The Art of Distortion: Polish Socialist Realist Cinema
default, The Art of Distortion – Polish Social Realist Cinema, Still from 'Cellulose' directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1953, photo: Mieczysław Biełous / Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.or, center, celuloza-fn.jpg
Pitted against Poles’ bitter desires for freedom, socialist realism in cinema was doomed from the outset. Though for years, most wanted to forget its existence, it is being rediscovered today as one of the most interesting periods in Polish cinematic history.
The movement lasted approximately half a decade, but many pretended it had not taken place at all. Poland viewed the genre as embarrassing. Displaced from collective memory, it served for years as a political bludgeon used to silence disfavoured artists. Decades passed after its fall before art critics knew how to speak about socialist realist cinema – finding within it unique themes, intuitive choices and artful tropes.
A simpler world
PKF (1950 ) -socrealistyczna "sztuka Prlu"
The genre came late to Poland. Although the communist party members who came after Anatolij Łunaczarski, the People’s Commissar for Education, repeated his refrain of cinema’s superiority to other artworks (a phrase incorrectly attributed to Lenin), socialist realism came to theatre, music and visual art first.
In November 1949, during the Zjazd w Wiśle art symposium, new rules for socialist realism were announced – in which ‘truth and historical accuracy must artistically uncover and link with the larger ideological challenge of educating the working class in the social realist spirit’.
Politically motivated curators carefully defined their requirements and called for state-sponsored cinema to create works in the socialist realism tradition, but with the spirit of Soviet classics – from the Vasilyev brothers’ Chapaev (1934) and Mikhail Romm’s dialogues with Lenin (1937-1939) to Fridrikh Ermler’s The Great Citizen (1938-1939).
In the films created under the newly required doctrine, work was celebrated, while the petite bourgeoisie, cosmopolitanism and imperialism were denigrated. Cinema was a space for viewers to find images of hard workers and evil landowners, proletariats and enemies of the people, brave udarniks (strike workers) and reactionary intelligentsia.
But the birth of Polish socialist realism created new problems. When Film Polski was liquidated in 1951, it was replaced by the Centralny Urząd Kinematografii (Centralised Bureau of Cinematography) or CUK. Polish cinema became the purview of bureaucrats.
At the CUK, screenplays would circulate from desk to desk for months, while greenlit productions were rarely completed. Suffice it to say that from 1950 to 1954, a total of 23 feature films were made. With workers paralysed from the fear of toeing over the line of political obsequiousness, the production process was drawn out infinitely.
Clash of worlds
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The tension extended to the inner workings of the film world. On the brink of the 1950s, it was helmed by masters of pre-war cinema: Aleksander Ford, Leonard Buczkowski, Eugeniusz Cękalski, Jerzy Bossak and Stanisław Wohl. They were meant to use their years of filmic experience to rebuild Poland’s cinema and also to help younger filmmakers flourish, who were working thanks to the Łódź Film School.
Andrzej Wajda wrote in his autobiography:
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From the very inception of the [Łódź Film] School, two different visions of its future kept clashing. The powers-that-be envision it as a breeding ground for ideological images: in line with Lenin’s slogan, ‘cinema is the most important’, its plan was to give each student an education equivalent to that of a fighter pilot, confident in the fact that graduates would pay back for their education by bombing the ‘crumbling tower of capitalism’, filling the Polish masses’ minds with communist ideology and the leading role of the Soviet Union…
By contrast, young artists and their professors had slightly different goals – they wanted films inspired by the greatest achievements in world cinema, creating a new cinematic language as they went.
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Polish socialist realism was born of the push-and-pull between the higher powers’ expectations and the ambitions of the creators. From the beginning, the genre blossomed from the struggle between the two parties.
Young filmmakers knew well that blindly following political expectations would not only lead to artistic failure, but it would also fail to fulfil the required pedagogical objective. The public would easily recognise the Soviet agitprop for what it was, and the film’s heroes, who were meant to be manifestations of communist virtue, would crumble under the pressure of the silver screen and reveal their strings, proving to be little more than marionettes no viewer would want to follow.
Auteurs fought to expand their freedoms. Even if they toed the party line, their films contained ideological distance and a distortion of the doctrine. This can be found in prominent titles from the era. Instead of taking their cues from Soviet classics from the 1930s, directors instead followed Western trends.
In Kawalerowicz’s Cellulose, as well as Wajda’s A Generation, we find Italian neorealist inspirations, while in Andrzej Munk’s Kolejarskie Słowo (A Railwayman’s Word), you can see echoes of English social documentary photography and ties to Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail. In Leonard Buczkowksi’s Skarb (Treasure), inspirations from Soviet satire and Czech comedy can be found.
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Alongside cinema that fought back against the new political doctrine, the Polish Film Chronicle – a 10-minute newsreel presented before screenings – shaped itself by the party’s commands. The chronicle, the work of a powerful institute, functioned for years as an ideological guidepost, presenting Poles with a world bent to ideological whims.
In 1946, Jerzy Bossak, the head of the Polish Film Chronicle, described its purpose during a conference for its workers:
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Workers of the chronicle become more than mechanical cogs; they help co-create a new, better existence. Propaganda transforms social life, shores up optimism, without which it wouldn’t be possible to live and transform bad things into better.
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Still from 'Kierunek: Nowa Huta!' (Direction: Nowa Huta!), directed by Andrzej Munk, photo: Youtube
Documentaries became a space for propagandist expansion, which even such prominent artists as Andrzej Munk participated in. He created some of the best socialist realist documentaries from the 1950s.
In 1951, he created Kierunek: Nowa Huta! (Direction: Nowa Huta!), a piece of agitprop dedicated to young construction workers who flock from cities and villages to Nowa Huta, where they work to build the ideal city of the future. But even this film didn’t protect Munk from being thrown out of the party – in 1952, the Polish United Workers’ Party expelled him for his foreign ideals.
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Still from 'The Stars Must Burn' directed by Andrzej Munk, 1954, photo: Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (WFD)
Not long afterwards, Munk created a socialist realism masterpiece. With A Railwayman’s Word, he broke the schematics of the genre, instead aligning his work closer to Watt and Wright’s Night Mail. The story of railway workers transporting coal to a steel mill in Szczecin focuses on the individual efforts of railroad engineers, gatemen and mechanics who worked hard in the name of their professional ethos, rather than in the spirit of rivalry.
Andrzej Munk also focused on workers’ individual efforts in his next documentary, The Stars Must Burn (1945) – the story of the dangerous work of Silesian miners. The documentary once more broke socialist-realist boundaries. Munk didn’t focus on the heroism of the workers but rather the costs they bore to complete politicians’ projected outputs. The beautifully shot and edited Stars holds up even decades later thanks to Munk’s directorial talent – his vision created a documentary with thrills worthy of an action film.
Munk’s rebellious nature showed through in his narrative films as well. Munk’s crowning achievement from his battle with socialist realism was Man on the Tracks (1956), where the director turned to the schematics of the genre just to turn them on their head. Drawing from classics of the genre (as well as Rashomon and Citizen Kane), Munk created a work that condemned an inefficient and soulless system.
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Still from 'Bright Field' directed by Eugeniusz Cękalski, 1947. Pictured: Kazimierz Pawłowski and Feliks Żukowski, photo: Marek Frankfurt / Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
If Man on the Tracks was a masterful goodbye to the world of socialist realism, earlier offerings in the genre had little success.
Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s story about a rural village, Gromada (Cluster), and Stanisław Różewicz’s Trudna Miłość (Difficult Love) both flopped. A few years prior, Eugeniusz Cękalski’s Bright Fields, the story of a teacher challenging the backwards standards of a small village can be watched now only with a smirk. Nor did Cękalski’s Dwie Brygady (Two Brigades), a story about class warfare for the good of socialism, reach any level of acclaim.
These artistic failures proved how difficult it was to balance doctrines of socialist realism with quality filmmaking. Even the greats of Polish cinema – with Kawalerowicz and Różewicz at the forefront – couldn’t find the golden medium between the party line and the public’s desires.
In the censor’s jaws
The proof of the censor’s destructive influence on the works at the time can be found in Jerzy Zarzycki’s Unvanquished City, based on Władysław Szpilman’s real-life experience. Written by Jerzy Andrzejewski and Czesław Miłosz, the political censors chopped it up so thoroughly that the potential masterpiece became little more than a political pamphlet. Marek Hedrykowski wrote of the event:
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‘Unvanquished City’ was a clear example of how an ambitious work can be spoiled through quack treatments. The forced ideological healing, with its treatments and doses, ruined the film in the end.
Even the most spectacular film couldn’t help succumbing to such a course of treatments. Wanda Jakubowska’s The Soldier of Victory, commissioned by the party as a biographical tale of Karol Świerczewski, was summed up by Tadeusz Lubelski in Historia Polskiego Kina (History of Polish Cinema):
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Everything in this new film was meant to be a model for socialist realist cinema, but it all came out stillborn.
The film, which was meant to be a point of pride for Polish cinema, turned into a fiasco. Despite the production costs swallowing close to a billion złoty (the average film of the time cost 5 million), Jakubowska’s film became a source of embarrassment.
‘Five boys from Barska Street’ – new divisions
Polish socialist realism had to wait for its first real success until 1953. Its director, Aleksander Ford, became a key player in the burgeoning Polish industry after WWII.
Five Boys from Barska Street was the story of a group of boys who had been led into depravity by the war, and who, with the help of socialist re-education, became upstanding citizens. Under Ford’s expert guidance, the dictates of socialist realism became a moving tale, reaching a level unheard of by his contemporaries. In 1954, the film premiered at Cannes, where the director won a jury prize.
Ford’s film broke with reality (shots of the W-Z Route were really mock-ups filmed by the cinematographer) and showed a politically flattened version of the world. Still, for communist leaders, it quickly became a blueprint for further success.
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After a series of embarrassing failures, those controlling Polish cinema realised the best chance for successful propaganda was finding a balance between political need and the public’s expectations. They stopped protesting ‘bourgeois’ genres associated with pre-war cinema – and melodramas and musicals returned to the silver screen.
The 1953 Adventure at Mariensztat was the link. Leonard Buczkowski’s film hid politics behind a love story and the life dilemmas of two young lovers. Written by a pre-war screenwriting master, Ludwik Starski, Adventure at Mariensztat brought together socialist realism with the musical genre. Thus, the story of Warsaw’s rebuilding and renewal to a new Poland was dressed up as a romantic comedy.
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How do you write a piece that people can laugh with, that simultaneously encourages fighting for peace, increased work productivity, hatred for imperialism and love for the Politbureau?
Buczkowski’s film was the answer to this question, and millions of viewers became enamoured with its love story of a girl doting upon a foreman.
‘Cellulose’ – the strength of truth
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Still from 'Cellulose' directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1953, photo: Mieczysław Biełous / Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Analysing the political culture of 1950s cinema, Tadeusz Lubelski wrote:
Our culture quickly came to denounce socialist realism. In cinema, this denunciation happened rather paradoxically: with a super-production of an adaptation of ‘A Souvenir from the Cellulose Mill’, a tale representative of Polish socialist realism.
Jerzy Kawalerowicz, one of the most talented directors in the history of Polish cinema, created the film in 1954. He began from Igor Newerly’s tale A Souvenir from the Cellulose Mill, and found in its pages something more than simple agitprop – it was a tale of true human experience, dealing with poverty, hopelessness and the loneliness stemming from the two.
Kawalerowicz translated this tale to the screen, and his film held a realism that was not quite in line with socialist realism standards. So the strictly regulated world of political film in Poland was infiltrated by a quiver of truth, intent upon blowing up the falseness of the social realist reality.
‘A Generation’ – the beginning of the end
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The next film, which simultaneously was a part of the genre and a reason for its downfall, was Andrzej Wajda’s A Generation (1954). It was another picture, which – according to T. Lubelski – began from ‘a socialist realist story, but the visual result went beyond socialist realism’.
The adaptation of Bohdan Czeszko’s novel was originally meant for Aleksander Ford as a celebration of 10 years of communist Poland. The opinions of key decision makers were reserved on the matter, and Ford didn’t want to risk his position. Instead, he passed the project along to Andrzej Wajda, with whom he’d worked with on Five Boys from Barska Street.
Wajda created a truly inventive film: he reached to his own personal experience during the war and underscored a vision of the world where politics aren’t as simple as the party would have it. In A Generation, realism replaced overblown theatricality, and the film – rather rare for the time period – was told from multiple viewpoints.
Although the censors cut out a fight scene between Łomnicki and Cybulski, Wajda’s accolades were mixed with a wave of criticism from ‘friends of the leadership’. They accused the director of showing the youth as ‘lacking the Marxist ideals of the Lumpenproletariat’, and Ford had to step in to protect the film.
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Years later, Wajda’s film became a divisive subject among art critics and film historians. Some claimed it was one of the last films of socialist realism, while others – the first film of the Polish Film School, created as a rebellion against the political requirements of communist cinema.
From the beginning, Polish socialist realist film was condemned to fail. It never had a uniform formula, eager followers or dedicated creators. Almost from the start, it was a space of negotiation between the ambitions of its creators, the machinations of politicians and the public’s expectations. To achieve the party’s propagandist goals, the films had to retreat from the doctrine, which in turn led to the genre’s collapse.
The master plan of unifying Polish art ultimately lost to the individualism of Polish cinema. And though it was considered an embarrassment for decades, even a taboo, years later, it has reappeared as a benchmark of the political change and the birth of cinema’s brightest stars: Munk and Wajda, Kawalerowicz and Różewicz.
Originally written in Polish; translated by AZ, Nov 2019
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