If you’ve been looking for something new and different in movies, anything which departs from the usual emphasis on special effects, constant remakes (e.g., The Dark Knight, 2008), and endless Indiana Jones sequels – in short, the kind of output to which we’re being treated lately by our Hollywood studios – may I suggest a couple of foreign flicks. Lately, I’d had access to my sister’s library of Polish-made films, and it’s been a most gratifying experience: they’re noteworthy.
Polish cinematography has nothing of course to be ashamed of. Ever since Knife in the Water made its debut at the 1963 Academy Awards, Roman Polanski had quickly established himself as one of the premiere moviemakers in the West; and at the age of 75, he’s still active. No less can be said of Polish writing. Aside from Joseph Conrad, whose numerous novels have been adapted into successful movie scripts [e.g., Sabotage (1936); Lord Jim (1965); Apocalypse Now (1979)], the more recent crop of Polish writers includes Jerzy Kosinski [e.g., The Painted Bird and Being There (also a movie)] and Stanislaw Lem (Solaris). And there’s Czeslaw Milosz of course.
But all these artists and their work have benefitted from uniquely Western exposure and distribution systems. The two films I have seen did not. Consider this a modest attempt on my part to remedy this omission.
Pharaoh (1966) is a movie adaptation from a novel (Faraon) by the turn-of-the-century Polish writer, Boleslaw Prus. I can’t comment on the book which I may or may not have read as a child, only the movie. As regards the former, Milosz himself has described Pharaoh as a “novel on… mechanism[s] of state power and, as such, … probably unique in world literature of the nineteenth century… Prus, [in] selecting the reign of ‘Pharaoh Ramses XIII’ in the eleventh century BCE, sought a perspective that was detached from… pressures of [topicality] and censorship. Through his analysis of the dynamics of an ancient Egyptian society, he… suggest[s] an archetype of the struggle for power that goes on within any state.”
From the same source we learn further down that “in the course of telling his story of power and personality, he [Prus] produced one of the most compelling literary depictions ever of life at every level of ancient Egyptian society. He offers a vision of mankind as rich as Shakespeare’s, ranging from the sublime to the quotidian, from the tragic to the comic. The book is written in limpid prose, imbued with poetry, leavened with humor, graced with moments of transcendent beauty.” All of which, I suppose, makes Prus’s work my next reading assignment. But to the movie . . .
The title alone would have us believe that we’re about to witness a spectacle of sorts, and in a sense ‘is so. Don’t expect, however, the kind of lavish production reminiscent of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) or William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). An epic it is not, and when compared to those productions – concerning such conventional elements of modern drama as costume, special effects, and the crowds – the film, you might say, is austere, reduced to bare bones. The budget is always a factor but I think other considerations were equally at work, one of them being a healthy dose of historical realism.
Take the chariot, for instance.
Modern-day fiction, aided by Hollywood-made movies, would have us believe that the chariot was a formidable weapon of ancient warfare. And while it may be true that by Nero’s time, and for gladiatorial games, the chariot may have undergone significant modifica-tions in its general construction as regards its sturdiness and damage-inflicting potential. So it’s not inconceivable that the chariots of those times would resemble the monstrous vehicles of warfare such as portrayed in Ben-Hur or the more recent Gladiator.
Not so with The Ten Commandments which depicts the era of Ramses II (1279-1213 BC), the most likely pharaoh believed to have reigned during the times of Exodus. The reproduction above – a chariot removed and reassembled from the tomb of Tutankhamen (aka “King Tut”) – dates back to 1333-1324BC), so it’s highly unlikely that in so short a time the vehicle could have undergone a major transformation. And the same logic surely carries over to the times of Ramses III (1186-1155BC) – the hero of our story: his chariot looks so flimsy and poorly-made in fact that it makes you wonder how come it doesn’t collapse from right under.
In any case, it’s still debatable whether the Egyptian chariot was primarily an instrument of warfare or whether it was designed with some other activity in mind, such as hunting. There is a general agreement, however, that the chariots used by Egypt’s enemies – the Hittites, most notably, and other Mid-Eastern powers – were generally speaking heavier, sturdier in construction, and more adaptable to warfare. No doubt, topography had a lot to do with it: the deserts and uplands of Egypt were not suitable for heavy-styled chariots. (See The Chariot in Egyptian Warfare.)
As to the crowds, Memphis was no Rome. Though the ancient seat of the pharaohs and the administrative center of Egypt throughout the Old Kingdom – the population estimates vary from 30,000 inhabitants to mere 6,000 – its decline was near complete by the Twentieth Dynasty of the New Kingdom. So the sparseness of the crowd, while striking the unsuspecting eye (accustomed besides to Hollywood’s idea of splendor) as somewhat incongruous and odd, is more in line with historical reality.
But historical accuracy aside, the relative austerity of the scenery, and production in general, serves a deeper, dramatic purpose. I think it’s by design. Instead of the drama afforded by the grandness of the spectacle, we’re treated to a drama of words.
One thinks here of Hamlet, or of Richard III perhaps, in which plays (or movies adapted from said plays) the monologues and the soliloquies quite rightly precede and preempt all action and drama and become center-stage, although the comparison to the Greek tragedies – Aeschylean in particular – is, I think, apter. In those plays – such as in the Persae, for instance – the stage was delimited to two actors at a time, three at most, which had only brought forth the power of the spoken word.
It seems that Jerzy Kawalerowicz, the director, was after the same effect. Indeed, only in intensity does Pharaoh appear to depart from the Greek prototype: except for the heir to the pharaoh still reigning – the future Ramses III – the dialogue and the delivery lack in passion. It’s only appropriate, however, considering that the chief antagonist of the youthful heir apparent is the priestly caste intent on holding on to their status of privilege. Stakes may be high but resolute and levelheaded, as becomes their class and position in society, they remain.
The moral of the story? First, that insofar as humans are concerned, wielding of power requires wisdom, the greater the power one wields, the greater the need for wisdom. And secondarily, perhaps, that the purpose to which power is used is no exception. Indeed, even the noblest and worthy of causes – such as helping the people, strengthening the state, or the righting of justice – are no guarantee that the power so-used won’t misfire. And this calls for judicious exercise of power under all circumstances – aided by divine guidance, perhaps, as the priestly class would have it.
Pharaoh is thus a tale for all times.
The Doll (1968) is also a movie adaptation from a novel (Lalka) penned by the same writer, which goes to show that good motion pictures proceed only from strong storytelling. The power of the image and the visual derive thus, so it would seem, from the power of the word and the author’s conception as their origin.
The novel is regarded by many as one of the finest Polish novels ever written and, along with Pharaoh, made Prus a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. The influence of Zola is evident, and some have compared the novel to Madame Bovary by Flaubert; both were Prus’s contemporaries. Upon seeing the movie, however, I’m convinced that Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir offers a more telling contrast.
“Of course it’s the women who keep the doors of society closed; they do not like outsiders to discover that there is nothing behind them” – so says Lord Steyne to Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, the movie. The good Marquis forewarns thus the adventurous Becky, Becky the upstart, the social climber, of the troubles ahead. And Becky’s cardinal sin, mind you, is that she’s merely trying to improve her standing in society. God help those who commit a far greater offense and dare marry outside of their station, or those who become a party to such an alliance – like poor Rawdon Crawley, for instance – for theirs is the predicament of disinheritance, infamy, even death.
Be that as it may, two sets of circumstances appear necessary for such an illicit union between a man and a woman to stand a chance in hell. First, at least one of the partners, if not two, must be strong enough to stand up to the pressures from his or her peers to persevere in the face of conventions. The inner strength and ambition on the part of the lesser of the culprits, in addition to constituting a dramatic element of the plot, is important insofar as it provides courage to the other; but the courage of the other party, the one who comes from a life of privilege and stands therefore to lose it all, is essential.
The second requirement seems to be – there’s got to be strong pressures, both from within and without, for the existing social barriers to crumble or at least lose their initial poignancy. Red and Black benefits from both elements – Stendhal’s conception of his main characters and the defining historical moment (in this case, the ineptness of the Bourbon regime). Well, Prus’s work is no different. It is, in a manner of speaking, a variation on the theme.
Consider the two plots. First, Red and Black [and I cite here from Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953), p 454]:
Julien Sorel, the hero of Stendhal’s novel Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), an ambitious and passionate young
man, son of an uneducated petty bourgeois from the Franche-Comté, is conducted by a series of circumstances
from the seminary at Besançon, where he had been studying theology, to Paris and the position of secretary to a
gentleman of rank, the Marquis de la Mole, whose confidence he gains. Mathilde, the Marquis’s daughter, is a
girl of nineteen, witty, spoiled, imaginative, and so arrogant that her own position and circle begin to bore her.
The dawning of her passion for her father’s domestique is one of Stendhal’s masterpieces and has been greatly
And now, from The Doll:
Wokulski begins his career as a waiter at Hopfer’s, a Warsaw restaurant. The scion of an impoverished Polish
noble family dreams of a life in science. After taking part in the failed 1863 Uprising against Tsarist Russia, he is
sentenced to exile in Siberia. On eventual return to Warsaw, he becomes a salesman at Mincel’s haberdashery.
Marrying the late owner’s widow (who eventually dies), he comes into money and uses it to set up a partnership
with a Russian merchant he had met while in exile. The two merchants go to Bulgaria during the Russo-Turkish
War of 1877-78, and Wokulski makes a fortune supplying the Russian Army. The enterprising Wokulski now
proves a romantic at heart, falling in love with Izabela, daughter of the vacuous, bankrupt aristocrat, Tomasz
Łęcki. In his quest to win Izabela, Wokulski begins frequenting theatres and aristocratic salons; and to help her
financially distressed father, founds a company and sets the aristocrats up as shareholders in the business.
Needless to say, both love affairs end up tragic.
So far so good, and the parallels with Red and Black are unmistakable: Wokulski’s ambitious, go-getter’s nature and the aristocrats’ willingness to tolerate the intruder and admit him into their circle, so long as he’s being useful of course, are two such elements. True, Wokulski is not a social climber like Julien Sorel was, and his infatuation with Izabela is not a means to an end for him; but this is a rather minor detail, a matter of a different dramatic conception, perhaps, though leading to no less tragic end.
Where all the parallels break down, however, is in the person of Izabela Łęcki. Unlike Mathilde de la Mole, who is a free spirit and sees through the superficiality and shallowness of her social circle, Izabela is nothing but superficial: she sees Wokulski only as a plebeian intruder into her rarefied world, a brute with huge red hands. For her, persons below the social standing of aristocrats are hardly human.
Interestingly enough, while The Doll takes its fortuitous title from a minor episode involving a stolen toy, readers commonly assume that it refers to the principal female character. Quite so!
Equally striking is the contrast between French aristocratic circles during the Bourbon era and those of Poland at the turn of the nineteenth century. One such factor has already been alluded to – “the defining historical moment.”
The French upper classes during the Restoration lived under the specter of the French Revolution whose gory events were still too vivid in their memories, too horrifying to ever forget, whereas Polish aristocracy was relatively free of any sense of the impending doom. Facing no such crisis as yet, they were basking thus in the aura of their invincibility and the false sense of security, which had made them even more haughty than the French were, colder, crueler, and more insensitive, and less amenable therefore to concession-making of any kind. Consequently, they guarded their privilege with even greater ardor and zeal than the French did. (What they did share in common with the French was a definite disdain for the bourgeoisie.)
There were other factors besides – the least of all being the fact that the Poles have always emulated the French – the French language itself being the lingua franca among the Polish elite, while Warsaw had long enjoyed the reputation as “the little Paris.” And as it’s true of all who are given to emulation, they tend to surpass the very model which serves as a pattern – especially as regards such aspects as artificiality and pretentiousness and, generally speaking, the least favorable of traits.
As Wikipedia’s above-cited entry concludes, “Wokulski’s eventual downfall highlights [thus] The Doll’s overarching theme: the inertia of Polish society.”
The characters, the attitudes, and relationships of the dramatis personae . . . are very closely connected
with contemporary historical circumstances; contemporary political and social conditions are woven into
the action in a manner more detailed and more real than had been exhibited in any earlier novel. . . . So
logically and systematically to situate the tragically conceived life of a man of low social position . . . within
the most concrete kind of contemporary history and to develop it therefrom – this is an entirely new and
highly significant phenomenon.
So writes Erich Auerbach of Red and Black and Julien Sorel (pp 457-8).
Well, the same kind of tragic realism pervades Prus’s work, and it’s captured most wonderfully in the movie. As regards Warsaw, for instance, “it was possible, in the Interbellum, to precisely locate the very buildings where, fictively, Wokulski had lived and [where] his store had been located . . . .” Especially striking is the contrast between the salon life, all gay and carefree, and life in the street where misery and hunger were the order of the day.
In between the two extremes, there were people like Wokulski.
A compelling story masterfully transformed into a film, unforgettable imagery, brilliant performances – what more can one ask of a movie?
You may watch it in full right here, especially since the film, only in the VHS version, is currently unavailable