Life under the communist regime was not easy, so unsurprisingly, audiences – both in the Soviet Union and in Poland at the time – preferred to watch comedies. There was enough fear and danger in everyday life. Yet, some filmmakers in Poland dabbled in horror movies all the same.
Horror movies, a purely western genre, would only appear in the cinemas of post-socialist countries. Despite this view of the genre, filmmakers in Poland under communist regime took upon themselves to create their own horror movies. Vladimir Gromov, a film historian and teacher at the Kyiv National I. K. Karpenko-Kary Theatre, Cinema and Television University, takes a closer look at this phenomenon.
Horror has always been peculiar film genre. On one hand, it exploits painful and hidden feelings lurking in the hearts of the audience. Fear is one of the most savage and primitive human feelings. The unquenchable interest in horror demonstrates that many people enjoy placing themselves in situations that elicit fear. On the other hand, horror often portrays familiar things in some hypertrophic and distorted form. We happen to run into witches, vampires and werewolves in our daily lives: for example, when meeting with evil or hypocritical people. Horror films describe violations of the basic laws of nature. In general, horror is a genre that’s complex and even to some degree philosophical. Unfortunately, many stereotypes developed around this genre in the last decade. It has simplified, becoming a collection of clichés.
Some of the most interesting horror films were made during the time under the communist regime in Poland. Even now, after a few decades, these films pique the audience’s curiosity: the horror of Poland under communism was devoid of the usual clichés of the genre and therefore stands out as unique. The authors of these pictures do not only tell scary stories to frighten the audience. The genre gives them the opportunity to talk about serious things, to show distortions of life and its unexplainable excesses.
The Count vs. Christianity
The most memorable Polish horror movie was Janusz Majewski’s film, Lokis: A Manuscript of Professor Wittembach, which made in 1970 and based on the gothic novel by Prosper Mérimée. The story takes place in the 1860s in Lithuania, among the local ‘polonised’ aristocracy. Professor Wittembach, a Lutheran pastor and scholar, comes to the Lithuanian countryside to conduct his ethnographic research. The journey brings him to the estate of Count Michał Szemiot, the rich scion of a great Lithuanian family. This educated, imposing young man cultivates a bizarre interest in cruelty. He keeps his completely mad mother locked up. The professor learns about everything that happened many years ago when a bear assaulted Szemiot’s mother. This took place on her wedding night, after which her husband disappeared without a trace. Ever since she believed that her son is a ‘werebear’ and a monster that should be killed.
Mérimée’s Lokis was written in the author’s favorite style – with a mythological plot and an exotic texture. Lithuania, where the story takes place, is perceived as the edge of Europe, a place where paganism and barbaric traditions have not yet been eradicated.
Majewski interpreted this story in a completely different way. For him, Lokis is a story about Poland and its relationship with the rest of Europe. The film resembles a complicated puzzle: the most diverse ideas and motifs are layered on top of each other. Wittembach is an observer, an enlightened European, a scholar and pastor. For him, Lithuania is a place for scientific research. The local aristocracy refers to him with awe and curiosity. The peasants fear him and think he is the devil. Wittembach himself observes the goings-on in an entirely detached manner. At the end, he agrees to marry Szemiot and his fiancée, which leads to terrifying consequences. Europe, represented by Wittembach, is polite but indifferent and does not interfere with anything. The film portrays the Poles as people who want to be European aristocrats, and to find their own place in Christian Europe and see their own country on the map of the old continent. But primordial brutal paganism turns out to be their true nature. Poems by Adam Mickiewicz are recited in the movie to describe the manners of wild Lithuania and retell old legends. Europeans’ dress code, mansions with statues and overflowing libraries are only a façade of European aristocratic manners. At the end of the movie, the meeting with Christianity in the form of an enlightened European becomes fatal for the Polish-Lithuanian bear-aristocrat. He ultimately became an uncontrollable beast, giving vent to the most terrible and innermost instincts that he had tried to conceal for his whole life.
Ironically, the terrible monster in this film is not the werebear, but the man. The relationship between the characters, their masculine failure, sadism, indifference, anger… It seems, as though the transformation into a werebear is not a diabolical curse, but an escape from humanity. As a result, the film becomes a reflection on human nature, the impact of civilization and how the archaic and the modern are intertwined in the Polish soul.
Lokis is still a story about the onset of a new era, enlightened but no less scary than the ‘wild’ age coming to a close. The progressive doctor who treats Szemiot’s insane mother seems evil and unpleasant. In his field, he presumably applies new scientific discoveries, but he despises his aristocratic clients and mocks them. A strange harbinger of the new age can be seen in this character with his social intolerance and cynicism based on science.
Lokis is a vivid and sometimes frightening movie, but in comparison with other examples of the genre, its ‘horrors’ are fairly innocent. The most terrifying aspect of this movie is the strange and burdensome atmosphere, the slow tension and the eerie feelings these elicit. The beautiful music of Wojciech Kilar and the extraordinary acting by Edmund Fetting (the pastor) and Józef Duriasz (Szemiot) strengthen the effect.
The style of Lokis was copied and built upon by other Polish horror films. It turned out that for this genre the characteristic historical texture, connection with mythology, erotic overtones and general attempt to explore the relationships of men and women were the source of the most terrifying stories.
Wolves, witches and warfare
All of these components can be seen in Marek Piestrak’s film, The Wolf (Wilczyca, 1983), which is, perhaps, the creepiest Polish horror film ever made. It scares even the most experienced audiences.
The Wolf takes place in the 1840s in the Polish lands belonging to the Austrian empire after the partitions. Kacper, the manager of a large estate, is forced to arrange the flight of his master, who took part in an uprising for Polish liberation from Austrian rule. Kacper remains at the estate to protect the landlady Julia, the master’s wife. Julia is having an affair with a hussar officer, who was hunting for her husband. Kacper begins to suspect, that the enormous wolf that has been appearing on the grounds of the estate is the ghost of his wife-witch, who died in agony and was buried with an aspen stake in her heart. However, everything becomes still more confusing.
In The Wolf, the mythical and historical are mixed. On one hand, it is the story of the ugly and terrible ghost of Maryna, the late wife of Kacper, who is constantly pursuing him. On the other, it’s about the infidelity of a rich aristocrat with an enemy officer. Over time it is discovered that the wolf is Julia, possessed by the spirit of Maryna.
Historical events play an important role in the plot. The cemetery, where Maryna was buried, becomes the site of a battle between the rebels and the regular army. The shells tore up the grave of the witch, and she broke out and began wandering in search of her husband, who she blames for her death. The fact that Maryna possesses Julia, is strange, but in its own way is logical: the woman cheats on her husband with the enemy and a murderer of Poles, and is a real werewolf. Julia betrays not only her husband, but, possibly, her entire nation, and so, she turns into a wolf. The war not only begets evil, it calls old ghosts out from their graves, animates them and helps them find new victims.
The movie does feature some typical horror clichés, such as the use of aspen stakes and silver bullets with a cross to fight evil. The creators wanted to maintain the purity of the genre. However, this does not prevent the film from being ambiguous and thought-provoking: The Wolf forces the viewer to muse about many things.
Phantoms and psychotherapy
A year later yet another extraordinary film with a mythical plot appeared in Polish theatres – The Phantom (Widziało). This story also takes place in the 19th century, the plot also involves the relationship between a man and a woman, and again there is an underlying curse. However, The Phantom strongly differs from the earlier films.
Director Marek Nowicki based his movie on Karol Irzkowki’s novel, Pałuba, which is considered a classic of Polish psychological prose. The plot is about Piotr Strumieński and his relationship with women in his life. We become witnesses to the complex inner reflections of the main character, tormented by memories and experiences. Pałuba was an attempt to demonstrate Sigmund Freud’s ideas, which were becoming popular at the time, in an artform.
Nowicki isolated a few plotlines in the novel and transformed them into a creepy, mythical story with powerful erotic overtones.
The main character of The Phantom, Piotr Strumieński, swore to his first wife, Angelika, that he would love no other woman besides her. However, after her death, Strumieński found himself a new spouse and then cheated on her with numerous women. Meanwhile, he is not able to get rid of the sensation that Angelika is nearby: she torments him, drives him out of his mind, demanding answers for his deception and betrayal.
The plot of Nowicki’s film, however, does not have serious value. The Phantom is not a traditional tale: the narrative alternates between the character getting lost in a series of hallucinations and reality, only to get lost again later. Almost all of the characters, except for teenage Pawełek, Strumieński’s older son, are captivated with heavy carnal obsessions. The nature of these obsessions is not clear until the end, but the events of the film constantly come back toStrumieński’s family’s mausoleum, which he has turned into an art studio, where he would spend nights with his late wife. The chapel resembles a genuine work of modernist art, but everything in it is imbued with the spirits of the dead.
Freud’s ideas, his thoughts on the interconnection of sex and death, were expressed in the film just as much as in the original literary source. The Phantom is not a horror movie in the usual sense of the genre. This film about the anticipation and the existential fear of death.
Witold Sobociński’s camerawork creates truly spectacular images. The creator of the film, Marek Nowicki, was a cameraman before he became a director. However, The Phantom is too monotone and excessively crammed with erotic scenes. It has enough weak spots, but it is definitely a very interesting cinematographic experience.
The attempts of Polish filmmakers to learn the genre of horror are not limited to these films. There was also Andrzej Żuławski’s The Devil, which was banned by censors. There were the films Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Fearless Vampire Killers by Roman Polański – filmed, it is true, in the West, but they became true masterpieces of the genre. Marek Piestrak, director of The Wolf, tried later to return to horror films. In 1990, he made The Return of the Wolf (which proved to be not as interesting) and three years earlier – Curse of Snakes Valley, an adventure movie with horror movie elements. However, Lokis, The Wolf, and The Phantom became iconic examples of Polish filmmaking under the communist regime. Different, but somewhat similar in style, these films gave food for thought and were free from clichés of the genre, which favourably distinguishes them from many western examples of the genre. But most of all, they portrayed real horror.
Written by Vladimir Gromov, 12 Sep 2015; translated by KA, 17 Mar 2017; edited by NR 20 Mar 2017