Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 1
 Issue 7 
26 Nov
2001

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Leszek Wosiewicz's Kornblumenblau (1988)POLAND
The guilt on
both sides

Leszek Wosiewicz's
Kornblumenblau (1988)

Kornblumenblau, in contrast to many films set in a concentration camp, is not specifically interested in the Holocaust. Monika Braid probes the film's universal themes.


A season of Polish films on the Holocaust at London's Imperial War Museum has recently come to an end. Amongst all the films on show—ranging from early works by Wanda Jakubowska and Alexander Ford, through masterpieces by Andrzej Wajda and Andrzej Munk to Filip Zylber's debut, Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria, 1993)—there was one which stood out thanks to its distinctiveness in approaching universal concepts.

Leszek Wosiewicz's Kornblumenblau abandons the generalised territory of the Holocaust tragedy to focus on a space of degeneracy within an individual, a space outside time, history and the political system. In fact, the film's space is possible within any social system imaginable. Kornblumenblau is also notable for the peculiar slant it puts on the scarcity of art.

A tainted hero

Wosiewicz quotes Montaigne in the motto of his film. It reads: "Most of our engagements are of a comic nature. We ought to play our role with dignity but one mustn't take an appearance to be the essence of the matter."

The parents of Tadeusz Wyczyński, the hero of the film, decided to sideline his musical talent as it is much more practical to be an engineer. Ironically, it is music which is a means of survival in the camp and particularly the German song Kornblumenblau, which gives the film its title. He knows how to use music. He will play whatever he is asked to. Consequently, he gets better treatment and is given higher social status.

Tadeusz does not harm anybody and is saved from difficult situations by good luck. He is the ideal conformist; he accepts the surrounding reality and adapts to it well. He becomes a puppet in the hands of the winning force. When Soviets liberate the camp, he only needs to change the tune to Kalinka.

Survival and moral decay

Based on a true story and with a screenplay by Wosiewicz and Jaroslaw Sander, Kornblumenblau is closest to the spirit of the prose of Tadeusz Borowski (a prominent post-war writer, former prisoner of Auschwitz and Dachau and intercessor of the dehumanisation and degradation of civilisation after the war). The film mirrors Borowski's view on the camps, but Wosiewicz takes it much further. It does, however, start from the same cynical and cold account of camp reality that, in Borowski's case, led to his belief that the victims and executioners of the Holocaust were both responsible in as much as they participated in the same crime.

Borowski writes:

Tell them how you were buying places in hospitals, in good commandos, how you pushed Muslims to the chimneys, how you were buying women and men, what you were doing in Gypsy camps... Tell them about everyday life in the camp, about the hierarchy of fear, about the loneliness of a man. But write that it was you who were doing it, that the element of dark fame of Oświęcim (Auschwitz) belongs to you.

There is no place in Wosiewicz's world for the bad conscience that permeated Borowski's prose. For the director, born after the war, the camp is only a metaphor. You can blame him for the choice, but you cannot resist being overwhelmed by the result. He presents the camp as a place full of the depravity of European civilisation and culture, and as an arena prepared for the unfolding of a drama of acting and survival in a totalitarian system.

Leszek Wosiewicz's Kornblumenblau (1988)
A lack of internalisation
The peculiarity lies in how Wosiewicz actually does it. He leaves out all film techniques concerned with the internalisation of the narrative. There is nothing that can help us understand the main character: no subjective shots, internal monologues or montage sequences of associations. He selects the information, as it would be necessary in any story, to achieve his aim of the separation and antithesis between physiology and culture.

This schism is very much underlined by the soundtrack: very often, for example, we are teased with the physical sounds of people eating. In effect, we are dealing with a series of techniques reminiscent of experimental cinema: we see fast, torn editorial cuts, with little care given to continuity and the flow of action; we are presented with segments of events, scenes are not divided into appropriate shots, as they would be in classical story telling—instead, we are given random gestures, facial expressions, words and simple physical reactions. The final result is indeed terrifying. We have men dehumanised, reacting to stimuli, whose essence is built on a biological instinct of survival, without moral or emotional reflexes.

The misery of art

The play between essence and appearance is more inherent in the main underlining subject of the film. Tadeusz is a musician, and the action takes place in the artists' block. Wosiewicz himself reveals his view that the position of the artist in society is the most interesting for him, and he believes you should demand more from artists than from ordinary people. They should be a moral elite. Therefore, his interest lies in observing their interaction with society.

Art is a frequent occurrence in the film. There are instances of theatre, opera, ballet and sculpture, but above all music, which has a continuous presence throughout the film. Art often features in films about the Holocaust. Jakubowska's Ostatni etap (The Last Stage, 1948), Munk's Pasażerka (Passenger, 1962) and Wajda's Krajobraz po bitwie (Landscape after the Battle, 1970) all use camp orchestras to highlight the moral, psychological and cultural abuse. Here, through acute observation, we have an essay on the misery of art.

Art is useless for Wosiewicz: a Hungarian-Jewish virtuoso in Kornblumenblau is given as much time to live as he can play his violin continuously—he lasts two days. The same argument taken to an extreme can be easily diverted: the artist plays/takes the challenge and therefore his art is disinterested. The self-interested artists are shown in opposition to the impotence of the works themselves. At a party, Tadeusz suddenly decides to play Chopin's Polonaise in A. Is it an act of revolt or prostitution as an artist? Venus of Milo and a picture of Chopin are simple ornamentation in the context of the monstrosity of Auschwitz.

Art is further abused by the relationship between ideology and aesthetics—one of the features of fascism being aestheticisation of politics. Marches, parades, photographs and music were used to give form to the contents of its ideology. It led to aestheticisation of the genocide. The appearance of things became a form for their essence.

From irony to metaphor

Wosiewicz uncovers the uselessness of tradition and, at the same time, its defencelessness and susceptibility to overuse. In all of this he is self-aware and self-ironical. At the beginning of Kornblumenblau, we have a shot of the film's own crew, which gives way to an old cinema show: we see rough, old documentary pictures, we hear music played by a piano player. Strangely, when the director uses archive materials, our strongest feeling relates to the unreality of the shown events; we are fully aware of the medium and recognise the convention.

The last scene, the most unreal, where the rule of probability is broken, is the logical and final conclusion of the director's line of reasoning. The tension between art and physiology, art and reality, appearance and essence is the most visible. There is a montage of two scenes: one a surreal spectacle where the tutus of ballerinas mix with well-ironed prisoners' uniforms and with SS uniforms dancing to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony; the other a scene of mass murder in the gas chambers. Previous mockery and irony gives way to naturalistic drama of overwhelming power in which the picture is fresh and the old-style iconography of the Holocaust is broken down: this is a story of consent and compromise which leads to crime.

Monika Braid

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Also of interest
About the author

Monika Braid graduated in film studies from Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She works as the film programmer at the Polish Cultural Institute in London and writes widely on Polish films.


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