Jazzman with a Camera: 10 Most Important Movies of Witold Sobociński
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10 Most Important Movies of Witold Sobociński, Still from the movie 'Whoever May Know', directed by Kazimierz Kutz. Pictured: Halina Luszczewska, Witold Sobociński, 1966, photo: Film magazine archi, center, sobocinski-witold-ktokolwiek-forum.jpg
A legend of Polish cinema and one of the leading figures of the Polish school of cinematography. A jazzman who liked to experiment, an artist with an unparalleled visual sensibility. He worked with some of Poland’s greatest directors – Wajda, Polański, Zanussi, Żuławski, Skolimowski. Here are ten of Witold Sobociński’s most important movies.
Hands Up!, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski (1967)
Witold Sobociński has occupied a special place in the history of the Polish cinema ever since his debut as a cameraman. The first movie he shot was legendary: Hands Up! directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. It was a bitter tale about the post-war generation, its ideals, the compromises it had to make and its lost hopes and dreams.
The black and white camerawork of Sobociński was ground-breaking and gave the story a lot of its dynamism. This success allowed the cameraman to work on more amazing movies despite the fact that his debut was shelved by the censors for its anti-Stalinist message. In the end, it was not screened in cinemas until 1985. Thankfully, Andrzej Wajda saw it as a work in progress in 1967 and asked Sobociński to work with him on the set of Everything for Sale.
Everything for Sale, directed by Andrzej Wajda (1968)
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Wajda’s film gave Sobociński the reputation of one of the brightest cinematography stars of his generation. In the bitter, self-referential tale about the society of filmmakers, the director asked questions about the boundaries one has to set in their art, about what is true and false and about artistic integrity. The actors played themselves and the story was an attempt to reflect upon the recent tragic death of Zbigniew Cybulski, ‘the Polish James Dean’.
This painfully honest story received a new life on the screen thanks to Sobociński. The colourful, expressive camerawork painted a world full of passion and life, but also of fawning and lies.
Sobociński admitted in a conversation with Maria Kornatowska:
We were inspired by Lelouch and his film impressionism. [It was] Lelouch adapted to the Polish climate and Polish colours.
Sobociński and Wajda alluded to the aesthetics of the French New Wave but they created an extremely personal work rooted firmly in the Polish reality. Incidentally, they also created the Polish 8½, a story about the truth of life permeating the fiction of cinema.
Family Life, directed by Krzysztof Zanussi (1970)
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Krzysztof Zanussi was another great young director, who following Skolimowski and Wajda’s lead, invited Witold Sobociński to work on his next movie. At first it seemed that it was not a good match. For Zanussi, cinema was a derivative of literature and its power came from the spoken word. For Sobociński, the Tenth Muse was a combination of visual and musical elements. This apparent dissonance was the reason for the strength of their movies. Zanussi and Sobociński complemented each other perfectly and the static cinema of Zanussi was given another, more visual life thanks to Sobociński’s shots.
In a conversation with the Association of Polish Filmmakers, Krzysztof Zanussi said:
Sobociński wasn’t concerned with just the camerawork. He always engaged with films as a whole and became their co-author. He started teaching later on and he would teach how to make movies and not just how to shoot them.
Zanussi met with Sobociński on set five times. Together, they made, among others, The Catamount Killing and the TV movie Haus der Frauen.
The Third Part of the Night, directed by Andrzej Żuławski (1971)
At the turn of the 1970s, Sobociński became a rising star. His tendency towards experimentation and his artistic courage drew more and more directors towards him. Especially the most expressive of them, such as Andrzej Żuławski.
In 1971, Sobociński shot Żuławski’s feature film debut – The Third Part of The Night. The avant-garde horror film tells the story of a young man who lets himself be experimented on in order to save his own life. Żuławski challenged Polish cinema – he broke with the traditionally understood narrative, directed actors in his own way and discussed war like never before, by discarding national mythologies and attempts at heroisation.
Sobociński’s camerawork, vivid and liberated, made it possible to make the story more subjective and his dark, gloomy shots built the atmosphere of hopelessness in a world succumbing to war-time chaos.
The Wedding, directed by Andrzej Wajda (1972)
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In the 1970s, Sobociński was the best Eastmancolor expert in Poland. This coloured Kodak film allowed to experiment with colours displayed on the screen. It was used by the cameraman to shoot The Promised Land and the Hourglass Sanatorium. But the film that truly showed the extent of his talent and skill in working with colour was Wajda’s The Wedding, a film adaptation of Stanisław Wyspiański’s play.
The intense colours, which appeared as if they were taken from straight out of Wyspiański’s artwork, invoked a feeling of encountering a painting that has come to life. And this is no accident – in The Wedding, Sobociński and Wajda often referred to the classics of Polish (and foreign) painting. During the scene in which the groom, played by Daniel Olbrychski, tears his shirt, he resembles Rejtan from the famous work by Jan Matejko. The bridesmaids have golden and orange bows resembling the ones visible in Wyspiański’s portrait of Eliza Pareńska. The moustache of Marek Walczewski was curled so that it would resemble the one of Jacek Malczewski in his Self-Portrait in a Suit of Armor, while Ewa Ziętek and Daniel Olbrychski, were stylised to resemble Wyspiański’s Self-Portrait with the Wife.
The Promised Land, directed by Andrzej Wajda (1974)
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Still from the movie ‘The Promised Land’, directed by Andrzej Wajda. Pictured: Daniel Olbrychski and Andrzej Seweryn, photo: Polfilm/East News
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The Wedding was not the last movie by the Wajda-Sobociński duo. Less than two years later, the artists met again on set of another major book adaptation. This time, they filmed Władysław Reymont’s The Promised Land. And they created a film that is considered one of the best in the history of Polish cinema.
Sobociński once again turned the camera into an active narrator and breathed life into the story. Aleksander Ledóchowski wrote in Film:
In Wajda’s vision, Łódź is a multiplied city. It is larger than life and overtaken by just a single goal. The sound of looms and the noises of the stock market are its music which dazes, kills all feeling, makes one lose their mind and follow its insane rhythm. Wajda’s city, an enlarged and monster-like black kingdom of capital and speculation, is Łódź but also the jungle of Manchester or Chicago.
Sobociński was one of the fathers of the movies spectacular success and, in his autobiography, Wajda stressed that the movie owed its visual style to Sobociński’s talent. And it was a visual style that earned the movie an Oscar nomination in 1976.
Hourglass Sanatorium, directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has (1973)
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Witold Sobociński said in an interview for Magazyn Filmowy SFP:
For me, colour is the most important element of a motion picture. Colour and lighting. In my choice of colours I’m inspired mainly by Polish and foreign paintings from different periods. I want movies with my camerawork to be like paintings (…) The essence of my attitude towards colour lies in the fact that I don’t simply put the roll in the camera and passively record what’s in nature. I give colour a storytelling property in the movie and try to use it to achieve the most important goal: beauty on screen.
There is probably no movie that gave Sobociński the colourist more space to work his magic than the Hourglass Sanatorium, a masterpiece of Wojciech Jerzy Has, the great visionary of Polish cinema. By adapting Bruno Schulz’s literature onto the big screen, Has and Sobociński made the oneiric, unreal world of the titular sanatorium come to life, even though it had appeared to belong to an entirely different order. Sobociński experimented with colour and referred to the works of great painters – from the drawings of Bruno Schulz himself to Salvador Dali’s Elephants.
And There Was Jazz, directed by Feliks Falk (1981)
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Still from the movie ‘And There Was Jazz’, directed by Feliks Falk, 1981. Pictured: Michał Bajon, photo: Andrzej Wyrozębski/Studio Filmowe Zebra/Filmoteka Narodowa/www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Sobociński often repeated that the key to his cinematographic success was his natural sense of rhythm that he developed through jazz. He was a drummer and a trombone player and before he became a cameraman, he played in the legendary band Melomani, one of the first Polish jazz ensembles. Music helped him even when he traded in his drums for a camera. He knew how to build up the rhythm and when to submit to it. He said that he ‘heard the space’ of the shot and that his musical imagination allowed him to see the shots more clearly.
He returned to his musical roots in 1981 thanks to And There Was Jazz by Feliks Falk, a gloomy and nostalgic story of the pioneers of jazz in Poland who played this forbidden music during the Stalinist period.
O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilisation, directed by Piotr Szulkin (1984)
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He was also a pioneer of new film technologies. Familiar with novelties, always ready to experiment. And just as he perfected the colour-work in The Promised Land or in the Hourglass Sanatorium, in O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilisation, he created a new standard for camerawork in Polish cinema.
In 1984, he was the first person in Poland to use the Steadicam – a system that allowed to shoot in motion and eliminated the shaking of the moving camera. It is Steadicam that made it possible to shoot the scenes with Jerzy Stuhr walking through long, dark corridors (those scenes were inspired by hotel shots from Kubrick’s The Shining).
In O-Bi, O-Ba... Szulkin and Sobociński attempted the seemingly impossible – they wanted to create a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie with the not-so-big budget of Polish cinema. They could not afford to build expensive sets or use special effects. They had to depend on skilfully operating the space of the shot and the lighting to create an illusion of reality on screen. In a conversation with Małgorzata Domagalik, Sobociński said:
I don’t really know, how much of my effort went into the creation of this disgusting and depressing world, how much I thought about my ideas on the colours, the movement of camera, etc.
In order to achieve the correct temperature of the lighting, Sobociński, after a series of attempts, went to a factory that produced glow-tubes and ordered ones that would be best in contributing to the cold, alienating air of the movie.
Frantic, directed by Roman Polański (1986)
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Still from the movie ‘Frantic’, directed by Roman Polański, 1988, photo: Francois Duhamel/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images
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They knew each other from Film School, but they did not meet on set until the 1980s. Roman Polański was looking for a way to accelerate his directing career and saw an opportunity in two movies – Pirates and Frantic. The cinematographer working on both of them was Sobociński. It is thanks to him that Polański’s pirate comedy endeared with its scope and visual attractiveness. Despite that, Pirates turned out to be a spectacular financial flop.
Polański’s return to the top was a result of another movie he did together with Sobociński – Frantic. Thanks to the Polish cameraman, the thriller about an American fighting for his life and identity in Paris moved along in an oppressive, dense atmosphere. Sobociński cared about the rhythm of the movie and perfectly filmed the action sequences, creating the most Hitchcockian of Roman Polański’s works.
Sources: Piotr Szulkin. Życiopis (Piotr Szulkin: Life), Piotr Kletowski, Piotr Marecki, Kraków 2012; Autobiografia (Autobiography), Andrzej Wajda, Kraków 2014; Polański. Biografia (Polański: A Biography), Paul Werner, translated into Polish by Anna Krochmal, Robert Kędzierski, Poznań 2014
Originally written in Polish, translated by MW, edited by NR, Nov 2018
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