An essay by Rafal Marszalek:
Pills for Aurelia - Who needs a doctor?
The average cinemagoer knows little about the filmmaker Stanislaw Lenartowicz. Born in 1921, he served in the Polish Home Army during World War...展开II in the Vilnius District where he was arrested and sent to a Soviet forced-labour camp. After the war he studied Polish and Wroclaw University and directing at the Film School in Lodz. He graduated in film studies in 1953, a low period for Polish culture. He made several educational films in the first few years of his career, but the man who was one of the greatest talents in Polish cinematography did not make use of his great abilities. Few of his feature films stood the test of time and ideological changes, although he definitely could not be counted among the so-called regime artists.
Cinema was Lenartowicz's great passion. However, when artists were completely dependent on the communist authorities, this passion was a sentance; if they could not live without filmmaking, they had to include elements in their films that would satisfy their providers. A typical example is Lenartowicz's The Last Days of Peace (Pamietnik pani Hanki), a satire on the pre-war upper classes. Such concessions not only prevented such films from being as good as they should have been, but they led to a lack of style coherence and misrepresented the meanings of the films. Ironically, during social and political turbulence, these concessions constituted ambiguous "evidence" against their authors.
Today Giuseppe in Warsaw, sometimes shown on television, seems to be the best-known film of Lenartowicz, who first attracted attention in 1956 with his Winter Twilight (Zimowy zmierzch) that tried to break the barriers of social realism with a more poetic style. Giuseppe in Warsaw is a well-made comedy that draws attention to an important generational aspect of the filmmaker's work. The ability to perceive the comical aspects of even the starkest reality was one of the most characteristic traits of the group of artists from the war generation. This is worth noting because the works of many filmmakers and screenwriters from the generation of Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski and Tadeusz Gajcy are unintelligible or seem coarse if not viewed from the context of the artistic consciousness of those born in the 1920's. Pills for Aurelia is a typical example of the film which is completely unintelligible without considering the context and the political power distorting the message of that generation.
This political pressure fused many ambiguities into Pills for Aurelia. The adopted neorealist convention (the result of the heavy influence of Italian neorealism which was very popular at that time) was impossible to follow when the story referred to events that could not be discussed openly. One of the film sequences introduces slightly surrealistic features from the borderline between the real world and a dream; however, this does not solve the problem of talking about something regarded as taboo. Such was the character of all attempts at expressing the deepest truths about the war generation. The Gordian knot of Polish culture was how to create a real story about Home Army soldiers and redevelop the viewers respect for them without the possibility to show even the slightest historical truth. It is hard to blame filmmakers for having been unable to cut this knot - especially if they were to later persecuted for "spreading lies" about who were heroes and who were not.
"Heroes lie at the cemetery"
In the screenplay of Pills for Aurelia, references to historical events were covered up under a wealth of clues that were clear to audiences of the 1950's. The film is set at the time when real-life wartime hero Jan Piwnik (codename "Ponury"), one of the most effective commanders of KEDYW (Polish Directorate of Sabotage and Diversion) and one of the first members of the Cichociemni (Unseen and Silent) commando troops. Operating in the Radom-Kielce Home Army area, he merged scattered units and formed three seperate well-organised partisan troops that harassed German transports and garrisons. His story was an example of the effective, well-organised and armed resistance movement. Another legendary commander of the Kielce partisan unit, Antoni Heda (codename "Szary"), led a raid that freed 300 political prisoners from a Stalinist prison in Kielce in 1945. Until 1989, it was impossible to depict such characters as heroes.
The movie shows an unspecified underground organisation; there was to be no reference in the film to the Polish Home Army until 1980, when Janusz Morgenstern's adaptation of "W Hour" by Jerzy Stefan Stawinski was released. The organisation presented in the film undertakes an operation to free one of the its members from the Gestapo; however, a few days before the planned mission, the Nazis intercept the whole stock of weapons and the underground activists have to transport other air-dropped weapons from Radom to Krakow. The plot loosely refers to events connected with the production of machine guns in an agricultural machines factory - here replaced by a toy factory - which was used as a weapons storehouse.
All that a Home Army soldier had to do in a political thaw film was to die and clear the way for other better and more politically correct heroes. Sometimes it was a "romantic" death, but usually it was the consequence of an incautious action or a heroic charge. This is why the Radom-Kielce-Krakow road is a road to death; the devotion of the participants to the operation cost them their lives. But death itselt is not presented in a sentimental manner, not can we say that the film creators degraded the heroism of the characters by showing unjustified bravado. The operation becomes complicated: the German army occupies the toy factory where the weapons were hidden, but the conspirators from Krakow decided to seize the weapons anyway. They die due to stupidity and the cowardice of the chauffeur. The film makes it clear that all events, including the arrest of the chauffeur, occur because the organisation enrolled an unreliable person who did not identify with the goals of its activists.
The fact that the film does not show Home Army soldiers as reckless and clumsy boys who prefer bravado to common sense, without recourse to the alibi or romantic tragedy, is a real phenomenon. We clearly see an attempt to make a film about a well-oiled and loyal team of people, and the causes which may thwart the effects of their joint dedication or, quite the opposite, the causes that may induce an outsider to identify with a secret mission beyond any ideology and without affectation. The Polish People's Republic loved questions like "heroism or foolhardiness?" and even more it loved to ask them in such a manner so that the answer was a foregone conclusion. Indeed the price of the final success is so high that we may wonder whether it is success at all (which the press picked up very quickly), but the film very skillfully goes beyond idle discussion about the problem of "futile sacrifice." After all, such ideology had been spread since 1944 to discourage resistance agsainst the Soviet system.
Lenartowicz's film was one of the first attempts to take up the subject of the Nazi occupation in the format of a Western thriller, with simultaneous references to the neorealist frame composition and film set. The film hypes the drama with sudden plot twists and desperate fights against time, which is superior to the subject of the movie. This trick helped justify the ending. We can see the influence of such films as the legendary Wages of Fear and other famous war super-productions. In the structure of such types of films, the consecutive deaths of the characters were mostly connected with building up suspence and lending value to actions related to the main characters. From the perspective of the principles of a war film or any action film, slaying such characters would be a screenplay failure.
Questions of Identity
In Pills for Aurelia the slightly mysterious, though virile and strongly individualised characters, show how filmmakers successfully smuggled important truths about the war generation that the authorities constantly tried to hide. The view may even see the indescribable sense of ethical order characteristic of twenty-something-yaer-olds olving during the occupation. The chaos of a world plunged into war does not destroy this sense; it even makes maintaining these standards and principles an obligation which is more important than striving to keep alive. The mysterious essence of this attitude is well-rendered in the film, and the obligation is treated as if it was a law of nature, like hunger or thirst. It is not the survival of the individual that constitutes the superior aim, but the survival of the whole community - with the ethical foundation on which it rises from the civilisational and cultural ashes.
With the whole realism of the film, the symbolic road of the characters makes us aware of something else very important. Lenartowicz created probably the only portrait of a war generation in the Polish People's Republic that suggested an entirely new view of the occupation, different from the notion of living in the past, the preservation of dead myths and utopian ideas, or that somehow "things will work out". This was a new breed. Their keen determination and mysterious (but no fanatical!) belief in the rightness of their acts, as well as their courage, forced the question: "Who were those unusual people?" In the movie, this mystery becomes both the cause of Lilka's amorous fascination, and an impetus for her to complete the operation. The fact that is it a seminary student who falls in love with a strong girl with a past could seem to be a director's gift to the authorities to promote their anti-Church policy. In fact this trick resembles the strategy used by Andrzej Munk: the film stresses the seperation of a group of seemingly desperate people from the rest of the world, but at the same time, their deep immersion in everyday life and the fundamental decency of a particular type of common people who are neither angels nor heroes.
The "non-heroic heroism" of the girl who goes back to her unhappy world becomes another unconventional way of asking important questions. Lilka is not like a fallen woman from Western films, in which depraved but soft-hearted ladies help the main characters and always die before their weddings to avoid creating an ambiguous moral pattern for the bourgeois audience. Here a smart girl who has been knocked around a bit, and who has learned how to manage on her own, comes across a situation which is beyond her notions both about the surrounding world and her own. She is the perfect alter ego of Dzidzius from the Munk's Eroica.
Who this young person will become, and what she will do with the experience she gained, with her wounded, unrequited love, with her stylised cynicism, memories, and future life: these are the questions of an average young Pole who ever comes face-to-face with the war generation or who actually belongs to it. In this way the story shakes off the fatalistic coating imposed by the Gomulka's thaw cultural policy. The film's finale shifts the focus onto the viewers's life and his debt to those of whom Andrzej Wajda once said: "I love these tenacious boys." Viewed this way, the title of the film (which is the conspirators' password) refers to a completely different "operation" and to different "pills" without which society, seperated from the living legend, was losing its own identity and was laden with the burden of bad and distorted memory.
Stanislaw Lenartowicz said that films like Ashes and Diamonds, with their serious aura and their poetisation of the resistance movement soldier, got on his nerves. The history of cinematography established a false and superficial picture of the alleged division of films during Gomulka's thaw into "romantic" and "anti-romantic" ones. The line of the real division ran elsewhere and covered a wide variety of elements other than the contrast between heroism and anti-heroic jeering. It was a desperate struggle between the living, culture-forming myth and the false story that was the real essence; these two tendencies often opposed each other in one film. In Pills for Aurelia, Lenartowicz emerges as an heir of the truth about his generation in many ways; he speaks to this generation and helps to heal its wounds.
This generation identified itself with the intelligentsia tradition, but it kept asking why in difficult historical circumstances a certain type of common men retained pride, human dignity, hope, and the ability to be genuine heroes. This special breed discerned the sharp borderline between good and evil, unlike those who were recognised as authorities, educated or "well-born" citizens. The intellectual war generation met the common man in various situations: at work (often with fake worker's documents), in underground activity, during the Warsaw Uprising, in concentration camps, and among partisans. Poland had great traditions in the socialist and peasant movements, which during World War II victoriously stood the test of Nazism.
It is worth mentioning Andrzej Munk's works once again, as here we can find the problem presented in this article, which is the conviction of heirs of the generation tradition that the truth about the young war intelligentsia and the common man who resisted the totalitarian system could be expressed in their inseperable connection. There was no romantic identification of artists with the group pushed outside the margins of "bad" society, no idealisation or the people in Lenartowicz's film; the chauffeur Michalak is proof of that. Instead, there was a typically Modernist conviction that social and national organisms would not function correctly and die if the most important "organs" were replaced by ideological surrogates and dummies, and the myths that were sacred for the Polish people gave way to a false story. The Polish School filmmakers made an attempt to build the other, symbolic foundation, which would be deeply set in Polish and European traditions. The myth, snatched from the Poles, found a temporary refuge in cinema, though it was rarely understood properly.
Also notable in Pills for Aurelia is the very reliable language of the characters, not distorted by poetisation. This constant quest for a "basic" and not distorted level of interpersonal communication is also an important feature in the work of the war generation. There was a conviction behind that strategy that the ability to retain one's own individualised language proved the ability to non-emotional defence of culture and tradition on the same terms as though it was a courtyard of one's own house.
Following the trends of Golmulka's thaw (and the director's personal interests), there are some comical elements introduced to war and occupation, but they must be explained. The scene of the German soldier who doesn't notice the transport weapons because he is engrossed in a play, or the attempt of another German soldier to have fun on the outskirts of Krakow, do not fit the stereotype of the "stupid Boche" that was omnipresent at that time. And so there is another feature of the work of the war generation artists: the blurring of the line between humour and tragedy, ridiculousness and terror, a smile and the grimace of death - all so much different from the grotesque convention of the interwar period. That grotesqueness is present only in the scenes in the castle where the characters find a temporary refuge.
The characters of the eccentric old man Jarema and his father who is "the last participant of the January Uprising of 1863," and the mad, drunk painted who restores murals are very intriguing. If there were a way to introduce humour to the fiml, it would be closely related to the style of Kuznica, which jeered a romantic tradition. Yet here we find an important 19th-century theme: a community that doesn't love and respect its heroes, and forces the creation of an artificial "museum-like" space in which former soldiers - abandoned by all - their eulogists and defenders are imprisoned. All signs and symbols of tradition lose their culture-forming and therapeutic power.
Possible symbolic references inside the sequence itself are unitelligible, although there are some overwhelming associations with the grotesque travesty of Seweryn Goszczynski's "King of the Castle." In the film, such scenes become a means of emphasizing the seclusion of the war generation; the respect for mad old men and their fascinations (the uprisings, the Polish Hussaria winged cavalry, art) is clearly distinguished. At the same time the film strongly stresses that this is not their world. The young will take horses and carriage away, struggling with Jarema, and set off to complete their mission. They do not ask whether it will be successful or not.
This sequence permits the cration of an interpretive circle: the viewer for whom the Warsaw Uprising and the struggle for independence are very important and the former insurgent could be portrayed in the same way in films and literature of the Polish People's Republic. Once again, the memory of young soldiers and poets is called up and, paradoxically, purified in a different manner. Here we have another lesson of the generation's attitude; by choosing grotesqueness, Lenartowicz shows the necessity for an artist to create a distance from his own message and trauma, no matter how painful is the subject he has taken up.
The ending of the film is a rare metaphor, difficult to show in cinema. It expresses the same meanings as do the policies of the generation, such as Andrzej Trzebinski's articles: the future is the most important thing - but not the abtract one of glowing socialist utopias. The real future emerges in the acts of the common people. The history of the most powerful civilisations ends at the point where there is no longer a tangled path strewn with graves of unknown heroes. It rather ends suddenly and turns into a wide road trampled by millions of feet. It makes no difference whether the crowd holds flags with "romantic" heroes, film idols or false heroes of political myths; the crowd is heading for a precipice. In this film it is important that Lilka continues her own way with the memory of the sense of community she experienced, and avoid the traps of Goszczynski's "Castle."