Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 23, 2017

Cinema: Past and Present

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:15 am

A speech given by Andrzej Wajda at a conference on his work at the University of Lodz in 2001

As I thought about my speech for today, I chose not to give a lecture. Never in my life have I confronted so many experts on my work and I do not think it will happen to me again. So my anxiety is greater than ever and I have decided this should not be a speech but a confession.

I shall try to answer the question, what is national cinema today? Everything seems to show that national cinemas will survive and I have no doubt they will. But can they replace American cinema? For sure the influx of American film makes all European artists uneasy … but I do not think it can be replaced. American cinema will continue to play the same role it always has. Can national cinemas, then, develop alongside it? I think they can. And I believe they will survive. What makes me think so? First of all, production techniques have advanced and are much easier than they used to be in my day. It is impossible now to erect barriers of any kind preventing people from making films they want to make, whether it is through studies in film school, problems of financing or censorship. Anyone, director or cinematographer, can get a digital camera and make a film, just as the principles of Dogme95 proclaim, on what is happening around them. If what they have to say turns out to be interesting, the film will be distributed, maybe only to a handful of cinemas, but experience teaches us that such cinemas still want to show such films.

Since such a film will be shot in the native tongue, does language therefore play a fundamental role? This is another problem that should be considered for I have an impression that the world will not successfully unite through one language. People want to speak different languages, and attempts to impose a common language have been futile. Poland regained independence in 1918. The three partitioning powers taught in two languages. Some officers in the army — I still remember that — spoke two foreign languages. This entire body switched to Polish in no time, and it was not a problem to create a Polish administration. Our historical experience proves that a language cannot be imposed. Tradition and literature encourage people to watch national films, in national languages. I do not think, however, that we in Poland want to make amateur or semi-amateur films that are shown for a small audience in a few cinemas. I believe we should aim higher than that. Polish cinema after the war won the recognition of the world. Could it be similarly successful now? I have an impression that time, if you like, has formed a loop since 1945 and we have returned to the starting point. The Polish cinema of the last decade is in my opinion a bit like pre-war cinema. This judgement may be a bit harsh but since I make films too and my perception of my work over the last ten years is similar, please g make such a comparison. It is so easy to compare Quo Vadis (2001) with Josef Lejtes’ pre-war picture Under Your Protection (1933). Cezary Pazura’s role in contemporary cinema is parallel to that of Adolf Dymsza’s before the war. There are no films about elegant salons, but then there are no elegant salons. Instead, there are gangsters and films about gangsters nowadays in a way that corresponds to pre-war films about elegant salons.

So if this situation is typical, then is it indeed our desire to make national films, shown only in one country, for the people who want to see themselves on the screen and to hear their own language? Interestingly, the French, whose minds are much more Cartesian, have chosen not to defend national cinema on the principle of the free market but on the principle of a language quota. A bill has been adopted stipulating that only 60 per cent of all distributed films can be in any one language. The language was not specified but the 60 per cent restriction sets up a distinct barrier. Yet any attempt to restrict the role of the English language fails and I refuse to believe it can succeed. At the same time, when I look at united Europe and all its activities, I see a new Tower of Babel with a confusion of languages coming into being. Sometimes I have an impression that all Eurocrats get together at night, speak English and agree on what they will say in their native tongues in the morning. This means that national cinemas will continue to exist. The war in the Balkans, internal conflicts in various countries prove that people still want to speak languages that no one else knows and they believe it is of utmost importance.

Lately attempts have been made, especially because such things are profitable, to make films in co-operation with other countries: Germany and France, France and Poland, Poland and someone else etc. Special EU legislation has allowed for joint financing of such movies, yet also permitted their release as films of a given country. Soon, however, such films were being dubbed `Euro-puddings’: a kind of meal that is totally unpalatable. I have wondered whether the problem is that actors in such films often speak a language that is not their own. It seems to me, however, that we have a different problem here. It is not the problem of the language in which the actors speak but the language in which the director thinks. The director loses his footing when he is outside his own world and his own circle. He does not know whom he is talking to, does not know what his audience thinks. If I think in Polish, then I try to make what I do coherent. In a nutshell: I want to talk about myself. I have an impression it is the only way for the art of film.

Let me tell you briefly what the world was like when I was a child. It was very different. Constructivism and Futurism, great artistic movements, thrived; avant-garde art groups like Rytm and Blok were active. Representatives of these movements believed that they would root out irrationality, introduce sense into human existence and create a better future world. Yet soon after World War One, the demons of Fascism emerged, quickly followed by Stalinism, which did promise a better future though real life soon shattered such hopes. I am proud that Polish cinema addressed these two matters. It spoke out against the Nazi war and made films that challenged the lie of Stalinism. Let me tell you what my generation concentrated on. I remember that Jerzy Andrzejewski,2 who was always interested in all sorts of catchphrases and used them for his works, drew my attention to a saying that was popular in 1955 and 1956. When asked ‘How are things?’ you’d answer `Disastrous’. Our cinema made a subject out of those disasters. Let me quote Alfred de Musset’s poem Ode to Poland at this point:

Until that day, brave Poland, when you show us all some disaster greater than all
the ones before and wake us up — Poland, you will not find strength,
you will not wipe out indifference from our face.
It is your time, heroes, but fight on your own,
Europe never seems too eager to give help,
It prefers excitements that do not haunt at night,
Then fight, Poland, or perish — we are blasé.

I experienced this blase indifference when my second film, Kanal (1957), was shown at Cannes. The festival was very different from what it is now. The resort was half empty in the spring season before the summer influx began, and the festival had to attract rich, suave French audiences. Unlike today when no uniform style is required, ladies had elegant dresses and diamond jewellery; men wore dinner jackets. This was the audience who saw my film. What appeared in the Nice Matin newspaper the following day was more of a warning for the festival organisers than a critical review. The reviewer claimed that films in which people waded in the sewers must not be shown. The festival was addressed to elegant people who wished to see great art and did not want to wade in the sewers with Polish insurgents. The poem just recited and this story complement each other. We simply believed that as long as we had a message for the world, we had to expose our wounds, and to make it the subject of our films.

What did we think of pre-war cinema? We already knew what to think about it when we were at Film School. We still did not know what films we wanted to make but we knew full well we did not want to make the films that had been made before the war. We rejected the cinema represented by Dymsza or other pre-war trends on all counts, and we viewed critically the people who had created Polish pre-war cinema. I am thinking here about Wanda Jakubowska and Aleksander Ford:3 we perceived them as pre-war directors, not to mention Allan Starski’s father,’ who wrote scripts for Dymsza. We chose to create cinema from scratch. Of course we had our models. We watched the films of Italian Neorealism and were inspired by them. That was the world we wanted to show on screen, the world of poor people, because we were poor. It was very important that our voice was heard on the other side of the Iron Curtain too. We felt then that the Polish cinema had a duty not only to speak about itself but also to communicate with those on the other side in the Cold War. We wanted to speak with the voice of our neighbours who then still did not have their own cinemas or at least were not yet accorded recognition. I think our mission succeeded. Our war films showed the truth about the Polish `October’ in 1956 to those on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and later our films in August 1980 let the world know that something fundamental was happening in Poland.

The rhythm of a film was another thing that seemed important to me as a young director. We did not like Soviet cinema, not because of what it said but because of its slow tempo. Polish audiences felt the same. Unfortunately, great Soviet cinema, born in the 1920s, did not develop in the way its great directors expected it to. Hence we wanted our films to adopt the rhythms of Western films, because we thought it would keep us alive. And that is why Western audiences could watch our films — the rhythms were more animated and they captured the reality of our lives. Our national cinema was greatly supported at that time by other national cinemas or by outstanding people who had begun to create world cinema. American cinema was not at the top of all great achievements then. Fellini, Bergman and Kurosawa were the big names, and we watched their films wanting to find their Polish equivalents. The audience for our films was the intelligentsia, the highly educated, as it was for the films of Bergman and Kurosawa. Even if someone like me did not have a full education, he tried to catch up by seeing those films. Communication was easy because our shared knowledge allowed us to make easy reference to history or to Greek mythology. There was a high degree of understanding between artist and audience. I have an impression things are different today, and it is more difficult to ascertain how to communicate with an audience. Then we reached out to the world, the world reached out to us, and intellectual audiences were the basis of our communication, and the aspirations of Polish cinema at that time clearly reflect this. In the 1960s Jerzy Kawalerowicz made Pharaoh (1966), a beautiful, original film which won worldwide acclaim, while Wojciech Has made The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), which Bunuel considered to be one of the best films in the world. There was a kind of community of cinephiles — film-makers and audiences alike who sought to understand the world. We worked hard for such an audience then and, unless one realises this, it is difficult to understand the situation of the cinema of that time.

Today most national cinemas are partly financed by the state. Even though funds may be rare, all European countries with their own film industries operate some system of subsidy. It is interesting that often the state used to have specific requirements in return for its money. Today, on the whole, the state gives the money but does not demand anything. Things should be better but, strangely, they are worse. What is more, cinema is at the mercy of television, which produces films but then relegates them to off-peak viewing times. On the one hand, it assists cinema: on the other its assistance is inadequate. The success bestowed by film festivals and awards, increasingly numerous, is illusionary. More and more frequently, films with awards are not put into distribution and there is no chance for audiences to see them. Next, more and more films are made in unknown or almost unknown languages, which breaks up even further what used to unite world cinema. Cinema has become a pastime. In Poland, young people between 15 and 25 are the largest audience. Those people are generally contented. They do not go to the cinema to share their pain in the way that the Polish intelligentsia of the previous generation watched our films. They are not burdened with the past. It is difficult to make historical films because these young people hardly have any sense of the past and are surprised to learn about some of the things their parents experienced. These young people have been brought up stress-free. But, equally important, cinema tickets are expensive so only the prosperous go to the cinema. A film about social problems requires a large audience because one would like to appeal to as many people as possible and to move them. But why should anyone make a social problem film today if only the well-heeled go to the cinema? To tell them that poverty exists? They know that and will not be moved by it. A new audience has arisen, creating a new kind of situation.

Let me move onto the saddest thing I want to say today. It turns out that Poles prefer to go to movie theatres in city centres. There is, for instance, a very good cinema dating back to the 1950s in Nowa Huta but no one goes there because everyone goes to see a film in one of the movie theatres in the centre of Cracow. But this cinema must bring in money, just like a supermarket, because otherwise the cinema will be knocked down and a supermarket will be built in its place. So if cinema owners want to stay on in the market, there is no way out for them. It is not only the matter of their personal preferences or that they do not like our films: if they want to have a cinema theatre in the city centre, and people only go to such cinemas, they must show films that would attract audiences. Meanwhile, let me return to the more general problem. The intelligentsia is in retreat. The ethos of the intelligentsia is disappearing. Educational qualifications are also different and require something different from young people. They do not unite them in the way they united us. Cinema for the well-heeled is a pastime and does not draw on the past or history. But this only means that things have become normal. This is what cinema audiences should be like. So why are we resentful then? Isn’t it what we fought for? I wonder, however, whether we have come back, so to speak, to the beginning, to the starting point. I wonder, and it is a sad thought, whether the Polish film school in 1956 came into being only to settle the accounts with the past and whether this painful confrontation about which the poem earlier speaks is not the only way for the art of Polish cinema; whether the disasters and suffering of our nation are not the only subject that we can share with the world outside and grab its attention? Yet maybe Polish cinema was born only to speak about the disasters of this nation.

I must say a few words about American cinema, even applaud it, as I think a war with American cinema is based on a misunderstanding. Firstly, the term ‘American cinema’ should not be used at all because it is too general. Americans make a great deal of films that may have something in common; some are splendid, magnificent productions whose message appeals to us all, while some are pure entertainment. I do not think those two trends should be confused. We should draw our own conclusions from it. American cinema has united that big country. Its diversity has made it possible to show individual endeavour and the need for self-reliance. It has illustrated the slogan ‘Act or perish’. Yet at the same time, American cinema also takes in European ideas. I can see references to European literature and thought in Spielberg’s latest film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). The fairytale magic that he exploits so beautifully also has European roots. This film is for me, I am ashamed to say, more European than Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy (2000). American films teach me one important lesson: the audience may disagree with the concept that the director offers but they must understand what the director has to say. Unfortunately, a great majority of European films are lost somewhere along the line between director and screen because the director thinks that his confused, unintelligible language is part of his message. In fact, it makes it impossible to understand the director’s ideas and as a result we only know that he is desperately trying to tell us something. That is why when I started working on Ashes and Diamonds (Popiot i diament, 1958), John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was my inspiration. Few remember this film now but it is worth seeing. These were the films we wanted to make. It was beautiful; we were impressed by it. The final scene, when the gangster on the run returns home, lies down on the grass and the grazing horses come near him, is brilliantly unique. I have never seen such a scene. But I also mean the entire film, the way it was made, the inspiration it gave me. That is why I believe that I have to applaud American cinema — I owe it a great deal.

Let us, however, return to the situation at home. I have read Ryszard Kapugcirlski’s essay in Gazeta Wyborcza. Kapugchiski writes, ‘Man cannot live in the atmosphere of marginalisation, contempt, sense of inferiority but has the need for identity, identification, which is, in turn, difficult in a world that enforces migration as a result of inequality.’ Later on he says, ‘Our world is at a crossroads. A certain tendency seems inevitable: we will live in a multicultural world.’ In a way, we have always lived in a multicultural world but we were not aware of it because never before has the system of communication — via television, telephone or the internet — been so efficient. I draw a certain conclusion from the quotations I have given. As long as we really want to hold onto our place and our language, we must not renounce national cinema…

Cinema is not only spoken language. It is also an art of images. Here is an example I frequently use: the sequence showing Maciek Chelmicki’s death on a rubbish tip brings Ashes and Diamonds to a close. I have often been asked how it was possible that the film was released at all. Jerzy Andrzejewski’s party membership definitely helped; it would not have been possible otherwise. Regardless of that, for the censors who examined the film the message in the final scene could well have been that whoever rebels against the communist authorities ends up on the rubbish dump of history. Yet when the film was distributed the audience may well have thought, ‘Who are these authorities who kill our boy, a resistance fighter, on a rubbish tip? This isn’t right.’ Both interpretations were possible and that is why the film was released with this amazing scene. Still, a censor phoned me early in the morning of the release of Ashes and Diamonds and suggested the sequence should be cut out. I knew, however, that I could hold out a few more hours and then we, would see. We made it, the sequence stayed. I am saying this because I believe it is proof that national cinema, which speaks a verbal language no outsider would understand, may speak a language of images with such force that even censorship could not cope. I believe that the cinema of our times, a digital camera in the hands of the director, the Dogme rule that demands a film be contemporary and speaks to the living moment, the quest to use naturalistic language, are all powerful and make sense. Monopolies of both the state and the film industry lose their meaning as this contemporary type of film production develops. Our hopes for European cinema must surely go in this direction. This cinema will not become homogeneous because the audiences will remain diversified and certain films will be addressed only to certain groups. So original, often strange films will be made because artists will want to make them. Language will not play a major role because a film addressed to everyone will be in English, just as it was with Joan of Arc (1999) by Luc Besson, the French director who made his film in English to ensure a large audience. On the other hand, it is interesting that Schindler’s List (1993) is the only film about the Holocaust that has been seen throughout the entire world. We in Poland had made films about the same subject much earlier. They may not have been that bad and may have seized the attention of their audience but only a film made in English could give the world an abiding image of the Holocaust.

So what do I hope for as my life is coming to an end? I believe we should work on European films, national films. Ryszard Kapugciliski says that our European world will grow old but young, healthy barbarians will learn our language, fall in love with our past and our culture, and because of them our work is worth our while. As long as we bequeath to them what we should, those barbarians will create beautiful Polish art. I wholeheartedly count on it…


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