Traditional cinema meets technological modernity with hundreds of thousands of manually retouched stills, weeks of painstaking work and terabytes of data. 21 digitally restored classic Polish films were chosen for the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema series of screenings currently touring the U.S. and Canada.
When I started working in the film industry I heard a saying that films are like butterflies: it enraptures but it is quickly forgotten; it’s ravishing, but lives a day" –says Krzysztof Zanussi.
Today they are once more beautiful, and with a little help from digital technology, they can live in pristine condition to see several more decades.
The restoration artists from KinoRP are performing "Painstaking work" – cinematographer Witold Sobociński explains– "like monks centuries ago who copied gigantic books by hand, today, the restoration experts clean every film still by hand. They remove the ravages of time, and revive washed out colours thereby bringing radiance back to old favourites". The screening series Martin Scorsese Presents, which, following its New York premiere, will tour 30 American and Canadian cities - the largest presentation of restored Polish cinema to date - is a tribute to the masterpieces of Polish cinema and a chance for the restoration artists from the Vistula to present their line of work.
Living the American dream
It was December 2011 when the idea to present restored Polish classics to audiences across North America was born. Martin Scorsese was in Łódź at the time, receiving an honorary doctorate from the National Film School and promoting his film Hugo. During his visit, he met with digital restoration expert Jędrzej Sabliński, founder of DI Factory (a partner organization of the undertaking, which restores old films), who handed him a Blu-ray copy of the digitally restored version of Wojciech Jerzy Has’ Saragossa Manuscript.
- "Could we possibly show these films in the States?" – he asked the director.
- "We’ll figure something out – Scorsese replied." And a couple of weeks later he contacted Sabliński to talk about a selection of new digital restorations for a review across the ocean.
For the man behind Taxi Driver, a restored Saragossa Manuscript was a sentimental viewing.
"Many years back, Has’ film was a great source of inspiration and a discovery for many American colleagues – reminiscences Krzysztof Zanussi. – Upon watching it, they were surprised that something so delicate and beautiful could be made in the cinema, and for a modest amount at that".
Scorsese is a long-standing admirer of Polish cinema who, in his work with actors and cinematographers, refers to Polish films from the 1950s. "I often showed Wajda films to different producers in Hollywood" he said, "and they couldn't believe it because they had never seen anything like it before." About Wojciech Jerzy Has, he used to say that alongside Fellini, he is the only director who managed to show a different dimension of the screen. In the 90s, the American director and his Film Foundation helped save the crumbling film stock of the Saragossa Manuscript. Unfortunately, the technology of the 90s wasn’t yet advanced enough to allow for digital restoration. But thanks to Francis Ford Coppola, Jerry Garcia (from the band Grateful Dead) and Scorsese, Has’ film came out on DVD in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. In 2007, under a team of Polish experts, The Manuscript was digitally restored, re-mastered and subtitled.
Of Mice and Time
Quivering images, hair, dust, scratches, insulated sound, mould on the film, missing stills and entire scenes cut out by censors - although these sound like the bulk of the problem, removing the ravages of time is only one part of the task faced by restoration experts in their everyday work. The creation of a new copy of one single film requires a team of a dozen or so people responsible for scanning, archiving and editing. Cleaning the picture and audio takes a team of eight people no less than a couple of weeks.
"The fastest reconstruction we have ever accomplished lasted one month. But the Saragossa Manuscript took over one year." - says Kamil Rutkowski from DI Factory.
The multi-stage restoration process is a test of patience and creativity. Scanning the negatives alone takes a couple of days. The stills, of which there are, on average, 100-150 thousand, have to be exposed in the scanner one by one. Once scanned, the stills are saved to the computer and the first copy of the negative takes up 8 terabytes of space (an average film on DVD takes up merely 4 gigabytes – nearly 2,000 times less).
Every film brings with it a different challenge. The film negative of Andrzej Munk’s ambiguous two-part wartime symphony Eroica had thousands of faults and the picture was shaky because of perforated film stock. But it wasn’t by far the most challenging of them. That would be the famous Saragossa Manuscript by Has. "The film had thousands of tiny scratches. It looked as if someone had dragged the film negative across the pavement – it was full of irregular scathes" - Kamil Rutkowski adds.
Another one of Has’ masterpieces – a poetic reflection on the nature of time and death - The Hourglass Sanatorium fell victim to pillaging little beasts - mice - living in the film archives. "They partly destroyed two entire acts of the film" – says the film’s cinematographer Witold Sobociński, who barely restrained tears after the first screening of the restored film. – "The restored picture looks like a newborn".
Restoration is not exclusively the domain of old films from the 50s and 60s that were subjected to decades of bad preservation. The youngest motion picture restored by KinoRP is Krzysztof Krauze’s Dług (The Debt) which premiered in the year 2000. Unlike in the West, in Poland, cinema copies were often made by making a copy of the original negative. As a result, the original copy would be immensely damaged. "
Before restoration The Debt was as destroyed as Stanisław Bareja’s films from the 70s " – says Maciej Molewski from KinoRP.
"When fixing a film, it’s easy to exaggerate and make something that will no longer resemble the prototype" – Molewski adds. This makes the presence of old masters of cinema, who oversee the process, indispensable.
"It’s thanks to the presence and attention of Witold Sobociński that we could map the palette of colours in The Hourglass Sanatorium. Its first sequence is told with the help of vividly coloured images, which are later replaced with monochrome frames" - says Kamil Rutkowski.
The extensive catalogue of films digitally restored within the framework of the Kino RP project so far includes 200 feature films, shorts and animations. The beginnings were fraught with difficulty. For many years the films were rotting away in archives, and restoration was too expensive both for national institutions and private investors (a single digitalisation costs around 100 thousand dollars). Everything changed at the beginning of the last decade. The creator of the channel KinoPolska, Grzegorz Molewski, was searching for films which he could present on the small screen. The majority of the classics, however, were in a deplorable state. Thus came about the idea to launch a restoration project. Thanks to Molewski and others like him, the Kino RP project was founded as an umbrella organisation for technological firms, cultural institutions and publishers.
The British were the first to find out that restoration projects could not solely rely on the infrastructure of just one institution. Opened with a bang in 2008 by the BBC, one such project found no funding beyond 2012 when it had to close down. After four years, it turned out that the amount of work and necessary investment exceeded the capabilities of one TV station and the technological changes of only a couple of months required more flexibility than those behind the project could offer.
How do the Polish restoration artists fare set against their foreign counterparts? "We have nothing to be ashamed of " – DI Factory’s Kamil Rutkowski comments. Their achievements are comparable to the experts from the restoration market’s leaders in America, India, Germany and Italy. Today, thanks to the painstaking work of restoration artists and a passion for the cinema, audiences in the United States and Canada have the chance to view the most significant masterpieces of Polish cinema. On the other hand, their grand appearance in Polish cinemas is scheduled for this spring.
Altogether, 200 titles have been digitally re-mastered and restored. Apart from some of Poland’s most accomplished and lauded filmmakers such as Andrzej Wajda, Wojciech Jerzy Has, Andrzej Munk, Krzysztof Zanussi, Jerzy Skolimowski and Krzysztof Kieślowski, the selection includes full feature animations for children which bring back to life the well-known timeless cartoon characters from the childhoods of today's parents - Reksio, Koziołek Matołek, Bolek and Lolek. Some restored films have already come out on DVD and Blu-ray, others will additionally be shown on TV in HD. Renewed, refreshed and perfected to the last detail, they can now exude the same glitz and glamour as they did in their heyday.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translator: Mai Jones 29/04/2014