THE PIONEERS (1896–1918)
“The Cinematograph” and Historical Consciousness
Actualities as the Earliest Experiments
with Film in the Polish Territories
THE PRIMARY CONCERN of this study is with the appeal and potential of Polish avant-garde film prior to the 1930s. This chapter shows that numerous early Polish texts about film are a valuable source for the analysis of Polish avant-garde film of the 1920s and 1930s. These early considerations became building blocks for later debates around the issue of film as art in independent Poland.
Various critics in the Polish territories analyzed the new cultural and social reality in relation to the freshly emerging artistic movements such as Młoda Polska (Young Poland, 1890–1918).1
In this energetic cultural climate, the formation of cinema as an institution played a pivotal role in understanding the processes associated with the development of modernism in the Polish territories. Polish theoretical discourse concerning “the cinematograph” (and then “film”) between 1896 and 1918 presents an impressive collection of different viewpoints and arguments for and against the notion of the moving image as a new art. Already in the late 1890s numerous Polish writers and filmmakers saw uses for the cinematograph in education, science, and political life. Zygmunt Korosteński and Bolesław Matuszewski, the main subjects of this chapter, perceived the cinematograph as a witness to history. Aside from being a theorist, Matuszewski was a keen photographer (who owned two photographic studios, in Paris and Warsaw) and a filmmaker. His 1898 actuality, The Visit of President Faure in St Petersburg
, will be considered here in relation to the early attempts at investigating the ontology of film. Although Matuszewski’s actualities can in no sense be considered avant-garde proper, his interest in the documentary as an alternative mode of production constitutes the main reason for his presence in this study. The shift from actualities to documentary has been characterized by a transformation of the images of the world through the innovative uses of the apparatus. This developed alongside growing experimentation with editing techniques, which affected the evolving patterns of perception internationally, as seen in the example of the Kuleshov effect.
The evolution of the language of Polish cinema corresponds with Polish cultural theorist Kazimierz Wyka’s identification of the two opposed models of Polish art and literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first model was the outcome of romanticism and was to serve the country’s ideological needs. The second model was influenced by a general European tendency that did not perceive art or literature to be of particular service to any ideas.2
Both trends existed within the Young Poland movement, but the latter is more relevant to the assessment of avant-garde film tendencies because of its emphasis on a modernist work of art as an autonomous creation. However, to begin with, as a consequence of Poland’s unprivileged political position in the late nineteenth century, Polish film discourse had one major function which fitted Wyka’s first model: to strengthen feelings of nationhood. As a result, the emphasis was placed on film’s propagandist rather than artistic values, as will be seen in Matuszewski’s actualities. But first, a short explanation of early film terminology is required.
“The Cinematograph”: Early Film Terminology
No professional film-related terminology existed during the early years of cinema in the Polish territories. However, the word “film” (the same in Polish) was first used in the Polish press in 1896. The author of a short article employed it in reference to a “filmstrip” (as originating from English) in his report about a fire at the pavilion of the Edison Society in Berlin.3
Between 1896 and 1905, the most common words used for cinema were przedstawienie
(spectacle), żywa fotografia
(live photography), ekran
(screen), salon iluzji
(room of illusions), and obrazy ruchome
(moving pictures). In 1904 new vocabulary began to appear referring to the apparatus itself, as many sources advertised the arrival of a kinetoskop
(kinetoscope) and bioskop
(bioscope), terms which emphasized the cinematograph’s mechanical nature.4
Until around 1914 the most common expression used in relation to the early cinema was the internationally employed term kinematograf
It referred to a film spectacle as well as to the institution of cinema.6
Between 1907 and 1914, the cinematograph gained more attention from the upper classes, and, as a result, its place in the consciousness of the public changed. From a technical curiosity that attracted audiences to fairs and markets through appealing entertainment, it eventually became a source of knowledge about the world. Eventually, film became a serious and respectable cultural institution that influenced literature and theatre as well as the aesthetic tastes of audiences, which were made up of a mixture of social classes.7
Beginning in 1908, the Polish press was inspired by the French term film d’art
, and France’s production of more cultured art films was reflected in the new terms: kinemateatr
(cine-theatre), teatr kinematograficzny
(cinematographic theatre), teatr złudzeń
(theatre of illusions), and teatr filmowy
(film theatre). This
suggested the merging of the cinematograph with the well-established and respected art of theatre, therefore granting cinema a higher social status. During this period the cinematograph also attracted more attention in the press, and new film-related magazines began to appear. Although many of these were primarily industry and trade publications, a handful attempted to discuss the cinematograph as worthy entertainment. These were Kino
(1913), Scena i Ekran
(1913), Kino, Teatr i Sport
(1914), and, arriving immediately after World War I, Ekran
Early Days of Cinema in the Polish Territories
Because of the last partition of Poland in 1795, indigenous culture and film developed at a different rate in each part of Poland.9
The year 1895 was the year of the first film projection in the Polish territories.10
It was also one of the most productive years of the Young Poland movement. Young Poland for the first time in Polish history challenged the idea of instructive art as it proposed more individualistic and expressive forms of art and literature. During this period more informed and sophisticated opinions about the cinematograph appeared in the press.
At this time Polish theorists were scarcely preoccupied with film aesthetics, in contrast to, for example, France, and were more concerned with its role in social and political life. The primary emphasis was placed on film’s educational and propagandist values.11
In the first years of its existence in the Polish territories, the cinematograph was perceived mostly as a technological invention and a new form of entertainment. It was the difficult task of the critics to invent a new name for it that would best describe its key features, so that eventually film could find its proper place among the other arts.12
Prior to World War I, Polish film production “remained the domain of economically feeble, ephemeral studios.”13
The majority of films made before 1906 were actualities, mainly by the early pioneers Kazimierz Prószyński and Matuszewski.14
The first production company, Sfinks, was established in 1909 in Warsaw by Aleksander Hertz, and it dominated Polish cinema with its patriotic melodramas and, until the late 1920s, international epics.15
Such epic literary adaptations followed the tradition of the French film d’art and brought about the association of the cinematograph with the high art of literature. By that time film began to gain more of an artistic status in the eyes of skeptical audiences. However, it is worth adding, film d’art made its claims for film as art in terms of narrative and “realist” theatre, rather than by exploring the purely artistic values of film, as per the avant-garde’s focus later (which opposed such understanding of film d’art).
One of these artistic film d’art productions, the Italian Quo Vadis?
(Enrico Guazzoni, 1913), was particularly successful in the Polish territories, where it broke all records for audience attendance.16
More importantly for the Polish
nation, Quo Vadis?
was based on the 1905 novel by the Polish Nobel Prize winner and national hero Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846–1916), who wrote patriotic historical narratives.17
The story of the triumph of Christianity over pagan Rome contained obvious references to the martyred, partitioned nation of Poland. The preference of Polish audiences for films dealing with their history and culture was clearly a decisive factor in the film’s success. Polish critics were primarily interested in the film’s content and its promotion of national rather than aesthetic values. Polish film discourse continued to encourage the legacy of romanticism, thus enhancing the patriotic spirit of the nation.
From its emergence, Polish film suffered strong attacks from theatre critics, who treated theatre as “the temple of the Polish word.”18
As already mentioned, in a country that had been partitioned for centuries, language constituted one of the factors that united the nation in its struggle for independence. Unlike theatre, films were often screened with intertitles in the language of the Russian and German occupiers. They were thus seen as a threat to Polish tradition and nationhood. There was, however, one particular type of noncommercial film that, in the opinion of a few contemporary Polish writers and filmmakers, could best serve the nation’s interests—the actuality, an early form of documentary.
Zygmunt Korosteński: A Pioneer of Polish Film Thought
In the late 1890s numerous Polish writers were convinced that the greatest potential of the cinematograph did not lie in entertainment. Instead, they analyzed its possibilities in education, science, and politics, as seen in Zygmunt Korosteński’s article from 1896, “Kinematograf—Fotografia ruchu i życia” (The cinematograph—Photography of motion and life).19
It is generally assumed that the history of Polish film thought begins in 1898, with the publication of Matuszewski’s article “Une nouvelle source de l’histoire: Création d’un dépôt de cinématographie historique” (“A New Source of History: The Creation of a Depository for Historical Cinematography”), but Korosteński’s 1896 piece discusses many aspects of the cinematograph present in Matuszewski’s later texts.20
At that when time Korosteński could have only seen the Lumière brothers’ actualities, he praised the cinematograph’s ability to reproduce reality. It could thus bear witness to historical events and serve patriotic purposes better than painting and literature.21
Here the cinematograph’s mechanical nature was of prime importance, since Korosteński believed that it guaranteed the authenticity and objectivity of the filmed footage.22
The cinematograph “faithfully recreated and captured scenes” from life with the use of appropriate perspective. It offered the believable representation of “motion in full swing.”23
This early theorist saw in film a reflection of a rapidly changing reality, marked by industrialization and the general processes of modernization.24