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Remind Me

Roman Polanski Shorts

Break Up the Dance (1957)
Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958)
When Angels Fall (1959)
The Fat and the Lean (1961)

At an early age Roman Polanski began to realize his true ambition to be a filmmaker with a series of short films which were made during his time as a student at Poland's prestigious National Film School at Lodz. His debut film The Crime [1957] - a three minute short without dialogue about a senseless murder - and the one that followed it, the three-minute A Toothful Smile [1957], about a peeping tom, were atmospheric studies in violence and voyeurism that disturbed his fellow filmmakers and raised speculations about the young filmmaker's dark side. His third film, Breaking Up the Party (1957), however, aroused considerably more controversy over his directorial methods.

Initially conceived as a project for his documentary class under the tutelage of Polish filmmaker Andrzej Munk, Breaking Up the Party was intended as a cinematic study of a school dance that was organized by Polanski. Munk didn't think it was a very promising idea but Polanski had a surprise in store for everyone. After the cameras began rolling, capturing footage of the dancers and students socializing, a gang of hoodlums suddenly appeared uninvited and began creating a ruckus. They harass the students, chase girls, pick fights and end up trashing the party, overturning tables and chairs. When it was revealed that Polanski had hired the toughs to crash the event and create the drama we see on-screen, he was threatened with expulsion by the school's disciplinary committee.

According to biographer John Parker, "Polanski defended himself by recalling that Munk, his mentor and tutor, also enjoyed practical jokes. He received derisory jibes from his fellows for even daring to compare himself to the director. Munk did not like the film either, but rescued his student by stating that the film represented a genuine documentary, though he found few supporters for this view." (from Polanski, Trafalgar Square)

Breaking Up the Party, of course, is not a true documentary since it was staged by Polanski but one has to admire it on the level of an outrageous stunt. It does chronicle a debacle in the making and is compelling as human drama but also serves as a reminder that unexpected violence can erupt in the most innocuous and unlikely of social situations.

Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Roman Polanski
Cinematography: Andrzej Galincki, Marek Nowicki
Roman Polanski's preoccupation with violence and the dark side of human nature would fully emerge in his fourth film short, Two Men and a Wardrobe [1958], which was partially inspired by his fondness for such "Theatre of the Absurd" writers as Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. Based on a script written by Jakub Goldberg, a friend of Polanski and a concentration camp survivor, the narrative opens with two men rising up out of the sea carrying a giant wardrobe. Their strange journey through an often hostile universe is often interrupted by bystanders who become their tormentors.

In one of the film's more memorable moments, Polanski appears leading a gang of young toughs and physically assaults one of the wardrobe carriers. There is also a particularly brutal scene where a young man is beaten to death with a rock while his head is held underwater. The sight of the blood and the water mingling represents a recurring visual motif in Polanski's work that has a symbolic connection to his traumatic early experiences in a Cracow bunker.

The filming of Two Men and a Wardrobe didn't proceed smoothly and was often subject to Polanski's volatile temperament which earned him an early reputation for being difficult. "'Every time he could not achieve the effect he wanted,' said [Henryk] Kluba, who was one of the film's two main actors, 'he would take it out on his surroundings or even people in the crew - he would beat them up. In that wardrobe that we carried, he smashed the mirror with his fist so many times that in the end we had to carry spares. He was unbearable.' He would storm off the set, leaving everyone wondering what would happen next, and then he would return and pick it up as if nothing had happened." (from Polanski by John Parker)

After filming was complete, Polanski spent countless hours editing the short film and sought out Krzysztof Komeda, one of Poland's most acclaimed composers, to score it. Komeda, who was also a versatile jazz pianist, would go on to become one of Polanski's regular collaborators, composing the music to such films as Knife in the Water (1962), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). His promising career was cut short by a fatal accident in Los Angeles in 1969.

Polanski had bragged from the beginning that Two Men and a Wardrobe would win the top prize at the short film competition held at the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair. Although his boast proved hollow, he did walk off with third place honors and a bronze medal. More importantly, when he returned to Poland there was a new appreciation for his talents by not only the Polish film industry but also the international film community.

Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Roman Polanski
Cinematography: Maciej Kijowski
Music: Krzysztof Komeda
Cast: Jakub Goldberg (Man with the wardrobe), Henryk Kluba (Man with the wardrobe), Stanislaw Michalski (Bad Boy), Roman Polanski (Bad Boy).

Notable as Roman Polanski's graduation film from the Polish National Film School at Lodz and his first color film, When Angels Fall [1959] is also the only film of Polanski's to address the horrific absurdities of his own wartime experiences until he made The Pianist in 2002. The twenty-one-minute-film is set in a men's public rest room and recounts the day to day existence of an elderly woman who serves as an attendant in the lavatory. As an endless procession of men pass before her, relieving themselves in the urinals, the attendant escapes her reality by daydreaming about the past and the soldier she once loved and the child she bore him.

For the role of the wizened attendant, Polanski cast an eighty-year-old nonprofessional he discovered in a home for the elderly. A more curious casting choice was Polanski himself - in drag - in a brief cameo where he played the main character in middle age. For the flashback sequences, he hired a beautiful seventeen-year-old actress named Basia Kwiatkowska whom he became infatuated with on first sight. Eventually they would become lovers and marry with Basia changing her name to Barbara Lass. The relationship was short-lived, however, but Lass is still fondly remembered by horror fans everywhere for her sultry beauty in the Italian cult favorite, Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory (1962).

When Angels Fall is a curious combination of the ethereal and the crude. Lyrical flashbacks are offset by the cruel and depressing reality of the present. On a visual level, the film was Polanski's most accomplished to date and it was certainly a stunning submission for his final film project. Yet, despite the acceptance of his project, Polanski did not officially graduate from the Lodz Film School because he had failed to submit a mandatory thesis with his film. As a result, some Polish film critics would later refer to him as a college drop-out, a remark that would irritate him for the rest of his life.

Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Roman Polanski
Cinematography: Henryk Kucharski
Art Direction: Kazimierz Wisniak
Music: Krzysztof Komeda
Cast: Barbara Lass, Roman Polanski (Old woman), Henryk Kluba, Andrzej Kondratiuk.

The fifteen minute short, The Fat and the Lean [1961], came about through Roman Polanski's fundraising efforts for his first feature film, Knife in the Water [1962]. A French Canadian producer who was searching for a new project was interested in financing the latter film but couldn't raise the funds so he agreed to back this short film instead. Expanded from a story idea by Polanski and Jakub Goldberg, who had written the script for Two Men and a Wardrobe, The Fat and the Lean was a return to the absurd, experimental style of that earlier work.

A psychological study of dominance and servitude, the film depicts two individuals locked in a master-slave relationship. A huge brute of a man (played by French actor Andre Kattelbach) is waited on by his barefoot attendant who attempts to keep him entertained by playing a flute, beating a drum and performing pirouettes for his amusement. While the unappeased master sits on a broken-down rocking chair in front of a decaying mansion, his diminutive servant attends to his every need, wiping his sweaty brow, washing his feet, protecting his head from the sun and even tending to the toilet details.

Biographer Barbara Leaming wrote that "The Fat and the Lean is Polanski's first explicit comment on the mechanisms of power and humiliation, the strange symbiosis that joins master and slave." She also pointed out "that the slave comprehends, even identifies with, the master's brutality is suggested when, momentarily tied to a goat, he kicks the beast cruelly, thereby assuming the role of aggressor." (from Polanski, Simon and Schuster)

Filmed in France, The Fat and the Lean was Polanski's first film outside Poland and it won prizes at various film festivals, but was not a commercial success and didn't achieve the international recognition Polanski had hoped for. That would come later with the release of Knife in the Water which would receive an Oscar® nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (it lost to Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, 1963). In the meantime, Polanski would return to the short film with his next project, Mammals [1962]. Once again, employing an austere look with an absurd sensibility, the film would mirror Two Men and a Wardrobe and The Fat and the Lean in its two-person narrative involving a journey through the snow on a sled.

Producer: Roman Polanski, Jean-Pierre Rousseau
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Roman Polanski
Cinematography: Jean-Michel Boussaguet
Music: Krzysztof Komeda
Cast: Andre Katelbach (The Fat), Roman Polanski (The Lean).

by Jeff Stafford


Polanski: The Filmmaker as Voyeur by Barbara Leaming (Simon & Schuster)

Polanski by John Parker (Victor Gollancz)