STACHOWICZ: Memory and generations. On the fragility of youth in new Polish cinema

What we take for the “image of a generation” may very well be a collective fantasy about Polish youth


“Images, fixed on celluloid, stored in archives, and reproduced thousands of times, render the past ever-present. Gradually, but inexorably, these images have begun to supersede memory and experience” – wrote Anton Kaes[i] when memory was taking history by storm and, it seemed that a safe culture of remembering could be woven from its subtle shades. Today the vectors are rapidly turning: History – spelled with a capital H – is on the offensive, and film has been revealing its shortcomings as the medium of memory. In its frantic search for forms of representation – ones that would allow the invisible, excluded, and underrepresented to come out of the shadows – cinema appears to be a visualization that is both elitist and anachronic. On the one hand, the auteur model of cinema favors self-examination while remaining within one’s own cognitive bubble – focusing on one’s individual experience and narrow community. On the other hand, historical super-productions force filmmakers to adopt a decided stance: you either reconstruct (meaning: represent) and surrender to the logic of History or you must satisfy yourself with the status of the author – a psychological animal. Of course, the above diagnosis pertains to the Polish reality, where traditional cinema is required to mean something – it is best if it is a symptomatic, prophetic, or uniting for the community – because its purely artistic or entertaining function is approached with great suspicion. We can expect that in two or three generations, today’s films will become icons of collective memory. They will live their own lives, not in the depths of archives, but as elements of dynamic collective memory – disconnected from their own sources.

What icons will represent the Polish reality of the last seven years? Will the national and Catholic imagery prevail, replacing multithreaded History and memory sensitive to distortion? Or maybe the opposite will happen – maybe we will remember only pictures that maintained independence and potential for critical resistance in “difficult times”? If I were to say what images are distinctive of the crisis-ridden “here and now” in liberal and leftwing media – alongside “democracy in retreat”, economic inequalities, and migration – I would certainly point to “publicist” depictions of youth.

It is youth – defined both through generational community (most often: 25–35 years of age), as well as a certain trans-generational condition characterized by the feeling of loss of stability in life – that is seen as the contemporary crises’ reason, result, and remedy. In its descriptions, it is accompanied with all sorts of “critical” attributes: rightwing populism, racism, xenophobia, symmetrism, lack of involvement, extreme individualism, and a narcissistic devotion to new media. If youth needs intermediaries in order to grasp and explain “how breathtakingly fucked up the world is”[ii] – best if it is done from the safe distance of academia – it also needs its own representations in the traditionally community-building medium that Polish cinema is still considered to be.

When twenty- and thirty-year-olds boldly marked their presence last year at the Gdynia film festival – as filmmakers and subjects of films – some critics, film journalists and cinephiles rather irresponsibly announced the birth of “the cinema of the new generation”. No doubt, the Polish experience of entering into adulthood is seeking an adequate form of expression: it is trying to become more authentic, to grasp something universal not only for young people on the peripheries of Europe but in the global North in general.

New bourgeois cinema

Kamper by Łukasz Grzegorzek takes on emotional immaturity and the crisis of security. In All These Sleepless Nights Michał Marczak follows the fragmented daily lives of urban flâneurs. In The Erlprince Kuba Czekaj (psycho-)analyzes the Polish model of family relations. The new topics are accompanied by new forms of expression – the films are simultaneously sophisticated and frivolous, quite punk, yet unburdened by “big narratives”. They are noticeably distanced from History that attempts to bulldoze over the world of images with copious amounts of religious and patriotic kitsch.

But talk of the “generational” character of cinema leads to unwarranted generalizations. To be “the voice of a generation” means to represent a certain whole, to understand the community of interests and the distinctiveness of experience behind it – and this in turn requires a nuanced, empathic approach. Meanwhile, similarly to how instructing the youth about Deleuze’s theory[iii] is not aware of its own entanglement in the asymmetrical master-student relationship, young cinema is not aware of the position from which it visualizes the allegedly universal reality.

If it were not for the fact that the neologism sounds so sloppy, I would dub this tendency the “Warsawfication” of youth. The world of the big city, attractive for artists from the Avant-garde to the New Wave, regards Poland from a distance, but at the same time constructs an image of social homogeneity. It is like looking from the perspective of a drone, a form of “audiovisual Prozac”[iv], because from high above the line of the Polish “division of the sensible”[v] is not discernable: you cannot tell which “youths” are more visible due to their esthetic attractiveness and which are underrepresented in the dominating practices of visualizing. Such material can give birth to safe icons of collective memory – safe, because they are our own, privileged and untouched by the filth of culture: a makeshiftness, a lack of perspectives, violence, conflict.

We, members of the precariat from the centers where capital is distributed, can easily relate to cinema that shows the urban, big-city fragment of reality and treat it as a mirror in which we see not as much our own reflection as a reflection of the world. As a modernizing society, we seek form, we want someone to diagnose us and determine our place, and we want it to be done outside the frame of martyrological History (which we are already being fed in amounts difficult to stomach by those in power), within everyday banal experience. In this tendency lies the genetic attachment to the ethos of the Polish intelligentsia – the critic and guide of the middle classes. We seek a “voice” that will dispel our doubts and say: “Look, this is what you are”. But – to be fair – we must ask: where is the person offering this guidance standing? From what position are they speaking? And also: why are they doing it? These questions should be asked not because of the politicization of the debate about Polish cinema, but rather due to the elementary principle of economy: to prevent multiplying beings beyond need. Because what we accept as the “image of a generation” might actually be a projection of collective imagination – a fantasy about Polish youth catching up with the fantasies of the elite.

Perhaps the most symptomatic – to remain in the Polish discourse of loftiness and significance – picture that “Warsawfies” youth is Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights. Thanks to employing amateur actors and pseudo-documentary form the director is able to evoke long forgotten pieces of dialogue and images from the collective memory of the urban precariat – I admit, myself included. Marczak brings the camera to the capital’s house parties and clubs, portraying youth as a familiar kaleidoscope of fleeting moments. The uncertainty of the protagonists, Michał Huszcza and Krzysiek Bagiński, is the quintessence of the experience of unlimited choice and overstimulation characteristic of a certain version of youth: ideas, plans, love interests are changed like underwear. We get empty hungover conversations during which the protagonists try – obviously and in vain – to define their own existential situation. We get pointless wandering in the streets of Warsaw, the modernist metaphor of freedom. What we do not get is any trace of social matter – because to lead the life of a romantic flaneur, you need capital: time and money.

Everyone would like to have a safe platform to undertake several tries, to venture repeatedly into the many crossroads of life. To experience, love, test out different models of existence. But it is the feeling of insecurity and not an excess of comfort that is at the root of the common experience of the generation which a decade ago journalists liked to dub as “lost” and which now escapes all labels and seems not to adhere to any rigid form.

Maybe my reluctance towards generalized visions of “the generational”, which very often stem from a privileged perspective, has roots in my own personal experience. I have often felt the painful lack of security and discrimination push me towards the worst possible direction – into the arms of right-wing radicalism. It may be said that where the state withdraws from its functions of protection and care, life becomes – to recall the term coined by Judith Butler – exceptionally fragile[vi]: our physical and mental integrality is threatened, we are becoming increasingly vulnerable and intensively search for a collective distraction that will fill the void left by indolent institutions. I believe that many of the great people I encountered after I moved to the big city share similar experiences of fragility from their early youth spent in various remote corners of Poland far away from the centers of power. I also understand that the easiest remedy to this trauma is to forget – thus getting rid of all that is hurtful, shameful, and ugly. Unfortunately, this means backing away from self-diagnosis and renouncing empathy and solidarity with those who – due to lack of access to different forms of capital – have remained on the fringes of modernist visibility.

In the new “generational cinema” the experience of existential and physical fragility is virtually non-existent, the filmmakers seem to be unwilling to venture outside their own perspective and societal and ideological bubble. Even if in the recent years we saw movies that tried to reflect upon youth ridden with hate and violence – like Kowalczyk’s Playground – the final agenda was typical Polish moralizing: the internet, social media, and video games were blamed for “the savagery of customs”. Another thing we lack in today’s cinema – because post-reportage literature abounds with them – are romantic visions of the margins, characteristic of films like Edi or Hello, Tereska, both of which exoticize poverty, but are at least interested in the Polish peripheries to some extent.

In All These Sleepless Nights, the reality is meticulously cleaned from the contemporary muck of youth: mortgages that bind one’s existence to slaving at a corporation; landlords who can randomly appear at the door and lift the rent; junk contracts and overtime; punishing and judgemental glances, words and gestures; the provincial street and its permanently makeshift state. If Marczak portrays the “average problems” of youth, it is a kind of averageness possible only in the centers of power – where financial and cultural capital meet and reality is more esthetic in a sterile, Western way. In these images, Warsaw – the icon of urban life – becomes the Polish axis of the world: the young are drawn to it because they want to make themselves better and autonomous, and all that remains “outside” – on the fringes of visibility, beyond the esthetic norm – is not reflected in the smooth glass facades of the capital’s skyscrapers. For the part of today’s young generation that does not benefit from the blessings of material and moral modernization, the dilemmas of the free spirits populating Polish film culture must seem distant, like fantasies about Olympic deities. And at the same time – they stir up a mixture of frustration and fascination that is just a step away from dangerous resentment.

In the future the absence of social realism in our young cinema may damn us to a bipolar cultural memory: on the one hand, the memories of a “Warsawfied” elite and on the other hand, History told by national victors unaware of the costs of their own victory. Some separate entities will wiggle between these extreme poles: Wojtek Smarzowski’s project of visualizing the history of the “bloodlands” or Małgorzata Szumowska’s artistic psychodramas. However, none of them give insight into the reality ridden with crises – of democracy, of security, of the free market – in the way that the cinema of moral anxiety gave insight into the decadent late People’s Republic of Poland, for example. We still need a kind of cinema that will collect the diverse fragmented experiences and bring them together with one common denominator – showing the many shades of Poland’s entrance into modernity but also bringing a broader perspective out of all these differences. Such cinema should also portray that which is excluded, unwanted or embarrassing: the pain of instability, the sense of defeat, the loss of security – the fragility diagnosed by Butler, which we increasingly often experience in our part of Europe and which for many has been the stuff of everyday life for almost three decades. Just as nuanced memory yields before History, “generational cinema” remains a concept that is unconstructed and unconsumed – it exists only in the sphere of ideas and designs. And maybe – like many utopian ideas – it will never leave this sphere.

Marcin Stachowicz (1989) – writer and film critic. He graduated from psychology and cultural studies and is a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Polish Culture at the University of Warsaw, where he is preparing a dissertation on the images of poverty and the category of shame in Polish visual culture after 1989. He is the winner of the third edition of the “Powiększenie” competition for film critics. Michał Stachowicz writes for the website Filmweb and the magazine Laboratorium Więzi. His articles have been published in Res Publica Nowa, Kultura Liberalna, mała kultura współczesna, Więzi and online at gazeta.pl.

Translated by Aleksandra Małecka

The article was first published in “Res Publica Nowa” nr 3/2017 and translated into English with support from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education’s research dissemination funds (contract no. 692/P-DUN/217).


[i]           Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film, Harvard University Press 1989, p. IX.

[ii]           Stanisław Skarżyński, “Magazyn ‘Osiem dziewięć’ to młoda twarz ‘Wyborczej’. Tego jeszcze nie było”, Gazeta Wyborcza, June 2, 2017. [accessed July 15, 2017] Online: http://wyborcza.pl/magazyn/7,124059,21905188,magazyn-osiem-dziewiec-tego-jeszcze-nie-bylo.html.

[iii]          I am referring to the editorial that opened the new supplement to the Gazeta Wyborcza daily targeted at “the young generation”, which I quote in the footnote above. In this text we find a surprising (given the target group and aim of the magazine) paragraph: “Deleuze once figured out that »object = x«. He described this idea as follows: »The whole structure is driven by this originary Third, but that also fails to coincide with its own origin. Distributing the differences through the entire structure, making the differential relations very with its displacements, the object = x constitutes the diffenciating element of difference itself«, in: Stanisław Skarżyński, Ibid.

[iv]          “Watching clips of Poland filmed from drones we see the black lines of highways and roads, the stately skyscrapers of Warsaw, beautifully lit monuments. The sky is always blue, the grass is lush green, and the fields are golden with ripe crops. You see only the positives and zero negatives. This idyllic image is false. It is a kind of audiovisual Prozac”, see: Rafał Gdak, “Audiowizualny prozak, czyli o prawdziwej i nieprawdziwej Polsce”, Nowy Obywatel, September 13, 2016 [accessed: July 15, 2017]. Online: https://nowyobywatel.pl/2016/09/13/audiowizualny-prozak-czyli-o-prawdziwej-i-nieprawdziwej-polsce/.

[v]           See Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality, Duke University Press Books 2011.

[vi]          See Judith Butler, Notes toward a performative theory of assembly, Harvard University Press 2018.

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