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Janusz Morgenstern

Janusz Morgenstern, fot. Bartek Kosiński/East News
Janusz Morgenstern, photo by Bartek Kosiński/East News

Director, screenwriter and film producer. Born on the 16th of November 1922 in the Podole region (presently part of the Ukraine), in Mikulińce near Tarnopol, died on the 6th of September 2011.

During the 2nd World War he miraculously survived the Holocaust. He spent the war in his homeland and went into hiding when the worst times came. When the Russians entered his native regions in 1944, Janusz Morgenstern ceased to hide and was enlisted in the 2nd Polish Army.

After the war he initially enrolled in studies at the Faculty of Forestry in Wrocław, but when he learned about the existence of film schools he decided to study directing. In 1954 he completed the Directing Department of the State Higher Film School in Łódź (diploma in 1969). He collaborated with Andrzej Wajda on such films as: Kanał (Sewer”), Lotna (Swift) and Popiół i diament (Ashes and Diamonds).

Janusz Morgenstern debuted with the full-length feature film Do widzenia, do jutra (See You Tomorrow) in 1960. In the years to come he directed chiefly contemporary psychological dramas and war films. He enjoyed much success as a director of television series.

Since 1978 he acted as head of the film studio Perspektywa.

Janusz Morgenstern heftily contributed to the creation of the movies of the so-called Polish school. He was especially affiliated with Andrzej Wajda – Morgenstern proposed that Zbigniew Cybulski be cast as Maciek Chełmicki in Popiół i diament. As second director the creator of Do widzenia, do jutra came up with ideas for scenes that proved to be historic – he was the mind behind the scene with the flaming vodka shots which is known from Popiół... It doesn’t come as a surprise that Morgenstern felt emotionally very close to the said movement.

As an autonomous creator he raised the subject of the II World War, which was very characteristic of the Polish school, a few times. He did this however much later, when he made such movies as: Potem nastąpi cisza (Later There Will Be Silence; 1965), Kolumbowie (Columbuses; 1970), Godzina ‘W’ (The Hour ‘W’; 1979) and Życie raz jeszcze (Life Once More; 1964). Earlier, in the mid-50s, he wanted to realize a war film, but the scenarios he proposed weren’t accepted. Among these scenarios was amongst others an adaptation of the short story Buty (Shoes) by Józef Szczepański. Years later Morgenstern said about these projects:

If I had made them I would have become part of the Polish school, which I consider the most important movement in the entire history of Polish cinema. Later I made two large pictures, which were, so to say, belated works of this movement – Godzina W and the series Kolumbowie. Those creations were very important to me (in a conversation with Barbara Hollender, Rzeczpospolita, 17.11.2007).

He debuted in 1969 as an almost  40-year-old with a movie that revolved around completely different issues. Barbara Hollender wrote in the abovementioned text that: “the movie Do widzenia, do jutra was something extraordinary at the beginning of the 60s. It brought freshness to cinema and strayed from the assessing trend. This movie returned to the most simple things such as love, responsibility, maturity”.

The film portrays the circles of the creators of the legendary Bim Bom theatre. The screenplay was written by Zbigniew Cybulski and Bogumił Kobiela. The third co-author of the script, Wilhelm Mach, was –according to a contemporary statement by the director – merely a front. The addition of Mach’s name, which was favourably looked upon by the circles of power, was supposed to pave the path to realization. This situation described by the director (Rzeczpospolita 17.11.2007) vividly shows how strong the non-artistic determinants of Polish cinema were at that time. In 1960 they were still a force to be reckoned with even though the whole affair occurred after the political thaw of 1956.

Morgenstern’s film is a story about the love a Polish student feels for a French consul’s daughter. The action plays out in a fashion characteristic of the Bim Bom cabaret. The director’s debut was compared stylistically to the achievements of the French New Wave. When the film made it to the screens, it didn’t always gather enthusiastic reviews.

Marian Bielecki wrote in the magazine Film (20/1960) what follows: “the script is so empty and at the same time pompously sentimental, that it would certainly appeal to a 14-year old girl scribbling poems beneath the desk at a mathematics lesson”.

Years later Oskar Sobański reminisced (Film; 28/1978) that he initially considered the perception of the movie as a certain social sensation. However as time passed on he changed his opinion:

Do widzenia, do jutra may be the only valuable film record of that era which we have. Now it’s apparent that in this movie there is no fascination with the exterior, the forms of existence which were used by that generation to mark people’s presence in life. Above all there is a fascination with what is truly important in life.

This wasn’t a one-of-a-kind opinion. Some views were also equivocal. Maciej Maniewski wrote that Do widzenia, do jutra was “almost pretentious” but later became a record of a unique era (Film 22/1987).

Tadeusz Soboloweski wrote the following in a feuilleton as he tried to define the film’s charm:

(The film) balances between small and big, between lyricism and poseurism, seriousness and irony. This light comedy takes into account the consciousness of impassable boundaries, the nostalgia for the great world. This longing for freedom, which wasn’t clearly expressed, was, as I would expect, the basis for the elusive charm of life in communist Poland. Art became a sublimation of this longing. No other Polish movie shows this as lightly and as clearly as Do widzenia, do jutra– and today this is completely indecipherable to the young ones (Kino 5/2002).

Morgenstern’s film conveys the atmosphere of the times. A consul’s daughter and a Polish student – these heroes are two worlds. This film is as much about love as it is about the iron curtain.

A year later in 1961, Janusz Morgenstern realized a short, 9-minute, fictionalized document entitled Ambulans (Ambulance), which was based on Taduesz Łomnicki’s idea and script. The film told about the extermination of Jewish children during the 2nd World War. It was the only time when Morgenstern addressed the issue of the Holocaust, which constituted to him – as evidenced by numerous statements- a non-erasable trauma. The said subject is linked to the most hurtful period of the director’s life, which he wanted to forget. In later years Morgenstern often raised wartime subjects in his movies, but those works never revolved around the Holocaust.

The full-length debut Do widzenia, do jutra was the beginning of a contemporary trend in Morgenstern’s creative activity. In the 60s and later in the 70s subsequent films were made such as the comedies Jutro premiera (Tomorrow’s Premiere; 1961) or Dwa żebra Adama (Adam’s Two Ribs; 1963). These attempts, although received with a certain kind of goodwill, didn’t earn Morgenstern the position of a fully-fledged comedy director. He decided to make war dramas again and he realized Życie raz jeszcze in 1964 and Potem nastąpi cisza a year later. These works were the start of the second trend in the artist’s creative activity, which was linked to films about the war and the times just after the war. He reached for a topic, which he abandoned earlier, when he didn’t encounter a favourable political atmosphere for such projects.

A few years after the thaw of 1956 the situation was different, but the director still had to take many limitations into consideration. The screenwriters were important and so were the literary works that became the bases for Morgenstern’s films. The authors of screenplays with whom he chiefly collaborated were Roman Bratny and Zbigniew Safjan. Bratny, a writer who had been affiliated with the partisan AK army, presented a stance of acceptance for the post-war realities. Safjan was a prose-writer trusted by the circles of power. He was a high-ranked member of the communist party and an author of political novels. In his books he highlighted the clashes of different ideological stances. He did this however according to the standing patterns.

Despite this, the film Życie raz jeszcze, the script for which was written by Bratny, encountered, as Janusz Morgenstern put it in an interview, “colossal problems at the central committee level” (interview by Katarzyna Bielas and Jacek Szczerba; Gazeta Wyborca 21.11.2002).

The matter was overseen personally by comrade Zenon Kliszko, Gomułka’s right hand. I was being told that I was speaking about year ’56: a breakthrough, a lot of people were then freed from prisons. ‘You seem so sad about it’ – I heard. For a long time I tried to withstand, but they finally convinced me.

Political pressure was exerted and the film was changed so that the ending became more optimistic. Nevertheless it’s worth noticing, as Tadeusz Sobolewski wrote, that Morgenstern’s movie showed a Stalinist prison and interrogation for the first time.

In the abovementioned conversation with Katarzyna Bielas and Jacek Szczerba Morgenstern talked about the atmosphere in which the series Kolumbowie, which was also based on Bratny’s novel, was created.

I can’t remember any interventions. It probably helped that Roman Bratny was well looked upon by the political circles at that time. That wasn’t however enough for me to get permission to film the third tome. In the first two volumes everything was clear. AK soldiers were the heroes and they fought Germans. The action of the third tome plays out after the entering of the Soviet forces.

Other war films by the director include: Potem nastąpi cisza (1965) and Godzina W (1979). The first film tells about the 2nd Polish Army and was based on a screenplay by Safjan. This movie refers to the fate of the director himself, who was enlisted in the said military unit. The script for the second motion picture was written by Jerzy Stefan Stawiński. Both films had to display a specific balance of ideological accents.

Morgenstern also directed the war television series Polskie drogi (Polish Roads) from 1977 (screenplay by Jerzy Janicki).

Morgenstern told his interlocutors from the daily Gazeta Wyborcza about the reasons for which he decided to create this series: " ‘You made a series about AK, but we would also like to point out the participation of the People’s Army’. I agreed because I wanted to direct as much as possible. Working on film sets was my passion”.

“In Polskie drogi I didn’t want to repeat myself – it’s best to analyze this series jointly with Kolumbowie. Only together do these stories give a full picture of the occupation. Many fragments of ‘Polskie drogi’ are sort of maintained in the spirit of Kolumbowie. The hero played by Karol Strasburger could have been an AK soldier, but fate decided otherwise - he became a member of the People’s Guard”.

Because of the political conditions the films of this kind could only tell half-truths about the war and post-war realities. There was no way of going around this even though the director and the screenwriters were very proficient. Creators who raised the said subjects had to compromise. Nevertheless Janusz Morgenstern’s movies had numerous and faithful audiences.

It was however Stawka większa niż życie (More than Life at Stake), which became a great success. This war series about captain Kloss, which Morgenstern realized together with Andrzej Konic, wasn’t meant to be very accurate historically.

The unprecedented success of this series was based on the masterful, unusually intuitive use of myths and stereotypes, and on referring to the hidden complexes of Poles.

Kloss’ popularity is one of the most interesting phenomena of mass culture in communist Poland; how on earth did a nation that suffered so much from the Nazis and from the Soviets decide to make an idol out of a Soviet agent in a Nazi uniform? (Wojciech Orliński, Film 7/1999).

Equally as important as the exciting action consisting of the adventures of the agent was the tongue-in-the-cheek style that characterized the series from the very beginning. This television product, which was a mixture of a war film and a thriller referencing the style of the television Kobra Theatre, proved to be a bull’s-eye. Today the abovementioned comic style is even more apparent and it is the reason for which Kloss remains entertaining as a superman of a past era.

Alongside the war trend, which was complemented by movies about the moral and political choices of the post-war period, a contemporary trend was developing in Morgenstern’s creativity. He created for instance Jowita (1967), a movie based on a novel by Stanisław Dygat, and above all the film Trzeba zabić tę miłość (This Love Ought to Be Killed; 1972). He also directed the crime series S.O.S. (1974).

Jowita may not be one of the director’s best movies, but this film is noteworthy as its script was based on a popular novel by Dygat (Disneyland). Trzeba zabić tę miłość with a screenplay by Janusz Głowacki is exceptionally memorable. This inexpensive movie showed the love of two young people in a condensed way. The Polish society of the times constituted the background of this psychological drama.

It was Morgenstern, who started the critical movement in 1972, which was later called cinema of moral uneasiness. One of the strongest movies of those times was Trzeba zabić tę miłość (the script was written by Janusz Głowacki). For the main part Morgenstern chose an unknown, young, female anti-star with a boyish haircut – Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak. The film showed core events and it raised the temperature of the portrayed reality. This movie removed the protective layers from its portrayal of reality and condensed this portrayal in the style of Forman, Coppola or Scorsese – wrote Tadeusz Sobolewski (Gazeta Wyborcza; 16.11.2007).

The next contemporary drama, which was artistically similar, was realized by Morgenstern as late as in 1980. The movie entitled Mniejsze niebo (The Smaller Sky) was based on a novel by John Wain. The action of the film, which addressed the issue of the meaning of human life, was transposed to Poland. Mniejsze niebo tells about the need for freedom and about the restrictions, which are imposed on men by functioning in society. Morgenstern’s drama with its moral dilemmas appeared in a bad period for Poland. “Mniejsze niebo” came out in the politically hectic year of 1980 and because of this the film passed almost unnoticed.

For many years Morgenstern didn’t make any movies at all. As late as in 2000 he made the movie Żółty szalik (Yellow Scarf), which told about the helplessness of a person addicted to alcohol. This picture was made in the framework of the series “Święta polskie” (“Polish Holidays”) which was realized by the Perspektywa film studio. Morgenstern was head of this studio at that time.

In 2009 the director completed his final film Mniejsze zło (Lesser Evil). He wrote this film’s script together with Janusz Anderman, the author of the novel Cały czas, on which the said movie was based (the premiere took place in October 2009, Ed.). This time Morgenstern managed to make a comedy with a contemporary hero embedded in history, whose character resembled that of Piszczyk from Andrzej Munk’s comedy. In the background the director placed a whole gallery of other, interesting, skillfully and intentionally exaggerated characters, who could have well inhabited the Polish reality of the turn of the 70s and 80s. All of this amounted to a bitter but funny portrayal of a fragment of Polish history. The movie ends at the abovementioned period and doesn’t show what became of the hero after 1989. The director wants us to believe that the main character underwent a change and rid himself of cynicism. The hero’s literary prototype however unalterably remained a cynic and a dodger also in the years that came after ’89.

In 2010 Morgenstern appeared in the movie Uwikłanie (Entaglement) which was directed by Jacek Bromski. The creator of Jowita played the part of the heroine’s father.

Important awards:

"Golden Screen” (1971), "Polish Television Star” statuette received on occasion of the 50th anniversary of Polish Television “ for television films and theatre of television spectacles” (2002). In 2008 Janusz Morgenstern received an “Eagle”, otherwise known as Polish Film Award, for his entire film output. He is one of the artists who had the opportunity to leave their handprints on the Promenade of Stars in Gdańsk (2006).


Film etudes:

1950 - Wczasy akademickie (Academic Holiday), dir. Jerzy Kaden, collaboration on directing;

1954 – Rzodkiewki (Radishes) director and screenwriter.

Feature films:

1960 - Do widzenia, do jutra... (See You Tomorrow)

1960 - Przygoda w terenie (A Field Adventure)

1961 - Ambulans (Ambulance)

1961 - Jutro premiera (Tomorrow’s Premiere)

1963 - Dwa żebra Adama (Adam’s Two Ribs)

1964 - Życie raz jeszcze (Life Once More)

1965 - Potem nastąpi cisza (Later There Will Be Silence)

1967 - Jowita

1967-1968 Stawka większa niż życie (More than Life at Stake) – television series

1970 - Kolumbowie (Columbuses) – television series

1972 - Dama pikowa (The Queen of Spades), part of the series "Klasyka światowa" ("Wold Classics”)

1972 - Trzeba zabić tę miłość (This Love Ought to Be Killed)

1974 - S.O.S. – television series

1976-1977 - Polskie drogi (Polish Roads) – television series

1979 - Godzina 'W' (The Hour ‘W’)

1980 - Mniejsze niebo (The Smaller Sky)

1986 - The Legend of the White Horse / Biały smok

2000 - Żółty szalik (Yellow Scarf) part of the series Święta polskie (Polish Holidays)

2009 - Mniejsze zło (Lesser Evil)

Theatre of television spectacles:

2001 - Trąd w pałacu sprawiedliwości (Corruption in the Palace of Justice), Ugo Betti;

1999 - Herbatka u Stalina (Taking Tea with Stalin), Ronald Harwood;

1998 - Równy podział (Equally Divided), Ronald Harwood;

1998 - Cztery pory roku (The Four Seasons), Israel Horovitz;

1995 - Madame Modjeska, Richard Hellesen;

1981 - Gdy miasto śpi...(When the City is Asleep…), Aleksander Czchaidze;

1965 - Wróg jest wszędzie (The Enemy Is Everywhere), (1, series 1) part of Stawka większa niż życie (More than Life at Stake) screenplay by Zbigniew Safjan and Andrzej Szypulski (credited as Andrzej Zbych)

1963 - Cała prawda (The Whole Truth) Philip Mackie;

1962 - Znowu 'łut szczęścia' (A Bit of Luck Again) Janusz Jaxa (pseudonym).

Additionally Janusz Morgenstern was assistant director on the movie Opowieść atlantycka (Atlantic Tale; 1955) by Wanda Jakubowska. He collaborated as 2nd director on such films as Andrzej Wajda’s Kanał (Sewer; 1956) and Lotna (Swift; 1959) and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Prawdziwy koniec wielkiej wojny (The Real End of the Great War; 1957).

Janusz Morgenstern is the hero of Antoni Krauze’s documentary Ćwiczenia z niepamięci (Exercises in Not Remebering; 2004). It is worth mentioning that Morgenstern was the artistic director of the Perspektywa film studio. He was a recognized producer, he received amongst others a Golden Lions award at the Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdynia in 2005 for the film Komornik (Collector), which was directed by Feliks Falk.

Author: Ewa Nawój & Jan Strękowski, June 2008; updated: September 2011.

Translated by: Marek Kępa's picture
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