Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series Review

The DVD revolution of the last decade has brought many benefits, but perhaps one of the biggest is the way that it's opened up vast tracts of individual national cinemas that until very recently had been completely off limits to those who didn't speak the relevant language. Even when Polish cinema was at its peak of popularity in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s (though I use the word "peak" in a strictly relative sense), all we really had access to was a smattering of high-profile fiction features by big names like Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Zanussi. The fact that these were built on a bedrock of often outstanding work in other fields, particularly documentary filmmaking, was occasionally mentioned by more knowledgeable critics - but usually only in passing, as the poor reader would probably never get the chance to see these films without learning Polish and delving through archives.

One great Polish documentary-maker was relatively accessible in the 1990s, but that's because Krzysztof Kieślowski had developed such a towering reputation with his fiction work - to the point where his earlier non-fiction films were disinterred and shown in retrospectives or as DVD extras. But he was very much an isolated case, and it wasn't until 2006, when the state-backed Polish Audiovisual Publishers (Polskie Wydawnictwo Audiowizualne) launched a series of English-friendly DVD compilations of the output of the Polish documentary movement, that we could really start to appreciate one of the richest strands in European filmmaking that I've encountered in a long, long time. Practically the only country that seriously rivals Poland in the quality of its non-fiction filmmaking is Britain, and it's fitting that PWA's releases are coming out in parallel with the BFI's similarly comprehensive surveys of the British documentary movement via such compilations as Land of Promise and the three GPO Film Unit volumes.

To date, there have been eleven releases in PWA's 'Polska szkoła dokumentu' ('Polish School of the Documentary') series, most of which have been devoted to individual figures - usually a two-disc set covering a single filmmaker (I've already reviewed the Andrzej Munk release: others feature Jacek Bławut, Maciej J. Drygas, Kazimierz Karabasz, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Marcel Łoziński, Marek Piwowski, Wojciech Wiszniewski, Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz and a triple-disc set devoted to the female filmmakers Krystyna Gryczełowska, Danuta Halladin and Irena Kamieńska. The 'Black Series' release (which came out at the very end of 2007) is the major exception, in that it surveys a particular period of Polish documentary history.

That period was the mid-1950s, a time of immense upheaval for Polish society, as Stalin's death in 1953 led to a gradual social and cultural thaw - though the floodgates were only truly opened in 1956, when Stalinist Prime Minister Bołeslaw Bierut died, leading to protests and strikes - and the newly appointed Polish Communist leader Władysław Gomułka ultimately sanctioning reforms which, amongst other things relaxing what had previously been ultra-strict censorship.

But even before Gomułka's liberalisation, a handful of documentary makers had been openly rebelling against the previously rigidly-imposed principles of Stalinist Socialist Realism (which produced such stridently one-note propaganda as 1951's Destination Nowa Huta!, included on PWA's Andrzej Munk release), and what's particularly fascinating about this compilation is that it clearly shows the various tentative stages involved in pushing at a door that in 1954 was still pretty firmly shut. For instance, Are You Among Them? (1954), the oldest film in the set, rocks the boat slightly by admitting that individual Poles might be less than perfect in their behaviour, but it stops well short of any more sweeping analysis that might raise questions about the system as a whole.

The so-called "black series" really began the following year when the same filmmakers, Jerzy Hoffman (later a director of sweeping costume epics) and Edward Skórzewski made Look Out, Hooligans! Taking its cue more from a slam-bang American International Pictures exploitation effort than a sober sociological survey, it was designed to shock its audience, and it succeeded - nothing like this had been seen on Communist Poland's cinema screens before. But sensationalised though it was, it also had a serious purpose, to lift up the corner of the curtain that the government had draped over anything even vaguely contentious.

This lit the touch paper for a veritable explosion of documentary films by younger directors (mostly recent film-school graduates still in their twenties) such as Kazimierz Karabasz, Władysław Ślesicki, Bohdan Kosiński, Włodzimierz Borowik and Jerzy Ziarnik as well as veterans like Jerzy Bossak, which set about overturning the simplistic certainties of the preceding decade in favour of far more complex, troubling analyses of Polish society. Not everyone adopted the shock tactics of Hoffman and Skórzewski (though Bossak arguably went even further with Warsaw '56) - Karabasz and Ślesicki in particular developed a much subtler approach, allowing them to gull their audience into a false sense of security before hitting them with tough, probing questions about what they were watching.

Although the movement had largely dissipated by 1958, the "black series" was a crucial period in Polish cinema, not just for its invaluable analysis of Poland at a pivotal time in its history, but also for the way it opened the door to feature film makers such as Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Kawalerowicz and the former documentary-maker Andrzej Munk by demonstrating that it was possible to deal with potentially controversial material without invoking the authorities' ire - these films parallel the production of Wajda's great war trilogy, from the explicitly Socialist Realist A Generation (1954) to the far more ambiguous Ashes and Diamonds (1958). As a result, by 1957-8, Polish cinema was beginning to gain a heavyweight international reputation for the first time, and even the documentaries were screened abroad: the National Film Theatre in London devoted the entirety of its fourth 'Free Cinema' programme in 1958 to Polish short films, including some of the titles discussed below.

PWA's survey comes on two discs, and consists of thirteen core titles plus a selection of extras comprising a couple of contemporary newsreels and half a dozen additional documentaries made at the same time or slightly later, but which aren't considered part of the "black series" proper. I've reviewed many of the individual films in much more detail on my Filmjournal blog, and links are provided in the titles where available. But in essence, this is what you get, in the order in which they're presented if you select 'Play All':

Look Out, Hooligans! (d. Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski, 1955, 12:12)

This isn't the oldest film on this set, but PWA was absolutely right to open with Hoffman and Skórzewski's breakthrough, as it's universally regarded as the film that kick-started the "black series". With its aggressive images and editing, stabbing orchestral chords, titles that appear graffitied onto the screen, and sensational(ised) subject matter, this is worlds apart from the relatively sedate world of the Polish documentary from 1945-54. It's inconceivable that a film from the Stalinist period would have been quite so upfront about the attractions of hooliganism as a lifestyle (in fact, it wouldn't even have acknowledged the existence of these people), and the directors are just as critical of a system that allows it to flourish (while pretending that everything's hunky-dory) as they are of the individual hooligans themselves.


The Children Accuse (d. Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski, 1956, 10:15)

Hoffman and Skórzewski's second official "black series" film is another shocker, though here the sensationalism is counterpointed more effectively with sociological analysis. The children of the title are the offspring of alcoholics, and some are clearly heading that way themselves either through parental neglect or worse (one particularly vivid scene shows a seven-year-old boy being forced to drink vodka by his father as a birthday "treat"). It's a much more unsettling film than Look Out, Hooligans! because while the hooligans are the product of their own choices, the kids are unimpeachably innocent. The final shot, of a group of severely traumatised children with no future worth speaking of, may be the single most disturbing image on either of these DVDs.


Where the Devil Says Goodnight (d. Kazimierz Karabasz, Władysław Ślesicki, 1956, 10:42)

Karabasz and Ślesicki formed the other key directing partnership of the "black series", though their subtly unsettling treatments of far less obviously dysfunctional subjects are quite different in both tone and content. Here, the centrepiece is ostensibly the long-planned "house of culture" in the remote Warsaw suburb of Targówek, which has failed to open despite it being under construction for several years - but this is merely a convenient hook on which to sketch in vivid details of the local inhabitants as they while away the time in a state of barely concealed boredom and frustration. But unlike Hoffman and Skórzewski's films, this is rarely upfront - it's more a perpetual state of resentment that's quietly simmering under the surface.


People from an Empty Zone (d. Kazimierz Karabasz, Władysław Ślesicki, 1957, 14:54)

Karabasz and Ślesicki's second collaboration is even subtler than their first - so much so that there isn't even an onscreen title, and the spoken equivalent isn't revealed until the end. The people in question are in their teens and early twenties, but they aren't hooligans or delinquents: they merely seem detached from a world that they feel has little to offer them. Lacking an adult or even teenage memory of World War II or of living under a non-socialist government, which has been feeding them brightly varnished lies about the value of education and work - which they find dreary and unfulfilling. There's plenty of social criticism here, but it's for the viewer to tease it out between a series of brief, elliptical glimpses of these people's lives: only when they attend a wild party with plenty of alcohol and rock'n'roll do they really come to life.


Article Zero (d. Włodzimierz Borowik, 1957, 16:22)

A head-on confrontation with another social problem, this time one whose existence was officially denied by the authorities. Borowik's film explores prostitution both as a wider social problem and from the perspective of individual prostitutes themselves, their eyes usually obscured by jittery black bars like an inverted burka. The hand-held, high-contrast photography, lit by overly bright portable lamps is strongly reminiscent of the nocturnal images of the American photographer Weegee, and creates the same impression of a spotlight suddenly being turned onto someone who'd rather remain in the shadows.


Rocky Soil (d. Włodzimierz Borowik, 1956, 16:04)

A rare excursion into rural Poland, Rocky Soil shows the gap between official five-year-plan rhetoric and the reality on the ground, as an idealistic young doctor sets up a clinic in a remote part of the country, only to find that his intended patients regard him with a mixture of distrust and fear. Superstition reigns supreme, a 50% infant mortality rate is considered quite acceptable, and "traditional remedies" hold sway, even though at one point they're directly responsible for the death of a young boy who could easily have been saved if treated properly earlier. However, Borowik does manage to end on a convincingly upbeat note, unlike most of the films on these discs.


Little Town (d. Jerzy Ziarnik, 1956, 9:53)

The town of the title, Wincentowo, is a fictional amalgam of several genuine small towns, but the problems it faces are duplicated in reality across the country. With 20% unemployment, people who leave don't come back. The town's central trade, shoemaking, has been clobbered by adverse economic circumstances, and the film graphically shows how the only way of earning even a basic living wage is to dabble in the black market, and take the consequences if caught (almost every family includes someone with a criminal record). The only legitimate business that's truly thriving is administration, whose bureaucratic red tape has been slowly squeezing the life out of the town. Names aren't named, but it's clear that Wincentowo's problems can only be solved by reform from above: the inhabitants are powerless to do anything except leave.


Warsaw '56 (d. Jerzy Bossak, Jarosław Brzozowski, 1956, 6:40)

After the one-two punch of Hoffman and Skórzewski's films, most of the other "black series" titles eschewed shock tactics in favour of subtler commentary and analysis. This film, by the veteran Jerzy Bossak (who nearly a decade earlier had won a Cannes Palme d'Or for his short documentary The Flood, is the major exception. Combining the content of the classic British documentary Housing Problems (included in the Land of Promise collection) with a particularly sadistic child-in-peril thriller, this is a memorably ruthless exposé of Warsaw's housing crisis, with families forced to live in bombed-out ruins where just stepping outside one's front room might lead to a vertiginous, possibly fatal plunge. Parents of young children may well be watching the film's second half through their fingers, as a curious toddler breaks free of his restraining rope and decides to explore his perilous environment, but there's no doubt that the film gets its message across with a vengeance.


Place of Residence (d. Maksymilian Wrocławski, 1957, 15:50)

Another sour, embittered look at a housing problem, though the twist here is that the Pleszów housing estate was built only a few years earlier and intended to be the last word in convenient modern living. But for all the all-pervasive upbeat tannoy announcements, the execution has been badly flawed, with forty families having to share a single kitchen, married couples forced to live apart in segregated quarters, and the much-vaunted "cultural facilities" either abused or ignored altogether. Tellingly, the opening and closing scenes feature large numbers of men drowning their sorrows in beer laced with vodka.


Are You Among Them? (d. Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski, 1954, 7:36)

At the start of disc two, PWA turns the clock back to show a precursor of the "black series", in which Hoffman and Skórzewski were dipping a cautious toe into new waters, but in such a way as not to provoke official criticism. To British eyes, this looks exactly like one of those finger-waggingly didactic Central Office of Information propaganda films, as the filmmakers set up a series of cautionary tales about what happens to litterbugs or gossipy housewives, but the acknowledgement that not every Pole was a shining-eyed exemplar of a glorious socialist paradise was startling enough in itself.


The Lublin Old Town (d. Bohdan Kosiński, 1956, 5:07)

Anyone who thinks that dry sarcasm is an exclusively British trait is in for a surprise with this film, which starts off in typically propagandist Socialist Realist mode as Lublin's tourist attractions are shown off. Then the film darts behind the scenes to show decrepit housing very similar to that in Warsaw '56 - but Kosiński's masterstroke is to have the commentator continue in exactly the same upbeat mode. So a dangerous-looking crack in a balcony is "an original fracture from the times of Biernat of Lublin”, while a rickety ladder missing half its steps “has an invigorating effect, contrasting with boring and conventional stairwells”. The result is both hilarious and savagely satirical in the authentically Swiftian sense - not just of the situation that permits such appalling conditions but of government propaganda that pretends that everything's perfect despite all the evidence to the contrary


City on Islands (d. Jerzy Dmowski, Bohdan Kosiński, 1958, 8:32)

Thematically, this is something of a companion-piece to People from an Empty Zone in that it's also about disconnection and disaffection - though here the focus is on the physical geography of Warsaw itself. Images of the city in 1939 are contrasted with the situation two decades on: whereas the centre used to be a bustling multicultural hive of humanity, now it's become a public transport interchange and little else, with people moving further and further out to anonymous housing blocks in the suburbs and rarely speaking to anyone outside their immediate social and employment circles. "Where is Warsaw?", the commentator asks, before concluding that it's become an archipelago of only loosely connected islands.


From Powiśle... (d. Kazimierz Karabasz, 1958, 9:58)

Kazimierz Karabasz's first professional solo credit acts as a bridge between the "black series" and the understated, lyrical films he would go on to make in the 1960s, which would become a huge influence on Krzysztof Kieślowski's equally suggestive work. In its shots of ruined buildings and people eking out a basic existence, From Powiśle... echoes the visual content of many of the other "black series" films, but Karabasz deliberately eschews any social or political criticism. Instead, his film is a reflection on a certain type of nostalgia, one that acknowledges its essential pointlessness (the old Powiśle, a Warsaw suburb renowned for its charm, has irretrievably vanished) while still attempting to grasp its essence. But the commentary ultimately has much less to say than either the images or Zbigniew Jeżewski's wistful woodwind-and-accordion score.



The DVDs

The two dual-layer discs comprising Polish School of the Documentary: The Black Series are attractively presented in a foldout Digipak whose sleeve also houses a 60-page booklet. The design is in line with the other releases in PWA's series, down to the matching spines.

Video

Video presentation varies from adequate to excellent, depending on individual titles. Some of the source prints (for instance City on Islands) are as good as can realistically be expected for fifty-year-old documentary shorts (i.e. almost pristine, bar the occasional surface blemish), while others are somewhat ropier - the worst being Jazz Talks, which has suffered a lot of physical damage, including splice repairs. The transfers are generally more than acceptable in terms of presenting the materials in a crisp, artefact-free way, though several of them are interlaced rather than progressive. All titles are black and white, and framed at a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is exactly what one would expect for films of this nature shot during this period in this particular country. All in all, it's hard to imagine films like this looking significantly better, and one presumes that PWA had access to the highest-quality materials, given their collaboration with WFD, the studio that produced most of them in the first place. (Jazz Talks was an independent production, which probably explains the poorer standard of preservation).

Audio

The soundtracks are Dolby 2.0, and again are exactly what one would expect from fifty-year-old monophonic recordings that were never designed to be state of the art - in other words, most blemishes are likely to be inherent in the original materials (either due to flaws in the source prints or technical slip-ups in production) and therefore unavoidable. Sadly, the worst is Jazz Talks, where occasional splices swallow up musical phrases, though it's safe to assume that PWA had no access to superior materials (if indeed they still exist).

Subtitles

The films have optional subtitles in English, French, German and Russian. The English subtitles are clear, generally idiomatic and properly synchronised, but there are rather more typos than there were with the equivalents on the Andrzej Munk set, as well as some awkward bits of phrasing. (That said, it's never completely unclear what's being said). There are no chapter stops beyond being able to select individual films, but with everything running under 20 minutes and several titles under 10, this is not a significant issue.

Extras

Aside from the extensive booklets, most discs in this series have few (if any) extras, but The Black Series is a significant exception, with eight additional films serving to flesh out our knowledge of the period in which the "black series" of films were made.

First of all, there are two editions of the venerable Polska Kronika Filmowa newsreel, the main state-backed information conduit. Both date from late 1956 and cover the turbulent events of October - in the first, 'The Great Gathering' (8:44), Władysław Gomułka makes an impassioned speech in front of a crowd rumoured to number 400,000. The second, 'VIII Plenum' (3:09) depicts another great gathering, this time of people from all around the country to listen to the results of a crucial political debate.

There then follow half a dozen films that were made at roughly the same time as the "black series" films, and clearly benefited from the trail they blazed, but which aren't considered part of the cycle - and indeed in some cases they're strikingly different.

Sopot 1957 (d. Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski, 1957, 16:04)

Worlds apart from the other Hoffman/Skórzewski films in this package, Sopot 1957 is a paean to the joys of carefree summer hedonism in the Baltic seaside resort of Sopot. It begins during the Sopot Jazz Festival, and a jazz-tinged soundtrack extends throughout the rest of the film as the directors cast a benign eye over the many sun worshippers gathering on the beach, rainy day recreations, watching the Miss Polonia beauty contest or dancing the night away. A neatly self-reflexive sequence shows the cameraman filming the beach sequences clandestinely, the intended impression being that all this was caught very much on the wing. It's clearly not part of the "black series", but would it have been possible to film this without the earlier films' example?


Jazz Talks (d. Andrzej Brzozowski, 1957, 12:42)

There's no faulting the title, as there's no talking on the soundtrack, other than the musical kind provided by the Hot Club Melomani and the Komeda Sextet, who each perform a six-part instrumental jazz number against stylised settings - as opposed to the live concert footage from Sopot '57, these look more like prototype music videos, with the geometrical set design for the Komeda performance being particularly striking. The booklet notes state that this is the first ever Polish jazz film (and would be the only significant one for many years), because the form was still in its infancy: banned under Stalinism, it only really began to grow in public popularity the year before the film was made.



Break Up The Dance (d. Roman Polański, 1957, 7:45)

Probably the most familiar title in the set, if only because it's been released in Britain as part of Anchor Bay's Roman Polanski Collection (under the alternative translation Let's Break the Ball). This was one of his film-school shorts, and while not part of the "black series" it was clearly influenced by them in its depiction of yobs gatecrashing a student party. Where it differs from the likes of Look Out, Hooligans! is that it has no sociological purpose whatsoever - in fact, the party is real, and Polański bribed a local gang to trash it, telling no-one but the camera crew - a practical joke which nearly got him expelled from the school, despite his obvious talent.


STS 58 (d. Agnieszka Osiecka, 1959, 7:58)

For reasons that probably don't need explaining, one subject that the "black series" filmmakers shied away from (or, just as likely, were prevented from tackling) was censorship. This film needs footnotes for full appreciation (helpfully provided bythe booklet), because even though it's the exception to that general rule, the story is told so obliquely that one assumes that the film's target audience was fully aware of the background of a Student Satirical Theatre (STS) revue being cancelled for unspecified political reasons, which we are invited to glean from the snippets of performance and backstage discussion glimpsed here.


A Day Without the Sun (d. Kazimierz Karabasz, Władysław Ślesicki, 1959, 18:38)

Though this is the third collaboration between Kazimierz Karabasz and Władysław Ślesicki to be featured in this compilation, A Day Without the Sun is radically different from its predecessors, and indeed scarcely qualifies as a documentary, being essentially a short drama, strongly reminiscent of the work of Karabasz's beloved Italian neorealists in both its visual treatment and its bittersweet melancholic tone. It's a study of loneliness in a big city, with the unnamed protagonist (Leszek Kryżański) clearly unsure of exactly what he's after, but all too aware that he needs a major life change.


Island of Great Hopes (d. Bohdan Poręba, 1957, 14:13)

Finally, another film about disadvantaged children - but unlike The Children Accuse, Rocky Soil or Warsaw '56, this can't possibly be accused of sensationalism or shock tactics, consisting as it does of a restrained yet moving look at the work of the Olin Children's Sanatorium near Warsaw. The emphasis is as much on rehabilitation (in both the physical and psychological sense) as any physical cure, though the film's centrepiece is a lengthy operation scene in which young Janeczka recites a children's poem in order to distract herself from the pain and discomfort. Though the film suggests potential improvements in the sanatorium's services, this is a world apart from the critical finger-pointing of the "black series" films proper.


The other extra is a 60-page bilingual booklet (bound, not stapled), offering an introduction to the "black series" and context-setting notes and credits on each film in Polish and English by Polish documentary cinema expert Mikołaj Jazdon. Thankfully, unlike earlier PWA documentary releases, the text is now in upper and lower case and consequently much more readable - and there's plenty to read, as Jazdon supplies a huge amount of invaluable background detail. He also covers films that were proposed but never shot, because their subject matter was considered too near the knuckle even in the Gomułka era - even if it was something as apparently innocuous as people discussing the post-1956 reforms in a favourable light.

Conclusion

Aside from a few minor niggles to do with the transfers and subtitling (though the fact that English subtitles are offered at all is a huge bonus in itself), this is a magnificent release. It's historically fascinating, culturally wide-ranging, sociologically riveting, and allows non-Polish speakers to fill a huge gap in their knowledge of Polish cinema at what may have been the most critically important time in its development. The generous decision to add eight additional context-setting films to the thirteen core titles makes its survey of the period all the richer, and the booklet is an indispensable addition that is arguably the most comprehensive study of the "black series" available in English in any form. And, like PWA's titles in general, it's absurdly cheap for what you get - depending on the exchange rate, you should be able to pick it up for a tenner or less from Polish outlets like Merlin, Traffic Club or even PWA themselves.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
9 out of 10
Overall

9

out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 20:33:13

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