Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 6 
18 Mar

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Agnieszka Holland's Kobieta samotna (A Lonely Woman / A Woman on Her Own, 1981) POLAND
sex bombs,
ordinary women

The depiction of women in film
by Polish female directors

Women in Polish film are frequently reduced to a few stereotypes. Małgorzata Radkiewicz looks at how female directors portray female characters.[1]

Polish female cinema can be described as a mixture of mainstream conventions and artistic strategies of individual film-makers. Consequently, its images of female figures usually combine both universal cinematic genres and subjective interpretations. Moreover, the way of representing women in Polish films has been always reflected by the cultural, social and political context, as well as by the psychical and mental structures of Polish society.

Therefore, female representations are untidily connected with the historical and catholic contexts that led to establishment of the ideal image of the Polish brave fighter (always male!) for freedom, justice, faith etc and the proud Polish –mother who patiently waits for him at home, taking care of the children. The variety of women's images seems to be limited to very few models, easily identified as the heroine, the sex bomb and the ordinary woman.

The individual style of female filmmakers can be clearly noticed in their attitude towards female characters in their own films. The very common strategy is to re-construct female images and to re-define gender roles. As a consequence, female film directors such as Agnieszka Holland, Hanna Włodarczyk, Magdalena Łazarkiewicz and Dorota Kędzierzawska have managed to create original portraits of interesting women.

On the one hand, Polish female cinema tends to confirm the traditional representation of Polish women On the other hand, there have been many examples of films showing a dynamic struggle between traditional and original models. Both tendencies may be clearly noticed if only one confronts the different cinematic genres that have been used by female filmmakers to create an image of the Polish woman.

In order to understand the artistic strategies that were chosen by particular female directors, it is necessary to analyse their work in the context of the artistic movements in Poland, as well as of the political and social situation. In this article, I will focus on a number of films by female directors that span the past 6 decades that are representative of the tendencies visible in female cinema. All these films in addition provide a great deal of information about the ideology, the politics, as well as the social and cultural life, in communist and post-communist Poland.

Idealism and ideology

The first film that is a noticeable example of Polish female cinema after World War II is Ostatni etap (The Last Stage, 1947) of Wanda Jakubowska, who was the first Polish female film director to gain national and international recognition. It was her first feature completed after the war, set in the concentration camp in Oświęcim-Brzezinka (Auschwitz-Birkenau). Ostatni etap was influenced by her personal experience as a member of the resistance movement, arrested and sent to concentration camp.

The project dealt with everyday life in the women's wing of the concentration camp at Oświęcim (Auschwitz). Nevertheless, the purpose of Jakubowska's production shifted from providing a very subjective commentary to a still actual tragedy of the past war to establishing an official version of contemporary history in terms of communist ideology. As a result, the last scene, with the Soviet Red Army coming to liberate Poland from German occupation, became an obvious manifestation of the propaganda policy of the Communist Party.

Jakubowska's politically correct orientation may be noticed both in the plot and in the female figures who are the main characters of the story. There are three women who can be regarded as leading heroines: Marta, a Polish Jew and translator; Anna, a German Communist and nurse; and Eugenia, a Russian doctor. Thanks to their skills, they reached a privileged position in the camp that gave them much more safety and the liberty to help other prisoners. In terms of ideology, each of them could be interpreted as a symbol of the main enemies of fascism: the Jewry, Communism and the Soviet Union.

Consequently, there is not much to say about their individuality; they are all brave and determined to resist the Nazis, but, apart form their nationality, they could easily be replaced by each other. Jakubowska followed the stylistics of social realism not her individual vision and, as a result, the subjectivity of these female characters was bound by the norms of social realism. As an artistic strategy, this limited the individual expression of artists to a framework of ideologically constructed forms and ways of creation.

Jakubowska was obviously enthusiastic about the idea of international solidarity, an idea that was in tune with the Communist promotion of equality, both national and social. Such an attitude led her not to show any of the female figures in a less favourable light than the others. In order to attain a propagandistic significance for her film, she decided not to privilege any of the film's heroines and to create idealistic female characters rather then portry ordinary women.

Willing propagandists

The film Niedaleko Warszawy (Not Far From Warsaw, 1954) by Maria Kaniewska is an excellent example of the social-realistic style that dominated the Polish cinema of the early 1950s. Both film plot and characters served as illustrative examples of Communist ideology. Although the issue of women is present in almost all films of that time, it is not because women were considered to be an important social group, but due to the idea of equality (political, economical, social) as guaranteed by communist system.

Niedaleko Warszawy follows the typical pattern of a labour story taking place in a factory among its staff. By filming a portrait of a young female steelworker, Kaniewska proved that the new order guaranteed women access to education and the work market.

Paradoxically, such social promotion was not followed by the process of re-defining gender roles in Polish society. One of the reasons may be found in the schematic narration of such stories that never openly undermined any of the social and cultural stereotypes with the exception of those that could be regarded as belonging to the pre-war bourgeoisie. The other one lays in the manner of constructing female characters who existed more as illusive images then real persons. From the perspective of the average viewer, those film heroines were just too artificial to be perceived as a model to follow.

A deceptive realism

During the 1950s, the audience demanded films that were much lighter, focused on present-day realities rather then on the war. But the stories they were offered had nothing to do with authenticity. The images of everyday life were projected in accordance with strict conventions and were in tune with the Party line. Kaniewska's portrayal of a young woman was shaped by her desire to promote the Communism that created excellent opportunities for women's careers.

Certainly, her film contains some interesting observations concerning the ordinary lives of steelworkers somewhere in provincial Poland, but, above all, it is an ideological interpretation of social structures. As a result, conflicts were simplified and the main characters reduced to uni-dimensional figures, either politically correct or not. Even more significant is Kaniewska's relation to the vision of the social and economical emancipation of women that is presented in terms of communist equality, without mentioning the context of the women's liberation movement.

The dominant paradigms of social realism left no alternative for artists who realised how big the gap was between the schematic realisation of mainstream patterns and the real life of ordinary women. In Niedaleko Warszawy, the references to the communist vision of modern society are in so clear that there could be no doubt about Kaniewska's willingness to suit communist propaganda regarding industrial and economical development in the new political system.

The next decade did not bring many changes in the cinematic images of women. The 1960s were described by one Polish poet as the time of a "small stabilisation" which may not be characterised by any other distinctive cinematic style, but by mainstream genres that marked the way of representing women's issues.

The emergence of complex characters

The second half of the 1970s is significantly marked by a group of young filmmakers who were searching for their own way of artistic expression within the framework of artistic cinema. Agnieszka Holland—who was the only woman in that group—managed to create an alternative image of Polish femininity. In her film Kobieta samotna (A Lonely Woman / A Woman on Her Own, 1981) she drew on both national and gender stereotypes that are embodied by the idea of super-woman and the icon of Polish Mother, only to deconstruct them.

Although there was no notable influence of the second wave of feminism in Poland, Holland's strategy has much to do with feminist theory of the 1970s that took as its starting point the politics of representation and put it under critical consideration. Through it, women got a chance to understand how the mechanisms of ideology and cultural institutions are used to establish gendered social structures and interpersonal relations.

In her film, Holland concentrates on the separateness and individuality of the female subject and attempts to present her individual world through her personal history, experience, feelings, thoughts and also her social status, the cultural and political contexts. As a director, Holland seems to feel liberated from both the pressure of mainstream cinematic convention and Polish stereotypes of femininity. In order to speak in a new way about women's lives Holland re-conceptualises the traditional interpretation of gender roles and shifts from fixed convention to subjectivity and modality of creativity.

Instead of an idealised heroine, the central figure in Kobieta samotna is Irena, a postal workerwho lives with her son in the suburbs of a big anonymous city. Her every day routine, visualised in ways resembling a documentary, is like a trap without an exit. Her existence is determined by the status of victim that underlies the narrative and reduces her life to the stereotyped icon of the suffering lone mother. Her accidental affair expresses her need for close emotional relation that could help her break the vicious circle of loneliness.

Unlike heroines portrayed in social-realist films, there is nothing idealistic nor monumental in her figure. She remains an ordinary woman struggling with a cruel reality—a fact that causes the film to be an important voice in the discussion about the cinematic image of the Polish woman, proving that it does not have to be uncritical repetition of schematic constructs.

Subjectivity and subversion

The critical attitude towards gender representation in both Polish culture and cinema may be noticed in Barbara Sass-Zdort's film Bez miłości (Without Love, 1980). Even though the film often alludes to the socio-cultural context, its main focus is the process of empowerment of Ewa, a journalist who attempts to claim the symbolic male space of public life.

Though Sass avoids the label "feminism," her style seems to be influenced by feminist ideas, goals and preferences. In her films, she consistently tends to present a subversive interpretation of the ostensibly unchanged category of gender. The image of Ewa represents a new cinematic aesthetic that aims to redefine traditional conventions of female representation on the screen.

Ewa is an independent young woman who tries to live her life as a single mother . She is determined to succeed as a journalist and does not want to be limited by any social conventions. In Bez miłości and her other films, Sass attempts to tell stories about women in her individual way. Going beyond classical genres and fixed stereotypes about femininity and masculinity, she addresses openly the issue of the social and cultural construction of gender.

Dorota Kedzierzawska's Nic (Nothing, 1998)
Nic : All in the style

Polish female directors of the 1980s and 1990s claim to link traditional methods and formal means of expression with an individual stylistics breaking with the universal patterns of women's representation. The film Nic (Nothing, 1998) by Dorota Kędzierzawska was inspired by the authentic story of a woman who killed her new born child because her beloved husband did not want to be a father for the fourth time.

In front of the court, the mother was asked if she had anything to say; in reply, she said only one word: "Nothing." Instead of making a realistic documentary about the whole case, Kędzierzawska created a poetic vision evoked by warm sepia-colour photographs, scenery, music and sensitive acting.

It is obvious from the very beginning that the story would focus on the pregnant woman, portrayed as a wife emotionally addicted to her husband, rather then as a criminal. In Nic, Kędziezawska replaced the male point of view by a female perspective, through which she represented the complexity of women's emotions and feelings. Thus, the life experience of an ordinary woman became the main subject of the narration.

Nic, to some extent, recalled the strategy of other female artists to subvert genres and put into discussion the fixed patterns of gender representation. Using conventional portraits of women embodied by the suffering Polish Mother, the sex bomb who shamelessly enjoys her new love affairs, and an old, sceptical woman, Kędzierzawska created her own variant of what really happened. Neither the actuality nor the reality of the events was her priority. What she strongly emphasises was the uniqueness of a woman's character that may not be simplified and reduced to any universal schemes.

A new found freedom

The most significant feature of Polish female cinema is the emphasis on often neglected women's issues, and the fact that it discusses them from a female point of view. In their films, female directors attempt to present both the individuality and the separateness of each character. Simultaneously, they put subjective stories into a wide cultural and social context that helps restore the specificity of female characters.

Female cinema seems to be openly targeting a spectator who prefers multiple readings and interpretative freedom over a fixed model of perception. One contemporary Polish female writer, Izabela Filipiak, suggests that the most important precondition for women's creativity is curiosity, which—together with the willingness to talk about one's own imagination, feelings and experience—gives their work an unique, intimate character. Moreover, it helps female artists to avoid conventions and achieve unlimited freedom of creativity. Judging by their films, some of Polish female directors definitely managed to benefit from their curiosity in a very fruitful way.

Małgorzata Radkiewicz

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Also of interest
About the author

Małgorzata Radkiewicz (PhD) is an assistant professor at the Institute of Media and Audio Visual Arts at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Her research interests and publications focus on gender in film and media. She has published a book about female film-makers and numerous articles on representations of women in both Polish and world cinema. She is organizer and director of Postgraduate Gender Studies in Kraków.

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1. This article was originally presented as a talk "Heroines, sexbombs and ordinary women in Polish female cinema" given on 10 December 2001 at the Polish Cultural Institute in London as part of the "20 million Polish women" season. Visit their website for more details of Polish cultural events in London and the UK.return to text

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