantly trained live animals. He wasn’t far off, although the ‘brilliantly trained live’ part would be more accurate if it read ‘in a horrible wire wax purgatory’.

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Cinema flourished in the time between the wars as Poland attempted to re-establish itself on the much-changed map of Europe. Huge human-driven epics replaced the poor waxy animated insects, most notably in Henryk Szaro’s ‘A Strong Man’, where a chap murders a writer in order to have absolute power, but is completely changed once he falls in love. We’ve all been there. Szaro himself would eventually be shot dead in the Warsaw Ghetto by Nazi soldiers in 1942. I’m not entirely sure how ironic this is, but the best known film of the era was a Yiddish musical, entitled ‘Yiddle With His Fiddle’, a story of forbidden love where the female disguises herself a man called ‘Yidl’. Quirky.

As with, well, everything in the entire country, cinema had to be rebuilt following the destruction caused by World War Two. The Łódź (hilariously pronounced ‘Wodge’) Film School (the ‘Leon Schiller National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre’, to be exact) was opened in 1948, with plans to move it to Warsaw once the capital was rebuilt. In the end, the school stayed in Łódź and the city quickly became something of a cultural centr. Referred to by me as the ‘Manchester of Poland’, Kieślowski once remarked that ‘Łódź is photogenic because it is dirty and crappy’. Excellent.

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The school offered students the chance to work with professional equipment, which encouraged development as the fruits of student labour were extremely juicy. Generation after generation of creatively expressive students would come through the school, basically creating a ‘who’s who’ list of Polish directors. 1956 saw noticeable changes in the school, as the slight (ever so slight) national move to a more liberal regime meant the school gained access to many films from around the world which didn’t centre around political ideology. This exposure would lead to the fertile cinematic scene that would come mere decades later, known as ‘Cinema of Moral Concern’. See, that’s where the subtitle comes from.

Up until then, most of the films produced by Polish directors had to fall in line with the socialist realism schtick of communist Europe. When Andrzej Wajda made his debut with ‘A Generation’ in 1954, socio-realism was left behind awkwardly waving at the kids who were off to university. Instead of focusing on ideology, his films centred around national heroes, such as the Home Army resistance of World War Two. This isn’t exactly a million miles away from ideology, but progress is progress. His most famous film of the time was ‘Ashes and Diamonds’, the story of two Home Army soldiers given orders to assassinate a communist Commissar (commussar?).

Wajda was in fact rejected by the army in 1939, and this rejection would lead to him moving towards more creative planes post-war. His film ‘Canal’ won the jury special prize at Cannes in 1957, an award he would trump in 1981 by winning the Palme d’Or with ‘Man of Iron’. A film depicting the rise of independent trade union Solidarity, the Cannes award pretty much saved him from arrest. In 2000 Wajda received an Oscar lifetime achievement award, and he passed away this past week aged 90.

The ‘Cinema of Moral Concern’ movement would come during what was known as the ‘Autumn of State Socialism’. Things were unlovable, but liveable. The prosperity that had been so clearly promised turned out to be a myth. The workers and the intelligentsia were beginning to combine forces, and the cinematic movement would play a key role in opening the eyes of the citizenry to the stagnation of the nation. The films showed ordinary people whose existences were bogged down by petty squabbles. They focused on real issues, the reconciliation of career success and durable friendship, the quest for identity, acceptance of responsibility and many other things. Directors such as Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi, Agnieszka Holland and the aforementioned Kieślowski focused on the problems that would arrive at the intersection of personal interest and socio-political demands. The stress was on personal moral dilemmas, with the political context acting as a trigger.

It also made for some wonderful cinema. ‘Kieslowski’s ‘No End’, ‘Blind Chance’ and ‘Camera Buff’ were amongst the best, showing the impact of a corrupt judicial system, the manipulation of an individual and how little it takes to alter a life in such a closely monitored political system. Wajda’s ‘Man of Marble’ and the aforementioned ‘Man of Iron’, Zanussi’s ‘Camouflage’ and Agnieszka Holland’s particularly grim ‘A Woman Alone’ were other great examples of this movement, a movement that tried to morally examine modern Polish life. It was a tough life, and the films made little attempt to disguise this fact. Again, Kieślowski put it best when he said that ‘…the whole world around was very sad, it was not even black and white. It was just black’.

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The films didn’t have huge state-sponsored exposure, but they reached enough people to make a difference. They existed on the fringes of popular culture, undermining the rhetoric of the regime at every turn. The shadow of politics on everyday life was clear in every picture, especially films such as ‘Camera Buff’. The aesthetics of the films bordered on the style more often seen in documentaries, with the focus sitting on strong dialogue and natural acting. Those hoping to see explosions and tits need look elsewhere.

The pinnacle of the movement, and quite probably the pinnacle of movie-making for me and my admittedly biased viewpoint, was Kieślowski’s ten-part series entitled ‘Dekalog’. This was ten hour-long features loosely based on the Ten Commandments, all set in a grim high rise Warsaw apartment complex. Now and then the characters intermingle, all be it in stand-off situations such as in a lift or walking past each other unaware on the stairs. The moral and ethical dilemmas are clear, but the characters are dealing with them as opposed to talking about them. It is wildly ingenious cinema.

Much like NASA putting a man on the moon in 1969 and not much since., ‘Dekalog’ can rightly be viewed as the plateau of Polish cinema. With the fall of communism came much freer artistic expression, but the fall of communism also saw the end of state-funded film making and an obsession with western style blockbusters. That’ll be those explosions ad tits then. Still, Poland has a great and complex history and  it just so happens to occupy an important spot in the history of film, especially film as a political tool.

‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is available for purchase, we swear. To pick up a print copy of the book (€20 plus postage), send us an email at miseryslavic@gmail.com. The digital version is available on Amazon at the link linked here , although you can also buy the digital copy through us. That is unless you think Amazon deserves 30% of the work.

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