click to buy “Women in Polish Cinema” at Amazon.comWith the defiance expected in the greatest of social causes, Polish female filmmakers have insisted for years that they do not make women’s cinema. Their fierce and widespread rebuffs of any accusations of even a possibility of a feminist affiliation strongly suggest an underlying unease with that mode of critical inquiry. Likely to surprise a Western critic, such reactions are commonplace for a Pole. Their simplest explanation comes from a conversation between two women overheard in Poland a few years ago: “Women in the West are still trying to climb their tractors; we climbed ours in the 1950s and the view was not so good from there.” What this statement implies is not a fourth wave of (Western) feminism, nor even its total rejection, but a need for approaches to women’s issues that can accommodate communist and socialist past(s), rather than attempting to squeeze post-communist Eastern-European realities into a straight-jacket produced elsewhere to a different measure. Hence the significance of Women in Polish Cinema, co-authored by Ewa Mazierska and Elżbieta Ostrowska and published by Berghahn Press in 2006.

When writing on women’s cinema, authors usually pursue one of three directions: “women as filmmakers”, “women as represented in film”, and – less frequently – “women as spectators”. Given that Women in Polish Cinema is the first significant volume in English to focus entirely on women in Polish cinema, naturally the tome is structured around the first two directions, with Part 2 focusing on representations of women in Polish film, and Part 3 analysing four women filmmakers (Wanda Jakubowska, Barbara Sass, Agnieszka Holland and Dorota Kędzierzawska), while also considering the “women as spectators” approach whenever appropriate. Before delving into these two main parts of the book, a brief one-chapter Part 1 – written by Joanna Szwajcowska – offers a guide and an orientation point for the analyses that follow.

Szwajcowska’s contribution is titled “The myth of the Polish Mother”. It outlines the cultural and historical specificity, with its roots in Polish Romanticism, of the myth of the Polish Mother, which constitutes the most prevalent stereotype of Polish Woman in Polish cultural and literary traditions. This stereotype is especially strong in times when Poland and/or Polishness is under foreign threat, as it was, for instance, during 123 years of the partitions of Poland until 1918 when it regained independence. Szwajcowska demonstrates how the Polish Marian cult, with which the Polish Mother is intertwined, differs from its parallels in Western Europe: its mood is not victorious and triumphant as is the case in, for example, France, but it expects female self-sacrifice for the failed national cause. Since that cause is structured as morally superior to any other, Polish women’s (and men’s) conduct in Polish literature and art is more often than not valorised in terms of national heroism, rather than any other cultural currency. That dominant national paradigm – according to which a good Pole is one ready for his/her ultimate self-sacrifice in the face of the continuing threat posed by foreign powers – constitutes an indispensable dimension in mapping out gender relations and their representations in Polish cinema. Attempting to analyse Polish women’s cinema without a clear understanding of this powerful set of national myths risks producing an incomplete and possibly historically and culturally false result, especially given that these myths are also of moment after 1989, the year that constitutes the symbolic end of the Soviet domination and thus of the direct foreign threat to Polish sovereignty.

Following Szwajcowska’s comprehensive and succinct delineation of the history and contexts of the development of the Polish Mother, in Part 2 Mazierska and Ostrowska show how that myth has repeatedly been rewritten in Polish film and re-appropriated by Polish female filmmakers. Ostrowska’s overview of the multiplicity of these rewritings and re-appropriations in Chapter 2 traces their realisations from silent cinema (i.e. Huragan [Hurricane, 1928] by Józef Lejtes), through its socialist-realist conversions and back again to its original form in the Polish School of filmmaking in the 1950s, then in the Cinema of Moral Concern in the 1970s and most recently used as a subversive measure in the popular and iconoclastic post-communist Kroll (Władysław Pasikowski, 1991). The most striking contribution of Ostrowska’s overview is her insistence that the expectation of female nurturing in Polish culture, and therefore its filmic representations, extends beyond motherhood to include adults, most importantly men, as its habitual recipients. Buried in a barrage of other illuminating details, this assertion can easily be overlooked as seemingly identical with a feminist stand that problematises female domination of financially disadvantaged nurturing professions. Yet the difference lies in a cultural and historically determined nuance: the Polish Mother, in the privacy of her familial setting, is obliged to nurture her nation, which can be realised through her sons or any other bodies able to spill their blood for it. That shifts the representations of extended motherly nurture in Polish cinema onto an idealised plane where its moral superiority is, or should be, a reward in itself. This factor of Polish specificity, however atavistic it may seem, is still crucial as a point of reference for female representations in Polish film.

In other chapters of Part 2, Ostrowska focuses more closely on two particular periods in the Polish Mother’s filmic development: that of Polish socialist realism and of the Polish School, which offered two paradigms of filmmaking usually placed in stark contrast. The former – popular with and endorsed by the communist state – showed women as disciples of the doctrine of the day, emancipated by their male mentors, and channelling their activity into physical work to build a better Poland, with their mothers keeping their homes in order in the background. Examples here include Maria Kaniewska’s Niedaleko Warszawy (Not Far from Warsaw, 1954), Jan Rybkowski’s Autobus odjeżdża 6.20 (The Bus Leaves 6.20, 1954), and the immensely popular Przygoda na Mariensztacie (An Adventure at Marienstadt, 1954) by Leonard Buczkowski. The propagandist message of these films disregards the reality of the double burden that women at the time carried: that of professional emancipation out of economic necessity rather than for ideological reasons, and that of the expected high level of care for the home and whoever inhabited it. Socialist realism in film served not only to propagate the positive communist message, but also to suppress the painful memories of the war with its uncomfortable truth of the Soviet attack on Poland, which was thoroughly deleted from all official accounts of WWII.

On the other hand, directors of the Polish School, which followed the socialist-realist period, assumed the role of therapists to the Polish nation, which was still coping with the trauma of the recent war. Depending on their position vis-a-vis the national mythology, these directors were either following the national tradition of Polish Romanticism (e.g. Andrzej Wajda), or mocking it (Andrzej Munk and Kazimierz Kutz), yet inadvertently they structured their representations of male and female characters in relation to the national ideals, at times even managing to communicate the ambiguity of the Soviet investment in Polish history and its repercussions (e.g. Wajda’s Popiół i diament [Ashes and Diamonds, 1958]). Ostrowska’s detailed analysis of the relevant films of the Polish School demonstrates clearly the continued dominance of the Polish Mother as a most easily accessible stereotype and a point of cultural reference for these films. She completes her representational analysis by examining a sample of films depicting the “other”, usually Jewish, woman – including the extraordinary Daleko od okna (Away from the Window aka Far from the Window, 2000) by Jan Jakub Kolski, as well as Wajda’s Ziemia obiecana (The Promised Land, 1974) and Wielki tydzień (Holy Week, 1995) – which gives a strong sense of the desires and fears lurking beneath the idealised versions of Polish femininity.

The time of “Solidarity” brought an increase in the number of female roles in the Cinema of Moral Concern in the late 1970s (i.e. 1976-1981) (1). In her analysis of the two most quoted films of the movement, Wajda’s Człowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble, 1976) and his Cłowiek z żelaza (Man of Iron, 1981), Mazierska questions the transformation of the main character of the two films, Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda), from an independent and almost asexual journalist in Man of Marble, into a subdued and domesticated mother supporting her politically active husband in Man of Iron. In a chapter on post-communist filmic representations of women, Mazierska writes provocatively of “witches and bitches” replacing the expiring ideal of national femininity, especially in Polish police/gangster dramas, criminal comedies and the “heritage cycle”, the three types of film successful at the Polish box office after 1989. She convincingly argues that women in post-communist Poland and its cinema are affected by two seemingly contrary phenomena: the rise of masculinism, and the crisis of masculinity. Mazierska reconciles the two by explaining how, in the new reality, Polish men can no longer fulfil their traditional role of national hero, and therefore resent strong, now openly dominant women and act aggressively towards them. This argument is convincing, and can easily be supported by multiple examples beyond the sample (limited by the space available) analysed in Women in Polish Cinema, as Mazierska has demonstrated in her other writings. The argument that is relatively new to Mazierska’s work is the exception she notes in films by some first-time directors who are not preoccupied with considerations of genre, and have a more sympathetic view of women and their disappointment in men. Amongst these, Mazierska lists Jan Hryniak’s Przystań (Haven, 1997), Łukasz Barczyk’s Patrzę na ciebie, Marysiu (I’m Looking at You, Mary, 1999), and Mariusz Front’s Portret podwójny (Double Portrait, 2001) (2). The films of Polish women filmmakers, however, are not always as sympathetic to the female characters whose stories they represent, including (for instance) films by Dorota Kędzierzawska.

The four filmmakers discussed in Part 3 of Women in Polish Cinema include the neglected socialist-realist Wanda Jakubowska, two significant women of the Cinema of Moral Concern, Agnieszka Holland and Barbara Sass (the latter virtually unknown internationally), as well as a director who made her feature film debut two years after 1989. With the exception of Jakubowska, who may have not been asked to position herself in relation to these issues, all these filmmakers are quoted as rejecting any identification of their films with women or women’s causes. Jakubowska is one of the most important figures of the socialist realism, whose position in the history of Polish cinema is compared here to that of Leni Riefenstahl for German cinema. Mazierska also insists that as a filmmaker, an educator and a mentor to many young film directors, including Krzysztof Kieślowski, Jakubowska possessed an exceptional integrity which earned her the utmost respect of her colleagues and students, but this was not so outside the cinema, possibly because of her unwavering communist convictions, with the assumption – especially important in the context of Women in Polish Cinema – of gender equality.

Despite their continued refusals to see themselves as feminists or their work in the context of women’s cinema, the films of Sass and Holland considered here are deeply concerned with the difficulties faced by women in Poland. Both Sass’ and Holland’s Polish films frequently focus on female characters under the pressures imposed on them by national myths and their incongruity with lived realities. Kędzierzawska’s limited oeuvre is concerned mostly with children and it does not privilege either gender. Mazierska considers Kędzierzawska’s work here as one of an “ambivalent feminist” who explores the situation of children, which could be interpreted as derived from that of their parents. In Kędzierzawska’s films, the realm of childhood is outside glorified national causes, and children fall victim to other socially acceptable ideologies of the day, which – according to Mazierska – include Catholicism, but these could also be interpreted to include the new capitalist order. The sample here does not include Kędzierzawska’s most recent film, Jestem (I Am, 2005), acclaimed by Variety critics and scored by Michael Nyman.

With each chapter of the two major parts of Women in Polish Cinema distinctly authored by either Mazierska or Ostrowska, this seminal introduction to the field offers another fascinating feature: a dialogical approach to the subject matter by two authors who do not seem to share the same ideological standpoint. The leftist view is taken by Ewa Mazierska, who does not shy away from provocation at times. For instance, she suggests that Andrzej Wajda, considered by many the greatest living Polish film director, is not much more than a political opportunist, and that there are strong similarities in the attitudes towards women of Catholicism and Stalinism. Elżbieta Ostrowska’s mode of inquiry is more even-handed and focuses on a detailed analysis of the films and their various implications. That difference of approach is a definite advantage of Mazierska’s and Ostrowska’s co-authorship, where – instead of a unified and homogeneous work – a reader is presented with a dialogue, if not a polemic, on the topic.

Being the first work of its kind in English, the volume is burdened with the difficult task of defining and clarifying the parameters of a subject that often registers only in the peripheral vision of film researchers, yet one that has potential and implications for wider issues. To an extent much greater than noted in this limited review, Mazierska and Ostrowska effectively combine currents of Western feminist thought with the structures embedded in the history of Polish culture, which suggests the possibility of a similar approach for other cultural contexts. Consequently, Women in Polish Cinema is not only a milestone in the study of women in Polish cinema, but it also offers a useful model for other studies of non-Western female filmmakers and female representations in non-Western cinemas.

Women in Polish Cinema, by Ewa Mazierska and Elzbieta Ostrowska, Berghahn Press, Oxford, 2006.

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  1. The Workers’ Union “Solidarity” (Solidarność) was an organisation that opposed the communist government in Poland and was responsible to a large extent for the systemic change that followed in 1989.
  2. Jan Hryniak’s later film Trzeci (Third, 2004) continues this trend.