Haltof is Peter White Scholar
As the recipient of Northern’s 2006-07 Peter White Scholar Award, Marek Haltof (English) plans to produce a book that explores the depiction of the Holocaust in Polish cinema. The project will blend his professional expertise in Central European and Australian film with his personal interest and insight as a native of Cieszyn, Poland.
When the book is completed, Haltof said it will fill a noticeable void in film scholarship.
“There have been numerous books on the Holocaust, but I was surprised to discover that there hasn’t been a single study, in any language, that deals exclusively with the Holocaust’s portrayal in Polish cinema,” he said. “This is despite the fact that Poland was the site of many German death camps, that the country lost more than six million of its inhabitants, and that the Jewish culture once so prevalent had virtually disappeared after World War II.”
One of the films Haltof will analyze is a 1948 release titled The Last Stage. It was directed by Wanda Jakubowska and depicts her experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“This was one of the earliest cinematic representations of the Holocaust,” Haltof added. “It has been quoted by a number of directors. Steven Spielberg was heavily influenced by this and other historic Polish films when he was preparing to direct Schindler’s List.”
More recently, Haltof said the return of democracy in 1989 gave Polish filmmakers freedom to explore topics once considered taboo under the Communist order. It also yielded information and sources that were previously restricted. Haltof said his familiarity with the political and cultural contexts of the cinema industry in his native country, along with his easy access to archival and research facilities, will be valuable assets as he pursues the manuscript.
“My project moves beyond the traditionally understood boundaries of film studies and incorporates serious historical, political and cultural research,” he said. “It will be an interdisciplinary study focusing not only on the films themselves, but also on the issue of Poland’s national identity and the role of Polish people during World War II as victims, passive observers, and – in infrequent cases – accomplices in the Nazi atrocities.”
Central European cinema, especially during Communist times, was primarily a propaganda tool with a secondary focus on artistic value. Haltof said it was difficult to combine both elements, but virtually impossible to escape the political context entirely.
“After the transition to democracy, it was very challenging to produce artistic or festival-style films because suddenly there was economic pressure never experienced before,” Haltof said. “Directors weren’t used to struggling for finances. They had previously been hired by the state and paid a regular salary regardless of their productiveness. The film industry is not nearly as big in Poland as it is in the United States. Poland currently produces 20-30 feature films per year, compared with 200-300 annual releases here.”
The Peter White Scholar Award offers Haltof financial assistance and a reduced teaching load to facilitate his groundwork on the book, which is tentatively titled The Holocaust in Polish Film: Uncovering the Past. He conducted archival research in New York last month. His remaining timetable includes research at the National Film School and a related international conference in Lodz, Poland, in October; participation in the Polish Film Festival in Chicago in November; and archival research in his native country next spring. He is confident he will secure a book contract during the 2007-08 academic year. Haltof estimates his final manuscript will comprise about 350 pages and 30 film stills.
Haltof holds two master’s degrees – one from the University of Silesia in Poland and one from Flinders University of South Australia – and a doctorate from the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He previously taught at several universities in Poland and Canada. Since joining the NMU faculty in 2001, Haltof has published three books on the cultural histories of Polish film, with another scheduled for release in 2007. He is a two-time recipient of NMU faculty research grants and was honored with an Excellence in Professional Development Award in 2005.