Personal Cinema: Józef Robakowski’s Cinematic Works

By Patricia Grzonka

nearer-further-jozef-robakowski-2.jpgNearer – Further, 1985

Józef Robakowski is one of the most famous Polish artists and filmmakers associated with the neo-avant-garde movement of the 1960s and 1970s. As founder and initiator of various independent film groups and art associations, Robakowski was extremely active in developing a strong independent film scene in Poland. His works are characterized by a marked tendency to transgress various genres and media. Robakowski has been and continues to be reviewed in a fine arts context, as well as within the classical film genre (film festivals and program cinema). His multifarious use of diverse media – photography, video, film, paper works, mechanical picture production, Expanded Cinema, TV broadcast, installation, performance, etc. – contains, on the one hand, a meta-discourse about the guidelines of "reality", and on the other, a subjective perspective, which is included as "pure" reality appropriation in his (short) films. Robakowski has also contributed to this discourse in various theoretical texts.  

Józef Robakowski was born in Poznán in 1939. He studied art history at Copernikus University in Torun and later attended the state film school in Łódź. In the 1960s, he began working as a photographer and filmmaker (35mm and 16mm formats) and was among the first generation of Polish artists to work with video. From 1974, he created his own video productions, which were also mainly short and very short films. Robakowski was co-founder of well-known avant-garde artist groups such as Zero-61 and Film Form Workshop. From the start, his cinematic works were influenced by a confrontation with Constructivism in the Polish pre-war avant-garde 1920s and 1930s, and were centered on rationalism, material experiment, and economy of expression. In the 1970s, also conceptual tendencies in which the structure of the film medium (but also photography and others) and its analysis were at the forefront supplemented these art-historical approaches on which Robakowski's artistic production are based. The required freedom from illusionism, the proclamation of independence from the art form, and the liberation from aesthetic conventions with no concessions to public taste, represented a concept of artistic autonomy that had close ties to avant-garde art's social mission. Robakowski's formally autonomous works also led to accusations that the artist was apolitical; today, however, it is precisely the concrete aesthetics of works such as From My Window that reveal a reflection of the individual's relationship to society, thus contributing to a better understanding of the political realm.  

"PERSONAL CINEMA is made when everything goes wrong. By its very existence, it is already a fact, although it needn't relate at all to the facts of life. This doesn't mean that it deals with the recording of nature, since nature itself is embodied in its sense of existence. Thus it possesses all the possibilities of cinema as such, while being a PERSONAL CINEMA – that is to say, a direct projection of the film-maker's thoughts. Having freed itself from fashions and aesthetic rules, as well as from established language codes, it comes closer to the film-maker's own life. One can say that it becomes his love and his passion, yet at the same time, very often, his distorted reflection. Let's film EVERYTHING and it will turn out that we are forever only on the screen[...]."[1]

about-my-fingers-jozef-robakowski.jpgAbout My Fingers, 1982

The subjectivism that Józef Robakowski describes here belongs to his "personal cinema." What Robakowski calls "my very own cinema" or "personal cinema" are a series of works that arose throughout the years on various occasions, including From My Window (1978-2000), Transmission from Moscow (1982), and About My Fingers (1982). The five-minute film About My Fingers tells of a hand and its fingers, which, although identical with those of the author (they have their birthday on the same day, for example), at the same time have their own autonomous biography. On a black underground and against a black background, one sees a hand, a voice from the off introduces the individual fingers one by one and describes their functions and personal characteristics and experiences (for example, the thumb's injury) in reference to the other fingers, but also in reference to outside society. At the time of this video, martial law reigned in Poland: Robakowski was expelled from the film school where he was teaching and thus had no chance to show his works. On the one hand, About My Fingers can be interpreted as a metaphorical short film on the political situation at the time, as a manifest of retreat during an era of exclusion from public life. On the other, however, against the backdrop of Robakowski's œuvre, the film also seems to be a documentation of self-observation, a "personal video", that shows the author's rather private and subjective approach and therefore can be considered equally as a statement of a consciously apolitical attitude, peaking in the maxim: do not take up any current positions or confront current themes. This was, instead, undermined through a personal form of parody and absurd play. Such confrontations do not go unnoticed in the former debate about "the two avant-gardes"[2], vying for the "correct" position in international avant-garde film. Discussed here were the adequate means for an effective ideology critique, culminating in the question of whether it is at all possible to achieve political "content" through structural analyses.  

Józef Robakowski consciously withdrew from the "embarrassment" of political commentary – similar to his fellow (one generation older) countryman Witold Gombrowicz, whose publications can be found on the bookcase in Robakowski's apartment, as Ryszard Kluszczyński revealed in his essay on the artist's "identity."[3] Gombrowicz was the first modern Polish author to fight an unprecedented, lonely battle (from Argentine exile) against literary assimilation, imitation, and the interpretation of style as sufficient, thereby elevating human artificiality and the relationship to "form" as such to his central element, which incidentally led to an uncompromisingly subjective attitude. Thus, the famous beginning of Gombrowicz's diary reads: "Monday – Me. Tuesday – Me. Wednesday – Me. Thursday – Me."[4]

Robakowski's text in the film From My Window begins in an accordingly subjective / personal way by stating: "My name is Józef Robakowski. I live in a big apartment building on Mickiewicz- Straße 19 on the nineteenth floor. Our building has no fewer than twenty floors [...] it is amazing [...] located directly in the center of Łódź. [...] We proudly call this entire complex of skyscrapers, Łódźer Manhattan. In 1978 I began to film a big, concrete square that spreads out in front of my window. It will be the hero of this film [...] together with its events and my neighbor, whom I like to observe when I look out my window from time to time with the camera."

from-my-window-jozef-robakowski-2.jpegFrom My Window, 1978-2000 

The film (originally shot in 16mm) satirizes the voyeuristic style of famous Hollywood films such as Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, with the wheelchair-bound protagonist whose paranoid world-view is, however, not shared by the narrator in From My Window. Robakowski narrates from the perspective of a "flaneur" who observes but does not judge. With its dragging, hesitant air, the splendid narrator's voice in the German dubbed version also mediates a sense of the boredom of everyday communist life and its sparse sensations caused by snow and other weather. Banalities are paraphrased as though being put in a protocol that could have come from the memoirs of a KGB functionary: "The young man who is walking across the picture at the moment actually doesn't interest me at all [...]." The recordings, which began in 1978, continue through the time of "transition" and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc into the 1990s. Although the film describes the transformation of the square in front of Robakowski's window through the building of a five-star hotel and construction of a parking lot, there are several recurring motifs, such as the regular parades on the first of May, which also mark the ritualistic end of the communist year. With its charmingly unsystematic nature, this pseudo documentary also humorously shows the search for usable film material and the constancy of personal relations even as they undergo processes of world historical dimensions.  

(Self-)irony, maintaining a distance in terms of content, and absurdities wrested from the outer world are more than mere stylistic means in Robakowski's works. Instead, they form an essential strategy, which thwarts the common image of the avant-garde artist from a western perspective – as a deadly serious character who broods over the catechism of his concepts. Here, the statement by Michail Lifšic, the Soviet theorist and social-realism apologist (the exact opposite of Robakowski's position) – to smile, even when one is actually dead – seems to carry a fundamentally ironic attitude.[5]

The self-evident role of the narrator (who is not necessarily identical to the author) is characteristic of Robakowski's "personal cinema." The narrator, speaking from a separate sound track, on which the events in front of the camera are not illustrated, but instead, described associatively, links this film with more experimental video and film works, forming an extensive, comprehensive complex of works. The asynchronous sound and picture form an analytical method, which is also implemented in short films, e.g., in Acoustic Apple (1994), Video Kisses (1992), La-Lu (1985) and also in the more recent production Attention: Light! (2004) – a film based on a "score" by the American avant-garde filmmaker Paul Sharits, a friend of Robakowski. This principle autonomy of picture and sound, which characterizes these works, is an element of structural cinema that undermines the potential illusionism of the film as medium through a form of demontage. For Robakowski, film and the cinematic apparatus signify a means of reflection, and ultimately, an experimental field for the perception of our imagining. He poses the old question of the European generation active in 1968 on the manipulation of consciousness and ultimately of society through the cinematic apparatus, but exactly the other way around: as a question of what the cinematic apparatus and, by extension, one's own consciousness, does to society. Consequently, Robakowski's "biomechanical recordings" suggest that we view the camera as a natural extension of our physical qualities: "To surrender oneself to the magic mechanism of the MACHINES which allow us to transcend human imaginings."[6]


|1] Józef Robakowski, Personal Cinema, January 23, 2006.
[2] Peter Wollen, The two Avant-gardes (1976), in: Wollen, Readings and writings. Semiotic counter-strategies, London 1982.
[3] Ryszard Kluszczyński, The identity of Art – The identity of the Artist. About the work of Józef Robakowski, in: Art Magazine No. 11 (3/96), P. 8, January 23, 2006.
[4] Witold Gombrowicz, Sakrilegien. Aus den tagebüchern 1953 bis 1967, Frankfurt Am Main 2002, P. 5.
[5] "I recall moments during the last war, during which I could consider myself a dead man, and I smiled – a smile that (in light of the life or death situation) was naturally entirely out of place." Michail Lifšic, quoted by Dmitrij Gutov: Die Marxistisch-Leninistische ästhetik in der postkommunistischen epoche, in: Zurück aus der zukunft. Osteuropäische kulturen im zeitalter des postkommunismus. Boris Groys (ed.), Frankfurt a. M. 2005, p. 709 (Own translation).
[6] Józef Robakowski, Natural Video, In: Ryszard W. Kluszczyński, the identity of Art – The identity of the Artist (See 3), P. 6.

Republished with kind permission from Index