Jan Jakub Kolski: Pornography (Pornografia), 2003
reviewed by Dorota Ostrowska© 2005
Jan Jakub Kolski’s realistic film narrative Keep Away from the Window (Daleko od Okna, 2000) is punctuated with images of a Jewish girl walking across the green rolling hills and wide valleys of an open Polish countryside. She comes across a miniature version of the town of her birth and lingers over it to survey from above the red roofs and whitewashed walls of the houses among which she grew up. In History of Cinema in Popielawy (Historia Kina w Popielawach, 1998) a blond, svelte woman dressed in a tight white bodice and covered in a light transparent scarf swirls around like a Dégas-dancer in the middle of a sunny room, her movements painstakingly drawn by an inventor of cinema, a blacksmith, Andryczek, and assembled into a series of stuttering images that we are to take for the first-ever film in the history of cinema, preceding the inventions of the Lumières brothers, Prószyński, and Le Prince. Just like Keep Away from the Window and History of Cinema in Popielawy, Pornography, the most recent film by Jan Jakub Kolski, also has its privileged moment: in the streets of the Warsaw ghetto two men with a yellow star sewn to their sleeves, members of the Jewish police, pick up a dead body and put it into a simple coffin. In all three films, the abovementioned scenes are stylistically different from the formal order of the rest of the film. At the same time, they seem to be at the origin of all other scenes; they are the place where the heart of Kolski’s films beats and where the meaning of his films is created.
In History of Cinema in Popielawy the scene is directly motivated by the narrative, which is a story of a village inventor trying to create the first cinema projector. In Keep Away from the Window and Pornography the highly stylized images—reminiscent of archival material with sepia tint that is characteristic of old photographs—are inserted into the narrative, forming a kind of imaginary surplus to the rest of the film, which belongs to the sphere of memory, dreams, the surreal, and imagination. The Jewish girl overlooking the dwarfed town she comes from and singing a lullaby expresses her longing for a home and a family she can’t possibly have.  The highly stylized sequences are projections of the dreams the Jewish mother nurses for the child she is expecting. In Pornography, the relationship of the documentary-like sequence from ghetto to the rest of the film is equally complex. As the archival footage is integrated into the film credits, we can expect that in the course of the film the sequence will gain new meanings arising from the logic of the narrative. And, indeed, our understanding of this sequence changes as the film unfolds and we are introduced to Kolski’s take on Gombrowicz’s novel.
The archival footage is preceded by a sequence of medium shots of two dancing pairs of legs, the bare legs in white socks and sandals belonging to an adolescent girl who is standing on the patent leather shoes of an adult man. The following series of images shows a salon, where, in the midst of the war, Warsaw literati, artists, and thinkers try to escape the war’s reality and continue to debate big questions: “art, God, and fatherland.”
The yellow-brownish glow of the grainy archival images is in stark contrast to the greenish glossiness of the dance and salon sequences, making the images of death in the street look like something from a different time and space, even though the meeting in the salon and the collection of the dead body both happen in Warsaw around 1943. The difference in the quality of images is an invitation to viewers to think about them not only as distant, but also dissonant from one another. Since the images of the dance and salon conversations are in tune with the dance music that accompanies them, these sequences seem more harmonious and, thus, more logically integrated than the archival sequence, over which the same tune hovers.
All three sequences signal themes and attitudes of Pornography’s author and imply Gombrowicz’s universe, with which Kolski’s film will engage. Pornography is an unusual novel about the war, written by someone who did not experience it first hand, but from remote Argentina where he found himself at the brink of the war in 1939. Judging from his pre-war record, especially the novel Ferdydurke and his artistic programme as it is formulated in his Diaries, it is hard to imagine that had he stayed in Poland or Europe and lived through the war, he would have written differently about it from the way he did in Pornography. This conviction is finely expressed by Susan Sontag who wrote:
separation from Europe was not the making of Gombrowicz as a writer: the man who published Ferdydurke two years earlier was already fully formed as a literary artist. It was, rather, the most providential conformation of everything his novel knows, and gave direction and bite to the marvelous writings to come. (xii)
There is little doubt that Sontag had in mind Pornography as belonging to “the marvelous writings to come.”
The physical distance from Polish reality, which turned into war reality and later on into communist reality, only accentuated one of Gombrowicz’s central interests—the desire to impose distance between himself and the myths central to Polish literature and culture, and, thus, to create a different type of prose, one that would not be just Polish, but universal. Gombrowicz had himself in mind when he wrote: “the country’s elite is expelled abroad. It can then think, feel, and write from the outside. It gains distance. It gains an amazing spiritual freedom. All bonds are broken. One can be more one’s own self” (1997: I, 66). While a Romantic and collective spirit dominated Polish literature, and determined its style, he was looking for a way to find an expression of individual human desires and longings that would extend beyond these strictly Polish—and, as a consequence, localized—preoccupations, and could be shaped into new literary forms, a new language. Thus, in the preface to Pornography, Gombrowicz noted that the post-1939 Poland in the novel was “an imaginary one” and that readers should “not to worry that some things are mistaken, sometimes may be even fantastic, because this [historical accuracy] is not the point here and it is completely irrelevant for the matters taking place here” (1986: 5).
The budding eroticism and undercurrents of desire among the youths, unaware of their sexual power, are central matters to Pornography and are more important than questions concerning God, art, and fatherland, which Gombrowicz calls “theoretically imposed” upon “the nation” (1986: 5). The encounter of youth with age is explosive and erupts into the poetic prose of Pornography. In the novel, Gombrowicz realizes his desire “to channel the world through youth; to translate it into the language of youth—that is the language of attraction… Soften the world with youth… Spice it with youth—so that it can be raped” (1997: II, 111). The world comprised of national pieties is to be destroyed in the triumph of Eros, orchestrated by the most rebellious and arrogant of the Polish writers, who situates his blasphemous and daring novel during the time of the greatest disaster in Polish history—the war. He even admits candidly that “the war climate is most suitable for it [Pornography ]” (1986: 5).
Kolski initially seems to follow the Gombrowicz’s idea and dutifully distances the most drastic images of the war from the world of his two main protagonists, Witold and Fryderyk, who have joined the gathering in the literary salon. Kolski treats the war sequence ironically as the camera glides over the ghetto images accompanied by lighthearted music. The electric encounter of youth and age is suggested in the dance sequence. As the credits roll the viewer seems to be safely placed in the world of Gombrowicz. Just as in the novel, in Kolski’s film, Fryderyk and Witold are joined in bringing together adolescent Henia and her childhood friend, Karol, to become lovers. Fryderyck’s and Witold’s project can be seen as an expression of Gombrowicz’ss Fascination with Nietzsche, who inspired him during his work on Pornography and whom he invoked by saying “if the philosopher says that ‘man wants to become God,’ I would add ‘man wants to be young’” (1997: II, 255). For Gombrowicz, God does not simply die but becomes young again, and the whole world can be renewed in this juvenile deity. If sexual desire runs like an electric current through the world, Fryderyk’s ideas and actions do the same in the universe of the novel. There is no need to explain where Fryderyk, this Slavic Zarathustra, comes from and who he is, because he is the force that comes to transform the world. Pornography is a novel of ideas and a paean to irrationality, where Thanatos is the backdrop to the action of Eros. This relationship is reversed in Kolski’s film: the war and Holocaust are given as the reasons for the characters’ actions, especially those of the mysterious Fryderyk.
Unlike Gombrowicz’s novel, in Kolski’s film adaptation the events and actions stem not from the desire to renew the world, but from a profound sense of guilt, loss, and grief. Gombrowicz wrote about unbounded sexual desire, which is present without a past or a future. Kolski made a film about memory and shifted the focus of the narrative from sexual desire to a father’s love, thereby making the title incomprehensible and the claim that the film is an adaptation of Gombrowicz’s novel questionable. Given the fundamental changes Kolski introduced into Gombrowicz’s novel, it would be more appropriate to see the film as being inspired by the novel, rather than based on it.
Kolski’s Fryderyk is a tragic and broken figure, whose bizarre machinations to bring Henia and Karol together can only be understood as the workings of a mind maddened by feelings of guilt about his lost daughter. While Gombrowicz’s Fryderyk may simply be out of his wits (or not, for Gombrowicz does not care about his state of his mind), Kolski’s Fryderyk is mad and there is a good reason for it, which the director and his scriptwriter invented to satisfy their belief that cinema needs to provide the viewer with reasons concerning a story’s development and characters’ actions (Majchrzak 8). Fryderyk had a half-Jewish daughter who was captured by the Germans and taken to a camp. He followed her there, but once they met in the camp, fear made him deny that she was his daughter. Fryderyk managed to get out of the camp, but the past seems to echo in all of his encounters with girls in the film. For the sake of Fryderyk’s story, Kolski multiplies adolescent girls in the film. Instead of just Henia (as in Gombrowicz’s novel, Kolski introduces a new adolescent girl character, the maid Weronika, who seems to be far more important to Fryderyk than Henia.
Fryderyk meets Weronika in church, courts her in the piano scene, refuses her offer of sexual intimacy, and in the end gives her an oval green lens—a memento of his lost daughter. This green lens is the film’s lucky charm, giving it the strange greenish tint. This coloring is not so much a symbol of youth, hope, nature in bloom, or energy—the tropes of Gombrowicz’s universe—as it is a mark of the mourning suffered by Kolski’s Fryderyk. As long as the lens is in his hands, the greenish tint signifies the drama of his life. Like the biblical Weronika, Kolski’s Weronika assists Fryderyk on his road to Golgotha, where in the film’s finale, Kolski’s Fryderyk crucifies himself in a suicidal act, expiating the sins of abandoning (and de facto betraying) his daughter and lusting for Henia and Karol. In his torment and death he is closer to Jesus than Zarathustra, which makes him more firmly grounded as a figure in Kolski’s world, where the lives of ordinary people are marred by impossible moral dilemmas (as in Keep Away from the Window).
Paradoxically, despite Kolski’s transformation of Fryderyk in the film, he remains the umbilical cord connecting the film and the novel. This is because of Krzysztof Majchrzak’s performance, which infuses Fryderyk with vitality, brutality, and an energy that Gombrowicz would relish. Majchrzak provides the film with élan vital, pumping vital life into it. Without Majcharzak’s performance Pornography would be just another film about the Holocaust, World War II, and the Polish Romantic myth. Fryderyk is credible because Majcharzak’s imposing physique and the earthiness of his body are juxtaposed with the absurdity of his gestures (lighting a match by running it along the side of his head) or the bravado of his piano performance, a showman both pleasing and teasing his audience. Majcharzak’s performance is a series of short-circuits that sparkle in the film. When Majcharzak’s sparkle expires, the viewer is left enveloped in the darkness of the Holocaust shroud spun by Kolski’s narrative.
Is adding the Holocaust element the main reason Kolski’s adaptation of Gombrowicz’s novel does not really work? Yes, but it is not the only one. After all, rebelling against Gombrowicz’s prose should be the best way to capture its spirit. Kolski has admitted that only when he decided to be skeptical towards the novel, did it open up to him (2003: 10). Majchrzak has also admitted that playing Fryderyk only made sense to him once Kolski agreed not to approach Gombrowicz’s prose “on his knees” (8). The problem is that Kolski’s adaptation has little of the roughness, humor, and sparkle with which Gombrowicz’s prose overflows. Kolski’s rebellion was to make a conventional film both in terms of ideas and images. Although it may be considered a kind of revolt to become more orthodox than one’s revolutionary forefathers, such orthodoxy is never a new revolution. Unfortunately, neither is Kolski’s film when compared with the thrill of Gombrowicz’s writing and the scandal caused by his prose.
At the bottom of this unexciting adaptation of Pornography is Kolski’s lack of faith in cinema. He never believed in the possibility of successfully adapting Gombrowicz’s novel to the screen (Kolski 2002). His anxiety about distilling the events that could make up the story of the film out of Gombrowicz’s uneventful prose and his plan “to anesthetize the film to the intoxicating drug of [Gombrowicz’s] poetic form” reveal more about Kolski’s view of cinema than about the nature of Gombrowicz’s writing (Kolski 2002). For Kolski, cinema is “a different medium from literature: in order to establish emotional connection between spectators and a character, it is necessary to give spectators reasons regarding the cause of the events and the motivation for the character’s actions” (Kolski 2002). Ultimately, his goal in Pornography was “to make it into a spectacle full of real human emotions and of characters made of blood and flesh” (Kolski 2002).
It might simply be that Pornography was not the right choice of a novel for Kolski to adapt. He seemed much more comfortable with Hanna Krall’s story, on which Keep Away from the Window is based, whose writing is marked by simplicity, clarity, and even a certain classicism of form in the treatment of the Holocaust theme. There was no such natural match between Kolski and Gombrowicz. But Gombrowicz’s prose provided Kolski with an opportunity to find funding (Polish and French) at a time when it had become increasingly difficult to make films in Poland based on original scripts (Kolski 2005; Plażewski 2003). Kolski ended up making a film that is recognizably his—actors, production crew, references, and locations used in previous films reappear here—but for which Gombrowicz’s novel is nothing more than a pretext.
Dorota Ostrowska (University of Edinburgh, UK)
All stills by Piotr Bujnowicz/ FabrykaObrazu.com
1. Far from the Window is a story of a young Jewish woman, Regina, who during the war is hidden by a childless Polish couple (Jan and Barbara). When Regina gets pregnant by Jan, Barbara decides to simulate pregnancy for various complex reasons after an agonising internal struggle. She wants to protect Regina, preserve the love of her unfaithful husband and bear a child. A girl, Helusia, is born into a family consisting of two mothers and one father, and when she grows up she faces a question of her identity and roots. By reversing the size of the girl and the town in the imaginary sequence of his film, Kolski may be trying to say something about the scale of moral conflict, responsibility and love (literally, ‘bigger than life’) which accompany this child’s conception, birth and life
Pornography [Pornografia] (Poland and France, 2003)
Director: Jan Jakub Kolski
Screenplay: Jan Jakub Kolski and Gérard Brach
Cinematography: Krzysztof Ptak
Production design: Andrzej Przedworski
Music: Zygmunt Konieczny
Cast: Krzysztof Majchrzak, Adam Ferency, Krzysztof Globisz, Grazyna Blecka-Kolska, Grzegorz Damiecki, Jan Frycz, Sandra Samos, Anna Baniowska, Irena Laskowska, Kazimierz Mazur
Production: Heritage Films (Poland) and MACT Production (France)
Gombrowicz, Witold. Pornografia. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1986.
—. Dziennik 1953-1956. Vol. I. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1997.
—. Dziennik 1957-1961. Vol. II. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1997.
Kolski, Jan Jakub. “Co powie nam o nas Gombrowicz?” Interview with Łukasz Maciejewski. Kino 3 (2002): 13-15.
—. “Kino jest ciągle dla mnie chlopięcą przygodą.” Interview with Katarzyna Siedlik. Kino 7 (2005): 22-24.
—. “Wysiedziec Gombrowicza.” Interview with Tadeusz Sobolewski. Gazeta Wyborcza 199 (27 August 2003): 10.
Majchrzak, Krzysztof. “Śladowy pierwiastek serca.” Interview with Katarzyna Bielas. Duży Format 45. Supplement to Gazeta Wyborcza 256 (3 November 2003): 8.
Plazewski, Jerzy. “Grzech, popełniony na skrzyżowaniu.” Kino 10 (2003): 24-25.
Sontag, Susan. Foreword to Ferdydurke. Trans. Danuta Borchardt. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. vii-xv.
Jan Jakub Kolski: Pornography (Pornografia), 2003
reviewed by Dorota Ostrowska© 2005