A Look Back at a Polish Master

The 20th annual edition of the Polish Film Festival in America, which is held every year in Chicago, is offering a retrospective this month of the work of Jerzy Kawalerowicz, one of the most unjustly neglected of East European post-WWII filmmakers. I wrote a bit about Kawalerowicz a couple of years ago when the Film Society of Lincoln Center did a series of his films, and given the program in Chicago, I thought I'd post that piece once again. Keep in mind that this was written for Jewish Week, which explains the slightly odd focus of the piece.

There is among Jews a tendency, I think, to underestimate how brutal and tragic the history of the Polish people has been. Poland has been overrun by countless ruthless dictators, partitioned repeatedly, its people murdered and tormented. Nowhere is this message brought home more forcefully than in the works of the four major filmmakers who emerged in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation of Poland in the late 1940s, the auteurs of the cinematic “Polish Spring”: Andrzej Wajda, Tadeusz Konwicki, Jerzy Munk and Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Wajda, of course, is well known in the U.S., and Konwicki and Munk were the subjects of retrospectives in New York City last year.

Now it’s Kawalerowicz’s turn, and Jews and film scholars alike should rejoice, because Kawalerowicz is not only a highly accomplished director and screenwriter, he is among the most totally philo-Semitic non-Jews in the history of Polish culture, a filmmaker whose work includes highly sympathetic, nuanced and affectionate portrayals of Jewish characters in almost every one of the films that were available to the press prior to the opening of the program of his works at the Walter Reade Theater.

How to explain this unusual affinity? Kawalerowicz said in an 2001 interview with Ray Privett (which can be found on the excellent Web site Kinoeye at www.kinoeye.org), that he grew up in a small town in Ukraine, Gwozdziec, where “60 percent of the people were Jewish, 30 percent were Ukrainian and 10 percent Polish. It was a typical Galician town, which was totally destroyed by the Holocaust. But because I lived with many people who died in the Holocaust, I remember everything about them.”

It is a world he portrays with great warmth in his 1983 film “Austeria/The Inn,” based on a novel by Julian Stryjkowksi (born Pesach Stern, and another fascinating figure in his own right). “Austeria” was a life-long dream project for Kawalerowicz, a tragic recounting of the first day of World War I as experienced by people trapped in a Jewish-run inn on the edge of the Polish-Russian border. He immediately and deftly sets up a contrast between the verdant, seemingly peaceful countryside and the almost unending thunder of artillery shells in the distance. Kawalerowicz’s vision of the countryside, however, is anything but idyllic. In “Austeria,” as in the other films of his that I have seen, it is a quietly chaotic and empty place, reflective of a Hobbesian world in which the forces of destruction are seldom far away. As one of the Jews says, “I’ve fled before ... to escape a pogrom.”

At the same time, the different elements of the Jewish community — chasids, maskilim, a troupe of itinerant actors, local farmers — are depicted with wry, warm humor. Kawalerowicz, who describes himself as an Armenian with no attachment to the Armenian Orthodox Church, takes particular delight in the chasids, fleeing with their all-but-mute tzaddik, bursting into powerful song and dance at the drop of a suggestion of deliverance. They are endowed with a spirituality that most of Kawalerowicz’s protagonists are denied.

Perhaps the most surprisingly unspiritual of these is the priest-exorcist at the center of his best-known film, “Mother Joan of the Angels” (1961). Another retelling of a true incident of alleged demonic possession in a convent, the story was the inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudon” and Ken Russell’s “The Devils.” An austere, almost forbidding film, “Mother Joan” anticipates the work of Andrei Tarkovsky (particularly his masterpiece “Andrei Rublev”), but unlike Tarkovsky, or Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer, two other directors whose names the film calls to mind, Kawalerowicz seems to deny his tormented anti-hero grace and transcendence. Here, there is only self-abnegation and self-destruction. The priest’s alter ego, a rabbi (both of them played by the extraordinary Mieczslaw Voit) warns him that he hovers at the lip of the abyss, but the alarm goes unheeded.

Kawalerowicz achieves some of his most stunning effects in both these films with sudden shifts of point-of-view. Given the claustrophobically self-contained communities he depicts in them, these abrupt switches are startling, even shocking. It is a structural motif he uses to great effect in another of his films, “Night Train.” A 1959 effort that seems at first to be a low-key film noir about the passengers on an overnight train to a beach resort, it quickly reveals itself to be something altogether more profound, a sad rumination on the tension between the individual and the social unit and the ease with which people can become a mob. Like many of his other characters, the people on the title vehicle are fighting what one of them calls, “the modern disease, fear of anonymity,” yet their very struggles defeat them.

Even in this otherwise seemingly apolitical film, Kawalerowicz makes a small explicit bow to the Shoah, showing one of the more likeable passengers sitting up all night reading because the sleeper berths remind him of his time as an inmate at Buchenwald.

When he deals directly with World War II itself, in a labyrinthine 1956 thriller, “The Shadow,” the experience is of a piece with his later, more accomplished and oblique films. Life consists of sudden death, people hide their true selves from one another, often in the service of ignoble causes, and fires seem to be burning in the distance all the time. Only his third film, “The Shadow” is a quantum leap from his debut feature “Night of Remembrance” (1954), a rather stolid literary adaptation distinguished only for a few nicely staged set pieces and a surprisingly forthright attack on anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church.

Now 81, Kawalerowicz has not made a film since 2001’s “Quo Vadis.” His output is depressingly slender, only 16 features in nearly 40 years of directing. Given the obstacles faced by artists in the Stalinist nightmare world of post-WWII Poland, that is not entirely surprising. His critical neglect outside Poland, however, is inexplicable.

That was published in 2004; Kawalerowicz didn't make any more films, unfortunately. He died last year, a fact that went largely unremarked in the American dailies.

For those of you who aren't in the vicinity of Chicago, there are seven of his films available from Facets Multi-Media for the not ridiculous price of $29.95.