30 Door Key
Poland / UK / France, 1991
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 23 May 2014
Source Vision DVD
Little seen, Ferdydurke is the film that led to Jerzy Skolimowski’s seventeen-year silence as a director—a disappointed Skolimowski withdrew to his house in Malibu and devoted himself to painting1 and the occasional acting role (Mars Attacks!, (Eastern Promises)[/reviews/easternpromises]). You could say the film is doubly obscure. Firstly, its distribution was very different from Skolimowski’s other films. An essential film like Success Is the Best Revenge might be hard to see today, but in its day was widely seen, noted and written about on the international festival and arthouse circuit. This is very unlike the fate of Ferdydurke, which was only seen in Poland, France and Latin America.2
The second level of obscurity lies in the film’s source, a 1937 novel by Witold Gombrowicz. Gombrowicz (1904-1969) is regarded by many Poles as one of the greatest writers of his century but, viewed from outside Poland, “probably the most important twentieth-century novelist most Western readers have never heard of”3 seems a fair summation. (I confess: I’ve barely registered his name and never read anything by him.) The obscurity carries through right to the film’s very title, a meaningless nonsense word; even the alternative English title 30 Door Key - that’s what appears in the credits of the version I’ve seen - hardly seems that much clearer, although it is in fact a reference to the thirty years of age of the main character Joey. In any case, Skolimowski’s cinematic return to his homeland, an adaptation of a beloved and admired modern classic and at the same time his first film shot in Poland since the sixties, seems to have been a way for him to connect with Poland and the Poles that he had lived for so long in exile from. It’s an assertion of his own Polish identity but it’s an assertion which, in characteristic Skolimowskian style and in the spirit of Gombrowicz, he ironises, mocks, and calls into question. Still, it has to be said that the return-to-the-homeland nature of the enterprise is rather undermined by Skolimowski’s casting the film with a mixture of British, American, French and Polish actors and dubbing the non-native speakers into English.
This “Englishing” of Gombrowicz is a sore point with some Polish critics. Ewa Mazierska, author of the only book in English on Skolimowski4, is a case in point. For her the film never succeeds in conveying Gombrowicz’s thematic, linguistic and philosophical concerns, a failure in essence because of Skolimowski’s initial decision to propose an English adaptation.5 Now, European cinema is littered with examples of the problematic dubbing into English of multi-national casts. (In Skolimowski’s case, see The Adventures of Gerard, King Queen Knave, and Torrents of Spring.) Where alternative language versions exist, there’s the added problem of which one to choose. Do you opt for the English Leopard for the sake of Burt Lancaster, or the Italian one in order to avoid the flat mid-Atlantic voices of so many of the other characters? Yet, given Skolimowski’s premise of offering an English adaptation, I think his dubbing here works. He has used different accents of British English as a way of delineating Ferdydurke’s class-bound world of pre-World War II Poland, of distinguishing between the affected middle-class Youngs, Joey’s own upper-class family, and the world of the servants. If anything, Skolimowski needed to be more consistent here, by dubbing his own voice—in his cameo as the school headmaster, his accented English seems out of place set against that of Iain Glen and Robert Stephens.
Ferdydurke is anything but a failure, certainly not deserving its neglect or the opprobrium of - it seemed at the time - ending Skolimowski’s career. If anything, it’s quintessentially Skolimowskian, with his characteristic taste for the absurd and the surreal, sly, mocking humour, throwaway jokes, and brief bizarre digressions that seem to lead nowhere.6 The opening set-up is like something out of Kafka, where an absurd, “unrealistic” premise is then carried through to its logical extremes. Joey, just turned thirty and the author of a recently-published “brilliant first novel,” is visited in his lodgings by a former teacher, Professor Pimko, who declares his education is lacking - “Gaps have to be filled” - and proceeds to drag him back to school.
This opening sequence with its first-person voice-over is posited as being from Joey’s perspective but this is then undermined by Skolimowski’s camerawork. We cut from Joey to Pimko’s appearance first as a Magritte-like bowler hat, his face entirely blocked by the head of the maid standing in front of him, and then as a silhouette in the frosted glass of the door to Joey’s room. The return shot of Joey as he tries to hide from Pimko, a shot which appears to have the same status as the first one, reflecting Joey’s perspective on events, then turns into a hand-held shot from Pimko’s point-of-view; his hand even moves into the frame to seize a copy of Joey’s novel. In visual terms, the ground is already shifting beneath Joey’s feet. This more objective take on Joey has been hinted at by the film’s opening theme music, a repetitive thirties-style dance number whose mocking qualities become ever clearer as it returns again and again throughout the film.
Immediately infantilised, Joey regresses to the state of a school boy within an adult body (his age as reflected in his body is now never acknowledged by another character). He allows himself to be pushed, pulled, and directed by Pimko: has his tie put on for him, his hair straightened, told to blow his nose, not to dawdle, when to use the bathroom, to copy Pimko in using the school spittoons. The film follows Joey-as-schoolboy in three settings. The first is at school, where Joey in fact seems not that out of place as his schoolmates are also played by adult actors; its principal scene is a duel of face-making between the grimacing Mientus and the innocent-looking Fizz, a symbolic assault on the “phoney horrible masks” imposed by society. The second setting is the home of the affected middle-class Youngs, a family that affects a modern attitude to sexuality (the mother reacts “What of it? Marvellous!” to the possibility that her teenage daughter Zoo might have been picked up in the street, the father declares “the age of virginity is dead”) which proves hollow and collapses into a Feydeau-like bedroom farce. Here, Joey struggles with his attraction to and his simultaneous desire to escape from the charms of Zoo, “the Modern Schoolgirl.” Finally, the setting shifts to the country estate of Joey’s uncle and aunt. It’s here that a re-encounter with his old love, his cousin Sophie, now engaged to a German, forces an eventual return to adulthood. More significantly, it’s here that Joey’s schoolmate Mientus realises his romantic project to connect with the lower classes (“to eat black bread with the farmhands and gallop through the fields with the stable lads”) by befriending Tom, a servant of Joey’s uncle, an act which will lead to the collapse of the social order into meaningless revolutionary anarchy just as war is about to break out.
The class-bound society of Ferdydurke is in its death throes, dancing on the edge of the volcano. Smug and solipsistic, it’s blind to its own exhaustion and to the signs all around of the war that is to come. There’s a running background refrain of radio broadcasts, coded military announcements and sirens, all of which the characters ignore. Signs are misread—as Skolimowski visualises near the end of the film in a big comic scene at a tennis exhibition match. A stray bullet from Filidor and Filibert’s nearby duel strikes a general in the audience who falls on the young woman sitting in front of him, who herself then stumbles forward onto the court with the general (injured? dead? dying?) on her back. Immediately a host of young couples join them in imitation, turning it into some kind of bacchanal celebration, while the older generation is simply affronted by the lack of decorum. But the serious point of this comedy is that no-one here is aware of what has really occurred.
Yet it’s not as if the working class or the peasantry are offered as a positive counterbalance to the compromised middle and upper classes. If you are to read from the film any political viewpoint in Skolimowski, it’s as likely to be as conservative as the society he portrays—just more anarchic. The lower classes appear literally as animals, rutting in the mud next to a dog kennel, barking wildly, threatening a violence that is immediately defused by the arrival of an aristocrat (Joey’s aunt) and her command to return to the kitchen. The servants have as much an unquestioning belief in the social system as their masters, but that belief is balanced on a knife-edge where one small incident can upset everything—just as, earlier, Joey’s sudden baby-talk reduced Mr Young to paroxysms of laughter. (Skolimowski’s mise-en-scene with its narratively unmotivated foregrounding of unrelated figures - a line of nuns, for example, or of gas-masked citizens rhythmically raising their torches up and down - underlines this inherent instability.)
The tipping-point here is Mientus’ attempts to make friends across class boundaries with servant Tom. To compensate for Joey’s default-aristocratic slapping of Tom - he couldn’t think of anything to say to him - Mientus begs Tom to slap him, and from the first real blow that Tom metes out his deference and loyalty to his masters immediately collapse, infecting the entire social system around him. This revolt of the lower classes is a revolution in form only, lacking any political agenda, an expression of aimless, random violence and destruction. But, as Joey’s voice-over states, “everything was coming to an end.” Rescuing Sophie from the violence, he carries her off - he himself calls it an abduction - in a small boat down the river and starts to kiss and undress her. Her reaction? “Joseph! Your face! You look mature.” But what kind of maturity is this? It’s more a self-abnegation and withdrawal from all—after all, he quickly returns Sophie to her family and the last we see of Joey is of him first slowly dropping to the bottom of the boat and then stretched out on his back, drifting down the river, as the film ends in documentary footage of the destruction wrought on Poland by the Nazi invasion. The compromised social order that we’ve just observed at the point of collapse is now consumed in the fires of Blitzkrieg. And it’s perhaps the most radical sign of Skolimowski’s irony7 that he brings back that mocking dance theme, layering it over the final shots of a burning Warsaw, as if this is just the final chain in a long, black, sick joke.