American documentary filmmaker Peter Hutton has been referred to as “one of cinema’s most ardent and poetic portraitists of city and landscape.” Itinerant by nature, Hutton was a merchant seaman before he turned to filmmaking, becoming known mainly for his short silent cinematic portraits and for his work as the cinematographer on the PBS documentary Thomas Jefferson directed by his former student Ken Burns.
The perfect emotional tenor with which Hutton imbues his images of a particular location is hard to appreciate until a person becomes familiar with not only the the location’s everyday visuals but also its psychogeography. Łódź is not only the third largest city in Poland but also home to the Leon Schiller National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre, the nation’s top film school. So it is altogether apropos that Hutton brought his poetic eye to the industrial city located in the geographic dead center of Poland. For Hutton, Łódź serves as the symbolic heart of a country that arguably experienced more trauma than any other in the 20th century.
Nearly six million Poles were killed in World War II. That number accounted for more than a staggering 16% of Poland’s population at the time. Very often, when the Holocaust is mentioned, the victims are described primarily as Jewish. While this is true, such statements gloss over the fact that three million of the Jews killed also happened to be Polish nationals who were an integral part of the country. Poland is a nation that justifiably still wears its collective trauma and grief on its sleeves. The sadness is etched into the landscape of its collective consciousness.
Paradoxically enough, much of Polish cinema has not dealt directly with the horrific trauma. As with individual human beings, the usual coping mechanism dictates that nations also deal with such horrific pain in an oblique fashion. Polish directors of significance who stayed and worked primarily in Poland often appropriated surrealism, as evidenced by the works of Wojciech Has, Andrzez Zulawski and Grezegorz Krolikiewicz among others. Others like Andrzej Munk and Andrzej Wajda, while delving in historico-political films, usually focused on the heroic struggle rather than the sorrow and the pity. Ironically, it was their Western Slavic brethren Czechs and the Slovaks–who suffered much less in comparison–that ended up making well-received and well-known films about the horrors of World War II.
Then perhaps it behooves someone who has not been victimized by the trauma–who stands outside of the culture yet is able to see it–to document it. And Peter Hutton, the eminent chronicler of how the landscape and the human psyche are intertwined, portrays the city as its daily denizens would see it. The streets filled with worn buildings with cracked walls that will never be repaired. The ubiquitous trams that run often but somehow seem so lonesome. The chimney stacks that emit a perpetual shade of mournful grey over the skies. The abandoned cemeteries with overgrown shrubs that need not say a word to attest to Poland’s indelible scars.
As is the case in most of Hutton’s films, the camera stays stationary, letting whatever movement there is within the selected frame to speak for itself. However, there is one startling scene in which the camera moves and provides a close-up . It pans across the faces of several Polish men of varying generations. Much like the famous eye blink in Chris Marker’s La Jetée, the scene has a profound impact on the viewer. Yet it also reinforces the rest of the film’s tone. Even beneath the ostensibly smiling visages of the men, a sense of unmistakable melancholy broods. Still, Hutton understands that all of this underscores the defining resiliency that saw Poland through its darker times. The final shot of the film shows a barely lit interior and then a glimmer of sun is carried by the wind, blowing a bright white curtain into the framed darkness. Perhaps, Hutton was being prescient back in 1993 as Poland now stands tall as the most socioeconomically successful country from the old Soviet Bloc. A symphony it is, this Peter Hutton film. A meticulously composed cinematic love song dedicated to the collective pains of a country that fought the valiant fight and paid dearly for it.