"Pleograf. Kwartalnik Akademii Polskiego Filmu" no. 5/2020


Haunted Times.

Specters in New Polish Cinema and Photography

Justyna Hanna Budzik


What of the future? The future can only be for ghosts. And the past.

Jacques Derrida[1]

Nicolas Grospierre, Kolorobloki (2006), courtesy of the artist

At the turn of the century, Polish cinema saw a proliferation of films that return to the times of the Polish People’s Republic and the Era of Transformation[2]. A similar trend can be seen in the works of young Polish photographers, who are interested in places where the recent past shines through in the landscape. Cinema and photography thematize imagined journeys into a past that has already become an element of the collective memory, even if many of the audience have no personal memories from that period – they only have “memories” created by, inter alia, the films and photographs that constitute media of nostalgia[3] and retromania[4]. The artists of Polish visual culture demonstrate an interest, among others, in city landscapes from just before the Transformation, during the Transformation, and in the present day. In the lenses of filmmakers and photographers, socialist architecture of modernist origins appears frequently: housing estates consisting of large blocks of flats, interiors of the apartments in such blocks, department stores, and communal areas. In some of the most recent works, we see buildings that disappear or, paradoxically, persist unchangingly; buildings that are either falling apart or undergoing a metamorphosis. They may be understood as an afterimage of a bygone social, cultural, and political era.

In this article I analyze the socialist–modernist housing estates and areas of city (and town) life that can be found in the film United States of Love (Zjednoczone stany miłości, 2016) by Tomasz Wasilewski, photographs from Nicolas Grospierre’s cycle W-70 (up to 2007), Marek Berezowski’s Citymorphosis (2013–2017), and Paulina Korobkiewicz’s Disco Polo (2017). What inspired me to adopt this perspective was an article by Ewa Mazierska in which she describes film visions of socialist buildings and statues in the context of the ongoing debate about what should be preserved from the socialist past of Poland, why it should be preserved, and how[5]. The author justifies her approach in a twofold manner: firstly, the destruction or preservation of buildings is always related to the lives of individuals; secondly, the symbolic dimension of buildings reveals specific traditions, life-styles, and values[6]. We can distinguish in films a variety of attitudes toward the heritage of socialism. Part of this heritage is the architecture which frames human experiences both in the past and in the present.

In my reflection, I would like to broaden the perspective adopted by Mazierska and incorporate the hauntological perspective into the study of a selection of film and photographic representations of architecture. Hauntology (l’hantologie), a philosophical stance proposed by Jacques Derrida, also called the logic of haunting[7], presupposes going beyond the categories of “hard” metaphysics of presence, beyond “being” in opposition to “non-being”, and, in consequence, beyond clearly defined and precisely delineated notions of the present, the past, and the future. The present, in particular, is described in this philosophy as “weak”, untight, out of tune, and ceaselessly penetrated by the phantoms of that which has been and of what may perhaps come. Andrzej Marzec, who interprets the thought of the French philosopher in the context of reflecting upon art and culture, explains: It is precisely this peculiar, dubious state of the present which is non-present, disintegrated into layers, and disjointed that Derrida denotes as spectrality[8]. I will look for spectrality thus understood in the film and photographs analyzed, making reference to the concept of a “now” haunted by the specters of the past and (lost) futures. This perspective will allow me to focus on the traces of the past and the anticipations of the future that can be found in the locations depicted (buildings, apartments, and public spaces).

When using the terms hauntology, specter, and haunting, I also bear in mind the spread of these categories in the reflections of various cultural circles. In his introduction to the study Spectral America. Phantoms and the National Imagination, in the first years of the 21st century, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock states that [o]ur contemporary moment is a haunted one[9]. The spectral reflections of Derrida migrate through continents and cultures, at times detaching themselves from their specifically Central European context – Specters of Marx was composed in response to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the fall of USSR. In the British context, the category of hauntology has been applied by Mark Fisher[10] and Simon Reynolds. For these researchers, hauntology is a mode of existence and a manner of description of cultural reality: chiefly that of music, but also those of film and literature. While Derrida sees Europe as haunted above all by the specters of Marxism, the British authors construct an image of contemporary popular culture visited by the specters of the not-too-distant yesterday and the unrealized tomorrow.

Marek Berezowski, Citymorphosis (2013–2017), courtesy of the artist

With reference to the hauntology developed by Fisher, which is of particular interest for me in this paper, a Polish researcher, Olga Drenda, introduced on the grounds of the anthropology of everyday life the notion of ghostology, situating it in that area of cultural studies where there appeared some creases of memory, unrealized futures, and faintly graspable specters and phantoms[11]. In her book Polish Ghostology. Things and People in the Years of Transformation (Duchologia polska. Rzeczy i ludzie w latach transformacji, 2016), Drenda examines the particular era around the ground-breaking year 1989, which she considers to be ghostological. She determines its time limits as 1986/7–1994, which inscribes her studies within Derridean hauntology. She explains the determination of the beginning of Polish ghostology: Nominally still socialist, Poland was at that moment slowly turning toward the capitalist model – local variants of elements of this system began to appear, such as TV advertisements or private companies (called “Polish companies”)[12]. The end date is related to the introduction of an anti-piracy act and the redenomination of the zloty; after the year 1994, the landscape of Polish cities was gradually becoming more similar to the global patterns imposed by capitalist countries. I refer here to Drenda’s conclusions, because it is precisely the representation in film of this moment in history that I take as the point of departure for a hauntological interpretation of selected works of filmmakers and photographers who, in recent years, have been returning to the past. For hauntology – l’hantologie, ghostology – is rooted above all in a time out of joint, a time that is derailed, incoherent, and twisted[13]. Though it is also related to the crisis of space as it is traditionally understood[14], which is equally reflected in works of visual culture. What is more, the narration of Tomasz Wasilewski, whose film I analyze as the first example, focuses on private, everyday stories, remote from the great moments of history, as well as large cities, which is similar to the research method adopted by the Polish ghostologist, who draws from Roch Sulima’s anthropology of everyday life[15].

In the introduction, Drenda mentions unrealized futures, making a reference to Fisher’s term lost futures[16]. In his studies of the history of popular music and popular culture (above all, that of TV series) in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, the British author notes that, after the 1990s, there was no novel shock in music, no air of experiment or freshness. Anachronism prevails over innovation: It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet[17]. Fisher sets the observed phenomena against the broader context of the economic, social, and political changes of the last three decades and comes to the conclusion that, as a result of the widespread Post-Fordism, neoliberalism, and the growing interconnectedness of the internet, culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present[18]. Or perhaps there simply is no present, for it has succumbed to the influence of anachronisms and a sphere of cancelled[19] futures. These futures are lost, because no one nowadays expects any fundamental or ground-breaking changes, since during the last thirty years these hopes have not been fulfilled. As a consequence, that which has passed does not seem so remote – hence the ubiquitous afterimages of the Polish People’s Republic in today’s Poland, which have eventually become fashionable and trendy – and that which is yet to come will most likely closely resemble that which continues to linger.

Housing Projects of Lost Futures

I find it compelling to track these specters of futures which never came to be through the study of films and photographs, with a focus on their spectral dimension. It is particularly fascinating to follow the imagined soon-to-come better times that contemporary artists bestow upon characters situated in the ghostological past. It is in this perspective – of futuristic hauntology – that Tomasz Wasilewski’s film United States of Love is of interest to me. For, on the one hand, it is an emblematic example of the contemporary return to the past in Polish cinema, with its sins of anachronism and overdone stylization, while, on the other, it occurs during the ghostological era, as defined by Drenda. Although we learn from the dialogue in the very first scene that the Berlin Wall has only recently fallen (the action of the film takes place at the beginning of the year 1990), the director is clearly not interested in that great historical event, preferring rather to focus on the private dimension.

Dorota Kolak in United States of Love, photo by Andrzej Wenzel, source: Mañana

The space of the action is almost entirely confined to a housing estate consisting of blocks of flats surrounded by a muddy wasteland. The heroines of the story, which takes place shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, are four women living in the same estate: Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) and her sister Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz), their friend Agata (Julia Kijowska), and their neighbor Renata (Dorota Kolak). Iza is a school principal who is beset with loneliness and ready to bear any humiliation to keep her lover Karol (Andrzej Chyra) at her side. Marzena lives alone after her husband’s departure to work in West Germany; she wants to be a model. Agata has, by all appearances, a normal family: a husband on his way to becoming rich (Łukasz Simlat) and an adolescent daughter; she also runs a small business of her own – a rental store that stocks pirated VHS tapes – in the ground floor of an apartment block. However, an indefinite melancholy gnaws at her heart, a desire to escape, and, to top it off, she is beset by a forbidden love. Renata is more advanced in years, a teacher of Russian forced to vacate her post for an English teacher. She is also lesbian, left alone after the death of her partner, who is referred to as “sister”.

All four women have hopes and dreams of their own, some related to the Transformation, others stemming from the human need for love and fulfillment. The surrounding blocks of precast concrete, typical of housing constructions in the 1980s, all resemble one another; their arrangement forms a confined enclave, comprising a school and a sport club, outside of which there is a church with a room for religion classes. The housing estate of blocks presented in the film is typical of all of post-war Europe, not only the Central–Eastern part. The idea, however, of constructing buildings consisting of cheap and functional flats, the arrangement of which was intended to shape the customs and rituals of everyday life, has its origin in the pre-war premises and modernist vision of Le Corbusier: There are no borders for ideas, they circulate throughout Europe, with no regard to competing state systems or political tensions (…). The idea of shaping societies through architecture, in connection with the promise, stemming from socialist principles, that each citizen, regardless of their social position or income, shall enjoy equal housing standards, is being popularized simultaneously by both Germans and Russians[20]. After the war, housing estates consisting of blocks of flats emerged on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Identical sets of windows, balconies, and staircases circumscribed the living space of citizens in many places on our continent. The fact that this type of architectural formation has its roots in the contemporary era and in the idea of shaping a new model of life in the city is quite significant in the interpretation of Wasilewski’s film, which, in my reading, shows above all the characters’ orientation towards the future.

In United States of Love, a typical housing estate from the turn of the 1970s and 1980s is completely isolated from the rest of the world, which is merely referenced in conversations or between the lines – when Marzena’s husband phones her on her name day[21], when a photographer from Warsaw is supposed to come to her place, when Iza, dumped by her lover, seeks a casual relationship at a railway station. What is striking about the portrait of the block-filled landscape, created by the director and cinematographer Oleg Mutu, is its all-embracing coldness, indifference, even hostility. They achieved this effect with the consistent use of grayish, greenish, and bluish colours, and also in the shots of interiors – dull grayness hangs in the air, rests on the walls, and settles on the heroines’ faces[22]. There are, in fact, no warm colours in the film: the night scenes are filmed in low-key lighting, while the day scenes are filled with an unpleasant, flat light, provoking in the viewer the discomforting impression of being blinded by a disturbing whiteness. The alienness of the landscape is enhanced by recurring long shots of blocks, which potentiate the impression of a cold, indifferent observation of space.

The framing of landscapes and persons in the interiors is frontal, bringing the film’s shots close to a deadpan photographic aesthetic – stripped of emotions, empty, in which the viewer finds it hard to settle. The sense of emotional detachment is particularly poignant when the characters are pictured in interiors – for instance, when Agata goes out on the balcony after having sex with no passion on her part. We see her profile, her light, naked skin and white underwear contrast with the dark contours of the blocks behind her, while the light seeping from other flats imparts no warmth to the scene. We do not see Agata’s face, she is standing almost motionless, and although we can sense that this is a difficult moment for her, the distance between us and the inner world of the heroine seems insurmountable. The same goes for the shots of Renata when she has received her notice of dismissal and is sitting in the school corridor, her figure blending in with the geometrical forms on the walls and the staircase – although we see her face frontally, we cannot penetrate her emotions. The visual, narrative, and acting strategies consistently used in United States of Love emphasize the loneliness and lack of fulfilment of the heroines, pointing to their sense of hopelessness, standing in contrast to their overt words and actions, in which they manifest a (feigned?) enthusiasm for the new social and political era, at the turning point between two epochs, with democracy and capitalism only just budding.

Julia Kijowska in United States of Love, photo by Andrzej Wenzel, source: Mañana

The visual representation of the estate of housing blocks built before 1989 described above, which underlines its repulsive and impersonal dimension, contrasts with the images we know from postcards of the 1970s and 1980s. These postcards were designed to bear witness to the accomplishments of the urban modernization of the country and to the success of the large-scale mass housing construction projects. As Drenda astutely observes, the colours on the postcards are intense and warm, the sky is azure blue, and one may get the impression that warm summer reigns in Poland all year long. Interestingly, in documentary photographs taken by foreign authors (Felix Ormerod, David Hlynsky, Teun Voeten) the ghostologist notices very similar stylistics, which concoct the impression that [in] the ghostological Poland, the permanently reigning season is August, the amber afternoon light toward the end of summer[23]. In 2016, Mikołaj Długosz, enchanted with the colours of ORWO/Agfa/faded Kodak photographic films, assembled a collection of postcards from archives in a photographic book. The section that presents a review of optimistic and joyful views of the city, with the residents enjoying their picnic time on the lawn in front of a block, is entitled Summer in the City. The officially produced views of the cities of the Polish People’s Republic, thus put together, not only provide evidence of the propaganda of government construction projects, but also provoke the question of whether socialist photographers do not praise the modernist premises in the spirit of Le Corbusier? It is worth noticing here that both manners of representation – the one practiced by Wasilewski, the other by the postcard photographers – create a partial image of the Polish People’s Republic, accentuating certain aspects in line with the adopted vision while omitting the diversity and heterogeneity of city landscapes and their specific colourings, understood both literally and metaphorically.

The unfriendly late-autumn landscape, in which the heroines continue to cherish vague dreams of a better tomorrow, testifies to the failure of both the modernist and the socialist–modernist urban utopias. The framing underscores the women’s confinement within the frames of the flats, windows, and staircases, from which it is difficult to escape, since outside the estate there stretches an area of infertile, frozen, churned-up ground. The space lies in contrast to the characters’ verbally-expressed conviction that everything is now going to be better, prettier, and richer. In the cold anonymous landscape, it seems unlikely that those dreams will ever come true; the architecture of the estate delineates the characters’ sphere of action. Even religious life appears to be a failed escape, because the church stands on ground separated from the estate – as if spirituality were separated from everyday life. As Jakub Popielecki aptly notices in his review for Filmweb: After “Floating Skyscrapers”, the director is now showing us an anonymous estate of residential blocks in Poland, AD 1990; he follows in the steps of Kieślowski, peering into the flats, bedrooms, and souls of the residents. In 1983, in the middle of martial law, Martyna Jakubowicz sang that “there is no free love in concrete houses”, but “United States of Love” seems to prove that her song has lost none of its relevance 7 years later, after the political transformation. Wasilewski demonstrates that at the turning of the 1980s and 1990s, the staircases were still first and foremost… stair-cages. And yet, if someone asked you “Are you happy?”, it was only proper to answer “yes”. Just as it is the custom across the ocean, in the actual United States[24]. Popielecki points to the correspondence between the landscape created by Wasilewski and the lyrics of a popular song, although we should underline once more that this image of the Polish People’s Republic is incomplete. The reviewer also refers to an important conversation between Marzena and Iza, who ask one another if they are happy. Both reply in the affirmative, and Marzena concludes: This is quite decent of us. These words are, to me, an indication that the heroines’ living space is haunted by the specters of lost (as we can already predict in the present time of the film) futures.

In the prevailing atmosphere of the estate in United States of Love, we can sense the women’s hope for emancipation, for liberation from the patriarchal order. Marzena wants to have a career of her own, instead of permanently having to wait alone as her husband is making money abroad. Marzena and Iza transgress the norms of seduction and surrender imposed by the conservative sense of decency. Agata is emotionally very much engaged in an almost teenage-like infatuation with a priest, and at the same time accepts having sex without love with her husband. Renata stays in the shadows, but holds on to dreams of her love being fulfilled, adoring Marzena unobtrusively. Attempts to conjure the present and invoke the past are visible in the space around the heroines. Renata turns her flat into a fairy-tale garden. Marzena likes to live surrounded by the glamour of the West, wearing sparkly dresses or fluffy sweatshirts as an aerobics and dance teacher. Iza keeps abreast of the times, being fashionable and independent; although deep in her heart she longs after traditional stability – the role of lover does not satisfy her. Agata rents visions of a different – better? – reality to her customers, but she is not herself interested in switching from the model of family life to a more consumption-based one; she needs something totally different. We may presume that these dreams were aroused in the heroines by the carnival of freedom, still ongoing during the time of the film’s action.

Interestingly, one may get the impression that, in the world of United States of Love, there exists no history older than the time of the construction of the estate. The apartments in the film do not represent a stockpile of traces of past families. Surrounded by the moon-like landscape of the wasteland, they are evocative of theatrical decorations – provisional, temporary. Let us confront this observation with Iwona Kurz’s commentary on films portraying recent decades which pay meticulous detail to the reconstruction of the material and mental world of the era: What is frequently striking about films presenting the most recent history is their hyper-correctness. The strictly determined period of time and the chosen style lead to an excess of objects from a short time span – this does not correspond to reality, in the sense that the passing of time usually accumulates in layers and in many contemporary homes we can find objects from diverse epochs[25]. It is quite telling that the past in Wasilewski’s film is not, in fact, much spoken of, at most it is mentioned en passant; the characters’ gazes are turned toward the future. Kurz’s observation may be taken as criticism in relation to the group of films she refers to in her article[26]. However, in the case of United States of Love, this scenographic fabrication of a space lacking layers that reach deeper into the archeology of culture may be viewed as a conscious artistic strategy, which makes sense in the context of a hauntological analysis of the film.

A still form Tomasz Wasilewski's United States of Love

Wasilewski suggests to the viewer that the changes in life much awaited by the heroines will never (have never?) come true, which became the main point of criticism of the film: The gloom-mongering of the film’s author verges on myopia. Wasilewski seeks to uncover unwanted truths and tell repressed stories, but his manner is so serious that it is no more natural[27]. The pessimism and hopelessness emanating from the gray estates of residential blocks have also beguiled other filmmakers[28]. There seems to be a similar doom-laden aura hanging over the Warsaw district of Służew as reconstructed by Jan P. Matuszyński in his story of the Beksiński family (The Last Family; Ostatnia rodzina, 2016), on the Silesian housing estate in the somewhat forgotten Inferno by Maciej Pieprzyca (2001), and in the film adaptation of Wojciech Kuczok’s novel Muck (Gnój), directed by Magdalena Piekorz (The Welts; Pręgi, 2004). Such visions of the specters of lost futures resound with literary echoes from stories about blocks of housing estates that are to be found, for instance, in Joanna Bator’s books (Sandy Mountain; Piaskowa góra, 2009; Cloudalia; Chmurdalia, 2010) and which are generalized as narrations in the journalistic approach of Beata Chomątowska: For there are only two avenues of escape from a block: either to the other world, or – if you are lucky enough – abroad. Unless you hit the lottery[29].

The Haunted Concrete

The encounter with the specters of the future in the socialist estates of housing blocks – still haunted by ghosts of the past – may find its epilogue in photographs which also lend themselves easily to analysis in spectral terms[30] – for example, in Nicolas Grospierre’s photography project W-70 (2007). The results of his work, which can be viewed in the artist’s online portfolio[31], are photomontages comprised of series[32] of frontal shots of precast construction elements used in the W-70 system during the 1970s: balconies, entrance doors, concrete façade panels, windows, etc. The artist says that he used them as raw material in order to create visual and spatial situations in which the viewer will be able to admire the concrete housing blocks from various perspectives (literally and metaphorically)[33]. The project was prepared for the Concrete Heritage exhibition at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, which presented the concrete estates of housing blocks as the most profound consequence of the modernist architectural vision[34]. In the exhibition rooms, Grospierre’s photomontages were mounted in various forms, including three-dimensional “blocks” created, for example, from shots of balconies from different buildings or from a single façade of balconies. These works correspond with interpretations that can be found in the literature on socialist–modernist architecture, where housing block constructions are perceived as an instrument of political and social oppression, a means of control over the individual and of homogenization of society.

Nicolas Grospierre, W-70 (2007), courtesy of the artist

Nonetheless, we can discern in Grospierre’s shots the unsubdued will of the residents to personalize their standardized domiciles. The rainbow-coloured balconies, photo wallpapers, illegal building extensions, modifications, and ornaments captured in the artist’s lens bear witness to the aspirations – restricted by the available resources – to alternative modernities[35]. The provisional, old-fashioned, dubious, and often derided embellishments, which in the years before and during the Transformation were supposed to bring the socialist estates closer to the imagined West, become obsoletes of modernity[36], specters of the much awaited future. Grospierre’s photographs serve as a prism splitting the haunted present, bringing out the ghosts of the past and of the socialist distortion of the idea of modern architecture, as well as the still present, though anachronistic, specters of modernization and personalization of the blocks. The W-70 constructions, as photographed by the artist in our times, seem to be suspended in a derailed time, somewhere between the eras before and after the year 1989.

Fisher explains the concept of lost future as the acceptance of a situation in which culture would continue without really changing, and where politics was reduced to the administration of an already established (capitalist) system[37]. The cultural studies scholar claimed this state of affairs is largely due to the incapacity to imagine a reality radically different from the present one, which, in his opinion, is characteristic of societies (tacitly: Western societies) after the year 2000. The situation in Poland is obviously slightly different, since capitalism arrived here (again) with a delay, accompanying the much-sought-after change of political system. Almost thirty years after 1989, photographic and film works often return to the past, bringing back to mind hopes for total change; but are futuristic visions equally frequent? The settlements portrayed by Grospierre are haunted by recurring specters of an (im)possible future (to use Derrida’s language), which proves that nothing has actually changed, even now that we are so long after the Transformation. The living space of the residents of concrete housing estates is stained by time[38]. The photographer managed to capture this particular type of spectrality described by Fisher, oriented toward that which is yet supposed to come: The future is always experienced as a haunting: as a virtuality that already impinges on the present, conditioning expectations, and motivating cultural production[39]. Grospierre’s photographic series show this orientation toward the future, even though at the time when the project was created, that future had already come long ago and had been absorbed by permanent recurrence.

It should be emphasized that the photographer’s works do not “commodify” the remains of socialism, as other photographs or films tend to do[40]. In other words, W-70 and Grospierre’s other projects that focus on the architecture of socialist–modernism cannot be considered to be part of the nostalgia industry[41], which treats the remnants of the bygone era as commodities for sale, for instance in tourism. The deadpan aesthetics in the artist’s photographs show no sign of a nostalgic longing after the lost past and, to refer to Mazierska’s distinctions mentioned at the beginning of the text, do not beautify, nor demolish, nor preserve unchanged the city landscape. Grospierre’s works are rather a record of a present haunted by the specters of lost futures. At this point, we may ask to what extent the attitude of the photographer corresponds with the ethical dimension of hauntology, with its openness to the spectral claim for social justice. As Thomas Lahusen observes when writing about the socialist–modernist housing estates in Russia, Cuba, or China: these places have no gentrification or exhibition value, and people continue to live in these concrete ruins of socialism[42]. The impossibility of the Transformation being realized as long as these ruins stand is what turns these areas into spaces stained by time, attracting the specters of the past and of the future. The afterimages of the overthrown socialism still hovering over the concrete estates of housing blocks and the touches of an incomplete capitalism manifested in the appetite for luxurious goods and Western aesthetics that we find captured in Grospierre’s works exhibit the nature of specters as defined by Derrida: they are neither present, nor non-present, while recurring permanently.

The photomontages of precast construction elements of blocks also bring to mind the attitude of resistance, described by Fisher, toward the homogenization and the contraction of time and space. This can be seen when a place is stained by time, or when a particular place becomes the site for an encounter with broken time[43]. If we assume that the concrete socialist estates of housing blocks are an area of such encounter, it proves quite interesting to compare Grospierre’s documentation and reconfiguration with works from the Citymorphosis cycle by Marek Berezowski (2017), who photographed socialist–modernist housing estates in East Germany, Poland, Russia, and China as they stand today.

The Unrealized Metamorphoses

Citymorphosis is a sequence[44] of photographs showing how residential buildings, nature, communal spaces, and signs of transformation (playgrounds, advertisements, and icons of Western culture such as Mickey Mouse) can intermingle within a single view. The city in this project is treated rather as an anonymous space, because there are no captions below the photographs in the album and one can only find the index of specific locations at the end. The title suggests that the subject matter of the project is the metamorphosis of the city – the changes either completed or still ongoing. However, what the wide shots of the estates seem to be emphasizing is how these spaces endure, acting as stubborn reminders of the failed, utopian efforts of socialist–modernist urban policy, which aimed to create anticipation of an ideal future which is yet to come and which will unfold before the residents’ eyes. In his essay accompanying the photographs, the author, an anthropologist by training, situates his photographs in the context of postulates derived, among others, from Le Corbusier and based on the conviction that architecture can be used as an instrument of control over people in order to achieve social and political renewal – usually, as time has shown, by means of unification. We can compare Berezowski’s reflections with the image emerging from Lahusen’s essay: an image of the residents of blocks of housing estates who continue to live according to models of life established and perpetuated before the Transformation. The Polish photographer’s shots, presenting the decrepit and now anachronistic architectural creations, which we know failed to fulfill the hopes nursed by the urbanists, may be treated as an illustration of Lahusen’s statement that the building of socialism, in its concrete and metaphorical sense, was in a state of constant decay — in ruins — from the very beginning[45]. The residents of the blocks of housing estates captured by Berezowski still live in those ruins – spectral spaces where that which once was continually intermingles with what is yet to come; spaces overlooked by capitalism. Their full transformation has been made impossible by the permanent haunting of these spaces by the ghosts of socialism, modernism, and the projected future. Thus the title Citymorphosis seems ironic.

Marek Berezowski, Citymorphosis (2013–2017), courtesy of the artist

Berezowski’s project captures the tension between the urbanist unification that was widespread over a vast part of Europe and the signs of resistance visible in the exterior areas of the giant housing estates: the footpaths between certain points beaten illegally by the residents, playgrounds adjusted by the users and their parents to suit their favorite games, idle land, and small gardens in the administrative gray zone. These shots bring to mind Lahusen’s words once more: As to the space beyond the border of the flat, it was, and still is, a no man’s land open to all hazards, private and collective, including those of nature[46]. The photographer–anthropologist corroborates this observation, showing us buildings in a much wider perspective than Grospierre. In W-70, the traces of lost futures shine through in the modifications introduced by the residents into the blocks, while Berezowski captures those specters in the communal spaces between the blocks.

Specters of Marx and Capitalism are Haunting Small Towns

Both blocks of flats and residential houses, as well as the communal and no man’s lands beside them, are the subject matter of the photographs belonging to the Disco polo cycle (2016) by Paulina Korobkiewicz. The photographer portrays the forgotten and neglected small towns of Eastern Poland, often referred to by the pejorative “Poland B”. In Disco polo, there are colourful blocks of flats (let us be reminded here of the title of another of Grospierre’s projects – Kolorobloki, literally “colour-blocks”), but also streets, roadside advertisements, trashcans, disco clubs, public squares, parking lots, stores… The artist adopts the vernacular perspective[47]; disclosing peripheral territories, she draws the viewer’s attention to the local. Her photographs portray the combination of the ruins of socialism and the influences of the West after 1989. Beside dilapidated sports grounds, faded murals, and pieces of furniture in a dumpster, we see fake palm trees in the courtyards of countryside settlements, multicoloured neon signs, artificial bison advertising beer, and kitsch advertising banners obliterating the views; a whole chaos of appendages and embellishments intended to overcome the grayness and monotony of the landscape in the Polish People’s Republic. The title of the cycle is a reference to a popular style of music that emerged in the context of system transformation, characterized by simplistic melodic lines and naïve, sometimes coarse (or, perhaps we should say, blokeish), lyrics, which is usually perceived as a form of entertainment of rather little refinement. Disco polo was the product of a society aspiring to a consumption-based lifestyle, an attempt to come closer to a vision of the West constructed upon images from entertainment films and colour magazines. Korobkiewicz seeks to track the traces of how the inhabitants of small, more slowly developing towns made efforts to hasten their entrance into the desired world of prosperity – such as they imagined it to be like at the threshold of the capitalist system. Looking at the photographs, we could form the hypothesis that these attempts continue to be made, as if the transformation has not been entirely realized – the artificial bison on the lawn beside a local bar or the freshly pasted photo wallpapers are clearly not that old.

Paulina Korobkiewicz, Disco polo (2016), courtesy of the artist

In an essay discussing Disco polo, the anthropologist Natalia Domagała empathizes with the naïve pursuit of metamorphosis: When we look at them now, the pseudo-American bars and multicoloured billboards tell a dramatic tale of a search for identity and a desperate need for belonging. Once an object of shame and disrespect, they are today a diary of transformation, a path from socialism to the free market and the personal conflicts that accompany it, a history of complexes and acceptance, an account of generational changes, a memory of the uncomfortable past and the permanently enduring hope for a better tomorrow [48]. What is spectral about the small-town and countryside landscapes captured by Korobkiewicz is the varnished-on Western aesthetic that fails to conceal the archeological layers of the past which shine through and, as Lahusen argues, continually fuse with the present. We know today that the capitalist reality proved to be different from the imaginings cherished in 1989; in terms of economic and cultural development, it left the peripheral areas of the country way behind, sometimes even inhibiting their economic growth. The works of the young artist, who originated in Eastern Poland, portray the still-ongoing Transformation as if in its initial stage, so that we can guess what the inhabitants longed for and dreamed about, eager to erase the socialist past as fast as possible (hence the furniture from the People’s Republic period or fake ferns in dumpsters and the renovated buses) by imitating Western, global aesthetics and lifestyles. But hauntology opposes homogenization, and the specters of the socialist past and capitalist lost futures emerge in Korobkiewicz’s works from objects marked by the derailed time she has managed to capture.

An Attempt to Both Conclude and Open Up

Hauntology derives from weak thought and the end of hard metaphysics, thus it also suspends the clear-cut structure of texts with an introduction, body, and conclusion. Since creation is always a process of writing with others and recording others, a gesture of conclusion is rather an opening and an invitation to place a countersignature[49] – says Marzec by way of a summary in his book. So, here I would like to give voice to those thoughts and subjects that have not been expressly articulated in the article.

The film and photographic representations I have referred to are inscribed, in my opinion, in the spectral discourse, in that they situate the image in a time and space touched by stained time. The present (of the action) of United States of Love is replete with specters of expected though never realized futures and the film’s characters continue to live in the shadow of a past which, apparently, does not want to pass. The places photographed by Grospierre, Berezowski, and Korobkiewicz also refer to a “now” infected with disjointed time; they preserve within themselves that which has passed together with what has not come; they bear witness to the fact that space also can be haunted. The spectral aspect of the Era of Transformation also points to a trend quite unrelated to the commodification of the socialist past seen in the tourism or souvenir industries – it points to the fact that the past from before 1989 has not been forgotten in the everyday life of many, and its spectral (non)presence determines our inhabiting of space and time. The spacetime after the Transformation is pictured as heterogeneous, hybridized – it mixes within itself promises of the past and impossible futures, as Derrida would say. Thus the cinematic and photographic visions, with discernible similarities between them, shape the collective memory of an audience who do not have their own memories from just before and after the year 1989. It is also significant that the authors of the works discussed in this article were themselves either children or teenagers at that time.

Nicolas Grospierre, W-70 (2007), courtesy of the artist

The spectral approach to films and photographs that return to the recent past around the Era of Transformation opens up new paths worth examining in reflections on artistic creation, both in Poland and in other countries of the former Socialist Bloc. Questions and topics that appear to me to be worth further exploration include: What is the scope of the spectral style in the visual culture of other regions? Can we speak of a transnational/transcultural phenomenon? What is the relationship between spectrality – especially in the cinematic industry – and economics? How is the representation of the epoch influenced by sources of financing and co-productions? To what extent are the specters of lost futures still inhibiting full transformation? How is the tension between (post)socialist uniformization, capitalist globalization, and vernacularism manifested in various places – in large and small cities and towns, in the countryside, and across various countries that experienced the communist system?

Finally, in order to do justice to Derrida’s intention, a more in-depth reflection would be necessary on the ethical dimension of hauntological cinema and photography. The French philosopher situates his project within the domain of justice: If I am getting ready to speak at length about ghosts, inheritance, and generations, generations of ghosts, which is to say about certain “others” who are not present, nor presently living, either to us, in us, or outside us, it is in the name of “justice”. This means “responsibility” (…) before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead (…)[50]. Giving voice to specters, as the filmmakers and photographers did, is already a gesture of response to the calling of the Other, a step toward justice. The next step belongs to scholars[51].


Translated by Blanka Domachowska

[1] J. Derrida, Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. P. Kamuf, Routledge, New York and London, 2006, p. 45. [back]
[2] See I. Kurz, Wytwarzanie Peerelu, [In:] Delfin w malinach. Snobizmy i obyczaje ostatniej dekady, ed. Ł. Najder et al., Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2017. [back]
[3] On the subject of nostalgic film see F. Jameson, Postmodernism and Consumer Society, [In:] The Cultural Turn. Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983–1998, Verso, London, 1998; idem, Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, Durham 1991, pp. 279–298. [back]
[4] Cf. S. Reynolds, Retromania. Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, Faber and Faber, New York 2011, p. xxx. According to the author, retromania in contemporary culture always invokes a past that is recent, that has not yet fallen into oblivion, and whose products are still easily accessible. [back]
[5] E. Mazierska, Demolish, Preserve or Beautify. Representations of the Remnants of Socialism in Polish Postcommunist Cinema, [In]: Postcommunist Film – Russia, Eastern Europe and World Culture. Moving Images of Postcommunism, ed. L. Kristensen, Routledge, London 2012, p. 107. Mazierska claims that by analyzing representations of those remnants of socialism we learn how the society of postcommunist Poland perceives the traces of time from before the year 1989. In her interpretation of three films portraying people living in places deeply embedded in the past – Little Moscow (Mała Moskwa, dir. W. Krzystek, 2008), Reserve (Rezerwat, dir. Ł. Palkowski, 2007) and Ode to Joy (Oda do radości, dir. J. Komasa, A. Kazejak, M. Migas, 2006) – she distinguishes three attitudes toward the material and symbolic remnants of socialism: the desire to demolish, preserve, or beautify them. [back]
[6] Ibid. [back]
[7] J. Derrida, op. cit., p. 10. [back]
[8] A. Marzec, Widmontologia. Teoria filozoficzna i praktyka artystyczna ponowoczesności, Fundacja Bęc Zmiana, Warszawa 2015, p. 229. On the subject of hauntology in the context of epistemology, modern theories and practices in art, and the new paradigm of thinking about modernity, see also J. Momro, Widmontologie nowoczesności. Genezy, Instytut Badań Literackich PAN, Warszawa 2014. [back]
[9] J.A. Weinstock, The Spectral Turn, [In:] Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination, ed. J.A. Weinstock, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison 2004, p. 3. [back]
[10] M. Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Zero Books, Winchester, Washington 2016; idem, What is Hauntology?, “Film Quarterly” 2012, vol. 66, no. 1 (Fall), pp. 16–24. [back]
[11] O. Drenda, Duchologia polska. Rzeczy i ludzie w latach transformacji, Karakter, Kraków 2016, p. 8. [back]
[12] Ibid, p. 14. [back]
[13] I am obviously referring here to the sentence from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The time is out of joint, which Jacques Derrida deconstructs in his project, thus laying foundations for hauntology (l’hantologie) – specters haunt precisely that broken present time which is a dis-located time of the present, at the joining of a radically dis-jointed time, without certain conjunction. Not a time whose joinings are negated, broken, mistreated, dysfunctional, disadjusted (…) but a time without “certain” joining or determinable conjunction. J. Derrida, Specters of Marx, op. cit., p. 20. [back]
[14] Cf. M. Fisher, Ghosts of My Life…, op. cit., p. 30. [back]
[15] Cf. O. Drenda, op. cit., p. 16. [back]
[16] Cf. M. Fisher, Ghosts of My Life…, op. cit., pp. 14–37. [back]
[17] Ibid., p. 19. [back]
[18] Ibid., p. 20. [back]
[19] Fisher uses the terms cancelled and lost interchangeably. [back]
[20] B. Chomątowska, Betonia. Dom dla każdego, Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2018, p. 56. [back]
[21] Translator's note: In Poland, people celebrate the day of the saint who bears their name in much the same way as birthdays are celebrated. [back]
[22] I. Kurz, op. cit., p. 80. Interestingly, the grayness of the housing estates of blocks, which we so readily associate with the gloomy estates of post-war socialist countries, is an aesthetics shaped in the interwar period. Beata Chomątowska describes, for instance, the construction of Betondorp in the Eastern suburbs of Amsterdam in the years 1923–1925: The novelty put off the curious eyes with its colours. In line with the designers’ premise, the concrete, even though adorned by means of various techniques, was supposed not to pretend to be anything it is not. So the gray dominated in the streets, dotted only with the colorful spots of doors. B. Chomątowska, op. cit., pp. 51–52. [back]
[23] O. Drenda, op. cit., p. 23. [back]
[24] J. Popielecki, Matki, żony i kochanki, (accessed: 4.11.2018). [back]
[25] I. Kurz, op. cit., p. 81. [back]
[26] These include, among others, Reverse (Rewers, dir. Borys Lankosz, 2009), The Red Spider (Czerwony Pająk, dir. Marcin Koszałka, 2015), The Art of Loving (Sztuka kochania, dir. Maria Sadowska, 2017), The Lure (Córki Dancingu, dir. Agnieszka Smoczyńska, 2015), The Last Family (Ostatnia rodzina, dir. Jan P. Matuszyński, 2016), and Blindness (Zaćma, dir. Ryszard Bugajski, 2016). [back]
[27] J. Popielecki, op. cit. [back]
[28] On the subject of the motif of blocks and their various representations in Polish culture, see the TV series Block (Blok), dir. Tomasz Knittel, 2018, TVP Kultura channel,,36759304# (accessed: 15.11.2018). [back]
[29] B. Chomątowska, op. cit., p. 20. [back]
[30] To be sure, the first researcher to have performed a hauntological analysis and interpretation of the photographs of the postsocialist city landscape is Katarzyna Marciniak. According to her, Kamil Turowski’s Streets of Crocodiles, a cycle dedicated to Łódź (2010; selected photographs from the cycle available at:, reveals the accumulation of substantial and mental remnants of the times before 1989. Commenting on Turowski’s photographs, Marciniak also demonstrates that the dynamic and rapidly spreading transformations which have taken place in formerly socialist and communist societies have not erased the habits of thought and cultural patterns that have hitherto existed. These transformations result rather in the creation of hybridized cultures, an often uncanny material and emotional architecture that mixes enduring socialist realities with the welcome arrival of Western goods, images, and new models of desirable identities (K. Marciniak, Postsocialist Hybrids, [In:] Streets of Crocodiles. Photography, Media and Postsocialist Landscapes in Poland, Photographs by Kamil Turowski, Introduction by J. Hoberman, Essays by Katarzyna Marciniak, Intellect, Bristol, Chicago 2010, p. 119). In the shots presenting the heterogeneous spaces of Łódź, the researcher discovers the specters of homophobia, racism and sexism showing stubbornly through the superficial, globalized – Western? – identity. She also emphasizes the ethical dimension of the hauntological perspective, which draws attention to those who were doomed to oblivion, deprived of voice and visibility, who were not respected – the Jewish people, the poor, the culturally alienated. In her reading of Streets of Crocodiles, Marciniak focuses on the specters of the past by highlighting the collapsing buildings, the shabby walls, the material backwardness and the ubiquitous hostility toward the Other. In Turowski’s photographs – which Marciniak does not fail to observe – these remnants are contrasted with signs of the new reality, such as advertising posters, signboards of travel agencies, etc. Confronted with the traces of the past, these signs of modernity seem just as faded and anachronistic as the unfulfilled hopes associated with the Transformation. [back]
[31] (accessed: 5.11.2018). [back]
[32] I am referring here to the terms used by the French historian of art, Serge Teskrat, who, in relation to photographic cycles, introduces a distinction between series and sequences. What is characteristic of series in general is the repeated manner of taking the shots and presenting the photographed objects (e.g., framing, perspective, cropping), whereas in sequences we notice the repetitiveness and reproducibility of individual motifs, such as the architectural objects of Hilla and Bernd Becher or August Sander’s sociological types. See S. Teskrat, La photographie post-moderne: réflexions sur les relations entre les arts plastiques et la photographie, Éd. Mirandole, Treillières 1998, p. 71 ff. [back]
[33] (accessed: 5.11.2018). [back]
[34] Ibid. [back]
[35] See A. Appadurai, Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis–London 1996. [back]
[36] See A. Marzec, op. cit., pp. 229–250. [back]
[37] M. Fisher, What is Hauntology…, p. 16. [back]
[38] Ibid., p. 19. [back]
[39] Ibid., p. 16. [back]
[40] See E. Mazierska, op. cit.; T. Lahusen, Decay or Endurance? The Ruins of Socialism, “The Slavic Review” vol. 65, no. 4 (Winter, 2006), pp. 736–746. [back]
[41] See T. Lahusen, op. cit., p. 736. [back]
[42] Ibid, p. 738. [back]
[43] M. Fisher, What is Hauntology…, p. 19. [back]
[44] See endnote 32 on Teskrat’s definitions of series and sequences. [back]
[45] T. Lahusen, op. cit., p. 736. [back]
[46] Ibid. [back]
[47] On the vernacular perspective in Polish postcommunist cinema, see E. Mazierska, Leading Tendencies in Polish Postcommunist Cinema: Auteurism, Genre, Vernacularism, [In:] Visegrad Cinema: Points of Contact from the New Waves To the Present, ed. P. Hanáková, K.B. Johnson, Nakladatelstvi Casablanca, Praha 2013; on the vernacular magical realism in the cinema of Central and Eastern Europe see also A. Skrodzka, Magic Realist Cinema in East Central Europe, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2014. [back]
[48] N. Domagała, American dreams. How colorful kitsch overtook eastern Poland post-1989, (accessed: 6.11.2018). [back]
[49] A. Marzec, op. cit., p. 286. [back]
[50] J. Derrida, op. cit., p. xviii. [back]
[51] See ibid., pp. 11–13. [back]


Haunted Times. Specters in New Polish Cinema and Photography

In the paper I analyze the images of socialist–modernist housing estates created in the film United States of Love, directed by Tomasz Wasilewski (2016), and in the photographic series W-70 by Nicolas Grospierre (until 2007). I also examine the architecture of cities and towns captured by Marek M. Berezowski in the series Citymorphosis (2017) and by Paulina Korobkiewicz in Disco Polo (2017). Focusing on traces of the past and anticipations of the future(s) inscribed in film and photographs, I compare these images in the context of Jacques Derrida’s hauntology and Mark Fisher’s cultural studies.

Key words: hauntology, specter, ethics, socialist modernism, modernism, architecture, photography, Transformation

Justyna Hanna Budzik: assistant professor at the Institute of Culture Studies at the University of Silesia, Katowice, with a Ph.D. in humanities in the field of cultural studies (Faculty of Philology, 2012). Film researcher and teacher of Polish for foreigners; she completed post-graduate studies in the history of art. Awarded the Inka Brodzka-Wald Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in modern humanities (2013). Lecturer of Polish at INALCO in Paris (2016/2017), beneficiary of the Fulbright Slavic Award at the University of Washington in Seattle (2017/2018). Author of the books: Film Marvels and Magic Tricks; Sketches from the Archeology of Cinema (Filmowe cuda i sztuczki magiczne. Szkice z archeologii kina, Katowice 2015); and The Touch of Light. On the Sensual Experience of Cinema (Dotyk światła. O zmysłowym doznawaniu kina, Katowice 2012). Coauthor (together with Agnieszka Tambor) of the study Polish Film Shelf. Short Live-Action and Animated Films in Teaching Polish for Foreigners (Polska półka filmowa. Krótkometrażowe filmy aktorskie i animowane w nauczaniu języka polskiego jako obcego, Katowice 2018). Her professional and research activity is focused on film education. She writes an educational blog: Member of the Foundation for Film and Photography in Katowice (

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