10 Errors that Have (Not) Changed Cinema
M. Piwowski, ‘Rejs’, Polska 1970

10 Errors that Have (Not) Changed Cinema

BY Rafał Marszałek

Wajda does not like those of his children that have not been successful. I once tried to explain to him that the audience does not always vote with its legs – he listened closely but with pity in his eyes

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1. The Error of Ideology

Artists would never find out their alleged or actual mistakes were it not for the aggressive tribe of the critics. The reasonable idea of guillotining the critics has been popping up time and again but has not yet materialised. Quite the contrary, there are known cases where artists’ lives depended on the whims of the critics. One example is the story of the great Sergei Eisenstein. The loyal but doubt-gnawed acolyte of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was nonetheless reprimanded by the Party in an official resolution for The Boyars’ Plot, part two of his Ivan the Terrible. Soon thereafter, on 24 February 1947, he was sent an invitation for a meeting with an influential film critic at the Kremlin.

The visit bode ill. Eisenstein would have preferred to learn about his ideological mistakes from anyone but a critic famous for his impulsiveness, brutality even. And indeed, the critic pointed out to the filmmaker in sharp words how he had erred by showing the grim aspects of Ivan’s rule, how he had needlessly emphasised his alleged dilemmas and quandaries. Tsar Ivan would have done much good for Russia had he cut off five times as many boyar heads, the critic stressed. And why did the movie include a distorted image of the Oprichnina? Did Eisenstein not like the 16th-century precursor of the secret police, so useful to the government and society? You need, comrade director, to correct these grave mistakes and only then will we think what to do with you. Eisenstein left the meeting with the expert on the art of cinematography on soft legs. At the gate, he showed his pass to the guard and took to his heels. No wonder. Discussing your artistic shortcomings with a critic as demanding as Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin carried quite a lot of risk.

2. The Error of Theory

Robert Bresson’s masterpieces – A Man Escaped (1956) and Pickpocket (1959) – were probably the first to reveal man’s secret bond with things material, discovering that objects have a soul. They also argued that the world of our thoughts and feelings can be – contrary to the nature of film – inaccessible at a perfunctory glance.

Bresson’s work, rooted in the philosophical tradition (critics even referred to it as “on-screen Jansenism”) and heavily aestheticised (containing traces of Byzantine art), with time drifted gradually towards abstraction. Their author made it increasingly clear that he was an apostle of pure film. Pure, that is, free of all common influences. The tendency culminated in Lancelot du Lac (1974), meticulously woven with visual curlicues like a pretentious signature.

Bresson made it a matter of honor to defy the audience’s basic expectations. He gradually reduced the plot, eventually eliminating it virtually altogether, believing it to be a trick invented by novelists. He immobilised the camera, granting it the right to just one point of view; he also trapped the portrayed subject, who “should not be seen from an angle different than the other characters”. He hated actors (with reciprocity), denying them the right to expression, to any degree of interpretation. He forced them to be colourless and monotonous, having them deliver their lines in a completely automatic manner. He invented and then absolutised the “doubling effect”, which made the narrative heavy with tautologies. All that with a sense of mission and an unshakable conviction that this was the right thing to do, at all times and in all places. He eventually got to hear the charge that he “rejects everything that is not pure speculation, whereas the speculation can be nothing else than a speculation on speculation”. Even the greatest artists are sometimes overtaken by cold, dogmatic madness.

3. The Error of Craft

Andrzej Wajda told an interesting story about the rebellious student past of filmmaker Marek Piwowski in his letter to Miloš Forman. Wajda was a professor at the Łódź Film School and left for some time.  Upon his return, he received an invitation from Marek for the screening of his short film, a student exercise. The young author beamed with pride whereas his professor was growing sadder by the minute, sinking into his chair. The film, stylistically alluding to The Loves of a Blonde, was the exact opposite of what Wajda had been trying to teach at the school.

The same was later the case with The Cruise. The pre-release screening minutes and literary memoirs tell the story of a breach that the novice director’s film, played by amateurs, had created in the hitherto intact wall of conventions and rules. The story, dramaturgically shaky, with a clumsy plot, woven with unconnected gags and episodes, and desperately edited, left the critics outraged. Rumor had it that the filmmakers had failed to fix grammatical and syntactic errors in the movie before its premiere. But The Cruise proved such a big hit that the professorial charges were instantly forgotten. The quickly emerging legend actually caused the errors to sink into oblivion. Instead, the dominant view since then has been that Piwowski’s film is a conscious, fully deliberate opposite of une pièce bien faite.

The case of The Cruise is not as clear-cut as it might seem, though. At the time, the feature film almost never overlapped with documentary in Polish cinema, and loose, Czech-style dramaturgy was terra incognita. Hence the impulse to measure The Cruise by conventional, lexical standards. The measurers certainly committed the sin of being deaf to a new rhythm and the spirit of time. But this should not translate into a disregard for filmmaking craft. It is curious that a narrator of genre scenes as excellent as Marek Piwowski has never actually made a good full feature. He has tried several times but failed.

4. The Error of Routine

Marcel Carné went down in cinema history as the herald of a trend called “black romanticism” by some and “poetic realism” by others. The influence of Port of Shadows (1938) or Daybreak (1939) stemmed from their unique mood. From the scenery of foggy harbour streets emerged the outlines of Destiny; a stuffy hotel room was locked up by the sentence of Fate. Everyday reality gained a new dimension thanks in part to the poetic talents of screenwriter Jacques Prévert and the screen appeal of actor Jean Gabin. Even in The Devil’s Envoys or Children of Paradise, both made during the German occupation of France, the critics found the same Prévertian sense of anxiety, melancholy, and suggestive metaphors.

But only for so long. Gates of the Night, a film made shortly after the liberation of France and in Carné’s typical style, was a major disappointment, a sense of which was shared by the completely disoriented actors. Bolesław Michałek, then a twenty-year-old boy, remembered the special moment in January 1946 when Carné’s magic had suddenly ceased to work. “The audience booed, as if something had collapsed; certain patterns and models had proved impossible to continue. In the context of the cruel tragedy of the wartime experiences, the love drama of wistful workers and their inscrutable lovers must have seemed out of place. I remember – having seen the film myself a couple of days after it premiered – that there was a hunger for cinematic truth in the air , a hunger for something serious, for something that would not be a romantic mannerism”. Carné had committed the sin of routine. Self-fixated, he had failed to look around and certainly had not put his ear to the ground.

5. The Error of Residence

There are legends about Orson Welles’s genius (some of which, as it happens, were concocted by himself). They say he had learned to paint by the age of two; that he could recognise Stravinsky’s music at the age of five. As an ingenious twenty-year-old, he scared Americans to death with his radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, as they took the fictional broadcast for real news. Two years later, the début filmmaker needed just a day’s browsing through the classic titles in the archive to come up with Citizen Kane, a movie that is still considered to be one of the greatest motion pictures in cinema history.

However, the mind-boggling prologue of this biography turned out to have been a mere delusion. Citizen Kane already had trouble making it onto the screen. Welles’s subsequent projects, marked by the author’s great artistic ambition and unbridled egotism, met time and again with the resistance of Hollywood studio heads. The films were incredibly long. They sometimes exceeded the standard running time twice fold; usually, they also called for huge budgets. Hollywood paid Welles back for his uncompromising attitude with ruthlessness. The disobedient artist’s movies were shortened without his approval, and his actions were subjected to increasing scrutiny. Few trusted him and likely no one understood him. Gradually and imperceptibly, the great filmmaker abandoned his vocation for acting – characteristic, but seldom outstanding.

What place was there for such an eccentric in Hollywood anyway? This was a man who, instead of making normal movies like others did, ended up in Europe, creating movie theatre adaptations of Shakespearean drama and Kafka’s ‘Trial’. It seems that Welles saw through Hollywood much later than Hollywood had seen through him. If only he had decided to flee Sunset Boulevard earlier. This is what happens when we do not recognise where our natural environment is. Welles erred by living too long under the wrong address.

6. The Error of Birth

Shortly after the war, in the 1940s, there was no screen duo more popular or appealing in Polish cinema than Danuta Szaflarska and Jerzy Duszyński. Following the smash hits of Forbidden Songs and The Treasure, it seemed they would reign supreme for years. Soon, however, it turned out that fate had given them no more than just five minutes of fame. They disappeared from the top of the bill as soon as they appeared on it. Duszyński started playing bit parts and doing dubbing jobs; twenty years after Forbidden Songs he got a role that was not even mentioned in the credits. Szaflarska played minor roles and only in her old age was she fortunate enough to meet director Dorota Kędzierzawska who rediscovered her.

In any case, they shared the fate of most of the actors of their generation. Had it not been for the war, Duszyński (born 1917) would have probably achieved the star heart-throb status of Witold Zacharewicz or Mieczysław Cybulski. Szaflarska (born 1915) would have likely competed with Jadzia Andrzejewska or Helena Grossówna, both of whom were loved by the audience. But in the new social reality, on the eve of the onset of socialist realism, none of these names could be accepted. The same was even more true for “yesterday’s” movie audience, stigmatised as bourgeois. As “pre-war people”, Szaflarska and Duszyński had no chance to make it. They were born too early and in the wrong place.

7. The Error of Casting

The crisis and twilight of our culture is a subject touched upon by some of the greatest filmmakers: Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons, Visconti in The Leopard or, on Polish turf, Wajda in Lotna. The latter, one of the most original Polish motion pictures ever made, enjoyed neither critical acclaim nor box-office success at its inception. Most importantly, it was, and still is, not liked by the author himself. Wajda does not like those of his children that have not been successful (I once tried to explain to him that the audience does not always vote with its legs – he listened closely but with pity in his eyes). He considers himself responsible for Lotna’s failure. More specifically: it was a bad choice in casting. It is not enough for him that Bożena Kurowska made a great appearance as the “lady from the manor” and Jerzy Moes delivered a graceful portrait of a cavalry ensign. What he regrets in particular is that the film was missing the man who made Ashes and Diamonds what it was: “My mistake was in the casting. The Sergeant Major, a hell-bent, ruthless, soulless stickler enamoured with Lotna, was a perfect role for Zbyszek Cybulski. He would have drawn the viewer’s attention. It would have been a beautiful and deeply humanistic film about envy.”

Would it? If Lotna had been a movie simply about rivalry and envy for a horse, the result would have been a cavalry movie like many others. If a film star like Cybulski had played the supporting role of Sergeant Major Laton, he would have grabbed the viewer’s attention but the movie’s represented world would have automatically been disrupted. The coarse figure of the Sergeant Major (played by virtual amateur Mieczysław Łoza), his tough, stubborn and yet very ordinary face, reveals the substratum, as it were, of the uhlan epic. The same substratum that was shown in Jan Józef Szczepański’s Shoes or Polish Autumn, in certain episodes of Żukrowski’s Days of Failure, in Stanisław Różewicz’s Birth Certificate, in Kutz’s Cross of Valour. In Wajda’s case, this happened kind of involuntarily and by accident. A useful mistake.

8. The Error of the Gaze

The most famous passer-by in Patriarshiye Prudy had one eye black and the other, for some reason, green. His eyebrows were black but one was placed higher than the other. That is why the editor Mikhail Berlioz and the poet Ivan Bezdomny take him for a foreigner. In any case, Woland had absolute control over people’s lives.

Jerzy Skolimowski believes all the problems of his Hands Up! began with an “unfortunate event involving a Stalin portrait”. He means a mistake committed by the film’s protagonists, activists of the communist youth organisation, ZMP, who, by accident or out of overzealousness, stuck an extra pair of eyes on a huge Stalin portrait. It was a Stalin no one had seen before or would see afterwards. The nasty provocation was exposed, those guilty were brought before the party court, their young lives forever derailed from the Track of Progress. When years later they meet in a train car, it turns out it is but an illusion of movement.

Stalin’s double gaze marginalised the humorous director as well. It was in vain that Skolimowski pointed to the price his protagonists had to pay, including the suicidal attempt of one of them. No one wanted to believe him and the movie was banned for more than a decade. Skolimowski and his oppressor, the party apparatchik Zenon Kliszko, must have shared, although in different beds, the same depressive dream. The Generalissimo’s nystagmus kept returning to them like Woland’s terrible prophecy about somebody’s head cut off by a Komsomol girl.

9. The Error of Semantics

In the Orwellian year 1984, the well-known Polish documentalist Roman Wionczek, in collaboration with Jerzy Grzymkowski (a former police officer, travelling crane operator and screenwriter in one) and a crew of politically tested actors made the movie Dignity in the perfectly profiled (politically and ethnically) Profil studio. The piece portrayed the progressive working class’ struggle against Solidarity-led extremism in the stormy November of 1981. The main character, Szostak, an activist of the communist-loyal trade unions, heroically resisted the pressure of the Solidarity troublemakers who wanted to fire him from his job. In the end, he surrendered to physical violence. The scene in which a stocky bearded Solidarity villain, looking a bit like the Robber Rumcajs, carting the tiny, defenceless union loyalist behind the factory gate in a wheelbarrow was really deeply moving.

On the surface, everything in Dignity made sense. It is not without reason that on the third anniversary of martial law Wionczek was congratulated by Deputy Prime Minister Rakowski himself. It’s just the title… Today, it makes one wonder, but back then it felt somehow awkward. The director must have gotten something wrong. Wionczek’s line of reasoning thus seems an inversion of today’s political rhetoric. Today we are proud to be stand where we should be standing whereas our abominable opponents have found themselves where the ZOMO, or communist riot police, used to stand. Similarly in 1984, for the makers of Dignity siding with the regime seemed obvious. Craving a beautiful name for his politically correct choice, Wionczek hastily updated the concept of dignity. What he failed to predict was that the civil war would one day end and he and Grzymkowski would end up naked in the semantic nettle bush.

10. The Error of Absent-Mindedness

Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism is one of the most powerful documentaries ever made about the atrocities of the Third Reich. The picture’s visual impact was enhanced by extremely suggestive off-screen commentary. The narrator was Romm himself: laconic, sarcastic, bitter. Anyone who had seen the film had the narrator’s voice ringing in their ears.  It doubtless stemmed from profound, traumatic experience. It is only when the emotions cool down that basic questions arise about the narrator’s consciousness. In literary terms, this would be the omniscient narrator from classic 19th-century novels; in historical terms – a child lost in the mist of the 20th century. Romm was already well into his sixties when he began work on Ordinary Fascism. Earlier, designated by Stalin himself to make a film commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the revolution, he had already committed a diptych of Lenin features, made exactly during the time of the Great Purge. Romm thus knew a lot about communism and even more about Stalinism. And yet in 1966 only this one trauma returned to him: that caused by totalitarianism from outside.

The reasons must have been psychological. Antoni Kępiński once made the observation that culture may be a neurotic factor; that it creates certain forms that influence the subject from its earliest years – “which is why one may not be aware of their pathological impact. And even if one does realise their harmful effect, one can do nothing about it anyway.” The second hypothesis concerns a special kind of absent-mindedness, allegedly characteristic of artists.

The author of the incriminating film had obviously gotten so fixated on ordinary German fascism that he forgot about the existence of ordinary Soviet communism. Mikhail Romm was simply an absent-minded man.

translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.