The Documentaries of Marcel Łoziński (b. 1940)

Dina Iordanova, © DinaView 2021

Marcel Łoziński is Poland’s best-known and most respected documentarian. Even though about twenty (out of a thirty-strong filmography) documentary films by Lozinski can be accessed online without much difficulty (mostly shot by acclaimed cameraman and committed teammate Jacek Petrycki), only a handful are supplied with English subtitles. 

At the Lodz Film School Łoziński studied under Kazimierz Karabasz (whose classical 12-min long  Musicians/Muzykanci, 1960, is available at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ItodKFSfKM). He entered the documentary scene around the same time as Krzysztof Kieslowski, who had made over 25 documentaries in his youth but then decided to switch to features as documentary could not represent intimacy, as he is known to have observed (Kieslowski’s 1980 Talking Heads/Gadające glowy, can be viewed at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClUBYsA3vws). Lozinski had a long and distinguished career, mainly at the Kalejdoskop studio, alongside other documentarians from the Polish School, such as Tomasz Zygadło. In the 21st century he helped the creation of the Wajda Film School in Warsaw where he has been teaching in recent years. 

Made available on the Lodz Film School’s YouTube channel, Marcel Łoziński’s early documentary short On the Wings (Na skrzydłach, 1969, 5 min, Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-J4DNkT5UY&t=51s) is a student film that he made whilst learning the craft under Kazimierz Karabasz. Even if only in Polish, this five minute-long observation of tram depot workers — in many ways reminiscent of Milos Forman’s character close-ups and the films of the Czech New Wave (Konkurs/The Competition, 1963) – is an Eastern European period gem showing working people outside work, in their collective environment, a ‘third place’ of sorts — a montage of fleeting moments from a lunch break that reveal the specific gender dynamics, including a brief speech on joy by the choir master, followed by a joyful yet somewhat strained performance of the workers’ choir. The mass and the individual.

Łoziński’s Workshop Exercises (Ćwiczenia Warsztatowe, 1986, 12 min, Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0HXQLKJDq0) has a reporter chase people on the street and demand to know their opinion on today’s youth: the first half of the film puts together those people who gave negative opinions whilst the second presents an altogether different, positive picture. The intention is to reveal how easy it is for media to manipulate the material at their disposal and make it fall in line with the gatekeeper’s agenda. One wonders, however, if all these people who clearly say they do not want to speak to the reporter — yet have ended up in the movie — have actually been asked for consent. At the end, a disclaimer informs the viewer that no consent was asked for nor obtained. 

Łoziński’s multiple award-winning 89 mm from Europe (1993, 12 min; Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERtnf5rDhA4) sets the tone for most of his work of the post-communist period: lyrical, existential, humanist. The film features no dialogue and only uses a loose narrative, structured around a forced stop that the passengers on an international train between the former USSR and Poland need to endure whilst the wheels of their train are changed to accommodate the difference between Soviet train track standards (89 mm wider) and the European ones. Young Tomek, the director’s son, wanders around and curiously explores the station’s small universe. The film is an allegory of the transition that Poland lives through at the time, of its hopes of joining Europe. 

Tomek’s presence is even more important in Anything Can Happen (Wszystko moze sie przytrafic, 1995, 39 min; Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6QRJrk_E3U), a film that was voted Best Polish Documentary by critics in 2016. It is another one of the ‘existential’ films of Łoziński. Here, the boy rides his scooter around a park and drops in on various older people who have come out to enjoy some sunshine on the benches that are scattered around the park. He enters seemingly innocent dialogues that acquire new, more philosophical, meaning and significance when perceived by an outsider — and it seems that most of the dialogues are shot with a hidden camera. They trigger reflections about youth and ageing, about the fear of death, about loneliness and insecurities. Twelve years later, Łoziński brings Tomek, now a youth of 18, back to the same park. Only, most of the benches are empty now. The visit triggers yet another layer of reflection on the gracious passing of time.

Made in 1998, Łoziński’s So It Doesn’t Hurt (Żeby nie bolało, Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQ-oMvqqhnU) is probably one of his most subtle ‘existential’ films; it is also one of the rare cases where the documentarian appears in person, for a moment, for a brief but memorable interaction with his subject. It is twenty-three years since the release of the original documentary short that precedes So It Doesn’t Hurt, and Łoziński returns to visit with farmer Urszula Flis, a woman who already in her twenties had declared to the world that it is her choice to stay single, live alone, and run the family farm in the village. She did not feel she needed a partner, and those who were available to her did not match her intellectual interests. The first film, The Visit (Wysita, 1975) is an engaging even if nosy portrayal of a proto-feminist and, from today’s point of view, appears intrusive and judgmental; most of this first film has made it into the second one, in bits and pieces that are now intercut to a different order. For the 1998 visit, the director brings the same photographer who shot the first reportage (then a young bachelor, now a mature man) and a different female reporter to interview her (the original one no longer wanted to take part, it seems). More than two decades have passed and Urszula is now in her 50s. She has had the life she chose, and now, after her mother’s passing, lives alone at the farm. She drives around a tractor and takes care of the animals. Her house is full of books; she reads and listens to music and is happy with her life of a recluse. Whilst in the house, she opens up to the journalist’s probing on more personal topics that she normally would seek to avoid. She is prepared to talk, just that she does not want it to hurt…

Speaking at a point in time when the consensus is that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ there are elements in these films where things come dangerously close to feeling uncomfortably intrusive. In The Visit there was a scene — shot from a distance — where the protagonist is talking to the journalist in a field, and she breaks up in tears. This is a particularly painful scene to watch. No matter that the second film shows more consideration even in there is no way to patch over the hurt that is already done by including the intimate painful moment in the original film.

In his lecture on Polish documentary in the 1970s, Polish scholar Mikolaj Jazdon,  (Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skFiK4DKzKI) remarked that Kieslowski had left the documentary form and switched to feature filmmaking because he found it impossible to show intimacy in documentary. In the case of Łoziński, the intimate moments are left in; he does not seek to move on to fiction.

Łoziński’s most widely seen film seems to be his latest, Father and Son on a Journey (Ojciec i syn w podróży, 2013), where he travels to Paris with his son, Pawel Łoziński, an important documentarian in his own right — and both produce their own versions of the journey, tackling sensitive family themes. The director’s oeuvre, however, is large and diverse. The films that have impressed me the most — those, dealing with ethical issues of everyday life and remembrance — include How to Live (Jak żyć, 1977), Witnesses (Swiadkowie, 1988), and Katyń Forest (Las Katyński, 1989).

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