Early & Silent Film

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Janko the Musician / Janko Muzykant, Poland 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on April 5, 2017

This was one of the titles in the ‘Polish Silents’ programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2016. This was the first sound film made in Poland but the Vitaphone discs are lost, so only this silent version survives. The sound version  still relied on intertitles for dialogue and the track contained music, songs and some animal noises. The film was presented from a 35mm print 2561 meters in length; the catalogue proposed 18 fps. However the film was timed at 93 minutes and I do not think it overran by much. Moreover 18 fps for a sound/silent film seems rather slow and at that frame rate it would have run over two hours. There were a couple of discrepancies regarding frame rates for the Polish titles: I assume that on closer inspection they settled for 23 or 24 fps. The print was worn but the image quality was pretty good. There seemed to be some unintended ellipsis in the plot so I assume there were missing scenes or sequences.

The film was adapted by Ferdynand Goetel from a novella by Henryk Sienkiewicz [of ‘Quo Vadis’ fame]. In fact the script extended the original story considerably; the second part of the film was a complete addition. The director, Ryszard Ordyński, was a regular in the industry and this was his fifth title.

Janko (Stefan Rogulski) is a young village boy with a passion for music. When we first see him in the film he is making his own homemade violin. He lives with his mother (Tekla Trapszo) and he also has a pet blackbird. However, he is tempted by the sight of a professionally made violin in the mansion of the local landowner. Caught he is sent to a Correctional Institution where the boys are disciplined and made to work at making wicker chairs. This opening section is finely filmed by cinematographer Zbigniew Gniazdowski. The film has a lyrical feel, the landscapes  lovingly photographed and with some very effective pans, tracks and superimpositions. Gniazdowski uses well-placed  dissolves to take the narrative forward. Apparently the original novella was a grimmer and more realist depiction of rural life. We do see an overbearing overseer ordering women workers, including Janko’s mother. And Janko’s treatment by the landowner and magistrate is heavy handed. But we are closer to melodrama than literary realism in this film version. In the novella a whipping leads to Janko’s death, so the rest of the film is the addition.

Whilst Janko is in the Correction Centre his mother leaves the village, releasing Janko’s pet blackbird. A young man now, Janko (Witold Conti) escapes from the Correction Institution but finds his mother gone though his blackbird returns. Janko sets off to the city where the blackbird leads to his striking up a friendship with two ne’er-do well’s (Adolf Dymsza and Kazimierz Krukowski). They form a musical trio which prove a success in a local bar-cum-restaurant. Janko’s increasing popularity brings him to the attention of a Professor of music (Wieslaw Gawlikowski) and his pupil, singing star Ewa (Maria Malicka). A rival for her affections, Zaruba (Aleksander Źabczyński), attempts to eliminate Janko by accusing him of the escape from the Correction Centre. Zaruba turns out to be the landowner who was responsible for Janko’s incarceration. But Janko’s friends rally round and he is acquitted, able to end the film in partnership with Ewa.

“The second part of the film introduces the sort of characters beloved by Polish musical comedies of the 1930s: noble rogues, driven by an honourable code despite living on the edge of the law.” (Adam Uryniak in the Festival Catalogue).

He adds that these actors for these characters were part of the popular Warsaw cabaret scene.

Filming ‘Janko’

I found the second part of the film less compelling than the first. The urban setting and the studio interiors lacked the visual charm of the countryside. And whilst the whole film is melodrama, the latter stages seemed to have more stock characters and situations. However the cinematography continued to make effective use of camera movement and dissolves, though there was little superimposition.

The screening was accompanied by Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius with piano, violin and some percussion. And they included at least one song featured in the sound version of the film.

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