Intimations: The Cinema of Wojciech Has

Intimations: The Cinema of Wojciech Has

by Annette Insdorf

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In this first study in English of a master of Polish cinema, Annette Insdorf explores Has’s thirteen feature films with the same deep insight of her groundbreaking book on Krzysztof Kieslowski, Double Lives, Second Chances (Northwestern, 2013).
Wojciech Has’s films are still less known outside of his native Poland than those of his countrymen Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi, and Krzysztof Kieslowski. Yet thanks to his singular vision, many critics rank Has among the masters of world cinema. Some of his movies have developed a cult following, notably The Saragossa Manuscript, the favorite film of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, which has been praised by directors such as Luis Buñuel, Francis Ford Coppola, and Roman Polanski.
Has’s films reveal the inner lives of his characters, which he portrays by giving free rein to his own wildly creative imagination. In addition toThe Saragossa Manuscript, his diverse and innovative filmography includes The Hourglass Sanatorium, a vividly surreal depiction of Hassidic life in Poland between the world wars; The Noose, a stark poetic drama about a lucid alcoholic who knows he will not be able to kick the habit; and How to Be Loved, in which an actress remembers her wartime past.
Has made disparate but formally striking movies infused with European strains of existentialism and the avant-garde. With many of his films being restored and rereleased, new generations of film lovers are discovering his artistic genius. Intimations: The Cinema of Wojciech Has is the definitive guide in English to his work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810135048
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 05/15/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

ANNETTE INSDORF is a professor of film in Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and moderator of the “Reel Pieces” series at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. Her books include François Truffaut; Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust; and Philip Kaufman.

Read an Excerpt


The Cinema of Wojciech Has

By Annette Insdorf

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2017 Annette Insdorf
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3505-5


The Noose

(Petla, 1957)

The Noose is a remarkable first feature, for both its formal mastery and uncompromisingly dark vision of postwar Poland. While the cinematic tale of an alcoholic trying to kick the habit is hardly unique — Louis Malle made Le feu follet (The Fire Within) in 1963 — the existential despair that is palpable in the protagonist's environment makes it specific to Poland in the 1950s. We follow, over a period of twenty-four hours, Kuba (Gustaw Holoubek), a wry and lucid lush who plans to begin treatment to overcome his addiction. However, from the very first shot, the camera narrates Has's adaptation of Marek Hlasko's story with images of circularity that imply no exit.

A large black telephone in the left foreground dominates the frame as we slowly discern a man — out of focus — in the right background. The phone's circular dial and looping wire introduce an implacable enclosure that will be cinematically rhymed by subsequent images. The dialogue is dramatically charged as well — for example, when Kuba tells a barmaid, "If you say 'eight,' I'll kill myself." Pouring the eighth double vodka for him, she does indeed repeat the fatal number. In the background of the first shot, a circular shape (it will turn out to be a hat) and the reflection of bars provide the film's first emblem of imprisonment. As the viewer wonders whether this is a still photograph, the camera finally pans right, revealing that it was merely capturing the immobility of the character. Jakub Kowalski (who is called Kuba throughout the film) comes into focus, holding a gold chain. From his window, he looks down to a large clock in the street that displays the time of 8:00 A.M. Under it, a ladder foreshadows a hanging by noose. When he hears a knock at the door, he hides the chain in a drawer. (We learn only later that he claimed his housekeeper stole the necklace.) It will also be the last object Kuba holds at the film's end.

His stoic girlfriend, Krystyna (Aleksandra Slaska), arrives to tell him they'll "leave this damned city" — reflected in a mirror that creates disorientation — for an unnamed place where he can be treated. She will return to pick him up in the evening and begs him not to go out. This will prove impossible, especially because Kuba cannot bear the phone calls of friends who have heard he is giving up drinking. Pressured by expectation, he does indeed venture into the gray, wet city. In the street, a friend (Igor Przegrodzki) is almost knocked down by a car, then jokes about the name of the pills Kuba will take — Antabus — because it sounds like "autobus." After he jumps onto a crowded bus, a fatal accident ensues. At a café, Kuba has a chance encounter with his former love (Teresa Szmigielówna) and says he wants no memories. Back in the street, two workers call him a drunk and pick a fight, which lands all of them in the police station. Kuba is not the only vodka addict there, as the elderly lush Rybicki (Stanislaw Milski) shows up for his usual stay. After the policeman takes away his belt ("it could be used as a noose in a cell," he warns), he sends the pathetic habitué to a cell, anticipating the screams that soon resound there. Turning back to Kuba, he says, "You are free." Our hero is not merely able to leave the prison but also confronted by a more existential statement: it is his choice whether to go home or to get drunk. He elects the latter, entering a bar called Under the Eagle and inviting a forlorn bum, Wladek (Tadeusz Fijewski), to drink with him. A former saxophonist, Wladek is a poignant representation of Kuba's possible future. He has endured the clinic treatment only to return to the bottle. As he brings bits of food to his nose, smelling the snack before (or rather than) eating it, he seems a lost soul. Kuba is thrown out into the gutter and finally stumbles home to collapse. The next morning, he finds a hidden bottle (which he calls a whore) and drinks before hanging himself at 8:00 A.M.

Through Mieczyslaw Jahoda's masterful cinematography, Kuba is often seen from a low angle. Whereas this perspective can make a character look heroic (as in John Ford's Westerns), in The Noose the ceiling bears down on Kuba's head and ironically makes him look trapped. And when he stands at his desk in the film's first sequence, the spikes from a wire sculpture are angled at him in a way that suggests he could be pierced. At the Under the Eagle bar, the low-angle camera presents Kuba under an ominous stuffed black bird. When he is seen from a high angle, on the other hand — especially in the street — his isolation is graphically conveyed: this lonely entrapment looks most dramatic when he is under wires.

The production design by Roman Wolyniec is not ornamental but narratively integrated. The door of Kuba's apartment is like a window, areflecting surface that allows him (and us) to see silhouettes. Toward the end, it enables him to glimpse Krystyna handing his sullied trench coat to the tailor — as she had the night before. This reiteration is seen also in his accidentally smashing the glass he had placed on a framed painting; such repetitions suggest the endless cycle of futile fixing. Kuba's apartment doesn't seem like a home: on the craggy, dark walls, frames hang with no pictures; a lamp has newspaper instead of shades; wire sculptures of animals lack substance. (In a classroom discussion, Columbia University student Siena Bergt evocatively likened this to a carcass whose flesh has been torn off.)

Are the empty frames reminders of his desire for no memories? Has he sold the images for liquor money? Is framing his profession? After all, we see him trying to put a fresh pane of glass on a dusty painting that had been covered by cracked glass. The most powerful object is the large, black telephone: if it dominates the frame, the phone will indeed overcome Kuba when his friends call. In fact, the phone proves fatal toward the end in a double sense: he is pouring out the hidden vodka when it rings. He stops to take the call from a friend who expresses disappointment in him and then drinks the rest of the bottle's contents before hanging himself with the phone's cord.

The film's resonant circularity is formal as well as philosophical. The noose forms an actual loop, the large clock a figurative one, introducing the film's emphasis on time itself as an ordeal. This circular entrapment is invoked by Wladek when he describes the endless cycle of hospital walls.

Since Kuba accidentally meets a former love in a café at the beginning, even the past has encircled him. The number eight provides an enclosed spiral, encircling a film that begins at 8:00 A.M. and ends at 8:00 the next morning. A little girl jumping rope is the film's first active "noose," glimpsed by Kuba from the window of his apartment. He watches her a second time while on the phone with a friend who reminds him that Krystyna often left Kuba because of his drinking but always returned: at this moment, the child skips with her rope out of the frame and then repeatedly skips back in. The shot is recalled when another girl is seen from the café window. An abandoned carousel is in front of the police station. And the gold necklace Kuba holds is a more passive noose. It too rhymes, with a painted advertisement outside his window of a woman wearing a necklace. In an unpublished paper of May 2016, Columbia University student Isabel Robinson perceived that "the symbol of an infinite loop, a number eight turned on its gracefully rounded side, permeates Wojciech Has's body of work. His films betray an obsession with the duality contained in the icon: the double loop paradoxically suggests both infinitude and enclosure. ... The tension between endless possibility and hopeless repetition is a crucial problem of existence that Has tackles with his films. Specifically, he frequently engages with the tension between time as a linear entity and time as a cyclical one."

The sound track is expressive as well, from Tadeusz Baird's score in the opening to the loud phone in subsequent scenes or the doorbell in the final scene. The violin that we hear in the background of Kuba's apartment turns out to be diegetic (i.e., music that emanates from or surrounds the characters) as a neighbor practices. Music accompanies the protagonist throughout — for example, when he arrives at the café, where a duo is rehearsing. In the bar, a blind accordionist sings about gloom. And when the former saxophonist faces the camera, describing the endless white walls in the hospital, churning music complements his monologue. Perhaps Wladek's ghostly presence is invoked when saxophone music is heard just before Kuba hangs himself.

The vision in The Noose is of a Poland void of warmth or meaning. The police sergeant says, "I fought with the Partisans for a better Poland. Where is it? You can all go to hell." As in Ashes and Diamonds, a beautiful blonde woman named Krystyna represents possible salvation for the conflicted hero (her very name invoking Christ); but in both cases, he chooses a fatal alternative of tragic waste. If Wajda's last image was a high-angle shot of Maciek's crumpled body on a garbage heap, Has ends his film with the painted advertisement of a woman outside the window. The necklace she wears provides another noose, while her unchanging, omniscient gaze suggests a derisive indifference to human suffering.

Is anyone untainted in this landscape? An open bottle of milk next to the ladder of the film's opening introduces innocence, as does a little girl jumping rope under Kuba's window. He glimpses another child playing with a rope at the café, where a woman rejects the girl before ascending the stairs in a man's embrace. When Kuba asks for directions to the nearest bar, it's the children who all point him to Under the Eagle, probably because their fathers drink there. The loss of innocence is a theme informed by bottles and bars, especially given an early scene of a bottle collector entering the space under Kuba's window. The empties for which he asks are certainly not from milk but vodka and beer. In his book Polish National Cinema, Marek Haltof situates The Noose in terms of a "black realism," as outlined by Ewelina Nurczynska-Fidelska: "In the context of Polish politics during the 1950s, every attempt at representing the darker side of everyday life became explicitly a political act. Hooliganism, for instance, was not portrayed exclusively as a social malady; instead, it was presented as an indirect accusation of the communist system."

Whereas American cinematic treatments of alcoholism have been linear and allude to possible cure or rehabilitation — for example, The Lost Weekend (1945), I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), and Days of Wine and Roses (1962) — the circular structure and imagery of Has's relentless drama leave no doubt that the protagonist is doomed. (During my interview in 2014 with Slawomir Krynski, Has's former student and now head of directing at the Lódz Film School, he recalled meeting Billy Wilder: "He said he loved Petla and that it was better than his Lost Weekend.") It is thus closer to Leaving Las Vegas (1995). But if Mike

Figgis's film provides some background about Nicolas Cage's character, Has withholds a backstory: we know nothing about Kuba's family, profession, or wartime experiences. Roger Ebert wrote perceptively, "'Leaving Las Vegas' is not a love story, although it feels like one, but a story about two desperate people using love as a form of prayer and a last resort against their pain. It is also a sad, trembling portrait of the final stages of alcoholism. Those who found it too extreme were simply lucky enough never to have arrived there themselves. Few films are more despairing and yet, curiously, so hopeful as this one, which argues that even at the very end of the road, at the final extremity, we can find some solace in the offer and acceptance of love." Figgis's screenplay is based on a novel by John O'Brien, who committed suicide at the age of thirty-four. Marek Hlasko also died in his midthirties after a few suicide attempts. Born in Warsaw in 1934, the revered, edgy writer acknowledged Hemingway as an influence and led a nonconformist life in many countries. When he lived in Paris in the late 1950s, the press labeled him an Eastern European James Dean. The despair of The Noose can be found throughout his work. For example, Hlasko wrote, "It was not I who made the Warsaw in which people trembled with fear; it was not I who made the Warsaw in which the greatest treasure of the poor was a bottle of vodka; it was not I who made the Warsaw in which a girl was cheaper than a bottle of vodka — it was that Warsaw that made me. Who and by what right is telling me to keep quiet about it?"

He was often a political target. The anti-Communist edition of Cmentarze in the émigré Polish-language Parisian monthly Kultura launched a press campaign against him. When his passport renewal was refused, he requested political asylum in West Germany. Then, in 1959, he went to Israel for a brief period; by 1963, he was often in prison because of altercations with the police. Between 1963 and 1965, he spent a total of 242 days in psychiatric clinics. His friend Roman Polanski helped him come to Los Angeles, but he ended up in Germany before his untimely death.

The Noose does not allow for easy judgment. As Hlasko warned in his short story "Umarli sa wsród nas" (The Dead Are Among Us), "Those who don't need vodka should not dare to declare any judgments about it. If humanity has of yet attained anything stable in terms of spirit, it is indeed alcohol." The reasons Kuba drinks are not explicit, but they are externalized onto the film's grim streets, where a fatal bus accident is more likely than a kind word. One is reminded of the remark made by the Polish playwright Janusz Glowacki, "Drinking is a bit like sexual life. It's a sphere that the state was not entirely capable of controlling. One would drink and become free, or at least — felt liberated. Vodka was our Polish national pride."

Hlasko's short story is a highly verbal rendering of an alcoholic's tormented psyche, often expressed via Kuba's internal monologue. The film, on the other hand, is a richly textured visual translation. Although Hlasko received a screenplay credit, the general assumption is that Has wrote the script but was paying tribute to his source material in this acknowledgment. One can compare the film's cinematic storytelling to a passage like the following from the story: "Kuba wiped his forehead with his hand and started to speak to himself in his thoughts: 'It's already ten. I have to bear another eight hours. I cannot go now, earlier, because I would have to go without her; I would have to answer all those questions that they are going to ask me, I would have to say everything about myself ... When I began drinking, why I drink, how much I drink, how much I have to drink to get drunk ... I won't go alone. It's just eight hours. Then we will go there and I won't need to be afraid of time anymore. They will give me this little powder and that's it. I will not be allowed to do this anymore. Even when I will wake up in the night and won't be able to sleep. When I won't have an appetite. When I will have dreams of an empty patio, filled with pits of calcium. It's so easy to drink then. But I won't be able to. This pill will hold me; I won't need to do anything myself, it will do all of it for me. I will have to comply, or else terrible things will begin to happen to me. Shocks, comas, and I have a weak heart, I could even kick the bucket.' This thought made him especially happy and he repeated: I can even kick the bucket because of this damn heart."

The film does not fall back on the crutch of voiceover; rather, its rich production design, cinematography, and actors' behavior project the tale of a self-aware lush onto an entire city and era. Whereas the default mode for American motion pictures about liquor addicts is often Alcoholics Anonymous, Has anchors The Noose in a bleak present tense that offers no escape. It is not surprising that Poland's Communist authorities did not allow the film to be shown abroad. However, when it was finally presented at London's Barbican as part of a Has retrospective in 2009, Nick Roddick claimed in an article in Sight and Sound, "In The Noose, Has ... tells the story 'straight' — the chronology, stressed by innumerable clocks, is immaculate — but gradually invests each frame with so much dread that the effect is hallucinatory ... [it] confirms Has's status as a neglected master." While the story of Kuba is a depressing one on the page as well as onscreen, the robust cinematic storytelling is paradoxically bracing: this first feature shows hope in its ability to capture a dour reality in a fresh way. Kuba may be doomed to repetition, failure of resolve, and self-destruction, but Has's future as a bracing filmmaker seems expansive.


Excerpted from Intimations by Annette Insdorf. Copyright © 2017 Annette Insdorf. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Introduction
Chapter 2 - The Noose (Petla, 1957)
Chapter 3 - Farewells  (Pozegnania, 1958)
Chapter 4 - One Room Tenants (Wspólny pokój, 1960)
Chapter 5 - Partings (Rosztanie, 1961)
Chapter 6 - Gold Dreams (Zloto, 1962)
Chapter 7 - How to Be Loved (Jak byc kochana, 1963)
Chapter 8 - The Saragossa Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1964)
Chapter 9 - Codes (Szyfry, 1966)
Chapter 10 - The Doll (Lalka, 1968)
Chapter 11 - The Sandglass (Sanatorium pod klepsydra, 1973)
Chapter 12 - An Uneventful Story (Nieciekawa historia, 1983)
Chapter 13 - Write and Fight (Pismak, 1985)
Chapter 14 - The Memoirs of a Sinner (Osobisty pamietnik grzesznika przez niego samego spisany, 1986) 
Chapter 15 - The Tribulations of Balthazar Kober (Niezwykla podróz Baltazara Kobera, 1988)
Chapter 16 - Epilogue: Lodz Film School
Appendix: Early Shorts
Appendix: Lodz Film School Projects
Appendix: The Saragossa Manuscript DVD Liner Notes
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