"Talkies" in the Press in Poland, 1930

Sheila Skaff, University of Michigan

In spite of financial difficulties, threats of bankruptcy and protests by silent film fans, cinemas throughout Poland were equipped for sound in 1930. Everyone connected with interwar film had an opinion on the subject of the country's transition to sound film. Some argued against it, contending that film should remain a purely visual art. Others claimed that "talkies" would revolutionize the film business in Poland and bring Polish film culture closer to more technologically and aesthetically sophisticated Western film culture. Among the participants of the debate were Leo Belmont, Leon Brun, Eugeniusz Cekalski, Juliusz Gardan, Maria Hirszbejn, Karol Irzykowski, Antoni Slonimski, Anatol Stern, Jerzy Toeplitz, Leon Trystan, Maria J. Wielkopolska and Stefania Zahorska. They published their opinions on the pages of Czas, Kino, Wiadomosci Literackie, Der Moment, Haynt and Literarishe bleter. In my paper I attempt to analyze the contents of this debate as a meeting point of literary, film and translation theory. With the arrival of sound films in Poland stopped communicating in a language of gestures and visual expressions and began to speak in two national languages, Polish and Yiddish.

Two main theoretical standpoints emerge from my assessment of this debate in Poland. The first trend is characterized by the hope that film comprises a universal language. Karol Irzykowski and Béla Balazs, among others, argued for this vision of film's communicative possibilities. In their writings they placed great emphasis on non-verbal elements of film such as movement, mimicry, image and material. Their vision of film is not only an important development in silent film theory but also an essential source for studies of translation theory as it leads to the proposition that there exists a pure or universal language, which by its primitiveness or unusualness hovers over all national languages. They saw or hoped for universal humanity in gesture and image.

Supporters of the transition to sound cinemas included those, who wanted to expand the film industry in Poland first of all for financial reasons, but also for political (most American films were already importable in the sound version) and for cultural and artistic reasons as well. For them national language was an unavoidable, necessary element of each film. They saw or hoped for progress in understanding through language.

In my paper I analyze articles on the transition to sound in Poland, taking into consideration developments in semiotic theory from the 1980s and film and literary criticism today. In the past years scholars have begun to refer to silent films as products of a particular language rather than as products of a given state. While the 1920s press in Poland referred to everything made on Polish soil as Polish and in this way marketed films to the broadest possible audience, this clear-cut means of categorization has faded. But when, and under what theoretical and practical circumstances? How did producers and audiences react to the changes that 1930 brought? In this paper I examine a few of the many responses to the transition to silent film while keeping in mind the larger question: Through what process have silent films begun to speak in national languages, while the language of gesture and image in silent film has been silenced? The questions presented seventy years ago by filmmakers and critics remain contemporary in light of the changes in film and nationality studies. Is it possible to understand a film without knowledge of its national language? What is the relationship between universal language and national language? Does film comprise its own language and if so, is it essentially connected with a specific national language?