Sheila Skaff, “The Law of the Looking Glass” (Book Review)

The Law of the Looking Glass. Cinema in Poland, 1896–1939. Sheila Skaff. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008. 245 pp.

The intriguing title of Sheila Skaff’s survey of history of cinema in Poland before World War II is taken from a book written by an eye-witness, the critic and film theoretician Karol Irzykowski: “For only half of the world is ruled by the principle of action; the other half is subject to the laws of reflection.”(Karol Irzykowski, Dziesiąta muza: Zagadnienia estetyczne kina (Warsaw: Filmowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1957), 51. Skaff, Shelia, trans.) Irzykowski’s understanding of cinema as a visual medium that both reflects and distorts reality, without forcing the audience to interact with it, remains an overarching metaphor throughout Skaff’s work. While this is definitely a very good choice in terms of popularizing Irzykowski’s original and unfortunately little-known theory (his book still needs to be translated into English), it does not always seem relevant to what is in the first place a meticulous historical study.

Skaff examines cinema in Poland from the late 19th century, a period that saw the projection of motion pictures in Poland; the development of early domestic film productions; the establishment of the first movie theaters, and the emergence of the film industry.  It also covers the passage from early efforts to create a national Polish cinema to the distribution of foreign films in Poland; Polish silent films in the 1920s; and the transition to “talkies” in the 1930s. The book is full of information on this historical process but it is more sketchy when it comes to the interpretation of specific movies.

Skaff keeps in mind the diversity of factors which shaped the early history of cinema and consequently reexamines the political, social, and economic situation in partitioned and then independent Poland, along with the changing functions of film and its audience’s expectations. To give just a few examples, she discusses the consequences of tax regulations as insightfully and knowledgeably as she describes the impact of censorship; cinema’s relation to broader cultural movements such as Futurism, and the effects which Hitler’s rise to power had on the distribution of German movies in Poland in the 1930s. Skaff approaches cinema as an industry, a new art form, a medium creating the national identity and a mirror of social change.

But such a broad scope in a relatively short study (the body of the book is 187 pages) would require choosing one guiding thread less intangible than Irzykowski’s appealing metaphor, a main topic which would help the author select and present the material in a more consistent manner. Instead the book only seems to exhaust its subject while in fact it omits a lot of historical data, as well as creating a discrepancy between the author’s archival research and her book’s theoretical ambitions. Her critical and aesthetical analysis is also sketchy at times. For instance, it would be worthwhile to include in such a study a separate section on specialized film magazines published between 1896 and 1939. Instead, Skaff discusses them only in the context of the transition from silent to sound film, emphasizing the role of the contemporary press in this difficult process. Generally speaking such media appear in the book as a neutral source material rather than as documentary evidence that, if analytically approached, may tell us a lot about the development of early film criticism and its language.

The book by Skaff undoubtedly demonstrates her profound knowledge and understanding of the complexities of Polish history, as well as of the social, political, and cultural transformations which took place in the turbulent time between 1896 and 1939. The introductory chapter can indeed serve as a model for how to write an informative, brief, and yet not oversimplified account of historical events. A key to Skaff’s success in this respect seems to be her decision to look at the described processes from the perspective of their relevance for the cinema. Still, this strength of The Law of the Looking Glass is occasionally lost in the later discussion of specific films; a lot of information provided by Skaff will remain unclear for a reader unfamiliar with Polish culture and some information may even appear unnecessary.

For instance, in Chapter Three, devoted to the national cinema in the first years of independence, Skaff gives several examples of contemporaneous productions such as Nie damy ziemi, skąd nasz ród [We Won’t Give up the Land from Which Our Nation Came] and does not mention that its title is a first verse of a highly popular national song written in the early 20th century, proposed to be the Polish national anthem at the time when the film was made. Similarly, a summary of the plot of Cud nad Wisłą [Miracle on the Vistula], a story of a famous battle with the Bolsheviks in 1920, is not accompanied by information about the fact that this particular way of naming the event – more commonly known as The Battle of Warsaw – was coined by members of the conservative National Democracy party and by political opponents of general Józef Piłsudski in order to diminish his authority. In all these cases footnotes might have been useful, all the more so in that all the cited examples are part of the discussion of Poland’s “national cinema” and contribute to Skaff’s main argument that “film in Poland in the immediate postwar period reflected the general state of the country.” The film titles she mentions do indeed refer to this “general state” and to the social and political tensions of the period. Unfortunately, without any explanation that dimension remains hidden for the uninitiated reader.

The above-indicated weakness of the monograph is, however, of secondary importance. What remains much more disturbing is the lack of a deeper analysis of any of the films. Skaff repeatedly offers only randomly selected and unrepresentative case studies, provides brief synopses of the plots and some information on the production process and reception of a film (usually limiting it to the number of weeks for which it was shown, and sometimes citing an excerpt from a press review). Again, choosing one leading thought would probably have enabled Skaff to discuss them more broadly and yet keep the entire study consistent.

Despite these deficiencies, The Law of the Looking Glass is undoubtedly an important and timely survey of the early history of cinema in Poland, its dissemination, institutions, and public reception. Skaff’s extensive archival research has allowed her to include a lot of unpublished and unknown factual material, thus making the book a good starting point for further investigation of more specific phenomena. The study also offers an interesting insight into Polish culture and society at the turn of the 20th century and during the interwar period, seen through the lens of a medium different from those usually chosen — namely, literature and visual arts.

This perspective is particularly useful in the discussion of Jewish participation in the cultural life of the Polish territories throughout the period. the homogeneity of a Post World War II Polish society often overshadows the ethnic and religious diversity that characterized it before 1939. Sheila Skaff takes this diversity for granted, and rightly so, consequently managing to present it as a natural component of the Polish cultural landscape, even if this component was not always an unproblematic one.