Michael Brooke

Talk: The Polish Documentary Movement 1947-60

This is the text of a presentation I gave at the BFI on 12 May 2008, on the early history of the Polish documentary movement 1947-60 – I’ve deleted some scene-setting preamble that was only relevant to that particular audience, but otherwise this is pretty much verbatim.

One thing that becomes very clear very quickly when one starts to delve into the subject is that the history of the Polish documentary is incredibly rich and complex – in fact, much like the history of British film, one could argue that its non-fiction work is just as distinguished as its fiction, if not more so, and the only reason it’s been practically invisible to non-Poles is down to distribution and access issues rather than lack of quality.

There have been sporadic attempts over the years to promote Polish documentaries to British audiences, starting with the fourth Free Cinema programme – ‘Polish Voices’ was an all-Polish programme, and its fiftieth anniversary falls in September. In 1967, Lindsay Anderson was invited to visit the WFD documentary studio in Warsaw, where he became the first foreign director to make a film for them – ‘The Singing Lesson’. Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to see this: the Archive has two 35mm prints, but both have master status. More recently, the international success of the later films of Krzysztof Kieślowski has sparked a modicum of interest in his early work – from the late 1960s to the early 1980s he worked almost exclusively in documentary, and a few key titles have turned up as extras on the DVDs of his better known films. There have also been sporadic festival screenings and even more occasional seasons, including one that’s running at the Imperial War Museum this very month. So the Polish documentary movement hasn’t been entirely invisible over here, but I think it’s probably fair to say that until very recently it’s been largely inaccessible to those not prepared to have a rummage through various Polish archives.

So, where to start? And, more to the point, where to stop? Well, I was struck by a comment that Kieślowski once made when he said that the period from about 1959 to 1968 was the golden age of Polish documentary filmmaking, where both industry conditions and relative freedom of both subject matter and filmic approach combined to create a perfect working environment. As you’ll see from the title of this talk, that’s not actually the period I’ve chosen to cover – instead, I’ve picked 1947-60. This is partly because, Maria von Trapp style, I thought the very beginning was a very good place to start, but also because I was interested in what led up to the creation of Kieślowski alleged utopia – especially given that only a few years earlier documentary-makers were anything but free.

Poland had had a reasonably thriving film industry in the run-up to the Nazi and Soviet invasions of September 1939 but, much like the BBC’s fledgling television service, it was more or less shut down for the duration of World War II, and aside from a handful of Soviet-backed propaganda films there was practically no filmmaking activity there until 1945. Since Poland would lose a truly staggering 22% of its population, accompanied by what seemed at the time to be the total and permanent destruction of a state that had only been in existence since 1918, it’s easy to see why filmmaking was considered an unaffordable luxury. Cinemas continued to function, but they generally showed pre-war Polish films and Nazi propaganda, the latter leading to the Polish resistance calling for a boycott of cinemas and a stink-bombing campaign, accompanied by a slogan that translates as “Only pigs go to the cinema”.

Unsurprisingly, by the end of the war, most of the pre-war Polish filmmakers had either emigrated or been killed, and because it was clear even then that a communist government was all but inevitable, most of the emigres chose not to return: Polish film historian Marek Haltof claims that just one established pre-war director returned to make films under the communist regime. Even more relevantly, one of the first acts of what became the Polish People’s Republic was to erase as many links with prewar Poland as possible. In other words, 1945 was effectively Year Zero for the Polish film industry.

With this in mind, combined with the lack of resources available in a ruined country, it is truly remarkable that Polish documentary filmmaking got off the ground so quickly to the point when a Polish film won the Palme d’Or for Best Documentary in 1947. This was The Flood, directed by Jerzy Bossak and Wacław Kaźmierczak, and was a completely wordless look at the devastation wrought when the Vistula river burst its banks. Here’s the opening sequence:

CLIP – The Flood

I’m going to show you clips from two other films from 1947, to give you some idea of the range being attempted. First is The Coal Mine, directed by Natalia Brzozowska, one of the tiny handful of women working in Polish cinema at the time. Like The Flood, it has no spoken content, but while Bossak and Kaźmierczak had some genuinely extraordinary images of destruction and devastation to film, Brzozowska’s material is much more run-of-the-mill – so she beefs it up with strongly rhythmic compositions and editing that hark back to 1920s Soviet montage while also anticipating the work of Geoffrey Jones over here.

CLIP – The Coal Mine

And the next clip is from Brzozowa Street, directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has, the future director of the altogether more fantastical The Saragossa Manuscript, and Stanisław Różewicz, which takes us behind the scenes of the Warsaw Old Town and sees people scraping a living in bombed-out buildings:

CLIP – Brzozowa Street

This promising beginning didn’t last. Although elements of all three films, particularly the last one, seemed to be pointing towards a cinema of genuine social concern, the problem with such a cinema is that by definition it has to have something to be concerned about. And, by equally logical extension, that means that it has to admit that there are failings somewhere in the system. Although communists were in a minority in the Polish government in 1945, their influence was disproportionately large thanks to Soviet support. In 1946, so-called ‘rightist’ parties were banned, and between 1947 and 49 the communists took control. As far as the film industry was concerned, this meant both centralised control – it had been nationalised as early as November 1945 – and total subservience to the Stalinist doctrine of Socialist Realism, which had dominated Soviet culture since 1934.

The Polish version of Socialist Realism was first outlined in a December 1947 speech by Bolesław Bierut, the then President of Poland. It was formally approved exactly a year later when the two main socialist parties merged to form the dominant Polish United Workers’ Party, and in November 1949 a filmmakers’ congress with some two hundred participants condemned much of what had been made in the four years after the war, and agreed to the compulsory imposition of Socialist Realism more or less across the board. Incidentally, The Coal Mine was one of the victims: it was banned for alleged ‘formalism’, a charge already familiar to many Soviet artists – it was famously levelled against Dmitri Shostakovich in 1936 in an article entitled ‘Chaos instead of music’ that was said to have been penned by Stalin himself.

As you can probably imagine, this created some pretty fundamental problems for documentary filmmakers, as the one thing Socialist Realism was not was especially realistic – there’s a famous quip by the great Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó when someone asked him if he’d had any problems switching from documentary to fiction after ten years, and he laconically replied that since he started out making documentaries under Stalinism, he was effectively making fiction from the start. Socialist Realism demanded total and uncritical adherence to the Communist party line, an emphasis on class and the struggle between old and new, the rewriting of history from a Marxist perspective, and the complete elimination of anything perceived to be reactionary and bourgeois.

Not too surprisingly, this produced films like Destination Nowa Huta!, made in 1951 to extol the virtues of a town being constructed specifically for steelworkers. It has lots of bare-chested Polish construction workers coming together with the aid of equipment generously donated by the Soviet Union, to build a workers’ paradise near Krakow, while triumphant music and a stentorian narration declaim lines like “Brighter days are no longer pie in the sky – each working day and each thrust of the shovel brings them closer!”.

CLIP – Destination Nowa Huta!

So, as we can see, “realism” in this context didn’t refer to what was actually apparent, but to what an idealised People’s Poland should look like, and anything that conflicted with this utopian vision simply wasn’t allowed to appear on screen. Another film extolling a major construction project, Return to the Old Town from 1954, had a different dilemma – on the one hand, the reconstruction of Warsaw’s Old Town was undoubtedly an incredible feat of logistics and effort, and clearly a perfect subject for a Socialist Realist treatment. On the other hand, various architects, archaeologists and historians were rebuilding it as a near-perfect replica of how it had appeared before its destruction by the Nazis, and any film account would have to acknowledge its long history in some way. So here’s what happened:

CLIP – Return to the Old Town

So there wasn’t enough time to mention more than a handful of key historical events, but they somehow managed to find room for Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Polish-born founder of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police that would eventually become the NKVD and the KGB.

I deliberately picked those two titles because they were made by genuinely talented directors, who were just as forced to compromise as were the hacks. Andrzej Munk, who made Destination Nowa Huta!, would go on to become one of the most distinguished of Poland’s postwar documentary and feature film directors, and might even have become one of the all-time greats had he not died in a car crash in 1961, at the age of just 39. And Return to the Old Town was made by Jerzy Bossak, who made The Flood and could probably be regarded as the most distinguished exponent of Polish documentary at the time.

But Return to the Old Town was made in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death. Although an official cultural thaw was still some time off, a handful of younger filmmakers began to make hesitant moves towards genuinely realistic, genuinely critical documentary filmmaking. One of the earliest examples is Are You Among Them?, by recent film-school graduates Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski, and here’s a sample:

CLIP – Are You Among Them?

When I first saw this, I naively assumed that it was a straightforward Polish equivalent of one of those finger-wagging COI public information films that we all know and love – but in fact it’s more important than that. We’re still in the era of socialist realism, but nonetheless here is a yob spitting on the pavement, and a woman neglecting her duties as wife and mother to natter away to her friends, with disastrous consequences. Though the finger of blame is firmly pointed at them, as opposed to the government, and their “crimes” are due to carelessness rather than actual malice, the film nonetheless hints that all is not well in the supposed socialist paradise of People’s Poland.

But it does so in a calculatedly jokey, almost apologetic fashion, a tentative toe in the water compared with Hoffman and Skórzewski’s next film, made in 1955. The only thing that Look Out, Hooligans! has in common with Destination Nowa Huta! is the exclamation mark in the title. While the earlier film is all clear skies and sunlit construction sites with happy workers making a collective effort for People’s Poland, Look Out, Hooligans! is dark and crepuscular, mostly set at night. And in terms of presentation it couldn’t be more different, looking more like a violent exploitation vehicle from the decadent capitalist West than anything from behind the iron curtain. Look at the first minute and a half:

CLIP – Look Out, Hooligans!

This is now recognised as being the first film in what became known as the “black series”, a documentary movement that comprehensively broke with the past. Like most such revolutions, it was fairly short-lived, fizzling out around three years later, by which time there had been a cultural thaw across the board – but it injected new blood and new life into the Polish documentary. Instead of idealised Utopian visions, the “black films” looked at hooliganism, prostitution, alcoholism, child neglect, unemployment, and, most controversially, the gap between rhetoric and reality in such areas as housing and healthcare planning.

It’s probably time I showed you a complete film, and this is a particularly good example, as it crams most of the key elements of the “black series” into just seven minutes. The title is the deceptively innocuous Warsaw 1956, and it’s co-directed by our old friend Jerzy Bossak, this time with Jarosław Brzozowski – I should mention that by this stage Bossak had become a bit of a mentor to the younger “black series” directors and had got into trouble with the authorities, at one point even having to work under a pseudonym. In fact, the film that you’re about to see was initially scheduled to be shown at Cannes, then abruptly withdrawn when the authorities decided to watch it beforehand. You’ll also notice that it explicitly returns to the territory of Brzozowa Street nearly a decade earlier, and I suspect this was deliberate.

COMPLETE FILM – Warsaw ’56.

So at the beginning, we have the narrator – who is in fact the same one as on Destination Nowa Huta!, Andrzej Lapicki – constructing what appears to be a familiar party-line view of Warsaw and its new houses, squares and playgrounds, accompanied by cheerfully upbeat accordion music. So far, so generic – but then the narrator offers to do something different. As he puts it, rather disingenuously, “the chronicler watches more carefully, and sees what he earlier tried not to see” – which of course translates as “the filmmaker shows what he was earlier prevented from showing”. And we then get this bizarre cross between Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey’s Housing Problems and a particularly sadistic child-in-peril thriller, and I think it’s very safe to say that even the dimmest viewer would have got the point.

In addition to shock tactics, the makers of the black documentaries had another trick up their collective sleeve. Like Monty Python’s Dinsdale Piranha, they used sarcasm. Have a look at this:

CLIP – The Lublin Old Town

Just as Warsaw 1956 seemed to quote Brzozowa Street, so The Lublin Old Town is clearly a parody of Return to the Old Town, using the same dogmatic socialist realist clichés on the soundtrack, though their function here is very different.

Now, all this is fascinating stuff, and it’s easy to appreciate and sympathise with the sheer glee with which filmmakers exploited their hard-won freedom – but shocks and sarcasm have their limits, and diminishing returns could well have set in if the black series had continued indefinitely. In fact, the movement was largely over by 1958, by which time the Polish documentary had made another, much more decisive and far-reaching transition.

Kazimierz Karabasz is not a name that’s widely discussed outside Poland, which is a pity as he’s arguably the single most important figure in the history of the Polish documentary, which in terms of achievement ranks him alongside John Grierson, Edgar Anstey and Humphrey Jennings – and he actually combines elements of all three as theorist, teacher and filmmaker. Professor Karabasz, to give him his academic title, taught at the Lodz Film School for decades, and his proteges include such crucial figures as Marcel Łoziński and Krzysztof Kieślowski. Now in his late seventies, he’s still active as a filmmaker and elder statesman of the Polish documentary movement, and he was lucky enough to graduate in 1955, thus largely escaping the socialist realist apprenticeship suffered by his slightly older peers.

Alongside Hoffman and Skorzewski, Karabasz and his early filmmaking partner Władysław Ślesicki made the most important films of the ‘black series’, though they took a very different approach from the shock-merchants and one which laid the ground for future development. The title of Where the Devil Says Goodnight sounds as though it’s going to be just as hard-hitting and sensationalised as the other ‘black series’ films, but it’s actually a quiet, contemplative piece about a run-down suburb of Warsaw, Targówek, and the progress – or lack of it – of the House of Culture that was announced with much fanfare in 1949, even though the locals said they’d have preferred better housing. Seven years on, the place is still a building site, offering only a tiny, cramped gym, where amateur dramatics rehearsals occupy the same space as ping-pong players, while the promised “cultural revolution” in Targówek amounts to a travelling cinema that visits once a month. That makes it sound like another polemical film, but in fact it’s much subtler – Karabasz later admitted that the House of Culture issue was merely an excuse to get permission to shoot in Targówek, and the film’s lasting value lies in the unvarnished presentation of the lives of the people who live there. Here’s an example:

CLIP – Where the Devil Says Goodnight

What’s interesting here is that the film is neither a Utopian socialist realist fantasy, nor a piece of polemical propaganda – the commentary is at considerable pains not to offer any suggestions or solutions to Targówek’s problems. This is even more true of Karabasz and Ślesicki’s follow-up, People from an Empty Zone, which is so self-effacing that the title is spoken, not printed, and doesn’t appear until the very end.

These films are arguably much closer to John Grierson’s definition of a documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”, and indeed Karabasz cited Grierson’s writings as a key inspiration, alongside the films of the Italian neorealists. At the time, he was unable to actually see much in the way of British documentary filmmaking, but he did catch a programme that was screened in Warsaw in 1956 or 57: I’m still trying to find out exactly what was shown, but I managed to find an interview with Karabasz dating from 1961 in which he said that “The English documentary school and especially its classics remain a source of lasting admiration for myself and my colleagues”, and he singled out Lindsay Anderson’s Every Day Except Christmas and Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon for particular praise. Karabasz and Grierson even had a brief correspondence in the early 1960s. Karabasz was also a fan of the Free Cinema movement, which he believed offered a good example for Polish documentary cinema as it recovered from the Stalinist period, and When the Devil Says Goodnight was itself shown in the NFT’s ‘Polish Voices’, the fourth Free Cinema programme, alongside two other black series documentaries and more surreal fantasies by Roman Polanski, Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica.

The mere fact that artists as avant-garde as those three were being exhibited as part of a showcase of Polish cinema shows how rapidly things had changed. The turning point was the so-called Polish October of 1956, when a reformist government led by Władysław Gomułka took power in the wake of workers’ protests in Poznan. Since both Stalin and his main Polish champion, Bolesław Bierut, had both been dead for some time, there was little opposition to this, and the result was an across-the-board liberalisation of Polish society and culture. Its effect on cinema was dramatic: up to then, filmmakers had been hugely compromised, but within the next few years major masterpieces such as Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, Andrzej Munk’s Eroica and Passenger and Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, the last of which was nominated for an Oscar, would establish the international reputation of Polish cinema.

At the same time, though the impact tended to be more domestic, there was a similar liberalisation of Polish documentary – by the late 1950s filmmakers were tackling subjects that had been completely off limits only a few years earlier, such as the Polish jazz scene, or the work of a satirical theatre company. Personal expression was, if not warmly encouraged, at least tolerated, and younger filmmakers like Karabasz took full advantage, largely expunging narrators and their imposed ideological interpretation of events, preferring to let their images speak for themselves. Although a few subjects were still off limits, such as a flat-out denunciation of communism or an attack on the policies of the Soviet Union, this was the start of the golden era that Kieślowski extolled – where filmmakers had the magical combination of unprecedented artistic freedom and a system that would fund their work without taking commercial considerations into account.

To give you an example of how far Polish documentaries came in the five years since the very first black series films, I’m going to end this talk with a complete screening of Kazimierz Karabasz’ The Musicians, a film that is to Polish documentary what Night Mail or A Diary for Timothy are to its British counterpart: both a benchmark and an inspiration. It’s also had a modicum of international recognition thanks to the support of two of Karabasz’ most distinguished pupils. When invited to vote in Sight & Sound’s 1992 poll of the best films ever made, Krzysztof Kieślowski polemically included The Musicians alongside the likes of Citizen Kane and La Strada.

Karabasz’ other protégé, Marcel Łoziński, who also went on to become one of Poland’s greatest documentary-makers, also singled out The Musicians when asked to pick his favourite documentary by the Danish magazine Dox. He said “There are films in which there appears to be nothing, yet it turns out there is everything. There are films, in which it seems there is everything, and yet there is nothing. And very rarely, one encounters films in which there is everything, and it truly means everything. I first watched The Musicians when I was 20 – and I experienced a strange feeling that I had seen something that was not on the screen at all. I could see those people from the tram-drivers’ orchestra in their homes and I could clearly see their wives; I could hear what they were talking about, what they were worried about, what they were laughing at. I could see their flats, windowless kitchens and feathery beds; I could see what pictures were hanging on their walls, see their grandchildren doing their homework and see their Sunday dinners. I could even hear the noise of their neighbours. After that I watched The Musicians numerous times – and the feeling remained. I could always see and hear much more than there really was on the screen. Because on the screen it was merely an orchestra rehearsal and some faces – nothing more. But it was that ‘nothing’ that meant everything to me. And it is still the same today.”

COMPLETE FILM: The Musicians


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