Holes in the Iron Curtain

“Black Series”: Polish documentary filmmaking in the 1950s

The short documentary films made in Poland between 1956 and 1958 were called the “Black series.” The tone of the originally optimistic and pro-regime films screened as short features in cinemas fundamentally changed in 1956, when Władysław Gomułka returned to power. While the topic of the Warsaw uprising and the role of the Soviet Union in the WW2 were taboo even in the more liberal and tolerant political environment, these films were often openly critical of the real social problems of poverty, prostitution, alcoholism and housing. Andrzej Wajda’s Canal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) were made in the same period. Besides the works of the first representatives of the Polish documentary filmmaking school, short features made by Andrzej Munk, the legendary director and father of the Polish documentary genre are included in the program. His films from this period make the great transition from false optimism to controversial lyrical representation. Excerpts from contemporary newsreels help understand the political environment.

Vera Surányi
Curator of Retrospective Program

„The importance of these films lies not only in the sharp and critical tone they adopt, nor in the function of direct social intervention they perform. These films show some kind of rehabilitation of a social documentary's general sense. For the first time in years viewers are brutally and provocatively attacked, which makes them forget that they are sitting in front of the screen. They are treated with a highly meaningful piece of reality, presented with passion and with no resistance, in an observant and intelligent way. The projection room becomes filled with strong excitement. Polish film has not long been able to unleash so many powerful feelings and shrewd thoughts in the spectators…” (Bolesław Michałek filmkritikus, 1956)

The films are introduced by historian János Tischler. The program is sponsored by the Polish Institute.

Black Series I: Urban Landscapes

Horrifying living conditions, war ruins and dreary neighborhoods – a sobering look at the 11th year of “building socialism.”

Warsaw ’56
Jerzy Bossak, Jarosław Brzozowski / Poland / 1956 / 7 min / Polish
A memorable documentation of Warsaw's housing crisis, with families forced to live in bombed ruins where just stepping outside one's room might lead to a vertiginous, possibly fatal plunge.

Where the Devil Says Goodnight
Kazimierz Karabasz, Władysław Ślesicki / Poland / 1956 / 11 mins / Polish
The local bazaar, the ruined Jewish cemetery nicknamed “Cholera Cemetery” by the locals, the “Bródno Bar,” a never-ending construction of the District House of Culture, muddy roads and wooden houses: an unconventional look at the Targówek district and the poverty of the Warsaw suburbs.

Little Town
Jerzy Ziarnik / Poland / 1956 / 10 min / Polish
In a small town with century-long shoemaking traditions, the only way of making a living today is to dabble at the black market. As a result of the new law banning leather sales, young people leave the town in search of better prospects. A bold exposure of legal and economic problems under socialism.

Place of Residence
Maksymilian Wrocławski / Poland / 1957 / 16 min / Polish
Another sour, embittered look at a housing problem. The Pleszów area, nicknamed “Mexico” and “Taiwan,” housed those building the Polish socialist flagship, Nowa Huta metallurgical complex. The film exposes the conditions of the builders crammed in dormitories where forty families shared one kitchen, married couples lived in segregated quarters, and a large number of men drowned their sorrows in beer laced with vodka.

The Lublin Old Town
Bohdan Kosiński / Poland / 1956 / 5 min / Polish
While beautifully restored facades of Lublin renaissance buildings impress tourists and school groups, the camera visits the backyards and flats off the tourist paths. Images of decrepit houses are accompanied by the commentary keeping to the original upbeat mode creating a biting satire on official propaganda.

The City on Islands
Jerzy Dmowski, Bohdan Kosiński, Poland / 1958 / 8 min / Polish
Images of the city in 1939 are contrasted with the situation two decades later: with people moving further and further out to anonymous housing blocks in the suburbs. "Where is Warsaw?", the commentator asks.

From Powiśle
Kazimierz Karabasz / Poland / 1958 / 10 min / Polish
The old Powiśle, a Warsaw suburb renowned for its charm, has irretrievably vanished. In his first independent film, Karabasz eschews straightforward social or political criticism. Instead, his film is a reflection on a certain type of nostalgia, one that acknowledges its essential pointlessness.

Sopot ’57
Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski / Poland / 1957 / 16 min / Polish
It begins during the Sopot Jazz Festival, and a jazz-tinged soundtrack extends throughout the rest of the film as the directors cast a benign eye over the many sun worshippers gathering on the beach, watching the Miss Polonia beauty contest or dancing the night away.

Black Series II: Human Stories

Stories of those declared nonexistent from the official perspective: prostitutes, children of alcoholics, hooligans, and jazz musicians. One of the shorts is Roman Polanski’s first film made with amateur actors.

Great Gathering. Special Edition of Polish National Newsreel
Poland / 1956 / 9 min / Polish
A historical reportage of a public manifestation at Plac Defilad in Warsaw on October 24th 1956, where Władysław Gomułka, the new First Secretary of the Polish Unitied Owrkers’ Party (PZPR), was making a speech to an audience of more than 400,000 people.

People from an Empty Zone
Kazimierz Karabasz, Władysław Ślesicki / Poland / 1957 / 15 min / Polish
Abandoning stages scenes in favor of observation, the directors offer an insight into the lives of young people from the Praga district in Warsaw. Born into the socialist regime and without the personal memories of the WWII, they find their islands of freedom in wild parties with plenty of alcohol and rock’n’roll.

Article Zero
Włodzimierz Borowik / Poland / 1957 / 16 min / Polish
A unique look at prostitution in socialist Poland – the phenomenon declared non-existent from the official point of view - from the perspective of individual prostitutes, interviewed at the police station, their eyes obscured by jittery black bars like an inverted burka.

The Children Accuse
Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewsk / Poland / 1956 / 10 min / Polish
The painful and up-to-date issue of the lot of children of alcoholics. Suggestive action scenes are intertwined with the documentary footage taken at playgrounds, kindergartens, and a reprimand center. Does this group of severely traumatised children have a future?

Rocky Soil
Włodzimierz Borowik / Poland / 1956 / 16 min / Polish
An idealistic young doctor in the remote Gorce village struggles with people’s distrust, fears, and backwardness. This documentary with traces of a feature film is a rare unembellished portrait of a remote corner of rural Poland.

Jazz Talks
Andrzej Brzozowski / Poland / 1957 / 13 min / Polish
The first Polish film about jazz presenting a concert of two legendary music bands: “Hot Club Melomani” and “The Komeda Sextet.”

Break up the Dance
Roman Polanski / Poland / 1957 / 8 perc / Polish
An experiment which nearly got the director thrown out of the Łódź film school. Polański had organized a group of young thugs to break up a school costume party, creating an uncanny parable on human violence and persisting social differences.

III. Andrzej Munk – the documentary filmmaker

One of the founding fathers of Polish cinema, Andrzej Munk’s first short documentaries evolved from social realist pieces to personal artistic statements, captivatingly combining lyricism and satire.

Destination Nowa Huta!
Andrzej Munk / Poland / 1951 / 13 min / Polish
A model propaganda poster of the Polish cinema of the Stalinist era, glorifying the giant construction of the steel works and town of Nowa Huta. The treatment of the workers is self-consciously “heroicizing,” emphasizing muscled bodies against the skyline.

Peasant Diaries
Andrzej Munk / Poland / 1952 / 13 min / Polish
Using “Peasant Diaries” published in 1935, Munk attempts to show the “human face” of socialist realism. Incorporating the three authors of the diaies into the film, he confronts the peasant’s life in the past with that in socialist Poland.

A Railwayman's Word
Andrzej Munk / Poland / 1953 / 22 min / Polish
Munk starts to blur the distinction between fiction and documentary in this film. Using real railway workers he shows the co-operative effort through dramatised scenes. Seemingly a “production documentary,” it reinvented documentary as a form of art.

One Sunday Morning
Andrzej Munk / Poland /1955 / 19 min / Polish
An impressionistic image of Warsaw rebuilt after the war and its residents. A lyrical film, full of warm humour and observations of everyday life.

Walk in the Old Town of Warsaw
Andrzej Munk / Poland / 1958 / 18 min / Polish
A lyrical tale of a teenage music school student wandering through the Warsaw Old Town, finding beauty in the ordinary urban sounds. Based on the idea by composer Andrzej Markowski.