Of Pornography and beyond
The recurring release of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films in various collections attests to more than English speakers’ enduring love of the work of the late master: it hides the sad fact that in the near decade since his death, a great deal of passion has evaporated from the film industry in Poland. It has become ever harder for young filmmakers to pull off the melancholy and sweet bewilderment of Polish films of the 1980s in the twenty-first century, when, often, they see finding funding as their most difficult battle. With poor scripts, a lack of intellectual engagement, and declining interest in East Europe, it is now a rare Polish film that makes its way to the shelves of foreign video stores. However, searching among the few recent films offered with English subtitles, one is certain to find a gem or two. Following are some highlights from the past two years.
Pornografia (Pornography, 2003)
Set in 1943, World War II provides a vivid backdrop for the action of Jan Jakub Kolski’s wonderfully lyrical Pornografia. The story concerns a game that two adult men, theater director Fryderyk (Krzysztof Majchrzak) and writer Witold (Adam Ferency), play to convince a sixteen-year-old girl and boy to fall in love. The girl, Henia, is the youthful, unsuspecting daughter of their hosts, the loquacious Hipolit (Krzysztof Globisz) and drunken Marysia (Graźyna Błęcka-Kolska), who have invited the men to wait out the war on their farm. Quiet and perfunctory, the boy, Karol, is unaware of their schemes, and Henia’s proud, solidly mustached fiancé also fails to catch on, with tragic consequences. The story’s irony – the men’s insistence on winning this private, “pornographic” war to build sexual attraction between the teenagers and their absolute disinterest in the real one that wages around them – is conveyed through imaginative camerawork, an unforgettable, “sad-happy” soundtrack, and superb acting. Majchrzak and Globisz, in particular, give worthy performances as goofy but unyielding personalities.
Viewers familiar with Witold Gombrowicz’s celebrated 1960 novel, Pornografia, should prepare themselves for something different in Kolski’s relatively unfaithful adaptation, but should not be deterred. Realizing that the writer’s complex prose did not lend itself entirely to the screen, Kolski took freedom in constructing the filmic narrative by adding a few secondary storylines and inserting some of the novel’s most eloquent lines in voice-over. The end result is an astonishing, original work by one of Poland’s most innovative directors. The most sophisticated Polish film of the past few years, Pornografia is a colorful and poignant adaptation of Gombrowicz’s masterpiece.
Pręgi (The Welts, 2004)
Magdalena Piekorz’s competent but uninspiring debut feature film, Pręgi (based on a contemporary novel by Wojciech Kurczok), is a boy’s coming-of-age story. Regrettably, the boy is not a child but an adult – and a very unlikable one at that – when the sea change finally begins. In the first half of the film, Piekorz adroitly exaggerates the memories of thirty-year-old Wojciech Winkler (Wacek Adamczyk and Michal Żebrowski), enumerating his struggles as a twelve-year-old to live with his well-meaning but delusional and volatile father, who horribly abuses Wojciech when he is not busy painting porcelain Madonnas. Wojciech’s priest is a pedophile; his teachers are inconsistent and obtuse; his doctor only makes things worse. The ill-fated kid hides in his bathroom and in a friend’s house before running away – toward the camera, in one of far too many of the film’s references to Truffaut’s 400 Blows. The second half of the film depicts Wojciech’s adult life as a spelunker, magazine writer, functioning member of society, and ferocious brute. The film’s point that adult Wojciech has become as abusive toward others as his father had been toward him is made without the least bit of subtlety or ingenuity. The message is simple, direct, and ultimately insulting.
The film’s ridiculously overstated symbolism and failure to explain how this appalling monster has had no trouble with the authorities in his purported eighteen years of beating everyone in sight are among its many problems. Unaccompanied by masochism, explained in Freudian images (caves, mirrors, nails, a play on the word “father”), and unrequited by his many acquaintances, Wojciech’s sadism calls for a leap of faith on the part of the viewer. The real test of the viewer’s patience comes when an angelic (but stupid? deranged? cloying?) young woman, Tania (Agnieszka Grochowska), falls head over heels for him. It’s surprising that Pręgi won the coveted Golden Lion Award at the Gdynia Film Festival, but not that it failed to win the Oscar nomination on which the Polish film industry had pinned its hopes this year. With its excellent production standards, good cast and artistic advising by famed director Krzysztof Zanussi, Pręgi has a lot to offer, but its viewer must be willing to swallow a strong dose of poppycock.
Symetria (Symmetry, 2003)
In an early scene in director Konrad Niewolski’s prison story, a mild-mannered, unemployed college graduate, twenty-six-year-old Łukasz (Arek Detmer), is arrested while leaving the cinema. Although he claims to be innocent, an elderly woman picks him out of a line of suspects in an attack on her and he is imprisoned. Here he chooses – for unexplained reasons – to share the prison’s most dangerous cell with contraband smugglers. When his mother’s attempts to free him fail, he adapts to life behind bars by taking on the characteristics of some of his cellmates. Most notably, he comes to see symmetry in revenge thanks to his friendship with a former professor, Dawid (Andrzej Chyra), who has been charged with the murder of his wife’s rapist. A flashback to the murder insinuates that such a crime is admirable and raises the question of Łukasz’s future in the prison. Will he become a masochist, a thug, or one who kills to save his honor?
In spite of good acting, sensitive cinematography, and well-placed scenes in which Łukasz’s interior struggle reveals itself, Symetria lacks the allegory necessary in prison stories, where action takes place in a setting that is unfamiliar to most audiences. The gradual change in the prisonmates’ definitions of symmetry – from finding balance to forcing equality and eventually to gaining revenge – are well documented in the dialog and the alternating of balanced and unbalanced compositions, but they do not make up for the lack of allusion to a more accessible world. Furthermore, Łukasz’s struggles seem all the more banal when it is suggested that they represent those of his generation. Well educated, single, and supported by his mother, he goes to the movies alone to get away from it all – and so, to get away from what? The unbearable ease of a prolonged childhood? The unanswered question in the film is why he chooses to keep the most dangerous company in the prison. Could it be that he is drawn to the overt conflict that his life outside of the prison is lacking? In this way, the film, perhaps, tries to make a statement about the pressure that the twenty-something generation feels in the current social condition – it is a droning, constant pressure but one that lacks an immediately visible source. And without this source – the story behind the story – the film fails to convince.
Warszawa (Warsaw, 2003)
Director Dariusz Gajewski’s Warszawa finds itself among too many recent films in which several underdeveloped characters – stereotypes even – accidentally crash into each other on the streets of major cities. The film opens as an old man, obviously suffering from Alzheimer’s, moseys across the railroad tracks in a uniform and armband from the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. On the train, Klara and Paweł, a bright-eyed innocent and a light-hearted thief from an orphanage, meet. In subsequent scenes, an illicit dealer, Andrzej, picks up a Flamenco-dancing hitchhiker, Wiktoria, and involves her in his business. An overweight, tired fruit wholesaler comes to the city to look for his missing daughter. And from time to time, small-town Misio and his buddy Rysio drive around the city in an oversized car looking for Klara. It comes as little surprise that this largely uninteresting band of characters runs into a bus ticket controller, a drugged-out roommate, a greedy German boss, a rich lady with a sweater-wearing dog, a Japanese tourist, the malicious owner of a Mercedes dealership, a gypsy, a down-on-his-luck petty thief, and even a giraffe. Nor is it surprising that they run into each other, in a late-night car wreck in the center of the city, after a full day of adventure.
The plot of Warszawa may be lame, but scenes of Poland’s arbitrarily constructed capital prove that its setting is not. Gajewski shows the city through the eyes of one who has just arrived – assorted, ironic, magical, and most of all, petrified of the changes that it sees itself going through. The thief does not recognize himself as a thief, the war veteran no longer knows where he lives, and identities are changing hands on every corner. Several meaningful images of the city, such as an inserted shot of a building with a pre-war bottom and a contemporary top, are the saving grace of a film that is otherwise just so-so.
Zmruż oczy (Squint Your Eyes, 2002)
In director Andrzej Jakimowski’s Zmruż oczy, Zbigniew Zamachowski plays Jasiek, a former teacher who has inhabited an abandoned farm from the PGR era. With his sidekicks – a runaway preteen called Mała (“little one,” played by Olga Prószyńska), twenty-something Sosnoszczuk, and awkward Eugeniusz – he whiles away the days by placidly interacting with the police, Mała’s affluent parents (Małgorzata Foremniak and Andrzej Chyra), local officials, and a host of others who make their way to the broken-down relic of less aggressive times. The slow pace of the film may be frustrating, particularly because drawn-out scenes of the characters kicking around a soccer ball or writing on a patch of cement add nothing to viewers’ understanding of their motivations. Too profound and poetic, the dialog only worsens this situation. There is just a hint of a story here – enough to whet audiences’ appetites but not enough to satiate them.
Still, the film is lovely – graceful, visually stunning, and pleasantly understated. It is also a sign of the times. Jakimowski has skillfully captured a fleeting moment in which the newly rich and the newly lethargic might meet on a run-down PGR farm. The elegance of the cinematography, the long silences, the subtlety of Mała and Jasiek’s corresponding facial expressions, and the careful treatment of the characters’ often wordless interactions add up to an important chronicle of the turn of the twenty-first century. Zmruż oczy is worth watching over and over again, as its layers of meaning will most likely expose themselves only gently, patiently, and in their own good time.
Żurek (Zhoorek, 2003)
Director Ryszard Brylski’s offbeat Christmas story Żurek wins hands-down as the most delightful Polish film of the past few years. Its main character, fifteen-year-old Iwona Iwankówna (Natalia Rybicka), is a stubborn nut to crack. She has just given birth to an illegitimate son for whom she suffers humiliation by her former classmates and the anger of her newly widowed mother, Halina (Katarzyna Figura). Warm, hard-working, easily manipulated, and ceaselessly worried about what “people will say,” Halina is on the verge of a nervous breakdown over Iwona’s refusal to reveal the name of the baby’s father. In her desire to legitimatize the baby by christening him with his father’s name before Christmas, she is led around town by the capricious but sweet Iwona, who allows her to pass on accusations of paternity to a string of unsuspecting neighbors.
The film takes Olga Tokarczuk’s short story of the same name as its point of departure. Tokarczuk’s precise, evocative prose proves suitable for adaptation; the screenplay is among the best that Polish filmmaking has seen in years. Its setting in a small border town in the south-central Małopolska region adds to its appeal and allows for an important detail – the źurek of the title is a traditional soup served on Christmas Eve in this part of the country. Along with a broken television set, a little basket attached to a stroller, and an ice cream bar, a bottle of the white borscht symbolizes the subtle difference established in the film between comradeship and compassion and nourishes the tumultuous mother-daughter relationship. Iwona and Halina’s screaming fights, sideways glances, and shared fits of laughter add up to a flawlessly performed portrait of unconditional love in a film that is destined to become a cult classic.