Death of Witold Sobociński, PSC (1929-2018)

By Marc Salomon, consulting member of the AFC
Witold Sobociński, PSC, died on 19 November 2018, just a few days after having been honoured by a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Festival EnergaCamerimage at Bydgoszcz in Poland. Jazzman, cinematographer, and pedagogue, he left his mark on Polish cinematography through his collaborations with directors Jerzy Skolimowski, Andrzej Wajda, Kryzystof Zanussi, Wojciech Has, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Roman Polański, etc.
Roman Polański et Witold Sobociński à Bydgoszcz, le 10 novembre 2018 - Photo : Tytus Žmijewski
Roman Polański et Witold Sobociński à Bydgoszcz, le 10 novembre 2018
Photo : Tytus Žmijewski

Witold Sobociński was born on 15 October 1929 in Orzoków, in the Łódź region. He belonged to the new generation of Polish cinematographers (along with Jerzy Lipman, Jerry Wójcik, Mieczysław Jahoda, Jan Laskowski, Krzystof Winiewicz) and directors (Andrzej Wajda in particular) who were mainly trained at the new Łódź cinema school created in 1948.

From 1948-1960, he was a jazz musician, mainly playing the trombone or the drums as part of a famous orchestra, the legendary Melomani, founded by Jerzy Matuskiewicz, at a time where jazz was forbidden by the authorities, because in their eyes it represented the decadence of American culture. Matuskiewicz recounted later on how the police in charge of surveilling the concerts didn’t know much about jazz and that all you had to do was to give them some vodka so that they wouldn’t pay attention to the rest of the concert !

Witold Sobociński, à gauche, à la batterie
Witold Sobociński, à gauche, à la batterie

Sobocińsky was also taking courses at the famous Łódź cinema school during that time, and he graduated in 1955 in the same class as Jerzy Wójcik. As part of one of their student films, he seconded the latter on Godzina bez słońca (Boats leave at dawn), a short film of a duration of thirteen minutes directed by Ryszard Ber. Shot over the course of three weeks at Jantar, in the delta of the Vistula, near the city of Gdańsk, this docu-fiction on a little fishing community is openly inspired by Luchino Visconti’s The Earth Trembles and earned Sobociński an award in 1957 in a Moscow student film festival.

Below : Łodzie wypływają o świcie, by Ryszard Ber

From 1955 to 1959, he worked as a cameraman for a local television studio in Łódź, quickly tiring of the immobility of the heavy studio cameras, and then began to shoot documentaries and pedagogical films for Czołówka Studios, a producer of military films in Warsaw, through 1966. During that period, he was also the cameraman of Kryzstof Winiewicz (Czerwone berety, by Pawel Komorowski in 1962), Jerzy Wójcik (Pharaoh, by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, in 1965), Mieczysław Jahoda (The Codes, by Wojciech Has, in 1966) and Jerzy Lipman (Zosya, by Mikhail Bogin, in 1967).

He was unlucky at the start of his career as a cinematographer because Hands Up !, by Jerzy Skolimowski was forbidden by the censors and was only released in 1981.

 Witold Sobociński, en 1967, sur le tournage de "Haut les mains !", de Jerzy Skolimowski
Witold Sobociński, en 1967, sur le tournage de "Haut les mains !", de Jerzy Skolimowski

Witold Sobociński then went on to shoot with Andrzej Wajda (Everything for sale), again with Jerzy Skolimowski (The Adventures of Gerard), Krzysztof Zanussi (Family Life) and Andrzej Zulawski (The Third Part of the Night). His work at the time totally followed in the footsteps of the new wave begun in the 1950s by cinematographers such as Jerzy Lipman and Jerzy Wójcik, and represented a rupture with the classicism embodied by their illustrious predecessors such as Seweryn Steinwurzel and Albert Wywerka. Sobociński added that his training as a jazz musician and his solo improvisations had always led him to consider each film as a unique opus that needed a specific photographic approach, enriched by a sense of rhythm that set him apart from his colleagues.

Andrzej Wajda et Witold Sobociński sur le tournage de "Tout est à vendre", en 1968
Andrzej Wajda et Witold Sobociński sur le tournage de "Tout est à vendre", en 1968
"La Vie de famille", de Krzysztof Zanussi (1970) - Captures d'images d'après DVD
"La Vie de famille", de Krzysztof Zanussi (1970)
Captures d’images d’après DVD

During the first half of the 1970s, he shot his most famous films, the ones that garnered him international recognition : the flamboyant and acrobatic style of The Wedding (A. Wajda, 1972) with Sławomir Idziak behind the camera ; the ramshackle dreaminess and great formal creativity of The Hourglass Sanatorium (W. Has, 1973) ; the lyrical realism of The Promised Land (A. Wajda, 1974).

"Les Noces", d'Andrzej Wajda (1972) - D'après scan copie 35 mm
"Les Noces", d’Andrzej Wajda (1972)
D’après scan copie 35 mm
"La Clepsydre", de Wojciech Has (1973) - Captures d'images d'après DVD
"La Clepsydre", de Wojciech Has (1973)
Captures d’images d’après DVD

This was followed by Death of a President (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1977), Ways in the Night (Krzysztof Zanussi, 1979), Hospital of the Transfiguration (Edward Zeborwski, 1979), Widziadlo (Marek Nowicki, 1983), before Sobociński reconnected with Roman Polański, thirty years after graduating from the Łódź cinema school with Pirates in 1986 and Frantic in 1988.

"L'Hôpital de la transfiguration", d'Edward Żeborski (1978) - Captures d'images d'après DVD
"L’Hôpital de la transfiguration", d’Edward Żeborski (1978)
Captures d’images d’après DVD

His last active years behind the camera were like a return to his origns because he filmed a movie about jazz (There Was Jazz, by Felix Falk), shared credit with Italian Dante Spinotti on Jerzy Skolimowski’s Torrents of Spring, before being called up by his classmate Jerzy Wójcik, who’d since become a director, to film Skarga in 1991, and Wrota Europy in 1999.

Jerzy Wójcik et Witold Sobociński sur le tournage de "Wrota Europy"
Jerzy Wójcik et Witold Sobociński sur le tournage de "Wrota Europy"

We remind our readers that Witold Sobociński was the father of Piotr Sobociński, talented cinematographer, who passed away at the early age of 43 (1958-2001) and to whom we owe the images of Krzystof Kieslowski’s Decalogue #3 and #9 and Three Colors : Red. Piotr Sobociński Jr. and Michał Sobociński, son of Piotr and grandson of Witold, are carrying on the tradition today as they have also graduated from the Łódź film school, where their grandfather had taught since the mid-1980s.

  • The Wedding, by Andrzej Wajda, is one of the 100 films selected in the album Making Pictures : A Century of European Cinematography, published by Imago in 2003.
  • In its March 2003 issue, The American Cinematographer dedicated an article to the Witold Sobociński’s career to honour his being awarded an “ASC International Acheivement Award”.

Translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe.