OLIVIA BERKOWICZ “WHEN A GAME IS JUST A GAME IT’S NO FUN.”
Departing from the subcultural youth of 1960s Poland, their anti-structural ideas and the emergence of the bohemian proto-hipster in Polish socialism, Olivia Berkowicz uses Andrzej Wajda's 1960 cinematic masterpiece Innocent Sorcerers in order to explore the relationship between play and space.
The Banana Youth and the Local Political Context
On June 28th, 1956, a throng of 100,000 workers gathered in the city center of Poznań, at the Polish Ministry of Public Security. Demanding better working conditions with slogans, such as Żądamy chleba! (We want bread!), almost eighty percent of the workers at Joseph Stalin's Metal Industries took to the streets to demonstrate against authoritarian laws that eroded the civil and economic rights of labourers. Yet, these developments are related to several milestones that have remained ingrained in the socio-political history of Poland: on the one hand, the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, and, on the other, the significance of Nikita Khrushchev’s speech during the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February the 20th, 1956. Together with the workers’ strike in Poznań, these episodes are wholly constitutive of the fruition of the Polish October Revolution in 1956. In fact, these events provoked a spark of hope toward the liberalisation of Poland’s civil society, as a consequence of the recently initiated process of de-Stalinisation. This hopeful ambience did not last long, as in October 1956, Władysław Gomułka rose to power as the new leader of the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL).
In university cities across Poland, anti-authoritarian factions flourished as subcultural groups of dissent. In cellars, basements, and other semi-public spaces, a movement of academic youth began to produce journals of critique and artistic theaters. Described in a depreciative manner by the communist authorities as bananowa młodzież (banana youth), they coagulated into a counter-cultural movement that consisted mostly of the offspring of elite party officials. Through the prism of the government’s keen attempts to delegitimise these specific iterations of micro-communities, the banana youth of the early 1960s is, undoubtedly, worthy of further investigation. Listening to jazz and tuning into Radio Free Europe’s frequencies, the subcultural youth of 1960s Poland created localised pockets of anti-structural ideas—which, not surprisingly, would later become the driving force behind the student protests in Poland of March, 1968.
I became interested in the counter-cultural habits of PRL’s youth after watching Andrzej Wajda’s film Innocent Sorcerers. As a film, it functions on the border between a historical document and fiction, an imaginary world of proto-hipsters and bohemian youth drifting, running, frolicking in Warsaw. Interestingly, the phrase ‘Innocent Sorcerers’ is borrowed from the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz’s romantic drama Dziady, which was banned in January 1968 by the government authorities from being performed at the National Theatre in Warsaw—and came to spark the student protests of that very same year. For this reason, Wajda’s film was prescient—prescient of the importance of the youth movement in Poland and their subcultural agency in resisting the authoritarian infrastructures in which they had to live.
Upon its arrival on Polish cinema screens in 1960, Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers instigated an outcry—immoral, anti-authoritarian, cynical! The plot is a generational portrait, where Wajda investigates his immediate contemporary condition. We, as viewers, follow Andrzej, a sports doctor whose lifestyle revolves around smoking expensive cigarettes, who is very fond of fine nylon socks, and plays the drums in a jazz band. Andrzej is distanced and detached—he dates women in his free time while recording their erotic conversations on his tape recorder. Living the easy life, he roams the city of Warsaw at night with his friends, frequenting jazz bars in order to find his objects of affection. One night, he happens to meet Pelagia—an elusive young woman who agrees to enter into Andrzej’s world of romantic game-play. Innocent and imaginative, they enact a dialogue of strategic actions, one player makes a move to which the other responds. Pelagia follows Andrzej to his apartment, where they continue their elaborate social game disguised as discussions of philosophy and ethics. She spends the night.
However, in order to understand the political potential of Wajda’s film, one needs to see beyond the veneer of the characters’ cool detachment from civic life and morality. Furthermore, I argue that the film presents fruitful conditions for studying alternative structural tools used in order to resist the authoritarian ideological structures. Focusing on Warsaw’s urban fabric, I make use of anthropological theories of play and games as a tool for teasing out certain symbolic and aesthetic currents within Innocent Sorcerers. Playfulness is habitually seen as the innocent imaginary site of childlike explorations—however, in my view, Wajda’s film is an indispensable document of how a generation of young people sought to destabilise the insidious forces of socialist indoctrination. I discuss play as a structure which resists the totalitarian ideologies of urban planning and how the characters seek to avoid it. Firstly, I analyse the architectural space of the MDM (Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa) in Warsaw, as a deterministic space that utilises sophisticated urban planning for the control of subjectivities across space. Secondly, I discuss the ludic practices of the cinematic characters, and how they seek to resist these forces. Drawing on concepts from the fields of game and play theory, I look at the play world as a temporary spatial fantasy that resists the socialist state’s ideology of efficiency and dehumanisation.
The MDM as space of socialist subjectivity
In the opening shot of Innocent Sorcerers, we are faced with the poster of the film within the film itself. By destabilising the sense of reality, the narrative introduces itself as a meta-film. The camera further pans out from the poster toward Mirka—the protagonist’s love interest—who is portrayed roaming around Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa (MDM), Warsaw’s renowned housing estate. The choice of the mise-en-scène is surely not coincidental, as the MDM was an emblematic template alluding to urban regeneration and, ultimately, representing the socialist city of the future. Moreover, the MDM was symbolic of the new urban infrastructure of socialist realism, and was erected in 1952 as ‘Constitution Square’ in central Warsaw. Together with the Palace of Culture, MDM was to serve as the ideological tool for molding thousands of civic bodies in space in the form of marches and parades. The edifice “presented the paradoxical face of Soviet futurology”, which manifested itself through brand-new apartment buildings, “classical cornices, lintels, and miniature porticos, the preferred taste of the haute bourgeoisie in 1900.” Within this architectural backdrop, Wajda’s 1960s masterpiece portrays the MDM as a continental, bustling square with masses of attractive youth. Among them, Mirka appears to have stepped out of a fashion magazine and to have transposed herself into what could have easily been a Western metropolis. Through such paradoxical puzzles, Wajda invests in the contradictory nature of the Soviet fantasy of Warsaw, subverting the inbuilt socialist environment into a bourgeois fantasy of people promenading through the square, with one solitary policeman standing out and looking out of place in the cinematic scenery.
Even though the viewer is not allowed to linger for a very long time around the MDM, the landmark remains arguably one of the most important architectural post-war projects in Warsaw for two reasons. First of all, the MDM was only one of the points on the urban plan that had been envisaged for the new Warsaw. As a vital part of the authorities’ claim to power, the MDM was intended to become an open point within the city’s topographic network: a vital artery running through the heart of the city. In this sense, engineer Aleksander Wolski affirms that:
We are dealing with a large, newly planned urban layout, incomparably richer and more interesting than the old [layout] ... Marszałkowska Street, that used to embody the essence of the urban center of the old, capitalist Warsaw, will become a central nerve of the new urban life as the essence of socialist urban center of a new socialist Warsaw.
Pumping life into the city, the MDM was not only devised as a monumental site constructed to become the ideal space for rallies or processions; rather, before anything else, it was intended to become the city’s inner engine that further intensified the constant flow of traffic. To exemplify these developments, Russian scholar Mikhail Yampolsky believes that Soviet urban planning managed to create the conditions for the incessant movement of masses through space: “The urban space of the 1930s through 1950s [...] is based on opposition between [on the one hand] streets and avenues along which there is ceaseless movement of people and cars, and [on the other] squares adorned with monuments.”
Linear space implies rationality and an overreaching master plan for the environment; it is not a natural, spontaneous territory, but an environment constructed with the purpose of social control of bodies and the ordering of movement in the city. If we bring the urban infrastructure of the MDM to mind, we see that, in contrast to early medieval cities which evolve around a central point of reference, the construction of the MDM (similarly to Haussmann’s Paris), violently imposes a new architectural order of straight lines and broad boulevards. Expanding upon this, urban theorist Henri Lefebvre asserts that “space is political and ideological. It is a product literally populated with ideologies. There is an ideology of space. [...] Why? Because space, which seems homogeneous, which appears given as a whole in its objectivity, in its pure form, such as we determine it, is a social product.” Hence, Lefebvre’s concept of ideological and political space is based on the idea that space is essentially heterogeneous; a total space presents itself as an obvious space, yet it hides its piecemeal construction behind a veneer of social production. Following these theoretical accounts, I believe that, in the film’s narrative, the MDM and its socialist agenda embody the normative structure of the Soviet cityscape.
The MDM was exactly such an architectural structure that was able to (re)produce social relations, from the inside out. Paraphrasing the Polish novelist Leopold Tyrman, it can be maintained that “space was impoverished by the political imperative to create a particular form of ‘representational architecture’,” which, by subordinating the space to images and effects, produced an alienating cityscape of lifelessness and monotony.” Similarly, the interior was deemed to be inferior to the outer façade. The urban planners of the 1950s argued that “uncoordinated development before 1939 had ‘spoiled’ Warsaw’s appearance,” and, thus, the architects of the new city needed to consider the total effect of the visual aesthetics and vistas. Synthesising these two aspects, it can be concluded that the ideal space of the MDM was a programmatic spatiality that perpetuated socialist subjectivity. In being deterministic, the space is a “closed form” environment, which leaves no room for individual play.
The space of the everyday seen through leisure and play
Opposed to the regimented and controlled visual space of the MDM, Wajda next introduces us to our male protagonist, Andrzej, who is presented to us in his home. Depicted from the outside, Andrzej lives in the downtown centre of Warsaw, in a pre-war apartment whose façade is ravaged by bullet holes. A far cry from the aesthetics of the MDM’s vista, the protagonist is not a model socialist citizen. Moreover, concerning the protagonist’s domestic setting, the film critic Michał Oleszczyk believes that “Andrzej is at complete ease inside his den: it’s his realm, and he knows every nook and cranny of its crumbling design,” and “throughout the scene, Andrzej manages to move around gracefully enough so as to never get entangled in the multitude of electric cords hanging down.” Remaining in the same private sphere, Victor Buchli’s An Archeology of Socialism outlines how the socialist home was problematic as ‘the domestic’ was part of the petit-bourgeois hearth and had to be dismantled.
Andrzej’s navigation of this space portrays a self-enclosed, self-sufficient environment, which stands apart from socialist indoctrination of subjectivity. Within this space, Andrzej is at full leisure: this is not a home of a model worker, but the domestic zone of a bohemian, ‘proto-hipster’ who dreams of Western culture. However, the capitalist (or, Western) lifestyle which Wajda posits as the socialist home’s counter-point as a free zone of individuation is, of course, a misconception. As the subcultural history of the North American hipsters show in the 1940s, they also devised strategies of subversion through cynicism and immorality—much like the critique directed towards Innocent Sorcerers during its premiere. Engaging in various forms of playful behavior, Andrzej’s home represents an imagined sanctuary from the indoctrination of official propaganda. In Lefebvre’s words:
When compared with the abstract space of the experts (architects, urbanists, planners), the space of everyday activities of users is a concrete one, which is to say, subjective. [...] It is in this space that the “private” realm asserts itself, albeit more or less vigorously, and always in a conflictual way, against the public one.
The private realm can, thus, be seen as a counter-structure to the abstract space of the MDM, an oppositional ‘den’ of petit-bourgeois behaviour, where one can indulge in secluded activities, such as reading cultural magazines, playing crosswords, listening to jazz, and taking care of one’s appearance. Andrzej’s home remains a private fantasy world, where his leisure activities are “counter-hegemonic” to those prescribed by the State. After all, the socialist home “was presented as another site of production alongside the factory and the office,” “where the material environment was disposed and actively designed to assist in the manufacture of a new self.” On the contrary, then, Wajda’s bohemian youth manufacture their own subjectivities—not through work—but through leisure and play.
Several cinematic instances of various forms of play can be noticed. Considering Roger Caillois’ play typologies, Innocent Sorcerers puts forth manifestations of both formalised game structures—ludus, as well as free-flowing, de-regulated play—paida. Following the former categorisation, Andrzej inhabits different temporary play spaces in the ludus category: the crossword puzzle, the boxing ring/arena, and playing drums in a jazz band. However, traces of paida are harder to unearth. How do we mark off small eruptions of playful behaviour in everyday life? Throughout the film, Andrzej and his friends sing, dance, engage in folly and madness. As such, distinguishing paida becomes uncertain from actual, ‘real’ life, as the everyday is interwoven with these anti-structural eruptions.
If we are seeing leisure and privacy as counter-structural entities to the political and cultural hegemony of Warsaw in the 1950s, then it is interesting to also look at the spontaneous, but ephemeral, outbreaks of play throughout the film. The produced spaces can be understood as “liminal” spaces, which act as thresholds between everyday life and ludic activities. These are disruptive, pure spaces within the normative structures of society, which enable Andrzej and his friends to step out of ‘real’ time and space into alternative spatio-temporalities. In accordance with Victor Turner’s anthropological approach, these spaces are not mere counter-structures, but antistructures: “The normative structure represents the working equilibrium, the antistructure represents the latent system of potential alternatives from which novelty will arise when contingencies in the normative system require it.” Therefore, antistructures imply the “liberation of human capacities of cognition [...] from the normative constraint,” such as class, social status, and/or membership in a corporate group. In this way, the bohemian youth that Wajda portrays in Innocent Sorcerers precisely make use of the antistructural possibilities of play, thus creating “liminal” spaces for non-normative behaviour.
Flâneuring through Warsaw
The pivotal point in the film is when Andrzej meets the female lead Pelagia in a dark, dingy club in Warsaw’s Old Town. Together they leave the club for the even darker city, which seeks to emulate a bourgeois, labyrinthine Paris. These characters experience Warsaw as a city in constant flux: exciting, unknowable, and aleatory. Reminiscent of Charles Baudelaire’s conception of Paris as a city of modernity, Andrzej and Pelagia are flâneurs drifting through the city by chance. “Baudelaire makes the [flâneur] the sovereign of the chance meetings of the city stage which has no spaces forbidden to him. [...] The poet is the maker of the order of things.” By drifting in the city, or reading the city through play, Andrzej and Pelagia maintain a dream world very much apart from the deterministic abstraction of the MDM’s environment. Further drawing on Walter Benjamin’s ideas, once the city becomes rationalised, the mystery disappears and the flânerie is no more.
Andrzej and Pelagia’s collective drifting maintains a “liminal” experience of the built environment as the cityscape is transformed into a maze of possibilities and events. After all, for Zygmunt Bauman, “to flâner, means to play the game of playing; a meta-play of sorts. This play is conscious of itself as play” [...] “its enjoyment is mature and pure. Or one may say: the job of the flâneur is to rehearse the world as theatre, life as play.” Linking back to the beginning of Innocent Sorcerers as a mise en abyme, we can see that through the conflation of a film within a film, connections can be drawn with the flâneur who sees the whole of the world as a stage or theatre. The flâneur also relates to the counter-cultural auspices of the proto-hipster; the hipster in the United States of America lived in cool refraction from reality via jazz and drugs, as they knew that life itself was just a façade—an illusion which one could choose to distance themselves from. This falls within Cailliois’ typology of ‘mimicry’ which indicates “imaginary milieus and illusory characterisations,” where the flâneur/player creates a make-believe situation, ie., a fantasy.
Between Andrzej and Pelagia a constant back and forth rhythm of dialogues, gestures, and motions exists. Furthermore, they continue these games of ‘mimicry’ when they arrive at Andrzej’s flat. What was previously a self-contained space for his leisurely personal rhythm and movement is suddenly radically transformed by Pelagia’s entrance. Why does Wajda, from this point on, portray the home as suffocating? Why are their dialectical play motions no longer as carefree and unaffected as they were in the city? The actual, subjective space of the home - in Lefebvre’s terms - is transformed by the intrusion of a diagram. Drawing on Benjamin Buchloh’s thoughts, he explores how the diagram imposes an abstract matrix which subjects the body to an external representation of legal control. The dialogue goes approximately like this:
—Let’s make an agreement.
—A shot of vodka... and... exchanging names.
—Sofa bed. 
As we can see here, the structural arrangement of their love encounter imposes an order of things, a new logic, that is apart from the world of play. It is a deterministic structure that sets out an abstract ordering of the subjectivities within the space itself. This determinism is directly contrary to the fantasy of play: “an outcome known in advance, with no possibility of error or surprise, clearly leading to an inescapable result, is incompatible with the nature of play.” By entering the contract that is this diagram, and its telic structure, the couple imposes this normative order upon themselves, which shatters the world of play. In this scenario, Buchloch supports this idea by arguing that the diagram disciplines and controls the body, while usurping its subjective agency. Nevertheless, they still engage in mimicry when Pelagia dresses up as doctor and a Greek goddess, or when playing a game of chance with a matchbox. These instances of play are used as methods for disrupting their subjection to the diagram, and its (re)ordering of space. By creating temporary play structures, they suspend the dominion of the self-imposed structure of the diagram.
As they try to move forward, along the prescribed order of things, a sense of anxiety transpires when Pelagia loses her garments in the matchbox game. The diagram, as a method of organisation, ruptures the possibilities of change and individuality and prescribes a determinate outcome, ultimately resembling the disciplinary function of the abstract linearity of Soviet urban planning. Undertaking a Foucauldian approach onto the subjection of power, it can be argued that “the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound, and permanent are its effects: it is a perpetual victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance.”
Thus, the power of the diagram is non-corporeal, yet its impact upon bodies in space is amply manifested. In other words, this is a disembodied embodiment or a non-corporeal corporeality, following Foucault’s thought. What is more, the diagram as drawn up by the two protagonists breaks down the former experience of the city as an indeterminate environment. The home that was previously a self-contained fantasy for Andrzej, becomes a closed down space, lacking in variation and ludic possibilities. This space produces order in the same manner as the MDM does: by programming movement into the structure through non-corporal instruments of power, the subject’s corporeality is decided a priori and achieved without physical violence. The diagram is part of a greater network of power relations that fix and order bodies in time and space. Andrzej and Pelagia’s free flow through the city was possible because it was not subject to any pre-conceived notion of linearity or telos. What they achieved was the tracing of lines across the cityscape that cut across the urban fabric of ordered space. Their revolt is local, irregular, and haphazardly distributed across time and space. It follows that, “[w]hat exists is an infinitely complex network of ‘micro-powers’, of power relations that permeate every aspect of social life... Struggle cannot be totalised - a single, centralised, hierarchised organisation setting out to seize a single, centralised, hierarchised power; but it can be serial, that is, in terms of horizontal links between one point of struggle and another.”
We can see that all the various instances of playful behaviour cinematically reproduced collate into a network of localised struggles against the order. By creating these temporary play worlds, Andrzej and Pelagia resist the micro-powers of totalitarian determinism. In order to disrupt the forces of the Soviet urban ideology, they turn to flânerie as a kinetic strategy for disrupting the network of order. This is evident in their drifting and ludic movements that respond to the city as a site for chanceful encounters and decisions. The moment this fails is with the imposition of the diagram. Wajda shows that, before the diagrammatic structure exerted its power over the domestic, Andrzej’s experience of it was wholly free and subjective. The protagonists subject each other to the organisation determined by the disembodied forces of the diagrammatic micro-powers.
Drawing on how the characters utilise the notion of space in order to destabilise the Soviet ideology, Wajda shows that play, although seen as fun and games, may serve in serious struggles against totalitarian prescriptions of order. In Wajda’s opinion, Innocent Sorcerers was a “neutral” film, which stood apart from his previous oeuvre consisting of wartime chronicles and critique of the effects of socialist industrialisation. However, as I have shown in this essay, the ludic practices of Andrzej and Pelagia, and their social environment, constitute a form of communitarian—and, I argue—political critique of the non-corporal authoritarian networks of power as represented by the MDM in comparison to the private home of Andrzej. What is important to draw out from this analysis of the film is the way in which Wajda portrays and (re)imagines a collective youth movement in the PRL. Innocent Sorcerers emphasises the importance of social imaginaries of Western luxury and consumerism. Yet, I would like to assert that this particular representation of togetherness creates an alternative to the socialist ideological imaginary consisting of workers, rallies, processions—as one homogenous mass of model citizens shaped by Soviet futurological urbanism.
The cinematic rendition of the modernist flâneur as proto-hipster proposes a distributive network of resistance—in which Andrzej, Pelagia and their social sphere comes to represent an early iteration of “banana youth”—individuals who choose to distance themselves from state politics. And it is not to say that Wajda’s protagonists are not political subjects; on the contrary, by engaging with play as paida, the characters show that free, unregulated eruptions of resistance counter the totalitarian regulation of bodies. Collective, ever-shifting movement begins to appear within the structure of the film, in which the supposedly neutral fantasy worlds of game-play come to reveal the illusory ideological construction of socialism itself. If the flâneurs and hipsters are those that already know that the city is a theater, then Innocent Sorcerers shows the viewer that Andrzej and Pelagia are not cynical and immoral subjects—but, rather, key protagonists in the establishment of a counter-cultural current. With characters not fully innocent (yet, surely sorcerers), the film asserts the radical potential of collective forms of ludic practices, and the way in which these embodied imaginaries would come to play a decisive part in the 1968 upheaval that marked the history of People’s Republic of Poland.
1. Crowley D. (2008) Paris or Moscow?: Warsaw Architects and the Image of the Modern City in the 1950s, Kritika, 9(4), p.778.
2. Szczepaniak M. (2011) Marszalkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa—seria I I II, naszaStolica.
3. Yampolsky M. (1995) In the Shadow of Monuments: Notes on Iconoclasm and Time, in Condee N. Soviet Hieroglyphics, London: BFI Publishing, p.98.
5. LeFebvre H. (2009) State, Space, World: Selected Essays, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p.171.
6. Mordyński K. (2011) Dziennik Pracowni MDM – nowo udostępnione źródło do badań nad dziejami Warszawy, [Official Studio MDM—newly available source for research on the history of Warsaw] naszaStolica.
7. Crowley D. & Reid S. E. (2002) Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc, London: Bloomsbury, p.185.
9. Oleszczyk M. (2011) The Best of Youth: Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers, DVD Booklet.
10. Buchli V. (1999) An Archeology of Socialism, London: Bloomsbury, p.29.
11. Oleszczyk M. (2011) The Best of Youth.
12. Crowley D. & Reid S. E. (2002) Socialist Spaces, p.188.
13. Ibidem, p.190.
14. Caillois R. (1961) Man, Play and Games, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp.30-33.
15. Turner V. (1982) From Ritual To Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, New York: PAJ, p.52.
16. Ibidem, p.44.
17. Oleszczyk M. (2011) The Best of Youth.
18. Tester K. (1994) The Flâneur, London: Routledge, p.5.
19. Ibidem, p.14.
20. Ibidem, p.146.
21. Waltz S.P. (2010) Toward A Ludic Architecture: The Space of Play and Games, Pittsburgh: ETC Press, p.64.
22. Buchloch B.H.D. (2006) Hesse’s Endgame: Facing the Diagram, New Haven: Yale University Press, p.117.
23. Wajda A. (1960/2012) Innocent Sorcerers, Second Run DVD.
24. Salen K. & Zimmerman E. (2006) The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, Cambridge: MIT Press, p.126.
25. Buchloch B.H.D. (2006) Hesse’s Endgame, p.119.
26. Foucault M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Pantheon Books, p.203.
27. Sheridan A. (1990) Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth, London: Routledge, pp.137-138.