Friday 25 December 2009

CINE-CITY 2009 (Part Two: Wojciech Has retrospective)

Apologies for the late arrival of this second part of my Cine-City retrospective. A third part was originally promised, but that no longer seems current now. Perhaps I should be wary of making such rash promises this time of the year. I have at least kept up my tradition of always posting something on Christmas Day.

THE NOOSE (1958)

Perhaps the prevalent view of the Polish director Wojciech Has is summed up by Wikipedia, that he “was independent of the over political themes that dominated the prevailing Polish (Film) School.” In fact it could be possible to push this line too far. Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, often regarded as the very definition of the Polish Film School, is itself very much an ‘inner’ story of a conflicted individual - a Hamlet not a Julius Caesar. Yet the issues which beset this individual are very much social and political. Conversely Kuba, the central character of The Noose, wears his alcoholism like an existential curse. He makes no excuses for drinking, along the lines of poverty or unemployment. It’s much more one man’s way of dodging life’s central question ‘what is a man to do?’

There’s also more than a hint of the Sartrean concept that ‘hell is other people’. Take for example the recurrent emphasis on windows and mirrors, and indeed characters often become windows and mirrors to each other. Tellingly, the inevitable noose of the title is made from a telephone wire – the mechanism by which others assail him.

The film follows the ‘faux unities’ of time, as we follow him for a day trying to stay clean and sober. (There must be a term for this ‘compressed real time’, used in films like High Noon, which I don’t know.) Reflecting it’s psychological themes it’s quite a theatrical piece, indeed too much so during some of the scenes when he’s alone in his flat. Yet, for a cracked portrait of so flawed a man, that is surely it’s only failing.


Though only made later that same year, this couldn’t be more of a contrast. It’s a historical film, covering a wide span of time. But despite this emphasis on the crushing weight of history, in its way it’s as much a chamber piece as it’s predecessor. Though not entirely made up of interiors, it feels dominated by them. There’s a great importance attached to where characters are staying, from the young runaways early in the film onward. Only at the very end do the events of history actually intrude. (Particularly odd is the reduction to a passing reference of a character’s imprisonment in Auschwitz.)

The theme is the decline of titled families between and (especially) after the wars. Not a single character welcomes the Soviet invasion, the reactions range only between fear and indifference. In this way it’s closest cousins would not be the Italian neo-realism which so inspired the Polish Film School but its’ immediate successors, particularly Visconti’s The Leopard or The Damned. (Though intriguingly this film predates them both.)

Though The Noose was also based on a novel, Farewells betrays its literary origins more, and (for all its grander themes) is the lesser of the two films for it. Just as it’s span is greater, it’s grip is weaker.


This later film takes the historical span of Farewells, but uses it more successfully. It is also the only one of the three to place a woman in the lead role. (Though her life is given to obsessing over a man, and she is much more similar to the supportive surrogate mother in The Noose than the more independent woman from Farewells.)

Though the Polish School never subscribed to the restrictive connotations ‘realism’ might imply, here is the point were any such notions are actively attacked. Set among actors, it uses their world to question reality rather than just portray it. Indeed the central event of the film occurs off-screen and is left ambiguous, with several different explanations given for it. The ending actually copies what had earlier been a false rumour.

Character voice-over is used, but to enhance ambiguity rather than clarify it. The protagonist’s thoughts are more stream-of-consciousness than ordering; at one point she even becomes drunk and the voice-over itself becomes incoherent. At another she veers off-script while recording a drama, seemingly preferring her own words better. In this way it almost becomes a synthesis of the two previous films, despite their first seeming so far apart.


This, perhaps Has’ best-known film, marks a major break from his earlier realist works. Though there are links for those who go looking (such as his interest in psychology) it’s hard to think of another director from the era who so completely changed their style. Compared to Has, even Fellini remained in the shadow of neo-realism.

It’s most commonly said that Has moved from realism to surrealism. Indeed, he claimed himself that he ”was brought up on surrealism.” Yet, though this was often cited by Bunel as his favourite film, pedants might debate just how surreal it is. After all, it’s based on a pre-surrealist book from 1815 (by Jan Potocki). Though supernatural events occur, it could be argued that it is actually closer to folklore.

The film’s fascination comes from its byzantine structure – it’s not merely a portmanteau but presents nested and even overlapping stories, as if they are coagulating together. Yet the frame story device is primarily a literary conceit, and in a way the film fetishises the book object as something with almost magical powers, drawing in the reader in an almost literal sense. Which all makes for an engrossing film, but weren’t the surrrealists one of the forces who encouraged film away from literary traditions?

(NB: I didn’t actually see the film as part of this festival, having watched it only recently beforehand.)


This, the only film Has made in the Seventies, must surely count as his magnum opus. This time based on a Bruno Gans collection, if it is not surreal then surely nothing is! It’s hard to comment on after seeing only once, the viewing experience being so overwhelming. (It often fascinates me how, even in the pre-video era, so people made films which demanded multiple viewings.) You emerge feeling some strange combination of intoxicated and travel sick, split between the desire to see it all again and the wish to have a good lie down. There’s a repeated motif of a wave of activity, one character entering a still setting which leads to it erupting into activity, though I’m at a loss to explain this apart from that being the way the film feels on your mind.

Much of its style comes from incorporating a standard trope of neo-realism, deep field photography, but thrusting it into a surrealist settings – resulting in a kind of baroque surrealism. (Has’ influence is all over Gilliam.) Each scene seems so crammed with detail, but you are only able to take in any of that for a minute before being whisked off again. Like Saragossa Manuscript it tells a family story through employing disdainful approach to time. Scenes are rarely linked naturalistically but juxtaposed, the protagonist impossibly leaping and lurching from one place and time to another.

Here’s something I wrote last year, about Wajda, the other great ‘Polish school’ director, following last year’s Cine-City.

More about Cine-City here.

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