Paragraph Zero

Short documentary about [“nonexistent”] prostitution in 1950s Poland. Original title: Paragraf zero.


Forceful, gut-wrenching, terrifyingly well-realized—one of the best documentary shorts I’ve seen (though I haven’t really seen that many). Undeniably, one of the film’s greatest achievements is its blending of softly lit, beautifully composed images (the opening, somewhat staged; the conclusion, which includes the breathtakingly-poetic “walk into the dark of fog” seen above) with the raw, truly-documentary meat of its body paragraphs. So that between the noir-ish intro and mystical coda, we see actual footage of: a raid on an underground prostitution den, women scurrying into corners and covering their faces, newspapers and soiled bedsheets on concrete floors, all illuminated by the glaring cone of a flashlight; a group of prostitutes under arrest, fighting, arguing, some snatching things off the floor and stuffing them into coat pockets; close-up interviews with several of the arrested women—black rectangles following faces, covering eyes—including a heart-breaking sequence with a girl who confesses to being sixteen, out of school, living on the street. Not all of the prostitutes are young or unhappy, however. One, in her twenties, is pretty, content with her life. Another, with unwashed hair and the face of a German Expressionist painting, started whoring in 1939, seventeen years ago, and remains defiant. Her childhood friend, she adds, became a nun. Perhaps predictably, all of the unhappy women blame others for their situation: “My friend told me to run away from home”, “It’s Susie’s fault because she started me drinking”. On a rare hopeful note, the narrator remarks that some of these women can still turn their lives around; but others can only be treated, no longer saved (although I’m not sure what that means, exactly). Nevertheless, the triple-point is to show that prostitution exists and expose both how it functions and how the ruling apparatus tiptoes around the problem. The film ably succeeds—but not before its construction also tickles your brain and the documentary footage first makes you hurt, and then leaves you numb. For an entire host of political and non-political reasons, I still can’t believe this was made in 1957.

Paragraph Zero says more than some novels.

Włodzimierz Borowik, 1957


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