Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 7
9 November 1998

K I N O E Y E:
Avant-garde Film and Video in Poland

Andrew J Horton

The final showing of avant garde film and video at the Festival of Central European Culture in London focused on Poland, a country whose early contributions to cinema were largely wiped out by World War II. This loss is all the more tragic since the collection of post-war films provided some of the brightest moments in the festival.

One of the festival's more amusing aspects was the sight of successive curators proudly announcing that their country was unique in Central Europe because it had produced an unusually varied selection of filmmakers. Ryszard Kluszczynski, a professor at Lodz University and curator for the Polish evening, was certainly no exception, but his efforts to prove it were more convincing than most.

The earliest films of the showing were by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, who were instrumental in nurturing the Polish film avant garde. A rare pre-war film Przygoda czlowieka poczciwego (The Adventure of a Good Citizen, 1937) is a compendium of visual devices which shows what Stefan Themerson called his "urge to create visions," the title of his most influential essay. The war forced the Themersons to England where they continued to make films. The Eye and the Ear (1944-45) claims to visualise the ear's experience when it listens to a piece of music. However, since the music, Szymanowski's Slopiewnie, seeks to capture visual experiences in sound, the film only reverses the process, rendering the whole exercise rather pointless. The exception to this is the third movement, "Rowan Towers," in which a more mathematical system of interpreting the soundtrack is taken.

Journies in colour

Two films concentrated on the ways of looking at colour: Mieczyslaw Waskowski's Somnambulicy (Somnambulists) and Andrzej Pawlowski's Kineformy (Cineforms), both from 1957. The former attempts to recreate the principles of Tachist painting in cinema while the latter is a filming of a performance using Pawlowski's light box. The second film is by far the more impressive of the two, with Pawlowski's box of mirrors and prisms producing unbelievably modern effects; wispy smoke, diaphanous curtains, passing ghosts and then suddenly solid organic forms.

1957, obviously a good year for Polish independent cinema, produced Walerian Borowczyk's Skola (School) as well. This comic animation about a soldier on parade reverses the invention of cinema by reducing the medium to a series of still photographs again. In a last minute alteration to the programme, Borowczyk and Jan Lenica's Dom (House, 1958) was replaced with the latter's Labirynt (Labyrinth, 1962), a film which looks back to the Max Ernst's collages for his book La Femme 100 tetes and forward to Terry Gilliam's animations for Monty Python's Flying Circus. It is a surreal nocturnal world of bowler hatted angels, walruses who try to fly and voluptuous young maidens who prefer not to be rescued from the clutches of Bosch-like dragons.

Rynek (Market, 1970) by Jozef Robakowski, Tadeusz Junak and Ryszard Meissner has historical interest as an early example of the use of time-lapse photography. Robakowski working on his own in Ide (I am Going, 1973) produces a performance piece of himself climbing 200 steps of a look-out tower.

Existential humour

The most famous films of the showing were those by Zbigniew Rybczynski: Nowa ksiazka (A New Book, 1975) and Tango (1980). Both are amazing films in terms of the amount of planning and calculation that must have been made to get all the characters and their actions to dovetail. In Nowa ksiazka, the life of a Polish town is narrated through nine static camera angles shown simultaneously on a divided screen. Tango, the last film he made in Poland, is both a philosophical look at the solitary, mechanical nature of life and a genuinely funny piece at the same time. Starting with an empty room, Rybczynski one-by-one adds stereotyped figures from an extended family. All of them are unaware of the others and are caught in a loop of meaningless repetition to the rhythm of a simple tango. The films are also interesting in that they anticipate the techniques which video offers.

In the eighties, martial law in Poland killed experimental film making, as access to equipment and facilities was denied. In its place, video thrived. Many new artists grew up with the medium but some of the artists who mastered it, had previously used film, such as Robakowski. The first part of his Vital-Video (1994), "My Videomasochism" was unique for the festival, since it was the only film of all the showings of contemporary film and video which generated spontaneous applause after its screening. Armed with a whole selection of everyday instruments, Robakowski attacks his face in a variety of ways. Meanwhile, almost childish grunts, groans and cries play over the top in response to the self-inflicted prodding.

Barbara Konopka's Caprices and Variations on One's Own Subject, Opus 13, Part 1 (1994) and Miroslaw Rogala's Nature Is Leaving Us (1988) are both rooted in music; Konopka is a musician and Rogala's work is a version of a video opera. Caprices..., supposedly a "reflection on the human destiny," mingles pictures of the Virgin Mary with octopus innards. The individual images are powerful, but somehow they fail to hang together. Nature is Leaving Us is similarly weak and has the idealistic naiveti which afflicts most art about saving the environment. However, both films are redeemed by their soundtracks, Rogala's being especially innovative. Jacek Szleszynski's Self-Portrait (1994) is a better example of computer technology used maturely for visual effect.

Rybczynski once said that "Film is dying away. Only video is alive." This is certainly an accurate assessment of Polish filmmaking at the moment. Whether this is a temporary episode caused by economic difficulties or a long-term trend reflecting the preference of directors remains to be seen.

Andrew J Horton, 9 November 1998

In the same series:

Avant-garde Film and Video in Slovenia

Avant-garde Film and Video in the Czech Republic

Avant-garde Film and Video in Slovakia

Avant-garde Film and Video in Hungary

Avant-garde Film and Video in Croatia



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