Art that is “public” participates in, or creates, a political space and is itself a space where we assume political identities.
— Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions — Art and Spatial Politics, 1996
The comedy The Mariensztat Adventure (Przygoda na Mariensztacie, 1953) is certainly not one of Leonard Buczkowski’s greatest achievements; if it weren’t the first Polish color film it might well have been forgotten in the history of Polish cinematography. Nevertheless, ever since I first saw it on TV Puls↓ 1 some years ago, this movie has been my favorite Polish film. Considering the fact that all the post-socialist democracies treat the multi-party political space as a forum in which men conduct business and exchange political opinions (for example about women), The Mariensztat Adventure presents a rather disturbing picture. The film depicts women as as neither mothers nor whores — a vision of femininity that is unimaginable in post-Socialist cinema, and one which many contemporary male viewers who enjoy the privileges that have accompanied the “building of capitalism” might find quite nightmarish.
The Mariensztat Adventure includes a memorable sequence in which two male workers, who are generally nice and simple-minded guys, decide go to the director of the firm to complain about some irregularities caused by their co-workers from the women’s brigade. The men go out to the street and find that the traffic is as busy as in, say, New York (quite incongruous for Poland of the early 1950s!); it turns out that the city has been taken over by various women’s brigades. Not only that, but the officer in charge of the traffic is also a woman — and so is the tram driver. The main characters notice that the other men in the street seem to regard this whole situation as normal. When they reach the firm’s head office, they first encounter the director’s secretary (and here they are of course not surprised — under Communism, like in capitalism, this post was considered female). When, waiting for the boss in the director’s office, they again encounter a woman, they are genuinely shocked to discover that she is not just an assistant — she is the director herself.
This alarming sequence in which men suddenly become aware that women are everywhere was produced in a period when life in Poland (and elsewhere in Soviet bloc) had become, as Stalin put it, “jollier”. In stating this, he did not, however, have comedy or musicals in mind; these were not favored genres during the era of Stalinization. Upon Stalin’s death, musical comedy was virtually banned in the Soviet Union as well as in its satellite countries. Communism, as is well known, took itself rather seriously, and during the Cold War, for comrades in Mosfilm and their counterparts in Sofia, Bucharest or Warsaw, Communism was not a laughing matter. Through the “light” genre of comedy with elements of a musical, Buczkowski (who is, by the way, praised for his serious films) approached one of the primary and earnest aspects of the “new” Polish society — the equality of men and women — treating many of the acute problems associated with its implementation in an entertaining and humorous way. Even so, his film fulfilled its educational role, as seriously “engineered” films of this period were supposed to do.
I do not know if Stalin’s death in March 1953 had any impact on the release of this film; nor do I know whether this movie (which is not bluntly subversive but which includes a nice subversive scene ridiculing the Zhdanovian “theory of reflection”) was considered an early sign of the “thaw” in Polish cinematic culture. In any case, being partly a musical film, The Mariensztat Adventure sidesteps Mosfilm-type romance, which usually involved patriotic sacrifice and worship of the ethos of manual labor; it is a love story with a Hollywood-style happy ending, except that here the girl meets, loses and finally wins the boy. The love story is sub-text; the text is “the building of Socialism” and collective happiness, which, film teaches us, is attainable only if men and women work together. And, as is typical in Soviet films, happiness is achieved through physical work.↓ 2
The Mariensztat Adventure is a fine archeological example of Socialist Idealist cinema, but it differs from many other productions of this period in the way it constructs post-1945 Polish reality. In contract to many other Socialist Realist films made all over Eastern Europe, which, along with the visual arts, deal primarily with the construction of the New Man,↓ 3 The Mariensztat Adventure depicts another side of the ideological surroundings: the construction of the New Polish Woman. The main female character is Hanka Ruczaj
(played by Lidia Kosakówna), a peasant girl who first comes to Warsaw with a folklore troupe (whose members are appropriately dressed in colorful folk costumes). Their brief stay in Warsaw starts with a visit to the city’s historical monuments. Not especially interested in the past, Hanka goes off on her own and tries to discover the Warsaw of today — and what she finds is a city undergoing complete reconstruction (following its devastation during the war, which is presented in a short sequence at the beginning of the film). In addition to this discovery, she also meets Janek. She soon decides to move to Warsaw, and after the necessary training she becomes a member of a women’s bricklaying brigade. The film thus signals two modes of women’s emancipation in Poland, which were also the forms of “new femininity” that were most needed all over the Eastern bloc, including Yugoslavia (a country that evaded Stalin’s control in 1948). The first is the transformation of a country girl who joins the working class: a shift from the rural to urban and it also implied a breaking of the traditional bond between a woman’s body and Mother Earth.↓ 4 The other mode of emancipation lies in a woman becoming a construction worker — a job traditionally held by men, not only before but also during the Communist era.
The fact that Hanka leaves her village in favor of the city is significant for at least two reasons. Firstly, the film reflects an urgent social need: the rapid industrialization to which all Socialist counties, including Poland, were exposed after 1945. Secondly, since she leaves her village behind, the film can avoid reflecting some truly serious problems that the Polish authorities were having at that time in the rural areas. The film premiered in Poland in January 1954, which means its production took place during the preceding year or two — i.e. in the middle years of the Six-Year Plan, launched in Poland in 1950. The Six-Year Plan introduced a Soviet-style centralized economic model and implemented the collectivization of agriculture, which the Polish peasantry strongly objected to. Instead of depicting this troublesome reality, the film focuses on women who lead urban lives as constructors of the “new society”.↓ 5
For many men — including some Polish Workers Party members — the metamorphosis of women was truly new. The film points out the “gender problems” that arose in the newly restructured society by treating men of the “old school” (represented by our two workers) with benevolent humor: Even though they initially lack the state-promoted “gender consciousness”, they are later able to alter their prejudices and, finally, accept the change. As far as the women’s brigade is concerned, it seems that freshly emancipated girls had a dual task: As bricklayers, they were “building Socialism” along with the men, and even smiling as they did it; ↓ 6at the same time, they had the job of emancipating the emancipator. In contrast to real life, in the film this proved to be possible.
The Mariensztat Adventure, especially the sequence in which the city is conquered by the New Polish Women, seems to be restaged in Fellini’s City of Women (1979), except that the former is not a misogynistic film and the latter is. Lest this observation should seem to reek of nostalgia for Communist times, I hasten to note that although Socialist Realism did not allow any misogyny, it did not tolerate feminism either. In the sixty-year history of state Socialism, from Lenin to Gorbachev, from Beirut to Jeruzelski, feminism has always been considered an import from the capitalist West: It was there that working women had to fight for their rights, and when doing so, were sometimes accused of being leftist (i.e. Communist). This view is reflected in one of Jenny Holzer’s declarations, issued in 1988, at the last stage of Cold War: “If you had behaved nicely, the Communists wouldn’t exist.” Instead of feminism, women under Socialism had — or rather were given — “our” equality, and we were told daily that in “our” Socialist setting men and women enjoyed equal rights, that they could perform same jobs equally, and receive equal salaries.
Indeed, all the women in The Marensztat Adventures have professions, and although the emphasis is on working-class women — bricklayers, traffic police, tram drivers, etc. — there is also one woman who holds a higher position in the social hierarchy: that of director. In focussing on the working women needed for the patriotic reconstruction of the country, the film bypasses the trope of patriotic motherhood, although this particular female role was crucial not only under Stalinism but also much later. In leaving out mothers, the movie idealizes gender “equality” to the extreme, since it avoids reference to its paradoxical aspect: Regardless of legislated egalitarianism, working women were mothers who worked on two shifts — at home and in the workplace — and sometimes even on three (if they were involved with the Polish Workers’ Party or the women’s organizations launched by it). Prostitutes too are absent from this film; early Socialist Victorianism fit well in Poland, a country that has historically tended to maintain those good old Catholic values, even under Communism. Thus, in this film we do not encounter either Marias or Magdalenas — a lack that will be “corrected” by hundreds of Polish films to come, in which these two types of femininity seem to dominate — and in which, as Polish female film critics claim, both will be treated with overt or covert misogyny.↓ 7
Today The Marensztat Adventure appears to be a propaganda piece “illustrating” Communist ideological goals.↓ 8 The assumption is that a romantic comedy (complete with singing workers!) must have been more appealing to contemporary viewers than many of the serious films advertising the new power of Communism in Poland. But far from being an “illustration” of ideology, visual representations — including feature films — are the very medium where certain ideologies constitute themselves.Ideology is not just something that comes from the outside, from some remote power center that imposes certain values. Socialist culture, which wanted to change the “old world” and to introduce “progress” (such as egalitarianism, for example), preserved many patriarchal values. These old/new values were not fixed beforehand; rather, the mass medium of film is a part of the process of establishing these values.↓ 9 Thus, film (along with other artistic media) constructed the “new Socialist femininity”, and “new Socialist masculinity” as well. Hanka, the peasant girl who became a bricklayer, falls in love with a fellow worker — but not just any fellow worker; the one who has earned the special Socialist title “Hero of Work”.
It is worth noting that most of the scenes in this film take place either outdoors (in the street or squares), in workplaces (the factory offices, construction sites), or in places meant for public use; in all these scenes we see the women using these spaces the same way men do. Can we then conclude that the film represents women as active members of the public sphere? Not really. Despite the film’s progressive images of the new roles for women in society, it is hard (impossible, even) to claim that Communist regimes fully enabled women — or men, for that matter — to take part in the public sphere. Today, when we reconsider the past, we cannot talk about the public sphere in the context of state Socialism and its monistic political scheme, simply because public sphere is a notion belonging to (bourgeois) democracy and civil society.↓ 10
How are we to define the public sphere in general? How we understand the public space in a post-Socialist setting? To whom does the public sphere belong? How is it used, and, more importantly, by whom?
When we use the phrase public sphere, we certainly presume that there exists another, “non-public” sphere. Many authors (not necessarily feminists) who deal with this issue have noted that, historically speaking, the public sphere has been conceived of as menspace, whereas the private sphere has been reserved for women. It was long presumed that women construct their identity “best” at home, where they can perform their prime role: maternity. In other words, women could not take part in the public sphere. Even though women have gained considerable rights since the end of the 19th century, the prime figure of modernity (at least in the Baudelairean/Benjaminean reading) is the flâneur, the man who appropriates the city by seeing and walking; early modernity does not know of flâneuse.
Following the Great War, during which so many women started to perform jobs traditionally reserved for men, many countries introduced voting rights for women; women’s suffrage became widespread after the Second World War. Those countries that had (willy-nilly) practiced even instituted egalitarianism, a progressive and anti-patriarchal act.However, when applied in the “private sphere” (within the family, for example), equality hardly ever worked: In “real life” in the home, it was mainly Socialist working women and working mothers, not Socialist fathers, who operated the washing machines and took the children to kindergarten. Nonetheless, during the “bad old days” under Communism, women gained many freedoms that are today taken for granted. With the advent of democracy in the early 1990s, however, all the newborn post-socialist societies displayed a tendency to try to bring women back to their “proper” place; some even succeeded. Among the very first steps of the freshly established democracy in post-Communist states was an implied control of women’s bodies. Many (if not all) of the politicians in New Europe seemed to know what role is granted to women in a multiparty society.↓ 11 In this process, the Church has had a great deal of influence (not only in Poland, but particularly strongly there). Along with increasing nationalism, the Mother made a big comeback.↓ 12
The redefinition of the public sphere that is of crucial interest today (in Poland or elsewhere) implies a re-conceptualization of the division between the public and the private; this in turn necessarily implies an investigation of the public space as gendered space. In her video Fight (2001),↓ 13 Zuzanna Janin enters a boxing ring and fights with the “Polish symbol of masculinity”: Przemyslaw Saleta. Even though this video may imply a more universal struggle that we all, regardless of gender, have to face in our lives, it also tackles other aspects that are, it seems to me, linked to gender: For one thing, the work rather directly explore the notion of “public masculinity” as opposed to traditionally-conceived “private femininity”; for another, it raises issue of violence in male/female relationships.↓ 14Since 1989, the ex-Communist East has been in the process of redefining the notion of the public sphere, which basically means testing the accessibility and openness of democratic structures themselves.↓ 15In her book Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (1996), Rosalyn Deutsche analyses contemporary “public” art and aesthetic discourses related to it; she detects numerous references to public space and points out: “The art world is taking democracy seriously.”↓ 16 I have long been astonished by the seriousness and persistence of the critical stance that Polish artists of the generation that became publicly visible in the early 1990s take toward the “new” Polish democracy. Many of their works have triggered the kind of political scandals that the country’s “democratic” mass media (both press and television) are constantly stirring up. In this way high art has attracted the attention of a large audience in Poland, a status it probably never had before. As in many (if not all) post-Socialist states, the “new” democracy in Poland has established itself as a “new” patriarchy, which constantly demonstrates its need for a homogenized public space.↓ 17
It is exactly this homogenizing or (as Deutsche has it) “agoraphobia” that is seriously destabilized in works by a great number of Polish artists, both female (for example Zofia Kulik, Katarzina Kozyra or Dorota Nieznalska)↓ 18 and male.↓ 19In doing so, these artists take part in the creation of a public sphere conceived of as a space of conflict and negotiation, as in Deutsche’s view: “Conflict, division, and instability … do not ruin the democratic public sphere; they are the condition of its existence. The threat arises with efforts to supersede conflict, for the public sphere remains democratic only insofar as its exclusions are taken into account and open to contestation.”1