Movie Homes: The Houses of Polish Film
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The Houses of Polish Film, 'Pan Tadeusz', directed by Andrzej Wajda, photo: Canal+ Poland, center, pan_tadeusz_canal_.jpg
They can be havens or sinister traps, a collective fantasy or a private hell… Here’s our guide to unusual houses in Polish cinema.
In a 1966 diary entry, the 40-year-old Andrzej Wajda wrote that he needed to make a sincere film that would serve as a return to his childhood – a noble manor house in an idyllic countryside, evoking the beauty of the past. It took him another 33 years to achieve it, and the result was Pan Tadeusz. In his autobiography, he recalled:
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It took me […] decades to realise that ‘Pan Tadeusz’ was what I had been looking for; it encompassed everything, myself and my parents included. While I was working on the film, I plunged into the long-sought, invigorating waters of the past…
Pan Tadeusz - Polonez
We are all from Sopliców
Adapting Adam Mickiewicz’s masterpiece for the screen, Wajda immersed himself in the national imagination. He portrayed Polishness scarred by quarrels and divisions – but he also showed that, despite all the conflicts, we share a concern for our common heritage, as symbolised by the manor house in Sopliców.
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A film chronicler and diagnostician of Polishness for many decades, Wajda gave life to an imaginary past on the screen, referring to what Andrzej Leder later described as ‘the noble imaginarium’. Following in the footsteps of Mickiewicz, he recounted the comforting tale that ‘in no other country is there such coffee as in Poland’ and, as a native of the Suwałki region, he easily revealed a fondness for ‘those fields painted with various grain’.
Wajda evoked a romantic tradition which cemented the image of the manor house as the Polish motherland. In this country, where most people come from rural backgrounds, pop culture has produced a cult of nobility, a communal phantasmagoria that unites Poles, irrespective of political or ideological divisions.
Other filmmakers were well aware of this and made manor houses the centrepiece for tales of Polish society. Suffice it to say that the image recurred in some of the most-watched Polish TV series of the last few decades, such as the soap opera Złotopolscy, the sitcom Ranczo and Dom nad Rozlewiskiem (House on the Rozlewisko), where manor houses represented traditional Poland.
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'The Maids of Wilko', directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1979, photo: Renata Pajchel / Zebra Film Studio / Filmoteka Narodowa / fototeka.fn.org.pl
Pan Tadeusz was not Wajda’s first excursion into the world of the nobility, where manor houses played such a pivotal role. He had used them in earlier screen adaptations of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s The Birch Wood and The Maids of Wilko.
Those stories portrayed manor houses as an Eden lost forever, a mythologised land to yearn for and a haven where one could learn the truth about oneself. By describing them, Wajda was addressing this infantile image of the nobility. In his autobiography, he wrote:
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After the war, 40,000 manor houses were ransacked and destroyed. And when the ruins of the last surviving few also began to fall apart, Polish manor interiors became the darlings of television and film. As a rule, they were as follows: props from the warehouses (mostly sabres and pistols) hung on the obligatory white walls, while the varnished floors shone like mirrors.
Such an image of manor houses was of no interest to Wajda. Together with Allan Starski, the scriptwriter of The Maids of Wilko, he wished to paint a different, more authentic picture of bygone days. Starski found it in Radachówka:
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Allan Starski took me far away from Warsaw to show me a rather unattractive, terribly neglected manor house, assuring me categorically that this was the paradise to fulfil all of my hopes.
Andrzej Wadja, trans. MB
Radachówka proved to be not only an interesting setting for the film, but above all a place that was still alive; not some rural-life museum, but a real house. Even though adapting the dilapidated manor cost a great deal of money and effort, it was one of The Maids of Wilko’s most crucial characters.
‘Dom’ (The House) – a community
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Set of the film 'Dom' (The House), directed by Jan Łomnicki, 1982, photo: Film archive / Forum
After The Maids of Wilko had been released in cinemas, work began on a television series which permanently altered Polish opinions about houses – Jan Łomnicki’s Dom (The House, or Home) was one of the most important productions in Polish pop-cultural history.
It follows the lives of residents of the tenement building at 25 Złota Street, who had returned to the ruined capital after the war to rebuild their lost lives. Dom immediately became a huge TV hit when first broadcast in 1980. As a stand-in for the devastated city, it was filmed in Most, Czechoslovakia (a small town demolished in the 1970s to make room for a mine) as well as Pańska, Marszałkowska and Kowelska Streets in Warsaw. Łomnicki’s series stirred up recollections of the war and won the hearts of audiences.
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To the authorities in Poland under the communist regime, this story of the need for community and the formation of the post-war world was intended to convey a propaganda message to the general public. Filmed during the carnival of Solidarity, the series was designed as a safety valve to relieve social tensions. Fortunately, thanks to the high standards of Łomnicki and his scriptwriters, Andrzej Mularczyk and Jerzy Janicki, it became something much more significant and timeless.
‘Tango’ – the memory of space
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'Tango', directed by Zbigniew Rybczyński, 1980, photo: Se-ma-for
The early 1980s brought us another unforgettable image of a house, one created by Zbigniew Rybczyński in the experimental animation Tango – which won him an Oscar in 1983.
This eight-minute miniature has no plot in the classical sense. Various characters enter and leave a room to the rhythm of music by Janusz Hajdun. A little boy retrieves a football; an older lad does exercises; a stereotypical Polish mother breastfeeds her child; a plumber repairs a radiator; an elderly woman dies on the bed, but her place is soon taken by a pair of lovers…
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Witnessing all their experiences is the house or, to be precise, one room, which Rybczyński depicts as a symbolic space to observe the passage of time. Tango’s pageant of rather odd characters forms a collective portrait; a story about the theatre of social roles, in which people are merely players acting out ready-made scenes.
‘The House of Fools’ – family hell
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'The House of Fools', directed by Marek Koterski, 1984, pictured by Tadeusz Łomnicki, Bohdan Majda, Marek Kondrat, 1984, photo: WFDiF / Filmoteka Narodowa, fototeka.fn.org.pl
While Wajda’s noble films portrayed houses as a paradise lost, and Jan Łomnicki’s series appealed to the need for human solidarity, the mid-1980s saw the emergence of a director who would alter notions of on-screen houses for ever. He was Marek Koterski, who erupted into Polish cinema in 1984 with The House of Fools (originally: Dom Wariatów) to become one of its most fascinating figures.
Koterski’s feature-film debut examines traumas acquired in the family home. In his first appearance as the director’s alter ego, Adaś Miauczyński returns to the family house after a prolonged absence to square things up with himself and his parents.
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The House of Fools set the tone for Koterski’s directorial quest, and his subsequent films showed homes as toxic places that scar and destroy people. To Koterski, a house can be a prison, as in his witty Day of the Wacko (originally: Dzień Świra), or a bittersweet memory, as in 7 Emotions, another tale of how family traumas can entrap us much more than the highest walls ever could.
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Koterski’s feature films blazed a trail for critical thinking about the family home. They shocked many while remaining unintelligible to many others – but they never triggered as much criticism as documentary maker Marcin Koszałka, a spiritual successor to Koterski’s cinema.
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Koszałka presented his graduation film Such a Nice Boy I Gave Birth To at the Kraków Film Festival in 1999. It is a 25-minute portrait of a family confined in the four walls of their flat, and of the director’s toxic mother in particular. Koszałka set up his camera at home to capture the ‘living hell’ of his family environment.
Koszałka left audiences divided, with some appreciating the film’s therapeutic dimension and others criticising his exhibitionism. The outstanding Polish documentary maker Marcel Łoziński even affirmed that Koszałka had converted his camera into a rifle to shoot his own mother with.
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Such a Nice Boy I Gave Birth To became one of the most controversial documentaries in Polish cinema history, but it was not the last in the career of Koszałka, who transformed documentaries into a tool for psychotherapy. He returned to dealing with family traumas in Ucieknijmy od Niej (Let’s Run Away from Her) and Jakoś to Będzie (‘Things Will Work Out’).
‘Saviour Square’ – hell is us
Koszałka’s toxic family relationships were an element of documentary autotherapy, but there have also been plenty of excellent diagnosticians amongst feature filmmakers. These have included Krzysztof Krauze and Joanna Kos-Krauze, whose Saviour Square portrays a house as both a dream and a trap, showing a family as a group of people capable of impartially wounding one another.
The main characters, a thirtysomething couple, live in hope of getting a flat of their own. They have two children and are soon due to move to a new apartment block. To economise, they go to stay with the man’s mother for a few months, but when the developer they had paid for their new flat goes bust, they become ‘prisoners’ in a flat on Warsaw’s Plac Zbawiciela. This induces a family hell filled with petty cruelty and mutual harm. As Kos-Krauze stated in an interview for Dziennik (The Journal):
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We made a film about what goes on in our homes. That’s exactly how we behave and how we talk to each other. Nobody tortures anyone in this film. ‘Plac Zbawiciela’ is an attempt to deal with the simplest everyday emotions, because we often don’t realise the consequences of our behaviour. Even without physical violence, we often become victims or torturers in our own homes.
‘The Dark House’ – is this the real Poland?
While writing about houses in Polish cinema, there is no avoiding this one. The Dark House (originally: Dom Zły) is one of Wojciech Smarzowski’s most impressive films, which goes beyond small-scale realism to become a metaphorical yet radically defeatist tale of contemporary Poland and its roots.
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It starts off in classic horror style – a weary traveller, the zoo technician Edward Środoń, seeks shelter from the pouring rain. He takes refuge in a house in a remote village and soon hits it off with the owners, the Dziabas family. So begins a tale of murder, an unwelcome investigation and dark secrets that unite the local community.
Over the last two decades, Smarzowski has become the undisputed star of Polish cinema. He accentuates the bleak image of a Polish house where the vodka flows freely, but the veneer of hospitality conceals greed and envy. An axe lying on the porch echoes Chekhov’s rifle that had to be fired eventually.
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But The Dark House is not just a grimy postcard depicting a caricatured, ugly Poland. It is also a film in which Smarzowski offers a bold diagnosis of the post-Solidarity ethos that became a founding myth for the new Poland. He later covered the same theme in Clergy (originally: Kler), another story about a house which turns out to be an Augean stable.
‘Silent Night’ – a house worthy of our potential
Piotr Domalewski’s film sketches an image of an average Polish house, showing us the provinces while avoiding idealism and pessimism. This small wooden cabin out in the Mazurian sticks is neither a dark house, nor some noble Arcadian manor. In Silent Night, despite its muddy courtyard and collapsing roof, the house still harbours a lot of love.
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Although this household might fail to discuss everything, they do try to take care of each other. To tell their story, Domalewski opts for recognisable figures: a stereotypical Polish mother, a taciturn father, an alcoholic grandfather and a young lad dreaming of a better life. And they make this house a home– imperfect, yet authentic and full of warmth.
panny z wilka
takiego pięknego syna urodziłam
joanna kos krauze
Originally written in Polish, Apr 2020, translated by Mark Bence, May 2020