Natalia Brzozowska (1915 - 1988)

The Coal Mine/Kopalnia (1948)

Born and raised in a Polish family in Lithuania, Natalia Brzozowska came as a repatriate to Łódź in 1945. With her, she had her husband Jarosław Brzozowski (1911-1969), a documentary filmmaker and a diploma from a painting course at Vilnius University, which equipped her with a taste in poetic imagery. Both the man and the qualification in arts would later become her biggest filmmaking inspirations, helping her develop a unique style, where formal creativity would become the staple of her factual method.

Brzozowska began her documentary film career in Cracow where she participated in the first film course ever available in the country. In 1946, she completed her first short. Co-directed with Konstanty Gordon (1917-1983), Sport for Everyone/Gimnastyka dla wszystkich consisted of rhythmic edits of brief shots from sports clubs in Łódź, where happy-looking factory workers performed their exercise routines.

Promoting fitness among the working classes, overall the film championed the lines of the ruling Communist elite, who also heavily engaged in media promotion of physical activity among both men and women. Even though Sport for Everyone doesn’t depart from the typical style of early propaganda documentaries, a sharp critic may notice its camera’s particular attention to frame composition and the almost painterly movement of human bodies on the screen that dominates at least some of, if not all, its shots.

Having completed their first short, Brzozowska and Gordon moved in two separate professional directions. While she dedicated her factual film projects to lyrical experiments with sound and image, he specialised in observational shooting techniques mixed with re-enacted scenes that were edited to voice-over narration to praise the achievements of the political regime.

In the wake of socialist realism, Gordon produced The Wide Road/Szeroka droga (1949), a monumental, almost fifty-minute propaganda film on the construction of a motorway in Warsaw. It wasn’t surprising that when in November 1949, the delegates from the Ministry of Culture and the Central Committee of the Communist Party met the filmmakers during the Congress of Filmmakers/Zjazd Filmowców in Wisła to proclaim socialist realism as the only acceptable style of any future Polish film, The Wide Road was their model and an almost perfect example. When Gordon held his head high, Brzozowska struggled to keep her cool, quite rightly suspecting that the Congress could mark the end of her career.

Before 1949, she made four films, developing her own documentary style that relied on a poetic interplay of moving images and sound. Some of her visual inspirations probably came from her husband’s work, whose Wieliczka (1949)— his most successful film from the 1940s and the winner of the first prize for a short educational film in Cannes— contained sequences with chiaroscuro shots, somewhat reminiscent of German Expressionist films.

When optimistic realism was at the top of the government’s agenda, Brzozowska’s films— now praised for their innovative style— appeared too formalist according to some of the Party critics.

Ending with a mining disaster, her then most recent title, The Coal Mine/Kopalnia (1948) was even considered a threat to the development of the Communist society. The documentary, which had already been accepted as an official entry at the 1948 film festival in Venice, was accused of displaying potential dissatisfaction among miners and those who aspired to work in the profession. With its tragic conclusion, the creative experiment—departing from the then-conventionalised norms of representing workers in a positive light in their triumph over natural forces—led to an outburst of Brzozowska’s condemnation at the Congress in Wisła.

Earlier that year, Brzozowska saw her husband arrested by the police under an accusation of spying for the British. Already frightened and in a gesture of desperation, she decided to save face when confronted with unjust accusations. She thus spoke during the Congress in self-critical terms, confessing her anti-socialist sins in line with the Stalinist fashion of ‘samokrytyka’. By 1949, the Soviet obsession with such methods had already swept through the ranks of the Polish Communist Party. However, Brzozowska’s speech fell on dead ears. The Coal Mine was shelved. For exploiting her margin of creative freedom, the director paid a high price. First with an emotional breakdown and then by being suspended from making films.

Although earlier in the 1940s Brzozowska had produced quite a few documentaries that could well serve the Communist propaganda—including, for example, Sport for Everyone and Palaces/Pałace (1946) —she did not make a single new film over the whole following decade. Her only two documentaries completed after the Congress, The Skiers/Narciarze (1958) and Climbing/Na wspinaczce (1958) were both compiled out of footage shot in the Tatra Mountains before 1949.

Brzozowska wasn’t officially banned from working, but in an interview from 1957, having discussed her artistic visions, stylistic preferences and ideas for potential future productions, she concluded: ‘Yes, I have quite extensive plans, yet they are all left hanging in the air. In reality, I don’t have any possibilities to develop my projects’. Depressed and broken, she never returned to directing documentary films.