Each of Walerian Borowczyk’s fourteen features has one thing in common. There’s no toplessness in Blanche (1972) so it can’t be that. The answer must be that they’re all consistently nice to look at. Amongst the two million frames of film that Borowczyk realised there’s not an ugly image to be had. Whether it was animal carcasses, Stalinist bleakness, or simply Paloma Picasso in a bathtub of (unsimulated) pig’s blood, he didn’t mind it being ghastly just so long as it was pretty. This consistency can be attributed to the fact that Borowczyk took personal responsibility for the bulk of the primary creative work. In addition to writing and direction, he also did production design, editing and music supervision on most of his films, although he preferred to entrust photography to close-collaborators Guy Durbin or Bernard Daillencourt. It may be significant that the films in his oeuvre that are generally considered less worthy are more likely to involve outsiders in his customary roles – which is good because everything else is negotiable. Borowczyk’s versatility in adjusting his personal vision to wildly divergent modes of finance, production and distribution is the hallmark of genius from Orson Welles to Jesus Franco (so maybe not as far as all that).
Borowczyk was born in Poland, probably in 1923, and designed prizewinning posters and made short films there before relocating to France to make Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal, 1967), Goto, l’île d’amour (Goto, Island of Love, 1969), Blanche and Contes immoraux (Immoral Tales, 1974). He had originally shot the climax of La Bête (The Beast, 1975) as an episode for Immoral Tales but before shooting the framing narrative he returned to Poland in 1975 to make Dzieje grzechu (The Story of Sin, 1975). Between 1945 and 1989 Poland was aligned with the USSR under a form of bureaucratic socialism which – as under capitalism – produced ebbs and flows of personal freedoms. During the 1970s, First Secretary Edward Gierek was fronting a period of relative prosperity and cultural liberalism.
Conventional wisdom tells us that censorship in the communist sphere was more oppressive than in capitalist countries but this appraisal is open to question. Censorship at the distribution stage (via restriction and editing) was less prevalent than in the West as the state had a monopoly on production and films were made to specifically address its social agenda rather than economic imperatives. This could be argued as censorship at the production stage but that would hardly be useful since the same principles (with an opposing agenda) are truer in capitalist countries. Despite recent technical advances, production and distribution channels for cinema are still reserved for individuals with the pre-requisite financial resources. I appreciate that responses to this hypothesis are likely to be contingent on one’s preference for a society whose citizens are oppressed more equitably.
The USSR-aligned Eastern Bloc comprised of many Central and Eastern European countries with proud cinematic traditions, notably Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. I have found that the most avid western cinephiles can rarely name more than a dozen films from this field – with the exception of the Czech New Wave whose promotion had obvious politically expediency for the West and was by no means the greatest of the Czech cinema’s cinematic achievements. Beyond the tiny proportion of films that circulated in the capitalist world (presumably for purposes of verisimilitude) lie the films that were actually popular in their own countries – and in many cases still are. Films with a surprising quotient of nudity, violence, anti-social behaviour and high-octane weirdness. Case in point: Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972) isn’t the greatest Soviet SF movie ever, but is merely representative (there was a made-for-TV version in 1968 that beats it).
Returning momentarily to the topic, Bororwczyk could work with chic eroticists such as Alain Siritzky, avant-garde progressives like Anatole Dauman, or your actual real-life full-on communists that ran studios like Przedsiebiorstwo Realizacji Filmów and Zespol Filmowy. In many ways, The Story of Sin is a typical Borowczyk film. All your old favourites are here: big scary black dog, naked women with red rose petals, confessionals and pervy priests, cut-throat razors, steam trains, cylinder phonographs. But dust off your attention spans, this film doesn’t run 92 minutes like many of his others; at 130 minutes this is his longest film and, with typical Boroperversity, it’s his most narratively coherent. The film is based on a famous novel by Stefan Żeromski (1864–1925), one of Poland’s most celebrated writers whose novel Popioły had been filmed by Andrzej Wajda in 1965. Story of Sin had been adapted in 1911 and 1933 but Borowczyk’s version is regarded as the most faithful and meticulously detailed version. The film is underpinned by a virtuoso performance by Grazyna Dlugolecka as a pious young woman who spirals into prostitution and crime in response to the pressures of a conservative and religious establishment. It was the most sexually graphic film to be released in Poland at the time.
On release The Story of Sin was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes and received glowing reviews and coverage in Eurotica mags like Sex Stars System which was edited by part-time porn star Jean-Pierre Bouxyou and didn’t usually cover films from socialist countries. The film played in London at the Electric Cinema in September 1976 alongside Goto and Blanche to capitalise on the scandalous success of The Beast which had been passed for exhibition by the left-wing Greater London Council after being rejected by the BBFC, meaning that the film could only legally be viewed by the public in London. This publicity would have generated much-needed foreign revenue for Poland, whose economic problems would lead to the formation of the Solidarity trade union and set in chain events that would topple the communist societies in Europe by the start of the nineties.
Borowczyk planned to return to Poland to film a comedy about the Henry of Valois, a French king who briefly ruled Poland, but following The Beast the plans came to nothing and Borowczyk’s own film career spiralled down into prostitution (The Art of Love, 1983) and crime (Emmanuelle 5, 1987).
Dzieje grzechu (1975 Poland 130 mins)
Prod. Co: Przedsiebiorstwo Realizacji Filmów / Zespol Filmowy Dir: Walerian Borowczyk Scr: Walerian Borowczyk, from the novel by Stefan Zeromski Phot: Zygmunt Samosiuk Ed: Lidia Pacewic Art Dir: Teresa Barska Cos: Jerzy Szeski Cast: Grazyna Dlugolecka, Jerzy Zelnik, Olgierd Lukaszewicz, Antoni Pochron