Category: Polish Cinema

The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, Poland 1975)

(from left) Max (Andrzej Seweryn), Karol (Daniel Olbrychski) and Moryc (Wojciech Pszoniak)

(from left) Max (Andrzej Seweryn), Karol (Daniel Olbrychski) and Moryc (Wojciech Pszoniak)

This Andrzej Wajda film is an adaptation of a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author Władysław Stanisław Reymont (1867 – 1925). The original Polish cinema release was nearly three hours long with a four hour version for television. This was restored in Poland in 2011 and was shown at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds as part of the Martin Scorsese presentation of classic Polish films currently touring in the UK. I’m surprised at how few cinemas are showing these films so I’m grateful to get the chance to see some of them at the Hyde Park. My knowledge of Polish history is not as good as it should be and I had to check out Wikipedia to learn a few important things about the subject matter of The Promised Land. I wish some of the reviewers elsewhere had done the same and then they wouldn’t have made some of the misleading statements that have possibly damaged Wajda’s reputation after his work on the film. The novel’s title refers to the city of Łódź which after 1815, when it was made part of the Russian ‘Kingdom of Poland’, developed as an industrial city and attracted immigrants from all over Europe. Łódź grew as a textile centre and in the latter half of the nineteenth century was sometimes known as the ‘Manchester of Poland’ as it was cotton mills that powered its prosperity. The enormous influx of workers for the mills created an unusual population mix in which the local Polish population was matched by large numbers of Germans, many of whom were Jewish. From these two groups came many of the mill-owners and the bankers who supported them during the rapid growth (and financial downturns) of the period. The film’s narrative focuses on three young men. Karol is the son of an aristocratic Polish family in decline. He is employed as the Chief Engineer/factory manager of a mill owned by a despotic German. Max is German and the son of a mill owner who is still operating a handloom mill in the 1880s. He is not as ruthless as the other owners and his business is doomed because of his honourable stance. Moryc is a Jewish ‘middleman’ who operates in the futures market (cotton comes into the region via Hamburg and Trieste). Together the three “have nothing – the perfect place to start” and they set out to find money and to develop a new factory using every trick that they can think of. This includes sex, espionage and deception. Given its subject matter and literary source there is an assumption perhaps that this will be something like the literary adaptions of British or French cinema but the vitality of the film made me think more of 1970s/80s Hollywood. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) shares some of the sense of unbridled capitalist excess. Others have suggested Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976). There is a long sequence in the opera house that reminded me of Visconti’s Senso (1954). I was amazed by the sheer energy of the film and the way in which the narrative raced along. I’m usually very adept at reading subtitles but for the first half hour I felt I was running to catch up. Wajda used three cinematographers and certainly gave them plenty to do. The camera moves swiftly, often from a low angle and using wide angle lenses so that the characters appear to be crowding around the camera and the audience is immersed in the hustle and bustle. There is also a busy orchestral score and sumptuous production design – I’m assuming that the mills we see are those still standing in Łódź (although the textile business has now largely disappeared). I’m not sure how to describe the film. It is certainly a melodrama but it is also a satire. In a strange way it echoes some of the scenes in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, although the scenes in the pleasure gardens are rather more explicit than 19th century British literature was able to suggest. Much of the time the satire is buried in the detailed plotting but Wajda exaggerates some scenes to make them grotesque, including two explicit scenes of accidents in the mills. At the end of the film when the ‘education’ of the three principals in the ways of industrial capitalism is complete, Wajda ‘flash’ cuts scenes of worker’s resistance with the celebrations of the mill-owners and the critique of capitalist exploitation is explicit. The Promised Land is a major global film but it was criticised, especially in the US for being anti-capitalist – as if Wajda was somehow ‘toadying’ to the Russians. Others have pointed out that the film appeared as Polish worker’s resistance was building towards the birth of Solidarity. The film was also criticised for being anti-semitic. I don’t think this charge stands as the narrative critiques the behaviour of the young men and the mill owners whether they are Polish, Protestant German or German Jews. There is a Region 2 DVD of The Promised Land from Second Run and a Polish Blu-ray with EST. In the YouTube clip below is a scene (virtually without dialogue) in which we see Karol’s aged father and his fiancée arriving in the city to live close to the new factory being built by the central trio. The music here seems to be influenced by the kind of score used by Ennio Morricone in Once Upon a Time in the West.

New posts on Global Film

Just a reminder for subscribers. Reviews of interesting films, mainly from outside the US/UK and Western Europe, are also to be found on our sister site at globalfilmstudies.com

Recent posts include:

Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014)

Stones for the Rampart (Poland 2014)

The Salvation (Denmark/UK/South Africa 2014)

OK Kanmani (India 2015, Tamil)

¡Viva! 21 #2: Os fenómenos (Aces, Spain 2014)

Os_Fenomenos_10

Lola Duenas as Neneta with one of the workers who dreads retirement which will surely be forced on him if the building boom ends.

Widely seen as a Galician version of a Ken Loach film, Os fenómenos is engaging and intriguing with its ‘open’ ending. It isn’t the first Galician nod to Ken, that would be Mondays in the Sun (2002) with Javier Bardem as an unemployed shipbuilder, but with its ensemble cast of workers in the construction sector complete with ‘lump’ workers (i.e. the ‘undeclared’ workforce of migrants), its Chrissie Rock type of character played here by Lola Duenas and plenty of humour, it has many Loachian elements.

Duenas (best known for her roles for Almodóvar and in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside) plays Neneta, abandoned by her partner Wolf and left to look after their infant son Roi on her own in Wolf’s improvised campervan. She returns to Galicia, makes peace with her mother (and babysitter) and gets a job on a building site. Cue many predictable jokes and badinage before she gains respect. The characters in the group of workers on the site are carefully written. There is an element of class distinction (Neneta completed a degree before she opted out of a bourgeois lifestyle). One of the workers is a religious young man with a family whereas others have been attracted to the good money builders can earn in boom time. Once she is accepted, Neneta’s world gets brighter, including her love life. But all this is prior to 2008 and the collapse of the Spanish economy, caused in part by speculative building projects. All of the workers are headed for trouble.

The reaction to the crash is the political test of the film and this is where it departs from the Loachian model and the other films of French/Belgian/British ‘social realism’. There seems to be an almost calm acceptance that it is all over – a willingness to simply walk away and try something else. Resignation rather than anger? Is this what is happening in Spain?

The film’s title also points to a political issue. It translates as ‘Aces’ – the term given by the building company owner to the workers who complete the most jobs each month. This piecework payment is divisive and largely corrupt. Neneta is smart enough to work out how to play the system but alongside the distinction between ‘declared’ and ‘undeclared’ payments it perpetuates discrimination just like the ‘lump’ system (labourer’s paid cash in hand without contracts) in the UK. There didn’t seem to be any discussion of unions in the film – perhaps that’s the point about the greed of bosses and some workers?

Os fenómenos is a film with many strong points from writing and direction by Alfonso Zarauza and Jaione Camborda through to cinematography and casting/performance. It’s interesting too in its focus on a working mother and there are key aspects of the narrative that focus on her personal life and how this interconnects with her success at work. Through the other workers we also get some sense about what unemployment might mean to different people. The film has been warmly praised and audiences clearly like it. I did think though that Neneta learned her building craft skills very quickly and I feel frustrated by the lack of anger in the film. Perhaps it’s just me – there has been a similar ‘acceptance’ of unnecessary cuts and austerity policies in the UK. Perhaps Greece will show us the way? Certainly we need more politically-focused films. I enjoyed Os fenómenos and I would recommend it, but I would have liked more anger. 

Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013)

One of the many stunning compositions from IDA with the low horizon and extended 'sky room' in this long shot.

One of the many stunning compositions from IDA with the low horizon and extended ‘sky room’ in this long shot.

This vies with Phoenix as my film of the year (i.e. seen in a UK screening). It’s a perfectly formed art object that is both engaging and moving. It has been celebrated around the world and has recently been in UK cinemas after a winning a prize at the London Film Festival a year ago. We’ve had to wait a year but it has been worth it. I’ve watched the film twice now and in between screenings I spent a couple of days researching the work of the director Pawel Pawlikowski for an introductory talk. I enjoyed the research very much because it seemed that as I re-watched clips from the earlier films I’d seen and sampled some of the director’s TV documentaries from the 1990s, I began to see the continuities and the links between ostensibly different projects. Ida has been seen either as Pawlikowski’s ‘comeback’ film or as a revelation for those who have not known about the earlier films. Whether or not the concept of a director with ‘personal vision’ as an auteur still has mileage, there is no denying the continuities between Pawlikowski’s films.

Pawel Pawlikowski left Poland with his mother some time in the 1970s and eventually arrived in 1977 in the UK aged 19. His career as a filmmaker began in the late 1980s with documentaries mainly focusing on quite controversial figures in Eastern Europe. My notes for the film introduction can be downloaded here: Pawlikowski Background Notes.

Ida is a short film (just over 80 mins) and a plot outline would suggest that relatively little happens. A young woman, Anna, who we presume has grown up in a convent is now 18 and in preparation to take her vows when she is told that she has a relative, her aunt Wanda, and that she should visit her before she takes the final decision to commit to Christ. Anna is not sure what to expect but Wanda eventually provides surprising information about Anna’s Jewish family, including Anna’s birth name, ‘Ida’. Reluctantly at first (in Wanda’s case) the pair undertake a road trip to uncover the past. They meet relatively few people and the ‘action’ is limited but there is so much going on in the unspoken exchanges between characters and in the presentation of sound and image that we experience an immensely rich narrative.

There is no better way to introduce the film than to give the director’s opening statement (from the Press Pack):

Ida is a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music. I wanted to make a film about history, which wouldnʼt feel like a historical film; a film which is moral, but has no lessons to offer; I wanted to tell a story in which ʻeveryone has their reasonsʼ; a story closer to poetry than plot. Most of all, I wanted to steer clear of the usual rhetoric of the Polish cinema. The Poland in Ida is shown by an ʻoutsiderʼ with no axe to grind, filtered through personal memory and emotion, the sounds and images of childhood . . .

It seems to me that Pawlikowski succeeds in each of these aims. (Though the ‘outsider’ bit is possibly something for Polish audiences to comment on and they haven’t taken to the film as much as audiences in France or even the UK as far as I can see.) Much of the strength of the film does come from the director’s perspective – as an insider who became an outsider and who now returns unafraid to ask questions and ‘re-present’ the past. The power of the film comes from the astounding attention to the detail of the visual and sound images and the performances of the cast, especially the three leads.

An image from the blog by 'BB' demonstrating the use of lighting set-ups in the kitchen scene at the convent (see below).

An image from the blog by ‘Benjamin B’ demonstrating the use of lighting set-ups in the kitchen scene at the convent (see below).

The film was shot digitally using an Alexa 4:3 camera and the raw footage was then processed to create a monochrome film with a traditional Academy ratio and then further processed to add the grain effect of the filmstock used in the early 1960s. This process is described by ‘Benjamin B’ in his blog, ‘The Film Book’, which carries two features complementing an initial feature in American Cinematographer. These are a must read for anyone interested in the filmic image. There are several notable features of the images created in the film. As Benjamin B comments in his analysis of a short sequence, Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal, create pure cinema, ‘showing’ not ‘telling’ the story through a combination of acting, camerawork and sound related to a carefully structured narrative outline. The film also offers good examples of the old adage about needing a great deal of artifice to represent an image of ‘reality’. To achieve the ‘effect’ of natural light and simplicity in the depiction of the convent required careful placing of key and fill lamps. The effect works very well.

The two central characters of Wanda and Ida are played by Agata Kulesza, a vastly experienced actor and Agata Trzebuchowska a non-actor and this fits the narrative perfectly as Wanda has to drive the narrative and Ida has to respond to what happens. I was intrigued to discover that Agata Trzebuchowska had seen Pawlikowski’s earlier British films even though she was not involved in the film industry. I’m delighted that films do travel more extensively than might be apparent from the relatively meagre information we get from outside the US/UK film world.

I think Ida is going to be one of those films that “keeps on giving” – offering up new insights into how it can create meanings through camerawork, lighting, design, sound and performance. It has also prompted me to find the few John Coltrane recordings that ought to be played more often. The most striking aspect of the beautiful visual compositions is that they often place the characters in the bottom third of the frame, utilising a low horizon in landscape shots and producing a great deal of ‘sky room’. I haven’t quite decided what this means but it is distinctive and it certainly suggests a dialogue between characters and their environment. It also reminds me of the big skies in Academy frame compositions by directors like Kurosawa Akira and John Ford.

Just a thought, but this image is very similar to the opening shot of Lynne Ramsay's 'Ratcatcher'.

Just a thought, but this image of Ida wrapping herself in a net curtain is very similar to the opening shot of Lynne Ramsay’s ‘Ratcatcher’.

Since I started this posting several weeks ago the European Film Awards in December made Ida the big winner with a total of five awards – two for the film itself, two for Pawel Pawlikowski as writer and director and one for cinematography (shared by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski who both worked on the film). If there is any justice the film would win at the Oscars as well. If you haven’t seen it, the DVD is now out but do try and find it on a big screen.