The image of the West in the films of socialist Poland (PRL)

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1 Our Europe. Ethnography Ethnology Anthropology of Culture Vol. 1/2012 p Institute of History, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland The image of the West in the films of socialist Poland (PRL) The area of Central Europe was traditionally delimited by the borders of Austria- Hungary. However, after the Second World War the Central European region was re-defined by the appearance of countries of the socialist block, commonly called people s democracies. East Germany became one of the socialist block countries, while West Germany was joined to the West. Situated in Central Europe, Austria was nevertheless associated with the West on account of her political system and economics. The peculiarities of the after-war period in the history of Central Europe certainly merit a separate discussion, which, however, falls beyond the scope of the present article. The political divisions in Europe after WWII were profound and dismal. Poland, though situated in Central Europe and culturally connected with the Western civilization, was incorporated into the Eastern Block for forty five years. The same misfortune befell Chechoslovakia and Hungary. Interestingly, although Poland was also subjected to the USSR, the Polish nation did not, except during the Stalinist period, suffer the same hardships as those that afflicted other nations. After 1956, Polish citizens boasted relatively more freedom compared to the other socialist neighbours, often arousing envy among their citizens. This extended freedom also concerned the sphere of culture: Polish writers could write more, Polish filmmakers could produce more daring movies, etc. Still, criticism of the party and of the USSR was forbidden, of course; what was required was criticism of the Western world. In effect, while on the one hand the Poles were determined to protect their independence as a Central European nation bearing a western cultural heritage, they were, on the other hand, very much forced to act on the contrary. This contradiction is reflected in the country s culture, particularly in the movies of the socialist period. The cinema of the PRL (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, Polish People s Republic) is a branch of mass culture which cannot be fully understood without a thorough awareness of the political context in which it evolved. Like other arts (Głowiński 1992: 11-13), film was obliged to portray reality in accordance with the line dictated by the sole political party. Sometimes this bore tremendous consequences for the order of the world depicted in films. Ethically, the world portrayed was deeply polarized. To use an obvious example, what was good was inevitably connected with the Soviet Union and communism, whereas anything related with the USA or capitalism represented the bad. Further, the world was a scene of a perennial fight between two political systems: on one side, the USSR and the Eastern Block s democracies, including Poland, fighting for peace, and, on the other side, the USA and its allies, i.e countries of Western Europe, notoriously inciting war. Naturally, dif-

2 34 ferent periods in PRL s history exhibited this tendency less or more visibly; however, this view would be present in Poland s history until Consequently, films produced during the PRL period would emphasise our eastern connections with the Soviet Union, or even with former Russia, and deprecate any affiliation with the West. In this way, the authorities of the PRL were trying to use film as a tool for forging a new identity for the Polish nation: one based on the common origins with all the other Eastern Block countries and, also, on the denial of any connections with the West. Similar processes took place in other Central European countries dependent on the USSR. Filmmakers themselves were not particularly interested in raising such issues, however. One could even risk a statement that the topic was almost avoided. The USSR theme does appear in films, but relatively infrequently. In the 1960s, numerous titles came out that praised the heroism of Armia Ludowa (USSR-backed partisan troops) and Ludowe Wojsko Polskie (Polish People s Military Forces), which, by the side of the Red Army, had liberated the Polish homeland from the Germain occupation. The popularity of productions of this type was due to the influence of Mieczysław Moczar, a very prominent communist of the time and a rival of Władysław Gomułka (Eisler 1991: ; Siwiński 1994:131). Moczar s own memoir book Barwy Walki (Battle Colours, 1965, dir. J. Passendorfer) was also put on screen. However, more widely known, even todayf 1 F, were the comedy Gdzie jest generał? (Where is the General?, 1964, dir. T. Chmielewski) or the TV series Czterej pancerni i pies (Four tankmen and a dog, 1966, reż. K. Nałęcki). Apart from the war movies, titles depicting contemporary reality rarely spoke of Poland s relations with the USSR and other countries of the Eastern Block, the topic being perhaps too controversial or of too insignificant interest (Skotarczak: 2004). Apart from the rather unsuccessful attempts to project a positive image of the USSR, another function of the PRL film was to negatively portray the West and relations with it. Numerous films of the period leave the viewer with an impression that in spite of her onethousand-year history, Poland had almost nothing in common with the Western civilisation and was, infact, severely threteaned by it in a number of ways. Films that contributed to this theme appear particularly interesting to discuss. The first post-war comedy, Skarb (The Treasure, 1948), made by Leon Buczkowski even before the rules of socialist realism were declared, already suggests that everything connected with Europe should be hostile towards Poland. The bad characters were thus sly fellows driven by a desire of wealth and greed for foreign currency. In this relatively good comedy the subject was treated fairly lightly; however, in later titles, the mood became dead serious. In Czarci żleb (Devil s Ravine, dir. T. Kański and A. Vergano, 1950) and Uczta Baltazara (Balthazar s Feast, dir. J. Zarzycki, 1954) Europe was portrayed as a reactionary nest hosting members of the pre-war classes of means and adversaries of the new political system. Their aim was to recover the valuables and art pieces remaining in the home country, and to organize gangs of smugglers for the purpose. Obviously, those aims were disapproved of in the films, as personal property was not a respected form of ownership in the socialist system. In Niedaleko Warszawy (Not far from Warsaw, dir. M. Kaniewska, 1954), Pierwsze dni (The First Days, 1952), or Kariera (The Career, 1955) Europe was shown as the birthplace of spies and saboteurs heroically resisted by the Polish Secret Police (SB), workers and the youth. The year 1956 ushered in positive political changes. The thaw brought along greater freedom for artists, also those in the film business. Effects of these changes came soon after- 1 The Czocha Castle in Lower Silesia, the shooting site, holds a commemorative exhibition documenting the film.

3 The image of the West in the films of socialist Poland (PRL) 35 wards: the Polish film school quickly became recognized worldwide. Still, contrary to what one might expect, the image of Western Europe in the new Polish films did not change. Even though people had begun to travel to the West more often and were more open onto the western culture, in films the enemy remained the enemy. The only difference was that ordinary people were now portrayed more kindly, especially if coming from countries in which communist parties held a rather strong position. Thus, French people are depicted as friendly in such films as Kalosze szczęścia (1958, Lucky Boots, dir. A. Bohdziewicz), Marysia i Napoleon (Maria and Napoleon, 1966, dir. L. Buczkowski), or Paryż-Warszawa bez wizy (Paris-Warsaw without a Visa, 1967, dir. H. Przybył), as are Italians in Giuseppe w Warszawie (Giuseppe in Warsaw, 1964, dir. S. Lenartowicz), or Dwa żebra Adama (Adam s Two Ribs, 1964, dir. J. Morgenstern). The emigration circles were presented in a similarly dichotomous fashion. In Kalosze szczęścia, the representatives of the Polish authorities settled in London were shown as notoriously arguing and ridiculous. However, ordinary emigrants would usually deserve a more favourable light: they would be nice and likable, although incapable of understanding the current reality of the country they left after September The message of the PRL films was that maintaining connections with the West was a highly dangerous choice. Travels to capitalist countries wrongly influenced personality or even turned people into criminals. Especially in detective films, characters remaining in contact with western countries essentially turn out to be criminals. Their typical crime is the smuggling of Polish art pieces, presumably highly demanded by western art collectors. In Gdzie jest trzeci król (Where is the Third King?, 1967, dir. R. Ber) an art restorer connected with a western gang steals a valuable painting from a museum and commits murder. The role is played by Kalina Jędrusik, a Polish sex bomb of the time, whose provocative image, rather associated with a western lifestyle, often irritated the official morality guardians of the Polish culture (Kutz 1999: ). Another smuggling character is a professor of art history in Trzecia ręka (The Third Hand), an episode of a TV series Kapitan Sowa na tropie (Captain Sowa Hot on the Trail, 1965, dir. S. Bareja). Foreign smugglers duping careless Poles appeared even in the children s TV series Wakacje z duchami (Holidays with Ghosts, 1971, dir. S. Jędryka). Films about emigrants and would-be emigrant also reveal an interesting picture of Europe. The consequences of leaving are usually tragic. In Kalosze szczęścia, the main character, lost in a capitalist world, dies under the wheels of a car carrying a member of the Polish government-in-exile. In Gdzie jest trzeci król?, the intention to escape to the West breeds theft and fellony. Likewise, in Ostatni kurs (1963, The Last Ride, dir. J. Batory), directors of stateowned plants, led astray by a seductive night club singer (played by Barbara Rylska), embezzle money to escape with her to Sweden. They end up tragically as the singer turns out to be a boss of a gang of thieves and murderers. In Przygoda z piosenką (Adventure with a Song, 1969, dir. S. Bareja), the main characters are more lucky. A young singer (played by Pola Raksa) leaves for Paris, dreaming of world-wide fame. Unfortunately, she experiences numerous humiliations as she discovers that the capitalist show business is ruled by sex and money, and that Poles that succeed there are unwilling to help their compatriots. In the end, the girl is forced to perform a striptease, but is rescued by her ex-lover, who is successfully established in Paris owing to a state-awarded stipend. Several films from the 1960s and 1970s tell stories about spies sent from the West to Poland. In Spotkanie ze szpiegiem (Rendez-Vous with a Spy, 1964, dir. J. Batory), a morally disgusting western intelligence agent (Ignacy Machowski) attempts to steal maps of rocket missile bases. In Hasło Korn (Password: Korn, 1968, dir. W. Podgórski) spies penetrate a power plant with the help of greedy private business owners. In Brylanty pani Zuzy (Diamonds of Mrs. Zuza, 1972, dir. P. Komorowski) foreign spies make contact with a gang of local drug dealers.

4 36 Occasionally, Polish agents would be allowed to travel abroad, naturally only as a precaution against imperialist expansion, as in Na krawędzi (On the Edge, 1973, dir. W. Podgórski), where a Polish spy extracts information about riots being planned to disrupt order in the country. Our man in the West was also a journalist by the name of May, played by Leszek Teleszyński, the protagonist in the TV series Życie na gorąco (Hot Life, 1978, dir. A. Konic), who travelled successfully across Western Europe frought with dangers entrapping honest citizens. The films of that period, as well as other mass media, generally present Western Europe as a horrifying place ruled only by money and showing no concern for an ordinary man. A newcomer from Eastern or Central Europe, accustomed to the comfort of protection from the state, is doomed to failure in such hostile conditions unless the state is able to support him there. The puzzling fact, however, remains that so many people from the Soviet-controlled part of Europe, were nevertheless determined to flee to that threatening world of the West. The 1980s did not bring any significant change to the prevalently negative view of Western Europe in Polish movies, but new themes, inspired by the current events, appeared. In the aftermath of the suppression of the social protests by martial law on December 13, 1981, hundreds of thousands of Poles, many young and educated, decided to emigrate. This was a huge problem for the country, and a source of personal tragedy for many emigrants. Although the authorities intended to table the issue, emigration became a topic for films. This brought titles recounting the sad fate of emigrants in Europe: in the mid-1980s it would not have been possible to present a Polish emigrant facing success in the West. The film Epizod Berlin-West (Episode in West Berlin, 1986, dir. M. Waśkowski) tells a story of a writer who wishes to make a career in the West without political support or control from eager patrons. His growing alienation gradually leads him to suicide. In Sezon na bażanty (The stalking season, 1986, dir. W. Saniawski), a well-known sportsman fights to regain his son, whom his disappointed wife had abducted to Austria. In Wakacje w Amsterdamie (Holidays in Amsterdam, 1986, dir. K. Sowiński), the main character s decision to settle in the West breaks up the family. As would appear from the titles discussed, during the forty five years of communist rule a hard-and-fast division of the continent into the Eastern and Western parts was observed, with Poland designated a place in the Eastern part. Central Europe, while culturally a separate region, was not recognized, and regarded as essentially non-existent and belonging to the past. This position is confirmed by two excellent movies of the day: Lekcja martwego języka (Lesson of a Dead Language, 1979) by Janusz Majewski, and Austeria (The Inn, 1983) by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. The films are based on the prose of Andrzej Kuśniewicz and Julian Stryjkowski, respectively, both writers fascinated with the phenomenon of Central Europe. It is difficult to disagree with them that the First World War put an end to a certain social and political order in the central part of the Continent. After the Second World War the multicultural nature of the region was suppressed and its area was reduced to the status of a mere part of a bigger, homogeneous whole. Bibliography Eisler J. (1991), Marzec 1968 [March 1968], Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN. Głowiński M. (1992), Trzynaście szkiców o sztuce zdegradowanej [Ritual and demagogy. Thirteen sketches on degraded art.], Warszawa : Open. Kutz K. (1999), Klapsy i ścinki. Mój alfabet filmowy i nie tylko [Claps and cuts. My filmmaking ABC], Kraków: Znak. Siwiński I. (1994), Barwy walki albo tęsknota za legendą [ Battle colours or yearning for a legend] in T. Miczka and A. Madej (ed) Syndrom konformizmu? Kino polskie lat

5 The image of the West in the films of socialist Poland (PRL) 37 sześćdziesiątych [The conformisme syndrome? The Polish Cinema of the 1960 s], Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego. Skotarczak D. (2004), Obraz społeczeństwa PRL w komedii filmowej [The image of communist Poland s sociaty in film comedy], Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM.

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