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Conflict and Controversy in Small Cinemas


Edited By Janina Falkowska and Krzysztof Loska

This book examines small cinemas and their presentation of society in times of crisis and conflict from an interdisciplinary and intercultural point of view. The authors concentrate on economic, social and political challenges and point to new phenomena which have been exposed by film directors. They present essays on, among others, Basque cinema; gendered controversies in post-communist small cinemas in Slovakia and Czech Republic; ethnic stereotypes in the works of Polish filmmakers; stereotypical representation of women in Japanese avant-garde; post-communist political myths in Hungary; the separatist movements of Catalonia; people in diasporas and during migrations. In view of these timely topics, the book touches on the most serious social and political problems. The films discussed provide an excellent platform for enhancing debates on politics, gender, migration and new aesthetics in cinema at departments of history, sociology, literature and film.

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19. Once upon a time there used to live a people… Neighborhooders and The Heritage as fairy tales about the Polish “excluded” (Marta Stańczyk)

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Marta Stańczyk

Instytut Sztuk Audiowizualnych

Uniwersytet Jagielloński, Poland

19. Once upon a time there used to live a people… Neighborhooders and The Heritage as fairy tales about the Polish “excluded”

Abstract: Polish society still carries its wounds after years of communism and political system transformation as the introduction of capitalism brutally threw out all the people who were passive in their society and their own life under the Polish Peoples’ Republic into the social margin. They were neglected not only in the social-political sphere but also in the cultural one. In Polish films, only their decay or glorification was shown, which increased the feeling of exclusion. This situation has been illustrated by the films Neighborhooders (2014, Grzegorz Królikiewicz) and The Heritage (2011, Andrzej Barański). Both film directors are looking for a new language of expression to portray the fate of a lower class – they transcend the discourse of social engagement and instead of using the language of Cepeliada and folklore, they create stories bordering on fairy tales.

Keywords: Neighborhooders, The Heritage, Grzegorz Królikiewicz, Andrzej Barański, Andrzej Leder, lower class, exclusion, identity, film language, Polish cinema

Polish society still carries its wounds after many historical turbulences, many of which occurred only in the twentieth century: occupation by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, years of communism and the political system transformation, and the introduction of capitalism which brutally threw out into the social margin all the people who were passive in their society and their own life under the Polish Peoples’ Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa – PRL). The data collected by the Central Statistical Office (Główny Urząd Statystyczny – GUS) shows that 12% of the Polish population in 2013–2014 were living below the national poverty threshold and 7% were living in absolute poverty. The emasculation of a lower class in Poland is one of the main aftermaths of the twentieth century. Poverty and the lack of social and political meaning are not the only form of marginalization. The reluctance to discuss social discourse as class discourse together with a strong stratification of society caused that the lower class was rarely discussed, which additionally reinforced their exclusion. ← 259 | 260 →

It was neglected not only in the social-political sphere but also in the cultural one. In Polish films, only its decay was shown which increased the feeling of exclusion. The Polish “excluded’s” mise-en-scène depicts pathology with plenitude of vodka, crime and a downfall: a countryside is full of dangerous rednecks with axes (i.e. Wojciech Smarzowski’s The Wedding/Wesele [2004] or The Dark House/Dom zły [2009]) and panel buildings (simple and cheap tenement houses built for common people) are the synecdoche of lost hopes (i.e. Robert Gliński’s Hi, Tereska/Cześć, Tereska [2001] or Tomasz Wasilewski’s United States of Love/Zjednoczone stany miłości [2016]). On the other hand, Polish contemporary cinema reveals a modernist tradition in which – before heavy post-war industrialization – villagers are glorified. The period known as Young Poland used to be enthralled by country folklore, people’s simplicity and authenticity. One of the main representatives of this tradition is Jan Jakub Kolski (Johnnie the Aquarius/Jańcio Wodnik [1993] or History of Cinema in Popielawy/Historia kina w Popielawach [1998]). Each of these cinematic tendencies is clichéd and ahistorical, therefore apolitical and disregarding toward the identity of the lower class, but recent years have been showing a possible evolution. Marcin Wrona meditated on Polish memory in Demon (2015) and Agnieszka Smoczyńska explored Polish legends on political transformation’s background in The Lure/Córki dancingu (2015). But Grzegorz Królikiewicz’s Neighborhooders/Sąsiady (2014) and Andrzej Barański’s The Heritage/Księstwo (2011) remain the most profound and diversified reflection on the Polish lower class and – what is more important – constitute a bold, maybe even blatant attempt to create a lower class mythology.

The first film narrative concentrates on the inhabitants in one of the tenement houses in Łódź, and the other film deals with the story of a young man who attempts to escape from a village to a city. Both film directors are looking for a new language of expression to portray the fate of the lower class – they transcend the discourse of social engagement and instead of using the language of Cepeliada and folklore, they create stories bordering on fairy tales. Królikiewicz and Barański formed the poetic language that includes the grotesque, mitologization of discourse, universalization of space and the use of anachronistic narrative formulas (sylves, fairy tales and ballads) in order to appreciate underprivileged groups.

A poor Pole looks at the ghetto

It is not possible to start the case studies of films mentioned above before their contextualization. As Marek Smoleń pointed out, political transformation in Poland had many social effects – frustration, a sense of grievance and helplessness, social isolation, addictions, increased pathological conduct, delinquency, family ← 260 | 261 → dysfunctions, a division into Poland A and B, and so on – which are derived from unemployment and impoverishment, above all.1 Although his study correctly elaborates on the side effects of the process of decommunization, democratization and transformation into market economy, it seems shortsighted and dismissive toward people’s psyche, or rather disadvantaged cultural memory that has lost its social operativeness. As Jan Assmann wrote, memory constitutes community – “just as the art of memory pertains to learning, so does the culture of recollection to planning and hope, i.e. to staking out social horizons of meaning and time”.2 But what happens when this collective memory is blocked and superseded as in the case of the Polish lower class? And what causes this process? These are the questions which Andrzej Leder tried to answer in Dreamt Revolution.

In the beginning of his book Leder quotes Charles Taylor considering social imaginaries as the foundation of social meaning. But they are annihilated during periods of a downfall when we can observe the catastrophe of a symbolical field.3 Author’s underlying thesis is that we are still living in Folwark (grange buildings) with its prevalent serfdom relations and worldview, which is caused by the fact that Polish modernization was mediated by German and Russian oppressors and therefore rejected. For Leder, the auto-destructiveness of the lower class and the cosmopolitanism of a middle class in Poland are not the heritage of occupation or transformation, but of serfdom and “dreamt revolution” from 1939 to 1956. The delegitimization of social order did not bring any alternative so the “excluded” fed themselves with perceived, ressentiment-based grievances.4 In 1939, Soviets and Nazi Germans invaded Poland – that disaster revealed hidden desires and started revolutionary operations. Polish society transformed but without subjective contribution.

Above all, a previous hierarchy was fractured after 1939 – a sense of humiliation was predominant but affected essentially pre-war elites and the middle class. The townsmen group’s existence was problematic due to its members’ ethnicity: there were mostly Jews. Their presence in pre-war Poland had already raised controversies and inspired a strong antisemitism even in official political statements. This public ← 261 | 262 → mood prepared a ground for Nazi German crimes toward Jewish nation in Poland – these atrocities often provoked mixed feelings and even moved some Poles into a non-coerced participation in Holocaust (i.e. the massacre in Jedwabne). After 1945, Poles took Jewish place in society, creating new social stratification and ethnically Polish bourgeoisie on genocide.5 For Leder, this is the reason why contemporary middle class has problems with its identity and history – a morally dubious heritage caused the process of a psychological repression (understood in the frame of collective memory). The descendants of serfs capitalized opportunity for social and political advancement but denied it – the next generations were willingly (and artificially) creating their history on noble roots. No one could call them impostors because of the Polish landed gentry’s extermination. Soviets encouraged peasants to rebel and take revenge on lords, which they did not only for materialistic motives, but also to save their personal integrity and reclaim their dignity after centuries of contempt. However, common people did not identify themselves with revolution and its goals, which came from within and therefore they opened to the defense mechanism of regression: “unstable and lacking any point of reference (connected with pre-war hierarchies) Polish imaginary retreated to simpler and more directly affectionate forms”6 – i.e. miraculous religion. The lower class emphasizes the division between Good and Evil, hence their patriotism and national identity involve primitive “we-they” dialectics.

Dreamt Revolution is a historical elaboration on Polish memory, postmemory and mentality based on them – or maybe on their lack. “People cannot act as subjects and build any community because of their inability to recollect.”7 The lower class has an indolent mentality, still living in a power relations created in Folwarks. The absence of social influence goes hand in hand with the lack of any responsibility. This social group lives in the present, reluctant to critical thinking, dialogue, or reaching a consensus. Hence years of Sovietization did not change Polish citizen into conformist homo sovieticus but only amplified residues resulting from serfdom. We can find critical examination of traditional class roles in Polish society in Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, elaborate discourse on this ambivalent heritage in In the Name of Jakub S., controversial spectacle by Paweł Demirski and Monika Strzępka8, and in mythopoetic films by Andrzej Barański ← 262 | 263 → and Grzegorz Królikiewicz. Both film directors use the notion of myth, fairy tale or legend in order to invent a new point of reference for rumination and for creating new identity. As Jacques Le Goff noticed, previously submissive societies should make an effort to define themselves through rediscovery and acknowledgement of their past, because memory “is an essential element of… individual or collective identity, the feverish and anxious quest for which is today one of the fundamental activities of individuals and societies.”9

The Heritage and delusive social mobility

Writing about Polish cinema, Natasza Korczarowska coined the concept of “private homelands” as a mythological frame of reference for individuals. It is a space based on myth and symbol, subjective reality structured by repetitions and which lasts in somehow constant order. Tadeusz Konwicki, Andrzej Kondratiuk, and Jan Jakub Kolski – to whom we may add Andrzej Jakimowski or Lech Majewski – share convictions about memory’s function: “Memory – emotional memory which is also the record of the most painful experiences – is the only way for restoring a sense of meaning and protecting from a nihilist urge.”10 Królikiewicz and Barański are convinced of that but they depict the reverse of these worlds. In their universe the exact notion of a “homeland” is ambivalent, their characters are not connected with the world, but they exist as monads, the core of their identity is a sense of being excluded, not a national or local tradition. Both film directors try to explore this limbo and construct its mythology and memory.

In the first sequence of The Heritage, young main character, Zbyszek Pasternak, is building a mouse trap (it can be interpreted either as a reference to the Polish legend about king Popiel or as a metaphor of entrapment) when his drunk father comes back to the house and starts his monologue,

You have to remember that we descended from powerful prince of Vistulans who is described in Vita Cirilli. Do you understand? Unfortunately, our descendants had begun marrying subaltern women and now we, the eagles, have to live among the hens. I hope you will help our family to regain our eagle power. I must teach you how to fly. The thing you did today, you know – this mouse trap, was something extraordinary. I am sure it is a sign! You will be a great lord someday and I will guard a new dynasty. But first you have to get rid of your childhood. ← 263 | 264 →

After these words, father cuts his son’s hair and destroys his old baby carriage initiating a rite of passage. This sequence shows in a grotesque way a misconception leading to megalomania and fake identity. Simultaneously, it is a synecdoche of striving for this identity and political meaning.

The central part of this fairy tale is painful in depicting consequences of this fake mythology. Zbyszek descends into a deep sense of humiliation and realizes his failure. He lives in Lublin where he studies law (he fails at exams and is expelled from the university), starves, works as a stockman, and commits petty crimes because he has lost a chance for a career in football after sports injury. When he comes back to his village, the local residents are very critical of his person as a highbrow and ungrateful “runaway” who has left his mother alone working in the fields as an agricultural laborer. Zbyszek is torn between village and city but belongs nowhere. The film includes loosely connected sequences from which his opportunism and copying father’s auto-destructive patterns emerge. He is involved in a fight between two villages; an embarrassing sex intercourse; depressing work in a sawmill, whose owner employs mostly alcoholics; and in situations when he is a victim of constant jibes. Moreover, a sense of humiliation and being disadvantaged is a common feeling for all local people. It is especially emphasized in the sequence of village dogs being euthanized by town’s people who are well-educated so they can dominate the discourse. One of the last scenes depicts a roadblock – villagers protest against their situation, lack of social meaning and poverty, but simultaneously they show the anomaly of a social cohesion: “You cannot ignore Polish peasants anymore. We do not give a fuck that other people also have problems. We must think only about ourselves”. So they are – they pass delayed trucks when drivers give them some vodka, shut down the roadblock and run away with fruits picked up from a lorry. A rebellion ends and they return to their purgatory with an ad hoc trophy.

Although villagers are shown mostly as auto-destructive, grotesque, disorganized, unable of consistent action, and even ridiculous, Barański does not divest them of their dignity. The province in The Heritage is claustrophobic, unattractive and coarse, maybe even doomed. However, the film director looks at it in search of glimpses of hope and dignity. He has a compassion for this entrapment. In the last scene, father and son wander with poppy seeds for the monastery, but they lose them while climbing up the hill. Socio-political reality plunges the Polish province into a downfall, but in this metaphorical sequence Barański creates an elegy for the “excluded”. ← 264 | 265 →

Neighborhooders and (a) film dialect(s)

Królikiewicz’s film compounds this sense of entrapment by means of an experimental film language. The damped, narrow apartments with poor wall units do not signify the provisional character of their lives – although film director depicts a rather deterministic vision, he connects it with the occurrence of small epiphanies and liberations. Action of the film takes place in Łódź’s tenements called famuły. Their inhabitants are depicted in a complex way – they are often agonized and desperate by their exclusion, poverty and overwhelming violence, but these degraded human beings also degrade others. They are not able to communicate with the outside world and they are not self-conscious. Królikiewicz shows their routine – preparing for Christmas Eve, gossiping, quarrels, struggling for rudimentary supplies, and so on – in ten episodes, which seem apocalyptic and poetic simultaneously. They isolate themselves from the outside world but the society is not eager to acknowledge their demotic component: as in the sequence with an honored doctor who liquidates hospital in order to stop “worshipping autochthons” and “feeding bloodsuckers”. He responds to an older, compassionate professor protesting against the cruelty of this shutdown: “Everyone here is so ill that we have not got anyone to treat. Medicine is not a propaganda”. Then he does not want to help a man with a heart attack, explaining that he is dirty and must sober up.

Królikiewicz is one of the most consistent and radical Polish film directors interested in the lower class and the process of exclusion. In his debut, Through and Through/Na wylot (1973) he depicted a young, poor, married couple that decides to kill an older couple in an act of social revenge and as a compensation for years of injustices. In another movie, The Case of Bronek Pekosinski/Przypadek Pekosińskiego (1993), his “man without qualities” is a metaphor of historical determinism influencing particularly the poorest. Królikiewicz is fascinated by simple men, “men from the cellar” – they are unattractive, unreasonable, and untalented, but he depicts their inner world: emotions, struggling and feelings. His characters are not only a matter and the set of socio-political determinants but also spiritual beings. In Neighborhooders, they get a narrative and a form appropriate to coin their mythology. As Krzysztof Świrek wrote in his review, “According to stereotyped thinking, Królikiewicz’s characters do not do anything, exist in a void, practically do not live. They sit on window sill all day, quarrel ceaselessly without any reasonable cause, and stand next to their tenements perpetually. They only pretend to have any occupation. But in Neighborhooders their life unveils its own language: recurring motives, peculiar rituals and obsessions. It is complex to the extent of incomprehensiveness to the outsiders”. 11 ← 265 | 266 →

A film language, or rather a film dialect, created by Królikiewicz and Barański is engulfed in their idiosyncrasies, but there are many common elements: a high level of mythologization, the use of grotesque, an emphasis on individual–society relations, a time deformation, a space universalization, segmented structures, repetitions and anachronistic narrative formulas. The Heritage combines three language registers: local dialect, which is predominant in Zbyszek’s village, literary language absorbed by the character, and chivalric stylization, which can be called an artificial language of Zbyszek’s aspirations. This heterogeneity is transferred to film form in a holistic way. The Heritage resembles rural drawn-out story in its dramaturgy: the plot develops from one anecdote to another as neighbors pass rumors next to fences; form creates a distance due to Jacek Petrycki’s black-and-white photography but it is “ornamented” by tawdry music and mannerism typical for amateur theaters – and in the folk art’s simplicity. Neighborhooders are more avant-garde, subversive and mythopoetic. Królikiewicz replaces cinema of social commitment with its interventional tone with surrealism, anti-aesthetic, onirism, grotesque, and hyperbolic imaginary. The film lacks coherence – poetic dialogues are interrupted by sporadic introspections, Marek Dyjak’s drank-through voice is juxtaposed with Pergolesi’s Salve Regina, a celebrity body-builder plays a priest; plants on wife’s and husband’s graves – as on Tristan’s and Iseult’s – intertwine with each other, the sardonic irony mingles with lyricism, beautiful ghosts accompany hideous “moral authorities”, and two tenements approach each other closing the exit to the outside world where only Lewis Carroll’s white rabbit can force his way through.

The Heritage and Neighborhooders create new folk archetypes. They are interested in the lower class but not in its potential pathologies, apathy or passivity. Królikiewicz and Barański re-enact the exact notion of “a people” and create an alternative form for it. Both films tell stories about social conflicts and the reality of the “excluded” in a way close to magic realism’s imaginary. Either in the provinces (Barański) or in the city (Królikiewicz) – although a people’s psyche still can be marginalized – it gains a possibility of ingraining itself and creating its own identity through storytelling.


Assmann, Jan. “Cultural Memory: Script, Recollection, and Political Identity in Early Civilizations.” Historiography East and West, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2003, pp. 154–177.

Derkaczew, Joanna. “‘W imię Jakuba S.’ Nie wstydźcie się słomy z butów.” Gazeta Wyborcza, 10.12.2011, No. 287, p. 12.,75410,10791500,_W_imie_Jakuba_S____Nie_wstydzcie_sie_slomy_z_butow.html (19 Feb. 2017). ← 266 | 267 →

Korczarowska, Natasza. Ojczyzny prywatne. Mitologia przestrzeni prywatności w filmach Tadeusza Konwickiego, Jana Jakuba Kolskiego, Andrzeja Kondratiuka. Kraków: Rabid, 2007.

Le Goff, Jacques. History and Memory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Leder, Andrzej. Prześniona rewolucja. Ćwiczenia z logiki historycznej. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2014.

Smoleń, Marek. “Społeczne skutki procesów transformacji gospodarczej w wymiarze lokalnym.” Nierówności społeczne a wzrost gospodarczy. Część II – Racjonalizacja i globalizacja, Vol. 9, 2006, pp. 283–296.

Świrek, Krzysztof. “Sąsiady” (review). Kino, Vol. 3, 2015, pp. 68–69.

1 See: Marek Smoleń, „Społeczne skutki procesów transformacji gospodarczej w wymiarze lokalnym,“ Nierówności społeczne a wzrost gospodarczy. Część II – Racjonalizacja i globalizacja, vol. 9 (2006), pp. 283–296.

2 Jan Assman, “Cultural Memory: Script, Recollection, and Political Identity in Early Civilizations,” Historiography East and West, vol. 1, no. 2 (2003), p. 159.

3 See: Andrzej Leder, Prześniona rewolucja. Ćwiczenia z logiki historycznej (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej 2014), pp. 10–11.

4 See: Leder, Prześniona rewolucja, pp. 35–36.

5 See: Leder, Prześniona rewolucja, p. 88.

6 Leder, Prześniona rewolucja, p. 152.

7 Leder, Prześniona rewolucja, p. 94.

8 See: Joanna Derkaczew, “‘W imię Jakuba S.’ Nie wstydźcie się słomy z butów,” Gazeta Wyborcza, 10.12.2011: 19 Feb. 2017,75410,10791500,_W_imie_Jakuba_S____Nie_wstydzcie_sie_slomy_z_butow.html.

9 Jacques Le Goff, History and Memory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), p. 98.

10 Natasza Korczarowska, Ojczyzny prywatne. Mitologia przestrzeni prywatności w filmach Tadeusza Konwickiego, Jana Jakuba Kolskiego, Andrzeja Kondratiuka (Kraków: Rabid, 2007), p. 17.

11 Krzysztof Świrek, „Sąsiady“ (review), Kino, vol. 3, 2015, pp. 68–69.