Wojciech Wisziewski does not lay claim to a large filmography; after all, he only directed 10 short films (the longest , Random Love Story, 52 minutes long), as a sudden heart attack cut his life short when he was only 35 years old. Still, he is seen as one of the most important seminal Polish documentary filmmakers of all time. A radical representative of the creational movement in documentary (nowadays, some would call it faux documentaries), he and others (Grzegorz Królikiewicz, Marek Koterski, Piotr Szulkin, Bogdan Dziworski) used bold framing, special effects, planned scenes, distorted sound and metaphorical editing as a statement against the usual passivity and minimalism associated with the genre. Today these techniques are commonplace, but in the 70s, these filmmakers were crossing a very well defined border between fiction and documentary, something that would be seen as a supreme cinematic heresy.
Wisziewski’s films can easily be introduced as part of the so-called cinema of moral anxiety that marked Polish cinema during the 70s. This term, mostly associated with directors like Wajda or Kieslowski, refers primarily to the disguised criticism that Polish filmmakers would put on their apparent State-certificated films, questioning official ideology, symbols, and daring to show the true Poland instead of the Disneyland-version the USSR insisted on promoting to the West.
His first short film, Heart Attack (1967), made while he was still a student, already reveals his future aesthetic direction. A simple story of a man who drives in a car, told through distorted images and a jazz soundtrack, it won the top prize and Oberhausen and opened the creative doors to the Lodz-born filmmaker.
Wisziewski’s work centers, in its great majority, on the supreme communist icon, the Worker. In A Story of a Man Who Filled 552% of the quota (1973), plenty of communist slogans fill the screen, while the story of Bernard Bugdol, the “show-off” (as his neighbour’s put it), is told through his own words and his family’s. Coming from the time where the State made work excellence a competing game, Bugdol and his brother delivered excellent results at the mine they were managing, and are then confronted with the backlash of all the other workers. Pure jealousy of the money and fame Budgol achieved? Or angry on their own rights as the State saw Bugdol’s success as a sign it could raise the quotas for everyone else? His family is mostly humiliated by his success – after all, what does it mean, to be the “teacher’s pet” of a totalitarian regime? -, apart from his son, who dreams of the day his father will buy him the promised sport car. Shot in a straightforward way, it’s the sound, music and associative editing that are used to create a second layer of meaning in this film. This is the case also with Foreman on a Farm (1978). This one, however, feels more like a fiction film where real characters play themselves, as its staging is more obvious stylistically.
Going a bold step forward, The Carpenter (1976) and Wanda Gosciminska: A Weaver (1975) make no excuse – and are definitely not subtle – about their use of cinematic devices mostly associated with fiction. In The Carpenter, the repetition of his sawing movements is copied into the editing, where archive footage also repeats in a loop, putting its essentially unrelated images to the service of illustrating his words. Here, also, Wisziewski’s ironic views of his country’s political situation are clearer, as he goes into telling Poland’s history from the point of view of a carpenter’s output, from functional tables, to hidden compartments, to fancy chairs, finishing with a very direct attack on the communist division of house space. Wanda Gosmininska uses situational irony to make the same point; incredibly stylized, it relies on well-known communist symbols, and tells the story of Wanda as a military epic. The apparently propagandistic point would be: work is as important as fighting wars; the real moral is: there is more to life than work, a theme that can also be traced to The Story of A Man…
Considered an odd ball in his filmography, The Primer (1976) does not fit in any conventional genre, though we are tempted to call it a late child of surrealism and expressionism. Based on a alphabet book for children, expect no colour and laugher – this is the creepiest alphabet you’ll ever come across, though probably one of Wisziewski’s most interesting films.
With most of his work censored in Poland because of its bleak pessimism, the opportunities to enjoy Wojciech Wisziewski’s films have been unfortunately sparse. This means, if you get a chance, do not dare to lose it.
Wojciech Wiszniewski Rediscovered was part of Kinoteka 2015, which is on until the 29th May in several London venues. For more information go to http://kinoteka.org.uk