The career of Wojciech Has cannot be easily categorized. Whereas other post-war filmmakers formed part of the Polish School—dubbed “the cinema of moral anxiety”—Has was a nonconformist with little interest in depicting political tension or romantic heroism. Closer in spirit to western European currents of Existentialism and the avant-garde, he made disparate but formally striking movies. On the one hand, they are quintessentially Polish, beginning with the ravaged post-war landscape of Wroclaw in his first feature The Noose. On the other, his ghosts—literal and figurative—are universal. One can sense in Has’ cinema inspirations as diverse as German Expressionism, American film noir, Surrealism, and the French New Wave.
If Andrzej Wajda has excelled in political, historical or theatrical visions—foregrounding the possibility of individual nobility—Has seems leery of these options. If Krzysztof Kieslowski invoked the possibility of love as a salvation in Three Colors: Blue, White, Red, Has’ characters rarely say, “I love you.” If Krzysztof Zanussi has often dramatized ethical tensions among individuals in contemporary settings, Has was a prose poet of solitude and alienation. A formalist rather than a realist, he crafted stories that explore yearning, weakness and loss. In the documentary Traces (2012), he says on camera, “During Stalinism, we learned that content was important, not form. I think the opposite.”
A few of Has’ movies have indeed developed a cult following, notably The Saragossa Manuscript: imagine the hallucinatory displacement of a Polish film—set in Spain—about a Belgian officer, told as a spiraling story-within-a-story. (No wonder it was the favorite movie of The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.) Rather than writing original screenplays, Has was drawn to novels—the literary limitations that define visual possibilities. One of his most remarkable adaptations is The Hourglass Sanatorium—from stories by Bruno Schulz—including a vividly surreal depiction of Hassidic life in Poland between the World Wars.
Has conveys existential despair through formal elements that make us aware of space (via charged windows) and time (circular narration), particularly in The Noose—a stark poetic drama about a lucid alcoholic who knows he will not succeed in kicking the habit. He loved long takes, deep focus, and unreliable narrators (especially in How To Be Loved).
Pawel Pawlikowski, who directed the Oscar-winning Ida, lauded Has during an onstage conversation that I moderated at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y on January 4, 2015. When I asked him about the possible inspiration of films like The Noose and How To Be Loved, he said, “Has is a completely unrecognized genius, probably the most talented Polish director since the war, with his own sensibility and vision.”
Nevertheless, he directed only thirteen features, and spent the last ten years of his life as a professor and dean at the famed Lodz Film School. Has was a perfectionist, a nonconformist—often out of fashion as well as political favor—and an inspirational master of cinematic language. His career is ripe for rediscovery. (Copyright Annette Insdorf 2015)
Annette Insdorf, Professor of Film at Columbia University, is the author of books including Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust. This text is excerpted from the book she is currently writing, Intimations: The Cinema of Wojciech Has.
This retrospective is co-presented by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, with assistance from the National Film Archive in Poland.
Special thanks: Ewa Bogusz-Moore, Alicja Wieczorkowska, Grzegorz Skorupski—Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Warsaw.Film descriptions by Haden Guest
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Jan Nowicki, Tadeusz Kondrat, Gustav Holoubek
Poland 1973, DCP, color, 125 min. Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew and Latin with English subtitles
An anxious man visits his ailing—perhaps deceased—father in a mysterious sanatorium that becomes a kind of dream-machine, where time and space possess a strange plasticity, and ghosts of the past and future join in a hypnotic dance. One of the great masterpieces of Seventies art cinema and the crowning expression of Has' visionary cinema, The Hourglass Sanatorium is also a remarkable example of his alternate and evocative approach to literary adaptation. Has' film is not based on the eponymous story by Bruno Schulz, but rather draws freely—yet always faithfully—from two renown books of short stories by the modernist writer in order to capture the mystical spirit, dark humor and sense of impending doom which defines the long overlooked but now revered Jewish author's stories. The film embodies not only Has' belief in the dynamic and restorative dialogue possible between cinema and literature, but also the subtle and poetic political address of his films—here with Has (who was himself half-Jewish) pointedly evoking the vanquished world of the pre-World War II Jewish Poland in direct response to the harsh anti-Semitic purges that followed 1968 uprisings. It was only by openly defying the official ban immediately imposed on the film by Communist authorities and smuggling The Hourglass Sanatorium to Cannes—where it won the Jury Prize—that Has earned a kind of international recognition he had been largely denied. Has' provocative and ethereal use of color and editing were finally restored in the recent "digital reconstruction" of the film presented now. DCP courtesy of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Gustaw Holoubek, Aleksandra Slaska, Tadeusz Fijewski
Poland 1958, 35mm, b/w, 96 min. Polish with English subtitles
A riveting and dreamlike portrait of the day in the life of a hopeless alcoholic, Has' debut feature is shaped by a Kafkaesque mood of paranoia and indifference. The bravura camerawork so prominent in Has' major works is already apparent in The Noose which brilliantly uses expressive cinematography to generate a profound feeling of claustrophobia and urban malaise. Print courtesy of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Tadeusz Owczarek, Kazimierz Dejunowicz, Edmund Biernacki
Poland 1948, digital video, b/w, 10 min. Polish with English subtitles
A young boy yearns to buy an accordion in Has' early short film and showcase for the Surrealist-edged dream logic and image poetry that would define his major works. As in his latter works, objects carry the weight of unexplained, portentous symbols exerting a strong presence and at times uncanny tactility.
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Barbara Krafftowna, Zbigniew Cybulski, Artur Mlodnicki
Poland 1962, DCP, b/w, 97 min. Polish, German and French with English subtitles
A popular radio actress makes her first trip abroad, to Paris, only to be pulled back into the bitter past she has long been trying to escape by her inevitable encounter with the man she once loved and protected, a fellow actor who betrayed and abandoned her during the dark years of World War II. The talented Barbara Krafftowna embodies the world-weariness and fragile pride of her generation of survivors while giving nuanced dimension to the figure of an artist seeking solace in the mirror world of performance. Arguably the best known and critically received of Has' early works, How to be Loved also features the great Zbigniew Cybulski, brilliantly cast against type as the actress’ now strangely diminished former lover. A faithful adaptation of an eponymous Kazimierz Brandys story, How to be Loved is a key expression of the preoccupation shared by Has and the so-called Polish School with the lasting scars of World War II upon the Polish nation and psyche. DCP courtesy of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzynska, Elzbieta Czyzewska
Poland 1964, DCP, b/w, 182 min. Polish with English subtitles
Admired by the likes of Luis Buñuel, David Lynch, Lucrecia Martel and Jerry Garcia—who spearheaded its 1997 restoration—The Saragossa Manuscript fully deserves its legendary status as one of most unclassifiable and extraordinary cult/art films of the postwar European cinema. Has' oneiric trance film famously uses a Russian doll structure to leap across time and space, following its unlikely hero across a series of bleak, frightening yet strangely exuberant, landscapes, largely set in a dream Andalusia. Grim and ecstatic, febrile and hypnotic, Has' Gothic fantasy is a heady affirmation of the power of the cinematic imagination to create and destroy entire worlds. Almost as legendary as The Saragossa Manuscript is its haunting electroacoustic score by Polish master composer Krzysztof Penderecki. DCP courtesy of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute
This screening is co-sponsored by Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies in conjunction with its conference on the Thousand and One Nights, April 15-17, 2015.
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Maria Wachowiak, Tadeusz Janczar, Gustaw Holoubek
Poland 1958, 35mm, b/w, 97 min. Polish with English subtitles
A melancholy and unexpectedly frank study of the inextricability of love and regret, Has’ second feature subtly observes Poland before and after World War II through the lens of an unlikely young couple suddenly torn apart by the winds of war. Farewells centers upon a seemingly doomed love affair between a bourgeois young student and a jaded bargirl, subtly revealing the social pressures mounting against their relationship before the outbreak of war sends the young man to the battlefield and ultimately to Auschwitz. Are redemption and love made possible or impossible by the end of war? One of Has’ great early works, Farewells revealed his flare for literary adaptation in the evocative screenplay co-written by Has with the author of the source novel, Stanislaw Dygat. Print courtesy of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Mariusz Dmochowski, Beata Tyszkiewicz, Tadeusz Fijewski
Poland 1968, 35mm, color, 139 min. Polish with English subtitles
Has followed The Saragossa Manuscript with an equally ambitious epic superproduction, an adaptation of Boleslaw Prus' monumental 19th century novel The Doll, a sprawling portrait of decadent aristocracy locked in a slow decline countered by the steady rise of an avaricious yet disoriented merchant class. Remaining faithful to the scope and trenchant critique of the novel, Has also retained Prus' focus on a nouveau riche merchant locked in an obsessive and unrequited pursuit of a heartless and impoverished countess played by a startlingly beautiful Beata Tyszkiewicz. Has' love of dialogue as the crux of cinematic drama is fully embraced in the richly theatrical and largely interior world of The Doll which is further animated by the hypnotic gliding camera that was among the director's most resonant signatures. Print courtesy of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Halina Buyno-Loza, Boguslaw Danielewski, Krystyna Feldman
Poland 1960, digital video, b/w, 92 min. Polish with English subtitles
Has' rarely seen early gem follows the tragi-comic tribulations of a sickly aspiring writer living in a crowded common room apartment with an odd assortment of men and women—including fellow writers with whom he bonds. Rather than a strict focus on the young writer, however, One Room Tenants uses a wandering structure to interweave the voices and perspectives of other tenants, giving a richer texture to the film's description of claustrophobic community. Adapted from a well known autobiographical novel by Zbigniew Unilowski, One Room Tenants is fascinating for its evocation of the dreams, aspirations and daily life of Thirties Poland.
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Piotr Bajor, Maciej Kozlowski, Janusz Michalowski
Poland 1985, 35mm, color, 114 min. Polish with English subtitles
Has' baroque and intricate costume drama is a sweeping and fascinating cautionary tale about the dualist contradictions and tensions at work within the human heart. Memoirs of a Sinner chronicles the strange adventures of an illegitimate son, now in adulthood yet still struggling to come to terms with his troubled birthright. Accompanying him on his peregrinations is an enigmatic stranger and possible double who tempts the young man to commit murderous acts to literally destroy his family and seize new autonomy from the bloodlines that exert such a chokehold upon him. Has' little seen late work is a thoughtful adaption on Scottish Romantic author James Hogg's remarkable 1824 novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner a psychological thriller—told largely from the point of view of a psychopath—that is considered to be a first example and cornerstone of the modern crime novel. Print courtesy of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Lidia Wysocka, Wladyslaw Kowalski, Gustaw Holoubek
Poland 1961, digital video, b/w, 72 min. Polish with English subtitles
Based on a novel by Stanisław Dygat, Partings forms a loose trilogy with How to be Loved and Gold Dreams, films all exploring themes of love and regret and the strange emotional and psychological resonance of time's inexorable passage. The story of a famous actress- played by the great Lidia Wysocka—returning to her humble hometown on the occasion of her grandfather's funeral, Partings explores the strange burden and inevitable disappointment of traditions, families and their inevitable dissolution. As she spends time in the house where she grew up, and which will soon be sold, the actress reflects upon her family's history and the kind of role-playing that took place within it.
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Jan Kreczmar, Zbigniew Cybulski, Ignacy Gogolewski
Poland/French 1966, 35mm, b/w, 80 min. Polish with English subtitles
Has’ haunting parable of guilt and memory tells the tale of an anguished veteran returning after twenty years to his hometown of Crakow from a self-imposed exile in London where he had fled after World War II. He had abandoned his wife but not the vision of his youngest son who vanished suddenly, without explanation, during the war. Determined now to solve the mystery of his son’s disappearance, the father returns to discover the strange gap, and enigmatic coded language, separating him from former friends and family alike. To follow the trail of memories traced by the father, Codes uses a poetic structure that glides seamlessly between past and present, between memory and invention. The increasingly feverish and almost fantastical tone of the film points directly towards Has’ later hallucinatory masterpieces. The legendary Zbigniew Cybulski is remarkable as a jaded, washed up war hero, or traitor, his last Has role before his tragically premature death in a railroad crash in 1967. Print courtesy of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Wladyslaw Kowalski, Krzysztof Chamiec, Barbara Krafftowna
Poland 1962, digital video, b/w, 91 min. Polish and French with English subtitles
Another wonderful expression of Has' poetic mode of realistic oneiricism, Gold Dreams follows a young drifter trying to escape from the waking nightmare and oppressive guilt that he may- or may not- have killed a man in a road accident. The young man eventually finds his way to a remote coal mining outpost peopled by lonely men in search of wealth, raw adventure and new identities, including a tubercular geologist who befriends the young man and helps him discover a possible new direction for his life. The bleak, almost lunar, landscapes offer a powerful metaphor for the unmoored worlds invented by Has' careful melding of interior and exterior worlds where thoughts and dreams are suddenly made real.
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Marek Bargielowski, Wladyslaw Dewoyno, Ewa Frackiewicz
Poland 1983, 35mm, color, 106 min. Polish with English subtitles
Originally planned as a follow up to The Saragossa Manuscript but rejected by censorship authorities, An Uneventful Story is a sensitive Chekhov adaptation which returns to the more intimate scale and introspection of Has' early films. Indeed, Has arguably goes even one step further with his poignant evocation of the rueful and melancholy point of view and inner dialogue of an aged professor of medicine looking back upon his life with bitter regret. Has' poetic approach to stream of consciousness and the subjective experience of time, a major thread connecting all of his films, reaches a kind of apogee in An Uneventful Story. A certain autobiographical dimension can be read into the film as an expression of the frustrations and dark obstacles that hampered Has' late career, in particular the difficult ten years of inactivity imposed on Has and broken finally for An Uneventful Story, as a punishment for having submitted The Hourglass Sanatorium to Cannes, against the wishes of the Communist authorities.
Directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. With Rafal Wieczynski, Michael Lonsdale, Adrianna Biedrzynska
Poland/France 1988, 35mm, color, 115 min. Polish with English subtitles
Ribald, picaresque and dazzlingly fantastical, Balthazar Kober closed Has' remarkable oeuvre with a final affirmation of his outstanding talents for oneiric narrative and overripe imagery. A spirited and expansive adaptation of Frederick Tristan's adventure novel about a strange young alchemist and his master—wonderfully played by Michel Lonsdale—fleeing from the Inquisition across the strange landscapes of sixteenth-century Germany, Balthazar Kober counts among Has' most visually exuberant and extravagant films.