How to Be Loved, Wojciech Has

A Woman’s War Is Never Done: Wojciech Has’ ‘How to Be Loved’

A telling scene in Wojciech Has’ How to Be Loved comments on how a woman’s viewpoint must be injected into male-created art without permission.

How to Be Loved
Wojciech Has
Yellow Veil Pictures
25 July 2023

As far as the world outside of Poland is concerned, How to Be Loved might as well be called How to Be Overlooked. This 1963 film, scripted by novelist Kazimierz Brandys and directed by Wojciech Has, has recently come out on DVD and Blu-ray from Yellow Veil Pictures, and it’s time to rediscover this poignant trip through a woman’s wartime memories.

The woman is Felicja (Barbara Krafftowna), our narrator, and we might say How to Be Loved‘s story occurs inside her head. She’s an actress beloved for a radio show where she plays a housewife who talks with her husband over dinner. She gets many fan letters, and one came in the form of plane tickets from a Parisian woman who said she feels like her daughter. This incident was written into the show as a visit to a supposed daughter in Paris, so the lines between fiction and reality are blurred. In reality, Felicja is unmarried and glamorous, and of course, her listeners really don’t know her at all.

One telling scene near the end of How to Be Loved (Jak byc kochana) comments on how a woman’s viewpoint must be injected into male-created art without permission. In the radio script, the husband wants the wife to fire the pregnant, unmarried maid, though he says, “I’m not a prude.” Instead of following the script and saying she’ll speak to the girl tomorrow, Felicja challenges the husband to remember that he persuaded her into the same before they got married and that women in love do as they must. The actor adlibs a capitulation.

The show’s female manager (Irene Orska) lets it pass but says the writers will raise hell at how she’s doing this again. Felicja says, “Tell them to stop writing crap”. Probably nothing like that occurred during filming, for Brandys and Has’ unusually sensitive film marks Has’ only feature with a woman protagonist and one of the rare films of its era to address women’s experience during WWII. Made a few years after a seemingly obvious inspiration, Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), How to Be Loved shares a similar flashback structure.

The quietly brilliant opening shot, which runs longer than three minutes, opens with a symbol of literal reflection and circularity. Our heroine, seen from behind, holds up a round compact mirror in which we see her lipsticked mouth as we hear her voiceover. During the course of the scene, as she quotes some of mad Ophelia’s lines from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601), the camera glides forward until Felicja’s behind it. We now seem to adopt her subjective view as the bartender and waitress listen to Felicja’s latest radio episode about going to Paris. So we hear her disembodied voice from two sources as she sits in this airport bar waiting to board the plane.

The camera pulls back to Felicja again as she turns to look directly into it, meeting the viewer’s gaze. Now we cut to the second shot: a static POV of a small dingy apartment with curtains blowing at the distant open window. Another woman’s disembodied voice screams. This memory shot won’t be explained until the end.

Then come the credits over a rapid traveling shot along the pavement of a road, establishing that How to Be Love is about traveling in space, time, and memory. The plane will stop briefly in Vienna, then continue its second leg to Paris, and the film will end as the plane descends to Paris and the West.

Disembodied voices are a motif, for of course, that’s what radio voices are. During a pivotal scene, the terrified Felicja submits to rape in her apartment by a German officer (Wieslaw Golas) and then his enlisted soldier (Andrzej Hrydzewicz). She does this as a devil’s bargain to stop them searching for a man hiding under blankets in the next room, and the officer indicates he’ll be back for more. This sequence is the most subjective, for Felicja disappears into the camera as the men look directly into it.

As film scholar Annette Insdorf observes in her bonus appreciation, this sequence plays with time and space, for the officer’s act is omitted in memory so that it’s already over by the magic of editing, as something Felicja has no wish to dwell upon. The most curious moment of disembodiment occurs during the second rape when the camera eavesdrops on the officer in the bathroom and then the foyer. This is Felicja’s memory, and of course, she wasn’t with the officer at this point, so she must be imagining or letting her consciousness wander. Insdorf also finds Felicja an unreliable narrator, partly because she’s downing cognac like there’s no tomorrow.

When the rapes are over, Felicja ghost-walks impassively through the space for a while, sitting on the sofa as a woman’s voice sobs outside the open window. Remember the shot of the woman’s scream from the open window? Felicja allows her emotions to be projected as disembodied voices from the outside world, like radio voices. Interior spaces – apartment, airplane – represent her mind in its most intimate privacy, while emotions are refracted through the landscape, as in films by Michelangelo Antonioni. Welcome to 1960s high modernism, shot in crystalline black-and-white by Stefan Matyjaszkiewicz and edited with a razor by Zofia Dwornik.

Who’s hiding in the next room? That’s our co-star, Ophelia’s Hamlet, an actor named Wiktor Rawicz. He’s played by the country’s major star of the era, Zbigniew Cybulski, commonly called Poland’s James Dean. His fame was established in Andrzej Wajda‘s Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol e diament, 1958), immortalizing him as a sexy, anguished rebel with a pompadour and dark glasses. Even with the glasses, he looks exactly the same in How to Be Loved, implying that his role is meant to remind viewers of Wajda’s film despite the stark contrast in his now weak, enervated character. (For another film that plays with his image, see Tadeusz Konwicki’s 1965 film Salto.)

He’s introduced slumped in a chair in his Hamlet togs while Felicja’s Ophelia kneels by him. As we’ll learn, the Hamlet/Ophelia dynamic defines that of Felijca and Wiktor. They watch the Germans invade Krakow from the window (everything happens outside the window). In the cafe where Felicja also works as a waitress, Wiktor later slaps a fellow actor, Peters (Tadeusz Kalinowski), for being chummy with a German officer. Wiktor leaves, Peters leaves, and when Felicja looks out the window, she witnesses Peters mysteriously shot to death on the corner.

Just as everyone assumed Peters is collaborating with Germans, and everyone assumes Wiktor is guilty. Felicja plays another role when she’s given her lines: deliver the password to Sister Noela (Miroslawa Krajewska) in the church and receive instructions on where to deliver Wiktor in a horse-drawn carriage. Now we come to Felicja’s first improvisation, for instead of delivering the package to the right address, she brings him to her apartment instead. She tells him she’s communicating with the mysterious “they”, who have circulated the gossip that Wiktor killed himself by jumping out a window. In fact, it seems she’s decided to keep him.

So he spends five years hiding in her apartment like a pet and resents it. After the war, Felicja will be penalized for collaboration without bothering to defend herself or explain her role in hiding Wiktor. Surprised at Wiktor’s survival, people assume he was a spy as he spirals into alcoholism and tells romantic yarns about executing Peters on orders from the underground. In fact, as he tells Felicja, Peters might have been killed by the Germans because he was really a French spy. In other words, everyone judges everyone falsely and harshly. Such is the pessimistic and contemptuous vision of Brandys, who would soon quit Poland for France, and of Has.

Has is among the greatest postwar Polish filmmakers, and that’s saying something, but he didn’t quite fit into the program in temperament or aesthetic. This is discussed by Polish film historian Sebastian Smolinski in another bonus segment. The DVD package tells me there’s also a booklet with essays by Insdorf and Samm Deighan, but I don’t have it.

My little description omits a lot, such as the contrast with an Americanized Polish passenger (Wienczyslaw Glinski) who, in another film, might have been a romantic interest and who examines disease microscopically as a bacteriologist; Felicja’s co-star Tomasz (Artur Mlodnicki), who got her the radio job; the sympathy of the young stewardess (Jadwiga Krawczyk), a kind of Beatrice-figure who represents the younger generation; and the male reporter (Zdzislaw Maklakiewicz) and his female photographer (Wieslawa Kwasniewska), who flirt in the next aisle.

As a wartime memory and contemporary snapshot, How to Be Loved is compressed and complex. I’m reminded that even literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith, in his third edition of The New Guide to Modern World Literature (1985), tossed off the parenthetical observation that “Polish cinema has been markedly innovative – and the most intellectual in the world.” His remarks on Brandys are helpful in charting that writer’s disillusion with Polish authority. “The last book to be truly acceptable to part of the regime was ‘The Mother of Kings’ (1957)… It tells of idealistic communists who are defeated by dogmatism.”

Certainly, Felicja represents a world-weary ennui and steely disillusion more in common with films of decadent Italians and French of the early ’60s. Despite its ironic nod to Hamlet, one of the world’s great melodramas, How to Be Loved adheres to Polish cinema’s tendency to eschew melodrama, in contrast to Russia and many other world cinemas. Insdorf or Smolinski compare it to Hiroshima Mon Amour, Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980), Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be (1942), and two important Polish films. How to Be Loved‘s exact contemporary, Andrzej Munk’s Passenger (Pasazerka, 1963), also adopts a flashback structure to the war, while Wajda’s Samson (1961) was also scripted by Brandys. Let’s have those on Blu-ray, please.

The concept of a woman’s contrast between her contemporary life and her wartime flashbacks reminds me of two films about women who miss their hectic, heroic days in the war, against which modern life seems pale and empty. These are Larisa Shepitko’s Wings (Krylya, 1966) and Fred Schepisi and David Hare’s Plenty (1985). Their set-up is the inverse of How to Be Loved, but Felicja also leads a life of empty, enervating privilege. One more: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) is about a famous actress with voice issues, and a pertinent element is Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, one of Brandys’ topics.

Yellow Veil Pictures describes itself as a NY/LA-based films sales and distribution company focusing on “boundary-pushing cinema” and “emergent filmmakers who exist on the cusp of commercial, arthouse cinema” such as The Midnight Swim. Fortunately, they’re also looking to filmmakers of the past. How to Be Loved is one of three Has films they’ve issued on Blu-ray, after The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) and The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973). Let’s hope the good times keep rolling.

How to Be Loved: film clip | Youtube