Winter Twilight by Stanislaw Lenartowicz is one of the films that presaged the emergence of the Polish Film School as a recognised and independent trend. Shot in 1956, it had its premiere on 1 February 1957, three months before the screening of Kanal/They Loved Life by Andrzej Wajda at Cannes. If we were to analyse the film using the most frequently applied criterion for distinguishing works of the school – provoking audience awareness by raising topics concerned with recent history – Lenartowicz’s debut would hardly pass this benchmark. However, if we consider the Polish School to be a complex artistic formation of diverse films created by directors debuting on the verge of a cultural breakthrough – the October 1956 phenomena that was characterised by expressive direction and widespread divergence from the established poetics of social realism – Winter Twilight should be recognised as one of it most important precursory works.
Owing to the fact that in the early 1950’s he worked at the Educational Film Company directing such works as Typhoid Fever and Gathering and Drying Tobacco (both in 1952), Lenartowicz nearly managed to avoid social realism. He was forced to deal with it only while shooting the cycling novella Three Starts (1955) written by Leopold Tyrmand and starring Zbigniew Cybulski as Lesniak, the selfish cyclist. That made him all the more ready to demonstrate his independence from social realist guidelines.
The rather off-the-wall Winter Twilight project relied on a group of debutants as radical as those the director had gathered two years earlier for Generation by Andrzej Wajda. Apart from Lenartowicz, the core of the crew included cameraman Mieczyslaw Jahoda, composer Adam Walacinski, and especially scriptwrite Taduesz Konwicki. For Kinwicki, Winter Twilight was actually his revived second debut as a screenwriter, following the unfortunate script for the propaganda film Career by Jan Koecher shot the previous year. The initial script was written by Lenartowicz himself but was not received well, although it did draw attetion of Konwicki who used it as the basis for writing his own script in 1955. For Konwicki, who had just completed a personally important story, “From the Besieged City” (published in 1956), the script was an important stage in developing his own original poetics – incorporating the memory of his borderland town into the present. It is significant that the collection of his film scripts (entitled “The Last Day of Summer”) opens with Winter Twilight, affirming that his contribution to Polish cinema began with that work. The director was delighted with the improved version of his own idea. “Konwicki developed in full what I secretly dreamt of,” he said. “The entire action takes place in the milieu of a backwoods province, filling it with poetry and lyricism. He uncovered all the qualities of small-town life that only a few are capable of noticing and appreciating. In Winter Twilight nothing is confabulated. There is no need for it. Both Konwicki and myself had no need to resort to knowledge of literature or secondhand information. Both my and his childhoods were spent in an atmosphere so closely rendered by Konwicki eg. in his ‘A Hole in the Sky.'” (Janicki, page 48). Lenartowicz introduced a number of changes to the script, ridding it of virtually all political references (for instance, de-emphasising the main heroe’s socialist past) in favour of existential allusions. Most of all, in the course of creation, he suggested a number of new artistic solutions.
As a result, a new work was created that had never been witnessed in Polish cinema: the film astonished with its atmosphere and drew attention to the uniqueness of its style. Most of all, Winter Twilight departed from social realism to such an extent that the first critics suspected the core of the film was merely the joy of presenting the language. “Lenartowicz and Jahoda do with true passion what had by far been forbidden,” wrote Aleksander Jackiewicz in his review, rightly stressing the contribution of the cameraman. The critic aligned his interpretation of the film with the intention of the authors, proposing a throughly different vision to substitute for the falsely progressive image of the world which had been embedded into domestic culture.
While social realism relished expressive plots, Winter Twilight offers just a faint outline of action. It may be described as follows: Rumsza, the elderly railwayman (called Lynda in the script), leading a sedate life with his wife, misses his only remaining son (two older boys were killed in the war). Joziuk finally returns from the military in the first scene but with the pregnant Zosia, while Rumsza expected him to marry Celinka, the daughter of Krywka, his only friend and neighbour. The hero will not accept the new situation; he throws his son and Zosia out of his house. Celinka is distressed but she still harbours hope for Joziuk. The birst of the child changes the situation: Rumsza accepts his son’s relationshop (although it is not as evident in the film as in the script, in which the young couple move in with the Rumsza’s) but Celinka decides to leave.
This story line may sound melodramatic, but the whole film rests on understatements. The viewer learns about the death of Rymsza’s two sons from inscriptions on the graves that are recalled by the protagonist. The fact that he misses the third one is alluded to when he looks at a photo on the wall. Joziuk’s earlier promise to Celinka may only be presumed by judging the behaviour of the characters, as none of them refer to it. What is assumed and displayed in the foreground is ostentatiously ordinary. Let us consider the very beginning: the protagonist leaves for work afer dawn; his wife tells him not to smoke and the first thing he does is light a cigarette off the lamp he is carrying; she’s angry that he did not take a sweater with him, and so on and so on. That’s all on the surface; the hidden message is left to the spectator.
Old is beautiful
Social realism favoured the new and the young; therefore Winter Twilight is careful to deal with the old and the elderly, putting the character of the old man in the centre of narration, through whose perception the world is presented. The three main protagonists, the elderly Rumsza couple and the widower Krywka, are decipted as more interesting, more important and more keenly sought by the narrator, which is evident by the frequent focusing on the pretty face of the protagonist Wlodzislaw Ziembinski. it is as if the recent, social realist following the old by the young had disappeared. It’s the other way around: the young are not only dependent on the old but they are fascinated with them, just as Celinka is with Ms. Natasha, the former Russian ballerina.
Although the reference to the communist adolescent years of the protagonist connects the film with the previous epoch, he is reduced to a minor character. In the two visionary scenes, Rumsza’s imagination produces images of pre-war strikes and clashes with the police; in the contemporary part of the story, Krywka calls his friend a Bolshevik twice, as if trying to tease him. This motif, however, has less of an ideological function than an existential one: it is a mark of the protagonist’s estrangement, his seperation from his own folks. Pre-war reminiscences, in which the character was rejected by the community as a Bolshevik, are foreshadowing of similiar torments suffered today, when fierce stubborness seperates Rumsza from his family.
Social realism treated progressivism as the very depiction of the world, a step towards the future; the action of Winter Twilight takes place in a backwoods village. The only workshops depicted in the film are a tiny railway station, a stationery store and a private tailor shop which dates back to pre-war times; add to that a pub, which is straightforwardly depicted as a revolting joint, an entertainment venue where a pack of hacks from the capital city performs a rubbish show, and, obviously, a church. Not so long ago, the heroes in such productions made their way from such towns to big industrial centres. This is out of the question here: Kamionka covered in snow is depicted with fondness, and the narrator even seems charmed with it. Although the inhabitants cannot expect any changes, it is the constancy that is attractive; the final departure of Celinka, the only one who decides to leave, is in reality an expression of her dramatic situation, her admission of failure.
A script of few words
Social realist cinema was dominated by dialogues; by contrast, not much is said in Winter Twilight. The main protagonist is provocatively silent; his first sentence (“I need to live!” – said to the priest who prematurely visits him to perform last rites) is uttered in the second half of the film. Those who speak usually engage in casual conversations. This is best illustrated by the scene in which the group of hacks perform. Many unnecessary words are spoken; what is most important can only be inferred from the glances of the silent characters sitting in the audience.
In social realism, the only admissible poetics was the poetics of realism. So Winter Twilight abruptly diverges from realism. especially in Rumsza’s daydreaming scenes which relate to the avant-garde of the 1920’s (especially to the Kammerspiel poetics). Rumsza expects death and fears it. We learn this from the signs and symbols scattered around the text of the film: the danse macabre motif, expressed by a painting viewed by two friends in the church; the death mask which Rumsza finds after the passing of carollers, and the image of death with a scythe which appears before him when he is in fever during the scene in the bathouse. Thus the plot of the film may be read as the struggle to overcome death, the effort to oppose it as long as possible (which is the prime problem of old age).
The visual and sound concept of the film oscillates between recorded reality and vision evoked by memory. Objects surrounding the characters – everyday appliances, but also the ornamental clock which is wound up by the old Mrs. Rumsza or the rocking angel in the church (the first image in the film) – are expressions of their inner world, contrasted with the false testimonies of the following epoch, such as the figurines of Lenin and Stalin which appear in a shop for a brief moment. The same applies to the soundtrack: the old song “Life passes quickly…” appears together with the march of the Kosciuszko squad “The Oka flows” and the mockingly played social realist hit “Thousands of hands, millions of hands”.
One of the taboos of social realist art was religon; that is wwhy Catholic ceremonies are so extensively presented in Winter Twilight. The protagonist remains a nonbeliever and refuses to confess to the visiting priest, but his friend Krywka engages him in church matters. Some of the rituals in the town land in the streets, which is stressed by the procession scenes and the fights of the carollers. Even though the latter scene is mockery, the entire film is quite seriously contained between two holidays: the action of Winter Twilight takes place in between Christmas and Easter.
Another social realist taboo was the Eastern Borderlands; Winter Twilight is the first post-war film based in a borderland community. The protagonists speak in a Vilnius Polish dialect, just as the characters do in the future stories by Knowicki, starting with “Holes in the Sky” (1959). It could be assumed that the fictitious Kamionka is located somewhere in the norteastern territories of Poland, the Bialystok or Suwalki regions. Additionally, one of the subplots concerns a former Russian ballerina, who dresses Celinka in czar-period garments and listens to Wertynski’s records with her.
Too much, too soon…
Maybe it was too much. Maybe the jump from social realism to the poetics of Winter Twilightand the juggling with conventions was too rapid. It suffices to say that the film was generally rejected by the audience and especially by the critics. “Pride is a cardinal sin. Lenartowicz sinned with pride, bending the debatable plot to his personal pre-determined ideas,” thundered Jerzy Plazewski. “Lenartowski sins even against the alphabet, although he aspires high. That is why the probably involuntary conceit is so abundant.” In this situation, the humbled director, in his subsequent and even less-successful film Meetings (1957), completely changed his poetics to prove that he could play by the rules. “Please imagine the situation of a director who debut faces crushing criticism,” explained Lenartowicz to Stanislaw Janicki. “As you know, good or bad remarks remained and suggested those who were to decide whether public funds should be given to a mumbling mute. In this situation, it was my duty to convince those who thought of me that way… that I cannot tell ordinary stories fluently, without stuttering.” (Janicki, 51-52)
Yet Winter Twilight played its role. “I saw it the day after its premiere in Wroclaw and I vividly recollect the astonishment which it brought us, young and keen filmgoers, with its exceptional artistic shape and atmosphere,” Andrzej Kolodynski recalled in a conversation with Mateusz Werner. The young Werner felt likewise: “It harbours a certain concentration of the undefeatable tragic of life; human fate has an enormous weight here. … The atmosphere of the absolutely unexplained curse cast on the characters is surprising.” Both admit that the director opened a new path for Polish cinema, though “it may have been a path leading astray.” Stanislaw Lenartowicz never shot another such daring film.
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