The process of rediscovery, generally involving painful efforts of reconstruction, of lost masterworks of the Silent Era of the cinema is still very much underway.
I am remembering with great pleasure the premiere in January of 1981 at Radio City Music Hall of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” (1927). Karen and I found ourselves by accident sitting next to Susan Sontag (with whom we were mildly acquainted) and Lillian Gish (to whom Sontag introduced us), and we all had a very enjoyable time exchanging witticisms and appreciative observations.
Another major American premiere that we were fortunate enough to present at was that of Andrzej Wajda’s “Pan Tadeusz” (1999), shown at a Polish cultural center in the basement of an old church in the heart of that city’s Polish neighborhood. Polish-language art films were shown there regularly, and that movie theater is the only one I have ever attended whose concession stand featured wine and beer and Polish sausage as well as popcorn.
In it, a family vendetta between two families of old-fashioned Lithuanian nobles turns into a revolt against the occupying
Russians in 1812, just prior to Napoleon’s invasion. Pan Tadeusz is for Poland what Don Quixote is for Spain, simultaneously the supreme achievement of its national literature, and moreover the definitive portrait of its national character. Pan Tadeusz was described by Worcell as “a tombstone laid by the hand of genius upon our Old Poland.”
There was not a dry eye in the auditorium as the background narration solemnly intoned the poem’s famous opening line:
â€œLitwo! Ojczyzno moja! ty jesteÅ› jak zdrowie;
Ile ciÄ™ trzeba ceniÄ‡, ten tylko siÄ™ dowie,
Kto ciÄ™ straciÅ‚.”
Lithuania, my fatherland!, thou
Art like good health; I never knew till now
How precious, till I lost thee.
I had always assumed that the Andrzej Wajda version was the first, and only, attempt ever made to film Pan Tadeusz, but
I recently received some correspondence from the Polish cultural news web-site, Culture.pl, and when I went to investigate the site, I discovered that two attempts had been made to film the novel during the silent era, one of which, directed by Ryszard OrdyÅ„ski was actually completed and released in 1928.
The film was, of course, lost, all copies believed to have been destroyed. But, as the Polish government cultural web-site reports, “in the 1950s… the Polish National Film Archive came into possession of a 40-minute, destroyed fragment of the film, which had an original running time of just under 3 hours. The year 2006 turned out to be crucial â€“ several other incomplete copies of the film surfaced in Wroclaw. After years of re-mastering efforts, the â€œNitrofilmâ€ project team … managed to reconstruct almost 120 minutes of the original picture.”
A gala premiere of the re-release of this spectacular cinematic landmark took place in Warsaw last November 9.
New Horizons review
It will gradually be shown at film festivals world-wide, and will presumably eventually be made available on DVD.