A free-film-verse by Andzrej Wajda

A free-film-verse by Andzrej Wajda

Does the genre exist at all? Can we imagine a deliberately freely composed film-poem in which the required formal rules of poetic speech can’t be easily found? Where rhymes and cadences do have their unique rhythm, consonances and dissonances and the loosely interwoven elements create their own tone and lyrical ambiance, - although never in the regular way. Wajda’s Tatarak seems to realize this unusual enterprise and regardless of its surprising fragmentation or decisive combination of unrelated “story-parts”, we are touched by this music and are open to feel the profound emotional authenticity of the work.

Tatarak is built up from three or maybe four components in order to bring about a captivating whole. Not an easy venture! The departure point, according to the director, was a short story rooted in the past, written by his favorite writer, Iwaszkiewicz, dealing with the memories of a woman who has lost her two sons in the Resistance. The second source has been the discovery of a doctor about the fatal illness of his wife, remaining unknown to her. However a sudden desire and attraction that spontaneously stirs in her for a young man, has to be related to this inner premonition of death. Finally, a seemingly totally self-contained monologue in one single take by the leading actress: Krystyna Janda who tells the tragic end of her husband’s last days, frames the movie. These are her own words, offered to the director, since the defunct husband used to be his closest friend and chief cinematographer in many of his former films. No wonder that for a few scenes the making of the film has its place within the movie, as well.

Mourning, remembrance and desire, pain and moments of light are gently bound together. The melancholy is not simply enveloped in foreboding darkness but sometimes it brightens in breathing, lively passion. Telling silences, moving back and forth movements in space and time carry along the rather few episodes.

The film starts with the view of the waving river, shining, peacefully. No threatening undulations disturb its floating silkiness. How to foresee that it will be the watery grave of the young man who drowns in it while intending to bring to the woman the lethal plant? The opening image doesn’t “foretell” the tragic end and we will only later, “aftermath” understand that this was the film within the film. Yet, despite the intricate structure and order, in the way as life and movie making are intertwined, it undeniably becomes the metaphor of the work: that of passing time and sorrow.

After this evocative first vision a truly courageous jump leads and contributes to the deliberately “ broken unity” of Tatarak. The mentioned monologue of Krystyna Janda. We are in a totally dark room, black covers, black wall and shirt dominate the vision. Light spots on her blond hair, a slight beam of light through a narrow window while the actress, the real suffering widow, spells out her most personal and grievous lament. Her body is restless, she moves around the room, struggling with words and emotions as she tries to remember and revive the last terrible days of the agonizing husband. Her words are the simplest, the mentioned fragments of events are the most trivial; the efforts to get the final medical report from the hospital; to accompany him home in the car while he had to piss so often; the petty troubles with the plummer… But the unyielding puzzled remorse of her actress self: “how could I perform this very night on the stage?” recurs to her repetitively, or another time: how did we still want to dream about a common trip to Italy?....How to be ready to the end?....Irrevocable moments, - we know that indeed, the text is written by herself, paying farewell or homage to the most beloved one, addressing him once again, since this has been the only possible way to accept her participation in this movie.

This single long take, with the shivering truthfulness and most startling simplicity, is an upsetting prelude. It anticipates the major motifs of the coming story: death, and the ensuing mourning, the irresolvable grief as it accompanies one like a pertaining shadow. However nothing extraordinary makes it overly dramatic. On the contrary. Wajda-Krystyna relates the tormenting, mundanely passing time in the most detailed way and plain account. Unendurable minutes follow unendurable minutes, until the last spoon of soup can be swallowed, before the body becomes cold… Because death is not merely maddening, but revealed-remembered in its natural, physical reality, as well. For it is part of everybody’s life, it ensconces itself in our body, sometimes more latently, sometimes in a more manifest way - its hunger and presence is violent, merciless, ravaging and forceful. The living body always contains mortality in itself. The woman’s sensibility presents both extreme aspects of it: only through bodily actions and moments we are used to experience the almost non-receptible reality.

Wajda tackles this weight without the slightest pathos. Human pain is unadorned, common destiny, shared by everybody, once we get closer to the raw fact, witnessing it, we inevitably do and do not understand its simple verity. The beauty of the film resides just in this bare directness.

There is an overall subtle luminosity in the way Wajda treats the ramifications of his composite story. The different parts, fragments of past and recent events, are floating like the river, tenderly from one ”landscape” to the other. We absorb the events as a continuous flow. The theme of death is the basis of consonances, and the different settings and epochs the adapted dissonances. They may live next to each other. Although the actress in the film within the film and in real life has different destinies, but the figure, the living person is the same. The marvelous Krystyna Janda who is keeping together the “broken unity”.

Yet, I cannot abstain from alluding to one questionable trait in the unfolding story: the woman’s motivations regarding her exceptional sensitivity. In the performed film she is struck not just by the irremediable death of her two children during the war, but at the same time, she herself is hit in her body, too, by a mortal malady, announcing already in her bones, that death is not before long awaiting her. True enough that in the original novella by Iwaszkiewicz the major thread of the story is the tragedy of the lost children. This marks the mother forever; therefore Wajda insisted so much on maintaining this original departing point. It is a pity that the scenes in which the children’s room and the talk about them takes place, cannot evoke the real emotional force. ( Except, maybe, the short oneiric moment of the rolling ball... ) Otherwise it appears more like an illustration, overused flash back, of a long passed event. No wonder, that in the development of her daily life a new element got incorporated, her personal sickness, and willing-unwilling it grows psychologically more significant. As her state of mind takes further shape the half known but feared “sentence” becomes more decisive and believable than the original cause. Thus, suddenly we arrive at having two grave, identical (?) motifs which define her life.

Is it not true that two reasons are often less than a single one, instead of reinforcing the impact, it looses believable power? Wouldn’t be enough to signal the trace of a threatening illness, felt only deep down and not consciously, to substantiate her impulsive interest toward the handsome young man? Her erotic desire, to laugh, to touch and embrace, enjoying the skin of a young male is dictated by this repressed fear from “never more”, by the anxiety of the end. It does not spring from the painful memory of her dead children! The double “explanation” becomes exaggerated, reducing the force of the unexpected emotional outburst. Her longing, rising from this middle aged woman, is more visceral than any direct memory, therefore I do believe that it wouldn’t need the justification of the former loss of her sons, twenty years ago.

Although this partially forced dramaturgy may disturb a bit the impact of the film, other great values eclipse it and contribute to the magic of Tatarak. First of all the exceptionally refined an intense camerawork, by the great cinematographer Pavel Edelman (Polanski's acclaimed master). The particular lyrical tone, thanks to the depth of the colors and the image in general, brings about a unique ambiance: restrained, somberly magnificent, spare and staggering. Sometimes close to deliberate black and white, the colors radiate a mood of sorrow. Iwaszkiewicz preferred themes: Eros and Thanatos appear in a specific condensed entity. The slow and rare camera movements, the calm to have a patient look at the surrounding environment, whether it is the peaceful river or the tastefully furnished dining room; the patient feel of the weight are just the most expressive feature of the style, corresponding deeply to the subject matter.

The never theatrical and convincing acting greatly enhance the warm simplicity of the movie. Performers, like the young man: Pawel Szajda, transmitting the common sense and free charm of a today’s country boy; the wonderful, aged visiting parent-friend, smartly marked by history, Jadwiga Jankowska-Ciesleka, and the disciplined, elegant doctor, Jan Englert. All play their parts in the chamber music perfectly adjusted. Everything fits to the atmosphere of the landscape and interiors. Sober yet painterly.

It is a free verse, as I felt from the very beginning, avoiding any customary strict form, yet, keeping, through all its multifarious sources and story-fragments, a touching “drive”, it remains moving, leaving emotionally penetrating impressions.

Yvette Biro

Notes :
* The title Tatarak is the Polish name of a poisonous water plant which is called Sweet Rush and became the English title in many countries for the distribution.


HarryTuttle said…
Conversation with Yvette Biró: interviews (in Paris, 5 July 2008, and New York City, 1 November 2008)
Studies in Eastern European Cinema; Volume 1 Number 1.

"[..] the sense of time and rhythm in contemporary film-making – my intention came out almost as a cry against the hysterical speed of action films. I wanted to remind us of the values of human emotions, contradictions, complexities, calling attention to the calm and patience we need for a deeper understanding. In Delta, we consciously emphasized these often neglected features. [..]
There is no longer an everyday battlefield in the arena of film-making. Political struggle is no longer the privilege of the artistic endeavour. Something has been achieved, but something has also been lost. The exceptional role of film in the 1960s and 1970s worldwide is no longer prevalent. But, on the other hand, you still have to find your audience and understand how to address them with issues they’re concerned with, even though not necessarily on a daily basis, and sadly too often this can mean a loss of quality. It is understandable that film-makers today have to meet the needs of their own public, but it shouldn’t have to mean giving up taste and meaning. I’ve always believed that film has the right to play on different registers, some deliberately more ambitious than others."