Polish History As Phantasmagoria: Wojciech Has at BAM

The Hourglass Sanitarium

The Waking Dreams of Wojciech Has
October 15-27 at BAM

The Polish filmmaker Wojciech Jerzy Has, subject of a comprehensive Brooklyn Academy of Music retrospective, is best known for intricate phantasmagoria. Among these, The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) is a babushka-doll of a film. Based on the novel by the 18th century Polish count Jan Potocki, the story details the escapades of one Captain Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski). A story-within-a-story, spinning parallel yarns, The Saragossa Manuscript can be read as a hallucinatory journey through a man’s consciousness, or a purely meta-textual one, told Scheherazade-style.

Much of the film’s delight lies in the acting of Cybulski, to whom Poles refer to as their James Dean. Cybulski, who like Dean died in a tragic accident when young, as he tried to jump onto a speeding train, was known for having a naturalistic acting style. He became famous for playing a fallen hero in Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Has, however, cast Cybulski against the grain, and in The Saragossa Manuscript, he is a bloated, incorrigible dandy, beyond history’s grasp.

Less arcane plot-wise but just as elaborate in set design, The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973) continued Has’s penchant for literary adaptations. Based on the metaphysical, highly symbolist stories by Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, the film exchanges the austerity of the black-and-white Saragossa Manuscript for opulent, saturated colors. In the film’s basic storyline, a man named Joseph (Jan Nowicki) travels to a provincial town, where his father seeks a cure. But since the father’s “illness” is death, the visit becomes a journey to the Underworld. This death-in-life is hinted at already in the early scenes, in which Joseph meets on the train a blind conductor and glimpses passengers wearing concentration camp uniforms.

Much like Schulz’s prose, the film is imbued with carnality, as Joseph regresses into adolescence, while remaining captive to the urges of his adult body. As in The Saragossa Manuscript, the film weaves in references to Polish history, from the Holocaust to the Napoleonic wars. But most of the historic events are viewed as if tawdry props in a secondhand store filled with mannequins and trivia, suggesting that History is but a window dressing for the soul. Nightmarish without being portentous, The Hourglass Sanatorium is like a Marx Ernst painting sprung to life.

How to Be Loved

Has reputably did not endear himself to Poland’s antisemitic communist regime by exploring Judaic themes and customs. He was never able to make another film on the scale of The Saragossa Manuscript or The Hourglass Sanatorium. There is, however, plenty more to cherish in his oeuvre, including psychological dramas inspired by Italian neorealism. These fit in more within the Polish Film School tradition, though are marked by Has’s quixotic aesthetic preoccupations. In this group, The Noose (1957) and How to Be Loved (1962) stand out as early masterpieces. In The Noose, Gustaw Holoubek, who has a minor role in The Saragossa Manuscript and plays the doctor in The Hourglass Sanatorium, is cast as Kuba, a haunted, incurable alcoholic. Based on the stories of prominent Polish writer Mark Hłasko, the narrative is compressed into a frame of a single day: time and a grasp on reality slip away mercilessly from Kuba. In this minimalist story, Has maintains tension through the finely choreographed scenes and Holoubek’s standout performance. We recognize in Kuba a ticking human bomb—perhaps the most perfect, albeit the simplest, rendition of time that Has captured on film. Add to this the fact that The Noose pulsates with all the muted desperation of a nation trying to valiantly heal its wounds, and you have one of the most poignant, pointedly antiheroic visions by any Polish filmmaker.

Equally moving, How to Be Loved is a rare World War II film told entirely from the point of view of a woman. Long before Max Fäberböck’s A Woman in Berlin (2008) or Wojciech Smarzowski’s Rose (2011), came Has’s stark testimony to women’s suffering under occupation. In his characteristic vein, Has refuses to make the film’s protagonist a heroine. Felicja (Barbara Krafftówna) saves a young man, Wiktor (Zbigniew Cybulski), accused of causing the death of a Nazi sympathizer, but she is as complex a character as her protégé. Cybulski, The Saragossa Manuscript’s dandy, here stars as a blasé, cowardly actor. At first glance, Felicja, who harbors him in her home, is a saving angel. Yet in her motivations, we can detect a touch of Sartrean No Exit: she is a sweet prison-guard, keen on Wiktor’s dependence.

Based on the eponymous novel by Kazimierz Brandys, How to Be Loved is told primarily in flashbacks. Felicja, after finding fame in post-war Poland, travels to Paris on her first plane trip. She converses with a man sitting to her side, while his comments and the unpleasant journey trigger her war memories. While the construct, devolving at times into a mild comedy of manners, is not necessarily ingenuous, the film is beautifully edited. Felicja’s mature, jaded self stands in perfect contrast to her youthful, naively debonair pre-war persona. She emerges as a haunted survivor, emblematic of post-war Poland. And yet Felicja, brilliantly played by Krafftówna, who also starred in Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds and in The Saragossa Manuscript, shows no self-pity. Ironic to the bone, she resembles the brazen protagonists of another supreme Polish film ironist, Andrzej Munk.

The Doll
The Doll

“Love cannot save us,” is how Polish critic Maria Kornatowska summed up Has’s motto. Indeed, plenty in The Noose and How to Be Loved supports this thesis, for at their core, both films are about loss. The same can be said for the more straightforwardly melodramatic Goodbye to the Past (1961) and the cooler Farewells (1958), two minor dramas in Has’s pantheon that focus on a loss of innocence. In Goodbye to the Past, Magdalena (Lidia Wysocka) returns to her childhood home, of which she must let go, while she reconciles her memories with the harsh reality. Magdalena meets a young man, but their infatuation is fleeting. In Farewells, Paweł (Tadeusz Janczar, who starred in Wajda’s Canal as well as Munk’s Eroica and Bad Luck) and Lidka (Maria Wachowiak)—an aristocrat and a girl whom he saves from prostitution—also have little chance of finding love. The two escape to the countryside, but are discovered by Paweł’s forbidding father. A story of repressed desires, Farewells, which shows Poland caught between war and the Soviet oppression, is a poignant portrait of a lost generation.

But perhaps no film conveys Has’s pessimism better than his adaptation of Boleslaw Prus’s eponymous positivist novel The Doll (1968). A wealthy merchant, Stanislaw Wokulski (Mariusz Dmochowski) falls in love with a beautiful socialite, Izabela Lecka (Beata Tyszkiewicz). The two settle into an uncomfortable co-dependency, as Izabela’s family sells its possessions to Stanislaw, before he unmasks her two-facedness. The other films’ suggestive unease about power between the sexes gives way in The Doll to unmitigated bitterness. Taking clue from Prus, Has is scrupulous about showing early industrialist Poland as a political and social morass, against which the nouveau riche and the aristocracy trade disdain and power. Yet at least some of the sets have the same magical, timeless feel as in The Hourglass Sanatorium. They suggest an allegorical, Faustian dimension: a tale that exposes the workings of a human soul.


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