Mother Joan

A short excerpt from the booklet essay by Michael Brooke.

Back in 1962, Jerzy Bossak (1910-89), a distinguished documentary-maker who had become a much-respected mentor to the younger generation of filmmakers who emerged in the 1950s, mentioned to Wajda and their mutual friend and sometime colleague Jerzy Stefan Stawiński (who wrote the screenplays for Wajda’s Kanał and his episode of the portmanteau film L'amour à vingt ans/Love at Twenty) that he had read an intriguing newspaper article about a bricklayer who had recently been unable to find work despite his former status as an official “hero of Socialist labour” a few years earlier during the Stalinist era (1949-56). Might this be the basis of a film?

It might indeed, and Wajda subsequently discussed the idea with his friend Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski (1928-83), a novelist, screenwriter and journalist who had long been fascinated by the division between official portrayals of workers and the opinions of the workers themselves. Wajda had been impressed with the work of Agnieszka Osiecka (1936-97), a documentary filmmaker ten years his junior, both as a firebrand film student (one of her earliest efforts at the Łódź Film School, STS 58, was a rare example of a 1950s Polish documentary that tackled the subject of censorship), and the character of Agnieszka, the young documentary-maker whose quest to uncover the truth behind the story of once-celebrated but now-vanished Stakhanovite “shock-worker” Mateusz Birkut drives the film. A screenplay was duly written, Wajda professed himself thrilled (he later recalled “I knew I had a golden apple in my hands”), but the project promptly hit a brick wall. 

Given the film’s unavoidably touchy subject-matter (albeit presented faux-naïvely as “a homage to the common worker”), Wajda and Ścibor-Rylski expected trouble, but in the event it wasn’t the Stalinist-era setting that exercised the officials manning the Script Commission (whose approval was mandatory if a project was to be greenlit for production) so much as what appeared to be a central message that government propaganda - and, if one was minded to extrapolate, the socialist project itself - was based on cynical lies and a conscious attempt at exploiting workers for the benefit of those in command. Another problem was that the early 1960s had seen a gradual decline in labour productivity, and it was felt that the film’s message might be even less helpful in that context. Although Ścibor-Rylski was able to get the script published in the weekly magazine Kultura (4 August 1963), that’s as far as the project got for nearly a decade and a half, at least as far as its public exposure was concerned - not least because it gave Party officials a chance to read it and express their disapproval. 

November 1975. With Polish cinema on a commercial high (155 million tickets were sold that year, with nearly half going to huge local hits like Jerzy Hoffman’s The Deluge/Potop, Jerzy Antczak’s Nights and Days/Noce i dnie and indeed Wajda’s own The Promised Land/Ziemia obiecana), a call is made during an awards presentation at what is now the Presidential Palace for Polish films to be bolder about tackling social realities instead of falling back on historical costume dramas (a genre occupied by all three titles mentioned above). This was a subject that Mieczysław Wojtczak, then deputy minister at the Ministry of Culture with specific responsibility for the film industry, had already broached, but its airing in front of a VIP audience seems to have encouraged Wajda to disinter Ścibor-Rylski’s script - which, after all, would seem to fulfil Wojtczak’s requirements to the letter. It was duly presented for official consideration in January 1976 and - after agonising over its likely impact (a diary entry for 24 January reveals acute awareness of the weight of his responsibility), Józef Tejchma himself approved production on 3 February, and filming began shortly afterwards. 

Of necessity, the script had undergone a few revisions since the 1963 publication, most notably to the pivotal character of Agnieszka (eventually played by Krystyna Janda). While Mateusz Birkut himself could remain more or less as originally written, since he had always been fixed in the early 1950s, Agnieszka would unavoidably be a decade and a half younger, and from a completely different generation from that originally envisaged.

Michael Brooke's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the DVD release.

Disc Info

Larks Boxshot

Poland, 1976
2-Disc Special Edition
Length / Disc 1 -
Man of Marble: 154 minutes
Length / Disc 2 -
Special features: 58 minutes
Sound: Stereo 2.0
Colour and Black & White
Original aspect ratio:
1.33:1 full frame
Language: Polish
Subtitles: English (On/Off)
Region 0
RRP: £15.99
Release Date:12th May 2014 Second Run DVD 086


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