Jan Jakub Kolski has earned himself a strange reputation. His mystical and folklorish films stand apart from the general flow of Central European cinema. Critics have found him to have more in common with the “magic realism” of South American prose than with his fellow Central European film directors.
Although the supernatural is often present in the films of Kolski’s compatriot, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Symbolist dream-like sequences are still common in Russian and Yugoslav film, Kolski stands alone in Central European cinema as a director who is concerned more with the spiritual than the material, the social or the political. His eighth and latest feature film, Historia kina w Popielawach (The Story of Cinema in Popielawy, 1998) is in some ways rather more realistic than many of his earlier films. It is set in precise and clearly identified historical milieux (the 1860s and the 1960s). Nevertheless, the film still retains a foothold within the realm of magic and appeals to notions of timelessness.
The story is narrated by ten-year old Staszek, who writes in his diary about his school-friend Jozef. Jozef comes from a family of blacksmiths, all of whom bear the name Jozef. Since he is the sixth consecutive son to be called Jozef, he is nicknamed Szustek (meaning “sixth one”). Szustek’s ancestor, Jozef I, is notable for having invented an early form of cinema projector, constructed from large wooden beams and driven by horses, and Kolski’s film is “a little about this and something else.” Although Jozef I’s plans are thwarted with the second uprising against the Russian Empire in 1863, the apparatus survives in the family for over 100 years – until it is destroyed in a drunken arson attack. Szustek is inconsolable, a state that his father cannot understand. It is not until the frail son is admitted to a sanatorium that his father agrees to help rebuild the machine.
Historia kina w Popielawach takes what might seem to be a rather technological and twentieth-century theme as its subject matter – cinema. For Kolski, though, cinema is not a mere technique for making pictures move or for entertaining. It is a powerful mediator between us and our dreams; it is a means of travelling through time and inventing history; and it is a vast repository of collective memories. All of this is on a scale which far exceeds any similar capacities in other arts. Furthermore, cinema is not a passive medium: it can awaken our youthful sexual fantasies, shape how we view the world and even heal us. (No wonder that twentieth-century urbanites treat the stars of the silver screen as if they were gods.)
Cinema is also a machine which enables us to defy time, a constant theme in Kolski’s films. Kolski presents his story in terms of the age-old opposition of time as a linear dimension and as a cyclical one, with the director’s heart more adamantly leaning toward the latter. Thus, when Szustek refuses to become a blacksmith, he is breaking a line of family tradition but reaching back across a hundred years to pick up the legacy of Jozef I, the inventor. And indeed, love can stretch across centuries as well, as Historia kina w Popielawach shows. Kolski himself has a personal interest in such connections: his grandfather ran one of the first cinemas in Poland and also produced films.
All this makes Historia kina w Popielawach a rich web of themes and motifs – fantasy and autobiography, past and present, history and reality, science and the supernatural, unbreakable linear time and cyclical time. But for all this interplay, Historia kina w Popielawach is rather a disappointing film. Although the plot serves to carry Kolski’s ideas forward, it is unconvincing in its own right and comes over as bitty and fractured, tripping over itself to get Kolski’s point across. In the end, the magic of cinema and its ability to catalyse emotions in people’s lives is far better expressed by Guiseppe Tornatore’s Nuovo cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso, 1988), slushy and sentimental a film as it is.
Historia kina w Popielawach is an ambitious film, setting out to portray rich associations of something which touches us all in a profound but easily accessible way. Doubtless the film will be loved by Kolski’s devoted fans, but its faults are unlikely to bring him any new followers. (Andrew J Horton)
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