A Cinema of Discontent: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema

By Ela BittencourtJune 1, 2014

A Cinema of Discontent: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema

POLISH FILM of the 1970s and ’80s is often called the “cinema of moral discontent.” But as demonstrated by the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema series that is currently touring the United States, there is nothing monolithic, or easily classifiable, about the period’s production. Alongside iconic works, such as Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blind Chance (1981) and A Short Film About Killing (1988), or Krzysztof Zanussi’s The Illumination (1972), Camouflage (1977) and The Constant Factor (1980), the program also includes epic works that look to Poland’s rich history, while obliquely commenting on the more immediate past. While filmmakers such as Kieślowski and Zanussi challenged the communist regime directly, expressing a desire to create without the opprobrium of censorship or persecution, the creators of the historical dramas place the Poles’ prolonged, painful road to independence and the internal struggles against conformism in a broader context.

Jerzy Antczak’s Nights and Days (1975) immediately captured the Poles’ imagination, ranking as the fifth most popular film of the era and attracting over 20 million viewers. An adaptation of a four-tome eponymous family saga by Maria Dąbrowska, the film took Antczak five years to complete, and is a life-spanning portrait of Barbara (Jadwiga Barańska), the daughter of impoverished landowners. A village of Serbinow was constructed not far from Warsaw to serve as a set. Antczak chose a narrative frame that moves fluidly between past and present: helped by her former Jewish neighbor, Szymszel (Zbigniew Koczanowicz), Barbara escapes the town of Kaliniec on the eve of World War I with scant belongings, hoping to reunite with her children, who live away from home. As she rides the carriage, we learn her story in flashbacks: the young Barbara fancies a dashing man, Józef Toliboski, but when he marries a richer girl, she settles for a hardworking estate manager, Bogumil Niechcic (Jerzy Binczycki), even though he fails to satisfy her aspirations. Yearning for society balls and culture, Barbara finds bitterness and disillusionment in her life on the farm. Devoted to her children and to Bogumil, yet in love with another man, she is a complex character, whose fickleness is offset by her sorrows (including the death of her young child from consumption). When Bogumil realizes that Barbara does not love him, he falls first for a neighbor’s daughter and then for his housemaid. The scene in which Barbara catches Bogumil in an amorous tryst is one of the film’s most heartbreaking, with the two spouses unwilling to admit their mutual collusion in the marriage’s fiasco.

Nights and Days is often likened to Gone with the Wind (1939),a comparison that seems apt given the films’ tortured relationships and the lush, shimmering cinematography that renders its protagonists’ lives arduous yet bucolic. But for all the gentility of a bygone era, and the specter of opulence shown in sober decay — Barbara and Bogumil fret incessantly over financial matters and face bankruptcy — Antczak’s cool treatment of Barbara’s infatuations and self-inflicted solitude strikes a tone more akin to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Just as Emma falls prey to the spirited romances that set her at odds with reality, so too does Barbara’s constant replay of the few moments spent with her paramour, and her idealization of him, frame her as a victim of her feverish, somewhat childish, imagination. It is one of Antczak’s great achievements that while he locks us in Barbara’s point of view, privileging her emotions, he also reserves much sympathy for Bogumil, whose moral zeal, attachment to the land, and valorous demeanor toward farmers comes across as an idealistic but nevertheless moving portrait of a man whose spirit is only gradually broken.

Some critics charged that Antczak did not flesh out the saga’s social and political aspects. Indeed, the film makes only brief overtures to history. We learn of the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which indirectly caused the outbreak of World War I. The passion of Barbara’s oldest daughter, Agnieszka, for a fiery revolutionary who calls for the emancipation of Poland elicits a brief mention of Bogumil’s participation in the January uprising of 1863 against Imperial Russia — a quick yet passing allusion to the Poles’ yearning to shake off the communist yoke. Yet Antczak resented the idea that he had shortchanged history. In an interview he gave on the occasion of a publication of his memoir, Nights and Days of My Life, he remarked, 

I never understood the ‘cinema of moral discontent’ label. I always sensed the moral discontent [in my works]. Even while directing Chekhov’s Three Sisters or Uncle Vanya for television, I had to ask myself what it meant to lead an honorable life, and how to treat others.

The question of how to live an honorable life, or indeed, if it is possible to live one in the face of widespread corruption, is raised in the brilliant, albeit controversial, production of Andrzej Wajda’s The Promised Land (1975). An adaptation of a novel by Noble Prize–winning Polish realist writer Władysław Reymont, the film was nominated for an Oscar, but criticized as anti-Semitic. Wajda, who addressed Poland’s contemporary ills in such acclaimed films as Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981) — originally banned in Poland but now presented in the Masterpieces series — looks back to Poland’s early industrial age, depicting the multiethnic city of Łódź. The Promised Land tells the story of three friends: Karol, a dissolute Polish aristocrat, Moryc, an ambitious young Jewish merchant, and Max, a suave German. Short on capital and credit, in a city whose volatile textile business is owned by large cotton barons, the three longtime friends decide to open their own factory. Through much wheeling and dealing, they raise the funds to complete construction.

Wajda’s ability to capture generational conflicts shone in his earlier films, such as Ashes and Diamonds (1958), about a young Home Army soldier sent on a mission to kill an old Communist Party functionary, and Innocent Sorcerers (1960), which depicted Polish youths as having lost their moral bearing in the wake of World War II. Both films are featured in the Masterpieces series, and along with The Promised Land, they serve as fascinating portraits of the ruthless rebelliousness that characterizes those who seek to install a new social order. In The Promised Land, callow zealousness turns sinister once the protagonists embrace corruption and moral cynicism as a fast ticket to success. In this generational tale, the sons upstage the fathers: Karol forsakes the old family estate, now drained of funds, and disappoints his father by betraying his innocent fiancée, Anka; Max deprecates his father for what he sees as old-fashioned weaving methods, dismissing probity as a thing of the past; Moryc blackmails a shadowy patriarchal figure, an influential merchant who had entrusted him with a lump sum. Thus the impetus to emerge from the shadows of the über-powerful Łódźmenschen, or Łódź’s establishment, leads to the three young men’s moral collapse.

The communist censors could easily take The Promised Land for a strident critique of capitalism: ostensibly, the evil that consumes Karol, Moryc, and Max is their incessant, incestuous desire for material goods. But in the end, lasciviousness rather than greed nearly ruins them. When Karol’s love affair with Adela, a wife of a rich merchant, Zucker, results in a pregnancy, Zucker secretly burns down his nemesis’s newly built factory. Uninsured and momentarily defeated, Karol allies himself with the wealthiest Łódź merchant, Müller, whose pretensions he has always scorned, and marries his daughter, Magda. The last long sequence shows him installed in the magnate’s palace. The procession, full of bathos and ostentation, ends in Karol’s study; as he gazes out the window, mill workers gather to protest, and a brick crashes through his window. To viewers watching this scene in communist Poland, the scene’s reference was clear: as Karol gives the order to fire into the crowd, we are reminded of the bloody anti-regime demonstrations that took place in the 1970s in the factories in Warsaw and Gdańsk.

Critics have read the film as a social and moral grotesque, and its characters as handy archetypes. Wajda portrays viciousness and cunning on all sides, and in a way, renders Karol as the most monstrous of the three friends: Karol’s duplicity, disregard for human life, and ruthlessness toward his fiancée are Mephistophelian. But there is no denying that Reymont’s text is virulently racist in other aspects, for it also depicts genteel aristocratic Poles and the quietly suffering Polish textile workers as tragic and upright, vis-à-vis the mirthless caricatures of the Jewish and German merchants. Time and again Jews are presented as either foolish or greedy, while Poles are shown as reluctantly borrowing money from them. Even Moryc, whose bravado and wit surpass Karol’s, is presented as if he were redeemed only by his unquestioning, undying loyalty to his Polish friend. Max, the German, comes off slightly more favorably, for he not only sees through Karol’s unscrupulousness, but also shows kindness toward his humiliated fiancée (though he may have also selfishly added to her pain by revealing Karol’s debauchery).

Wojciech Has’s The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973), a winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival, is also a literary adaptation. The original it is based on, a short story by the rediscovered and now wildly celebrated Polish writer Bruno Schulz, is cavernous and magical, quite unlike anything ever brought to the screen. Where in The Promised Land the rich culture of Polish Jewry is relegated to a backdrop, in The Hourglass Sanatorium it becomes the story’s connective tissue. An eerie journey into the past, The Hourglass Sanatorium recreates the boisterous, crowded markets of urban Jewish quarters, with synagogues, bustling stalls, and merchants. Where Jewish prayer serves in Wajda’s The Promised Land as an incantatory time marker — we hear all three nationalities praying against the background of sinister mill chimneys — in Has, the prayers are abstracted from specific ceremonies, oozing mystique, and referring us back to the primal landscape of childhood, and to the shamanic magic of the word.

Has’s adaptation preserves the key tensions of Schulz’s text, as well as the basic elements of its scanty plot: a young man, Józef (Jan Nowicki), travels to a sanatorium to visit his father, Jakub (Tadeusz Kondrat). The sanatorium’s director, the mysterious Dr. Gotard, played brilliantly by one of Poland’s famed film and stage actors, Gustaw Holoubek, claims to have reversed time. Józef’s gaunt, deathly pale father lies in a hospital bed literally suspended between life and death, in the hope of getting well. But while the sanatorium promises eternal life, Józef soon realizes that he is surrounded by resuscitated cadavers: Bianka, a Spanish princess; a little boy who might be Józef’s younger self; and a luscious redhead named Adela. Józef finds himself surrounded by phantoms, fiction archetypes that lack real depth. It is as if random pages had been torn out from adventure novels, archaic spiritual texts and pseudo-scientific books, and thrown up to form a new, infinitely intricate text.

As in Alice in Wonderland, we see Józef crawl through endless narrow spaces, under beds, over walls, and through doors to parallel universes. In one sequence, Józef’s father morphs from a sickly man inserting an enema into his decayed body to a robust merchant and then, in a brothel, into a lecher delighting in the earthly pleasures. As in dreams, anything is possible: mannequins, like one of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, come to life; buildings’ interiors mesh with exteriors; imaginary battles rage. Addressed as “naughty,” and treated like a schoolboy, Józef is both infantilized and scholarly, a kind of idiot savant. In his search for The Book, a text that may contain all of life’s mysteries, he discovers nothing but a shadow play of lost souls, fragments of his own spiritual life. The promise of eternal life proves nightmarish, nothing that Józef would bargain for, as he notes, “My father is lucky to be dead, actually.” Dressed as a blind ticket collector, Józef opens the sanatorium doors in the final shot, but what awaits him is a massive cemetery plot. As he crawls into it amid jagged gravestones, we see his grieving mother, and for a moment cannot be sure if she is mourning her late husband, Jakub, or, perhaps, her son.

As with the epic works of Antczak and Wajda, The Hourglass Sanatorium gains in resonance thanks to its contemporary framing. From the opening sequence, in which gaunt, wasted bodies are strewn on hay in a rickety train wagon, memories of the Final Solution permeate the picture. Even though this motif recedes until a much later scene, in which Józef peers through a basement window at his neighbors fleeing in panic, the entire film, as a meditation on death and extinction, is colored by unspeakable terror. By the time the film was shown in 1970s Poland, the tragedy had gained yet another dimension: the stigma of 1968, when many Polish Jews who had survived the war were forced to leave their homeland as a result of anti-Semitic campaigns. It is this double disappearance, or the double erasure, that haunts The Hourglass Sanatorium.

To watch it along Antczak’s Nights and Days and Wajda’s The Promised Land is not only to understand the dramatic changes that Poland underwent as it moved from an agrarian to an industrialized society in the early 20th century, but also to witness the country’s lost customs and traditions. And while the films of “moral discontent” included in the Masterpieces series eviscerate communist dysfunction, the historical dramas depict the miserable living conditions of workers and farmers, poor healthcare, and rampant inequality that gave rise to the Marxist doctrine. And this is the part of the brilliance of Masterpieces: that it lets its viewers watch the historical dialectic of communism unfurl on the silver screen.


Ela Bittencourt is a writer, film critic and curator.

LARB Contributor

Ela Bittencourt is a writer, film critic and curator. Her essays and interviews have appeared in publications including Art Forum, Cineaste, Film Quarterly, Frieze and Senses of Cinema.


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