MY LIKING for contrast is primarily due to the obvious fact that the Cinema is a visual art. Films, which used to be “the great mute art,” have become “great talkies” everything began to be dull, when it was expressed in banal forms. The most important place was given to speaking actors. Almost the whole of world cinematography forgot the delightful possibility given to films—the ability to observe events, to be a witness. Now we are looking for a way out. And just as the lapidary quality of poetry is the opposite of the wordiness of prose, so the way out of the boredom of commonplace dialogue films is intensity in the use of detail, and its mutual contrast.
This passion for contrast is the reason my name has been linked with that of Buñuel. I was already linked up with Buñuel before I knew his films. I saw them in Paris for the first time, and indeed I recognized my teacher in them. Especially in Los Olvidados and The Golden Age.* But what I find attractive in Buñuel is not his “cruelty” but his courage in showing everything human without bowing before morality or esthetics. Buñuel believes that the human mind can be shown in the language of pictures a much more true language than that of dialogue, and that the most deeply hidden layers of intimate human thought are dependent upon situation.
I am still profoundly impressed by The Golden Age. There is one scene there to which I like to return; it is a true indication of this great artist’s tendency. It takes place in a great salon where the guests are grouped round a buffet, eating and drinking. Suddenly the door is thrown open and a carriage and pair drives across the salon and disappears through another door. Nobody notices the carriage because they are all preoccupied with themselves.
It is impossible to describe this scene, because the significance lies in the visual contrast between the contented guests and the carriage driving across the room. Buñuel wants to get out of the rut of banal situations and does not try to present a realistic interpretation of phenomena.
Symbolism uses ready-made, accepted images. If we are agreed that a bunch of roses means love, a director will use it in a film to mean just that. But what Buñuel does, and what I try to do, is to create new images, new series of images which could play the role of symbols. You surely know the saying: “The first man to compare a woman to a flower was a genius; the second was a fool.”
But in Ashes and Diamonds and Lotna I nevertheless willingly use the existing wealth of images, of national metaphors. I do not make films for Japanese or for Parisian audiences; I myself am a part of the public for whom I work, and so I must use images which are accepted and generally understood. That is the only hope I have of saying something new. This has no bearing on the fact that I reject symbolism as a method.
Misunderstanding is met with when the word “naturalism” is used in a pejorative sense. When a pair of lovers catch sight of a corpse, or when the camera “bores” into bleeding flesh, that calls forth the word “naturalism.” But it is more of a “revolt” against accepted esthetic standards. I understand the word in a historical sense, as a trend in nineteenth-century art. In any other sense it can only mean extreme fidelity, a literal approach about which there can be no doubt. And these definitions cannot be given a pejorative sense. “Naturalism” is the opposite of my intentions, because what I aim at is the creation of spasmodic situations with no attempt at observing the principle of probability—situations which give me the opportunity of expressing myself much more convincingly than I can by mere fidelity.
Buñuel does in fact open new perspectives for World Cinema, but he is practically alone. At the present time there is no avantgarde film movement in Poland or anywhere else. We could not really call the Polish “experimentar՛ films avant-garde, nor Mc-Laren’s studies,* nor the English Free Cinema**. Here it is rather a case of broadening normal means of expression, and no more profound art trend could rise from these tendencies. There are only individual personalities.
And what about la nouvelle vague? For me it simply doesn’t exist. I talked on this subject in Venice. This is rather a new organization in film production, getting away from the principle of the “film that costs tens of millions,” financed by the producer who dictates a certain standard of taste. The “new wave” directors make good films for a fraction of this sum.
I do not deny that they have achieved progress, because they have started to overcome the idea that the Cinema is such an expensive business that it must be guided by the criterion of profit. Of course, if photography and the films had not robbed painting of its monopoly in portraiture of the world, the world would be two hundred years behind now. It is possible that the experiment in organization and production introduced by the “new wave” will cause a revolution in this field. But the results for art? Scattered and transient.
Hiroshima is a fascinating film; the use of means of expression, the combination of documentary and film technique entrances me. But the linking-up of those two places, Hiroshima and Nevers, does not seem suitable to me. And the Camus film, Black Orpheus, was nothing but a colored and badly acted tourist agency advertisement. In my view the avant-garde must be something quite different—people with something to say, who know that they cannot say it in the old way.
Of all the national film styles American and Japanese are most to my liking. The latter seems most significant to me, especially Kurosawa’s films. I have seen the latest version of Macbeth under the title of Throne of Blood, with Mifune in the chief part. It is a great experience. I feel Kurosawa is the only director who has succeeded in putting the whole of Shakespeare on the screen. You are struck by the incredible force and tension of the acting, essential for interpreting the passionate heroes of Shakespeare.
As for American Cinema, you can really only speak of individual directors who have got above the dictatorship of banality, like John Ford, Elia Kazan, Fred Zinneman, and Laslo Benedek. Altogether the Cinema of the world today is marked by personalities: Clair, Renoir, Bergman and so on.
Bergman, for me, is a dreadfully literary director. He starts not only from an idea, but from literary situations as well. Not long ago I read Berent’s Living Stones—I had not then seen the seenario to Bergman’s film. There’s a sort of “Young Polish” stream of his films. Obviously a Swedish equivalent which goes back to the painting of the Swedish Malczewskys and Wojtkiewiczes. But Bergman knows what to take from his sources. As a phenomenon he is alone, too, with no followers. His best films seem to be The Magician and Summer With Monica.
But let me get back to Polish matters. I was against coining the phrase “Polish Film School” because I felt there were still too few unifying moments for us to be able to speak of a “school.” But now I see the opposite is happening.
The people who were so full of enthusiasm are rapidly retreating and letting the “school” fall into disfavor. And I am just beginning to admit its points. There is no doubt that a number of films have been made in our country dealing with moral problems of today, and based on the conviction that the film is not a means of entertainment but an instrument, a means of expressing important problems. We should also remember that these films were not made in a vacuum, but were meant for observant and sensitive audiences. For film workers this realization that their work will come before such an audience is a great creative incentive.
But it was not only the existence of such an audience that helped in the making of these films. There was also the standpoint of the film industry itself. I do not think that much could be achieved by jumping suddenly from one type of organization to another, in an atmosphere of unclarified criteria. We must remember that what is done one year does not bear fruit until the next.
And style becomes increasingly important. I think that color on the screen must be applied in physiological doses, not mechanically. That is why we do not “observe” color, it means little to us and we are not conscious of it. After some time the viewer does not look at a color film any differently than at a black-and-white film. Color is a factor in art, and must be used where it has a function to fulfill, where it should be noticed. That was Eisenstein’s approach to the question. Thus in his Ivan the Terrible, the second part, we see colored faces contrasting with a neutral gray background. But this way of “bringing out” color on the screen is very difficult.
Every scene in a film is determined by its place, by what goes before and what follows. That is the basis of film drama. I realized this long ago, when I was still a student. I once saw a showing of Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, arriving in the cinema at the moment when the Gestapo woman agent is retreating before the sight of the tortured Communist. Carla Revere acted this scene in a very schoolgirl, primitive way, but taken together with the previous scene with Manfredi lying on the ground, it was most effective and nobody would have been able to see in it the “primitive” acting I remembered when the film is seen as a whole.
I think the real place for judging an actor’s ability is on the stage. In the cinema there are many factors which affect the acting, the dramatic direction, the montage, the atmosphere created. In addition the attention of the audience is not concentrated. That is why amateurs can play successfully in film while on the stage it is out of the question. Here the actor has the audience’s attention fixed on him and he must know his job.
It is in the theatre that I find the greatest achievements in acting today. In Titus Andronicus Olivier created a greater work of art than in his films. There is no film equivalent of the genius displayed in the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, which is a theatre based on pure acting, independent of a text. Where the support of words has been taken away the actor must turn to the most secure element in his art—his own “liveliness” he must express the content of his role in gesture, expression and pantomime.
The Piccolo Teatro is my ideal of acting in the sense of stagecraft. But not as a definition of the actor’s art. I think the greatness of acting lies precisely in its quality of being undefinable, in its passing the limits of the describable, in its existence beyond the actor’s silhouette, his visual likeness. We might say a shadow moving in front of a man.
But this is not true of acting alone. This is the basis of art in general. We meet a mystery we cannot define exactly. Especially in contemporary art—painting, music, poetry seek out the finest details and search in them for the mystery of the universality of things. That is why contemporary art does not start from general analysis. It goes in the reverse direction—from the detail to the universal.
The point is not that the world is “varied” but that everything in it has become a separate artistic and philosophical problem. That is what distinguishes the artist from the “ordinary” man; he is always questioning and everything is a problem. The artist can enter the world of things, reveal the relationship between people and things, between two silent people. The more ordinary and banal the situation, the more hidden truth there is in it waiting for us to explore. Today the Cinema uses tricks and banalities blindly, and yet it is the development and unraveling of these that is the purpose of art.
It is the task of the Cinema to overcome the barriers of the commonplace. We have gone through the phase of surrealism—and nothing can deter the influence of this trend which forces us to go on revealing new significance in the things around us.
From Films and Filming, June 1961, pp. 7, 41; adapted from an artiele in the Polish paper Ekran.
* Generally known by its French title, L’Age d’Or.
* The animated films of Norman McLaren, who specializes in drawing sound and picture directly onto the celluloid base. Most of McLaren’s films have been made for the National Board of Canada.
** A British documentary movement of the 1950’s, the aims of which, as expressed in their manifesto, were to make films “which share an attitude: a belief in freedom, in the importance of the individual, and in the significance of the everyday.” The leading film-makers in the movement were Lindsay Anderson, Karel Resiz, and Tony Richardson.