World Cinema lost one of it luminaries in October this year when the iconic career of this filmmaker came to an end. Wajda was one of the celebrated graduates of the Łódź Film School. This training ground for film actors as well as crafts people had a deservedly outstanding reputation.
Wajda first drew attention with his trilogy A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954), Kanał (1956) and Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i diament 1958). These were founding works in what developed into the European art cinema. I saw them, as did many at the time, in a Film Society in 16 mm prints. I have since been able to revisit them again in 35mm prints. All remaining outstanding but the key film is Ashes and Diamonds with the character of Maciek played by the young iconic Polish actor Zbigniew Cybulski. There is a terrific sequence with fireworks lighting up the sky and a sequence which I have seen copied a number of times with sheets billowing from a clothesline.
Wajda turned out fine films decade after decade, and I still have to see a number of them. One that stood out was Landscape After the Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, 1970), a film that deals with a Holocaust survivor and which includes some stunning exterior sequences. Two other memorable films that addressed the repressive regime that ran Poland in the 1960s and 1970s are Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977) and Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza, 1981). I saw at least one of them at the Academy Cinema in London, a fine but now lost venue for quality film.
More recently Katyń (2007), dealing with the Soviet massacre of Polish Officers in 1941, was extremely well done. I was able to catch The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, 1975) as part of the programme ‘Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’. It was screened at the Sheffield Showroom in a good quality 35mm print. The film chronicled the development of the C19th capitalist textile firms in Łódź. There narrative was fascinating as were the characters and it included many fine sequences, one being an impressive factory fire.
We can still look forward to his final film Afterimage ( Powidoki, 2016), though it does not yet have a UK release date.
Les innocentes (previously titled ‘Agnus Dei’) proved to be a rather different film than I expected. I didn’t really have any expectations other than having enjoyed director Anne Fontaine’s earlier films such as Gemma Bovery (France 2014) and Coco avant Chanel (France 2009) and I wasn’t expecting such a powerful and deeply moving film. I found it harrowing but also deeply humanist as well as sensitive in dealing with issues of faith. It’s based on the experiences of a historical character – a French doctor who had worked with the Resistance in Paris in 1944 and risen to the rank of ‘Lieutenant Doctor’. In 1945 she became the chief doctor in the French Hospital in Warsaw, in charge of repatriation of French citizens who had been prisoners of war or wounded in Poland and the Soviet Union. Madeleine Pauliac led a team of female ambulance drivers, the ‘Blue Squadron’, searching for the soldiers who would her patients and this is how she came across the incidents developed in the film. In 1946 she died accidentally during her work. Her nephew, Philippe Maynial, was the source of this historical account which was then developed by a team of writers including Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial as well as the director Anne Fontaine and Pascal Bonitzer.
The film narrative focuses on Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who is younger than Madeleine and an assistant rather than the doctor in charge (and therefore more vulnerable). One day in December 1945 she is working in the hospital when a Benedictine nun is brought to her by one of the street children. The novice wants a doctor to visit the convent but Mathilde tries to shoo her away because she is only supposed to treat French citizens. When she reflects on her decision she decides to go to the convent anyway and is shocked to discover a nun in the last stages of labour and a difficult birth. Eventually she will realise that several of the nuns are pregnant following repeated rapes by Red Army soldiers. She has entered the convent secretly because the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) would not approve of her presence but once inside she meets Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) who speaks French fluently and acts as her interpreter and guide. Mathilde now finds herself doubly ‘disobedient’ – absenting herself from the hospital and entering the convent. She will later also find herself confronted with a group of Red Army soldiers on the dark road out to the convent in the by the forest outside the town. But there is no way back once Mathilde is committed. She can’t allow women and children to die in the circumstances she discovers.
What follows is a drama that develops the conflict between faith, humanity and practicality that underpins Mathilde’s battle with the Mother Superior and individual pregnant nuns in the face of further contact with the Russians and Mathilde’s issues with her superiors. A parallel narrative follows Mathilde’s growing relationship with another doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) – a Jewish man who lost his parents in the camps while he was overseas with the Free French. At first, I thought this might be a step too far in adding another layer to the complexity of the central story but it won me over.
There is an excellent Press Kit for the film available from Films Distribution and some of the following comments are drawn from it.
The look of the film and the overall tone of the story is measured and astutely handled. Veteran cinematographer Caroline Champetier does an excellent job. She also shot the similarly themed but very differently located Of Gods and Men (France 2010). The setting is very distinctive with the isolated convent (a ‘real’ abandoned convent) set close to woods and snow-covered fields, the nuns in their blue and white habits and the shadows inside the convent. Anne Fontaine describes the look in these terms:
We wanted to give the impression of being in a painting – we were thinking, naturally, of the Quattrocentro period Madonna with Child paintings – while breathing life and movement into the scenes. The air had to be palpable.
This is a setting little changed from the Middle Ages suddenly disrupted by the arrival of khaki-clad men and women in jeeps and trucks. Anne Fontaine has constructed a narrative that moves effortlessly through dramatic confrontations, intimate scenes births and deaths and scenes of contemplation and prayer. I found the film’s 115 minutes sped by and I was reluctant to let it go when the credits rolled.
Praise must go to Anne Fontaine and her collaborators in a genuinely successful co-production. In must have been difficult to work for much of the time in a foreign language (and I note that quite a few discussions on set were conducted in English as a shared language for many actors and crew). She chose very well in casting two of Polish cinema’s most accomplished performers in Agata Buzek and Agata Kulesza. I always find convent-set stories slightly problematic since so many distinguishing features (hair, neck and shoulders) are covered. Both the lead actresses were familiar to me but couldn’t place them. Later I realised that Agata Kulesza gave a stellar performance as the judge and aunt of the novice nun in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) and that Agata Buzek was the lead in Rewers (Poland 2009), both great films. Lou de Laâge as Mathilde is one of the rising stars of French (and European) Cinema. In one or two scenes I wondered if she looked impossibly beautiful for a doctor under stress but Anne Fontaine comments about her:
She is graced with a strong, distinctive beauty. I sensed that this grace, combined with her slightly stubborn side, along with her freshness and a fragility that lie just beneath the surface, would well serve the film.
That seems a good call. I’d finally add that the music in the film which included Handel and Rossini alongside chants by Hildegard von Bingen is beautifully integrated with a score by Grégoire Hetzel which as, Anne Fontaine suggests, is minimal and never overwhelms a film that feels intimate and natural.
Planeta Singli is the latest Polish blockbuster to hit the UK in an attempt to find the large Polish diaspora audience. Polish is officially the UK’s leading second language (i.e. the first language of a million or more Poles resident in the UK). We’ve had Polish films on release in the UK over the last ten years or so, but usually from UK-based distributors. Planeta Singli follows Pitbull as a release from the US distributor Phoenix via an exclusive deal with Odeon (although I understand ‘second-run’ deals with other cinemas are a possibility). See Charles Gant in the Guardian for the full story.
The title of this new release refers to an internet dating app – ‘Planet Single’ – but the film’s narrative is much more complex than that single reference might suggest. This a rom-com that runs 136 mins –very long by UK/US rom-com standards. In fact, the film manages to combine two parallel family melodramas with a romance and a satire on talk shows as well as internet dating. Slovenian director Mitja Okorn already has form with his local Polish hit Letters to Santa (2011). Various European countries have local traditions involving comedies for particular seasons (e.g. the Christmas comedies in Italy) but Planeta Singli looks like a bid to challenge Hollywood directly (keeping Deadpool from top spot at the Polish box office). Ania (Agnieszka Wiedlocha) is a music teacher in an elementary school still ‘tied’ to her mother at 27 after her father’s death. Her friend Ola is married to the school’s head teacher who has a teenage daughter from his first marriage. Ola is glamorous but unable to hold down a job. Ania is responsible but seemingly rather ‘buttoned up’. Attempting internet dating for the first time, Ania finds herself somehow landed with Tomek (Maciej Stuhr), the presenter of an edgy TV talkshow which uses his skills as a puppeteer. Tomek does a deal with Ania – she will tell him the details of her dates that he will use for stories on his show and in return he will buy her a Steinway piano for her school music project.
What follows is in many ways quite conventional and the finale is also very sentimental (and invokes the music competition performance that has become something of a staple). Yet the writing is sharp, the film is genuinely funny and the performances are very good, especially from the two leads. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the transformation in the presentation of Ania in terms of hair and make-up and especially costume. This ‘makeover’ reminded me of the Bette Davis character in Now Voyager. The film has the problem of presenting a beautiful woman as ‘dowdy’. The solution appears to be to dress her in loose tops and skirts, to pin her hair up and to give her oversize horn-rimmed glasses. As the transformation develops she lets her hair down, applies make-up and wears heels. Her costumes change to outfits that seemed to me to more like 60s and 70s fashion and several of them made me think of Audrey Hepburn. Fashion isn’t really my thing. Agnieszka Wiedlocha clearly is a beautiful woman who would still look great in jeans and a man’s shirt, preferably sans make-up – but that’s just my taste. I think someone interested in costume could have a field day with this film.
The music used in the film is another important element in the genre mix. A trailer for the next Polish release played before Planeta Singli, announcing ‘the first film to really use top Polish songs’. In Planeta Singli a couple of songs were in English including ‘The Man with an Unknown Soul’ by Polish singer Bovska and a striking version of Paul Simon’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ by Korean-American singer Nouela.
Overall this is an enjoyable rom-com and it’s easy to see why it has been such a big hit. I dread the thought of an American remake and in this respect the film made me think about the smash hit South Korean rom-com My Sassy Girl (2001) which was followed by less successful remakes in the US and India as well as a Chinese sequel. The Polish and Korean films are very different in some ways, though they share scenes associated with the drinking cultures of both countries. But what they both also do is offer genuine romance narratives with well thought-out characters and long complex narratives. If this film makes it to a DVD with subtitles, it would certainly be worth checking out. On subtitles, it’s worth noting that in a film with lots of texting between characters it’s quite difficult to subtitle all the exchanges flashing across the screen.
In the last six months I’ve now seen both Polish and Chinese blockbusters in Odeons outside London. Perhaps a Turkish film will be next?
Here’s the song by Bovska that has been edited to serve as a trailer for the film:
The Here After is a début feature from Magnus von Horn, a Swede who attended the famous Łódź film school in Poland where he teamed up with a Polish student, Mariusz Wlodarski. After several prize-winning short films and a documentary, The Here After produced by Wlodarski with a partly Polish crew was an official co-production, shot in Sweden, in Swedish. The film, like many other European films, tapped into the regional film fund of Film i Väst and the credits also suggest some form of support from the National Film and TV School in the UK and the French film school Fémis. The Swedish production company involved is Zentropa International, one of many ventures associated with Lars von Trier who started the Danish Zentropa with his colleague Peter Aalbæk in 1992. Zentropa is now 50% owned by Nordisk and ranks as the biggest Scandinavian producer. With this kind of muscle it isn’t surprising that The Here After screened in Cannes and that it has received a release in Poland, Scandinavia and UK with France due in May.
Von Horn has adopted the strategy of telling us nothing about the characters or the situation and forcing us to learn as much as we can as the action unfolds. We see a young man, John (played by a well-known young Swedish pop singer, Ulrik Munther) who appears to be being released from some kind of secure institution. His father has come to collect him and drives him home to a farm where we meet his younger brother, his grandfather and the family dog. John’s mother is never mentioned. There is a great deal of tension between John and the three other family members but his situation doesn’t become clear until he returns to school and an extremely hostile reception from the other students. What has he done? We will eventually find out, but again not directly, only through piecing together what’s said and following the action. John will make a new friend in Malin, a girl who is new to the school and doesn’t know the history (but who is inquisitive). Otherwise, virtually everyone is suspicious if not aggressively hostile.
At first, I felt quite hostile towards the film, partly because von Horn adopts a visual style with lots of shallow focus and which along with other devices such as shooting through windows/doors, often in long takes, helps to distance the audience from the narrative. I understand that this expresses John’s state of mind but it isn’t easy to watch. I was surprised to discover afterwards that the film was shot by Łukasz Żal, the Polish cinematographer who was one of the two contributors to the look of Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013), one of the most astounding visual treats of the last few years. Much is made on the film’s website about the meeting of Scandinavia aesthetics and Polish emotional intensity:
“An over-aesthetic Scandinavian world clashes in the film with Polish sensitivity, creating a new Polish-Swedish quality in world cinema.”
“Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, enclosed in the sombre, sophisticated visual layer of the movie, enables the transition of the pain which accompanies the main character of ‘The Here After’ into an aesthetic experience. The world where John is doomed to live is meticulously scrutinised by the director. Von Horn and Żal have managed to wrap the bitter story in a soft, poetic form, giving rise to a remarkable sensitivity and a coherent cinematic language.” (See http://www.the-here-after.com)
There is a danger here of getting just a little too precious. As far as I can work out, the images are either drained of colour or it is particularly gloomy in Sweden in March (or May? – I couldn’t quite read the calendar on the wall). Either way, this is a world of predominantly blues, greys and greens. I think that I did eventually manage to gain some kind of entry into John’s world and the struggle may well have been worthwhile to experience ‘poetry’ and ‘sensitivity’. But I’m not sure that is what I wanted or expected from the film. I want here to speculate on issues of genre and representation. The Here After signs itself as an art film and as such has succeeded in getting widespread support. But I was also reminded of two other relatively recent films with similar narrative elements. The Swedish film Flocken (2015) has a similar visual style, a not dissimilar location and concerns a younger school student ostracised in her small community because she accuses a boy of sexually assaulting her. Flocken has not got a UK distributor and I wonder if it is thought too generic and not sufficiently ‘arthouse’? Another film which has something of the tone of The Here After is Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did (Ireland 2012). This latter film did get a release and Abrahamson has become a very successful director straddling arthouse and mainstream ‘quality film’. All three films share a narrative in which a teenager does something that ‘shocks’ a relatively small tightly-knit community, leading to disturbing group behaviour and the sense that the various social institutions involved are less effective than they should be – implying perhaps some kind of metaphorical statement about a failing society. I think this is potentially a genre topic and relates to a wide range of films that play with morality, group behaviour and sensitivity around youth and adolescence. Back in the 1960s this would have been classed as a ‘social problem film’ in the UK. Then the narrative would have been expected to deliver an authority figure who would ‘solve’ the problem, but in these recent films a lack of narrative resolution has almost become conventional.
The Here After takes place in an unspecified region, although both the director and the young lead are from Halland county in Western Sweden. It seems to me that there are several films which portray life for adolescents outside Sweden’s main cities as tedious and dull. One of the best known is Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (Sweden 1998). The original title of the film is the cry of teenage girls bored to death with living in Åmål. (The film was sweetly re-titled Show Me Love for release in the US and UK.) The Here After focuses on the more violent behaviour of teenage boys, but also on the way in which some of them are supported by parents for whom group solidarity is more important than any form of moral behaviour or social justice. Like What Richard Did, The Here After is based on/inspired by a news story. Even if there is a ‘truth’ in such a narrative, it still seems to me that there is a danger of ‘typing’ small town Scandinavia as particularly dismal in terms of social relations. Perhaps there is some Swedish scholarship on these kinds of films?
The Here After has received almost universal acclaim – though not too many screenings. It opened on just 10 screens and on its first weekend took only £330 per screen. None of the reviews I’ve read seemed interested in the kinds of sociological questions I wanted to ask. If this is meant to be Sweden, the judicial system and the rehabilitation of offenders seems out of kilter somehow. Of the various reviews, Jonathan Romney makes the most telling point when he describes Ulrik Munther as ‘delicately handsome’ and suggests that his pop star profile is well exploited (at least in a Swedish cinema market context). But too many reviews simply see von Horn as a diligent student of Michael Haneke. I was impressed by Munther’s performance and I certainly appreciated the way tension was built up but I would have liked more in terms of narrative development and more for the audience to chew on.
This offered two programmes in the Leeds International Film Festival Short Film City section.
The Leon Schiller National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź (Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Filmowa, Telewizyjna i Teatralna im. Leona Schillera w Łodzi) is the leading Polish academy for future actors, directors, photographers, camera operators and TV staff. [The current name is in honour of the actor and first rector Leon Schiller].
You get a sense of the school’s status when you look at the list of alumni:
The School has three Oscar-winning alumni: Roman Polanski, Andrzej Wajda and Zbigniew Rybczyński, while alumnus Krzysztof Kieślowski was nominated for an Oscar. Both Polanski and Wajda won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002 and 1981, respectively.
So it was a must for me to turn up for the first programme which was a series of short films produced between 1958 and 1986. The selection repaid my interest.
Two men and a wardrobe (Dwaj ludzie z szafą 1958) in black and white and running 14 minutes. The film is without dialogue and follows the characters and prop of the title. This is one of the famous films made by Polanski as a student. It is a real surrealist piece, droll and engaging as we follow the antics of the men and their interaction with passersby. The film opens and closes on the sea-shore which seems highly symbolic.
Conflicts (Konflikty 1960). Directed by Daniel Szczechura, this is a seven minute animation using stop-motion techniques. The plot concerns a marital triangle leading to a violent conclusion.
The Game (Zabawa 1960). Filmed in black and white and directed by Witold Leszczynski, the film runs for 9 minutes. The game in question involves a couple in a car and another driver with whom they race. This is a very sardonic piece: I wondered if Spielberg saw it before Duel (1971)?
The Office (Urzad 1966). This is a five minute documentary in black and white. The focus on an administrative space and the interaction betweens staff and users seems typical of the director, Krzyztof Kieślowski. The sort of sequence that appears in far more complex fashion in his later films.
Kirk Douglas (1966). A 10 minute documentary directed by Marek Piwowaki recording the visit by the Hollywood actor to the Film School. Douglas is clearly exploring h his routes, but also enjoy the intense interest and even adulation that he is accorded.
Concert of Requests (Koncert zyczeń 1967. This 16 minute drama in black and white was directed by Krzyztof Kieślowski. Like The Office it has recognisable themes and style. A couple on a motor bike, packing up after camping, encounter a fairly rowdy bus load of people. The latter include band members, perhaps returning from some concert event. The film follows the encounter and the brief conflict that develops. Like the filmmakers later and longer features, this was fascinating to watch.
Market (Rynek 1971). This five minute experiment was directed by Józef Robakowski and Tadeusz Junak. The film uses fast motion over a period of about a day and in long shot to record the event.
Square (Kwadrat 1972). Another experimental film with animated colour by Zbigniew Rybcznski. The four minutes are filled with changing shapes and music in a sort of abstract ballet.
With Raised Hands (Z podniesionymi rekami 1985). This 6 minutes black and white film won a Palme D’Or for the Film School and the director Mitko Panov. The photograph which the film uses is a famous one. But we are offered an alternative narrative. One that offers hope and which seemed to speak both to Polish history and recurring pre-occupations in the work of the Film School.
Krakatau (1986). This was an essay film rather than one with story. In black and white and running for eleven minutes the director, Mariusz Grzegorzek used ‘found footage’ to present a picture of rising frustrations. The footage included what seemed to be a volcanic eruption and reference to the famous one at Krakatoa.
Most of the films were in academy ratio, but a couple were in 1.66:1. They involved a whole host of School students in cinematography, editing sound and other production functions. The one flaw in all of this was the sound track. The volume went up and down from film to film. Apparently the poor projectionist was turning the output up and down as the films, copied to digital, ran. It seems this was on the disc supplied from Poland. This was not only unfortunate, but given the standards in the recent Martin Scorsese Masterpieces of Polish Cinema [with more Łódź alumni] surprising.
There was a second programme of short films made in the last couple of years. One, Hangover (Kao 2015) had arrived without subtitles. With a certain amount of effort I followed the main plot, but not all the subtleties. Set in an Alcohol Recovery Centre it looked rather good. The director was Maciej Buchwald, who likely also scripted the film.
The film that I was most impressed by was Gigant (Giant 2015). The film follows the romantic adventures of young Bartek and his mother, a single parent. I do not know if Polish Television ever featured Yellow Pages adverts, but this seemed to provide a back-story to one that involved French Polishers. I thought the cast were very good, and the development of the characters over 33 minutes was very well done. There was an engaging ironic take on the events as they unfolded. The film was both scripted and directed by Tomasz Jeziorski.
All the films were in colour and widescreen and this was an interesting and enjoyable screening. [Quotations with Links – Wikipedia].
Jerzy Skolimowski is the Polish director who was a rebel filmmaker in the early 1960s, a young man who went to Lodz film school and tussled with Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk and Roman Polanski. After several Polish features he moved into ‘international’ filmmaking with a series of English language films, including Deep End (1970) made about UK issues but shot mainly in West Germany. Later he moved to Hollywood but his directing career foundered in the 1990s. In 2010 he teamed up with Jeremy Thomas to produce a critically acclaimed international thriller Essential Killing. Thomas is a legendary international producer who had previously produced Skolimowski’s The Shout in the UK in 1978. Essential Killing premiered at Venice and like many of Skolimowski’s previous titles generated awards interest (Skolimowski boasts 22 awards as writer and director from major festivals around the world). 11 Minutes, the next Skolimowski-Thomas production also opened at Venice in 2015 and was again nominated for the Golden Lion.
11 Minutes is a Polish co-production with Ireland. Most of the film appears to be shot in Warsaw with sound recording and possibly some interiors in Dublin. Most of the dialogue is Polish except for English used in one narrative strand. The only thing I can say about the ‘plot’ is that it covers what happens between 5pm and 5.11 one afternoon in the lives of a group of characters in central Warsaw. The group includes an actress who has an appointment in a hotel with an American actor/producer re a new film. Her husband is trying to find her in the hotel. A man sells hot dogs from a cart in the park and a woman walks a dog. A teenager breaks into a pawnbroker’s shop. A couple look through some video porn on a laptop. A motor-cycle courier delivers more than just a package to a married woman. Some nuns wait for a bus. A security guard watches CCTV monitors. An ambulance crew are on a mercy mission. There may be other characters I’ve forgotten. The separate stories are not told in a linear fashion and Skolimowski sometimes goes back in time before he goes forward again. This play with time also includes a cheeky image of time running backwards. The film lasts just 81 minutes, cut down from a 120 minutes original version.
For me, this was a thrilling ride. At one point I thought I was watching some kind of avant-garde film and I searched for the kinds of editing rhythms I remembered from 1970s structural films. Eventually I realised what was happening but I wasn’t prepared for the ending. Somebody who watched the same screening that I attended, at which Skolimowski answered questions, reported on IMDB that they were unimpressed. They must be hard to please. I thought that 11 Minutes was a triumph of editing and the choreography of actors’ movements and camera set-ups must have been very difficult. At the Q&A Skolomowski said that he treated the narrative as a poem full of metaphors and symbols and that like all poems he thought that readers should decide for themselves what the metaphors meant. There was a brief discussion as to what the ‘dead pixel’ on one of the CCTV screens might mean as well as suggestions that there was something supernatural going on. What was it that seemed to make some of the characters look up into the sky? It occurred to me afterwards that the film had something in common with the Argentinian collection of short stories, Wild Tales (2014). The two films have very different narrative structures but both seem in a way to be commenting on something about lives in their respective countries/cultures. A final question asked about the opening of the film and this was indeed interesting. Skolimowski begins with introductions to several of the most important characters by way of what might be considered ‘non-theatrical’ video sources – a camera on a mobile phone, the webcam on a laptop, CCTV in an interview room etc. The rest of the film is then shot conventionally on film or HD. Again, we are invited to decide what this choice of formats means.
11 Minutes does not yet have a UK distributor but it does have a leading UK sales agent, Hanway, so it should arrive here. It will be released in Ireland by co-producers Element Pictures. The film will divide critics perhaps but if you like terrific cinematography combined with excellent sound and great choreography in a whole that challenges your perception of the pace of contemporary city life, this is a winner.
I approached this screening with some trepidation. I’d chosen it because it fitted my schedule. I’m always slightly wary of documentaries and I’m not sure why. I rarely choose to see documentaries at my local cinemas but when I do get to see them I nearly always find them rewarding. This one certainly sounded grim and when I arrived at the ICA (which didn’t have seat reservations for this screening) I found myself sitting behind the tallest person in the cinema. With poor raking in the cinema this meant I had to lean sideways to read the subtitles. It wasn’t a good start but I needn’t have worried.
People live and work on or near to rubbish tips all over the world and I can think of both cinema documentaries and fiction films set in Brazil, Egypt and India in which potentially positive stories can be found about their lives. I wasn’t aware of the same scale of living with rubbish in Moscow. Rummaging about in Cairo or Mumbai sounds relatively attractive in comparison to surviving a Russian winter in a makeshift hut on a waste tip in the snow and slush. But apparently this is what hundreds, if not thousands, of people do every year. The film’s title comes from a quote from Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1902), a play depicting ‘Scenes From Russian Life’ amongst the poorest classes. Hanna Polak’s film focuses on one young woman and offers us glimpses of her life over a 14 year period, starting when she was 10.
Hanna Polak is a celebrated Polish documentarist and a humanitarian campaigner. Reading her biographical details, her list of films and awards over the last fifteen years and the range of her work with charitable organisations, I’m surprised (and perhaps shamed) that I haven’t come across her before. After the screening she gave a spirited account of how she made her latest film and used the opportunity to encourage us all to promote the film and the various campaigns around it. In short, Hanna Polak embodies what was once called ‘social documentary’. Her films are meant to not only show the world but definitely to change it. In Putin’s Russia that’s a tough call.
The genesis of the film was a project that Polak began in order to try to help street children in Moscow. It was they who introduced her to the communities on the dumps. For a long period she worked to help children with medical problems, getting them access to treatment. She always carried a camera and took both still photographs and film footage but most of the time she was too busy to do this systematically. It was only later that somebody suggested that she make a film and that she realised that she might be able to do more for the people on the dumps if a film showed what was happening to a much wider audience. The decision to make the young woman Yula, the central character in the story was in effect retrospective and we see glimpses of her as a child before we get more sustained coverage of incidents from her later teenage years onwards. Across the 14 years, Hanna Polak had other films to make as director, producer and cinematographer including Children of the Leningradsky (2004) about street children living around a Moscow railway station. She made other social documentaries as well as, presumably, jobs to simply pay the bills. She graduated from a cinematography school in Moscow so she had contacts in the city but she had to look elsewhere for funding. Something Better to Come is co-produced by Polish and Danish/Nordic public funding (an example of Scandinavian support for charitable/aid-related work?).
The difficulties of making this film – physical, organisational, personal etc. – mean that it doesn’t offer many ‘aesthetic pleasures’ but it packs a powerful punch as a social statement. Yula herself is a remarkable young woman and Hanna Polak amused us by revealing that the 23 year-old Yula is now living a carefully organised life in Moscow which allows the filmmaker limited interview time. “You get one hour, then I must do something else.” Yula’s family lost their original apartment in Moscow and ended up homeless and eventually on the dump. Years later, almost like a miracle in a fairy tale, the Moscow authorities discovered that the family had property rights that were still valid and Yula got an apartment. In the meantime her father, like many others, had died. Life on the dump is hard. A temporary shelter may need to be moved every few days as the only work available is searching through the new rubbish for recycleable material and it’s important to be close by. The trucks and bulldozers move the mountains of rubbish and the ‘recyclers’ are paid in vodka for what they find. Alcoholism sits along hyperthermia in winter and various diseases associated with dirty water and contaminated food as major killers. The recycling is an illegal operation controlled by gangsters. Hanna Polak faced dangers working with the people of the dump and finding money to complete her film was a problem. Now she spends her time trying to find ways to promote her film. If a screening happens near you, please go to see it and support her cause.
Trailer for Something Better to Come:
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 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.