One of the key dilemmas faced by anyone looking to distribute or exhibit foreign-language cinema is this: do you distribute films that offers insights into a different culture, or do you distribute films that are universal? The former, of course, is something that many arthouse habitués would cite as a key reason to watch films from other countries, but in practice it is the universally relatable films that sell tickets.
Poland’s singularly traumatic 20th century as a victim of both Nazism and Communism may explain why so many of the Polish directors who have attained an international profile – Has, Borowczyk, Żuławski, early Polanski – have dealt in the surreal, the supernatural, the absurd and other things that are weird in any language. The three films collected in Second Run’s new Polish Cinema Classics Vol. III – 1970s The Cruise, 1977’s Camouflage and 1981’s Shivers – all attempt to reflect ordinary life under Communist rule, and some of them may be alienating to British audiences for reasons the directors had not anticipated.
The earliest and shortest film in the collection, Marek Piwowski’s The Cruise is a broad comedy, a genre which is too often absent from specialist cinema and DVD programmes. Piwowski’s Tati-esque slapstick and visual gags are incredibly funny and graceful, especially when accompanied by a gorgeously dreamy easy listening score from Wojciech Kilar (who would achieve international recognition for his very different music for Polanski’s The Pianist and Coppola’s Dracula).
When it moves towards verbal comedy, the laughs become a bit harder to find. Second Run’s DVD booklets are always worth your attention, but the one for The Cruise is particularly invaluable, as it outlines several key puns and dual meanings that simply don’t translate into English. For this reason, the second half of The Cruise lacks the easy enjoyability of the first, though Piwowski has a strong, appealing grasp of comic archetypes. The titular holiday represents an opportunity to overturn the normal order of things and give ordinary people a taste of glory or authority, an idea that’s remained central to comedy from Ancient Greece to the Inbetweeners.
That said, setting such ideas down in a dictatorship gives them a different, graver tint. The next film in the collection, Krzysztof Zanussi’s Camouflage, has comic elements but in a much graver, sadder register. Part of the magnificently-titled ‘Cinema of Moral Anxiety’ which brought forth directors like Agnieszka Holland and Andrzej Wajda, Camouflage is a comedy of campus politics whose rich, naturally-lit cinematography and complex sound mix evidence Zanussi’s fondness for Robert Altman.
In terms of modern directors, Zanussi could be likened to Alexander Payne – Camouflage certainly shares Election’s conviction that the exercise of power or ideology is often basically misdirected sexual desire. The actual plot, which involves an academic plagiarism scandal, a sit-in and an expelled student who the hero Jarek is arguing should be restated, is incredibly confusing in its observation of complex ideological negotiations. Yet this isn’t as damaging to the film as the similar bureaucratic satire which sends The Cruise aground.
What matters in Camouflage is not the exact details of the negotiations, which are conducted in academic and ideological language that, as the title points out, masks the participants’ true intentions. It’s Piotr Garlicki’s incredibly fresh, likeable central performance as Jarek, a man whose idealism makes him both a danger to the campus’s deep-rooted corruption and an asset in negotiating with the students, who haven’t yet been ground down by the system as much as the staff.
In this, perhaps, Camouflage shows some hope for the future, hope that is utterly absent from the collection’s last, longest and best film, Wojciech Marczewski’s Shivers. Shivers was made at a point when the Solidarity Movement was emerging as a challenge to the Polish Communist Party, and the prospect of an end to state repression seems to have spurred Marczewski on to make a record of all the horrors of life in 1950s Poland that earlier films could only hint at.
The Cruise and Camouflage feel like very writerly films, yet despite containing its fair share of long political speeches Shivers feels like a much more visual film. Marczewski’s prowling, deliberate camera matches the threat the adult world poses to his young central character Tomek, as he is packed off to a prison-like Communist youth camp where his family’s history of Christianity and counter-revolutionary sentiments slowly become known to the authorities.
Like Camouflage, Shivers draws a line between abuse of power and sexuality, particularly in a subplot where a female Unit Leader (played by Marczewski’s wife Teresa) becomes aware of Tomek’s crush on her, and uses this to manipulate him. In the world of Shivers, this is the nearest thing we get to kindness. The film recalls Full Metal Jacket in its portrayal of a young man being broken down in order to serve the state more effectively – but here the whole of society behaves like Kubrick’s brutal boot camp, from Tomek’s brutally stringent family to the school, where a teacher accidentally kills a child and the only response from the faculty is to blame the children for forcing a great educator into early retirement.
The only escape from this world is in fighting and vandalism, though Marczewski gives his audience some respite with haunting dream sequences. In one, rain crashes through the roof onto a portrait of Karl Marx, and Marczewski zeroes in on the rain appearing to trickle down from Marx’s eyes. Is Marx crying at the perversion of his philosophy, or is Marczewski mocking how a supposedly atheist state treats its ideological forebears no differently to church-goers swearing that a statue of the Virgin Mary just shed a tear? It could be both and the image would still have incredible power and originality.
Marczewski and Zanussi both give interviews on the DVDs of their films – the Zanussi one is particularly delightful, showing a still-sharp and witty man in his mid-seventies explaining how he decided to make Camouflage after visiting a university and being “impressed by the level of corruption”. The only other extras are booklets, which as noted before are indispensable. Out of the three films, only Camouflage has been released in the UK before; given that all three films (particularly The Cruise) are massively admired and acclaimed in their home country the box set as a whole offers a revealing look at how Poland sees itself, its cinema and its past.