Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 4
 Issue 5 
29 Nov
2004

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Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz (1999)POLAND
Landscape
and lost time

Ethnoscape in the work
of Andrzej Wajda

Wajda's films frequently use landscape to create a sense of Polish national identity that draws on memories of a former age. Elżbieta Ostrowska looks at the director's use of mise-en-scène and narrative framing to achieve this.


In the first sequence of Człowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble), made by Andrzej Wajda in 1977, we see Agnieszka, a young film school student and her crew in the National Museum in Warsaw, where she wants to find a collection of Socialist Realist art from the 1950s. More specifically she hopes to find a marble statue of Mateusz Birkut, a Stakhanovite leading worker, the hero of her prospective film. The tracking and panning camera hastily follows her as she walks through galleries with its collection of Polish art. This short scene epitomises the main theme of the film, the exploration of the national collective memory and, more precisely, those parts of it that have been repressed.

This message is emphasised by the wire cages in which the art from the 50s is concealed (cf Sørenssen 2003: 105-6). Although it is clear that the main task of the camera in this scene is simply to follow Agnieszka's energetic movement, it also demonstrates its own subjectivity when it stops for a brief moment to have a closer look at some of the paintings. What should be stressed here is that these images reveal from the very beginning the presence of a narrative reflexivity. For amongst the paintings that the camera draws to our attention there is Ziemia (Earth, 1898) by
Ferdynand Ruszczyc's Ziemia (Earth, 1898)
Ferdynand Ruszczyc's Ziemia (Earth, 1898)
Ferdynand Ruszczyc, which is visually quoted by Wajda in Popiół i diament (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958), and Reytan (1866) by Jan Matejko, which is quoted in turn in his Wesele (The Wedding, 1972).

Thus, a reflexivity in the processes of direction and of a director's history is also disclosed. This short scene can be read metaphorically as a scrutiny of elements in Wajda's own journey in the Polish cultural heritage and collective memory, also embodied by the national museum which itself contributes to the processes of shaping the national identity.

These two paintings scrutinise two key elements of the national tradition that have been explored by Wajda, landscape and people in their relation to history. In this essay I would like to focus on the former, as it has not been given sufficient attention in analyses of his work, although it is one of the most important aspects of Polishness as constructed, revisioned and represented in his films.

Simon Schama notes in his book Landscape and Memory: "landscape is the work of mind [...] that it is our shaping perception that makes the difference between raw material and landscape" (1996: 7, 10). Thus, our surroundings do not have to be painted, photographed, described with words, or filmed to attain the status of "a landscape" as it is transformed into meaning through the very act of perception. If a group of people inhabits the same area, their representations of it display generic similarities, confirmed through various cultural forms, whether a poem, a painting or any system of representation. In this case the individual representations are partially unified in a cultural ideology.

This act of unifying individual perceptions and representations into one complex system produces bonds joining separate subjects into, as Benedict Anderson would say, "imagined community" (1991). D W Meiniga said, "Every mature nation has its symbolic landscapes. They are part of the iconography of nationhood, part of the shared ideas and memories and feelings which bind a people together" (quoted in Cosgrove & Daniels 1988: 162). Therefore, as Stephen Daniels claims, "particular landscapes achieve the status of national icons." (Daniels 1993: 5).

Natural order interrupted

Mise-en-scène in Andrzej Wajda's films is often conceived in order to produce this effect of landscape as national icon which is well demonstrated in the first shot of the opening sequence of Popiół i diament. The first image of this pan shot shows the cupola of a chapel and the tops of willow trees. The domestic audience associates these elements of mise-en-scène with typical Polish rural landscapes. The cross surmounting the cupola of the countryside chapel signifies an important element of Polish collective identity, that is, Catholic religion, whereas the willow trees are iconically linked to the Mazovian province, the very heart of Poland.

The willow tree as an iconic element of Polish landscape is a visual motif that will recur frequently in Wajda's later films, for example in Lotna (1959), Brzezina (The Birch Wood, 1970) or Wesele. Willow trees are also a motif of a soldiers' nostalgic song, Rozszumiały sie wierzby płaczące (Weeping Willows Start to Sigh), popular among the members of Home Army (to which the main characters of Popiół i diament belong), additionally demonstrating the stability of this element in national iconography and consequently in the collective imagination. Simultaneously, these two elements, the willow tree and the countryside chapel, metonymically signify two types of eternal order, the natural and the religious, which are to be brutally disrupted and finally destroyed through the following events connected with the plan for a political assassination about which we learn from the dialogue between Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) and Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski).

The killing of a man on the threshold of chapel in an expressionistic manner marks the intrusion of the profane into the sacred, or to put it in another way, the perturbation of the natural order by the temporal elements of history. The frenetic action performed by the main hero stands in conspicuous opposition to the last shot closing this sequence, the image of a ploughman, a cinematic repetition of Ferdynand Ruszczyc's painting Ziemia, which Agnieszka from Człowiek z marmuru passed by without notice in the gallery of the National Museum in Warsaw.

The image of the ploughman adds nothing significant to the plot line. How, then, can this inserted image be explained; what kind of motivation can be found for it? Perhaps this peaceful image was inserted to allow the viewer to release the tension produced by the scene of assassination. However, what seems of greater importance is its compositional function. For this closing image is clearly paralleled by the opening one, both presenting the "natural order of things" disrupted by the film's protagonists.

However, this particular "natural order of things" is by no means universal, since the net of intertextual references to Polish iconography connects it to an idealised image of Polishness. The timelessness of these landscapes, signifying an idealised Eden of Motherland, is conspicuously opposed to the temporality of the action; the slow regular movement of the ploughman appear as a visual riposte to the word "rush" repeated several times by the protagonists in the scene.

A concept of home

The compositional pattern of the shot of the ploughman is repeated in the last scene of the film when Maciek dies on the garbage heap. What I would like to stress here is that these two shots are the only ones in the entire film where the line of the horizon is visible, and both are filmed with a low angle camera. However, there is a significant difference between them, for the fertile soil of the first scene has changed into a vast rubbish area of the last. This transformation of landscape visually epitomises the meanings conveyed on the level of narrative. The hopes for freedom and normalcy that should come after the end of the war, visually suggested by the act of ploughing itself as part of cyclical re-birth, have been transformed into a "wasteland." The wasteland is not a land where a home can easily be (re) built.

The idea of home in Polish culture is epitomised by the manor house of the gentry. The white-columned porch of a one-floor house is the most stable element of Polish rural landscape. Its stability in the topography of the Polish countryside is reflected in numerous cultural texts, beginning with Pan Tadeusz, the national epic by Adam Mickiewicz. He made it an indispensable element of national mythology and, in the end, a powerful metaphor of Poland itself. Since the period of partitions when Poland lost its independence and then during the Second World War and subsequent Soviet oppression, the manor house served as the symbol of endangered Polishness and was often imagined as a besieged fortress. Undoubtedly, a manor house, with its surrounding of meadows and forests, shapes an idea of landscape that Anthony Smith regards as "ethnoscapes." According to him in an ethnoscape, "Territory mirrors the ethnic community" and "the land comes to belong to a people in the same way as people belong to a particular land—creating an ancestral 'homeland'" (quoted in Hjort & Mackenzie 2000: 55).

The landscape with a manor house as an embodiment of the idea of ancestral homeland appears in many of Wajda's films. Usually this is a nostalgic image of the homeland that had been lost, or is just about to be lost. Ziemia obiecana (The Promised Land, 1973), a film depicting rapid growth of capitalism in Poland in the 19th century, is one of the most evocative examples of this. Its action takes place in Łódź, the territory of German and Jewish economic expansion. The main character, an impoverished nobleman Karol Borowiecki (Daniel Olbrychski), is co-operating with his friends, a Jew and a German, to build a factory which is supposed to overcome the monopoly of foreign capital. His fiancée Anka (Anna Nehrebecka), an impoverished noblewoman, lives with Karol's father in Kurów, the former family manor house.

Differently than in the original novel, Wajda decides to begin the story in Kurów. The opening sequence consists of a series of sentimental and nostalgic images of the quiet life of the country, following the rhythm of harmony of nature and man. Without dialogue, and with the lyrical motif of a waltz on the sound track, these images symbolise all the values which, in the national mythology, stand for the idea of Poland based on the nobility—a noble Poland in which all Poles can share. Anka runs out of the house to welcome Karol home. The visual message of the perfection of this home is verbalised later in the subsequent scene, when the German Maks Baum says: "Since I began to visit this place I better understood Karol and Poles." Thus, not Łódź and its Polish proletariat but a manor house evoking the noble traditions of the gentry represents for this young friend of Karol the "real Poland."

This initial "ethnoscape" is strongly contrasted with the beginning of the following sequence consisting of images of the industrial landscape of Łódź, constructing a vision of a modern inferno. Paul Coates sees the passage of the film from Kurów to Łódź as "an expulsion from Eden" (Coates 1997: 224). The further course of the story, the selling of the house by Karol, and Anka's and his father's move to Łódź, confirms the motif of "exile" first introduced visually through the contrast of these two landscapes. In this new landscape Karol undertakes activities which undermine the values typical of the Polish noble ethic; in the end these values are wholly destroyed. The couple fail to establish a new life in the new place and become in a sense "homeless." To re-phrase Anthony Smith, they neither belong to a landscape nor does it belong to them.

Harking back

Once the break-up of the original and primary bonds connecting people and land occurs, this process becomes irreversible. The only way to return to these landscapes is through recollecting them from memory. Even if this return happens in reality, it is still a journey of memory, a journey "in search of the lost time." Often this journey becomes conflated with the time of childhood or youth, as happens in Wajda's Panny z Wilka (Maids of Wilko, 1979) and his Kronika wypadków miłosnych (Chronicle of Accidents of Love, 1986).

In both films this nostalgic aspect in the fictional world is emphasised through the introduction of the real authors of the literary originals, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Tadeusz Konwicki. Both are shown as travelling by train and observing through the windows the landscapes that pass by. These images construct an extra-diegetic framework for everything the viewer will see later on in the films.

In Panny z Wilka the main character's crossing of a river on a ferry additionally marks the passage between the present and the past. On the other shore another land begins from which he was taken away to serve in the First World War. The landscapes which appear on the screen from this point on are recovered from his memory and thus they remain, for he leaves them behind at the end of the film.

In Panny z Wilka images of landscapes can never be perceived as simple referents for real landscapes. They are doubly and dialectically constructed both as literary images, and as images of memory. Similarly, Lithuanian landscapes in Kronika wypadków miłosnych serve as icons of Poland before the Second World War, in which Lithuania was part of the Motherland, or Heimat, as it was for many Polish artists, Tadeusz Konwicki and Adam Mickiewicz among them.

Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz (1999)In Wajda's adaptation of Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz (1999) the idea of landscape as a form of national memory is developed in the most direct way. As in Panny z Wilka and Kronika wypadków miłosnych, Wajda introduces the author of the literary original, this time played by an actor, who is also the narrator of the story. Thus the landscapes which appear on the screen are doubly de-naturalised. First, they are visual representations of the Lithuanian landscapes in Mickiewicz's poem. Secondly, they are the product of the narrator's memory.

What should be stressed here is that the narrator does not recollect these events and landscapes only for himself. He does it for and with the characters of his poem, whom the viewer will see when the story changes from words into pictures. The device of making the characters of the poem the listeners to it as well, sheds light on the mechanism of memory itself, as it always consists of an intertwining of subjectivity and objectivity, a consequence of the tension between the past and the present.

The relationship of an individual to a remembered landscape seems to be always ambiguous as a person still belongs to it, and, at the same time, does not. In the case of Wajda's Pan Tadeusz this ambiguity takes an even more complex form due to the fact that all of these landscapes are part of Lithuania, no longer part of Poland. However in Polish signifying practices it still functions as an archetypal Motherland, as in Tadeusz Konwicki's writing for example. Paradoxically, in the Polish case, the myth of expulsion from the Eden of childhood is transformed into a historical reality, this being the main reason why individual memory merges with collective memory so intensely.

As in Ziemia obiecana, in Pan Tadeusz the difference between the past and the present is marked by the contrast between lightness and darkness as well as by the contrast between the monochromatic blueness of a Parisian flat and the blossoming colours of Soplicowo landscapes. As Simon Schama notes, in Pan Tadeusz Mickiewicz celebrates the world he knew to be already extinct (Schama 1995: 56). While making his film in 1999, Wajda was even more aware of this fact and decided to take upon himself the role of, to use again Schama's phrase, the "zealous guardian of landscape memory" (17) as he knew that it was also a significant "path of social memory" (Warburg's term quoted by Schama: 17). This landscape memory is an indispensable part of national identity which, to use Schama's words once again, "would lose much of its ferocious enchantments without the mystique of a particular landscape tradition" (15).

Wajda seems to understand this notion perfectly. He said after deciding to film Pan Tadeusz, "After nearly 10 years of independence I felt the time had to come to answer such questions as: 'Where do we come from?', 'What are we?', 'Where we are going?'" (Wajda 2000: 230). "Where" becomes as much important as "what." Everything that has happened cannot be recollected without the places where it occurred. The place, the genius loci, determines who we are and what we do. If a prairie makes a cowboy and a desert makes a nomad, the act of picking mushrooms in the Lithuanian forest in Pan Tadeusz transforms Poles into "Elysian shadows," those half-ghostly, half-real figures who populate the world of Polish romanticism, the paradigm of Polish collective identity.

No doubt the political and economic transition which Poland has been undergoing for more than a decade also makes for changes in cultural paradigms. Wajda is well aware of this possibility. Therefore his Pan Tadeusz is not only an effort to put life into a world that belongs to the past, marked both by the "past tense" of the narration as well as by highly stylised photography. His effort aims to save the landscapes of collective memory from oblivion and to create in the contemporary collective consciousness of Poles a little space for the shadows of ancestors not to be forgotten.

Elżbieta Ostrowska

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Also of interest
About the author

Elżbieta Ostrowska teaches film at the University of Łódź. She publishes in English and Polish and is the co-editor of The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda: The Art of Irony and Defiance (2003) and Gender in Film and the Media (2000).


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References

Anderson, Benedict (1991) Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, London, New York: Verso.

Coates, Paul (1997) "Walls and Frontiers: Polish Cinema’s Portrayal of Polish-Jewish Relations," Studies in Polish Jewry, 10: 221-246, London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

Cosgrove, Denis, Stephen Daniels (1988) The Iconography of Landscape: essays on the symbolic representation, design, and use of past environments, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University.

Daniels, Stephen (1993) Fields of Vision: landscape imagery and national identity in England and the United States, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Hjort, Mette, Scott Mackenzie, ed., (2000) Cinema & Nation, London, New York: Routledge.

Shama, Simon (1996) Lanscape and Memory, Harper Collins Publisher.

Smith, Anthony (1997) "Nation and Ethnoscape", The Oxford International Review 8, 2: 11-18.

Sørenssen, Bjørn (2003) "’Visual Eloquence’ and Documentary Form: Meeting Man of Marble in Nowa Huta", in: The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda. The Art of Irony and Defiance, ed. John Orr, Elżbieta Ostrowska, London: Wallflower Press, pp. 103-115.

Wajda, Andrzej (2000) Kino i reszta świata. Autobiografia, Kraków: Znak.

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