The New Naïveté: Recent Developments in Polish Independent Cinema

By Christopher J. Caes (U of Florida)

© Christopher J. Caes, 2005

In this article I examine a number of recent Polish independent films that have had both critical and popular successes, and have given many cause to believe that, following the last dozen or so lackluster years, something is once again happening in Polish cinema. I am referring to films like Krzysztof Krauze’s The Debt (Dług, 1999), Robert Gliński’s Hi, Tereska (Cześć, Tereska, 2001), and, in particular, Piotr Trzaskalski’s Edi (2002) and Andrzej Jakimowski’s Squint Your Eyes (Zmruż oczy, 2002). Hailed by prominent Polish film reviewer and critic Tadeusz Sobolewski as the “beginning of a new Polish European cinema” (Sobolewski 2004a, 13), these films combine handheld camerawork, long takes, discontinuous editing, and realistic settings to achieve a vibrant poetic naturalism into which they embed limpid narratives of the marginalized, the outcast, the newly disenfranchised of Poland’s contemporary capitalist reality.

Yet perhaps unusually for films that have been labeled a “cinema of capitalist disillusionment” (Sobolewski 2004b, 10), these are films, I think, whose design is not to criticize but overwhelmingly to affirm, to portray and to posit as authentic ideal the essential goodness and simplicity of heart of a few ethical individuals in a fallen consumerist world. Unlike the querying, behaviorist, and ultimately relativist “Cinema of Moral Anxiety” of Poland in the 1970s to which they have been compared, these films do not encounter much difficulty in establishing moral foundations in a familiar Catholic idiom of (loss of) innocence and redemption. Though I contend, then, that ultimately these films position viewers largely as compliant recipients of their cultural and ideological viewpoints, the point to be made is not a polemical one, but a cultural and a historical one, and I seek to locate them within a set of intricate and unavoidable relations to the newly predominant element of “naïveté” in contemporary Polish popular culture.

The freshness and promise that these films have held for many Polish spectators and critics must be seen against the backdrop of the crisis reached by the Polish film industry in the early 2000s. First of all, an artistic impasse had been reached. The Polish industry, under no insignificant pressure from producers, had stalled somewhere between a second-rate commercial genre-film industry and a steady stream of ever more mechanically made screen adaptations of classics of Polish literature. Secondly, Polish cinema was in turmoil organizationally. In 2001, the state Committee of Cinematography was dissolved and the state television enterprises had all but abandoned the funding of cinematic release films. On top of this, the promised cinema funding reform and establishment of an Institute of Polish Film organized on West European models to protect and finance film and achieve the proper balance between commercial industry and national art was nowhere in sight. Polish cinema was threatened with bankruptcy.

What a surprise, then, when the 2002 annual Festival of Polish Films in Gdynia nevertheless brought together no less than twenty films. Where had they come from? Significantly, this was the first year that independent films had been included in the screenings and they made up nearly one third of the entries. And, in fact, three of the films that made the greatest sensation at the 2002 festival were independent films. Piotr Trzaskalski, after waiting nearly ten years for his debut, had turned to Piotr Dzięcioł, who had been active as a private producer of TV ads and received funding from him for his first feature film, Edi. Artur Więcek had for years been soliciting funding from source after source and had finally collected enough capital to make the comedy Angel in Cracow (Anioł w Krakowie, 2002). And Andrzej Jakimowski had shot Squint Your Eyes in under three weeks on an absolutely shoestring budget with the help of friends and acquaintances.

But it was independent filmmaker Łukasz Barczyk who perhaps best summed up the attitude among the new generation:

I’ve stopped worrying about the situation of a beginning director in Poland. Things are the way they are. The rest depends on me. Instead of beating my head against the wall, I’m like water. I flow into every crack and I take advantage of every possibility. When I started making my film Changes [Przemiany, 2003], I had nothing. The crew worked for a share of whatever eventual profit there might be. Then some co-producers appeared, and then after shooting was finished some state support did come in. I can’t complain… I’ve got three screenplays in the drawer. I live by passion. (Quoted in Sobolewski 2004a, 13)

Barczyk’s upbeat tone and positive outlook may be seen as indicative of the new independent filmmakers. Moreover, and more importantly for the purposes of this article, his attitude can be taken as an expression of a certain practical philosophy of filmmakers that is itself mirrored in the content of the films under discussion; for there is something appropriate in the fact that the hope of Polish cinema is precisely a cinema of hope. In other words, filmmakers learning to pursue their passion while simultaneously learning to work the system are shooting pictures that broadcast parables of cultural redemption to the consumers and entrepreneurs struggling to find meaning in contemporary Polish social reality.
In order to present the elements of this thesis more adequately, I offer first brief characterizations of the films in question.

Krauze’s The Debt is based on true events in the life of Sławomir Sikora, a man currently behind bars in Poland for murder. A young man, Adam (Robert Gonera) and his friend Stefan (Jacek Borcuch) have conceived a plan to go into business for themselves importing Italian scooters to Poland. Though they’ve done their marketing homework and the project promises to be a lucrative one, they cannot find a creditor to issue a loan. Stefan meets an old friend, Gerard (Andrzej Chyra), who becomes interested in the deal and promises to arrange funding through an important investor. When this investor demands over 20% of the profits, the deal falls through and Gerard presents the friends with a bill for costs. At first they laugh Gerard off, but it becomes evident that Gerard has mob connections and is persistent. At this point the nightmare begins for the two would-be businessmen. Gerard harasses, threatens, and assaults them, seeking to wring the “debt” plus interest out of them in any way possible. Pushed to their limits, they conceive a plan to kidnap Gerard and frighten him off. The plan goes awry and in a fit of fury Adam kills Gerard and his thug friend. Adam confesses to the crime and turns himself in.

Gliński’s Hi, Tereska is a bitter coming of age story, narrating the moral and social corruption of Tessa (Aleksandra Gietner), a working class girl in her teens. A number of avenues of social and moral advancement are open to her: she is in a church choir and she is able to get a position in a seamstress school, something that she likes to do. Initially lost in the new context, she befriends Edziu (Zbigniew Zamachowski), an alcoholic quadraplegic who, like her, seeks friendship and contact. But at school she soon falls in with Renata (Karolina Sobczak), who leads her astray. Renata introduces her to cigarettes, alcohol, shows her the art of petty theft, the rules of “adult life.” Tessa’s story ends tragically, she is raped by one of the boys Renata sets her up with, Renata turns out to have been stealing from her, and, in a paroxysm of rage, she takes out her frustration on Edziu, who has also attempted to exploit her sexually.

Edi (Henryk Gołębiowski), the titular character of Trzaskalski’s debut film, is a junk metal collector, who with his friend, the stuttering Jureczek (Jacek Braciak), ekes out a meager living picking up the scraps of consumer civilization and selling them to a junkyard. Perhaps incongruously, Edi also happens to appreciate literature and has amassed an impressive library in his unplugged refrigerator. Because of his erudition and his ugliness, he is hired by a pair of thugs to tutor their younger sister, Princess (Aleksandra Kisio), for her high school graduation exam. When the sister becomes pregnant, she blames Edi in order to avoid throwing suspicion on another man, Gypsy (Dominik Bąk), who is the real object of her affections. In a paroxysm of violence the gangsters brutally beat up and castrate Edi as the supposed rapist of their sister. Nine months later they also deposit her child in his lap, and he and Jureczek move out of town to the country to Edi’s ex-girlfriend, who has married Edi’s brother and lives on Edi’s family land. But when the gangsters finally discover who the true father of the child is, they are so moved by Edi’s silent sacrifice that they allow Princess and Gypsy to be together and the child is returned to its rightful parents.

In Jakimowski’s Squint Your Eyes, Jaś (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is a schoolteacher who for unspecified reasons has left his profession and taken a job as a watchman at a dilapidated, nearly bankrupt collective farm in rural eastern Poland. A former pupil of his, a twelve-year old girl, Mała (Ola Prószyńska), who has run away from her affluent, but emotionally distant parents, is staying with him at the site. He promises not to give her away if she stops stealing. A small community crops up at the collective farm, an idiot-savant who has memorized classical Greek poetry, several rural types, Jaś and the girl. Finally, seeing that she must return to her family, Jaś threatens to leave unless she does so.

Finally, mention must also be made of Więcek’s Angel in Cracow, the only comedy in the group. It tells the story of Giordano (Krzysztof Globisz), an angel who has backslidden somewhat in heaven, spending his time listening to rock-and-roll rather than attending to his duties. He is reprimanded and sent to Holland to minister to the people there as a part of his work on himself. But a prankster plays a trick on him, changing the heavenly transport dial from Holland to Poland, and Giordano ends up in Kraków. Here he begins his “ministry.” He finds himself amongst Kraków’s counter-cultural community, where he befriends a hobo, meets a single mother who serves sausages to prostitutes and revelers. Giordano’s experiences make him human at the same time as he edifies those around him with tidbits of wry heavenly wisdom and advice.
As can be seen from these cursory descriptions, the films of the new Polish independent cinema embrace the marginal―the unemployed, the eccentric, the simple, the poor, the imprisoned―in a word, those who according to the harsh rules of contemporary Polish capitalist social reality would be designated the “losers.” Common to nearly all of them is the denial of the profit motive, both on-screen in the narratives of sacrifice and disinterested ethico-moral behavior as well as off-screen in the refusal to court audiences with overt commercial conventions. This prominent characteristic of these films has been commented on and Tadeusz Sobolewski has even christened them the Polish “cinema of capitalist disillusionment.” He writes:

We have been taught the unconditional laws of the market, fetishized nowadays as was once the law of “class struggle.” The time of disillusionment has come. It turns out that in the shadow of colorful billboards we are experiencing a new type of alienation, a different one than under communism, but just as tormenting. We gradually begin to understand the rules of the game and to distance ourselves from the “system.” We begin to understand a little better the West European anti-capitalist cinema of Godard and Loach. It no longer suffices to attach the derogatory label “lefty loonies” [“lewacy”] to them. (Sobolewski 2004b, 10)

From Sobolewski’s words one might expect the new independent cinema to be something like a radically critical, even activist cinema. Nothing further from the truth could be the case, as we will see. Indeed, Sobolewski himself, as if sensing that he may have strayed too far in his anti-capitalist sentiment, hastens to qualify his statement: “The recognition that the world is badly organized can be a strengthening one, provided that it does not lead to one more radical ideology―a black one or a red one, like the utopia of the world without the market or without money” (Sobolewski 2004b, 10). Read symptomatically, Sobolewski’s own instinctive placing of the limits of systemic critique is an apt point of departure for thinking about the films of the new independent cinema. In other words, I will seek to characterize the unique situation of these films as that of a cinema for which the diagnosis of contemporary alienation and inequality is a systemic one―it is a “cinema of capitalist disillusionment”―but for which the imagining of a “world without the market or money” is disqualified from the outset. This is due not so much to this cinema’s direct inheritance of the anticommunist dissident cultural legacy―unease with Marxist-derived or even left-liberal vocabularies is much too ingrained in contemporary Polish culture for it even to occur to cultural producers, former dissident or not, to mount critiques from this quarter―as to its determination by the success of the dissident legacy in establishing a series of ethico-moral, foundational explanations for individual and social behavior in contemporary Polish culture.

But comparisons to Western cinematic models and movements are not the only ones Sobolewski makes and he also compares the new Polish independent cinema to the vibrant “Cinema of Moral Anxiety” of the 1970s, in recent criticism also referred to as the Cinema of Distrust. This is a movement that included such recognized filmmakers as Andrzej Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Krzysztof Zanussi, and which ranged itself in the forefront of the great cultural ferment of the late 1970s, the prelude to Solidarity. Let us recall briefly the central import of the Cinema of Distrust. In films like Man of Marble (dir. Wajda, 1976), Camouflage (dir. Zanussi, 1976), The Camera Buff (dir. Kieślowski, 1979), and Top Dog (dir. Feliks Falk, 1978), Polish directors of the 1970s undertook a concerted effort to portray and analyze the complex set of determinants and mechanisms on which the communist social order rested. Of crucial importance in some of the finest works of the Cinema of Distrust is the ending, the moment of critical awakening, when the analysis clicks into place and protagonist and spectator gain a clearer perspective on a complex social reality. It is as if the films of the Cinema of Distrust end where they should begin―and they do, with the exception that the new beginning of the ending takes shape in the spectator’s consciousness as the movement from analysis into action. The paradigmatic example of this is probably Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) from Wajda’s Man of Marble, who, as we recall, never completes her documentary film, but instead exchanges aesthetics for politics and steps from the realm of representation into action. Rather than making films, she joins the democratic opposition. In this sense, the Cinema of Distrust was an activist cinema par excellence, bringing dramatic narrative to a crystallizing moment beyond which practice must begin.

Despite superficial thematic similarities, however, any number of oppositions might be pointed out that distinguish the new Polish independent cinema from the Cinema of Distrust. Perhaps most indicative of the divergence in program or message is the way in which the films of each movement probe and specularize instances of failure, but with sharply different emphases. The Cinema of Distrust brought about the protagonist’s failure in order to explode his or her comfortable illusions of authenticity and to map individual behavior onto a wider social grid of action and identity. The new independent cinema takes precisely the opposite tack and contrasts the eccentric outsider to the new social reality only to establish his or her ultimate authenticity and inner freedom. Whereas the Cinema of Distrust nursed failure to keep that spark of uncertainty that leads to critical consciousness burning, the new independent films, despite their focus on the “losers” under capitalism, are in actuality a series of success stories that serve to soothe and assuage, rather than to probe and prick.

Trzaskalski’s Edi is particularly striking in this respect. In this film, the eponymous hero is faced with total loss and psychic and physical ruination―he loses his land, his home, his wife, and even his testicles―but his innate and unshakeable goodness allow him to bear all of this with the stoicism of a saint, and by the conclusion of the film he has been transformed into an edifying example of forgiveness and mercy to those around him. Indeed, the term “St. Edi” cropped up widely in reviews and discussions of the film following its premier. Sobolewski, in an article entitled “Edi’s Freedom,” summarizes Edi’s message of stoic peace and reconciliation for the fallen world of consumer capitalism: “Edi tells us that it is not important how much money you have, what’s important is to keep pushing your cart forward and not to get too tied to various habits or desires. After all, there is no tragedy too great to be born. Even death can be endured, as long as you die conscious of who you are” (Sobolewski 2002, 16). Unusual in this advocacy of what in practice are familiar mottoes of survival in contemporary reality―“don’t rock the boat,” “keep your nose to the grind,” etc.―is the extremity to which it is taken: it is to include the passive acceptance of even the most egregious force and usurpation of privileges, indeed, death and dismemberment. Sobolewski’s instinctive attempt to draw inspiring messages from film art for daily life, though candid, is naively literalizing and amounts to nothing more than the sentimentilization of an attitude of utter abjectness.

The hero of Jakimowski’s Squint Your Eyes is comparable to Edi in this respect. Retreating into a sort of internal exile, ex-teacher and homespun philosopher Jaś maintains an inward sense of meaning and coherence by choosing not to be active in the new social reality. In something like a refunctioning of the thesis of the “treason of the intellectuals,” Jaś, steeped in classical Greek poetry (in the original!) and possessing a nigh unto Heideggerian perspective on “being and time,” simply refuses to enter into the inherently corrupt and demeaning arrangements foisted on him by employers.

Typical for both of these films is a self-conscious fairy-tale-like quality―“It is a naïve structure,” Trzaskalski says of his film, which comes replete with a Princess, the name of the gangsters‘ daughter. Meanwhile, in Squint Your Eyes, the subplot of the old, decrepit eagle who miraculously regains the power of flight gives the film an underlying magical-realist quality. But the fairy-tale trappings also mean an eschewing of the social, a blurring of the focus of one’s perspective on contemporary reality―the “squint” of the eyes of the title refers to bringing a “soft focus” to the world around you in order to let the “magic” of being creep into it.

Far from systematic or even fragmentary critiques of capitalism, then, the films of the new independent cinema might perhaps more accurately be described as so many attempts to cope with capitalism, or, even better, to supplement capitalism, to improve it by giving it a soul, making it more ethical, and to discern within it an occluded spiritual dimension. Typically, the self-descriptions and intentions of the directors, as well as the pronouncements of the critics, are strewn with messages of hope and seem to take place in a sort of celebratory atmosphere. While on the set of Edi, for instance, producer Piotr Dzięcioł spoke of the atmosphere there as completely different from that of a TV commercial; it was rather that of a “true holiday” (“The Making of Edi” 2004). [1] Similarly, in his review of Krauze’s latest effort, My Nikifor (Mój Nikifor, 2004), Soboloewski wrote: “The measure of the success of Krauze’s film is that it enabled the spectators to feel that ‘something.’ What should we call it? The Good, heaven, God?” (Sobolewski 2004c, 10). And Krauze, speaking of his reasons for making the TV series Great Things (Wielkie rzeczy, 2000), stated: “I’m going to make films about what it’s worth defending in life, not what you should avoid. Perhaps the Good is not photogenic, and it certainly doesn’t sell well, especially on TV. You’ve got to make an extra effort, then, to tell a story about the bright side of life” (quoted in Zarębski 2001, 43). The Good, God, Heaven―whatever the “something” is, it is a foundation for meaning and identity beneath or beyond the illusory bonds and obligations laid on the individual by the cruel or indifferent world of the market. The market is the ephemera over the underlying eternal order of coherence and truth. Yes, God (or at least humanism) exists.

This tendency to implicitly or unconsciously posit such an order as the ground from which meaning and human life spring somewhat short-circuits any efficacy as social critique these films might have. It is as if, undertaking an attempt to explore and represent the sources and problems of contemporary disillusionment, they “overshot” the mark, eschewing the painstaking work of representing the social concrete and arriving all too soon at a pat answer. Indeed, despite Krauze’s own conception of The Debt as a social-political film (“Krauze & Feldman” 4), one would be hard pressed to find any concrete social or political postulate in any of these films other than the legitimate, but nevertheless inconsequential complaint that law enforcement doesn’t work in contemporary Poland. The police cannot protect Edi from gangster predators. The police are equally incompetent in Squint Your Eyes. And in Hi, Tereska, the girl’s father is an alcoholic policeman who loses his job. A bad policeman is a bad father and the social and the familial are conflated.

The Debt is perhaps the most illustrative in this instance. The central issue of the film is not whether or not capitalism alienates or dehumanizes, but whether or not the police can guarantee the film’s enterprising protagonists the requisite safety so that they can go about their business enthusiastically reaping profits. The heroes do everything right: they have a strong product, they are well up on their market research, they are confident, inventive, and resourceful. Moreover, in their private lives they are sexy, either married or engaged to beautiful women; one of the protagonists is on the threshold of middle-class bliss with land purchased for a house and a child on the way, while the other has had his mountain-climbing photographs published in that icon of masculine success and virility, the Polish edition of Playboy. Yet the police cannot protect the heroes from their blackmailer and they only take matters into their own hands after having scrupulously exhausted the proper channels and found them to be useless. Their world collapses and they commit a crime. But the film throws its entire affective weight behind these innocents and the sense is that if only the police and the judicial arm of the liberal-democratic state functioned properly, the youth would not be molested and contaminated by evil sociopaths like Gerard. Moreover, Gerard is not even a social type―we see no background on him or the social mechanisms that helped generate his behavior―but is ultimately merely a figure of bottomless evil, a predator preying on fledgling capitalists. [2]


Both Edi and Squint Your Eyes also share this essential attachment to values they seemingly subject to scrutiny. In the former movie, suffice it to note that the oft-quoted phrase “Christmas is whenever we want it to be” is stated by Edi when he has just sold his entire book collection in order fulfill a neighborhood boy’s ultimate consumerist dream by buying him an immense red toy car. And in the latter film, a crucial by-product of the family crisis and resolution mediated by Jaś is the reforging of the affluent upper-middle-class family.

Seen politically, then, these films, rather than advancing narratives of potential social or political change, essentially embrace the status quo, with two qualifications. One we have just seen: none of these stories would have taken place if the police had just done their job. The other is that an ethico-moral-cultural discipline must be enforced among contemporary Poles to complement―or even replace―law enforcement. These films take on this project and to this end wed an occasionally very self-conscious cultural didacticism to a cultivated sensibility of naïveté. This unique stance or semi-programmatic platform arises, I think, from the double-bind situation in which these filmmakers and, indeed, cultural producers in Poland in a larger sense, find themselves: sources of social dissatisfaction have too clearly revealed themselves to be systemically related to the free market economy as it currently exists in Poland, yet the near total ban, or rather, impossibility in cultural discourses of any analysis or critique that speaks a systemic language causes the identification of injustice or inequality to be displaced into an ethico-metaphysical, when not moralist vocabulary. The problem is that in order to reduce the multiple complexities of a difficult and challenging social reality, in which solutions are not obvious, to a binary opposition between pure good and evil (or at least moral slothfulness), one must “become as a child,” so to speak. Therefore, the narratives of change these films tell will be precisely of falls from a state of authentic innocence, which is then set up or made recuperable in the figure of the fool-savant, who reverses the pupil-teacher relationship, either on screen or vis-à-vis the audience, and teaches how to temper endless consumption with the Good.

Earlier I described these films as success stories and it is by revisiting this notion that we can gain a view on the didactic designs of two of the earlier films in the group, The Debt and Hi, Tereska. In these films, the tale of success is not one directly portrayed on screen in the diegesis―both films end with the ultimate failure and further marginalization of their protagonists (both commit murder)―but consists of the educatory or edifying effect ostensibly on the spectator, but even more uniquely on the cast, crew, or real-life individuals on whom the film is based. The Debt and Hi, Tereska involve cinema in the life of actual people who have real problems. Both of the lead and supporting actresses of Hi, Tereska, for instance, Aleksandra Gietner and Karolina Sobczak, are non-professional actresses, wards of a home for troubled youth discovered by Gliński and cast by him to play something like a fiction of how somebody like them could have ended up how they did or perhaps worse. Significantly, in a videotaped interview between Gliński and his lead actress, the director again and again probes her with questions of how the film has changed her, of what it has given her. After a few moments of teenage brusqueness, she finally admits gruffly: “Behavior” (“The Making of Hi, Tereska”). It is as if the film―itself a narrative exploration of the mutually determining factors of poverty, education, and alcoholism in youth delinquency―had become an extension of the socialization process for the young girl cast in the lead role. The Debt, similarly, based on events in the life of real-life prisoner Sławomir Sikora, has become a vehicle for him to perform a public act of repentance and to enact a media-based process of self-reform through reaching out to the prison community, founding a prison poetry club, and authoring a book based on his experiences.

Both the actress playing Tessa and Sławomir Sikora are innocents gone astray in the interstices of capitalism. Tessa is literally still a child and the entire film is framed and punctuated by images of childhood innocence. It begins with her first communion and portrays her involvement in a church choir. The choir will appear at intervals throughout the film as the barometer of truth and innocence, the voices of the heavenly hosts, as it were, representing the right path, the one not taken as Tessa is led further and further into the world of cigarettes and alchohol, boys and power by her temptress friend who ultimately betrays her. And Tessa’s younger sister, who for much of the film is the same age as Tessa from the beginning, haunts the narrative as the measure of how far Tessa has fallen, as the promise of a second chance for actress and audience to do things right this time. Similarly, Sławomir Sikora, at the cusp of success when he committed his crime, explains his actions as something like a misguided attempt not to disappoint parental expectations. In Jakimowski’s Squint Your Eyes, the nuclear family has been made unnatural by the parents’ consumerist preoccupations and the daughter has taken to petty thievery in order to win attention. It is her former teacher, Jaś, whom she flees to, who reforges the bonds of this affluent, upper middle-class family so that they can have their affective authenticity and eat their consumerist cake as well.

Both Hi, Tereska and Squint Your Eyes have in common actor Zbigniew Zamachowski in relationships with teenage girls. We might use the purifying of this relationship in the progression from film to film as a marker of the increasing importance accorded naïveté. In the earlier film, Zamachowski plays a physically handicapped, symbollically castrated male who befriends Tessa, but who eventually capitulates to desire and seeks sexual contact with her. In the later film, however, the relationship between Zamachowski and the teenage girl is represented with wide-eyed straightforwardness and high seriousness precisely as a type of unique friendship, so inexplicably unambiguous in its profound innocence that, following a failed attempt by the police to remove the girl, even the parents accept the relationship at face value. Why not? It could happen.

Hand-in-hand with the proliferation of literal or symbolic pupil-teacher relationships in the new independent cinema and part-and-parcel of the cultural project of ethical discipline is an unusual attachment to high art, prominently on display in each of the films. The father in The Debt, upon learning that his younger son does not yet know any of Poland’s high romantic national epic, Pan Tadeusz, exclaims: “Don’t they teach you poetry in school anymore?” He then launches into an impassioned and not at all ironicized recitation of the opening stanzas of the poem, with his wife chiming in. For Squint Your Eyes the mark of great culture is classical Greek poetry, which the village idiot-savant scrawls on concrete, while in Edi it is Shakespeare. Edi is particularly logocentric in this respect, with the hero claiming at one point (while poring over Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) that though “TVs and the images they transmit may come and go, words never change.” Even the gangsters are committed to their younger sister’s education and though we might say they are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons―they need a high-school diploma legally to register their money-laundering operations―it provides Edi the opportunity, in a bathos-filled scene, to work through Shakespeare’s immortal play with Princess. Meanwhile the heavenly hero of Angel in Cracow, as a part of his mission to call the people of Poland back to their national, religious, and ethical heritage, applies a liberal application of quotations from Shakespeare, the poetry of Polish Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz, contemporary Polish poetry, and the Bible. Krzysztof Krauze, finally, in an open letter to President Aleksander Kwaśniewski pleading for Sikora’s reprieve, legitimates his work of art via references to Dostoevskii and Tolstoii (Krauze 2004). In trying to lay claim to and re-functionalize what might be termed the humanist legacy of high art, it is as if these films are attempting to undertake the cultural work that is only insufficiently accomplished institutionally in Poland.

Angel in Cracow and Edi, both released in 2002, mark a crucial inflection of the themes of edifying art and childlike innocence. If in Hi, Tereska and The Debt the educatory function of the films was implicit in the directorial intent, in these and a number of subsequent films, the childlike figure within the film now also takes on the role of wise-man, guide, and seer: in Edi, Edi, the junk collector, has a master-pupil relationship with the stutterer, Jureczek, while in Angel in Cracow, this role is fulfilled by the Angel Giordano.

Krzysztof Krauze’s latest film perfectly illustrates this contemporary fascination with the naïve guru. His award-winning My Nikifor tells the story of the last eight years in the life of Efrem Drowniak (1895-1968), aka Nikifor the Artist―an eccentric figure, particularly against the backdrop of “really existing socialism” in provincial Poland―who is said to have been one of the world’s most renowned “naïve artists.” Trzaskalski’s latest venture, Maestro (2005) promises to provide further material for reflection.

But why naïveté? In order to pose an answer to this question something must be said about the cultural legacy of dissidence, or more broadly, of the culture of popular resistance to the former communist regime. It is particularly difficult to historicize this legacy, since we are still “inside” it, so to speak. To put it somewhat reductively, when we write about contemporary Polish culture or when we examine Polish culture of the past from the perspective of the general current in contemporary Polish literary, film, or cultural criticism, we are writing from within a cultural and historical moment still strongly defined discursively by the underpinnings of dissident thought and philosophy. Naturally I do not mean that contemporary Polish artists continue to produce works, books, films like those produced during the final decades of the struggle against communism; on the contrary, the entire process of establishing alternative―many would say “normal”―purposes for cultural production within a sovereign and democratic nation-state has been one of the most conspicuous and debated aspects of the decade-and-a-half following the collapse of communism. But this debate, for all its tumultuousness, has been conducted essentially at a practical level and has rarely included reflection on the more basic or theoretical level of the discursive matrix or network of cultural and critical doxae on which meaning―philosophical, aesthetic, ethico-political―is based. It is arguable whether or not 1989 was a watershed year for this matrix, for the common denominator that unites dissident thought of the 1970s and 1980s with the new independent Polish cinema and perhaps more broadly with contemporary Polish popular culture as a whole is foundationalism.

This foundationalist matrix can be succinctly summed up in the famous dissident motto of “living in truth.” Historically, the origins of this idea, which has so notoriously short-circuited exchanges between intellectuals in the former East and West, can be located around 1968, with the failure of revisionism, the utter compromise of state socialism in Poland in March and in Czechoslovakia in August of that year, and the seeds planted then for the forging of new links in Poland between the intelligentsia, the working class, and the Church. I use the term, a “new foundationalism” to describe shifts taking place in Polish culture and society throughout the 1970s, shifts taking place both in theory and in practice, and uniting an insistence on a “transcendental signifier”―whether God, nation, humanism, or, most broadly simply “truth”―to the carving out of spaces for acts of genuine and effective resistance to the authoritarian communist regime. The crowning achievement of this historical process occurred, as we all know, in August 1980.

However, without seeking to diminish the agency and authenticity of popular resistance to communism, it is worth historicizing its conceptual framework in order to gain a sharper perspective on the present, which that resistance has so successfully transformed. Sociologists Gil Eyal, Ivan Szelenyi, and Eleanor Townsley, for instance, in a cogently argued examination of the great social and political transformations of Eastern Europe in the 1990s, have remarked on the “enchanted” nature of dissident thought and of its conception of the ideal civil society as the community where all can finally “live in truth” as one of the “least self-reflexive ideas in modern philosophy” (Eyal, et al., 92). This is true. Positing an unmediated, indeed, an affectively experienced, relationship to a transcendental signifier is a characteristic of pre-critical thought. This does not mean that dissident criticism was weak or ineffectual; on the contrary, in its historical context it was eminently effective. Why? Because the communist system had come to be experienced by a huge number of Poles and East Europeans as an outright lie. And as Eva Hoffman has written: “the truth is easier to identify when it’s simply the opposite of a lie” (Hoffman 211).

Western liberal democracies and free-market economies, however, of which Poland is now one, do not legitimate themselves through lies, but through truths. We lose the entire sense of the difference between East European state socialism and Western democracy if we do not insist on this plural noun. This does not at all mean that inequality and injustice do not exist in democracies; on the contrary, there are inequalities that are endemic to and institutionalized within them. It is just that the political and cultural narratives on which Western democratic hegemony rests are by and large consensus-based, not imposed. It is through this consensus-based reality that the clash of multiple truths, of the “passions and the interests,” is mediated, rather than, as under communism, through the immediate paternalistic relation of state to individual.

What is the significance of all of this history for the films of the new Polish independent cinema? Just this: transcendental foundationalisms do not sit well in market economies. They may slide towards dogma―this is not the case with Polish cinema―in which case they strive against the very consensus-based form that permits their own voicing; or they may retreat from the myriad differences, the plural truths that inhabit capitalist social reality and “squint the eyes,” so to speak, to see not systemic injustice but underlying clashes of self-identical eternal principles. The problem is that the resulting picture of contemporary reality is so harshly―and particularly in the case of Edi―so grotesquely reductive, that one would have to adopt the perspective of a naïf to accept it. Hence, the “new naïveté” is the historical afterlife of the “new foundationalism” in an imperfect post-communist civil society.

Christopher J. Caes ( University of Florida)


This paper was originally presented at the conference “Cinema in Europe: Networks in Progress,” organized by the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis in Amsterdam, 23-25 June 2005.

[1] Note also the conjunction of cinema and holidays in the nine-part series of films produced by Polish Television in 2000-2005 and entitled Polish Holidays [Polskie święta]. Each film is based around a different holiday and presents a story based in contemporary reality concerning moral and psychological aspects of today’s Poles.

[2] While it is not necessarily always productive to evaluate a film by noting that another film handles a similar set of themes and problems much more satisfactorily, it is nevertheless instructive to compare Krauze’s The Debt with Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Short Film about Killing (1988). Both films concern a heinous murder, the motivation of the killer or killers, the appropriateness of the punishment, and a rhetorical gesture towards the spectator to judge these matters for him or herself. The resemblance ends there. Perhaps the most striking difference between the two films is Krauze’s refusal to “trust” the spectator with the burden of coming up with a moral or socio-political position on the matter at hand. In other words, unlike Kieslowski’s extremely open and ambivalent picture, which consistently refuses to establish easy ties of emotional identification between spectator and either killer or victim, Krauze’s effort is thoroughly unambiguous and leaves absolutely no doubt as to where its judgment lies. We recall, briefly, that in Short Film… the murder initially is thoroughly unmotivated and horrifies the spectator in its grisliness. It is only later in the film that we learn of the young man’s troubled and traumatic past and witness his equally horrifying execution. Similarly, the victim is presented from the opening sequences of the film as rude, spiteful, and downright sadistic. Again, only later do we learn that he, too, has experienced personal tragedy. In The Debt, on the contrary, rather than do anything that might risk an unfavorable judgment of his protagonists, not only does Krauze quickly seek to establish affective ties between spectator and main characters (naïveté, ambition, family, romance, sex), his screenplay even “airbrushes” the real-life elements on which the plot is based. For instance, whereas Sławomir Sikora and his colleague were attempting to set up the import of American cosmetics, in the film the characters have a “better” idea, they are going to import Italian motor scooters. Similarly, whereas in real life it was Sikora’s partner’s girlfriend who had appeared in Playboy, in the film this detail is altered and it is Stefan himself who appears in a mountain-climbing pictorial in Playboy. In this way, the male characters are presented as “more masculine” and any hint of moral approbation towards the girlfriend is avoided.

Hence, it must be stated that Krauze is being ingenuous when he claims that: "I understood [these people], I could identify with their situation. But I understood that in my film the brutal murder must be represented, it must ring with a strong dissonance. Otherwise it would have been too easy to absolve these people, and a film like The Debt cannot make compromises: the spectator should face the same difficult choice as its heroes." (Krauze, “Dług wg Krauzego”)

To give some sense of how wide of the mark Krauze actually comes in his intent to problematize morally, let us compare his statement with a concrete spectatorial response. A spectator, after having seen the film, writes to Sikora in prison, with these words: "You don’t need to have a bad conscience at all about what you did. You didn’t kill a man, you killed a creature, a beast, a worm, something that had nothing in common with what is human, you have cleaned up the world a little bit." (Quoted in Morawska, 2000). Too easy to absolve? Moral problematization indeed.

Works Cited

Eyal, Gil, Ivan Szelenyi, and Eleanor Townsley. Making Capitalism Without Capitalists: The New Ruling Elites in Eastern Europe. London: Verso, 1998.
Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. New York: Penguin, 1990.
“Krauze & Feldman: Żyć dla innych.” (“Krauze & Feldman: To Live for Others”). Interview with director Krzysztof Krauze and actress Krystyna Feldman by Anna Kempys,
Krauze, Krzysztof. “Dług wg Krauzego.” (“The Debt According to Krauze”).
―. “Letter to President Aleksander Kwaśniewski.”
“The Making of Edi.” Featurette on Edi. Dir. Piotr Trzaskalski. Perf. Henry Gołębiowski, Jacek Braciak. MGE, 2004
“The Making of Hi, Tereska.” Featurette on Cześć, Tereska. Dir. Robert Gliński. Perf. Aleksandra Gietner, Karolina Sobczak, Zbigniew Zamachowski. Propaganda, 2000.
Morawska, Irena. “Luiza wdowa idzie na dług.” (“Luiza the Widow Goes to See The Debt”). Gazeta Wyborcza (6 June 2000).
Sobolewski, Tadeusz. “Wolność Ediego.” (“Edi’s Freedom”). Gazeta Wyborcza (18 February 2002): 16.
―. “Liczy się kino robione z pasją.” (“What Matters is Cinema Made with Passion”). Gazeta Wyborcza (5 January 2004a): 13.
―. “Kino gotowe do lotu.” (“Cinema Ready for Take-Off”). Gazeta Wyborcza (30 August 2004b): 10.
―. “Guru Nikifor Krynicki.” Gazeta Wyborcza (18 September 2004c): 10.
Zarębski, Konrad. “Zobacz film Wielkie rzeczy.” (“See the Film Great Things”). Gazeta Wyborcza (27 January 2001): 43.

© Christopher J. Caes, 2005

Updated: 16 Dec 05