Dzieje grzechu

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Dzieje grzechu (1975) is Walerian Borowczyk’s film adaptation of Stefan Żeromski’s novel of the same name. Both the film and the novel chart Ewa Pobratynska’s (Grażyna Długołęcka) descent in nineteenth century society from bourgeois innocence to prostitution and murder. Borowczyk’s film is critical of the Catholic church and patriarchal institutions. At one point early on in the film Lukasz Niepolomski (Jerzy Zelnik) says that “Women’s shame is the invention of men”, which in many respects is the thesis of Borowczyk’s text.

Men use Ewa’s shame to control and exploit her to their own ends. Ewa’s descent, like those in Effi Briest and Pandora’s Box, is predicated upon a need to survive the societal machinations of men. A priest tells Ewa that “imagination and lust are sins”. This essentially robs her of her autonomy. The ability to desire and to dream is stigmatized; stripping Ewa of her individuality and relegating her as an object of men’s desires.

The notion that “imagination and lust are sins” is also paramount to understanding Borowczyk’s oeuvre. Imagination is the manufacture of images while lust is the gaze with which those images are met. Too Borowczyk, particularly when working in Poland, the cinema is the stuff of sins. Cinema, like Ewa’s sins, challenge and subvert the political status quo. Borowczyk pushes this notion further with his deliriously blasphemous Behind Convent Walls (1978) made three years after Dzieje grzechu.

Once Ewa has descended to the level of sex work she is “rescued” by a socialist who runs a communal farm. The first time Borowczyk’s camera moves through that space a woman is heard saying that “debauchery seems a surer way to virtue than innocence”, suggesting that, despite the intervention of predatory men, Ewa has retained her spiritual innocence. For Borowczyk innocence is tied with imagination and lust; the forms of feminine resistance in a male dominated world.

And it is a world of exacting historical detail. As he did with Blanche (1972), Borowczyk goes to great lengths to create historically accurate spaces for his characters to inhabit and traverse. The art and technology of the day is as much a character in the film as Ewa is. Cut-aways and insert shots put objects at the forefront of scenes. Borowczyk elevates objects to the point that Dzieje grzechu immerses the viewer in a tactile world that hasn’t existed for more than half a century.

Dzieje grzechu inevitably ends tragically with Ewa being shot and killed. Ewa, like Nana in Vivre sa vie (1962), is doomed because she is the cinema personified. These two women are lust and imagination made flesh. The cinema, the art of the masses, cannot exist unchecked in a patriarchal society of absolutes. Only in a culture of perfect socialism could Ewa or Nana survive their ordeals and triumph over shame.