Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 1, 2018

The Last Witness

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Poland — louisproyect @ 1:35 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 1, 2018

Now rentable on iTunes, Amazon and other VOD platforms for $5.99, “The Last Witness” is a narrative film about the Katyn massacre of 1940. This joint Polish-British production is well worth seeing both for its dramatic power and for its probing examination of how England served Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism by covering up the massacre that left 22,000 elite members of the military, academy, church and legal professions secretly buried in the forest near Smolensk, even after the Cold War had begun.

This is now the second film about Katyn I have reviewed for CounterPunch, the first being Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 “Katyn”. Like Wajda, the director and screenwriters of “The Last Witness”—Piotr Szkopiak and Paul Szambowski—are Polish nationalists. For the Poles, the 1940 occupation and mass murder of the country’s elite has cast a shadow over their history just as the 1932-33 famine does for Ukrainians.

Continue reading

July 14, 2017

Andrzej Wadja’s Search for Freedom

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Poland — louisproyect @ 12:26 pm

When Andrzej Wajda died last year at the age of 90 after having just completed “Afterimage”, he was one of the last of the great auteurs of the 60s and 70s, leaving only Jean-Luc Godard (now 86) the sole survivor. Demonstrating their appreciation of his role in this golden age of cinema, the European Film Academy presented Wajda with a lifetime achievement award, only the third director to be so honored after Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. His body of work would be a topic in itself worthy of consideration by CounterPunch readers but beyond his achievements as a filmmaker there is something else that recommends his films, namely their focus on one of the big political questions of our epoch–especially after a full century. What was the impact of the USSR on its own people and those like the Poles living under its control? Widely recognized as an anti-Communist director, he might be a polarizing figure to many who see the geopolitical divide as demanding alignment with the Kremlin—either pre or post-Communism. As such, his work demands attention, however you stand on this question insofar as his reputation and influence will persist long after his death. Was Wajda an enemy of communism or was his mission to create films that transcended narrow ideological considerations?

Continue reading

July 7, 2017

Battlefield Poland

Filed under: Counterpunch,Poland — louisproyect @ 12:59 pm

Stalin and Ribbentrop

In a speech given by Andrzej Wajda to a conference on his work at the University of Lodz in 2001, he spoke about the importance of a national cinema. Given the near-hegemony of Hollywood, one might say that national cinema has seen its day. In the post-WWII period, a number of directors emerged who, paraphrasing Shelly, became the unacknowledged legislators of their nation. Satyajit Ray in India, the Italian neo-realists, Akira Kurosawa in Japan, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and the French auteurs, all were shaped by their experiences of WWII and their hopes that cinema could help to form a new identity out of the ashes of bombed cities and the mountains of skeletons left behind by the fighting.

For Wajda, the challenge was not just speaking for the hopes of the Polish people but in helping to form a national identity that had been suppressed since the early 1800s. In a subsequent CounterPunch article, I will provide a guide to Wajda’s most important films that are relatively easy to access as Video on Demand (VOD) but in order to make sense of his work, it is essential to preface it with a brief overview of Polish history in order for a left audience to properly grasp the mission Wajda set for himself as a director.

Continue reading

December 16, 2013

Two Lessons

Filed under: Argentina,Film,Poland,Russia — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

Now that I have fulfilled my obligations to New York Film Critics Online by watching just enough Hollywood crapola to allow me to fill out a ballot for our December 8th awards meeting, I can return to the kind of film that really matters to me and presumably my readers. As the first post-NYFCO awards film reviewed by me, “Two Lessons” is the perfect example of why I would prefer a low-budget Polish language documentary that cost perhaps $50,000 to make over something like “Gravity”.

Opening today at the Maysles Theater in Harlem, “Two Lessons” is an exquisitely beautiful and spiritually elevated study of rural poverty in Siberia and Argentina pivoting around director Wojciech Staron’s wife Malgosia, who was sent by the Polish government to give Polish language lessons to émigré communities after 1989 when nationalism took the place of Communism. Although it is a documentary, the filmmaker whose work it bears the closest resemblance to is that of French Catholic New Wave narrative film director Robert Bresson, especially his “Diary of a Country Priest”.

One of my favorite Bresson quotes is “Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the cracks”, words that describe “Two Lessons” to a tee. Like the young priest in Bresson’s classic who arrives in a country village on a mission to save souls, Malgosia Staron (she was the director’s girlfriend at the time) comes to Usolie-Siberskoe in 1998 in order to preserve culture. What she and Wojciech rapidly discover is that the citizenry is also in need of material salvation, facing one hardship or another in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. This is a people who never benefited from the “free market” revolution led by Yeltsin and Putin. Malgosia arrives in the middle of a teacher’s strike. After not having been paid in months, they are ready to confront the new rulers whose contempt for working people is well understood by the teachers who carry a portrait of Lenin at a rally.

That being said, this is not a social protest film even though the director’s sympathy is with those at the bottom. Instead it is a beautiful and moving portrait of people living in a forbidding realm who manage to make the best of their lives despite all sorts of challenges. While the primary inspiration seems to be Bresson, the film also evokes Werner Herzog’s “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”, a riveting portrait of hunters and trappers in Siberia. When not focused on Malgosia’s lessons to her students, her boyfriend’s camera is trained on a number of local “personalities”, including a Pole who is determined to translate the bible from Polish into Russia just as an exercise. There are scenes of ice-fishing, local dances, church gatherings, and many landscapes that appear inspired by the Bressonian stricture: “Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the cracks”.

If there was ever a reason to go slow on the digital revolution, it is this film which was made with a 16-millimeter camera—probably a necessity given the year when it was made. It is a reminder that film can capture images in a way that digital cameras never can unless they are prohibitively expensive. It would appear that director Wojciech Staron made part one of “Two Lessons” with a one-man crew, namely himself. This is a miracle of filmmaking and an inspiration to anybody working in the field including a patzer like myself.

Part two of “Two Lessons” was made possible by Malgosia’s assignment to work in Azara, Argentina but the film is much more about the struggle of an 11-year-old Polish girl named Marcia to eke out a living with the Staron’s 8-year-old son Janek in tow.

Marcia’s parents have fallen on hard times and she is forced to make bricks, pick yerba mate leaves, or sell ice from a roadside stand to help her mother make ends meet. Her father has separated from the mother out of a combination of financial difficulties and personal strife, no doubt aggravated by the failing economy. (The film was made in 2011, supposedly after Argentina’s economic recovery, which like Russia’s never seemed to have filtered down to the rural backwaters.)

As is the case with part one, the focus is on human relationships and the solace of natural beauty rather than the class struggle. In one of more captivating scenes, the young Staron teaches the older and much more assertive Marcia how to swim.

At the risk of sounding like a hack reviewer hyping something like “Gravity” or “Inside Llewyn Davis”, I would describe this film as breathtakingly beautiful and a reminder of Polish filmmaking when people like Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda were in their heyday. That the underfunded Wojciech Staron can be mentioned in the same breath as such masters should be recommendation enough.

Blog at WordPress.com.