"Made of Memory, Love and Conscience" - the Retrospective of Tadeusz Konwicki

in 15th T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival, Wroclaw

by Piotr Kletowski

One of the highest points of the T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festivals are the retrospectives of the Polish masters of the cinema. This year, the hero of the cycle was one of the greatest Polish filmmakers, Tadeusz Konwicki.

Konwicki was born in 1926 in Nowa Wilejka, then part of Poland, which was taken by the Soviet Union in 1945 and is today part of Lithuania. He was a very important figure in Poland’s intellectual landscape – an outstanding writer whose novels like A Hole in the Sky, A Dreambook for Our Time and The Polish Complex described the situation of intellectual after The Little Apocalypse. Like other Polish poets and novelists of this lost generation – Tadeusz Rózewicz, Tadeusz Borowski, Zbigniew Herbert –Konwicki tried to describe the world after the disaster of war, where all laws were suspended and human beings were reduced to killing machines. As a soldier of the National Army, he surprisingly declared himself a communist after the war (his debut Rojsty, written in 1947 and published in 1956, was a typical social-realist novel) but he was very quickly overcome by the new political power. That is why many of his novels from the ’70s and ’80s (like A Minor Apocalypse), which metaphorically described Poland under the communist regime, were officially banned.

The unusual style of Konwicki’s books, much closer to the essay than to the typical novel – his unique sense of observation, sensitivity, humour and above all pragmatic philosophy, which was focused on the human being as the focal point of cultural activity – were similar to his films. Konwicki was one of the pillars of the Polish Film School, the formation of Polish filmmakers who presented Polish cinematography for worldwide audiences after World War Two. As the Artistic Supervisor of the Kadr Studio and the author of screenplays, Konwicki worked on such important movies as Kawalerowicz’s Pharaoh (1966), Lenartowicz’s Winter Twilight (1957) or Morgenstern’s Jowita (1967).

As a director, Konwickimade his debut in 1958 with the film The Last Day of Summer. In this short black-and-white film he described the meeting of two people, a man and a woman, who survive the war and try falling in love. The film’s episodic structure, unusual anonymous heroes, experimental sound score and poetic atmosphere resulted in a masterpiece that predicted films of the French New Wave. Following this path, Konwicki made six feature films deeply rooted in Polish culture and history, but at the same time relatable for audiences outside Poland. As the hero of Konwicki’s hypnotising Salto (1965) says, “human beings are made of memory, love and conscience”; these terms are the main subjects of Konwicki’s essayistic movies. The heroes of these poetic but sometimes cruel films are usually the double of Konwicki himself, very often becoming the voice of post-war generations.

In what is probably Konwicki’s most important film, Jak daleko stad, jak blisko (How Far, How Near, 1972), he gave a wide picture of the Polish nation’s experience of the 20th century, touching on such important subjects as the Polish-Jewish relationship. His later movies were based on masterpieces of Polish literature: Issa Valley (1982) – a gothic description of the Polish community living in Lithuania, based on Czeslaw Milosz’s novel; and, most of all, Lawa (Forefathers, 1989), a visionary reinterpretation of Polish Romantic myths described by Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz. In Konwicki’s vision these myths are still important, not only for Polish people but for all European nationalities influenced by the Romantic ethos. In 1986 Andrzej Wajda made a homage to Konwicki’s works, the impressionistic melodrama A Chronicle of Amorous Accidents, with Konwicki himself playing an anonymous writer who creates the world from his own memories.

Edited by Rebecca Harkins-Cross