Saturday, 16 July 2016

On YouTube - Barrie Pattison discovers pre-war Polish Classics MISS BRINX'S SECRET and LIFE SENTENCE


Der Dibuk
Until now in a lifetime spent (mis-spent?) watching movies I’d managed to see two films made in Poland before 1940, both circulated by Jewish groups. Michal Waszynski’s 1937 Der Dibuk/The Dybbuk, a disappointingly pallid ghost movie without the flamboyant imagery of the contemporary Hollywood horror films, and the Zygmund Turkov/ Leon Tennant Freylikhe kabtsonim/The Jolly Paupers, a not very funny knockabout from the same year.

Now, trawling YouTube, I have found over a hundred early Polish films going back as far as a tinted copy of  Ryszard Ordynski’s 1928 silent epic Pan Tadeusz on which the Polish language intertitles defeated me, despite having seen the Andrzej Wajda version. Time was that I would ignore lack of translation but we are now so spoiled for choice that I moved on to the next offering.

However I did manage to locate two films that were sub-titled in English.

For Bazyli Sikiewicz’ 1936 Tajemnica panny Brinx/Miss Brinx' Secret, here on YouTube, the opening features fearful blonde Lena Zelichowska catching a long distance train, where she meets actress Alma Kar, striking up an acquaintance which has them sharing a suite in the Tyrolean styled tourist hotel at Zacopane in the Tatras. The maid has seen Zelichowska’s suit case of bank notes so Zelichowska hides the money in the next door closet. The travellers go mountain climbing together and  she falls and cannot be found, throwing suspicion on Kar when the missing girl’s stack of money and her passport are found in her room.

Abruptly we are a in a Casino where madcap heiress Helena  Grossówna,  refused by her dad (“You’re so rich papa”), borrows money from would be suave Aleksander Zabczynski, found using the ‘phone booth, and wins big by accident, then spending the rest of the film trying to return her stake.

Meanwhile Kar grabs a parked car with a comic cop asleep in it and flees to the support of  family friend Detective Junosza-Stepowski, who tells her to impersonate the missing blonde and puts two comic private eyes on the case, while a couple more are trying to get her into a strait jacket.  Zabczynski shows up and the couple fall for one another. Going punting on the river with flowers in the foreground is a sure sign of love in movies.

So far this suggests an adventure comedy in the style of then contemporary English language films like Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes or Tay Garnett’s Trade Winds. It’s pacy enough and there is a fair amount of production value in the form of varied sets and locations. We even get a bit of mountaineering. However the piece winds up more because they have enough running time than to satisfy any dramatic requirements. Zabczynski gets a song two thirds in and  the plot strands come together in a night club where Grossófwna proves to be an acrobatic dancer who joins the entertainment while all is explained in a rushed anti-climax. The fate of poor Zelichowska is disposed of in a line of dialogue.

Technique is a little rough for 1936 and the players make little impression in apparently the only outing as a director of actor (1935’s Panienka z poste restante/Panic at the Post Office) Sikiewicz. He struggles to achieve vigorous handling with endless pans and tracking. Demanding the room number at the hotel desk is cut to the number on the door. The camera moves sidewise through the wall to the room where Kar is sleeping. They appear to be hesitant about putting music over dialogue or effects however.

The copy quality is fair with annoying drop outs in the track. Give the piece points for novelty value. It would be interesting to know what accomplished German film maker Phil Jutzi (the excellent 1931 Berlin-Alexanderplatz - Die Geschichte Franz Biberkopfs ) contributed as artistic consultant.

Life Sentence
Wyrok zycia - Kto Winien/Life Sentence, Life Penalty - Who is Guilty?/A Judgement for
of 1933 is an altogether more serious undertaking. The YouTube link is here 

Directed by Juliusz Gardan, it features notable Polish stage actresses Irena Andrzejewska and Jadwiga Eichlerówna in a social justice piece in imitation of  Ibsen or John Galsworthy and aims at exposing the Single Standard and male hypocrisy.

The indignant advocate, played by glamorous Eichlerówna in one of her three movies, takes pity on young Andrzejewska when it seems that she’ll be sent down for infanticide. This pair provide a couple of strong, appealing central performances and there’s an effective depiction of a hostile legal system and a countryside where the people (the women in particular - “I saw how she drowned it”) are as vicious as those in the city.

The awfulness of her plight, with the long flashback to her factory job, leaves Andrzejewska without enough to buy the pastry shop window cakes she eyes lovingly, though she gives to a beggar. The tiny room where she studies at night, contrasts effectively with her brief moment of happiness eating oranges in the forest with the fellow passenger who  makes her miss the last train in order to spend the night with him in station master’s room.

In court what we see is selective. We get Eichlerówna’s summation but not the jury’s deliberation.  The film making is polished and tries for a few (largely ineffectual) moments of style - montages, single cuts of accusing hands and the jury’s pencils on the table or  the chugging of the train cutting on sound to the clatter of the money printer in the counting house where Andrzejewska works. Henry Vas’ score is more than adequate.

However the “She was condemned to death because of you” finale is predictable and dumb.  The ironic use of the court room crucifixes echoed in the railway structure is similarly heavy handed.

Re-tooling this material as 1937’s Femmes got the career of Bernard-Roland (Portrait d’un assassin) rolling.

Checking through the Polish selection suggested a busy industry with competent laboratory work, experienced technicians getting adequate budgets - screens filled with costumed extras, uniformed heroes courting blonde ringlet girls with parasols, Polish Foreign Legionnaires, singing canoe girls.

I have no idea whether any of these have retained a following in their country of origin but I did spot two familiar names among the credits. Director Joseph Lejtes went on to do Faithful City in Post War Israel and a mountain of American TV among which note the Dick Powell Theatre episode Apples Don’t Fall Far from the Tree with David Wayne, one
of the most remarkable things to come out of series drama. Also musician Vas was at work here decades before he contributed to The Big Heat and the Maury Dexter films of the sixties.

I enjoyed sampling the pre WW2 Polish cinema but I can’t say I was motivated to look at the other hundred, though Lejtes’ works appeared to be suitably polished and ambitious. By and large I’d rather go through the contemporary Hungarian films that SBS started to show only to cave when local leftists berated them for airing fascist production, as they termed these romantic comedies and musicals. Where were resident advocates of free speech David and Margaret when that was happening? They could have held out till we
 got to André de Toth’s promised Semmelweis at least.

However the very existence, the instant availability of such material, raises a familiar question. When DVD, Turner and YouTube provide access to a range of film incomparably wider than anyone has known, even in countries where their National Film Theatres were not “mergered” out of existence forty years ago, how many people are taking advantage of this?  Searching the Blogsphere, let alone printed criticism, we still find only Tilda Swinton alternating with Some Like It Hot  and hits from the latest festivals. It does make you feel alone.

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