Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Sexist Polish Cinema (of the Past?)

I came across The Women's Companion to International Film edited by Annette Khun with Susannah Radstone. It was published in 1990 and described as "The first comprehensive feminist guide to cinema." I wondered if it would mention Pola Negri, but I couldn't find anything.

It does have a section on Poland, however. Edited to highlight the feminist issues, this says:

The almost total absence of engagement with feminism in the Polish film industry can be understood only within the context of the country's social, political, and cultural history, which in the last two hundred years has been turbulent and violent ... In conjunction with the fervent espousal of Roman Catholicism, the national identity is complex, but must provide the context for any considerations of a political nature, such as feminism. Women automatically gained the vote when Poland emerged from 123 years of partition after World War I. The conjunction of such factors as the importance of women in estates' management during the partitions, when the men had been conscripted into the three opposing partitioning armies, and the Roman Catholic cult of the Virgin Mary, combined to create a quasi-matriarchal society. However, in the postwar film industry women have not featured greatly, other than in a few exceptional cases.

Against concerns with psychological probing of a nation which has consistently been a battleground of other nations' aspirations, issues such as gender have been rejected as not urgently in need of examination; indeed, feminism is generally viewed in Poland as 'a luxury we can't afford.' Feminist approaches, then, are absent at every level: in film production in terms of directors and producers; in film education; in developments in the use of film form; and in film narratives themselves.

The performances of the actress Krystyna Janda ... did much to focus the attention of viewers and filmmakers alike on the experience of women. Her characterization of the film student and activist Agnieszka in Andrzej Wajda's Czlowiek z Marmaru/Man of Marble (1977) and Czlowiek z Zelaza/Man of Iron (1981) developed from an aggressive and engaged commitment in 1977 to something of a Madonna-type victim in 1981. Overall, the trend in Polish cinema of the 1980s has been toward second-rate attempts at popular forms, whose aping of western mores, combined with a traditional Polish conservatism, has proved more pervasively sexist than many of the offerings of western cinemas.

This was written by Alison Gumbley, who particularly seems to have liked Krystyna Janda, suggesting "her committed campaigner has been replaced in the eighties by actress Katrzyna Figura's stereotypes of dumb blondes".

The second Polish film I saw - back in the eighties - was Sex Mission (Seksmisja), which seemed to be a standard sexploitation film, with a rather strange anti-feminist message, ridiculing the absurdity of women running things for themselves. (I now see it more as an expression of Polish male fear of women and emasculation, rather than specific opposition to political empowerment of women.)

Here's what the Time Out Film Guide, 1998 said:

Two men volunteer as guinea-pigs for an experiment in human hibernation, but instead of waking up in three years, they regain consciousness fifty years behind schedule in a totalitarian post-nuclear world populated entirely by women. Machulski's comic strip fantasy may be intended as a withering satire on any form of authoritarianism, but quite frankly it fails, partly due to a stance that may easily be interpreted as extremely misogynistic (all that these futuristic femmes need is a good hetero fuck, etc), partly because it simply isn't funny.

I found it all rather boring, with even the underwater shots of naked women having become a standard part of film titillation by the time I saw it. However, it obviously appeals to the Polish audience: it was chosen as best film in the year it was released and (Wikipedia tells me) it was chosen as "the best Polish film of the last 30 years in a 2005 joint poll by readers of three popular film magazines".

Despite this continuous mass-popularity, it simultaneously manages to have minority cult status. I suspect it is this 'emasculation' perspective that makes the film seem not quite mainstream. I know that some women quite enjoy the proposition that they can survive without men (but actually give the impression they don't want to), whilst some men like the idea that it was a man running everything all the time. Sex always makes for good cinema anyway, particularly if you can convince people that they are watching humorous social commentary - OK if Babcia and the kids are in the room - rather than a straight-forward sex film.

Anyway, we all know that just having men around makes women want sex:

The whole film, with English subtitles, seems to be available on You Tube.


Anonymous said...

Sexmission was as much about politics as it was about sex.

Sylwia said...

Feminist studies simply couldn't exist under the communist regime, because the communists wouldn't allow it. According to them all problems of Polish women were solved via the introduction of communism. It's really weird when the Catholic Church is being bashed for the communists.

On the other hand, the Western middle class feminism indeed sounds to Polish women like an elitist, salon ideology of capricious princesses, so it's not likely it'll be successfully copied.

Sexmission is hilarious! It's a satire on the communist rule. Women are used only as a cover. Which is why the film is so funny, because you're supposed to read between the lines. I've never met a Pole, man or woman, who wouldn't love it. Indeed, I think it's loved equally all over the ex-Soviet block. The real success was in fooling the censors.

The women use popular slogans and techniques propagated by the communists. Even the slums are obvious - jazz music was illegal in Poland until 1956.