Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 14 
23 Sept

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Marek Haltof's Polish National Cinema BOOK REVIEW
The cinema
that is

Marek Haltof's
Polish National Cinema

Despite some regrettable omissions in the coverage of Marek Haltof's book, Sheila Skaff considers it to be an excellent source on central and east European cinema.

Marek Haltof's challenge in his newest cinema history book, Polish National Cinema, is to illustrate the presence of film throughout time and political transformation. Like historians of all central and east European film, in order to write about his subject Haltof must negotiate two world wars, genocide, economic depression, communism and post-communism. He must explain how Polish cinema could exist even when Poland itself did not. He must take into consideration massive death and emigration as well as the destruction of equipment and archives. His subject has been disassembled and reassembled so many times that its historian always runs the risk of forgetting to mention some of its elements or failing to notice some of the causes of its changes.

Haltof rises to the challenge with his uncomplicated style, systematic approach and a heartbreakingly modest way of reminding readers that Polish cinema actually exists. He takes great care not just to document its changes, but to explain the impetus behind the changes and their long-term effects. The resulting book is a welcome introduction to a fascinating subject.

A nation of traumas

Ironically, Haltof is at his best when describing the influence of traumatic national events on Polish cinema. Anticipating a readership with a wide range of knowledge of Polish political history he outlines the changing political situation in straightforward, comprehensible language. He first explains the political circumstances of a given period. He then describes the challenges and competency of the cinema of that period. Finally, he draws conclusions about the specificities of the cinema based on and in connection with the political situation. His dedication to demonstrating the impact of national trauma on the film industry and his treatment of certain historical periods make Polish National Cinema one of the best sources on central and east European national cinema to date.

Haltof moves rather quickly from the turn of the 20th century through World War II. Once in the post-war period his study picks up momentum. He describes the construction of post-war Polish national identity through the first films about the war and the founding of the Łódż Film School in 1948. At this point, it becomes clear that a sense of belonging to one's generation is the fundamental characteristic of Polish film-makers. Haltof makes several important points, including that in Polish national cinema members of any given generation may differ immensely from each other but they remain a generation nonetheless.

In his assessment of the "Polish School" of film-makers working in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, Haltof recognizes that the connection between these film-makers, including Wojciech Has, Kazimierz Kutz, Andrzej Munk and Andrzej Wajda, relies upon something other than their various themes, ideologies and styles. Haltof's commitment to demonstrating the influence of generations on Polish cinema continues with his informative assessment of Agnieszka Holland's and Krzysztof Kieślowski's first feature films of the tendency described as kino moralnego niepokoju (cinema of moral concern), which Haltof calls "Cinema of Distrust."

This period is perhaps the most well-known to readers in English, who may recognize films by Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and Barbara Sass made in the late 1970s and the "Solidarity" period of the early 1980s. Haltof rightly points out the irony of rising Western critical interest in Polish cinema during this period, which actually saw the disintegration of the country's film infrastructure and market rather than the flowering of cinema.

He also draws attention to the fact that the political situation has influenced more than just cinematic production in Poland. It has also heavily influenced the reception of Polish films abroad and promoted a mistaken image of the political situation that cinema has sought at times to challenge and at times to rise above.

Another highlight of the book is the great amount of information on post-1989 cinema. Haltof pays proper attention to the well-known ambassadors of Polish cinema such as Kieślowski and Wajda, but he also informs the reader of film-makers and films that have not received recognition abroad. This is particularly significant in the case of the most contemporary film-makers. As in each section he explains the specific obstacles faced by the youngest generation and the variety of themes and styles that define them.

The final three topical chapters reiterate the variety of themes by explaining, unfortunately rather haphazardly, the sporadic desires of Polish audiences to revisit and close their eyes to traumatic historical events.

The ones that got away

Haltof's book reflects older histories of Polish cinema written in Polish. Though his awareness of the demands of an English-reading audience is apparent in his analyses of the discrepancies between non-Polish assumptions about Polish cinema and its reality, still Haltof stops short of offering his English readers all that they may want from the book.

The same aspects of Polish cinema that are missing in histories written in Polish are missing here, namely Yiddish films and female film-makers. Haltof devotes less than one page to Yiddish cinema in pre-World War II Poland in spite of the demonstrated popularity of this subject among readers in English. This is most likely due to the difficulties in obtaining access to primary sources on Yiddish films, the lack of secondary sources in Polish and the situation created by the secondary sources in English, which treat Polish national film as a separate category from Yiddish film.

Still, Haltof chooses to reveal even less than the readily available information on Yiddish film while claiming to include all film made in Poland, regardless of language, in his study of Polish cinema.

One of the main characters missing from the section on Yiddish film is Maria Hirshbein, a highly successful producer of the inter-war period. She is not only once, but twice overlooked in Haltof's study, in that the author does not do justice to the part that women have played in Polish filmmaking. Again, this discrepancy is most likely the result of Haltof's reliance upon Polish secondary sources and primary reports on events, such as film festivals and award ceremonies, in which female film-makers receive scant attention.

Women in Polish National Cinema fall under two distinct categories: Agnieszka Holland/Wanda Jakubowska/Barbara Sass and "Female Film-makers." Information on the first category is scattered sensibly throughout the book, while information on the second is squeezed into two pages in the contemporary films section. There are certain realities about funding and publicity for female film-makers that Haltof discloses with this approach, but it is saddening considering the large number of female film school students in Poland and the amount of effort that some film-makers, such as Holland, have put forth to inspire women viewers and aspiring film-makers.

That said, "hats off!" to Haltof for his excellent book. Polish National Cinema is as smart, modest and sensitive as the film that it describes. Though his insistence on playing down Poland's role in world filmmaking is perhaps comical, perhaps tragic, it is always amiable. Polish National Cinema opens with a reminder to readers that the history of Polish film is as long as the history of other national cinemas. By its close it is clear that its past is not only long but full and exciting. Thanks to Haltof's efforts readers in English may understand it a little better and appreciate it even more.

Shelia Skaff

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About the book

Marek Haltof, Polish National Cinema, 304 pages, published by Berghahn Books (2002), ISBN 157181275X

Also of interest
About the author

Sheila Skaff is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Comparative Literature at University of Michigan.

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