Polish Cinema Classics Volume II: The Promised Land, Illumination and Escape from the Liberty Cinema

21 March 2013

Second Run's latest DVD release, available from Monday 25 March, unearths three Polish classics, varied in theme and tone but connected by intellectual questioning and political defiance.

The wide-angled lenses employed throughout The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, 1975) concentrate our visual attention to Karol (Daniel Olbrychski), Moryc (Wojciech Pszoniak) and Max (Andrzej Seweryn), the three capitalists who arrive in Lodz at the turn of the century seeking to establish a cotton factory and reap from it an unprecedented fortune. While such lensing choices allow the three protagonists to take command of their own historically particular narrative, however, the palpable distortions consequently found at the edge of the cinematographic frame suggest wider vulgarities and upheavals ahead. Individualism comes at a social - and, for better or worse, a narrative - price.

Shooting (with no less than three cinematographers) at a low enough angle to capture those high ceilings and expansive interiors so immediately suggestive of wealth and power (as well as of isolation and decadence), writer-director Andrzej Wajda adapts Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont's acclaimed 1897 novel, a panorama of a Polish city that had rapidly expanded into the hub of the Russian empire's textiles production. The industrial revolution had changed social relations; as established forms of labour became obsolete and Europe's workforce was forced to follow the new means of production, urbanisation resulted in a hotly contested site of races, nationalities, genders and classes, as each sought settlement in hitherto unheard of social and political circumstances. ("Once honesty ruled in Lodz, not millionaires.")

The bourgeoisie's economic (and therefore its sociopolitical) power turned both land and labour into commodities, fragmenting skilled labour into the menial and alienating repetitions of factory life. Wajda's film focuses in the main upon the three capitalists at its heart, as they scrape together the resources required to see off competition and build a cotton factory in the centre of Lodz. As investors in industry and employers of labour, their aim is simple: to make a profit whatever the cost. As one employee has his arm severed in a brutal factory accident, Karol remarks, unsympathetically: "Too much cloth has been wasted!" No doubt informed by the series of embittering defeats for the Polish working class at the hands of the postwar Stalinist authorities, The Promised Land is ironically titled and contains many impressive (though mostly aesthetic) flourishes.

Though its ultimately scathing treatment of the bourgeoisie, as well as its sympathy for those demobilised by its economic imperatives, are undeniable, the film's narrow scope results at times in a naive lamentation of the industrial revolution itself, which is in any case a debased historical assessment. While dialectics view the bourgeois revolution as a historical necessity, without which the proletarian revolution cannot happen, the foundations of industrialism as presented by Wajda - morally compromised, doomed from the off - is perhaps conditioned by its own historical limitations, remaining faithful as it does to its source novel, which was published nearly a decade before the 1905 revolution (during which over 300 workers were killed in Lodz by Tsarist police). In The Promised Land's final moments, however, a temporal leap takes place, a brief flashforward, in which familiar faces, backed by their own surplus capital, dish out orders to shoot a mass of workers forming at the periphery of the grounds outside. A red flag is flashed defiantly before us.

The Promised Land, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, has been lovingly restored in a director-approved HD master as well as to its original running time of 160+ minutes. As an ambitious, prosaic epic, it's in stark contrast to Krzysztof Zanussi's Illumination (Iluminacja, 1973), a kaleidoscopic fusion of cinematic styles and modes of address that is also a somehow-sensitive portrait of the scientist as a young man. Opening with a talking head in which the philosopher Wladislaw Tatarkiewicz talks of the origins and nature of illumination - that by which we attain a heightened awareness of truth through an enlightenment of the mind - Illumination is an energetic and possibly autobiographical romp through student life as experienced by Franciszek Retman (Stanislaw Latallo), a physics student at the University of Warsaw who seeks knowledge of life's "certain, unequivocal" truths.

From the off, Zanussi denies his protagonist an easy progression. At odds with life's perceived harmonies is the narrative itself, a sustained, polyrhythmic series of messy digressions and temporal leaps punctuated by a discordant piano riff whose frequent recurrence would grate if it weren't so confrontationally funny. "To be honest," a lecturer tells Franciszek, "none of us working in physics are interested in the world... we're in it for our careers." As irony has it, Franciszek withdraws from university life in order to assume financial responsibility for his unplanned family; the economic realities of parenthood await.

Though Franciszek remarks early on in the film that he feels no responsibility for the atomic bomb because he had nothing to do with its invention, his is a rewarding and engaging arc toward emotional and moral maturity (Zanussi too studied physics at the University of Warsaw, before postgraduate degrees in philosophy at Krakow and, decisively, in film at Lodz Film School). Indeed, with its curiosity and sheer energy for life's larger questions - from the cosmic to the everyday - Illumination might be an unlikely source of joy to fans of latter-day Malick, with whom it shares a certain gestural flair. Take that moment, for example, when Franciszek runs across a street in elation to embrace wife Agnieszka (Monika Dzienisiewicz-Olbrychska), and we cut to a documentary-style close-up of the diploma for the doctorate he has finally attained. The juxtaposition is symbolic, but both shots can be taken literally.

Matching its protagonist's passion for life's unanswered (and possibly unanswerable) questions, Illumination also evinces a fascination with (and command of) cinematic form. It shares territory in this respect with Escape from the 'Liberty' Cinema (Ucieczka z kina 'Wolnosc', 1990), whose story pairs anti-censorship satire with outrageous meta-fictional collapse. Directed by Polish cinema's perceived and oft-censored enfant terrible Wojciech Marczewski, Escape from the 'Liberty' Cinema clocks in at a healthy 90 or so minutes and nudges steadily away at authorities past and present with increasingly provocative sentiments.

Premiering a year following the collapse of Stalinism but set a year or so before it, Escape follows the listless Cenzor* (Janusz Gajos), a failed theatre critic whose current profession, as a film censor, literally gives him a headache. Via Cenzor's candyfloss-chewing deputy (Zbigniew Zamachowski), reports come in of anarchic occurrences at the Liberty Cinema across the road from their office: apparently a character in routine melodrama Daybreak has veered from his script. "At the cinema?" Cenzor asks. "Onscreen?" Onscreen indeed: in Daybreak itself, much to the delight of the paying audience, actors are refusing to say the lines given them, tired of the dull clichés they are tasked to recite. (Says one such actor: "I read Sophocles. There, human life and death are things of consequence.")

Marczewski's treatment of Cenzor is surprisingly sympathetic. As the narrative spirals beyond his control and his superiors arrive on scene to regurgitate red-taped hot air, it's clear that the writer-director has systematised suppression in his crosshairs. When a reel mix-up sends Jeff Daniels' character from Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo over into Daybreak ("No pictures pleases, you need permission from my agent"), Cenzor plans a similar trick in order to escape the top-down sanctions that would have him withdraw the troublesome film from exhibition altogether ("I'm a rat," he says, "not a murderer").

Through no fault of its own, Marczewski's film remains fresh and wry precisely because the censorship carried out and experienced under Stalinism and the apparently artistic enterprise under capitalism are not two sides of a coin. As reality has it, just as Hollywood's own Production Code demanded a certain degree of creativity on the part of filmmakers, the cinema made in postwar Eastern Europe spoke to and of a resilient artistic method that has since been consigned to the industry's margins, through crippling funding procedures and a contemptible distribution/exhibition circuit, both of which conspire against politically engaged modes of filmmaking. While all art is unavoidably political, it is under official censorship that films are inherently politicised, negotiating as they do moral and formal restrictions. The bitter irony, of course, is that capitalism, in its commodification of lowest common denominators, perpetuates financial censorship; since Escape from the 'Liberty' Cinema, Marczewski has made just two films!

* EDIT: Cenzor ("the censor", just as a film critic character is referred to as "Krytyk") is named as such in the film's end credits, but is probably called Rabkiewicz. Second opinions, via Michael Brooke, here and here.

Second Run's latest release brings this delightful range of films together with new restorations and improved English subtitle translations. Each disc contains a newly-filmed director interview, while accompanying booklets include essays by David Thompson, Michał Oleszczyk and the enviably ubiquitous Michael Brooke.