June 11, 2009

Kieslowski’s Early Documentaries

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:36 pm
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The Imperial War Museum, London, is currently running a season titled “Sparks of Hope: Polish Paths to Freedom”, comprising a series of films about the Communist experience in Poland, from the start of June until early July. Details can be found here. The season includes films by Wajda and Holland amongst others, but the real coup might just be the series of documentaries made by Krzysztof Kieslowski between 1966-1981, before he made his name as an incredibly gifted feature film maker.

All documentaries are shown together, lasting approximately two and a quarter hours in total. It starts with the most recent, but also the longest, ‘A Short Working Day’ (1981). At 73 minutes, it’s more or less a main feature and combines documentary and dramatisation, rather than merely documenting live events as the remaining films do. Kieslowski points out that the film is based on a real incident, when workers protested in Radom in 1976, yet the characters involved are fictional. A precursor and inspiration to the Solidarity movement, Kieslowski’s film demonstrates that the Communist state could be challenged through the unity of the people. A politician who’s enjoyed a rapid ascent to power and is now First Secretary of the Voivodship struggles to deal with the 20000 or so striking workers when they protest outside his HQ, gaining no assistance from Warsaw and all chaos threatens to occur. Most interesting is how Kieslowski freezes upon various protestors, then cuts to their fate, as it were. You have a woman complaining about her salary; we cut to her being tried for vandalism. Another demonstrator goes onto work in underground propaganda against the state, whilst a young man is later beaten mercilessly by police for his role in the protests. Kieslowski ends on a fitting note; the agreement signed at the Gdansk shipyards as a symbol of hope and the first step towards the collapse of Communism.

‘The Office’ (1966) is a short film mocking state bureaucracy. A secret camera operates in the pensions department and observes the inflexible staff carrying out the strict rules to the letter, with no leniency. If forms are not completed correctly, one doesn’t get their pension. The final shots of literally a mountain of paperwork, files kept on everyone and everything shows the horrifying extent of the Polish level of bureaucracy.

‘The Factory’ (1970) films discussions and agreements made at the Ursus tractor factory. Kieslowski cuts between management discussing how to modernise the factory, improve technology¬†and increase production and the workers themselves, trying to do as best they can in an underresourced factory. The appeals of management to the Minister to get anything done fall on flat ears. It’s a sober, realistic look at manufacturing, at the heart of the socialist economy.

‘Hospital’ (1976) is only 20 minutes in length, but documents a 31 hour shift for doctors¬†in the emergency room of a Warsaw hospital. Electrical power cuts affect their work; drills stop working – after which more primitive methods of surgery have to take place. The doctors are constantly busy and overrun, but deliver the best care for their patients. Whilst they might be underresourced, there’s no doubt they’re the best advertisment for Polish healthcare.

‘Railway Station’ (1980) – the Central Station in Warsaw, recently renovated. CCTV cameras operate everywhere, observing their citizens with a close eye. Note the final shot of the camera operator with the all-seeing eye, playing God, in the closing shot. Trains are regularly cancelled, queues are commonplace. Despite the claims of improvements, the passengers don’t appear to benefit. Kieslowski’s emphasis is upon the social control demonstrated by constant surveillance.

There’s numerous other screenings taking place in this season, all of which are worth checking out.


December 10, 2008

The Story of Sin

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:53 am
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Director: Walerian Borowczyk

130 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Poland, the nineteenth century. Eva, a teenage girl, takes confession. The priest warns of impure thoughts and giving into lust and sin. Her family take in a young man, Lukash, as a lodger and soon they fall in love. Lukash is married, and since he is unable to acquire a divorce, he and Eva live in sin and Eva is disowned by her family. When Lukash leaves for Rome, Eva falls pregnant. She drowns her newborn child. Count Szczerbic, who wounded Lukash in a duel, tells Eva that Lukash is in prison in Rome, but when she tracks him down, he has been released and deported. Lukash remarries, believing that Eva has began a relationship with Szczerbic. Eva then conspires with two conmen to take revenge on Szczerbic, who Eva believes is responsible for Lukash’s absence in her life. She poisons him as they make love. Eva then becomes a prostitute back in Poland, but is rescued by a kindly gentleman who offers her work. However, the two conmen return, using her to lure Lukash. As she warns Lukash that the conmen intend to kill him, she is shot dead.


The late Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk has two very different reputations. First, he is considered one of the most influential and acclaimed animators of the post-war era, spoken of in similarly reverential tones to the likes of Jan Svankmajer. Second, and most notable, he is considered a director of softcore pornographic films with artistic ambitions. Borowczyk’s career perhaps changed forever in 1975, the year he directed ‘The Story of Sin’ but also his most notorious film ‘The Beast’. These two films could not be any more different. ‘The Story of Sin’ has adult themes and features nudity, but with reason and justification. ‘The Beast’ on the other hand aspires to be a Bunuelian satire on class vanity and ambition, but this is a pretty specious definition at best. Its crude simulation of bestiality is more comic than erotic but nevertheless the censors took action. Borowczyk’s career sharply declined, culminating in the indignity of making the fifth instalment of the Emmanuelle franchise. Reassessing earlier films such as ‘The Story of Sin’ would rehabilitate Borowczyk’s reputation; despite being made in the same year as ‘The Beast’, it is a significantly more interesting film.

‘The Story of Sin’, based on a novel that was banned by the Catholic church (and filmed twice previously) is a tale of a woman who suffers for love much like ‘Madame Bovary’ or ‘Anna Karenina’. Eva is, in her own words, ‘a victim of circumstance’, whose love for Lukash, constantly thwarted by both fate and society is the cause of her downfall. Borowczyk’s fidelity to the literary tradition is one of the film’s strengths; making Eva’s rise and fall the central feature of the film rather than the more salacious subject matter. The adult content, involving two lovemaking scenes are never over-elaborated, completely the opposite from the path Borowczyk would later take. His earlier films had the reputation of being filmed through a fetishist’s eye and the early scenes in ‘The Story of Sin’ between Eva and Lukash positively crackle with sexual tension. Conversations occur with the focus purely on the eyes though the talk is flirting in nature. Memories blur with real life. Just look at how Borowczyk directs the seemingly casual tossing of items of clothing; hats, gloves, coats with the camera following with great interest. Busts and vases are placed in the centre of the frame. It is a unique and sensual approach to filmmaking, done with great subtlety.

‘The Story of Sin’ also contains a number of satirical barbs, not something that the film is renowned for. Eva’s initial piety, dedicated to avoiding sin and impure thoughts, does not seem to be shared by the other members of her family or local society. Whilst she covers ‘sinful’ works of art and books, others cheerfully avoid attending confession. When Eva falls in love with Lukash, she is cast out by her family as a slut and a whore, despite their own lack of piety. Borowczyk hints at the moral corruption at the heart of this society. Eva is exploited and taken advantage of by everyone she meets; no matter how much she searches for Lukash or attempts to create a life for them both together, society moves to prevent it. Conmen use her body as a means of committing murder; her motives to kill Szczerbic are noble of sorts but the conmen seem purely motivated by greed. Exploited and rejected by all, Eva’s fate is sealed. The satirical elements of Borowczyk’s work, when subtle and not over the top, remains underrated, obscured by the more sexually frank reputation he has.

Nominated for the Palme D’Or and the only film of his shot in his native Poland, ‘The Story of Sin’ is an impressive contrast to ‘The Beast’, the other Borowczyk film of 1975. Unfortunately, not much of his earlier work (or later work for this matter) remains currently available. Certainly one considers that the director has a career of two halves; one half mature and subtle, the other sensationalist and wilfully provocative. Whatever the reasons behind Borowczyk’s decline, which mirrors the heroine of this film (both victims of a sexually prudish society?), there is enough here to warrant rediscovery and rehabilitation.

November 6, 2008

Man of Iron


Director: Andrzej Wajda

153 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Gdansk, Poland, the early 1980s. Winkel, an alcoholic journalist is assigned to report upon the strikes by workers at the Gdansk shipyards, and to specifically undermine the efforts of these workers as they protest for fairness, justice and independent unions. The main focus of his report should be Maciej, the son of Matuesz, the shock-worker hero of ‘Man of Marble’. Through conversations with those who know Maciej, including a former university classmate and his imprisoned wife, Winkel learns about Maciej’s past – his disputes with his father during the student protests of 1968, his arrest and breakdown, how he found work at the shipyards and the role he now plays in the Solidarity movement.

The more Winkel learns about Maciej and the workers at the shipyards, the more he loses faith with his assignment and begins to sympathise with workers’ demands. He delays his report, though this fools no-one, and he is reminded of an accident he caused through drink-driving years ago, which is used as emotional blackmail to produce the report that is required. ‘Man of Iron’ concludes with documentary footage of the successful negotiations between the state and the Solidarity movement, from which they received their demands. Maciej then lights a candle at the spot where his father was murdered by the police a decade before.


Although Wajda is best known for his war trilogy of the 1950s (‘A Generation’, ‘Kanal’ and ‘Ashes and Diamonds’), his most historically important work emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, coinciding with a loose Polish film movement known as “the cinema of moral anxiety”, which was intended to awaken the public consciousness and depict life in Poland as it really was and not reiterate Communist propaganda. This also includes the work of Kieslowski, Holland and Zanussi and flourished during a brief artistic thaw. Wajda maintains that he never set out to make a sequel to ‘Man of Marble’, his 1977 film which focused on the making of a myth about a shock-worker “hero” and the reality behind this. He was encouraged to do so by the shipyard workers themselves, and given that the eponymous hero of ‘Man of Marble’ died at the Gdansk shipyard, there was an opportunity for a seamless transition between the two films.

‘Man of Iron’ almost acts as a documentary of the time. Unknown to Wajda when he began the film, the pace of history was to be quick and the production had to follow, capturing these historic events as they occurred before the introduction of martial law at the end of 1981, which interrupted Wajda’s domestic filmmaking output. Much like ‘Man of Marble’, it weaves between fact actual documentary footage and fact-based fiction (as Wajda notes in his prologue, these are fictitious characters but the situation is real), and both films use an Citizen Kane-esque template of a journalist discovering and charting the biography of a man who has fallen into obscurity (though of course Maciej is at the centre stage of history in the making). In both Wajda films, journalists are assigned to undertake a rudimentary assignment, to either rescue a former hero from obscurity or to disgrace his shipyard worker son, but both journalists discover that there is more to meet the eye than as initially appears. The shipyard workers of Gdansk are not the troublemaking agitators in the pay of international organisations as the regime would portray them, but looking only for fairness and justice. Since the pasts of both Mateusz and Maciej are constructed from how others remember them, there is a question of how reliable accounts are since not everyone has correct and proper motives. Wajda reaffirms to us that memories are not necessarily the truth, but just a version of it.

Much like ‘Man of Marble’, there is an examination of how valid documentary footage is, but also how use and control of the media, which is in the hands of the state, can be used again to depict a version of the truth that is satisfactory to it. Since ‘Man of Iron’ partly continues the ending of ‘Man of Marble’, Wajda reveals that Agniezka’s film about Mateusz was taken away from her because it discovered truths not palatable to the regime. When the authorities discover Winkel is stalling on his own film when he claims it is not finished, he is told that “editing’s not your job”. Therefore it does not really matter what Winkel hands in, it will inevitably be tailored to what was originally intended. Media is able to be manipulated though Wajda reveals at the start of the film that it was possible to slip subversive elements through which the authorities might not pick up on. This reflects the slight thaw of the era before martial law was introduced.

Although ‘Man of Iron’ was not originally conceived as a document of historical events, certainly by the time it reached Cannes in the Summer of 1981, that is how it would forever be remembered as it coincided with the rapid course of history in Wajda’s native Poland. Maciej himself should possibly be seen as a representation of Lech Walesa, who appears in the film blessing the marriage of Maciej and Agniezka (“I trust you will be a democratic couple”) and remains the only Nobel Peace Prize winner to feature in a Palme D’Or winning film. Interestingly, Wajda reveals how religion played an active role in the daily lives of most Polish, despite Communism being a secular ideology. The Catholic church was deeply involved in the rise of Solidarity, shown in numerous scenes where the shipyard workers pray. Wajda reveals the insecurity of the Communist regime in Poland and how of all the countries in Eastern Europe it was most susceptible. ‘Man of Iron’ remains an important film, a document of a declining regime and the collective action that accelerated it, but also an example of the clever interweaving of documentary footage and fiction to represent a historical significant set of events.

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