The official socialist realist system—with its predictable conflicts, its negative types and positive heroes, and its progressive and optimistic resolutions, encouraged the production of grossly distorted representations of actual life and actual history.—Eagle (1982)
The essence of a political film is in speaking about what is unspoken; in exposing what is concealed; in unveiling the realities behind the events.—Wajda quoted in Yakir (1984)
It is interesting to observe that through our first-ever “Fall Film Competition,” the group has quite serendipitously assembled a collection of films that can arguably be considered “Films of Social Defiance.” Even though not all can be classified under an official rubric of revolution, all four are enlightening with respect to a time of radical change in a cultural or national sense. Ashes and Diamonds is celebrated for its appeal to an oppressed people who hear a voice that resonates with them in its representations and symbolism that defies socialist realism mandates.
What can we as American movie-watchers see that’s so amazing in this movie? . . . something to be celebrated? It’s a production in black and white that has an obscured sense of interaction among the characters. The viewer is constantly “squinting” to understand what is meaningful in their dialog or in their actions, and who and what the characters represent. To an uninformed audience, the film simply “cannot be understood without a map” (Michalek, 1973, p. 7). Yet, this depiction resonated strongly with those who first watched the film in its native Poland in 1958.
We Must Understand the Film’s Context
For an American audience to fully appreciate and understand what is communicated in Ashes and Diamonds, it is necessary to become knowledgeable about its context of production in Communist Poland, and thus the symbolic representations that director Andrzej Wajda ( click to hear pronunciation ) chose in order to stay true to the writer’s intent. Indeed, it is difficult for many Americans today to imagine the difficulty of public communication in a place where strict control over cultural production exists, whereas we exchange ideas and information relatively freely via an amazing number of means.
However, one might think about the “Golden Age” of Hollywood in a similar way to this era in Communist Poland—Hollywood’s films were characterized by euphemisms that presented roles and settings often absent the blatant realities of life. Under the strict Communist censorship that prevailed in Central Europe at the same time, creative expression was controlled by a theory of socialist realism.
Following the revolution in Russia in the early 20th century, Anatoly Lunacharsky was appointed as head of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment. In this role, he created a system of aesthetics that became the main component of socialist realism, which then became an international literary movement (Socialist Realism, 2016, Sep 20).
Lunacharsky believed that “the sight of a healthy body, intelligent face or friendly smile was essentially life-enhancing” (Ellis, 2012, p. 21). He felt that art had a direct effect on the human organism and, under the right circumstances, the effect could be positive. By depicting “the perfect person” (new Soviet man), Lunacharsky believed art could “educate” citizens on how to be perfect Soviets.
Films made under a mandate of socialist realism were required to conform to Communist ideals, i.e., glorifying Communist values in a realistic manner, therefore exhibiting loyalty to the party and elevating the common worker.
The Communist Party dictated constraints such that filmmakers were required to shape reality into a narrative that appealed to the desires of Communist leaders. Socialist realist cinema became “idealized fabrications of life as it should be or as it should have been” (Ellis, 2012, p. 177).
Film Industries Nationalized
First, literature with socialist trends was established in the 1920s in Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Then following WWII, the film industries of Central Europe were controlled and censored: Poland and Czechoslovakia’s industries were nationalized in 1945, and Hungary’s industry re-nationalized in 1948.
Film production under nationalization had both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, filmmakers were relieved from concerns about funding; and when national film schools were established, they benefited from greater collaboration than they might have experienced before that. As a group, they had access to all the films from their respective national cinemas, and some of the films of Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave, since those films were released in the late ’40s and ’50s. Further, the film schools brought together producers, directors, writers, and cinematographers of the pre-WWII generation, which made it possible to preserve their cumulative knowledge for succeeding generations (Eagle, 1992, p. 176).
At the beginning of nationalization, filmmakers were free to experiment with individualized styles, but soon after, on the negative side, filmmakers expressions were restricted due to government censorship. Imposing Soviet-style socialist realism in 1948 brought experimentation to a halt.
Documentary and “cinéma vérité” approaches (allowing the camera to record what actually is) were discouraged as vulgar “naturalism,” and complex narrative structure and visual texture (including the techniques of symbolism and surrealism) were condemned as elitist formalism (Eagle, 1992, p. 176).
In our prior studies of films in international settings, we have encountered works that were produced under other oppressive regimes. Can we understand more now about the artistic means that people have used to give expression to their stories and their anguish?
Socialist realism is a style of art that developed in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in various other socialist countries. Socialist realism is characterized by the glorified depiction of communist values.
Guidelines for identifying a film under “Socialist Realism”:
- Reality is depicted in terms of its “revolutionary development,” i.e., social life is depicted not as it is, but according to official ideology;
- The film must serve the explicit, immediate needs of socialist construction by fostering appropriate attitudes;
- The film must be didactic, clear, and relatively simple;
- The films’ assessment of situations, past or present, must be ultimately optimistic.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (2000). Jane Fonda presents an honorary Oscar® to Andrzej Wajda. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rImCpUzwGx0
Brooke, M. (6 May 2008). Andrzej Wajda – An Introduction. Retrieved from https://michaelbrooke.wordpress.com/andrzej-wajda-an-introduction/
Crowther, B. (1961, May 30). Chaos in Poland: Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds opens. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9D02E0D6153CEE3ABC4850DFB366838A679EDE
Eagle, H. (1982). Andrzej Wajda: Film language and the artist’s truth. Cross Currents, 1, 339-352.
Eagle, H. (1992). Czechoslovak, Polish, and Hungarian cinema under Communism. Cross Currents, 11, 175-192.
Ellis, A. (2012) Socialist realism: Soviet painting 1920–1970. Skira Editore S.P.A.
Klinowski, J., & Garbicz, A. (2012). Feature cinema in the 20th century: Volume two: 1951-1963: a comprehensive guide. London: Planet RGB.
Malcolm, D. (1999, May 5). Andrzej Wajda: Ashes and Diamonds. London: The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/1999/may/06/derekmalcolmscenturyoffilm.derekmalcolm
Martin Scorsese presents masterpieces of Polish cinema. (2015). Kinoteka Polish Film Festival 8 April – 29 May 2015. Retrieved from https://kinoteka.org.uk/martin-scorsese-masterpieces-polish-cinema/
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Sense and nonsense (H. L. Dreyfus & P. A. Dreyfus, Trans.): Northwestern University.
Michalek, B. (1973). The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda: A. S. Barnes.
Medvedev, R. A. (1972). Let us judge: Origins and consequences of Stalinism. London: Macmillan.
Morson, G. S. (1979). Socialist realism and literary theory. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 38(2), 121-133.
Oleszczyk, M. (2012, Oct 13). Ashes are for ever. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/ashes-are-for-ever
Socialist Realism. (2016, Sep 20). Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_realism
Toivola, J. (2012, Apr 13). Some critics have felt that Wajda’s symbolism runs the risk of reducing his films to crude political ‘finger-pointing’. Do you agree? Retrieved from https://jussisportfolio.blogspot.com/2012/04/some-critics-have-felt-that-wajdas.html
Wajda, A. (Director), Andrzejewski, J. (Writer-Novel and Screenplay), Mann, R. (Producer). (1958). Ashes and Diamonds [Motion Picture]. Poland. USA: The Criterion Collection.
Yakir, D. (1984, Nov/Dec). Interview: Andrzej Wajda. Film Comment. New York: Film Society of Lincoln Center. Retrieved from https://www.filmcomment.com/author/dan-yakir/