29 March 2018
(Warning: Contains spoilers throughout)
We were at the Barbican tonight for the closing film in this year’s Polish Kinoteka Film Festival, the silent romantic melodrama Call of the Sea (1927). With barely five percent of Poland’s silent films believed to have survived this is a rare treat indeed. But even then we will be not seeing the complete film. When first released, Call of the Sea, had a running time in excess of three hours. But no complete version survives. Instead, what we will be watching tonight is a digital reconstruction and restoration carried out by the Polish National Film Archive in Warsaw in 2013, compiled from two incomplete versions of the film but which nevertheless remains over an hour shorter than the original release.
The film opens with two children playing. Stach, the son of the miller, is regaling Hanka, daughter of the local aristocrat, with tales of maritime adventure and his desire for a life at sea. Shortly after, he runs away and gets a position as cabin boy on a merchant ship. Years later, the adult Stach (Jerzy Marr) is a successful officer, popular with the ordinary seamen but hated by the ship’s bosun, Minke (Stefan Szwarc) . The ship’s owner has confidence in Stach (who is also working on plans for a radically new design of vessel) and is about to make him a partner while his daughter Jola (Nora Ney) is in love with him. However, Minke is also interested in Jola and when she rejects him he attacks her. She is saved by Stach. After Minke is sacked he promises to get his revenge on Stach. Jola and Stach decide to get married and he returns home to his parents to tell them the news.
But back in his home village, Stach encounters the grown up Hanka (Maria Malicka ) and is immediately attracted to her. Hanka is all but engaged to the rich (but somewhat stupid) aristocrat Karol Skarski (Mariusz Maszynski) but she too is attracted to Stach. However, just as they are about to announce their engagement, Hanka discovers that her father is in financial difficulties and has taken out loans on the strength of his daughter’s marriage to the rich Skarski. Now feeling obliged to marry Skarski, she breaks the news to Stach who is bereft and leaves once more for the sea, this time joining the Polish Navy.
Back once again in Gdansk, Stach goes to see Jola to tell her that their relationship is over and to collect the plans he is working on. But he is seen by Minke who now plots his revenge (and at the same time intends to make a profit by selling Stach’s plans to a foreign agent). Stach is lured out and kidnapped by Minke and his gang. But this is seen by Hanka (who is looking for Stach to tell him that her family’s fortunes have improved, negating her need to marry Skarski). She gives chase to the kidnappers but when they escape by boat she raises the alarm with the navy. Meanwhile, one of Stach’s former shipmates has also seen the kidnapping and secretly got on board the boat.
A search is made using ships and seaplanes. When the boat is sighted the Bosun attempts to throw Stach overboard but he is saved by his former shipmate. Instead, it is Minke who is drowned while Stach and Hanka are reunited.
Made by one of the pre-eminent Polish film directors of the silent era, Henryk Szaro (image, right) and the earliest surviving example of his work, Call of the Sea is a curious film. Beginning as a romantic melodrama focused upon Stach and his romantic entanglements it suddenly changes pace two thirds of the way through to become a suspense thriller as the chase is on to save Stach from his kidnappers. It is possible that this sudden change of pace and genre is accounted for by the missing footage but even if the evolution from melodrama to thriller were achieved at a rather more gentle pace, the style of film’s ending would still have marked a considerable contrast with its beginning.
Yet despite this sudden change from melodrama to thriller, there is much to recommend in Call of the Sea. The original story came from popular Polish play-write Stefan Kiedrzyński, and certainly the romantic melodrama portion of the film is nicely worked. The contrasting segments of the film were both well directed by Szaro, highlighting the breadth of his directing abilities, from the intimate clinch to the dramatic car chase, while he also had a nice feel for comedy. Szaro worked initially in theatre before making his film directorial debut with Rivals in 1925. He successfully made the transition to talkies in the 1930s but when war broke out he was shot by German soldiers in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942.
By and large the actors put in solid performances. Jerzy Marr was competent if a little wooden as Stach, although I still find it disconcerting to see the hero wearing more make-up than the heroine. Talking of heroines, Maria Malicka (image, right) was much better as Hanka although she did have a faintly Miss Marple-ish look at times. Malicka continued to work in film and theatre. Despite charges of collaboration during the German occupation which damaged her career in the immediate post-war era, she continued to work into the 1980s before her eventual death in 1992. Better still was Nora Ney (image, left) as Jola, a far more feisty character than the rather insipid Hanka. It was a shame that she didn’t have a bigger role. Ney went on to become a big star in Polish talkies before moving to America after the Second World War. There was also a nice supporting comedy role from Mariusz Maszynski as the aristocratic Skarski. Its funny how upper class twits are the same the world over! The exchange of cigarettes scene between him and Stach in particular was a comic delight (image, right). Mention should also go to Tadeusz Fijewski (image, left) who played Stach as a child. Already acting on stage from the age of 10, Fijewski was 16 (playing a 10 year old) when he won the part of the young Stach in a competition. During the war he spent time in both Dachau and a German prisoner of war camp but survived and went on after the war to appear in over 50 films as well as radio, TV and theatre work before his death in 1978.
Call of the Sea was also notable for its fine cinematography. The scenes at Stach’s family mill were beautifully shot but even more impressive was the footage of the Gdansk harbour front, which now must be of inestimable historical value. The film was also notable for some early aerial footage as the naval sea-plane searched for the boat carrying Stach while elements of the Polish Navy were co-opted into the making of the film, which featured not only aircraft and warships but numerous actual officers and men of the Polish Navy playing themselves.
Finally, a word about the live musical accompaniment for the film. This came from a small ensemble consisting of pianist and composer Tad Modi, Matthew Bourne on piano and synthesizers, Duncan Bellamy on drums and live sampling, Chris Hargreaves on bass and Simon Beddoe on trumpet. Sadly, it was the accompaniment which let the film down. Although the music for some scenes, particularly the more intimate ones, worked well and you couldn’t fault the skills of the musicians, overall the score didn’t do justice to the film. Some of the music was wholly inappropriate to on-screen events and frequently failed to adapt quickly enough to reflect the changing scenes in the film. At times also the music simply over-powered the film, reaching an almost crescendo pitch wildly out of keeping with the on-screen drama. Perhaps a ‘less is more’ mantra might have helped, with a little more musical restraint benefiting the film significantly.
NB There is no sign yet of Call of the Sea being available on disc but given the effort put into restoration hopefully it won’t be long before it appears. A version can be watched on-line here which also has some nice before-and-after shots of the restoration work. There is also an excellent trailer here.