German Joys Review: Camera Buff

Polish director Krzyzstof Kieslowksi (known internationally mainly for the Trois Couleurs (G) trilogy he directed in the 1990s) made Camera Buff in 1979, long before his reputation had crossed the Polish border in a serious way.

We meet Filip Mosz (Jerzy Stuhr), an unassuming thirty-year-old who works as a purchasing manager for a factory in Wielice, a nothing town whose residents live in gray, pre-fabricated rent-barracks. As the movie begins, Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska) gives birth to their first child, a daughter. At the time, Polish men were kept away from their wives during childbirth, and instead downed congratulatory vodka with friends. After sleeping off his hangover, Jerzy buys a Russian 8mm camera to record his new daughter’s first steps and words.

Cameras were rare in Poland then – Filip’s cost 2 months of his salary. When the factory director learns Philip has a camera, he orders him to film the company’s 25th anniversary celebration (speeches, visits by dignitaries, a cheesy band). This assignment sparks a fascination with moviemaking; Filip begins to imagine his daily environment filmed, and begins to frame shots with his hands. He forms a film club with the factory’s "cultural" subsidy. He’s the director, and his wiry young friend Witek and a "crew" of other enthusiasts helps him. He submits the resulting movies to the local amateur film federation, headed by the sultry Anna (Ewa Pokas).

After getting some advice from some of the of bald, turtleneck-clad auteurs in the Film Federation, Filip begins coming up with his own ideas for short documentary films, among them a feature about a midget who works in the factory. A brief, hesitant flirtation sparks between Filip and Anna, and shortly after, the midget documentary is shown on Polish television. Filip attends a lecture by an established Polish feature-film director, Krzyzstof Zanussi, and persuades Zanussi to visit drab old Wielice to screen his new movie Camouflage and answer questions afterward. (Zanussi, a contemporary and friend of Kieslowski, plays himself in the film).

Where are Irka and the child while the factory clerk swans off to Warsaw to meet with television producers, or wanders Wielice filming footage, or pursues his chaste little flirtation with Anna the Film Federation chief? Waiting at home in the family’s Spartan apartment. "How could my husband lose just lose interest in me and his own child?" she muses bitterly. She accuses Filip of abandoning her at what was supposed to be the most intense and joyful time of her life. With disarming frankness, he admits guilt. He thought he wanted the “tranquility” family represents, but just cannot suppress the urge to create. Irka moves out.

Conflict is also brewing outside the family. Seemingly innocent scenes in Filip’s documentaries showed skittish functionaries who didn’t want the be filmed, or half-finished public-works projects that the central authorities were told had been successfully completed. This causes problems. Now, Polish censors did tolerate mild social critique at this time, both in the movie and in the real Poland. Thus, the consequences, within the film, aren’t drastic. Filip is forgiven because he’s young and foolish and talented; but his immediate boss, the philosophical stamp-collector Osuch (Jerzy Nowak), is forced into early retirement for giving Filip the funding that led to the embarrassing movies.

Camera Buff has everything we expect from Kieslowski: understated, deep-grooved performances; contemplative pacing that doesn’t drag; moral generosity that never strays into sentimentality. Jerzy Stuhr’s performance as Filip (he is also given co-credit for the script) is a wonder. He goes from ordinary worker to film addict to increasingly confident director without losing his essential schlubbiness. It’s this direct unpretentiousness, combined with his genuine enthusiasm for film-making, which keep the viewer’s sympathy, even as he abandons his young family. Osuch, who loses his job because of Filip’s films, recognizes that Filip’s obsession with film springs from genuine passion, and forgives him in an affecting scene. Osuch warns Filip that the drive to create, once awakened, cannot be choked off. By leaving his life as a purchasing manager behind, Filip enters a a life of struggle and conflict. A quintessentially Kieslowskian scene, framed closely and intensely, as if it were taking place in a confessional.

The DVD features many splendid extras, including a moving interview with the real Zanussi about his long friendship with Kieslowski (who had died before the DVD was prepared). Zanussi gives us a lively, poignant sketch of Kieslowski’s character: Although he could be bitingly anti-clerical, he was deeply hurt when a Jesuit reviewer criticized one of his movies (No End) as being metaphysically un-Christian. Kieslowski turned to feature films from documentaries in part because of the guilt he felt at robbing the subjects of their anonymity. He doubted anyone had the right to film genuine human tears. He stayed in touch with many former documentary subjects and tried to help them, out of the belief that filming someone creates a bond of obligation with them. Kieslowski also fought with the censors (Camera Buff has unmistakable political overtones), and generally despised premieres, festivals, and other film-word frippery.

There are also interviews with the Polish director Agnieszka Holland, and a sprightly American film professor named Annette Insdorf who’s written a book about Kieslowski’s films (oddly enough, she speaks in French, even though the DVD is an American release, and subtitles on the DVD are only in English). If that weren’t enough, thre’s also a 16-minute black-and-white documentary from 1980 called “Talking Heads,” in which Kieslowski asking dozens of ordinary Poles how they would describe themselves, and what they most wish for in life. It’s regular humans, talking about their lives, and it’s just lovely.

Now the bad news. This DVD, apparently, has not been released in Germany. I bought it in the U.S. from the art-house firm Kino Video as part of lovingly-produced 6-DVD set. It’s apparently also available as an English import (check out the ludicrous all-caps summary on the Amazon website!), but not from Kino Video, so it probably won’t have the extras which add so much to the DVD.

Germany, why are you keeping these outstanding movies from your people? Who’s afraid of Krzyzstof Kieslowski?

Biting a Bishop’s Head Off

WeckmannChristmas must be just around the corner, because my local bakery has Weckmaenner. These are wheat-flour pastries in the shape of a fat, bulbous man. He always holds a clay pipe, and may have raisins for eyes. My favorite kind of Weckmann is covered head-to-toe in marzipan paste and almond slivers, which makes him look like an albino porcupine having an orgasm. The combination of the serious, daddy’s-office taste of roast almonds, the gooey sweetness of the marzipan paste, and the slightly sour-tasting fluffy wheat dough can’t be beat. (When he’s covered with nuts, you have to make sure not to accidentally bite into his pipe. So to speak.)

Whenever I encounter something edible in the shape of a living creature, I eat the head first. I figure if anyone were to eat me, I would request the same treatment. I may think twice about that, though, now that I find out the baking of the Weckmann during Advent is a centuries-old custom, and the Weckmann was originally meant to represent a bishop.

I learned that from the following webpage (G), which was written by a real theologian named Dr. theol. Manfred Becker-Huberti. My translation follows:

In the early days of the church, it was common, on Sundays and Church holidays, to give blessed, but not consecrated, bread to people who had not received the Eucharist, were not entitled to receive it (=penitents, catechumens) or were unable to receive it (=sick people staying at home). In the Greek and Russian Orthodox liturgy, this custom, which goes back to the early Christian Agape Meal (Feast of Christian Love) after religious services, has been maintained. Jews maintain this custom to this day: After the Kabbalah-Sabbath, the religious service on Friday evening at the beginning of Sabbath, all who took part in the service gather for a communal meal. Over the course of time, the pastry used during this meal took on a particular form relating to the celebration. It was called “image bread.“ The Weckmann (which is called Stutenkerl or Piepenkerl in Westphalia, Hefekerl in Switzerland, and also Printenmann, Hanselmann, Klasenmann) , which was common originally only on St. Nicholas’ day, but then later also for St. Martin’s Day and now during all of Advent is an “image bread;” that is a pastry formed into a figure made out of wheat flour or dough. It is supposed to represent a Bishop! The clay pipe one usually sees today is an error: If you turn it around so the end of the pipe faces the top, you can see even today that instead of the clay pipe, a Bishop’s crozier was originally attached to the pastry.

Polish Books II: The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz

A few notes about another Polish book I read recently. The book was rather good, so the post is rather long.

Miłosz, a Polish poet and 1980 Nobel laureate in literature, was born in Lithuania, in 1911 (Lithuania was then a part of Russia, after 1918 a part of Poland). By the time the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Miłosz was a promising avant-garde poet. He stayed in Poland during the war, working in the “cultural wing” of the underground. Poles have a long history of preserving local culture as a means of resisting an equally long history of foreign domination. Spiritual resistance to Nazi rule was just as important as the practical sort – poets risked their lives to publish in underground newspapers, theatres staged secret plays, there was even an underground university.

Miłosz watched as the 1944 Warsaw Uprising was crushed after a few weeks and the Nazis razed Warsaw in retribution. Only after the destruction of Warsaw did the Red Army, which was encamped nearby, "liberate" the smoldering ruin. This culpable delay, which Poles attribute to Stalin’s calculation, was only the most recent reason for Poles to view the advancing Russians with apprehension. At war’s end, some Poles hoped that the West might be able to cajole Poland from of Moscow’s orbit, but these hopes were gradually dashed; by the early 1950s, it was clear Poland would become a Soviet satellite.

In the uncertain post-war years, Miłosz cooperated with the new Polish government. When he began writing The Captive Mind in 1951, Miłosz was cultural attaché to the Polish Embassy in Paris. Poland’s new commissars had hoped to burnish the new government’s image by detailing a worldly young poet to captivate Paris’ intellectual circles, but things didn’t go according to plan. As Moscow’s interference became clearer, Miłosz rebelled. As he writes, his rejection of Stalinism proceeded "not from the functioning of the reasoning mind" – which reminded him of the ease and fame awaiting politically-reliable artists – but from the "revolt of the stomach," the feeling that he would soon no longer be able to carry out "the writer’s essential task – to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole." Miłosz applied for political asylum in Paris in 1951 and lived there until 1960, when he took up a professorship in Slavic Languages at Berkeley.

The Captive Mind is part Miłosz’ justification of these decisions and part intellectual biography; but primarily it is an account of the ideological temptation of Communism. He describes the book as a "battlefield[] in which I have given shape to my combats with the doctrine I have rejected." The book may be a battlefield, but it is no demonizing polemic; Miłosz had met too many brilliant, idealistic Communists to permit that. Out of respect for them, Miłosz promises, when discussing Marxism, to "give the enemy his arms" and even to "copy the way of reasoning" when necessary, before attacking it.

Anti-Communists hailed the book as a lucid attack of enforced ideological conformity, but Miłosz kept his distance from all political camps, wary of being instrumentalized. Years later, he wrote that his failure to unreservedly join the anti-Communist cause led "[t]hose few people who were against current political fashions and saw me as a valuable ally [to make] dour faces, because the world is divided into two blocs, and if you are in one you must beat the hell out of the other." Instead, after writing The Captive Mind, Miłosz withdrew from direct political disputation.

Miłosz is a poet, not a lawyer. Rather than stitching together a precise, linear argument, the book strolls leisurely here and there in Miłosz fashion, favoring the reader with asides on the countryside around Vilnius, 19th-century French colonial officials, and the appeal (for one growing used to the gray uniformity of Socialist-bloc architecture) of Western cities, in which the "exciting and invigorating power of … participation in mass life springs from the feeling of potentiality, of constant unexpectedness, of a mystery one ever pursues."

However, Miłosz never wanders far form his theme: how Moscow (which Miłosz calls the “Center”) brought writers in the newly-annexed Eastern European nations into line. Brute force or open threats were rarely necessary. For Miłosz, this acquiescence is the interesting psychological question: why did intellectuals who bravely defied one dictatorial regime collude with another one, especially one originating in Russia – a former imperial master and, for centuries, an object of Polish scorn and distrust?

Never one to pass up an opportunity showcase Polish literary talent, Miłosz constructs an analogy to a 1931 futurist fantasy written by the anarchically inventive poet, novelist, painter and playwright Stanislaw Witkiewicz. In Insatiability, Witkiewicz writes of an Eastern invader who conquers a dissolute, exhausted Polish nation and offer his new subjects the greatest gift to mankind ever devised: happiness in pill-form, concocted by the great Mongolian philosopher Murti-Bing. Whoever took the Murti-Bing pill "became serene and happy"; the problems against which he had struggled to that time "appeared to be superficial and unimportant," and he was no longer plagued by metaphysical concerns.

Everyone takes the pill. Not because they are forced to, but, to quote Miłosz, because "[t]here is an internal longing for harmony and happiness that lies deeper than ordinary fear or the desire the escape misery or physical destruction." The "New Faith," as Miłosz calls Communism, attracts intellectuals for several reasons.

First, by taking the pill like everyone else (including those who had no choice), the intellectual undoes his typical alienation. He now shares a language, a thought-world, and a set of daily concerns with people whom he once thought impossibly remote from him: "The truck driver and elevator operator employed by a publishing firm now read the same Marxist classics as its director or staff writers."

Second, the intellectual joins the socialist community in a noble cause – the redemption of humanity from the real evils of nationalist excess, economic exploitation, and ruthless class privilege. He may even be offered the chance to "throw himself into the flame for the glory of mankind”; Miłosz cautions the reader not to underestimate the appeal of martyrdom to intellectuals.

Third, the pedigree. Communism was founded by intellectuals, who built its doctrine not on cloudy metaphysical appeals but on the coolly rational ‘dialectical’ method. Even moderately clever functionaries can bewilder reactionary opponents with dialectical reasoning, and in the hands of a genuine thinker, it’s almost unstoppable. The dialectic destroys liberal-bourgeois prejudices not directly, by confronting them, but indirectly – by enfolding them like a canny spider and sucking the life out of them.

Finally, even if the intellectual and ethical appeal of the New Faith weren’t enough, the practical appeal could hardly be ignored, especially for those with long-suffering wives and children in tow: a writer, composer, or painter who proved himself politically reliable got a privileged social position, a secure income, time to think, paint or compose, and license to publish and lecture.

Cultural commissars enticed the convert with reassurances that the Party tolerates independent views, but he soon realizes this is a lie; the New Faith’s "only friend will be the man who accepts the doctrine 100 per cent. If he accepts only 99 per cent, he will necessarily have to be considered a foe, for from that remaining 1 per cent a new church can arise." He soon spots flaws and gaps in Communist doctrine, wonders at the miles of empty store shelves, and flinches at the lifeless stupidity of Party art and propaganda.

The intellectual must master a form of Ketman: techniques of subtle dissimulation cultivated by Islamic free-thinkers under the rule of absolute monarchs and mullahs. First described in the West by the French diplomat Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau, Ketman is necessary because silent complicity is not enough — the intellectual is always suspect, and must openly profess absolute loyalty in an atmosphere in which “[e]ven one’s gestures, tone of voice, or preference for certain kinds of neckties are interpreted as signs of one’s political tendencies.” A well-timed denunciation here and there is key, since "those who are most helpful in detecting deviations are those who themselves practice a similar form of Ketman…. Thus they protect themselves; and the measure of dexterity is to anticipate by at least one day the similar accusation which could be leveled against them by the man they denounce."

Ketman eats at the soul and conscience. The heart of the book is Miłosz’ portrait of four writers – called Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta — and what the New Faith did to them. “Alpha the Moralist,” is a Catholic fascinated by "tragic moral conflicts" and "tormented by the enigma of purity." He made his reputation, before the war, by exploring these conflicts in Graham-Greene-like novels. Alpha accepts the New Faith after a long inner struggle. At first, his new role delights him; he is sent through the country to lecture to attentive and worshipful audiences of simple workers. However, his former religious faith is a mark of Cain. To expunge it, he realizes he will have to publish a thorough, humiliating self-criticism. To twist the knife further, the Party assigns him to represent its generally hostile line towards the Catholic Church. His writing, formerly alive with anguish and nobility, becomes contrived: "One compromise leads to a second and third until at last, though everything one says may be perfectly logical, it no longer has anything in common with the flesh and blood of living people."

Although the essay on Alpha is most often anthologized, the one on Beta is even more revealing. Beta was only twenty in 1942, but already had the "exaggerated shyness” that “usually bespeaks immense ambition." Beta published his poems in the underground press, but, as a nihilist, scoffed at the more pious and nationalistic wings of the resistance. He was arrested one day and ended up in Auschwitz, where he survived for two years by sheer wit. On his return, he wrote a book about his experiences which Miłosz called “terrifying,” terrifying because the author "never moralizes, he relates."

Cooly and precisely, Beta describes scenes from the platform where transports arrived at Auschwitz: a Jewish mother pushes away her own child in an attempt to be classified as single and "work-capable," instead of being immediately gassed with the rest of the mothers; two deportees copulate in front of a gawking crowd during the last moments of their lives; a girl with an amputated leg, still alive and with "tears streaking down her face," is tossed onto a pile of corpses headed for the crematorium. Although other witnesses recounted Beta’s acts of charity, he never mentions them himself. Instead, he emphasizes how proud he was to have "succeed[ed], when others, less clever, perish[ed]."

Beta found much to admire in the New Faith: "He absorbed dialectical materialism as a sponge soaks up water. Its materialistic side appeased his hunger for brutal truth, its dialectical side permitted a sudden leap above the human species, to a vision of humanity as the material of history." His book about Auschwitz, however, was no longer politically correct; books about concentration camps had to separate the actors by political persuasion and portray the "moral strength and heroic behavior" of Soviet prisoners. In any case, Beta quickly understood that literary books of any sort were of no use to the movement, it needed propaganda pure and simple: "Loud, violent, clear, biased." He joined the party, and set to work on a series of "poisonous articles about America."

Miłosz’s psychological insight comes into sharpest focus in these biographical essays. Here, to illustrate the conversion of gifted writers into rigid fanatics, he imagines how Beta steeled himself to excrete one of his "poisonous articles":

"[T]o present the event honestly, he would have to penetrate the motives of the opposing forces and the necessities which govern them – in short, to analyze it from every side. Then anger comes to his rescue, introducing order into the tangle of interdependencies and releasing him from the obligation to analyze. This anger against the self-deception that anything at all depends on man’s will is, simultaneously, a fear of falling prey to one’s own naïveness. Since the world is brutal, one must reduce everything to the simplest and most brutal factors. The author understands that what he is doing is far from accurate; people’s stupidity or people’s good intentions influence events no less than do the necessities of the economic struggle. But he takes his vengeance upon mankind (upon others and upon himself) by demonstrating that man is dominated by a few elementary laws; at the same time, he feeds his own sense of superiority and proves himself acute and strong enough to dispense with ‘prejudices.’"

A few months after Miłosz wrote the portrait, Beta committed suicide in his Warsaw apartment. Those who observed him in his last months, Miłosz reports, attributed his suicide to the fact that "the discrepancy between what he said in his public statements and what his quick mind could perceive was increasing daily."

Next comes Gamma, the “Slave of History,” who turns into an obedient Communist cultural functionary, and is rewarded with postings in foreign lands, where he was expected to make new converts: “He knew too much to retain any illusions and despised those naïve enough to nourish them. To bring new damned into the fold was his one means of reducing the number of internally free people, who, by the mere fact of their existence, judged him.” Before the war, Delta, a childlike, always-drunk “troubadour,” delighted Poles with his poetry, a “kaleidoscope of chubby baroque angels, magicians carried off through the window by some unknown power (they are retained, at the last moment by a wifely bite on the ear), falconry, [and] astrologists prophesying the end of the world.” In exile in Brussels, he mourns the loss of his audience, and decides to return to Poland – to general acclaim and a warm welcome from the cultural bureaucracy. A mind this wayward needed to be kept on a short leash. Thus, Delta began cycling in and out of favor with the authorities, a terrifying process his lyrical mind could not begin to fathom.

After the portraits of individual writers, Miłosz concludes the book with an appeal for moral clarity; or at what passes for an appeal in a man of Miłosz’ circumspection. Communism is a “stupefying and loathsome phenomenon” which must be condemned and opposed, without regard to the less menacing weaknesses of Western capitalist democracies: “Fear is well known as a cement of societies. In a liberal-capitalist economy fear of lack of money, fear of losing one’s job, fear of slipping down one rung on the social ladder all spurred the individual to greater effort. But what exists in the Imperium is naked fear," fear of being deported to a place "where polar bears thrive but people do not." Western Communists and fellow-travelers, who blur this distinction with cheap distractions and spurious moral equivalencies, incite Miłosz to the only expression of rage in the book: “Nothing can compare to the contempt he [a "writer from the East," clearly Miłosz] feels for these sentimental fools."

Although the specific battle which occasioned The Captive Mind belongs to the past, the book does not. Miłosz cared little about the intricacies of contemporary ideological fights, so the book spares us details about long-forgotten factional strife. His exploration of the psychological mechanism of collaboration is timeless and profound. But even if the subject doesn’t interest you, Miłosz’s writing should – his serene, melancholy, appealingly idiosyncratic prose survives Jane Zielonko’s stylish translation trailing clouds of glory.

Sausage-Skin Recycling

…is unnecessary, according to Germany’s Packaging Ordinance. As a public service, I present you a list of other items not considered "packaging":

Flower pots intended to stay with the plant throughout its life

Tool boxes

Tea bags

Wax layers around cheese

I live to serve.

Geoff Eley On “Ossiness”

Here, historian Geoff Eley evokes some of the complicated feelings of mistrust and resentment spurred in East Germans by the way re-unification of Germany was handled. The prose is sometimes a bit academic, but Eley makes interesting points.

Eley maintains that many Western politicians denied the East Germany government any sort of recognition whatsoever, painting it as nothing more than a chilling Communist dictatorship (which, of course it was). This blanket characterization, though, meant that "the legitimacy of the forms of popular experience fashioned during the life of the GDR became systematically denied." (remember what I said about academic prose).

It is important to grasp what was entailed in such a process of denial. It affected not only the official history of the old East German state and the political tradition incorporated by the SED, the postwar record of GDR Communism, and the specificities of what used to be called actually-existing socialism. Much more fundamentally, that denial also disallowed the mundane accomplishments of ordinary citizens’ lives – that is, the arduous process of having tried to build workable lives inside the constricting boundaries of what an established but beleaguered and poorly-resourced state could realistically make available.

[U]nderstanding the distinctive modalities through which East German residents built their lifeworlds and negotiated their coexistence with the SED is a crucial step towards grasping the predicament of Easterners since 1990. Not only had unification deprived former residents of the GDR of the operating contexts for which their political habitus was fitted, but it also threw them into a vastly differing social scene, where their skills were dismissed, their psycho-cultural outlook derided, and their pasts belittled. This loss of bearings, bitterly seared into the consciousness of East Germans by the accompanying deindustrialization, destruction of livelihoods, and loss of social supports, is a different kind of injustice from the sort prosecuted by the victorious West Germans, but surely one deserving of note. As Lindenberger observes, events ‘were experienced not only as a material loss but also above all as an expropriation of social relations and structures, of moral values and habits, of a specific East German culture, through which GDR citizens had mastered their lives in the preceding four decades and which they now regarded as their legitimate "Ossiness"’.

Eley here is evoking — for an audience that can barely imagine it — what it would be like to live in a country whose entire political structure, habits and customs, consumer products, and work relationships either disappeared or changed radically within a few years. It’s a fascinating thing to think about, I find. 

I’ve met a number of "proud" former "Ossies" (people from East Germany or Ostdeutschland) myself. They have complex and often-contradictory feelings about the former East German state, but many of them are proud in the way Eley describes: they built a satisfying, ethical life in a society that made this difficult. To this pride, many added an admiration for the some of the social ideals of East Germany.

We are not talking here about party faithful, but about people such as Wolf Biermann or Rudolf Bahro (G), who considered themselves both socialists and dissidents. Instead of replacing the East German dictatorship with a genuinely democratic socialist successor state, they watched as it was erased from the history books. When re-unification was being negotiated, East Germany was considered to have nothing to contribute to the discussion about how the new Germany’s social or foreign policies (for example) would look. East Germany’s role was simply to be passively absorbed into the West and express proper gratitude for the opportunity. Of course, East Germans would also be entitled to huge transitional payments from the West, but this was hardly a signal of recognition as a partner of equal dignity in the debate over what a re-unified Germany would look like; rather the opposite. As one acquaintance from the East recently put it, "we didn’t think we were demonstrating to replace a series of depressingly uniform concrete housing blocks with a series of depressingly uniform fast-food chains."

I don’t agree with Eley in every point, but his thesis does explain the vicious circle that keeps coming up in East-West German relations: Ossies have a quiet, but strong grudge against the West for "anti-Communist triumphalism" (Eley) displayed during re-unification and the lack of respect for individual experiences it showed. Westerners, in turn, sputter with rage at the fact that the Ossies could be so ungrateful for one of the biggest wealth transfers in history (most Westerner still pay a large chunk of money to the East every month as a "solidarity payment.")

Eley thinks the fading of the anti-Communist triumphalism in recent years signals a chance for a more nuanced and satisfactory approach to the issues. Let’s hope he’s right.