Documentary filmmaker, a classic of post-World War II Polish documentary film; born in Bydgoszcz in 1930, died on 11th August 2018 in Warsaw.
Documentary filmmaker, a classic of post-World War II Polish documentary film.
In 1956 Kazimierz Karabasz graduated from the State Higher School of Film in Łódź. Since then he has worked as a documentary filmmaker for the Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych (Documentary Film Studio) located at 21 Chełmska Street in Warsaw, collaborated with the Polska Kronika Filmowa (Polish National Newsreel), and made documentaries independently, most recently in cooperation with the Studio Filmowe Kronika (Chronicle Film Studio). He lectured at the Łódź Film School and his publications include three books on documentary film: Cierpliwe oko / The Patient Eye (Warsaw 1979), Bez fikcji / No Fiction (Warsaw 1985), and Odczytać czas / Reading Time (Łódź 1999).
His first two documentaries, his debut Gdzie diabeł mowi dobranoc / Where the Devil Says Goodnight and his second film Ludzie z pustego obszaru / People from an Empty Zone, Krabasz made as collaborations with Władysław Ślesicki in 1956. With these two works depicting Warsaw's run-down districts of Praga and Targówek, the filmmaker seemed to join a documentary film trend initiated by two other directors, Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skorzewski, a trend that would soon become known as the 'Black Series'. The makers of these films took a critical view of reality, one contrary to that which emanated from the propagandistically optimistic Socialist Realist films.
Watch early films by Kazimierz Karabasz and other classics
As Kazimierz Karabasz wrote himself, October 1956 was fast approaching and it seemed an opportune time 'to show on screen a reality saturated with coarseness, falsehood, pain - themes that thus far had been carefully avoided.' It was at this time that Karabasz began collaborating with the now deceased cinematographer Stanisław Niedbalski, who would go on to be director of photography on most of Karabasz's films. The two films named above, as well as those that followed them immediately (including Z Powiśla / From Powiśle, which Kazimierz Karabasz made on his own), built on the themes of the 'Black Series'. Their visual austerity was accompanied by spare, rather bitter commentary. They also contained something that in general distinguished the films of the directors making their debut at the time from most of the work of predecessors.
Previously, makers of documentaries for the most part staged the situations in their films, whereas this new generation sought to observe reality as is. However, Karabasz seemed to reject their ad hoc 'social interventionism'. He saw documentaries as distant from the truth about their protagonists and their reality, as distant from normal life. Like the Italian Neo-Realists of whom Karabasz remains a faithful student to this day, he sought to capture this truth in his subsequent films, which he arranged in something resembling series. He devoted his first series to various groups of people and their passions or jobs (Ludzie w drodze / On the Road, Muzykanci / The Musicians, Węzeł / The Junction), then made a numbers of films focusing on individual heroes (Rok Franka W. / The Year of Frank W., Sobota / Saturday, Przenikanie / Assimilating), and finally produced a series of documentaries that constituted kind of syntheses on social topics (Próba materii / Material Test, Pamięć / Memory). Karabasz has also sought to offer synthetic thinking in his films of recent years, including Portret w kropli / Portrait in a Drop, O świcie i przed zmierzchem / At Sunrise and Before Dusk and W pierwszej fazie lotu / During the First Phase of Flight. Kazimierz Karabasz himself as applied these terms to his own work, describing himself as moving from films that analyze life to films 'that attempt to offer a synthetic thought on the life of a community'.
Today people remain largely unaware of how much of a breakthrough Kazimierz Karabasz's films of the early 1960s were in the history of Polish documentary film. He needed not only to dismantle thematic stereotypes, but also had to introduce many technical innovations that would allow him to show his subjects from a never before explored perspective. Among other things, this required devising lighting (with lamps positioned high above the subject) that would enable him to film people in their everyday environments, i.e. in their workplace and outdoors. Karabasz's also had the idea of putting distance between the camera and subject in order to render his subjects comfortable. This in turn he achieved by introducing long focal length lenses in documentary filmmaking. His greatest innovation in Polish documentary film was to capture not only image, but also sound. 'The early 1960s were still a time of the 'silent' documentaries at the studios on Chełmska,' recalled the director. Images were recorded with no sound, and then supplemented with a commentary, music, sound effects, yet the protagonists seen on film remained silent.
'We were painfully aware that in attempting to capture the 'privacy' of people we would also need to capture their words,' wrote Karabasz about himself and Stanisław Niedbalski in Odczytać czas / Reading Time'. This belief informed one of Karabasz's most famous films, Muzykanci / The Musicians, a film which Krzysztof Kieślowski listed among the ten most important films of the 20th century. The Musicians tells the story of a single rehearsal of a brass band made up of tram drivers. It was followed by Węzeł / The Junction, a documentary about dispatchers at work at a rail yard in Tarnowskie Góry. In these films, human labor seems to have a meaning entirely different form that which it has in films that come off the Socialist Realist 'production line.' '[Labor] is,' as Tadeusz Sobolewski wrote, 'something that lifts people, allows them to pull themselves out of the ugliness, shapelessness and sadness of life, something that leads them towards beauty'.
In 1967, with the full-length documentary Rok Franka W. / The Year of Frank W., Kazimierz Karabasz seemed to progress on to films with individual heroes. However, Frank W. was no front-page hero, but an individual among many others in whose life Karabasz sought to identify 'something noteworthy and meaningful'. His protagonist, just entering his adult life, was the twenty-year-old Franciszek Wróbel, who came from a rural area and spent a year working in an Ochotniczy Hufiec Pracy (Volunteer Labor Brigade). At Karabasz's request, the subject kept a diary in which he recorded the changes occurring within him. The situation was similar with Przenikanie / Assimilating, in which the director trained his camera on two new graduates of the SGGW (State Central School of Farming), both of them women from rural areas.
In an interview with Małgorzata Sadowska, published in a book about documentary filmmakers titled Chełmska 21, Karabasz stated that the profession of a documentary filmmaker consists of 'seeking out small elements that combine to constitute - to be immodest - the truth about man'. He added, 'Through careful observation and by gathering the details of which life is made, one can indeed capture this truth'.
Karabasz remained faithful to this concept in subsequent films, in which he once more sought out the collective hero. These films about 'issues', as he called them, included the full-length documentaries Próba materii / Material test (devoted to three generations of residents of Warsaw's Wola district) and Pamięć / Memory (about the builders of Nowa Huta, a new industrial complex and residential district near Krakow), both of which he made in the early 1980s. The case was similar with the next films he made, among them Na przykład - Ul. Grzybowska 9 / 9 Grzybowska Street, For Example, Okruchy / Crumbs, Portret w kropli / Portrait in a Drop and O świcie i przed zmierzchem / At Sunrise and Before Dusk. The final element in this series was W pierwszej fazie lotu / During the First Phase of Flight, a film in which Karabasz told the story of young people facing a choice between living in line with the times or choosing a life that would supply less material satisfaction but offer opportunities for self-realization.
Cesare Zavattini, whose views Karabasz often cites, once said that the names of fifteen people out of the phone book should be read each morning on the radio. The idea was to give them the small dose of satisfaction that could come from being noticed by someone, to impart justice upon them in this small way. How is this possible in film? In an interview for Rzeczpospolita daily, Kazimierz Karabasz said:
Most simply by showing people respect. And how might we express respect with camera and microphone in hand? By carefully, amiably and favorably examining the life of a human being, his or her existence.
Kazimierz Karabasz remained faithful to this same concept in making his feature film Cień już niedaleko / A Looming Shadow and television films like Wędrujący cień / The Wandering Shadow or We dwoje / The Two of Us.
- 1956 Gdzie diabel mowi dobranoc / Where the Devil Says Goodnight (collaborative project with Wladyslaw Slesicki) - A tale about the muddle surrounding the construction of a cultural center and about the Targowek district of Warsaw in general.
- 1957 Ludzie z pustego obszaru / People From an Empty Zone (collaborative project with Władysław Ślesicki) - A story about a group of young people from the Praga district of Warsaw.
- 1958 Z Powiśla / From Powiśle - A film about a marginalized quarter of Warsaw.
- 1959 Dzień bez słońca / A Day Without the Sun (collaborative project with Władysław Ślesicki) - Warsaw as seen trough the eyes of a lonely individual.
- 1959 Trochę inny świat / A Slightly Different World - The world as represented in children's drawings.
- 1960 Ludzie w drodze / On the Road - A study of the life of circus artists. Awards: Corc IFF 1962 - Special Prize, Tours IFF 1962 - Jury Prize.
- 1960 Muzykanci / The Musicians - A film about a single rehearsal of an amateur brass band made up of Warsaw tram drivers. Awards: Leipzig IFDAF 1960 - Grand Prix, Syrenka Warszawska (Warsaw Mermaid) 1960 - award for best short film of the Film Critics Club of the Association of Polish Journalists, Tours ISFF 1960 - Special Prize, Venice IFSDF 1960 - St. Mark's Gold Lion, Krakow ISFF 1961 - Golden Dragon, Mexico City ISFF 1961 - Special Prize, Oberhausen ISFF 1961 - Grand Prize, San Francisco IFF 1961 - Golden Gate Award in the category of documentary film.
- 1961 Węzeł / The Junction - A tale about dispatchers at a railroad yard in Tarnowskie Góry.
- 1962 Pierwszy krok / The First Step - A film about a music lesson in an elementary music school. Awards: Krakow ISFF 1963 - Golden Dragon, Leipzig IFF 1963 - honorable mention, Tours IFF 1963 - Jury Prize.
- 1962 Tu gdzie żyjemy / Here, Where We Live (collaboration: Lidia Zonn) - An attempt at offering a synthesis (achieved through dry statistics) of the life of poor people around the world.
- 1962 Jubileusz / The Anniversary - A reportage from a reunion of graduates of an educational college in the town of Leczyca.
- 1963 Ptaki / Birds - A story about Silesian dove breeders.
- 1963 W klubie / In the Club - A film about stamp collectors and one of their clubs.
- 1964 Urodzeni w roku 1944 / Born in 1944 - An attempt at a portrait of several twenty-something-year-olds, "peers" of the Polish People's Republic.
- 1965 Na progu / At the Threshold - A story about female high school graduates, class of 1964, who stand at the threshold of their adult lives.
- 1967 Rok Franka W. / The Year of Frank W. (full-length) - A year-long observation of a young man from the country who enters adult life by studying and working in an Ochotniczy Hufiec Pracy (Volunteer Work Brigade) in the city of Chorzów. Awards: Krakow NSFF 1968 - Golden Lajkonik, 1969 - Award of Chairman of the National Radio and Television Commission, Oberhausen ISFF 1969 - award in the documentary film category.
- 1969 Sobota / Saturday (full-length) - A Saturday afternoon in the life of Grazyna A. and Jerzy G., young workers in two vast factories located in Warsaw's Wola district. Awards: Leipzig IFF 1971 - honorable mention, Oberhausen ISFF 1971 - award in the documentary film category.
- 1970 Przypis / Footnote - Documentation of life in Bydgoszcz while the city was under German occupation during World War II.
- 1970 Zgodnie z rozkazem / Following Orders - A film composed of photographs depicting the behavior of German soldiers in Poland during World War II.
- 1972 Przed... / Before... - A story about two recently engaged young people and their dreams.
- 1973 Krystyna M. - The portrait of a young female worker of the Ursus Tractor Factory.
- 1974 Punkt widzenia / Point of View - The story of a small town (Włodawa) as told through the photographs of amateur photographers.
- 1977 Lato w Żabnie / Summer in Żabno - A first year student of the SGGW (State Central School of Farming) in Warsaw (one of the heroines of another of Karabasz's films Przenikanie / Assimilating) tells the story of her home village of Żabno in the province of Lublin through photographs she has taken.
- 1978 Przenikanie / Assimilating - A year-long observation of two female students of Warsaw's SGGW (Central School of Farming), both from rural areas in the Lublin and Białystok regions, and of their adaptation to another world.
- 1979 Dialog - A confrontation of the views of two generations of workers.
- 1981 Próba materii / Material Test (full-length) - A study of the attitudes of three generations of inhabitants of Warsaw's Wola district.
- 1985 Pamięć / Memory (full-length) - Documentary portraits of people who participated in the construction of Nowa Huta in the 1950s. Film produced concurrently with the feature film Cień już niedaleko / A Looming Shadow, which explored the psychological and ethical motivations of those who participated in the construction of the industrial complex and residential district of Nowa Huta.
- 1990 Widok z huty / A View From the Steelworks (full-length) - The portraits of two workers, one young and the other mature, of the Batory Steelworks in Chorzow.
- 1991 Na przykład - ulica Grzybowska 9 / 9 Grzybowska Street, for Example - The portraits of a twenty-year-old and a sixty-year-old, both residents of a town house located on Grzybowska Street in Warsaw.
- 1994 Okruchy / Crumbs - A film about Żelazna Street in Warsaw, its past and present.
- 1997 Portret w kropli / A Portrait in a Drop - The realities of Warsaw in photographs set to off-screen statements by the city's residents. The speakers talk about their work, fears, things that move them and things they desire.
- 1999 O świcie i przed zmierzchem / At Sunrise and Before Dusk - An attempt at capturing the views of a high school graduate and a pensioner about the 1990s.
- 2001 W pierwszej fazie lotu / In the First Phase of Flight - The story of young people who recently entered the job market and pursued different paths.
- 2001 Czas podwójny / Double Time - One of the heroines of Karabasz's 1978 documentary Przenikanie / Assimilating, Maria Kolano-Pecyna, returns in this film to tell the story of her family. The film simultaneously juxtaposes her attitudes to the world with those of her daughter.
- 1971 Sierpień - zapis kronikalny / August - A Chronicle (fictionalized documentary) - A record of one month in the life of a young student doing a summer internship in the city of Płock.
- 1976 Pryzmat / Prism (fictionalized documentary made for television) - The story of a young girl beginning her employment in a cultural center in a small town. Awards: Festiwal Polskiej Twórczości Telewizyjnej (Festival of Polish Television Films), Olsztyn 1977 - Gazeta Olsztyńska (Olsztyn Daily) Award.
- 1977 We Dwoje / The Two of Us (feature made for television) - A film about two young people intending to get married. Their conflicting stances come to the fore over a few days otherwise filled with the most common events.
- 1979 Wędrujący cień / A Wandering Shadow (feature made for television) - A story about the life of two young people in a provincial town, about the conflicts between them and the lack of understanding they show for each other's ambitions.
- 1984 Cień już niedaleko / A Looming Shadow (feature film) - The story of a conflict between a son and his father, who was a former builder of Krakow's industrial complex and housing district of Nowa Huta (film made concurrently with the documentary Pamięć / Memory). Awards: San Remo International Festival of Auteur Films 1986 - acting award for Mariusz Dmochowski.
- Ivan Bunin Dobre życie / A Good Life
- Milan Kundera Srebrne wesele / A Silver Wedding
- William Gibson Pani Dally ma kochanka / Mrs. Dally Has a Lover
- Arthur Miller Śmierć komiwojażera / The Death of a Salesman
- August Strindberg Więź / The Bond
- Janusz Korczak Notatki Z 1942 roku / Notes from 1942
Author: Jan Strękowski, June 2003.