Released in 1960, Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers is a provocative and even beautiful film about contemporary youth in Poland. It has a bohemian charm and depicts the lives of a group of insouciant young men and women in late 1950s Warsaw as an endless round of drinking, smoking and flirtation, in mouldering jazz dens. The eternal pursuit of love and the meaning of life seem uppermost in this film, yet with more than 50 years since it was made, it’s also striking how far removed the innocence of the young in the new post-war Poland is from the wartime horrors of their parents’ experience.
Innocent Sorcerers is part of a collection of 21 Polish films chosen by Martin Scorsese as part of the “Scorsese presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” at the London Southbank this month. The film tells the story of Bazyli and Pelagia, two young, languorous and good-looking jazz lovers. Bazyli (Tadeusz Lomnicki) seemingly has it all: by day a sports doctor working in a boxing club, and by night a drummer –‘Medicine Man’ – in a jazz ensemble basking in popularity and unabashed adulation from women. Bazyli has a tiny apartment and rides a scooter to work, but is jaded by all the female attention.
All this changes one night when his best friend, Edmund (Zbigniew Cybulski), asks Bazyli to help him meet a girl, Pelagia (Krystyna Stypulkowska), that he’s spotted in a club. They manage to separate Pelagia from her date but things go awry when Bazyli accompanies her to the station – only to find she’s missed her train. Pelagia isn’t like the other women Bazyli meets – she’s inscrutable, and within moments of meeting her Bazyli is fascinated. The film explores the innocent night they spend together, and we play voyeur as they talk to each other and indulge in a bashful game of strip poker, Bazyli all the while rediscovering his emotions.
On its release in 1960, Innocent Sorcerers was considered a departure for the director Andrzej Wajda, whose previous films had dealt with Poland in wartime. His renowned WWII trilogy – A Generation (1955); Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) – proved crucial in launching what’s recognized today as the Polish Film School movement.
Said Wajda of the project, his first attempt to show contemporary youth: “I found Innocent Sorcerers a particularly hard film to make. My earlier films were about war; now I had to deal with the present day. (…) Preoccupied with my films, I had had no time for a life of ‘friendship and romance’. I was no observer of the everyday evolution of behavior: not being part of it, I never noticed what went on around me”.
Yet in Innocent Sorcerers Wajda manages to go further than observe and makes us feel the action – the lazy strains of jazz accompanying the lethargic words and gestures of the actors and the lingering camera shots give the film a soporific quality. Beautifully shot in luminous black and white, each scene is replete and full to the brim – such as when in the early morning Bazyli glides through the city on his scooter searching for Pelagia.
The soundtrack also plays a key role in the film. Jazz is portrayed as the current rage in Warsaw, Wajda using many of the city’s actual locations – like the Largactil jazz club and the Gwardia Stadium – and populating the film with real-life jazz personalities, such as Jan Zylber, Andrzej Trzaskowski and the film’s composer Krzysztof Komeda, who briefly plays himself in the movie (a very young Roman Polański also pops up in a bit part). There are clever self-reflexive modern moments: the film uses its own promotional poster in the opening credits and first scene – life and art becoming one.
Wajda’s film captures a particular bohemian moment and state-of-mind in Warsaw before it slipped away forever. If you can get to see this film then go: it is 84 minutes of languid, luminous film that will absorb and spellbind you.
Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers shows at the BFI Southbank on 8th and 17th May, as part of the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival 2015, supported by the Polish Cultural Institute, London.