The Law of the Looking Glass
Cinema in Poland, 1896-1939 By Sheila Skaff. Athens: Ohio University Press (www.ohioswallow.com), 2008. Polish and Polish-American Studies Series. Index, illustrations, bibliography, appendix (select filmography). xii + 245 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8214-1784-3. $34.95 (cloth).
Polish cinema has been one of the stars on the European cultural stage since the Second World War. The films of Andrzej Wajda (1926- ), Krzysztof Zanussi (1939- ), and Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941-1996) in particular have taken their places in the canon of world cinema. There is a strong supporting cast as well, including not only such figures as Roman Polański and Agnieszka Holland, known for their work in Europe and the United States, but many other accomplished filmmakers. Over the past two decades, in a new political, social, and economic environment, Polish cinema has enjoyed considerable, even surprising, success in competing with imports, producing both serious films and successful commercial products. Not only did 2008 ticket sales in movie theaters break a twenty-year-old record (at over 34 million), but two of the three top-grossing new movies were Polish productions (<http://www.stopklatka.pl/wydarzenia/wydarzenie.asp?wi=51487>).
It is not widely known, however, where this rich tradition came from. What did cinema in Poland look like before the Second World War, under very different circumstances? And what is the relationship between it and its postwar descendant? Sheila Skaff’s monograph represents an ambitious attempt to answer the former question. She defines her object of study within that time period as follows: “This book attempts to recapture the multilingualism and social diversity of cinema in the partitioned lands and independent Poland and to show that the establishment of a national identity through film is a complicated matter. . . To this end, it accepts all films, regardless of language, made in the regions ofthe three empires that became an independent country and, thereafter, in that country. It avoids mention of the careers of filmmakers, actors, and others outside of this geographic area (11).”
The skeleton of the book is a survey of the films, directors, production companies, distribution networks, and exhibition venues from 1896-1939, beginning with the first demonstrations of moving pictures in the Polish lands. There is a very useful twenty-page appendix, “Select Filmography,” which lists the most significant films produced in Poland year-by-year. But Skaff ranges from this narrative to address a cluster of interesting questions about the role of film in the distinctive and changing social, political, economic, and cultural context that was, or would become, Poland.
The story Skaff has to tell is filled with fascinating details and interesting personalities; she tells the story well, with mastery, clarity, and wit. She makes extensive and productive use of both primary and secondary Polish-language sources. The text of the book consists of 187 highly readable pages, so that many of the questions she raises and addresses deserve further, more technical development. More important is that she has woven many tantalizing observations and narrative threads into a virtually seamless fabric to give an overview of a very eventful forty-five-year period.
Among the many fascinating parts of the story is the role of the Jewish population in Polish film, which was as variegated as the community itself. Many productions during the late partition era were a continuation of Yiddish theater, with healthy dollops of comedy and literary adaptations and special attention given to the exotica of folklore, superstitions, and traditions of the unassimilated dwellers of the shtetl. But by no means did Jewish producers and directors ghettoize themselves. Adaptations of Polish literature and drama (even opera) were popular, along with documentaries or more politically-oriented films designed to appeal to Polish audiences. For example, Mordechaj Towbin’s successful production company Siła (Strength) devoted its first feature film Prussian Culture (1908) to the political and violent repression of Polish national aspirations in the Prussian partition; the film was apparently banned in Prussia and not shown outside of Italy until 1914, and then only in Warsaw, in the Russian partition (38-39).
Skaff notes that “the largest and most enduring production company in pre-World War II Warsaw was unmistakably [Aleksander] Hertz’ Sfinks [Sphinx], established in 1909” (39). A banker and Piłsudski supporter, Hertz was arrested for his political activities by Russian authorities in 1908; when released a year later he devoted himself to film production, which Skaff notes was highly political, until his death in 1928. The company remained in business until 1938. Skaff’s capsule description of this key figure provides a good example of her prose:
Hertz’s character, connections, and financial shrewdness ensured the success of his company at a time when many other companies failed. He demonstrated a successful mix of love for the cinema, which he called by a term of his own invention, ruchosłońcopis (moving luminous record), and contempt for cinema enthusiasts, whom he regarded as hopeless fanatics. He approached producing films as others approached producing alcohol or other legal but addictive drugs. In short, he recognized that, if given the chance, people would use the cinema as a means of escape from the daily grind, and he disdained them for it (40).
Skaff recounts a rather bizarre episode concerning one of Hertz’s first feature-length films (1911) based on the novel Meir Ezofowicz (1878) by the Polish novelist Eliza Orzeszkowa. The story is about a Jewish man living in the Russian partition who shared his Polish neighbors’ aspirations for Polish independence. Skaff notes that “Hertz made a strange decision, however, when he chose a well-known anti-Semite, Józef Ostoja-Sulnicki, to write and direct the film” (41). Skaff then notes that “the seemingly bizarre choices made in filming ‘Meir Ezofowicz’ may have arisen from Hertz’s insistence on offering a little something for everyone-for Polish speakers, a Polish novel; for Yiddish speakers, a Yiddish title; for multiculturalists, a story of positive intercultural relations; and for anti-Semites, an anti-Semitic director” (41). Skaff goes on to contrast Hertz with the interesting yet underdocumented figure of Maria Hirszbejn who in 1926 took over a studio and thus “began a long career as the most powerful woman in filmmaking in Poland. . . . In 1927, she helped found the Union of Polish Film Producers” (83). “Her company was the only one to rival Sfinks throughout much of the interwar period” (84). While Hertz seemed to be a micro-manager who calibrated every decision from a position of cultural insecurity to appeal to all sides, minimize Jewish visibility, and maximize commercial success, Hirszbejn was more of a facilitator who embraced the new multicultural Poland and felt comfortable in it. Skaff notes that “Hertz and Hirszbejn almost seem to have lived in different societies” (84). In fact, so wrenching were the changes in Poland during the first decade of its reinvented existence that contrasting responses should not be surprising.
A leitmotif for the book is provided by the 1924 reflections of Polish critic Karol Irzykowski on this new medium. He expounded what Skaff calls “The Law of the Looking Glass”: “Only half of the world is ruled by the principle of action; the other half is subject to the laws of reflection” (2). That is, the reflection in a mirror is at once a representation of reality and yet, precisely because it is not reality, it is a deception. Moreover, we are drawn by a voyeuristic instinct to this copy precisely because it is not reality; we can observe while being spared the burden of participation. Again Irzykowski: “Cinema registers the world, but it may also turn it into fiction” (4).
By coincidence, while reading Skaff’s book I had the opportunity to meet two prominent but very different contemporary Polish directors: Jacek Bromski and Krzysztof Zanussi. When I asked each about the relationship between pre- and postwar Polish cinema, each answered instantly and categorically that there was NO connection, that the caesura of the war was complete and Polish cinema had emerged anew. Skaff provides part of the reason: “The film industry in Poland was destroyed completely in World War II. Many members of the cinema community were killed in concentration camps, perished in the fighting, or died of natural causes during the war . . . Other members of the film community . . . emigrated in response to the war . . . Many of those who survived the war and initially remained in Poland eventually left because of government-sponsored ethnic, religious, and political discrimination (185).” A new school arose after the war,
both literally (the famous National Film School in Łódê, founded in 1948) and figuratively. Skaff continues: “After the war, Film Polski was established under Aleksander Ford [one of the few figures of postwar continuity, GR] as the administrator of the production, exhibition, and distribution of all films in the country” (185). A new cohort of film artists arose, forged in the same smithy, to use a Soviet metaphor, of government monopoly, ideology, and control. Because the regime in Poland was not as totalitarian as those in neighboring countries, there were pockets in society and intellectual life in which pushing the envelope was possible, and film quickly developed into one such pocket, beginning with Wajda’s famous trilogy from the 1950s. So, yes, postwar Polish film arose anew from the ashes of the war as did the rest of the country. But, ironically, Irzykowski’s insight into the Law of the Looking Glass, explored so perceptively and with such erudition by Skaff forthe period before the Second World War, would probably shed even more light on film in the period after the war. Perhaps, in the cinematic tradition, we can hope that the author will provide us with a sequel: Looking Glass 2. Δ
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