In 1928, Poland celebrated the 10th anniversary of its independence. Audiences were encouraged to celebrate the occasion with Ryszard Ordynski’s adaptation of Adam Mickiewicz’s national book-length poem, Pan Tadeusz. Its story revolves around two noble Polish families in conflict – the Soplicas and the Horeszkas – coming together to form a defensive union against the invading Russians. It also specifically focuses on the return of its title character, who acts as a catalyst for many of the shifting relationships between the story’s main characters.
Ordynsky and fellow screenwriters Ferdynand Goetel and Andrzej Strug, possibly understanding the difficulties of undertaking the task of turning this epic into a cinematic feature, focused on giving their film adaptation a coherent summary of the original work by expressive means rather than by narrative exposition alone. The film’s intertitles, which present passages of verse from the original poem rather than exposition and dialogue, are very indicative of this choice. This means, however, that a certain level of familiarity with Mickiewicz’s poem is needed in order to appreciate the film version. In fact, it was the Polish audiences familiar with the poem who allegedly applauded the choice. Furthermore, according to Michal Pabis-Orszeszyna, who wrote an entry for the film in the 2016 catalogue of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, “the film was also appreciated by critics from high-brow cultural outlets, in part thanks to its many visual references to the 1881 wood engravings by Michal Elwiro Andriolli for a new edition of the epic.”
On the other hand, Sheila Skaff writes on her book The Law of the Looking Glass: Cinema in Poland, 1896-1939, that “despite a great deal of advertising, [Pan Tadeusz] was a commercial and critical failure.” Skeff’s conclusion is quite plausible. Though Pan Tadeusz is a film of tremendous historical relevance. It fits quite comfortably into a category of national films, patriotic, and keen on representing national history in a positive way, taking into consideration the political ideologies and necessities in vogue at its time. In this sense, it is a “worthy” precursor to Socialist Realism. The real negative aspect of the film is that by employing an expressive style that requires the audience to be familiar with the movie, it places itself higher than the audience in an odiously condescending way.
To be sure, Ordynski’s Pan Tadeusz has its fair share of delightful moments. For instance, a sprightly wedding sequence comes to mind. There is also a poetic charm in its aura and rhythm. But in sticking so faithfully to its source material, it feels odiously condescending. While Mickiewicz’s works are well-known in Poland, to assume that the entire movie going audience of the country was as well-educated in such a way would be as naive as assuming that everyone in Italy has always known Dante’s Divine Comedy. In addition, Ordynski’s decision also supports the criticism of cinema as an incomplete and lesser art form, unable to exist independently and without the support of other more “noble” arts, such as literature and theatre. – ★★
PAN TADEUSZ | Poland, 1928 | Drama | Directed by – Ryszard Ordynski / Written by – Ferdynand Goetel, Andrej Strug (based on a poem by Adam Mickiewicz) / Cinematography – Antoni Wawrzyniak / Art direction – Jozef Galewski / Starring – Leon Luszczewski, Stanislaw Knake-Zawadzki, Jan Szymanski, Mariusz Maszynski, Helena Sulimowa, Jerzy Marr, Henryk Rzętkowski, Wojciech Brydziński / Running time: 125 mins.