From Wednesday 26 to Saturday 29 November, I was in Warsaw attending the Common Heritage – Polish traces in international film archives (Wspólne dziedzictwo – polonica w archiwach światowych) conference. This was organised by the Filmoteka Narodowa – Poland’s national film archive – and involved bringing representatives from various international film archives together to present what the Filmoteka called ‘Polonica’: Polish elements (individuals, stories, subjects, locations, cultural sources) occurring in otherwise foreign films, the only stipulation being that they had to have been made before 1945. (The Filmoteka’s website has an overview in Polish, and a video of the opening day’s presentations – the one from 3:50 to the end is in English.)
The primary purpose of this exercise was to come up with an alternative moving-image history of Poland to replace the one that had been destroyed during World War II (although the tireless efforts of Polish film historians have retrieved some 75% of 1930s features, the bulk of the country’s silent, short, non-fiction and experimental output is believed lost for good), though there were inevitable drawbacks along the way. The most obvious was that the presentation of Polish elements was often dictated by the ideology of the film-producing country – so in early 1920s Soviet films they were evil bourgeois capitalist landowning oppressors of heroic Ukrainian peasants during the 1919-21 Polish-Bolshevik war, while in 1940s British films they were unimpeachably heroic and upstanding defenders of not just their nation but also Britain. While the second portrait may have been more palatable to the conference hosts, it was ultimately just as one-sided.
Seven archives took part, based in France, Germany, Israel, Russia and the UK. I represented the BFI National Archive, and screened three examples of the above-mentioned WWII propaganda (Picturesque Poland, 1941; The Poles Weigh Anchor and The Call of the Sea, 1942), along with a record of a famous 1934 Polish mountaineering expedition (Polska wyprawa na Andy) and a Gaumont Graphic newsreel of the actual Polish-Bolshevik War. The Imperial War Museum and its French counterpart ECPAD showed more war footage (some of it amateur), the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive showed inescapably haunting amateur films of Jewish communities in 1920s and 1930s Poland, and two whole days were given over to the German and Russian contributions, since there was so much relevant material lurking in the vaults of the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, the Deutsche Kinemathek Museum für Film und Fernsehen and Gosfilmofond, even if the portrait of Poles was often less than flattering. Significant exceptions: Paul Leni’s debut Dr Hart’s Diary (1916) and a fascinating 1914 Russian adaptation of Juliusz Słowacki’s novel Mazepa – the source of Walerian Borowczyk’s much better known Blanche (1970).
All in all, it was a fascinating experience, and I very much hope that it will become (as intended) an annual event. In the medium term, the Filmoteka is producing an official conference publication, for which I’ve agreed to write a chapter.