Regent Street Cinema, London 8 April 2016
(NB Contains spoilers)
The opportunity to watch a film that has remained virtually unseen for almost a century is always a prospect to relish. And that was my reason for being at London’s Regent Street Cinema on the evening of 8 April. The event was the 14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival and the film in question was People With No Tomorrow (Ludzie Bez Jutra) (Dir. Aleksander Hertz, 1921).
Poland’s silent film heritage has been the victim not just of factors common to most other countries, such as popular indifference following the arrival of the talkies or the problems of nitrate film stock disintegration but also to the damage and loss arising from war, occupation and uprising. As a result, even less has survived there than elsewhere. So when an almost complete copy of People With No Tomorrow was discovered in the German Federal Archives by Polish film historians Kamil Stepan and George Maśnickiego it was clearly a cause for celebration. The film was painstakingly restored by the Polish National Film Archive and premiered in Warsaw and Krakow in December last year with a newly commissioned score. This London screening was the first time that the restored print has been seen outside Poland.
On its original release in 1921, People With No Tomorrow attracted considerable notoriety, based as it was on an infamous Polish crime of passion. In 1890s Warsaw, which at that time was under Tsarist Russian occupation, renowned Polish actress Maria Wisnowska was involved in an affair with a Russian officer, Alexander Bartenev (shown right). For reasons which still remain unclear, Bartenev shot and killed Wisnowska. While the film was largely shot in 1919, enduring sensitivities over the actual events meant that it was heavily altered and re-edited to lessen its factual basis and was not eventually released until 1921.
In the film, Warsaw Municipal Theatre director Paul Lenin (Paul Owerllo) is seeking to sign an exciting new young female star. The theatre’s existing star actress Helena Horska (Helena Sulima) seeks the help of Lenin’s daughter (Maria Hryniewicz) to persuade her father not to make the new signing, but to no avail. When the new actress, Lola Wirska (Halina Bruczowna), arrives she immediately has all the men around her besotted, including the director himself and Captain Alfred Runicz ( Jozef Wegrzyn) an army officer who is engaged to the director’s daughter. Soon, Lola is exploiting all those around her for financial gain and to further her career. Horska schemes unsuccessfully to break up the relationship between Runicz and Lola while Runicz himself becomes increasingly agitated at Lola’s relationships with other men. He fights a duel with one of these and is court-martialled but his father and Horska help to get him reinstated (see image, left). Finally, Runicz becomes aware that Lola is playing him for a fool and after a drunken meal he reveals to her that he knows the truth and shoots her dead.
While People With No Tomorrow may, perhaps, not be a classic of the silent era, it is nevertheless a very good film, well directed, largely well acted, with a strong plot and cogent storyline. Much of this is down to director Aleksander Hertz (1879-1928) (photo, right) who was one of the pioneers of Polish cinema as well as a tireless campaigner and activist for Polish independence. In 1909 he helped found the Sphinx film company. Initially involved in importing foreign films, Hertz’s real goal was the production of Polish films. Beginning with short home produced newsreels, dramas and comedies Sphinx soon became Poland’s largest film production company, discovering along the way silent stars such as Pola Negri, Halina Bruczowna and Lya Mara. Hertz produced and/or directed some fifty features before his premature death aged 49. Halina Bruczowna (photo, left) was also excellent in the vamp role (shades of Theda Bara in ‘A Fool There Was (1915)), clearly relishing playing the self-centred star (although the portrayal of her as key villain was probably a significant departure from the actual events the film was based upon). This was to be her last Polish film before she moved to America and then to Europe where she focused largely on a theatrical rather than film career. People With No Tomorrow is the only surviving example of her work on film. Also very good was Helena Sulima as the aging star being displaced by a younger rival (photo right, right hand figure). Some of her asides when she thought she had triumphed over her rival were excellent. She continued to act in films until the outbreak of war in 1939 before being killed in the Warsaw uprising. While Jozef Wegrzyn was one of the most famous dramatic actors in Polish theatre before embarking upon a film career, I did feel his portrayal of Runicz was a weakness, over theatrical (perhaps reflecting his stage training) and unconvincing. Nevertheless, Wegrzyn made a successful transition to talking films and remained involved in acting and stage direction into the 1950s although his later career was blighted by depression and alcoholism following the death of his son in Auschwitz..
The film was also excellent in not being studio bound. There were beautiful scenes of Warsaw streets and parks which added to the realism (although some of the onlookers clearly didn’t realise they were acting as unpaid extras). While there may have been one or two holes in the plot (Lola and Runicz clearly had some past history which was never expanded on and it was never clear how Runicz acquired the letter which revealed Lola’s true thoughts about him) these are probably explained by the fact that the rediscovered and restored version of the film remains incomplete. However, they were relatively minor and did not detract from the overall story.
Two other factors contributed significantly to my enjoyment of this film. Firstly, the restored digital transfer was just stunning. Many of the scenes, particularly the exteriors, looked like they could have been filmed yesterday. It was hard to believe that this film was made almost a century ago so full credit goes to the Polish National Film Archive. Secondly, the live musical accompaniment by composer/musicians Paweł Szamburski, Patryk Zakrocki, and Sebastian Wypych was excellent. I wasn’t too sure to begin with that a clarinet, double bass and violin trio (with a bit of percussion) was going to work and the accompaniment initially had a slightly discordant feel. But as the film went on it began to grow on me and the tango-esq themes worked well. I couldn’t fault the musicianship in any way and by the end I felt that the accompaniment enhanced the film no end.
So, all in all, an evening well spent. Thanks go to the Kinoteka team for bringing this film event to London. It can only be hoped that there will be further opportunities for others to enjoy this rare example of fine Polish silent cinema. A mention also for the recently restored and reopened Regent Street Cinema, my first visit to this fantastic venue, but certainly not my last.