Polish Liminal Documentary

By Don Fredericksen

Piwowski’s Krok
An invitation to serve on the jury of the 1998 Krakow Short Film Festival led me unexpectedly to discern a function for documentary film about which I was previously unaware—a function I have tagged “liminal”. I was pleased to present some of my thoughts on this matter in a public lecture for the Skalny Center.

Among the notions through which one might view Poland’s history and culture, liminality provides a most potent lens. Derived from the Latin “limen,” meaning doorway or threshold, liminality gives name to situations or structures that are in some way “betwixt and between.” Anthropological studies of rites of passage name as liminal the times and spaces when one has left a previous identity but has not yet acquired a new one. Psychological studies of the hypnogogic state, and depth psychology’s attention to the threshold between the conscious and unconscious registers of the mind are each, in their separate manner, focused upon the presence of a limen, and the experience of liminality—of being at, or in, a threshold.

Poland’s liminality is fundamentally geographic, a fact from which much of its history and culture grows, as evidenced by its disappearance during the 1795 to 1918 partitions, the legacy of the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty, and the 1944 to 1989 period of Soviet control, which began with the redrawing of the country’s geographic borders. Poland’s identity as an independent nation suffered complete eradication, redefinition, and invasion at the hands of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia and the Soviet Union. Each of these powerful neighbors has submitted Poles and their culture to involuntary, and, in one manner or another, destructive, rites of passage, using criteria of identity inimical to Polish self-definition.

During these times the task of preserving Poland’s self-definition was carried by the Church and literature—and, during the Soviet period, additionally by film. Polish filmmakers and audiences often entered into coded communication that state censorship could not defeat. At time topics central of Poland’s self-identity could be intimated: the AK and the Rising. Katyn had to wait until after 1989. The films of Wajda were/are crucial, but those of others, such as Zanussi, Falk, Bugajski, and Krzystek, in varying ways, often ironic, kept the issue of Polish self-identity animated.

Moving past 1989, and returning to the 1998 Krakow festival: visible there was a significant number of Polish, Estonian, Romanian, and Russian films giving documentary expression to the deep liminality of the post-communist era. Among the Polish entries, two stood out: Borzecka’s Arizona. (1997) and Piwowski’s Krok. (The Parade Step., 1997). Arizona. portrayed a defunct state farm, whose residents appeared stuck in permanent liminality, deserted as it was by communist Poland and left behind by the developments in post-communist Poland.

Piwowski’s Krok. presented Poland’s post-communist liminality in quite another manner, and with a distinctive tone. Piwowski is well-known in Poland, of course, for his 1970 film The Cruise., a wacky portrayal of 1960s Poland, making its way, in a manner of speaking, on a small vacation boat down the Vistula River. The deadpan absurdities of that film permeate Krok. as well, but within another liminal scenario. Presented in the form of a faux-documentary, Poland is no longer a communist nation and member of the Warsaw Pact, but neither is it yet a member of NATO, although it seeks the latter status. It is “betwixt and between,” rather anxiously liminal. Polish military intelligence discovers that NATO membership is conditional upon the acquisition of a proper marching step—hence the film’s title. Left to its own devices in generating a step that will put Poland “in step” with the NATO alliance, the military forms a committee consisting of military and non-military persons who may—or may not—have something to contribute to the task at hand. It quickly demonstrates its own inability to work “in step,” as members utterly fail to follow any consistent line of thought, instead freely and narcissistically associating from within their own idiosyncratic concerns. The result is an hilarious series of non-sequiturs. and reductios ad absurdum.. The conclusion puts at least one more or less reasonable foot soldier in shock.

An essential function of liminal times and conditions is the call to reflection.. Former structures and identities no longer hold; new ones are not yet in place. Matters can be reconceived. This function adheres to liminal documentaries—even faux. ones—from which they gain a crucial aspect of their cultural salience. In the midst of making his Polish audience laugh, Piwowski is simultaneously inviting it into reflection upon its post-communist identity. This self-reflection, nested in humor, evokes a set of very serious questions: Do Poles, after years of Nazi and Soviet domination—and Nazi and communist “myths” about Polish identity—know how to get through this new liminality on their own? Have they been forced to accept non-Polish criteria of identity for so long that they cannot imagine standing alone, but rush anxiously to find acceptance by putting themselves “in step” with the West? Why this “performance anxiety”? And why should they look to the West, given the protection it promised and did not deliver in World War II? And does this chaotic, dysfunctional task force remind them of the chaos of Poland’s independent status during the inter-war period? And what about Krok’s. military? Does its apparent incompetence conjure up terrible memories of 1939? Can Poles escape the way their geography has frustrated their desire for self-definition, and their desire for indigenous rites of passage, and driven them into putatively protective alliances that require that they get “into step” with other nations’ self-definitions and self-interest?

Poland’s spirit has survived for long periods of time, especially periods of foreign domination, on the lifeboat of humor. In part, Piwowski is operating within this venerable tradition. Therefore, implicitly, he is calling Poland back to itself, to its own rites of passage. The bite comes in the not-so-hidden questions raised by Krok’s. narrative: has Poland the will and ability for self-definition; and what does it stand to lose if it doesn’t? . Humor will not provide the answers, but this film does allow a reflective space-time in which its viewers can begin to conceive them, in the healing atmosphere of laughter.

This is a summary of a lecture given in the Skalny Center lecture series.

Dr. Don Fredericksen is a professor of film in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University, where he teaches a course on modern Polish cinema. With Professor Marek Hendrykowski, Adam Mickiewicz University, he co-authored the first monograph on Wajda’s Kanał .in 2007.