Mind Games: On Marek Piwowski’s Psychodrama
A few weeks ago, during the first weekend of June, a handful of films screened at the Museum of the Moving Image in a program called, “Indelible Portraits: Polish Hybrid Nonfiction.” Presented in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute New York, Ela Bittencourt — a critic, curator, and my editor at Kinoscope — programmed the series. While I couldn’t attend all of the screenings, I managed to see the pair of shorts programs. One was entitled “Psychodramas” and the other “Living on the Edge.” The former featured works in which the psyche is a rich narrative terrain; the latter, works that concentrate on the body and its limits. The first film I saw was the first program’s namesake, Marek Piwowski’s Psychodrama (1969). The intensity of its subject matter coupled with the filmmaker’s probing approach left a deep impact, one that overshadowed anything that I subsequently watched that afternoon.
When Piwowski’s films are discussed in criticism, when they are even talked about at all, Psychodrama is never the first to be mentioned. That’s because it doesn’t seem to fit in an oeuvre that is itself slippery. His films, particularly his early works, are irony-laced short documentaries highlighting what Ewa Mazierska observes, borrowing a phrase from Theodor Adorno, Poland’s “culture industry.” Hair (1972), a kind of decaffeinated Guy Maddin film, depicts an official hairdressing competition. Success (1969) is a revealing portrait of pop star Czesław Niemen who, despite his espoused artistic beliefs, comes off as a vain, egotistical man hungry for fame. Piwowski’s first feature-length and strictly fictional film, The Cruise (1970) is considered a cult classic in Poland. A satire on communist Poland, and set mainly on a dingy ship, The Cruise resembles the works of Jacques Tati, Jean Vigo, and early Miloš Forman. Flowing freely amid clumps of people on the ship, Piwowski shoots The Cruise like a collage of home movies.
Amid these impish works comes Psychodrama. It’s unlike Piwowski’s other films because it’s not funny. It’s anything, but that. There are two interconnecting parts to Psychodrama; the short alternates between girls staging Cinderella in a juvenile detention center and snippets in which these same girls are engaged in conversations with a therapist, psychiatrist, or some official off-screen who asks them to finish his sentences. The shots of the kids performing the folk tale are in shots that are bright, that are often in slow motion, and scored to a tinkling music box. These shots contrast with the conversations, which are just extreme close-ups of faces engulfed in darkness. The camera repositions itself, zooming in or out seemingly every other second, ever ready to scour the childrens’ faces for meaning.
A handful of children talk about themselves before the camera. In these psychic exercises, there are girls with eyes that see nothing, and there are girls with an easygoing mask. Despite their differences, they all seem to have wound up in juvenile detention because of domestic abuse. The film is tragedy after tragedy as you hear their replies and watch their behavior. A girl says she cries when reading fairy tales. Another, a smiling and cheery thief, instantly becomes sad when the male voice begins a question with “It hurts me…” “You were supposed to ask happy questions,” another says. Eventually, a dad and a mom of separate children are interviewed, and come off as bitter, spiteful, hateful — all negative. “I am most scared of…” the voice says, inevitably beginning one of his stock sentences. “Venereal disease,” a girl says. Cut to black and the film ends. Expertly manipulative in its crosscutting, Psychodrama is a film of broken hearts that come from broken homes.