I only recently discovered Tadeusz Chmielewski. His 1958 Eve Wants to Sleep is a lightly comic film, sometimes critical of the Polish government, at times (and when at its best) reminiscent of a gentler Czech New Wave film mixed with Pierre Etaix.
The narrative revolves around Eve (Barbara Lass) who, as the title suggests, just wants to sleep. She can’t for various reasons. And, as we’re told in a musical overture, Poland isn’t a safe place at night.
Some of that danger – well, basically all of it – is presented comically. The riffraff of Poland are maybe violent, but they’re fun to watch and no less incompetent than the police. This sequence, the intro to a gang of street thugs, feels so Soviet Montage in its stark close-ups:
Eve Wants to Sleep really picks up steam once Eve is initially foiled from renting a room (in part because she fills out the owner’s crossword puzzle). Chmielewski leans on two extended gag-heavy sequences, one in a police station, the other in women’s housing.
The police station sequence revolves largely around mistaken identity and that aforementioned police ineptitude. The jail is empty and that won’t do, so the cops import a prisoner. When Eve locks herself in the arms room they have to recruit that same prisoner to take on the role of police officer:
The rooming sequence is superior and really strong. In search of a place to sleep a police officer walks Eve to the location. Unbeknownst to him – but well known to the owner – all the women have their significant others visiting, a practice which is outlawed.
One of the best gags involves a man exiting a room by window via a bucket on a rope. Later, when Eve shows up to that same room she’s recruited by the desperate tenant to sit on the bed so that the bed doesn’t get pulled to the window, causing the man to plunge down several stories:
Eve Wants to Sleep is a really great second act, bookended by two cute, solid ones. Chmielewski is much more montage-driven in this one than in Quiet is the Night.
Quiet is the Night
A twenty year gap between these two films is hugely evident in Chmielewski’s blocking. It’s so much more fluid and active in Quiet is the Night, a psychological thriller with a pretty devastating, if sometimes pushing the envelope of suspension of disbelief, denouement.
The film is indebted to M. A child serial killer terrorizes the streets. Piotr Lysak plays Wiktor, a young student who is constantly at odds with his tyrannical police chief father. Independently of his dad, Wiktor conducts his own investigation of the murders.
There are some romantic undertones to Wiktor’s friendship with his friend Bernard (Mirosław Konarowski). Some of it is in Wiktor’s desperation about all things Bernard, some of it is the way that Chmielewski treats them in his blocking, which remains close, and verges on the melodramatic.
Here’s a close look at one such scene where Wiktor and Bernard meet in their secret spot – the ship on which they plan to leave for the summer.
Wiktor enters first and sits into a medium shot:
Bernard comes in next. Chmielweski first finds them in a two shot, before Bernard sits next to his friend:
Frustrated, Wiktor leans back. Chmielweski’s handheld camera tracks swiftly left to right, reframing:
Eventually Bernard stands, pacing, and Chmielweski finally goes into some coverage – pretty rare in this film within any given scene. The camera first pans and tilts up with Bernard, before cutting to a reverse on Wiktor:
Back to the fluid master as Bernard sits again:
And Chmielweski ends in shot-reverse:
So many scenes in Quiet is the Night play in similar ways, coverage-wise. There’s little of it, the characters move a lot, and the camera follows in a handheld master. There’s a jitteriness to the frame and it all feels so natural. It’s such an advancement from a kind of expressionist montage to something much more like realism from 1958 to 1978. Similarly, Poland has changed a lot in that time. In this film the danger is palpable. Random strangers aren’t there to help or for comic relief – they’re potentially life-threatening.
In this particular scene Chmielweski keeps bringing the characters back to the 2-shot. A true close-up is rare – or maybe I should say a true single. The emphasis is obvious: the friendship is key. This is at odds with scenes of Wiktor and his father.
Immediately after watching Quiet is the Night I watched a modern TV show on Netflix that will remain unnamed. It’s a good show, by a director whose work I enjoy. But the show just felt so static and blandly formal coming off of Chmielweski’s energetic film. That’s the real coup of Quiet is the Night.