A cinematographer and academic teacher. A jazz musician in his youth. Born in 1929 in Ozorków near Łódź, died on 19th November 2018.
Table of contents: | Career & Awards | Cinematographer, musician, painting lover | Major Works | Filmography |
Career & Awards
He graduated in cinematography from the PWSF in Łódź in 1955. As a young man and a student, from 1948 to the early 1960's, he was a musician with Melomani, a legendary jazz band founded by Jerzy 'Duduś' Matuszkiewicz, playing several instruments but mainly the drums and the trombone. In film, he first worked as a lighting director and cameraman at the Lódź television centre (1955-59), and as a cameraman for educational films and documentaries at the Czołówka Film Studio in Warsaw (1959-64). The first feature film he worked on as a cameraman came in 1962. He debuted as a cinematographer for a feature film in 1967, in Jerzy Skolimowski's Ręce do góry / Hands Up!, which was banned by the censors for many years and did not premiere until 1981.
The first feature film with Witold Sobociński's cinematography available to a wider audience was Wszystko na sprzedaż / Everything for Sale in 1968, directed by Andrzej Wajda. He also worked with directors such as Wojciech Jerzy Has and Roman Polański, and on many projects by foreign directors. Witold Sobociński was a teacher at the PWSFTviT in Łódź, educating many valued Polish cinematographers. They included his son, the prematurely deceased cameraman Piotr Sobociński.
Sobociński received numerous awards for cinematography, including the Golden Frog at the 'Camerimage' International Film Festival of The Art of Cinematography in 1994 and 2000 for life achievement, and the American Society of Cinematographers Award in 2002.
Critics noticed Witold Sobociński for the first time in connection with a school film directed by Ryszard Ber in 1955, Łodzie wypływają o świcie /The Boats Sail at Dawn]. Two years later he received a special prize for cinematography for this film at the Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow. He himself described the film as an impression 'shot under the influence of the Italian 'neo-realist school', its style invoking Visconti's 'The Earth Trembles'.' This is what Jerzy Wójcik, another great cinematographer and a friend of Sobociński's from his student days, said about Sobociński's school film in an interview granted to Janusz Gazda:
I wasn't interested in its plot, but in the fact that he tried to capture the atmosphere of the meeting of land and sea, to see what happens in connection with this meeting; he saw there was water, land and sky, the three elements, and that there was wind as well, and changeability. He captured that changeability in certain sequences which formed wholes. (Kwartalnik Filmowy 9/1994)
Jerzy Wojcik pointed out that Sobociński's film projects have a characteristic sense of rhythm. It was this special quality that led him to invite Sobociński to work on Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Faraon / Pharaoh as a cameraman, because he was convinced that only Sobociński would be able to give the necessary rhythm to the frames in the long panned shots across the dunes planned for the film.
Cinematographer, musician, painting lover
It may come as a surprise, but the years of Witold Sobociński's youth, when he devoted himself to his first passion - music, were not without their influence on his development as a cameraman. The rhythm that Wójcik says Sobociński 'had inside him' is undoubtedly something he took from the world of music.
It is extremely hard to set the same camera speed, the same mood as you had in the previous shot, the structure of the takes, and the structure of the whole. To me, these are music phrases that join together to form a whole. I take part in these individual scenes in a way that is similar to what happens when you play jazz - when you put all your skills and your technical know-how into an improvisation, Witold Sobociński said in an interview granted to Irena Stanisławska. (Kino 9/1994)
In an interview given to Maria Kornatowska (Kwartalnik Filmowy 7/1994) Witold Sobociński admited to having one more, equally important source of inspiration for his film work, other than music - painting. In film as in painting, he believed, space was created by light and colour, both in a single shot and in a sequence, and in a whole film. They create the space in the entirety of a film work.
Jerzy Wójcik, quoted earlier, notes Sobociński's mastery, also as an artist who created the space of a film. This is what he said about his friend's debut as a cinematographer in Hands Up!:
When Witold told me about the concept for one of the scenes, when he said you would enter a dark carriage, and then the carriage would intentionally expand and become a different space, I knew that was what one was supposed to do in cinema, and something he would do with bravado, thanks to his talent.
The innovation of Sobociński's cinematography is all the more commendable when one remembers that like most Polish cameramen, he was forced to work for many years in much tougher technical conditions than Western filmmakers had, lacking many of the technological developments that are so important to this field of art.
The cinematography for a rather early project in his output, Andrzej Wajda's Everything for Sale, is sometimes criticized for being derivative. Even Jerzy Wojcik thinks that the climate of this film, made like a "Polish Lelouch", was transferred from French cinema, and that long focal distances were overused to create mood, similarly to the French director's work.
Our model was Lelouch and his film impressionism; it was Lelouch adapted to the Polish climate and Polish colour scheme, Sobociński himself admitted in the interview given to Maria Kornatowska.
Without a doubt, he nevertheless has fond memories of this film, if he said in an interview almost a decade later:
I thought I didn't know much about working on feature films, but Wajda decided he wanted me to do the cinematography for his film. I felt weak at the knees... And we made 'Everything for Sale' - a film that was and is a breakthrough in the Polish film style of the time, among other things due to the way colour was treated. 'Everything for Sale' marked the start of a new perception of structure, of using new cinematic means. ("Film & TV. Kamera" 2/2003)
Though critical towards Everything for Sale, Wójcik thinks highly of Sobociński's cinematography for Trzecia część nocy / The Third Part of The Night, made three years later by Andrzej Żuławski, emphasizing that thanks to the brilliant organization of light in this film, building relations between areas of shadow and brightness, Sobociński was able to convey the state of danger the characters found themselves in. Also the camera movement, he thinks, helped express the mood.
All that circling of the camera around people is not just a circling around the dramatic problem, it also suggests the impossibility of finding a way out. This is an extraordinary consistency in describing a mental situation using the camera.
A few years after Everything for Sale, again thanks to Andrzej Wajda, Witold Sobociński faced the toughest task of his professional career when he made Wesele / The Wedding. He was about to transfer to the screen a dramatic work that had been given a specific rhythm by its writer, which could have posed an additional problem.
Because, as Jerzy Wójcik said in the interview quoted earlier, it is one thing to give rhythm to something, another to know a lot about rhythm, to feel and interpret reality through rhythm, and quite another to be in rhythm, which is an inherent thing in 'The Wedding'. It has the rhythm of both poetry and dance.
At the same time, a cameraman as sensitive to rhythm as Sobociński was the perfect cinematographer for this project. The play by Stanisław Wyspiański, seemingly hermetic and concerning strictly Polish problems from the early 20th century, got a surprisingly good reception from foreign audiences in its screen version. This was due precisely to the film's inspiring rhythm, but also its extraordinary painterly quality. The visual aspect of the cinematography was an extra challenge, as Wyspianski was equally good as a painter and a playwright.
Witold Sobociński stressed in many interviews that he took only the palette from Wyspianski, avoiding any direct, slavish imitation of his paintings.
One characteristic feature of this film that audiences admire particularly are the outdoor shots, filmed in warm, even "hot" colours, in accordance with the adopted palette, but at the same time justified by the interpretation of the play itself.
I wanted to take the heat and light of the oil lamps - that wedding heat - outside. This was intentional, because later we showed the morning light seeping inside and creating a cold, cool atmosphere of coming to one's senses, Sobociński said (interview granted to Bartosz Michalak, Film & TV. Kamera 2/2003)
In this case, the cinematographer contributed a great deal to the interpretation of the work, which required unique treatment in terms of using colour, motion, but also presented difficulties because apart from real people, it also featured "spectres" whose nature was not fully defined. Sobociński showed these unreal or imagined figures as reflections in the window, vague and additionally blurred by the whirling motion of the people dancing at the wedding.
The film's huge success was due to the cinematographer possibly as much as it was to the director. The second great film in Sobociński's career, Sanatorium pod klepsydrą / The Hour-Glass Sanatorium directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has, was made later in the same year.
This exceptionally beautiful film owes a great deal to the artistry of the camera work through which Sobociński created a magic reality, presenting a visualization of the surreal atmosphere of the literary original - the prose of Bruno Schulz.
In The Hour-Glass Sanatorium, he said in the interview given to Maria Kornatowska, where the 'physical props' were in the foreground, we suggested the illusory nature of the reality, the depth of the space, using light and colour. The foreground was bright, and then gradually, in halftone steps, it turned dark.
Making the surreal reality of the film world as evocative as possible was the primary task in this project.
We managed to offer viewers the possibility of moving around the world of their own imaginations, Sobociński said. To achieve this, I decided to 'open up' the frame right and left, top to bottom... I sought not only form for the film, but also format. Viewers were supposed to feel that everything was happening around them. (interview granted to Malgorzata Domagalik-Gwardak, Film 50/1989)
This was made possible by Sobociński's painter's imagination but also his technical talent; for this film, he made technical improvements to the cameras. As he recalled:
The space of the typical 3:4 frame seemed too small to tell all that the film contained. I decided to make changes towards widening the angle. I altered the cameras to a format that today is called 'super 35' . (interview granted to Bartosz Michalak, Film & TV. Kamera 2/2003)
It was an extremely important consideration for Witold Sobociński that his work with the camera expressed the content of a film using cinematographic means. He did this by working closely not just with the director but also the set designer. In the same interview, he emphasized the importance of the huge sets, not restricted by walls, designed by Jerzy Skarzynski and appropriately illuminated, for opening up the space and achieving an impression of infinity in The Hour-Glass Sanatorium.
It is widely thought that The Wedding and The Hour-Glass Sanatorium were the peak of Sobociński's output. Meanwhile, he made other films worth noting later as well.
Each successive film set him new tasks, and he responded to every director's call with the best possible interpretation of the script's intentions. This resulted in some excellent films, each in its own way, wrote Prof. Krystyna Zwolińska in her opinion of Witold Sobociński's artistic output in connection with the procedure to grant him a professorial title. (published: Kwartalnik Filmowy 7/1994)
Among Sobociński's later works deserving special attention, Krystyna Zwolińska mentions films directed by Roman Polański. In the cinematography for Pirates she notes the visual references to late Baroque culture sophisticatedly contrasted with shots of the distant misty sea. She also notices 'the beauty of the crystal drops falling from wet lace collars'. In Frantic she sees interesting poetics of hyperrealism. In Skarga / Lament directed by Jerzy Wójcik, a film elegy about a boy killed during political unrest, she notes how the atmosphere appropriate for the subject matter was created using a delicate range of lighting, and the sense of danger the viewer feels looking at shots of long, empty corridors, crowded lifts, and surprising changes in the direction of movement.
Many other examples of Witold Sobociński's camera work are worth mentioning. He himself listed as important the effect he achieved working on Piotr Szulkin's O-Bi, O-Ba, as he told Malgorzata Domagalik:
I don't really know how much effort I had to put into creating that hideous and very depressing world, how much thought I gave to the concept of colours, camera motion etc.
He also mentions Wajda's Smuga cienia / The Shadow Line, during which he waited patiently for a brief moment after a storm to shoot the mood of a calm sea, reminiscent - as he put it - of "spilled olive oil
Etudes - cinematography:
- 1954 - Wiosna [Spring], dir. Jerzy Gruza
- 1954 - Guziki [Buttons], dir. Janusz Kidawa
- 1955 - Hejnał i bzy [Bugle Call and Lilacs], dir. Janusz Kidawa
- 1955 - Łodzie wypływają o świcie [The Boats Sail at Dawn] (working title: Wioska rybacka [Fishing Village]), dir. Ryszard Ber - (Awards: 1957 - Moscow, Festival of Youth and Students - special prize)
- 1955 - Piątka z IV B [The Five From Class IV B], dir. Sylwester Szyszko
- 1955 - W Marcu [In March], dir. Maria Kwiatkowska
- 1956 - Kurdebalans [Blinking Heck], dir. Mieczyslaw Waskowski, cinematography with Wieslaw Rutowicz
Etudes - assistant cameraman:
- 1953 - Worek Węgla [Sack of Coal], dir. Janusz Weychert, cinematography Jerzy Matuszkiewicz
- 1954 - Ostatni wieczór [The Last Evening], dir. Stanislaw Jedryka, cinematography Wieslaw Zdort
- 1954 - Odwety. Trzy fragmenty z II aktu [Revenges. Three Excerpts From Act Two], dir. Jerzy Zarnik, cinematography Jerzy Matuszkiewicz
- 1955 - Godzina bez słońca [An Hour Without The Sun], dir. Paweł Komorowski, cinematography Jerzy Wójcik
Short films and documentaries - cinematography:
- 1963 - Nasz zespół [Our Ensemble], dir. Jerzy Gruza
- 1963 - Tych czterech [The Four], dir. Tadeusz Worontkiewicz
- 1963 - Wioska mała jak Płowce [A Village As Small As Plowce], dir. Roman Banach
- 1964 - Pierwszy Dyżur [First Time On Duty], dir. Tadeusz Worontkiewicz
- 1964 - Poligon Smiałków [Daredevils' Training Ground], dir. Jerzy Vaulin
- 1965 - My kobiety [We The Women], dir. Maria Kwiatkowska
- 1965 - Ostatnie dni swiątyni Ptah [The Last Days of the Temple of Ptah], dir. Jerzy Bednarczyk, cinematography with Jacek Stachlewski
- 1965 - Warszawskie skrzydła [Warsaw Wings], dir. Zygmunt Koziarski
- 1967 - Wspomnienie o bitwie [Memory of a Battle], dir. Tadeusz Worontkiewicz
- 1978 - Zaproszenie do wnętrza [Come Inside], dir. Andrzej Wajda
- 1987 - Podróż magiczna [Magical Journey], dir. Andrzej Wasylewski
Feature films - cinematography:
- 1962 - Labedzi spiew / Swan Song television film, dir. Jerzy Antczak
- 1967 - Ręce do góry / Hands Up!, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski
- 1968 - Dancing w kwaterze Hitlera / Dancing Party in Hitler's Headquarters, dir. Jan Batory
- 1968 - Wszystko na sprzedaż / Everything for Sale, dir. Andrzej Wajda
- 1969 - Prawdziwie magiczny sklep [A Truly Magical Shop] television film, dir. Mieczysław Waskowski
- 1970 - The Adventures of Gerard, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski
- 1970 - Album polski / Polish Album, dir. Jan Rybkowski (1970 - Award of the Minister of National Defence first class, for cinematography)
- 1970 - Legenda / The Legend, dir. Sylwester Chęcinski
- 1970 - Najlepszy kolega [Best Friend] television film, dir. Andrzej Trzos-Rastawiecki
- 1970 - Życie rodzinne / Family Life, dir. Krzysztof Zanussi (1972 - Lagow, Lubuskie Film Summer - award for cinematography - Golden Grape)
- 1971 - Beczka Amontillado / The Cask of Amontillado television film, dir. Leon Jeannot
- 1971 - Trzecia cześć nocy / The Third Part of the Night, dir. Andrzej Żuławski
- 1972 - Wesele / The Wedding, dir. Andrzej Wajda (Awards: 1972 - Lagow, Lubuskie Film Summer, award for cinematography)
- 1973 - Na niebie i na ziemi / On the Earth and in the Sky, dir. Julian Dziedzina
- 1973 - Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą / The Hour-Glass Sanatorium, dir. Wojciech Jerzy Has
- 1974 - Ziemia obiecana / The Promised Land, dir. Andrzej Wajda, cinematography with Edward Klosinski and Waclaw Dybowski
- 1974 - The Catamount Killing, dir. Krzysztof Zanussi
- 1975 - Bielszy niż śnieg [Whiter Than Snow], dir. Wojciech Marczewski
- 1975 - Moja wojna, moja miłość / My War - My Love, dir. Janusz Nasfeter
- 1975 - Nachtdienst, television film, dir. Krzysztof Zanussi (cinematography with Klaus Kuckel)
- 1975 - The Promised Land - television series (cinematography with E. Kłosinski and W. Dybowski)
- 1975 - Der S-bahn Mörder, dir. Peter Shulze-Rohr
- 1976 - Smuga cienia / The Shadow Line, dir. Andrzej Wajda
- 1976 - Hasenklever, television film, dir. Georg Bush
- 1977 - Sam na sam / Face to Face, dir. Andrzej Kostenko
- 1977 - Der Haus der Frauen / Dom kobiet, television film, dir. Krzysztof Zanussi
- 1977 - Smierć prezydenta / Death of a President, dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz, cinematography with Jerzy Lukaszewicz
- 1978 - Szpital Przemienienia / Hospital of the Transfiguration, dir. Edward Żebrowski
- 1979 - Wege in der Nacht / Ways in the Night, television film, dir. Krzysztof Zanussi
- 1979 - Własna Wina [Own Fault], television film, dir. Wiesław Helak
- 1980 - Alice, dir. Jerzy Gruza, Jacek Bromski, cinematography with Alec Mills
- 1980 - Heimkehr, television film, dir. Slawomir Mrozek
- 1981 - Und plötzlich bist du draussen, television film, dir. Eugen York
- 1981 - W obronie własnej [In Self-Defence], dir. Zbigniew Kaminski
- 1981 - Był jazz / And All That Jazz, dir. Feliks Falk
- 1983 - Widziadło / The Phantom, dir. Marek Nowicki
- 1984 - O-Bi, O-Ba. The End of Civilization, dir. Piotr Szulkin
- 1986 - Pirates, dir. Roman Polański
- 1988 - Frantic, dir. Roman Polański
- 1989 - Torrents of Spring, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, cinematography with Dante Spinotti
- 1990 - Bronsteins Kinder / Bronstein's Children, dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz
- 1991 - Skarga / Lament, dir. Jerzy Wojcik
- 1993 - Das Letzte U-Boot / The Last U-Boat, dir. Frank Beyer
- 1995 - Nächste Woche ist Frieden, dir. Peter Schulze-Rohr
- 1999 - Wrota Europy / The Gateway of Europe, dir. Jerzy Wójcik (Awards: 1999 - Gdynia (until 1986 - Gdansk) Polish Feature Film Festival - prize for cinematography; 2001 - "Eagle", Polish Film Award for best cinematography, for 2000)
- 2003-2004 - Męskie - Żeńskie [Male - Female] (3 episodes: Wigilia / Christmas Eve, Ciąża / The Pregnancy, Narzeczony / The Fiancé), dir. Krystyna Janda
Feature films - cameraman or assistant cameraman:
- 1962 - Czerwone berety / Red Berets, dir. Paweł Komorowski, cinematography Krzysztof Winiewicz
- 1967 - Ojciec / The Father, dir. Jerzy Hoffman
- 1965 - Faraon / Pharaoh, dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz, cinematography Jerzy Wójcik
- 1965 - Potem nastapi cisza / And All Will Be Quiet, dir. Janusz Morgenstern, cinematography Jerzy Wojcik
- 1966 - Szyfry / The Codes, dir. Wojciech Jerzy Has, cinematography Mieczysław Jahoda
- 1967 - Zosia, dir. Mikhail Bogin, cinematography Jerzy Lipman
Witold Sobociński has also appeared in feature films: Call My Wife (1958), dir. Jaroslav Mach; Ktokolwiek wie... / Whoever May Know (1966), dir. Kazimierz Kutz; Bariera / Barrier (1966), dir. Jerzy Skolimowski; And All That Jazz (1981), dir. Feliks Falk; and documentaries: Pan dziad z lirą [The Seer With the Lyre] (1972), dir. Sławomir Idziak and Andrzej Kotkowski; Wybrańcy bogów umierają młodo [Fortune's Fovourites Die Young] (1999), dir. Krzysztof Bukowski.
Author: Ewa Nawój, April 2006, updated 2018