Personal Search

Here is a discussion of an undeservedly obscure Polish film, Rewizja Osobista / Personal Search, 1972. It was commissioned by the Bureau of Loose Associations / Piktogram.

‘Personal Search’ tells the story of the arrival of a group of Polish travellers – a mother and son accompanied by a cousin bearing a strong resemblance to Brigitte Bardot – at a customs office on a border post between Poland and, strangely, Switzerland. Driving a FIAT sports car, these travellers have come from the West accompanied by a cornucopia of consumer goods – luxury foods, chic clothes and glittering trinkets. To cross the border into a world where such minor luxuries are in short supply, they have to strip these things of their exchange values: in other words, they have to turn commodities into personal possessions. So they divest the products of their glossy packaging and scuff them to give them a patina of use before packing them into their car. The opening titles roll over a bonfire of discarded consumer packaging.

But their labours are insufficient: the customs officer and his young colleague suspect the returnees of smuggling. The film then turns into a psychological drama; a tense battle between officialdom and the prosperous travellers fought with flirtation, hollow flattery, veiled threats and bribes. In an inflationary cycle which starts with a plastic cigarette lighter and culminates in the sexual ‘gift’ of her niece to the younger guard, the woman seeks to avoid the scandal that would follow from the ‘Personal Search’. This cycle is only brought to an end by the arrival of her high-ranking husband in his official car. From then, the film moves towards its dramatic climax.

The film’s most striking cinematic innovation takes the form of television advertisements which intrude unexpectedly into the narrative. When the young customs official opens the boot of the car, the screen fills with a French advertisement for ‘invisible’ ‘huit’ brassiere filmed on a Mediterranean beach. The footage is apparently an answer to his question ‘What is this?’, asked when he fingers the packages of underwear which fill her suitcase. Later, a bottle of Cointreau, the French aperitif shared by the customs officials and their unwilling guests, becomes the magic elixir at the heart of a 30-second commercial from French television filmed in the style of a James Bond movie. In this way, the tense chess match between the officials and the tourists is broken – momentarily – by the clichéd suspense provided by this mini-espionage drama.

These are hardly conventional uses of montage, particularly in the context of socialist Poland. In his classic conceptualization, Sergei Eisenstein in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s had argued that montage was ‘dialectical’, capable of marking the clash between the forces of progress and reaction shaping the world. Witold Leszczyński and Andrzej Kostenko’s movie has, perhaps, a closer kinship with Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘collage’ films like ‘2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle’ (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967) and ‘La Chinoise’ (The Chinese Woman, 1967) than the works of the Soviet avant-garde. Comic-strip frames, historical documents as well as print advertisements puncture the flow of the narrative in these films by the French director. Such combinations are not dialectical. They produce collage effects which bring together different orders of representation. At the same time, tracking shots and the carefully framed and static compositions by Godard’s cinematographer Raoul Coutard stress the graphic appearance of the film image. As Jacques Rancière notes, in Godard’s film the continuum of ‘image-meaning’ is transformed ‘into a series of fragments, postcards, lessons’. The overall effect of these devices is to disrupt the depth and realism on which cinema conventionally depends.

Something similar occurs in ‘Personal Search’. Not only do the French advertisements disrupt the train of events at the border crossing, but the film itself recreates the aesthetics of commodity culture: Włodzimierz Nahorny’s jazz soundtrack provides a lush accompaniment to the cinematography which, itself, reproduces many of the clichés of advertising. Early on in the film, a long tracking shot follows the young woman through the countryside at dawn to bathe au naturelle. Suddenly, this Eve catches the glance of the camera/viewer in the mirror she is using to perform her ritual. In another shot, the juice of a freshly-peeled orange is dripped on to her lips whilst she sleeps. Conflating sexual and consumer desire, both scenes could have been taken from a primer on advertising written by Madison Avenue psychoanalyst in the 1960s. But, of course, they were not. These scenes were filmed in the People’s Republic of Poland, a country which had declared its commitment to the liberation of its citizens from alienation.

The seductive but hollow French advertisements and the vigilant operations of a customs post guarding the entrance to the socialist world should, according to the official creed of Marxist-Leninism, articulate the sharp differences between West and East. But Poland in the 1970s was a strange country where the surreal compound of ‘socialist consumerism’ thrived. First Party Secretary Edward Gierek had come to power following rioting over shortages and price hikes in 1970, promising to satisfy the pent-up consumer needs of ordinary Poles. Gierek was more than a hard-headed pragmatist: in 1972 he announced the construction of a ‘Second Poland’ (Druga Polska), a spectacular programme of industrial expansion, grand urban projects and modernization. Poland mortgaged itself to the West in the expectation that it would become an industrial powerhouse selling its products around the world. Society would reap the benefits of this virtuous circle. A new set of government agencies with characteristically high-tech acronyms were established to manage the trade with the West: Agromet dealt with agricultural machinery; Pol-mot with automobiles, and Locum with housing and furniture.

In his hubristic slogan, ‘Second Poland’, Gierek promised a doubling of output, a doubling of wealth and a doubling of social services. The reality was, of course, somewhat different: Poland sucked in imports of Western consumer goods and found few international markets for its brakorobstwo (shoddy products). The label ‘Second Poland’ pointed – inadvertently – to the phantasmagoric aspect of a ‘new’ Poland made in the image of Western modernity. In its pursuit of growth, the People’s Republic was to become a double, a simulacrum of countries the West.

‘Personal Search’ – made at the time when Gierek was formulating his ambitious vision for Poland – seems to anticipate this emerging programme of simulation. In a moment of filmic tension, the car which has delivered the trio to Poland attracts the attention of the eagle-eyed customs officer. It is a new, ‘bahama’ yellow FIAT ‘mille cinquecento’ (And the camera, like his eye, lingers over the car’s glittering marques). It seems that the trio are attempting to import a new foreign car, an illegal act. The nature of this offence is, however, rendered ambiguous by the official love affair with FIAT conducted the communist authorities in Eastern Europe. In 1965 the Polish government – like the Kremlin one-year earlier – had signed the first of a series of deals with the Italian car manufacturer to make copies of its products under license in Warsaw. Gierek accelerated the policy by establishing new factories in Tychy and Bielsko-Biała to manufacture FIAT’s cars in large numbers. Owning a FIAT was not only a legitimate ideal in the Second Poland: it was a ‘socialist achievement’.

Leszczyński and Kostenko expose the festering paradox of Poland’s embrace of Western technology and consumerism. Why would the state prohibit the import of a car which was soon to be readily available? Did the presence of the ‘original’ reveal the inadequacy of its Polish doppelganger? This sense of the car’s place in a double world was sustained by the persistent rumors that FIAT’s eastern products were made with low-grade steel reclaimed from Soviet ships and were thus prone to excessive rust. In other words, the suspicion was that these cars were ersatz products. Other international products of capitalism – including Coco-Cola and Holiday Inn hotels – were polonised in this way. At the same time, ‘local’ products joined an international ‘brandscape’ which took its cues from the West: a man could dab on Konsul woda kolonska (‘Consul’ eau de cologne) whilst a woman might apply ‘Być Może’ (‘Perhaps’) perfume with the fictional legend ‘Paris’ on the label. In an environment filled by ersatz consumer goods and services, what guarantee was there that Polish socialism was not ersatz too?  Gone were the last aspirations of social justice, replaced by the centralised corruption of Gierek’s regime. Gone were the ideals of building socialism, replaced by the selfish interests of a ‘red bourgeoisie’. (And when of high-ranking husband arrives in his chauffeur-driven car to negotiate the ‘release’ of his wife, Leszczyński and Kostenko treat the viewer to an object-lesson in cronyism).

The idea that life in Eastern Europe was experienced as irreality and, conversely, that the West was somehow more real was a powerful theme in dissident analyses of Poland. If life under Moscow’s rule was filled with dissimulation and hollow promises, surely the converse was true in the West. ‘Personal Search’ seems to resist this conclusion. If Gierek’s Poland is portrayed as a locus of inauthenticity, life in the West is not made to seem any more real. After all, it largely figures in the film in the form of advertisements. And Krysia, the Bardot lookalike who clearly embodies the West, is the most alienated figure: mechanical in her movements, she seems prepared to prostitute herself for things. East and West, it seems, are equally mesmerised by hollow consumerism. This is a striking conclusion in the film; one which perhaps draws it close to New Left critiques of the convergence of the Eastern Bloc and the West in the period. In Godard’s ‘La Chinoise’, for instance, one of the would-be student radicals reads a Maoist speech which accuses Soviet Bloc states of being enthralled by Western lifestyles: ‘socialism falls into the rightwing trap which is the Stalinism of capitalistic abundance, an apology for power, for luxury.’ Perhaps Leszczyński and Kostenko’s achievement is to have made this point with far greater ingenuity.

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