latarnia presents

 

GRABINSKI ON FILM: “SZAMOTA’S MISTRESS” AND OTHER EXCURSIONS  

 

Paul Kesler

 

 

Film adaptations of the work of Polish fantasist Stefan Grabinski, sometimes denigrated as “the Polish Poe,” are as few as they are obscure. Eight of the nine films inspired by the writer’s work appeared after 1966, while none were released in the forty-year interim between 1927 and 1967. Of all these films, however, it may be significant that three were based on a single story, usually translated in English under the title, “Szamota’s Mistress.”

 

Unlike Poe’s, Grabinski’s stories typically portray isolated individuals within the context of vitalistic philosophy or depth psychology, though rarely in conjunction. The latter realm, in which alienated protagonists seem immersed in deeply subjective points of view which often lead them into bizarre sexual liaisons, is a world brought graphically into focus by “Szamota’s Mistress”; it is, perhaps, the tale best exemplifying Grabinski’s work in a psychological vein.

 

The earliest of the three “Szamota” adaptations, appearing in 1927 Poland as “Kochanka Szamoty,” was directed by Leon Trystan, ostensibly one of the important Polish directors of the silent era. Trystan was also an author; as the scholar Alicja Helman notes in her essay, “Polish Film Theory”:

“Unlike in the West, where cinema was discussed by people associated with the cinematographic industry and involved in actual film-making (i.e. people interested in technical problems), in Poland film attracted primarily the interest of writers, literary critics, and academic teachers. They all acknowledged the complexity and multiformity of the film phenomenon; they went beyond its function as a medium of entertainment.... They noted the fundamental opposition between images representing "reality" and fantastic creations, the opposition which only later came to be recognized as the fundamental mechanism of development in the history of cinema.

Many authors active at that time [i.e., first two decades of the twentieth century], such as Leon Trystan, Anatol Stern, Tadeusz Peiper published their views in periodicals; however, they never attempted at creating foundations of cinema theory in the strict sense.

Although Trystan’s “Szamota” film appears lost, we know that it was a black and white dramatization, 1000 meters in length, and starred Igo Sym and Helena Makowska in the lead roles. It was initially screened during Grabinski’s lifetime; the author himself may have attended the premier. Perhaps this is one of those rarities still languishing in an attic or studio vault, like the print of Carl Dreyer’s “La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc,” rescued, over 50 years after initial release, from a janitor’s closet in an Oslo sanitarium. Surviving copies, at any rate, seem currently unavailable.

 

As mentioned, Grabinski’s work seemed to disappear -- at least from the standpoint of film directors -- for four entire decades, until 1967, when an adaptation of the story “Slepy Tor” (“The Siding”) appeared in Poland as part of the “Opowiesci Niezwykle” (“Unusual Tales”) TV series. Directed by Ryszard Ber, with cinematography by Tadeusz Wiezan, it was a 27-minute black and white film which, presumably, has not appeared in syndication.

 

Several other Grabinski-based films were aired in the “Opowiesci” series. One particularly brilliant adaptation was reissued by the American company, European Video Distributors, as “Sarah’s House” (based on the short story, “Dom Sary”) in 1984. This film, a superbly moody and artistically superior production, was another in the subjective psychological vein, though it drew equally on mythic sources, in this case the story of Tobias and Sarah found in the biblical Apocrypha as part of the Book of Tobit. The story fused psychological and mythic themes in a way which paralleled Freudian psychic-mythological affinities (though Freud concentrated on Greek rather than Biblical avatars).

 

Following the four Grabinski films in the “Opowiesci” series (from ’67 through ’85), and a single film, “Nikt Nie Jest Winien” (“No One is at Fault”), another decade passed before a German director, Holger Mandel, took up Grabinski’s work in a serious way. It is this film that is probably the most compelling and artistically adroit of the three “Szamota” films (lacking the silent Trystan version, it’s impossible to make a thorough judgment).

 

Mandel, known as a devotee of Grabinki’s fiction, apparently has a penchant for the short film; at any rate, his two Grabinski adaptations (which include, besides “Szamota,” an adaptation of Grabinski’s “Ultima Thule”) are both under 20 minutes long. Alternatively, Mandel may simply believe short stories require brief cinematic treatments, and that films of standard length would result in gratuitous padding. His version of “Szamota’s Mistress,” in any case, seems a bit more condensed than the story itself requires, so a more likely explanation is that budget constraints compelled him to strive for a more elliptical approach.

 

The Mandel film is a brilliantly-executed short, and, with the exception of the opening sequence and its concession to modern-day trappings, is faithful to period atmosphere. Luckily, the art design during the main body of the film is kept spare so that in the interior scenes we seem to be occupying a more or less timeless realm. The score is also well done, and while the music near the middle section comes rather dangerously close to a conventional “rock” beat, it doesn’t seem excessive in this respect. Mandel may have believed -- correctly -- that the ideas in the story were fantastic enough without a gratuitous overlay of musical distraction.

 

A brief synopsis of Grabinski’s original story may be in order here. A lonely bachelor informs the reader that he has received a letter from his young mistress, “Jadwiga,” a woman he has long fantasized about, but has never had the courage to meet. The letter invites Szamota to her elegant home, and he rapturously complies. In a series of diary-like entries, he tells us of his visits to her mansion, during which he luxuriously indulges his pent-up sexual fantasies. At one point in the story, however, he becomes suspicious of Jadwiga’s identity; just who is this mysterious woman whose obscure desires have unaccountably turned in his favor? Szamota must find out, and, like the proverbial dreamer who tries to wake from a nightmare, stabs a pin into the young woman’s thigh. Immediately he recoils in horror: he has stabbed himself. Are Szamota and Jadwiga one and the same? Whatever the explanation, he continues his visits, determined to pursue matters to their ultimate end. Jadwiga, meanwhile, strikes Szamota as somehow “incomplete,” like the outline of a portrait that has never been filled in. Only at the end of the story does Szamota discover that the woman with whom he has had these strange liaisons has been dead for two years.

 

Mandel casts himself well in the title role, showing admirable restraint in scenes that might have degenerated into sensationalism, especially at the critical moment where the protagonist stabs a pin into his “mistress’s” thigh -- the oblique camera angle, combined with a  quick cut to Mandel nursing his wound in a bathtub afterward, supplies the proper panache.

 

Katrin Horshig, meanwhile, is perfect as “Jadwiga” -- innocent, yet statuesque and sensual, moving in almost dreamlike slow-motion at key moments. One brief sequence, which shows her gliding toward the camera in a straight line, not walking, but almost as if perched on an invisible treadmill, is unforgettable.

 

Overall, the film seems most effective through what appears to be a deliberate alternation of older and more avant-garde film techniques. On the retro side is a continual use of “curtain sweeps” on Mandel’s part, analogous to the “wipe” effects used during the thirties (e.g., “White Zombie”), or the iris-effects employed in the silent era. These help accelerate the action and serve to telescope time effectively. There is also the paradox of truncated continuities to hasten action still  further -- two or three scenes where Szamota is approaching Jadwiga’s castle wearing a black bowler (the action is sporadic rather than continuous, similar to what Godard used in films like “Breathless”). Of course, many would say there is nothing particularly new in this use of discontinuity, but Mandel handles it effectively.

 

Mandel’s mingling of color and black & white is also interesting, and works well in segueing from the “present” world at the beginning of the film to the less localized world of Szamota’s fantasies. Less certain is whether the lack of consistency in this area is justified -- Mandel moves from color to a black & white “dreamscape,” then back to color again during the remainder of the film. The black and white scenes are intended, not as flashbacks, but as flash-forwards -- they appear at the point where Szamota is anticipating a liaison with his mistress, and result in a distant, almost surreal succession of images. But perhaps we could question whether differentiating present scenes from anticipated encounters is adequately served by this method. Mandel edits the scenes well, but viewers may differ as to their rational justification.

 

Mandel’s film is not without slight flaws. For example, along with the techniques mentioned, he uses changes in Szamota’s wardrobe as another way of telescoping time. But in editing these changes so they appear as successive phases in his advance to his mistress's bedside --that is, combining multiple visits into two or three visits -- it often seems that the character is changing hats and ties several times on a single occasion. Whether this works for the viewer is debatable, but it can be disorienting on first viewing.

 

Perhaps the only genuinely sub-par element, however, is the ending -- Mandel’s character faints too soon after being informed that Jadwiga had passed away long before his experience with her. Again, this may have been a budgetary concession; nonetheless, a better ending might have had the camera cut to a close-up of Mandel’s face and linger a few seconds as we see the news sink in -- as it is, the faint comes too quickly and seems almost unintentionally comic.

 

Overall, Mandel’s film is a fine adaptation of the Grabinski tale, though it must be said that viewers who have not first read the story may find certain elements confusing. At one point in the story, for example, Szamota notes that a portion of cloth missing from a curtain in Jadwiga’s bedroom exactly matches a cut-out section of her gown. While the story offers no conclusive explanation of the discovery, we nevertheless recognize it as an integral aspect of the identity-problem which runs through the tale at varying levels. In the film, however, the discovery seems disconnected to the rest of the film, and uninitiated viewers may find nothing to relate it to. Despite this, the general power of the film is such that we can overlook such details, reveling in the imagery and the superb camera work.

 

This brings us to the most recent adaptation of “Szamota’s Mistress,” directed by Joseph F. Parda as one segment of the anthology film, “Evil Streets” (1998). With due respect to Parda, the “Szamota” segment is a curiously uneven mixture of sophisticated (even sporadically brilliant) cinematography and amateurish acting. The photography in both interior and exterior sequences is highly atmospheric, even reminiscent of German expressionist techniques in places -- one scene, for instance, shows Szamota inside Jadwiga’s castle, following a mysterious fragment of cloth around a twisting staircase. The black cloth trailing over the white marble stairs lures us effectively into the subjective mental state of the protagonist in the best Expressionist tradition. And there are various other instances where the use of lighting and the stark contrast between light and shadow leave us almost gasping. Unfortunately, the technical adroitness of the film is marred by some very poor acting, especially in the case of Joe Zaso as “Szamota.” Perhaps the worst instance occurs near the beginning of the film, where Zaso’s overdubbed monologue tells us of the letter he’s received. He is “overcome with joy,” he claims, but as he makes this declaration we see him standing in a darkened room, facing the camera and holding the letter before him, all the while with a simpering smile on his face. The expression conveys, not joy, but a sort of vacuous knowingness and what looks like a puerile attempt at “diablerie.” Thus the effect backfires and we find it difficult to take the character (or his psychological plight) seriously.

 

Another problem with the Parda film is the incongruity between the late-Victorian syntax Zaso utters in voice-over, and the quality and intonation of his voice. Acting out a Grabinski story requires a certain dignity of bearing, if only in deference to the cultural ambience in which Grabinski wrote. If we modernize his language to conform to a late-twentieth century setting, that is one thing; if we do so the incongruity between the author’s language and that of a contemporary actor disappears (even at some cost to atmosphere). But if we retain the language we also need to retain self-detachment. It’s clear that Zaso, as an actor, is unschooled in delivering Grabinski’s language with a suitable inflection. No doubt a trained British actor would have done the job better (or a European actor like Mandel). As it is, we may be reminded of another adaptation of a classic Victorian tale where the same problem occurred: the 1980 version of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in which Kathleen Beller, as the title character, was forced to utter language with which she was clearly unfamiliar. This, like the scene already mentioned, undermines the credibility of the protagonist -- in Zaso’s case, watching him wander through the dark rooms of his mistress is like seeing a fool in a Victor Hugo novel -- the opulent surroundings only heighten his absurdity, but without a saving grace. Ultimately we’re left regretting that the beautifully dark photography hangs obliviously over the main character, like armor on a dwarf.

 

Tina Krause, as “Jadwiga,” is ravishing, with a decidedly European look. Here, too, however, the effect is ruined when she must utter a line in an attempt to lure Szamota to her bedside. Like Zaso, she seems at a loss when it comes to empathizing with the cadence of the author’s text.

 

Let us, at any rate, be grateful that Grabinski’s work seems to finally be getting the attention it deserves in the film world. After all, we cannot expect that an author so little known outside his native Poland should be rivaling Poe in cinematic homages. Eight films in slightly less than forty years may not seem impressive on the surface, but it does seem to indicate momentum in the right direction. Perhaps over time this momentum will build outside of Poland -- Mandel’s films would seem to promise as much -- and result in a “Grabinski explosion” on an international scale. In this context, the future of Grabinski-based cinema seems brighter than ever.  

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