It is general knowledge that in communist societies no aspects of human life ever go unnoticed or unscrutinised by the cyclopic, tyrannous intentions of mother state. The aforementioned reality is encountered as a formula, which is adjusted to reflect how much damage an artist can do to the Communist Party and the elite cadre who enjoy the exquisite fruits of membership. This was very much the case in Poland in 1979, and of the milieu in which Aktorzy prowincjonalni (Provincial Actors) was filmed.
Provincial Actors is a film about actors rehearsing for a play. This may sound like a simplistic and tame plot, yet it is the stifling, social/political choke collar that surrounds the play that is the focus of the film.
Agnieska Holland’s debut feature film serves as an insightful reminder of the real-world anxieties that creative artists suffer in communist societies. Concerns over personal identity and artistic allegiance infuse the plot of Provincial Actors to such an extent as to make the film a tragedy. Billed as a comedy by some critics, it is difficult to see much deliberate humour in the film. In addition, it is the inescapable anxiety and agony that marks the countenance of the actors that serves as the true protagonist of the film. The slow and lumbering pace of Provincial Actors make Holland’s film seem like a cross between the work of Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).
Only when one understands the restrictive forces that oversee creative expression in communist societies, is it then possible to imagine just how dark black comedies from behind the Iron Curtain could be. Mrs Holland’s close-cropped camerawork is an effective ingredient in depicting the tortured faces and fates of some of the actors in the play.
In subsequent interviews, Holland has talked about how she had to dance around the demands of the censors when making her Polish films. In Provincial Actors, artistic paranoia and schizophrenia are a natural reaction to the will of government censorship. Savvy viewers will realise that in this form of double-morality, what cannot be explicitly expressed plays an important role in framing the message of the film.
A vast portion of Provincial Actors features a provincial theatre troupe rehearsing for a play. There is also a briefing before the rehearsal during which the director tells the actors about the importance of Polish literature. The play is aptly titled “Liberation”. This title is an indication of what one can expect throughout the film regarding the expectations of some of the actors. All but one actor views the play as dreadful communist propaganda, employing lines of dialogue like: “We thirst for blood when our blood is spilled”.
However, one Party-line toeing actor, Chris, sees the play as a career-changing opportunity to make a name for himself. Chris puts all of his time and energy into the play. The other actors laugh at him for his skewed perspective. The result is tragic. His wife leaves him. Later, Chris has a nervous breakdown and attempts suicide.
During their initial briefing, the director tells the actors that they “must overcome the egoism lurking in each of us”. The director lectures them about “the great causes” like the “motherland”, “the human lot”, “freedom”, and the importance of art to the state. He then adds, “These causes are just as essential to us as bread and shoes”. Chris is elated to hear this. He is particularly excited to hear that the director is from Warsaw, and isn’t some provincial bore.
The small comedic effect of the film has to do with the sheer triviality, banality and petty wrangling that goes on during rehearsal, about the meaning of some words. For instance, the rehearsal gets bogged down with a ridiculous discussion of whether the word “they” refers to intellectuals or workers. Then, Chris, the very intense, existentially anguished, self-possessed actor asks the others if the word “might” refers to revolution or action. The director adds: “We cannot have anything obscure”. Yet, as far as the film goes, these are concerns that eventually deliver Chris to the abyss, where the only way out is suicide. Is this comedy or tragedy?
This scene is effectively juxtaposed by others that take Chris and his melodramatic, unnecessary existential crises to task. Another actor jokes that none of their artistic concerns matter anyway, because their audience is always made up of school children and soldiers. Outside the theatre, construction workers from across the street jokingly harass Chris. They call out to him: “Come here actor. I give you a pick. Come help.” So much for theatrical, existential drama. Chris’s wife, Anna, whom he neglects, tells him: “Why get so involved? There’s no truth in it.” Chris is so absorbed by his role in the play and the rewards of his Party allegiance that he goes to the park at 2:00 in the morning to practice his lines. Again, this is hardly funny, for Chris denounces his wife, who works at a puppet theatre, to the authorities. He informs them that puppet theatre actresses should not be reading philosophy books that tell them that humankind is “nothing”.
While the other actors see the play as a Party-propaganda yarn that is not worth their time and effort, Chris allows his ideological illusions to destroy him. Provincial Actors explores the allegiances, real, alleged or imagined, of artists under a communist regime. The film highlights the official role that art plays in communist societies. Socialist realism is commonly its official name. This is the essential point of the film. If the contingencies of artistic expression have always marked the life of artists, then clearly, the demands placed on artists by mother state can be viewed as a study in state-sanctioned schizophrenia. This is the tragic, yet inescapable and provincial nature of creative life that art in such societies cannot avoid.
Provincial Actors/Aktorzy prowincjonalni (1979 Poland 104 mins)
Prod Co: Polish Corporation for Film Production Dir: Agnieszka Holland Scr: Agnieszka Holland, Witold Zatorski Phot: Jacek Petrycki Prod Des: Bogdan Solle Ed: Halina Nawrocka Mus: Andrzej Zarycki
Cast: Tadeusz Huk, Halina Labonarska, Ewa Dalkowska, Slawa Kwasniewska, Tadeysz Huk, Jerzy Stuhr