Jerzy Skolimowski: Walkover, Barrier, Dialogue 20 40 60 + short films (Second Run Blu Ray 3 Disc set) 2023
Watching the 1960’s films of Jerzy Skolimowski is to be transported back to a time of youthful radicalism: a cultural space of provocative inventiveness and style. It’s hard to imagine cinema, with this idealistic belief, in its own audacity, occurring today. And given these are Polish films, filmed under communist rule, then it’s even more remarkable, as Skolomowski maintains an oblique and pleasingly obscure eye so as to deflect the censor.
Walkover (1965) is technically Skolimowski’s first feature after he’d left the Lodz Film School (Though it was preceded by Identification Marks None (I965) that was made from an assembly of his film school shorts). Both films chart the journey of the character Andrzej Leszczyc (played by director Skolimowski). In Identification Marks None Andrzej failed his university exams and was conscripted for military service. Walkover picks up his story after finishing his time in the army and the day just before his 30th birthday.
It begins with him getting off a train and encountering a young woman named Teresa (Aleksandra Zawieruszanka) who knew him when he was a student. However she was then a Stalinist party member who caused Andrzej to not complete his studies. Part of Walkover concerns their starting a relationship whilst the rest of the film sees Andrzej (a former boxer) take to the ring again in a local contest. He wins that and then accepts and rejects a second contest in between hours of being indecisive and peripatetic – so much restless walking with Andrzej remaining highly suspicious of authority. He’s very individualistic and unsure of his role in a mendacious and corrupt society. Is Andrzej coming or going?
“A fast train in the morning. A stopping train at noon” lines of dialogue that typify his uncertainty.
Skolomowski employs many tracking shots for Andrzej’s both assured but apprehensive movement throughout the city. Early on we have ‘radio’ commentary introductions, of a philosophical nature, about products and life conditions that are disarmingly funny. Skolomowski experiments both visually and aurally bringing an engaging freshness and humour to his film – we are engaged with the plight of Andrzej and want him to box himself out of his situation into a more positive future. Walkover may have cultural references that only a native Pole, of that sixties generation, can comprehend but the issue of personal identity in flux still engages us today.
Barrier (1966) presents us with a departure for Skolomowski as it’s a consciously poetic film. It begins with a game played by students. With hands tied together they fall forward, in an execution manner, so as to catch, in their mouth, a box of matches fixed to a ruler. The winner will receive a piggy bank of coins, an ironic form of reward to make his way in the world: supporting a need for freedom in a world presenting many obstacles and barriers.
The student hero / winner (played by Jan Nowicki) of the game leaves to tour the city; release a bird from a rope; join groups of people walking fast and aimless; visit his father in a nursing home (Where he’s presented with a sabre used by the Polish cavalry in WW2) and finally meet a female tram driver (played by Joanna Szczerbic). Their brief liaison becomes the main storyline.
Although Barrier is undoubtedly a political film its satire is more generalised with the physical and mental barriers of the film becoming absurdist and existential. Skolomowski is a master of particular kind of witty surrealism that continually questions reason and motivation. It’s indebted to Bunuel but Skolomowski has original twists. I love the scene in Barrier were a cleaning woman at a restaurant breaks out into a song. Her lyrics are not an overt political critique but a poem written by Skolomowski (A former published poet). It’s passionate and romantic. And you feel her simply singing out is the most reasonable of responses in a nullifying society that would restrict such outbursts (It made me think of the power of song and how recently the Taliban banned public music performances).
If at times Barrier feels more apolitical than political it does unequivocally share the definition of a 60’s puzzle film in the company of Fellini’s 8 ½ or Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad. And although Barrier is more cryptic than Nemec’s The Party and The Guests (1966) that’s because instead of political allegory it goes for the symbolism of appearances (especially the motor car) in a material reality, which proves deeply disappointing for a young and idealistic generation desiring to inhabit a better world than their elders. Godard was an influence on Skolomowski in the sixties. Barrier shares some of the romantic struggle of Pierrot Le Fou.
“Our cynical and bitter generation is still capable of great acts of romantic passion.”
A statement repeated twice in Barrier whose extraordinary poetic visuals and narrative invention remain compelling. With a determinism to find freedom of expression, and a way out of a society’s materialist, historical and cultural traps, Barrier is still a dazzling achievement of Polish cinema in the 1960’s.
As for Dialogue 20 – 40 -60 this is a portmanteau film of three short films viewed though the prism of characters in their twenties, forties and sixties. They are sharp and amusing and Skolomowski is now joined by directors, Peter Solan and Zbynek Brynich.
20 has Adamik (Jean – Piere Leaud) playing (Unconvincingly in performance) a pop singer who discovers his apartment has been occupied by a couple for their sexual antics. After they’ve left Adamik asks over his partner so as to have a meal and sexual games, though their relationship is already under great strain. This story is played out in 40 and 60. What makes this portmanteau film innovatory is that the same dialogue is used in all films but who says what and when was left up to each director.
Praise goes to the most substantial contribution Zbynek Brynich’s 60. This has a man who works as a prompter at a theatre and is smitten by a female actor who engages in the sex- game plot as a musical drama. 60 is visually elegant (blending noir with expressionism) and a clever realisation of Dialogue’s ideas. If Skolomowski called the production “a kind of filmic joke” then Brynich’s film elevates that joke to a deeper level of frustrated desire.
This set also comes with 4 early short films of Skolomowski (one is a comic version of Hamlet). All the main features, in spite of being occasionally enigmatic, are stimulating and entertaining. It’s fascinating to see the beginnings of Skolomowski’s cinema. He’s an instantly assured auteur who went on, with gaps in his career (He then turned to painting) to produce the superb, mainstream leaning, though independently produced, British films Deep End, The Shout and Moonlighting. And not forgetting Skolomowski’s recent lovely take on Robert Bresson, his donkey film EO. A powerful new wave start then, revealing Skolomowski to be a brilliant maverick talent for consistently off beat content and iconoclastic forms.