Intimations: The Cinema of Wojciech Has – Annette Insdorf
A favourite of filmmakers including Luis Buñuel, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, Wojciech Jerzy Has has not received the critical and scholarly attention of some of his peers. Columbia University professor Annette Insdorf looks to remedy this with Intimations: The Cinema of Wojciech Has, an introduction to the director and each of his fourteen feature films.
Having taught Polish cinema at Columbia and written a book on Kieślowski (Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski), Insdorf was encouraged by contacts at the Adam Mickiewicz Institute to turn her scholarly attention to Has. The resulting project – which brings together Insdorf’s expert readings of the films with her conversations with Has’s students and collaborators – offers an introduction to the director and fourteen chapters analysing each of his feature films. The book is richly illustrated with stills from the films and includes a detailed filmography and an epilogue on his fourteen years as a professor at the famed Łódź Film School. Insdorf’s compelling analysis not only explores the compositional genius of the individual films, but also highlights trends within Has’s oeuvre and links with the works of other directors.
His Own Sensibility and Vision
Has is a completely unrecognizable genius, probably the most talented Polish director since the way, with his own sensibility and vision.
Insdorf gives readers a clear introduction to Has’s genius. Though the often surreal worlds created by Has onscreen might seem impossible to penetrate, Insdorf frames the director’s works as united by his unyielding dedication to form. She suggests his aesthetic blended elements of German expressionism, American film noir, surrealism, and French New Wave and notes that his work does not display stylistic consistency. Yet, regardless of topic or time period, Has’s films are meticulously constructed, with meaning emerging through carefully crafted cinematic rhymes, recurring symbols, and echoes of works outside the filmic world.
Throughout her study, Insdorf effectively presents and analyses Has’s formal choices and offers a compelling reading of the film’s visual (and in some cases, musical) language. Unpacking Has’s play with the symbol of a noose in his debut feature, The Noose (1957), Insdorf notes of the film’s opening scene:
A large black telephone in the left foreground dominates the frame as we slowly discern a man – out of focus – in the right background. The phone’s circular dial and looping wire introduce an implacable enclosure that will be cinematically rhymed by subsequent images.
As her analysis unfolds, Insdorf further develops her reading of the looping image – closing in around the hero – in her discussion of the prevalence of the number eight, a significant digit throughout the plot. Through this reading, Insdorf offers readers a lens into Has’s formal brilliance. What, to the untrained eye, might appear a random series of images and happenings, in Insdorf’s succinct analysis is given great significances.
Such care for formal analysis continues throughout her discussion of the films and extends to an insightful suggestion that within Has’s oeuvre he created visual and tonal rhymes that extend across films. She notes not only the recurring symbols that might be familiar to fans of Has – windows and mirrors, clocks and hourglasses (and depictions of passing time more generally) – but also draws connections between aural cues, suggesting ‘the sound of crows towards the end links The Doll to Has’s Uneventful Story fifteen years later’. Though the analysis of each film is quite brief, the connections between them identified in the text offer a number of avenues for fruitful further thought. Whether a film scholar or casual viewer, Insdorf’s accessible introductions to the compositional complexities of Has’s films enriches their viewing.
As a scholar more broadly of Polish cinema, Insdorf also brings to her work a perspective on Has’s place within the larger national industry. A number of interesting conclusions stem from such comparisons, particularly in her reading of Has alongside his contemporary Andrzej Wajda. Tracing recurring images, character types, musical cues, and actors (Zbigniew Cybulski is a favourite of both directors), Insdorf offers novel readings on broader issues of Poland’s memory of WWII and the trope of the romantic hero.
Defiance and Escape
Though the work of Has is populated with different worlds and different times, his films are united both by their distance from and resonance with the director’s own time. Of his relationship with issues of the day, Insdorf quotes Has:
I reject matters, ideas, themes only significant for the present day. Art film dies in an atmosphere of fascination with the present.
Insdorf considers the significance of Has’s themes both as timeless and as linked to his circumstances. Has often returned to meditations on time, wasted lives, ‘ephemerality and loss’ – subjects that are as relevant today as they were when Has’s films were made or in the eras in which they are set.
For example, in her discussion of Has’s 1985 Write and Fight, set in WWI, Insdorf frames the film as a ‘meditation of imprisonment and imaginative freedom in Communist Poland’ and posits:
Made years before Solidarity finally brought free elections to Has’s native country, Write and Fight can be seen as a nuanced critique of a vulnerable system that silences and imprisons those it fears. Paradoxically, the lack of political freedom functions as a spur to creativity, whether for [Write and Fight’s hero] Rafał early in the twentieth century or Has towards its close: censorship incites a coded and therefore heightened poetic exploration of identity as well as society.
As she does throughout, here Insdorf offers a clear and convincing reading of Has’s work within the social and political context of its creation. And within the political and dominant artistic edicts of his time, Has’s cinematic detachment from realism and representations of the present day was itself a political choice. Insdorf notes that in a climate that valued content over form and prized depictions of object reality, Has escaped into formalism and meditations on the subconscious. She quotes David Melville’s work The Fiery Beauty of the World: Wojciech Has and The Hourglass Sanatorium:
The past, for Has, was more than another country. It was, at once, his act of defiance and his means of escape.
While Intimations: The Cinema of Wojciech Has offers some of the historical context necessary to understand Has’s films as commentary on their own time, it – as one imagines Has would have wanted – maintains a perspective that opens the films to audiences around the world. One hopes that Insdorf’s insightful analysis will inspire both an increased interest in Has’s films, as well as further scholarly work on the director. As she notes, his films often offer a pitch-perfect glimpse into Polish culture, yet they also speak to timeless questions – all while dazzling viewers with their compositional and aesthetic brilliance.
Author: Alena Aniskiewicz, July 2017Culture.pl