This piece is from our archives and was originally printed in our Michaelmas 2021 edition.
“There is no mysterious essence we can call a 'place'. Place is change. It is motion killed by the mind, and preserved in the amber of memory,” wrote JA Baker. Likewise, cinema is motion killed by the mind and the machine, each frame preserved indexically in celluloid or pixels. Ghostly traces of places are perpetually static in film and memory long after their solid twin, reality, changes. In both memories and film, we can return to the same places again and again, even if they no longer exist, even if they never did. As our own selves shift and age, the gaze through which we revisit these cinematic spaces and the spaces of memory changes too.
My childhood memories take the form of random visual fragments, like pieces of film scattered incoherently on a cutting room floor. Kaleidoscopically they sketch ‘the mysterious essence’ of the places that I grew up in and have not returned to since.
Author and her siblings in front of their apartment block, November 2004
Łódź, Poland. To me it is not a coherent city, but an eclectic montage of the memories that my 4- and 5-year-old mind deemed important to preserve. My sister, wearing a blue and pink striped dress tight-rope walks along a wall, until suddenly she trips and falls into a pond on Śmigus-Dyngus day (the Polish water festival). Cut. My siblings and I crouch behind a bush by the drive to our grey concrete apartment bloc waiting to surprise our parents. Cut. The white blur of a snowball fight in the building’s courtyard. Cut. My palms are covered with the gigantic snails that populate the playground of my nursery school. This film of recollection is mostly mute, although sometimes, my unconscious retrospectively dubs scenes into English from the Polish that I have lost.
The setting of these memories, Łódź, has garnered international renown as the film-making capital of Poland, home to the prestigious Leon Schiller National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre. It’s tongue in cheek nickname is Holly Łódź (the town’s name is pronounced something like Wooch). Perhaps the most famous director educated there is Andrzej Wajda, such a towering figure that Sight and Sound claimed his work ‘embodied and expressed the tumultuous history of twentieth-century Poland.’
His most celebrated work, The Promised Land, was voted the greatest Polish film of all time in a 2015 poll by the Polish Museum of Cinematography (also in Łódź). The 1975 film is based on a canonical Polish nineteenth century novel set during the period of industrialisation which made Łódź into a textile manufacturing powerhouse, the Manchester of Poland. Pretty unsurprisingly for a film made under Soviet rule, the so-called promised land of capitalism is shown here not as utopian, but rather as a grotesquely exploitative and violent nightmare.
Rosa and Nowell play in the apartment courtyard, aged 4 and 5, 2004
The horrors of nascent capitalism in The Promised Land were projections of the past staged by Wajda. They were filmed in the then present of Soviet Poland, in communist factories. Amongst the actors, many of the people we see are really going about their business , even though the plot in which they are contextualised is fictional. Wajda later recalled that filming of The Promised Land had to be delayed until the production of jackets for the Soviet army was completed. ‘I’m remembering the shooting of The Promised Land in the Łódź production halls, where I saw the mill girls and their unimaginable ordeal,’ Wajda said in a 2017 interview. ‘How could those women work in such conditions for years? When we entered those halls to shoot there for half an hour or fifteen minutes, it was too loud to tell the cast what to do.’ Now, there is no Soviet army, yet we still watch ghostly traces of women weaving for them. The spectral workers are preserved forever in the camera’s memory in both their reality of the twentieth century and in Wajda’s vision of the nineteenth century.
The twentieth century Algerian French philosopher Jacques Derrida, referencing Freud, argued that watching a film is an ‘act of haunting’ . Going to the cinema, he says, is comparable to a psychoanalytic séance because it brings up the ghosts of our past, both personal and cinematic. The process of watching a film, is “historical through and through, with that supplementary aura, that particular memory that lets us project ourselves into films of the past.”
Empty flat, 2005
“Don’t you remember those buildings? We used to ride the tram past them on the way to your music lessons.” My mother excitedly pauses the film on what is, to me, a nondescript street view of redbrick building. All places are layered with story upon story, gaze upon gaze, depending on who is looking, and when. The former factory buildings were clearly peripheral to my five-year-old self’s gaze; they have faded from my memory entirely, while I would recognise the dark woods and witches of the stories my mother made up on those rides in any film if I saw them. To my mother, the former manufacturing district was a place of transition, a somewhere always on the way to somewhere else. It is a backdrop she passed through with her three children, on the tram on our way to the puppet theatre and music lessons, or on foot heading to our favourite restaurant and its cheap beef cutlets. To Wajda, the same factories were a historically charged site inspiring the creation of art. To generations of factory workers, they were a place of toil and tragedy. This one place is layered with Derrida’s ‘supplementary aura’ of personal memories and national history. Infinite visions of the place coexist, and no one is truer than another.
View from a tram in Łódź, 2005, taken by author's mother
Watching Wajda’s film, I glimpsed for a time both my mother’s and the director’s gazes on the city of Łódź. The film also tries to convey the gaze of workers. The camera swings wildly, even dizzyingly through rows of weaving machines and the roar of sound is often overwhelming. A sense of nightmare is pervasive. When a man dies gruesomely on a spinning wheel, the camera spins with him and the spectator enters into second-hand victimhood. The camera brings us temporarily into the workers’ subjectivity, but, like the film crew, the spectator is only dropping in on their ordeal. They were able to step out of the factory once the filming was done, and when the movie is over, we walk away unscathed.
Former Factory, Łódź, 2004
The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”, wrote Susan Sontag in her seminal essay On Photography. When we watch a film or look at a photo, we might feel that we glimpse the elusive (or if Baker is right, the non-existent) ‘mysterious essence of place’ through someone else’s eyes. But we’re only ever visiting. We are always there as a tourist, relentlessly pulled back by our own minds into our own self and present.
Looking through old photos, I realise that I’ve reached the alienation of Sontag’s ‘eventually’. Try as I might, I’ll never conjure what it felt like to be four years old in Poland. There’s a photo of me in Łódź that I keep returning to- a solidly chunky toddler in dungarees and a bright yellow raincoat, blond hair wildly flying away from my mother’s best attempts to tame it with barrettes. I’m in motion, torso turning back towards the playground that I’m about to run back to. My hand holds out the water bottle I’ve just drunk from, handing it to someone forever out of shot. My eyes are blue and wide; there’s something a little wild in them, and a frank, unflinching curiosity. The picture reminds me of Sylvia’s Plath’s poem, Child, a mother’s meditation on her child’s gaze which begins: “Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.” A child’s gaze upon the world is so beautiful partly because of its stubborn refusal to yield to an adult’s empathy. Today, I’m as much a tourist in my past self’s gaze on Łódź as on Wajda’s or I guess it’s better to say that I’m equally close to empathising with both of them.
Author at the playground, aged 4
Wajda’s final film is entitled Afterimage (Powidoki). Like The Promised Land 41 years earlier, his last directorial vision was filmed in Łódź. This time, however, it’s set in the Stalinist period which the director personally lived through. For 98 minutes, the audience watches the avant-garde artist Władysław Strzemiński’s experience of Łódź narrow because of his staunch refusal to conform to the artistic doctrine of Socialist Realism. The range of places the artist can access is brutally whittled down by official hostility. He is deprived of his teaching post in the Institute of Art that he co-founded; the avant-garde Neoplastic room that he designed in a museum is physically ripped apart by Stalinist henchmen; the paint shop that he has frequented for years refuses to serve him. Even places he can still access physically are tainted by Stalinism for him, as when he walks out of the cinema unable to bear the propagandic newsreel that precedes the film. At the start of the film, there is a visually stunning sequence which firmly locates the film in its historical context. The artist is painting in his apartment when suddenly, everything around him becomes suffused with red. It feels like a moment of cinematic surrealism, until we realise that his windows have been covered by a red banner of Stalin, which the artist tears up to let the natural light into his apartment again.
In both The Promised Land and Afterimage, Wajda created past Łódź’s set in the then- present city. He chose Łódź as the setting of The Promised Land because the city was relatively intact after WWII and would thus be relatively believable as a nineteenth-century town. Both films are about the memory of a different era with the difference that now, the Soviet era in which The Promised Land was produced is also history. Wajda probably watched the same propagandic newsreels that Strzemiński turned away from, and now he makes them part of a retrospective narrative critical of the regime he lived under. One day the era that Afterimage was made in will also be the past, and (hopefully) the repressive and conservative PIS party which the director obliquely criticises through the film will also fall from power. New histories and memories will be layered onto the city, adding to its essence of place.
Author and siblings play tag in traditional Polish clothes, 2005
Afterimage’s title derives from part of Strzemiński’s visual theory which he explains to his students at the beginning of the film: ‘When we look at an object, we get its reflection in our eye. The trace of an object. Because a person only really sees what he is aware of.’
Strzemiński points out that visual art, like cinema, captures a gaze; they both attempt to convey to an audience someone’s (the artist or the director’s) way of seeing at a specific moment in time. While at the end of the film Strzemiński passes away, his art and way of seeing has transcended the historical present in which he created it and is displayed in major museums across the world. Likewise, Wajda’s films have survived the death of their creator, and his rich vision is rewatched globally.
Ultimately, cinema allows us to inhabit places according to others’ gazes, at least for as long as the movie lasts. Films provide immersive visual empathy, even though as we watch them, we never leave our own gaze and self behind. In our lives, we only get to see what we are aware of. Of the places that we move in, we are only left with the memories that our minds mysteriously select to preserve. Through cinema, we also get to see the traces of objects that someone else saw, the way they orchestrated them for us to see. These images become part of what we are aware of, a new reflection in our eye. When a film finishes and when a moment passes from present to memory, we are left with our own unique afterimage, because, as Strzemiński explains, everyone’s vision and afterimage is different. In his Theory of Vision, once banned from publication, now considered a central work of art theory, the artist wrote: ‘Every genuine, conscious visual sensation contributes a new element of knowledge about the world and enriches the domain of realism that has hitherto existed.’
Cinema allows us to enrich our knowledge of the world, and inhabit familiar places in unfamiliar ways, adding a new element to our own view of the world: fragments of other’s gazes.
Early evening trees and Emma running, Łódź, Winter 2004
Text by Rosa Hollier Phelps, all photos by Carol Hollier or Christopher Phelps