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Reality with a Pinch of Salto

Salto, a masterpiece of Polish cinema, seems to contain much of Poland's tradition in distilled form, as well as being a perfectly Konwickian construction.


Distributor: Facets
Cast: Zbigniew Cybulski, Gustaw Holoubek
Release Date: 2010-02-23

Tadeusz Konwicki is one of Poland's most important novelists. After early works in socialist-realist mode, his work took a more fantastical turn as he began to address contemporary Poland and its crisis of identity and history. His protagonists were alienated figures in a quasi-surreal landscape. Often they had amnesia, an apt metaphor for historical revisionism and personal silence. In an online article, Ewa Nawój calls him "the conscience of Polish society and the crazed mirror in which it is reflected."

He also made movies. He worked for the important Kadr Film Studio, and his screenplays include the great Mother Joan of the Angels, the first movie about possessed hysterical nuns. He also wrote and directed six features of his own, plus one episode of an anthology film. Now that Facets Video has released his third feature, Salto, I want to see them all.

Salto seems to contain much of Poland's tradition in distilled form, as well as being a perfectly Konwickian construction. It's also very modern and '60s, thanks to a graceful combination of fluid camera work within each scene and disorienting jump cuts between scenes, which give the whole thing its dreamlike flow. The film is a counterpart to his novel A Dreambook for Our Time, about an amnesiac who wakes up in a strange town.

The DVD begins, when you turn the English subtitles on, with the post-credits statement "Next day after the war." I'm not sure what this is translating, since I don't see or hear any Polish at this point. That phrase is part of the narrator's statement at the beginning of Aleksander Ford's Five from Barska Street (1954), also recently released by Facets. Is the subtitle here by mistake, somehow a holdover from that film?

Ford's film is set in 1948 amid the postwar rubble. That's clearly not the next day after the war, which makes me think this is some kind of idiomatic phrase. Since I've brought up Ford's film, I'll just mention that it's in color and that, despite a few visually interesting setpieces, it's more or less a plodding ode to the proletariat who collectively rebuild Poland despite the efforts of capitalist-financed fifth columnists who would undermine the people's state. One of its scenes involves the main couple twirling in a country dance at a lavish party, and that's signficant in Polish drama for reasons mentioned below. The finalé is set in the sewers that also form the backdrop to Andrzej Wajda's Kanal two years later, and it so happens that Konwicki brought the original story to Wajda's attention.

Which brings us back to Konwicki's film, also not set literally the next day after the war but irrevocably haunted by it. Zbigniew Cybulski crosses himself and jumps off a train (literally a jump cut, and a very nice one). As if this is a sequel to Ashes and Diamonds, he's still running like mad through the countryside, wearing dark glasses and a leather jacket. The nameless village where he stops is sparsely populated, and everyone wanders around having confrontations of one-upmanship in a series of encounters that seem determined by each momentary cue rather than any coherent psychology or story.

In this, the film resembles the work of the great Stanislas Witkiewicz, whose pre-war avant-garde dramas were ignored in his lifetime but which took the country by storm in the '50s and influenced the new generation of artists. It also resembles Witold Gombrowicz' drama The Marriage, which is explicitly about how personalities don't exist except in relation to each other and in context, so that people can manipulate themselves in absurd ways.

Where were we? Oh yes, the new guy in town. He calls himself Kowalski or Malinowski (the famous anthropologist of that name was a close friend of Witkiewicz, but let's not get distracted), though we eventually find out he's called Karol. He claims to have hidden in this town during the war, and his host (Gustav Holoubek, one of Poland's most important actors, here a middle-aged, rail-thin nebbish of great presence) doesn't know if he remembers him or not because he doesn't remember anything nowadays.

The thing is, nobody else in town is sure if they remember him either, or even if they remember themselves. There's a belligerent little artist. There's a woman who tells fortunes. There's a randy guy and a compliant vixen. There are two cute young women who spend a lot of time skinny-dipping. There's a man who may or may not be a great old Jewish actor, depending on whether he survived the war or not. You begin to think they're all ghosts, and one character declares this theory openly.

Kowalski/Malinowski makes all kinds of wild claims and modifies himself to whomever he addresses at the moment, so that he's alternately hostile, tender, understanding, accusing, cowering, passive-aggressive. He says "they" are after him. He periodically dreams or remembers or hallucinates soldiers shooting him (these scenes are anamorphically squeezed, in other words a widescreen image distorted with the wrong lens). He strikes poses and makes statements of a Christlike nature. At one point he seemingly cures two children of some illness, though the elliptically gliding camera just misses the crucial details.

After quite of bit of time in which everyone behaves like characters in an intellectual Polish drama, mixing the earthy with the cerebral, the town gathers for its annual celebration in a town hall. Now the music of the great Wojciech Kilar comes in. Aside from an elegant piano piece over the opening credits, the movie has no background music, but there's a small band in the hall consisting of guitar, double-bass, trumpet, clarinet, piano and drums. It plays some delightful pieces, including a waltz with some reminiscence of Shostakovich's Jazz Waltz #2. Then comes the film's great setpiece, which can be found on Youtube: our anti-hero leads the cast in the strange, rhythmic title dance, called a salto.

See how existential dances figure into Polish drama? Stanislaw Wyspianski's 1901 play The Wedding is the template here, as its cross-section of Polish society is eventually led by supernatural forces, a straw man called a chochol, into a weird dance. The final shot of this movie, unless I miss my guess, is of what seems to be a chochol in a field. Another milestone of Polish literature, Adam Mickiewicz's epic nationalist poem Forefathers' Eve, has something to do with a hero with two names and identities, and also with ceremonies reviving the dead, and Konwicki later made a film based partly on this.

Both plays heavily influenced the aforementioned Witkiewicz, who used the motifs of resurrected corpses and strange dances throughout his own work. So when one witnesses this striking climax of Salto, a natural reaction is "How Polish!" Even to those knowing nothing of its literary-historical resonance, however, it's a moment of uncanny power and can't help reminding us of other great films that end with all the characters locked in a dance.

This is a full-frame presentation of a worn print with optional subtitles that are sometimes lamentable. Even so, the brilliance comes through.

The beloved Cybulski, often called "the Polish James Dean" for his rebellious roles and short life, died in 1967 when he was run over by a train, a fact which gives his train-jumping in this film an unwanted frisson. Holoubek died in 2008, a monument of the Polish theatre. He was in Konwicki's next, even more surreal film, How Far, How Near (1967), as well as in the surreal literary films of Wojciech Has, The Saragossa Manuscript from Jan Potocki's novel, and The Hourglass Sanatorium from Bruno Schulz' novel. (Schulz was a protegé of Witkiewicz and, like him, didn't survive the war.)

As of this writing, Konwicki is an octogenarian who still lives in Warsaw.

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