Polish Film and the Holocaust: Politics and Memory (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Stuart Liebman
Polish Film and the Holocaust: Politics and Memory by Marek Haltof. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012. 274 pp., illus. Hardcover: $90.00.
Marek Haltof is probably the foremost authority on Polish cinema now teaching in the United States. His previous books, Polish National Cinema (Berghahn, 2002), The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski: Variations on Destiny and Chance (Wallflower Press, 2003), and the Historical Dictionary of Polish Cinema (Scarecrow Press, 2007), have introduced the names of dozens of Polish filmmakers as well as many films never distributed in the United States and therefore wholly unknown even to American readers of Bolesław Michałek and Frank Turaj’s now outdated The Modern Cinema of Poland (1988) and Paul Coates’s more recent The Red and the White: The Cinema of People’s Poland (2005). Haltof already provided a sketch of his new book’s topic a decade ago in Polish National Cinema. Now, however, he has developed his historically based account in much greater depth, bringing a new urgency and thoughtfulness to his discussions of Polish documentaries and fictional features that have addressed the Nazis’ mass killing of millions of Jews in Poland. He has scoured Polish archives in order to see the many rare films he discusses, and he has located original production documents that help to explain how many of the films evolved at different moments in postwar Poland. His admirably ranging bibliography, comprehensively covering secondary materials in both Polish and English, runs for fifteen pages; his filmography lists extensive production credits about many of the surprisingly large number of Polish feature films about the Holocaust made since the war. He supplements this list with more basic information (English and Polish titles, directors’ names, running times, and release dates) about more than five-dozen documentaries, including many made for television, produced over many decades.
The general historical background Haltof sketches is based on well-established facts. More than ten percent of Poland’s pre-World War II population—totaling nearly 3,500,000—were Jewish. During the war, approximately 3,200,000 Polish Jews were gassed, shot, or starved to death in the many ghettos and the extermination camps—Madjanek, Chelmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Auschwitz—that the Germans established on Polish territory. (Several thousand also died as forced laborers in Siberian work camps after they fled to the U.S.S.R.). Within five years of the war’s end, as totalitarian rule solidified in Poland, barely 80,000 Jews remained; by 1957, persistent anti-Semitism cultivated by the new government of Władysław Gomułka led to the departure of 50,000 more. 1968, the year of the last officially sponsored anti-Semitic persecutions, initiated the departure of about twenty to twenty-five thousand individuals of Jewish origin, including many dedicated communists. After nearly one thousand years of Jewish habitation, only a few thousand elderly and sick Jews were left. Poland had become virtually Judenrein.
Why, then, has the Holocaust been so important to many Polish filmmakers over the decades? That some of the earliest films on the subject were made by Jews—Aleksander Ford (Border Street, 1949) or Andrzej Munk (The Passenger, 1963)—is somewhat misleading. Whatever their personal perspectives on the genocide of their nominal coreligionists may have been, neither they nor other filmmakers enjoyed sufficient artistic freedom to make films to address the difficult subject directly. Communist Party censors generally saw to it that filmmakers who did receive funding for projects dealing with delicate political topics had to walk a fine line between historical fact and communist “truth.” Ford and Munk both remained, in any case, mostly loyal to party dictates; other Jewish filmmakers, however, crossed the line. Natan Gross and Shaul Goskind did manage to complete several Yiddish-language films on Holocaust themes, including Our Children, about Holocaust orphans in 1949. But this was too Jewish for the authorities, and their film, like early efforts by several other filmmakers, was banned. They soon left Poland for the new state of Israel where the film received its premiere in 1950.
Nevertheless, despite the restrictions, Andrzej Wajda, the greatest film director in Polish history, returned to the subject repeatedly over the course of his long career. One can observe scenes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising even in his first film, A Generation (1955). In Samson (1961), adapted from a novel by the Polish-Jewish writer Kizmierz Brandys, Wajda focused on the fate of a Warsaw Ghetto escapee. In Landscape after Battle (1970), Wajda portrayed a doomed love between a Polish intellectual liberated from Auschwitz and a Polish-Jewish woman leaving her country. Released when most of Wajda’s Jewish colleagues, including his mentor Aleksander Ford, were forced to leave Poland, the film’s ironic commentary on the Polish-Jewish symbiosis is strikingly forthright. Wajda’s attention to such subjects bespeaks a personal fascination and engagement more than any political or commercial calculation. That is not to say that his commitment to the topic always yielded films as undistorted by ideological constraints as one might have hoped for. Once again, censorship and the filmmaker’s desire to continue working in the state-funded industry clearly constrained what Wajda could and could not say. After the fall of communism, however, he returned three more times with greater candor to Holocaust subjects, especially the difficult relationship among Poles and Jews during the war. Significantly, Korczak (1990), Holy Week (1996), and Franciszek Kłos’ Death Sentence (2000) conveyed stories far more candid than did his earlier works.
By contrast, the communist political convictions of Wanda Jakubowska, a former inmate at the women’s camp at Birkenau and later at Ravensbrück, led to self-censorship in the three films she made about the camps. The best known is The Last Stop (1948) whose latter half mounts a standard communist-issue tale of the gallantry of those prisoners who formed resistance movements in the camps. Interestingly, she used the martyrdom of one group member, Marta Weiss (based on a legendary escapee, Mala Zimetbaum, a Belgian of Polish-Jewish origin), as the climax of the film; several scenes that quietly underscored the ways in which Jews were the Nazis’ primary targets for extermination were also included. Haltof’s chapter on this film—as well as his discussions of several other key films—is very good because he carefully uses archival materials to map the work’s creation and builds on the work of other scholars, including me, to create the most complete assessment of The Last Stop now available. Unfortunately, however, he still leaves many aspects of the movie unanalyzed.
A case in point is Jakubowska’s portrayal of the arrival of more than two thousand Jewish deportees in cattle cars early in The Last Stop. She effectively conveys the chaos and confusion as families are forced off the cattle cars into the glare of floodlights and listen to the deceitful words of the SS commandant. Most are soon marched off to be gassed. Then, several short scenes—covering about fifteen minutes of screen time—use Marta as the audience’s surrogate to show the humiliations endured by those lucky enough to remain alive, at least for a while, by being processed for incorporation into the Auschwitz workforce. As Jakubowska knew well, for obvious reasons the Germans never permitted any filming of such procedures, and nothing like them had been broached in earlier Soviet or Polish films. The fictional scenes she constructed were therefore an effort to fill in the gaps of the historical record for astonished world audiences by providing them with a kind of anthropological primer covering life and death in Auschwitz. Several images seemed so authentic, in fact, that they were subsequently used in several international feature films and documentaries, including Resnais’s celebrated Night and Fog.
In general, while Haltof does not read the films qua films in great depth, his plot summaries are usually astute, and his contextualization of the politics surrounding them is always insightful. Nevertheless, occasional errors of historical fact or about film details do crop up. The date of the infamous Kielce pogrom in which forty-six Jews were murdered by Polish townspeople and police because of a false rumor that they had kidnapped a Christian child did not take place on July 6, 1946, but on the 4th. He undercounts the numbers of Jews fleeing Poland in 1946–1950. He misidentifies the character Dawidek in Border Street as the son of Natan, the Jewish worker-hero; Dawidek is, rather, his nephew. Finally, Haltof does not even mention the important symbolic Yiddish anthem sung by Natan at the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising portrayed in the film. It is “S’brennt” (It’s burning) by Mordechai Gebirtig, whose 1938 song became an inspiration to the doomed Jewish resistance across Poland. A good copyeditor might have caught some of these small mistakes and omissions, but that is not what I have come to expect from Berghahn Books. While Haltof’s prose is generally clear, an abundance of unnecessary definite articles as well as too many errors of grammar and diction remain, suggesting that the press cares little for responsible proofreading and copyediting. Caveat lector!
Once communist rule ended, a more honest approach to the Holocaust became possible for both veteran directors like Wajda (b. 1926) or Jan Łomnicki (b. 1929), as well as younger ones born during or after World War II, such as Marcin and Paweł Łoziński or Jan Jakub Kolski, among others. These filmmakers grew up in a land in which communist authorities regularly exploited nationalist sentiments among the too often still anti-Semitic, Catholic Polish population they governed. During the war, the Polish majority was understandably preoccupied by their own terrible sufferings at the hands of the Germans. Many Poles were happy to appropriate the houses and goods of deported Jews; most remained indifferent to their neighbors’ fate; only a few were courageous enough to provide assistance to their Jewish fellow citizens. Once under the thumb of Russia, a traditional enemy, tensions between Poles and Jews were exacerbated. Those who resisted the communists blamed Poland’s incorporation into the Soviet bloc on the zhydokomuna, a Jewish-led communist conspiracy. Knowing this, those Jews who stayed were used by a cynical and still unpopular regime as scapegoats for all manner of social and economic ills. Successive regimes marginalized the history of Jews in Poland, especially during the war. Instead, nurturing Poles’ competing claims to victim status became good politics, especially after the 1967 Israeli-Arab War led to a break in diplomatic relations between Poland and Israel.
Despite a deep freeze lasting fifteen years, as martial law ended in the 1980s and censorship relaxed, some of the more courageous Polish filmmakers no longer wanted to sidestep the complicated, repressed past. Like Polish artists in other media, they continued to be haunted by the absence of Jews who had pioneered the Polish film industry, and by the destruction of Jewish culture, once so much part of the fabric of Polish life. In recent years, this has yielded sensitive films offering smaller-scale stories that calmly and convincingly portray the difficult textures of the relationships between Poles and Jews during the Holocaust, among other poignant stories rooted in the horrible experience of the war. In addition to Wajda’s films mentioned above, Kieslowski’s Decalogue 8 (1988), Łomnicki’s Just Beyond This Forest (1991), Pawel Łoziński’s Birthplace (1992), Kolski’s Keep Away from the Window (2000), Agnieszka Arnold’s TV documentary Neighbors (2001), about the 1941 murder by Poles of their Jewish neighbors in Jedwabne, and, most recently, Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness (2012) are only a few of several dozen others made over the last quarter century.
For the most part, these new films avoid sensationalism in favor of a humane, measured, and mature approach to what have often been thorny issues for Polish cineastes, Polish society and Jews alike. By discussing many works that have fallen below Western critical radar, Haltof’s analyses offer a very useful mapping of the filmmakers and films that address these topics. He does not shy away from the sometimes difficult historical controversies the films elicit or from offering sensible criticisms of the artistic failings of certain works he discusses. With this volume, our understanding of Poland’s cinematic engagement with the Holocaust has been elevated to a new, higher level, even as certain omissions and blind spots in Haltof’s study shows how much more essential work still needs to be done.
Stuart Liebman writes regularly on film for several publications and will be teaching at New York University in the fall.
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