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'...a signal of shrinking time': Tadeusz Kantor on film


Tadeusz Kantor Cricot 2 Cricoteka film Theatre of Death The Dead Class Wielopole Let the Artists Die! I Shall Never Return The Return of Odysseus Today is My Birthday Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear? memory memento mori documentation DVD Andrzej Sapija Andrzej Wajda Second World War Holocaust photograph Stanisław Zajączkowski objects bio-object Cricotage emballage


Daniel Watt is a Senior Lecturer in English and Drama at Loughborough University. His research interests include fragmentary writing, ethics and literature, and philosophical and literary influences on theatre and performance in the twentieth century. He is currently working on a book, The Consciousness of Objects, with Rodopi Press. He is author of Fragmentary Futures: Blanchot, Beckett, Coetzee and has co-edited A Performance CosmologyTheatres of Thought, and Ethical Encounters. His other work includes book chapters on Deleuze and Performance, Edmond Jabès, Jacques Derrida, Puppets and Glossolalia, and journal articles in Performance ResearchRIDEJournal for Cultural Research, and Wormwood. He is associate editor of Performing Ethos and series editor of The Axis series.

Since 2006, Cricoteka archives have published a DVD series of documentaries and recordings of work by and about Kantor, making a much-needed resource easily accessible.

Whilst some of these films have been available in Polish for some time, and some of them were released on videotape with English subtitles for the Kraków 2000 festival, they have been difficult to source for an international audience. For those of us who never saw a ‘live’ performance of any of Tadeusz Kantor’s work, the moment in Wielopole, Wielopole when Uncle Karol (after many attempts at remembering the structure of the room; the positioning of the windows, doors, and chairs) says to Uncle Olek, ‘We weren’t here’, will be particularly poignant, for we weren’t there. Can the recordings of these performances reveal aspects of Kantor’s thought and work previously hidden within the event of performance? Indeed, can they ever produce the same challenge to time, memory, and reality that the stage space offered? This essay explores the possible contradictions between the event of performance (the bio-object) and the urge to create an archive that would eternally repeat Kantor’s work. By examining the DVDs released by Cricoteka from 2006 to 2008, this essay questions the nature of time and memory on film and whether from the flat screen of repeatable visual ‘“sameness” something utterly, but utterly, different’ can emerge.[1]

Uncle Karol and Uncle Olek (first and second from the left) in Wielopole, Wielopole (1980). Photograph: Maciej Sochor, courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Uncle Karol and Uncle Olek (first and second from the left) in Wielopole, Wielopole (1980). Photograph: Maciej Sochor, courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Karol’s statement, ‘We weren’t here’, is spoken towards the audience. As I watch Stanisław Zajączkowski’s 1983 film of Wielopole, Wielopole (released by Cricoteka in 2008), it is said across screen to the invisible audience somewhere beyond my right shoulder. I load the DVD of Andrzej Sapija’s 1984 Wielopole, Wielopole (released by Cricoteka in 2006), and watch the same scene, spoken over the viewer; as though one were an animal watching the work from the ground. Sapija’s recording is, no doubt, the more filmic; with its cutaways to scenes from Wielopole itself and the grim, repetitious images of marching troops and sepia photographs all fading into a tortured history. Zajączkowski’s, on the other hand, has no such aspirations. It struggles with the usual problem of recording theatre: the desire to offer the viewer a break from a relentless static anterior ‘audience’ shot – and largely gets it right, I believe. Sapija creates a new work of art; a film, by Sapija, (of Kantor’s Wielopole, Wielopole), that clearly articulates Kantor’s biographical mnemonics. Sapija’s film seems to say, ‘This is how Kantor recalls what was there’. Zajączkowski leaves us with precisely what it is meant to be: a document. It is a document that clearly states to its viewer the fundamental problem of theatre’s mnemotechnic in relation to film: ‘You were not there!’

Tadeusz Kantor’s Wielopole, Wielopole. Photograph: Maciej Sochor, courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Tadeusz Kantor’s Wielopole, Wielopole. Photograph: Maciej Sochor, courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Tadeusz Kantor’s father (front row, first from the left) with Austrian army recruits prior to deployment during the First World War. Photograph courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Tadeusz Kantor’s father (front row, first from the left) with Austrian army recruits prior to deployment during the First World War. Photograph courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Tadeusz Kantor continually commented on the nature of the frozen images that returned to him from his past: faded ‘negatives’ of family and friends, moments of high emotion and ‘banal, elementary, and aimless activities’ all contributing to the endless, personal, theatre of memory.[2] These images were folded into every performance and then repeatedly returned to, unearthed, reformed, and represented. In a sense Kantor already worked as a painstaking re-animator of the already existing, or the already fading. Kantor repeats, most especially, throughout the ‘Theatre of Death’ series (The Dead Class; Wielopole, Wielopole; Let the Artists Die! – all reproduced in this DVD set), and this continual return over many years to these scenes of memory constitutes perhaps his most renowned works. As Jan Kott writes in his essay ‘The Theater of Essence’, reviewing performances by Kantor and Brook, ‘Kantor terrifies with images’.[3] But this is a specific form of terror, and a specific form of repetition, as Kantor carefully explicates in his theoretical writings:

come to life, become real and important
through this stubborn REPETITION OF ACTION.
Maybe this stubborn repetition of action,
this pulsating rhythm
that lasts for life,
that ends in nothingness,
which is futile,
is an inherent part of MEMORY.[4]

The terror that Kott describes is this ‘nothingness’ which, despite its futility, compels the memory into a replaying of the past. These films are a form of ‘pulsating rhythm’ that compels us to return again to the familiarity of something we never encountered in reality. This is also a function of memory in a very specific European regional context, as Kott articulates:

For all its fragility, a photographic print, a glossy picture of cardboard, endures longer than the human body. In vast stretches of the world and almost everywhere in Central Europe, this tiny scrap of paper has repeatedly proven itself more durable than brick and cement houses and their inhabitants... Photographs, too, are doubles of the dead. Kantor is both horrified and fascinated by the still life of the dead.[5]

It is in the fusion of the photograph, performance, and history that we must be careful. There is, undoubtedly a deeper cultural significance to Kantor’s work; it is rooted in the devastation of Poland during the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust. At every turn either an object or a character can become a symbol; constructing, at once, an entire nation, and the particular biographical detail relevant to its creator. What these films allow, especially released together in a relatively short period, is a focused meditation on the work over time. The collection provides documentation of the performances (mostly through Zajączkowski, but also Sapija and Wajda) and documentaries on Kantor (mostly Sapija). They function in many ways like the photographic print that Kott discusses; as archival remains (and the archive, as we shall see, is a pivotal factor). As a cultural artefact their value cannot be disputed. They serve to bring back the work of a great artist and make the viewer contemplate a wider social and political environment. Milija Gluhovic articulates the specificity of Kantor’s cultural dimension in his excellent essay ‘The Mnemonics of Kantor’s Wielopole, Wielopole’:

If longing for the lost past is the performance’s overt theme, fighting forgetting and repression is its underlying impetus. This impetus is inscribed into the performance in the scene of rabbi’s death – a character/sign socially representative rather than narratively unique – through a structure of repetition. This self-reflective exhortation to tell and repeat, to hold onto the past and onto the death by ‘calling’ it through cultural practice, is both a call to active intervention in the discourse of the national remembrance, and a mark of Kantor’s aesthetics. Every time Kantor replays this violent death on stage, he is doing more than merely returning to a traumatic moment. This procedure – repetitive and obsessive – might be also seen as a way of inducing anxiety, of forcing the spectator to re-experience the (traumatic) explosion of an irreparable past in a way that impedes emotional indifference. These insistent repetitions suggest a hope that, if often enough ‘rehearsed’ and replayed, the death of the rabbi – this ‘memory’ so integral to culture and yet only diffusively ‘present’ within the culture – might also become a collective trauma to be remembered and mourned.[6]

Gluhovic articulates the process of Kantor’s deployment of repetition very precisely, almost evoking a sort of arcane magical practice in the nature of the collective consciousness which it attempts to conjure. But again, Kantor himself—speaking in specifically filmic terms—returns us to the ephemeral nature of history:

makes use of [film] NEGATIVES
that are still frozen –
almost like metaphors
but unlike narratives –
which pulsate,
which appear and disappear,
which appear and disappear again
until the image fades away,
until... the tears fill the eyes.
and one more word-commandment:
almost like a prayer,
or like a litany,
is a signal of SHRINKING

Is this the reason for Kantor’s obsession with the archival activities of Cricot 2; to pile sandbags against the inevitable ebb of time? In ‘Kantor’s Last Tape’, Leszek Kolankiewicz recalls the information provided at the opening of Sapija’s film Rehearsals, Only Rehearsals: ‘Rehearsals for Kantor’s last performance were documented exceptionally meticulously, perhaps for the first time with such precision: Marek Stefański recorded seventeen SVHS tapes – altogether almost forty and a half hours of material. Sapija had plenty to choose from. This may be deceptive, however’.[8] I would like to pause at this point with the notion of ‘deception’. What Kolankiewicz goes on to describe is the relatively protracted nature of the ‘44’ rehearsals, ‘over 14 months’ and the gaps of ‘three and eight months’ between some of them.[9] No wonder indeed that the performance encountered problems in its realisation.[10] But Kolankiewicz points to the deeper facts of film when he describes the turmoil apparent in Rehearsals, Only Rehearsals as ‘deceptive’; for we are all familiar with the potential for the editorial hand to recreate something for the screen that does not quite show the whole picture. In our eagerness to embrace these valuable films let us not forget that film (like memory) works to repeat and freeze—even to embalm— the work it captures. In its zest to document we must be wary of the fundamental deceit: what resembles something does not necessarily enable that thing to become apparent, sometimes a resemblance is an obstruction.

Exterior, Cricoteka Archive at 5 Kanonicza Street, Kraków. Photograph courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Exterior, Cricoteka Archive at 5 Kanonicza Street, Kraków. Photograph courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

The urge was already strong in Kantor to secure an archive of his work, as he states in conversation with Krzysztof Miklaszewski, ‘The Cricot 2 Theatre has been formally constituted to exist “eternally”, i.e., longer than any human life... I believe in this museum-like preservation of the life of a work of art’.[11] But this had to function as a project also for the future, for when describing the nature of gallery pictures he comments, ‘they are not kept and hung in a spirit of unction or sanctimony, like holy relics. They are significant elements of the past, but they are also intended for further development. My personal development, for example, exists in a manipulation of the past’.[12] This movement into the future must be preserved (a curiously oxymoronic structure). Yet the very survival of materials, to ‘exist eternally’, always carries the danger of stasis, driven by the conflict between the desire to be faithful to what exists and to transform the work into a contemporary cultural force. Kolankiewicz, in the afterglow of the visual archive, shows how easily film can evoke a nostalgic impulse to venerate the artist and believe in the power of past achievements:

I sit in front of a flickering television screen and rewind the last tape with Kantor on. I would like to believe, as the poet does, in apocatastasis, in the promise of reverse movement, in restoration. And I ask that Tadeusz Kantor finds his land, and in that land his poor room of the imagination, and in that room rest; where he can join those: Witkacy, Meyerhold, Schulz and meet his poor soul again, and be a powerful Magus again, and again create something great. Even though it will only be the theatre of death (in which bones rise from the dead) that will appear once more.[13]
Kantor rehearsing Today Is My Birthday (1990). Photograph: Bruno Wagner,courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Kantor rehearsing Today Is My Birthday (1990). Photograph: Bruno Wagner,
courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

We may dwell upon the fact that Kantor is gone, and that much of the life he recalls from towns like Wielopole is radically changed. We may recall this, as Gluhovic suggests, as a form of ‘collective trauma’ and enter into that space of mourning. Today is My Birthday becomes a focal point for such thought, in relation to Kantor individually, and the Sapija film evokes a powerful sense of loss. But there is, in so much of Kantor’s theatre work, an anarchic undercurrent of humour, as Spencer Golub articulates in his article ‘[missing]’:

Kantor’s mise en scènes repeatedly rejected the ‘pure presence’ which the ‘haunted stage’ routinely rehearses without real conviction and which the ironically entitled Today Is My Birthday (a nominal tribute to a repeatable event and to the event of repetition) converted into the public(ized) absence of its guest of honor. Owing to both the resemblance and the similitude of Tadeusz Kantor and ‘Tadeusz Kantor’, this posthumous performance could be subtitled not merely descriptively but ironically, ‘Tadeusz Kantor is dead’. The spectacle of (self-)observation/seeing the self objectively, which since childhood had constituted Kantor’s Wonderland pursuit, reached its logical conclusion at the threshold of his vanishing from the stage.[14]

Golub raises the problem of resemblance again here. This is different from the nature of what is made to appear. The birthday itself is not the actual day; it is a circular movement that draws memory out in relation to that individual. As Kantor shows when discussing memory, it is the cycle of repetition that matters, not what is repeated. It is here that I think we need to address the central issue of Kantorian stage space, for Golub’s comments are in relation to the performance. Whilst Kantor’s careful theoretical articulation of theatre space shows many similarities to cinematic concepts of framing there is one important difference: the issue of reality. The totality of the stage spaces—their actors, objects, and audience—were all a challenge to reality; a poor bio-object that asserted another order of event and challenged the homogeneity of culture and the academy. There is a tension between the biographical performances and the experimental cricotage (which aimed to ‘negate and erase’ ‘all meanings operating in life’);[15] between the real events of the past and the anarchic creativity of art. This is most manifest with the useful inclusion of Where Are the Snows Of Yesteryear? on DVD, which demonstrates the attempts Kantor made to move on from The Dead Class. Cricotage brings to the fore the transformed reality enacted in these performance spaces, demonstrating further the total theory that the bio-object had become. It is in this concept of the bio-object (so often reworked and rearticulated) that we can find Kantor’s attempt to transform reality radically through theatre:

This newly discovered medium was THE OBJECT, THE THING.
Self-referential and autonomous. The ‘objet d’art’.
A thing with just one distinguishing feature: living, vital organs of its own called ACTORS.
For this reason I named it the BIO-OBJECT.
BIO-OBJECTS were not just props that the actors made use of.
Nor were they bits of the décor that you could play around with.
They formed an indivisible whole with the actors.
They emanated a life of their own, self-determining, independent of the FICTION (the content)
of the drama.
It was this ‘life’ and the ways in which it was made manifest that constituted the real content
of the performance. Not the plot, but the actual materials of the show.
The disclosure and presentation of the ‘life’ of the BIO-OBJECT was not a matter of representing
some sort of nexus of relations located beyond the object.
Its self-sufficiency was a guarantee of its reality!
Where are the Snows of Yesteryear? From left to right: Tadeusz Kantor and the Young Couple (Teresa Wełmińska and Andrzej Wełmiński). Photograph: Jerzy Borowski, courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Where are the Snows of Yesteryear? From left to right: Tadeusz Kantor and the Young Couple (Teresa Wełmińska and Andrzej Wełmiński). Photograph: Jerzy Borowski, courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Where are the Snows of Yesteryear? From right to left: The Rabbi (ZbigniewGostomski) and his student (Dominika Michalczuk). Photograph: Jerzy Borowski, courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Where are the Snows of Yesteryear? From right to left: The Rabbi (Zbigniew
Gostomski) and his student (Dominika Michalczuk). Photograph: Jerzy Borowski, courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

This ‘self-sufficiency’ is generated by stage space. Kantor’s bio-object comes into being as a vital machinery of forces, between actor, object, and audience. In this sense, whilst watching the films we cannot be watching Kantor’s theatre, because the ‘nexus of relations’ exhibited on screen locates the work ‘beyond the object’. In fact, in the case of the representation on film of this work, it renders the theatre event a metaphysical one completely at odds with the evocation of memory in space that Kantor continually worked for through the bio-object. But the films also function as objects in their own right (both in what they show and in their existence as DVDs), and in the spirit of Kantorian Emballage I’d like to take a final detour to consider their packaging. The sets have a textured-paper covering, with each disc in its own slipcase, all bearing simple lettering and looking similar to the slip-covered collections of prints available from Cricoteka. The set of five released in 2006 have a creamy colouring and the most recent four have a grey-blue shade to them, The Dead Class (from 2007) stands out in a stark black and white. There is a consistency of style in their presentation—as objects—that mark them immediately as Cricoteka ‘products’. This is at once reassuring and unnerving; remember the compulsion in Kantor’s archival strategy for ‘further development’. Philippe Du Vignal makes an excellent point in an essay from the earliest Cricot 2 Information Guide:

It is true that each object, if we take care of it, though not too much, lasts longer than man. That is why their presence is treacherous and deceitful, and because of that the presence of death is unbearable... An object is a dead individual which has been created but is not alive, and will outlive our death... All that, transferred into the world of theatre, becomes even more unbearable.[17]
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Above: a selection from the Cricoteka DVD sets, 2006 to 2008.

Above: a selection from the Cricoteka DVD sets, 2006 to 2008.

These DVD objects—like the ‘photographic machine gun’ in Wielopole, Wielopole—reveal the object-world as one in conflict with our own mortality; both archive and graveyard. They signal the fundamental double-bind in Kantor’s work; a duty towards death and creation which is, as Vignal suggests, ‘treacherous’, ‘deceitful’, and ‘unbearable’. They mark our complicity in the straightforward forgetting of the bio-object. So, whilst these films may seem to be memento mori of incredible power—calling back manifold dead from different ages—our real responsibility when presented with them is to the future; to a cultural enterprise that radically resists simplistic conflation of representation and memory, and instead struggles to amplify these ‘signal[s] of shrinking time’ and reinvigorate death’s double space: the theatre itself.

The ‘photographic machine gun’ from Wielopole, Wielopole. Photograph courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

The ‘photographic machine gun’ from Wielopole, Wielopole. Photograph courtesy of the Cricoteka Archives.

Cricoteka DVD Sets

All discs are published by Cricoteka: the Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor, in Kraków:

Wielopole, Wielopole, dir. by Andrzej Sapija (Łódź: Wytwórnia Filmów Oświatowych, 1984; on DVD 2006), 68 min.

Gdzie są niegdysiejsze śniegi... / Where Are the Snows Of Yesteryear?, dir. by Andrzej Sapija (Łódź: Wytwórnia Filmów Oświatowych, 1985; on DVD 2006), 25 min.; Manekiny Tadeusza Kantora / Mannequins by Tadeusz Kantor, dir. by Andrzej Sapija, (Łódź: Wytwórnia Filmów Oświatowych, 1984; on DVD 2006), 33 min.; and Istnieje tylko to co się widzi / Only That What You See – Exists… dir. by Andrzej Sapija (Wrocław: Kamerovid, Channel One, 1992; on DVD 2006), 21 min.

Kantor, dir. by Andrzej Sapija (Kraków: Telewizja Polska, 1985; on DVD 2006), 71 min.

Powrót Odysa Tadeusza Kantora. Notatki z prób / ‘The Return of Odysseus’ by Tadeusz Kantor: Notes from rehearsals, dir. by Andrzej Sapija (Łódź: Wytwórnia Filmów Oświatowych, 1989; on DVD 2006), 59 min.

Próby, tylko próby / Rehearsals, Only Rehearsals, dir. by Andrzej Sapija (Kraków: Cricoteka, 1992; on DVD 2006), 74 min.

Umarła Klasa / The Dead Class, dir. by Andrzej Wajda (Kraków: Telewizja Polska, 1976; on DVD 2007), 72 min; a second edition is also available published by PTP (2015).

Wielopole, Wielopole, dir. by Stanisław Zajączkowski (Kraków: Telewizja Polska, 1983; on DVD 2008), 86 min.

Niech sczezną artyści / Let the Artists Die, dir. by Stanisław Zajączkowski (Kraków: Telewizja Polska, 1986; on DVD 2008), 77 min.

Nigdy tu już nie powrócę / I Shall Never Return, dir. by Andrzej Sapija (Warsaw: Telewizja Polska, 1990; on DVD 2008), 81 min.

Dziś są moje urodziny / Today is My Birthday, dir. by Stanisław Zajączkowski (Kraków: Telewizja Polska, 1991; on DVD 2008), 77 min.


  1. ^ Tadeusz Kantor, ‘“...Nothing Further...” Notes from Conversations, March 1988’, in Krzysztof Miklaszewski, Encounters with Tadeusz Kantor, ed. and trans. by George Hyde (London: Routledge Harwood, 2002), pp. 135-142 (p. 142).
  2. ^ Tadeusz Kantor, A Journey Through Other Spaces: Essays and Manifestos, 1944-1990, ed. and trans. by Michal Kobialka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 143.
  3. ^ Jan Kott, The Theater of Essence (Evanston: Northwestern University Press), p. 161.
  4. ^ Kantor, A Journey Through Other Spaces, p. 143.
  5. ^ Kott, The Theater of Essence, p. 160.
  6. ^ Milija Gluhovic, ‘The Mnemonics of Kantor’s Wielopole, Wielopole’, Toronto Slavic Quarterly, 14 (2005) at <> [accessed 13 May 2009].
  7. ^ Kantor, A Journey Through Other Spaces, p. 159.
  8. ^ Leszek Kolankiewicz, ‘Kantor’s Last Tape’, ed. and trans. by Paul Allain and Grzegorz Ziółkowski, in Beyond Borders: Polish Theatre after 1989, ed. by Allain and Ziółkowski (= Contemporary Theatre Review, 15. 1 (2005), 28-45 (p. 32) <>.
  9. ^ Ibid.
  10. ^ See ibid., pp. 32-34.
  11. ^ Tadeusz Kantor, ‘On the state of things, the avant-garde, innovation, luck, truth, and success (Conversation, June 1981)’, in Encounters with Tadeusz Kantor, pp. 82-89 (p. 88).
  12. ^ Kantor, ‘On the state of things...’, p. 88; my emphasis.
  13. ^ Kolankiewicz, ‘Kantor’s Last Tape’, p. 45.
  14. ^ Spencer Golub, ‘[missing]’, The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, X.1 (1995), 251-66 (p. 258).
  15. ^ Kantor, A Journey Through Other Spaces, p. 133.
  16. ^ Tadeusz Kantor, Wielopole, Wielopole, ed. by G. M. Hyde, trans. by Mariusz Tchorek (London: Marion Boyars, 1990), p. 158.
  17. ^ Philippe du Vignal, ‘Nature, Status and Aesthetics of an Object (fragment)’, in Cricot 2 Theatre: Information Guide 1986, ed. by Anna Halczak (Kraków: Cricoteka, 1986), pp. 118-125 (pp. 122-124).

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