As a child, he dreamed of one day working as a fireman or circus performer. However, he became a cinematographer – one of the founders of the Polish film school.

Before he took his first steps on film set, he had experienced life in the Izabelin labour camp and the Wołomin ghetto. He was active in the underground movement, transporting weapons and travelling across Europe in a German uniform. His incredible wartime exploits inspired Jerzy Stefan Stawiński to write a screenplay titled The Man Who Mocked the Third Reich (Polish: Człowiek, który zakpił sobie z III Rzeszy). However, the script was rejected due to the Jewish background of the main character.

I. Always on the move

When World War II broke out, Jerzy Lipman was 17 years old. He was a witty and sociable teenager, he had many friends. Many of such friendships, both old and new, helped him repeatedly escape death during the occupation. Before the war, he studied at the State Gymnasium No. 4 in Warsaw. As recalled by one of his friends, he would often play truant, and rather than carrying books in his briefcase, he carried running shoes and other sports accessories. He was very athletic: he was a high jumper, a swimmer, and played volleyball and tennis.

His natural energy and vigour were still evident during the occupation, when he would sneak out of the Wołomin ghetto to the "Aryan side" to visit his friends. Years later, he recalled:

"I tried not to think about the danger, I would jump bravely over that fence and take my bike with me. I would first throw the bike over the wall and then jump myself. […] Then they closed the ghetto completely. I continued to run away, but I would take a different route – through the forest […]. I was afraid, but I tried to suppress this fear in myself, to keep it under control. I was even denounced a few times, and twice I was chased by the military police.”

During the next few years of the occupation, as if in defiance of the fate planned for him and millions of Jews, Jerzy Lipman experienced what was perhaps the most vibrant and intense time of his life: he studied at the underground university, made new friends, and travelled thousands of kilometres.

As film scholars point out, movement – dolly shots and motion within the frame – is a characteristic trait of Lipman's output. His shots were always dynamic, expressive, seemingly imperfect, sometimes deliberately out of focus. The cinematographer himself was no less energetic at work. This is how director Jerzy Kawalerowicz remembered him: "Whenever I think of Jurek Lipman, I always see him in motion. He is always in a hurry, coming back from somewhere, having an appointment with someone, doing something. Always full of energy. When working on a film, he was never just the cinematographer, only interested in the visual side of things. He was a fully-fledged co-creator of the film.” Although it was not a popular approach at the time, Lipman believed that the camera needed to be subjected to the actor, not the other way round. When necessary, he took the camera in his own hands and captured everything that could not be captured in static shots. He would quickly adjust lighting and instantly make needed corrections. Andrzej Wajda, whose directorial debut A Generation (Polish: Pokolenie) was also Lipman's introduction to the film industry, recalled: "Jurek did not let anyone do any work related to the camera. He built the dolly track himself. He mounted the cranes, built scaffolding, set up counterweights, constructed bridges over the precipice. The riskier the venture, the greater part of it was his work. It looked as if he was playing some kind of a mad game in which his hot head could let off some steam.”

II. Out of the darkness

The Holocaust brought Jurek's carefree life to a halt and forced him into a struggle for survival. How shocking must it have been for a young man "from a good home," brought up in the spirit of respect for the law and other people, to witness the tragedy of the Wołomin ghetto and the forced labour camp in Izabelin?

Andrzej Wajda recalled: “It was also remarkable how Lipman was able to capture the world of human poverty […]. He knew how to move around the poor streets of Warsaw […], and to accurately depict the melancholy of these shantytowns. The most beautiful aspect of A Generation is precisely what Lipman’s photography gives the viewers – a glimpse into the desolation of living under the occupation, with nobody knowing what the future would bring, and with every consecutive day being a lifetime starting from scratch."

For six years, Lipman witnessed the progressive annihilation of the Jewish nation. He remained in hiding, periodically leaving and returning to Warsaw, wandering around its rubble-strewn streets destroyed in two uprisings. Everything he saw back then left a mark on his future and influenced his perception of the world around him.

Jerzy Lipman became a legend of the Polish film school thanks to his exceptional sensitivity to lighting. Unlike his predecessors, he did not avoid dark tones; he saw them as a valuable element in building the atmosphere of individual scenes. The reality he tried to capture on film as faithfully as possible consisted mostly of darkness. Frames largely immersed in shadows, silhouettes emerging from the darkness, sometimes barely smouldering sources of light (the glow of a candle, dim sunlight coming from behind the window) – all this built atmosphere and added to the drama of the films. The cinematographer emphasised the mood of the setting by using changing saturation of natural light. Jerzy Hoffman, who collaborated with Lipman several times, remembered one instance in which Lipman showed his extraordinary sense for lighting. In Pan Wołodyjowski, the scene of young Nowowiejski waiting for Azja Tuhajbejowicz was shot in two parts, in locations thousands of kilometres apart – partly in Poland and partly in Chufut-Kale in Crimea. The light metre available on set was malfunctioning, but Lipman was able to choose the perfect moment to shoot the second part of the scene. They fit together perfectly.

III. Everything has a meaning

In October 1942, after escaping from the labour camp in Izabelin, Jerzy Lipman found himself in Warsaw. At that point, most of the Jews from the local ghetto were already dead. With his friend Paul Reznik, he roamed around aimless for several days. The two men held fake documents, but they were quite poorly forged. They stayed in cheap hotels in Chmielna Street and were helped by prostitutes. "One day, the criminal police picked us up. ‘You are Jews.’ […] We had some money […], but no dollars or valuables. Those policemen noticed it immediately when they started searching us.” The policemen let the denounced young men go free.

Over the following two and a half years, he many times escaped death by the skin of his teeth. Thanks to the help of Zofia, his elder sister and underground activist working for the Workers' Party of Polish Socialists (Polish: Robotnicza Partia Polskich Socjalistów, RPPS), Lipman was able to get hold of forged registration cards; an old friend helped him obtain a birth certificate. From then on, he was called Jerzy Lipiński. With his new name, he needed to become a new man:

"I used to believe in destiny in general. However, the most important thing was to make it to the other, ‘Aryan’ side. We had to change our way of thinking, behaving, even walking – to remove the fear from our eyes, to hold our heads high and look at storefronts. At first, I felt like everyone was looking at me, like everyone saw a Jew in me, I thought they would blackmail or denounce me. That feeling was the hardest to overcome.”

Jerzy moved in with his former schoolmate Zygmunt Lange and his mother; the small flat was open to all people in need of help. Zygmunt taught Jerzy how to tame his fear of living under an assumed identity by going out with him for walks after dusk. As they were strolling through the streets of Warsaw, Jerzy’s task was to behave naturally and comfortably while constantly remaining vigilant: every gesture, ill-considered word, or uncertain glance could cost him his life.

Focus and attention to detail remained intrinsic characteristics of Jerzy Lipman's work. In frame composition, he always used large depth of field, making sure that no important details escaped the viewer's attention: the character's facial expression, their reflection in the mirror, objects in the room. By highlighting details, he built up the dramatic strength of the scene and reminded the audience that reality consists not only of what is visible at first glance, but also of what is hidden or seemingly meaningless. Jerzy Wójcik, who worked with Lipman, recalled that: "For him, the experience of the occupation was partially an encounter with matter. He knew the look of the ground after an explosion, of torn boards, walls, dust, heavy particles hanging in the air. What for others was just a weapon and a uniform, for Jurek was a story of a certain world.”

IV. Risk

In the autumn of 1942, twenty-year-old Lipman joined the underground structures of the RPPS. He also became a member of the Polish People's Army (Polish: Polska Armia Ludowa), supplying weapons to underground activists.

One day, a drunken Wehrmacht officer came to the riverbank where Jerzy was sitting. As it turned out, he wanted to take a bath. Suddenly, a German patrol appeared on the horizon. Fearing that they would question him, Jerzy quickly put on the officer's uniform lying on the sand and ran away. He felt very insecure, but no one saw through the ruse; he was even saluted by a group of soldiers passing him by. To gain self-confidence, perhaps in an act of youthful spite against the terror of the occupation, he went out in the German uniform at least several more times. It was not long before it became the primary prop the performance of his adopted identity.

Hiding his Jewish origins, Lipman found an odd job escorting labourers to construction sites run by the Todt organisation. In the winter of 1943, travelling on a train headed East, he met a Polish-speaking SS officer, Adam Śledziński. Jerzy was in a grave danger, but not only did he agree to play poker with the SS-man and win a considerable sum of money, he also accepted an invitation to visit him at his flat in Minsk, where they spent several days crawling German pubs and playing cards. Śledziński then travelled with Lipman to Warsaw, where he revealed he had stolen stamps and document templates from his unit and did not intend to return to service. Although both were hiding many secrets from each other, they slowly built up mutual trust.

With fabricated documents, claiming to be furloughed Luftwaffenbau members, they obtained new uniforms from the German supply headquarters in Rakowiecka Street in Warsaw. They also collected a ration of provisions for the entire unit, which they then handed over to Langowa. Posing as technical workers Georg Liebich (Lipman) and Oberleutnant Śledziński, they set off for Berlin together. They hung out in luxurious hotels, went to the cinema and to the circus, saw cabaret shows, dined in restaurants.

They made similar trips to Berlin twice more. Lipman quickly learned what to sell to quickly collect money necessary to survive and support needy people around him. He also made friends with Italian and Yugoslavian partisans, from whom he bought weapons for the Polish underground.

In the films he worked on, Jerzy Lipman boldly transgressed set rules and conventions of lighting and composition. One of his greatest technical achievements was the Oscar-nominated Knife in the Water (Polish: Nóż w wodzie, 1962, dir. Roman Polanski). The action takes place over one day, primarily onboard a small yacht cruising the Masurian lakes. With the use of camera movement and non-standard framing, Lipman perfectly portrayed a complex psychological game unfolding between the three protagonists. He balanced the tension of the constricted space with landscape shots – glistening water, endless lakes, the sun wandering on the horizon. Roman Polanski thus discussed the challenges faced by the cinematographer: "First of all, he was amazing at handheld shots, which made up the bulk of photography for Knife in the Water, almost all the footage shot on the yacht was handheld. In those years, operators did not like it much […]. Above all, however, he was of great help in solving all sorts of technical problems that arose while filming on the yacht. Where to place the lamp? How to attach it? Like me, he was keen on DIY. The power generator was dragging behind us on the other boat, and we […] were hanging overboard like grapes. For Jurek, it was all natural and normal.”

V. A change of frame

First together with Śledziński and later on his own, Lipman visited many European countries: Italy, Yugoslavia, France, Hungary. His international exploits awakened in him a love of photography. "I always had my camera with me and took many pictures. It became a passion of mine, which once actually put me in quite a pickle. I was taking a group of six boys, typical rascals from Grochów, […] to Milan. According to the official version, my brigade was supposed to work at construction, but we mostly traded in some goods and stripped Germans and Italians off weapons. We would then return to Warsaw with the weapons and some paper which was used by the underground to forge documents […]. It was my birthday. The train stopped at a station somewhere along the way, and I got off to take some photos […]. Suddenly, the train manager, an Austrian […], appeared before me. The sly old man must have suspected that I was Jewish and had tried to ask the boys, but they laughed at him because they knew nothing themselves […]. Our group was sent back to Vienna, and I travelled under escort, suspected of being a spy […]. In Vienna, they took me to the Gestapo offices […]. I went in and saluted. I outlined the situation with indignation in my voice, stressed the significance of our work, and pointed out how important it was to meet deadlines. I also mentioned the train manager's lawless behaviour and lack of discipline, as he had even stolen my favourite gloves. I spoke of working for the good of the motherland and so on, like a true German. I truly went all in. My life was on the line. They believed me."

Travelling around Europe gave Lipman a sense of freedom, despite the risks he took and the fear that accompanied him. Years later, he thus recalled this intense time:

"[…] For me, travelling became both a necessity and a way of life. I was already well-experienced in operating in the underground. I did not have to sit locked in one place, plagued by claustrophobia and inertia. I could do something. All these foreign places were always a refuge for me, because, paradoxically – despite the danger – I felt safer on a train, travelling, than I did on the streets of Warsaw, where it was easy to become prey […]."

The journeys also restored his sense of agency, which proved particularly significant during the difficult times he experienced in 1943–1944. He lost many of his nearest and dearest at that time: Paweł Rzeznik, Zygmunt and Helena Lang, Adam Śledziński (who was a Pole, as it turned out, probably connected with the underground), and his beloved sister Zosia. He was also very worried about his parents, who were staying in hiding in Otwock.

Film scholars and former collaborators of Jerzy Lipman both emphasise his unparalleled sense for frame composition. By using tight framing and open compositions, he wanted to show the viewers that what they saw on screen was only a fragment of reality. He also saw an artistic quality in what was seemingly mundane, unattractive. This is why he did not apply filters when filming the sky, which stood contrary to the accepted practice at the time. As Andrzej Wajda recalled, "Jerzy Lipman used no filters, but he was able to make this paper-white sky, dewy and luminous, express a kind of melancholy and despair." He was an expert in bringing out characteristic features of the landscape and scenery he was filming. He used the camera to record transience: changes in the weather and time of day, the passage of time. He was a total artist: "Jurek's esteem came mainly from the fact that he never hesitated: he knew exactly what needed to be filmed, where to set the camera, what shutter to use. Reviewing the dailies, we were usually amazed to find out that the footage looked even clearer than we expected. Besides, he never put the blame on others. It was his photography and he took full responsibility for it.

VI. Starting anew

Lipman enrolled in film school when he was 26 years old, having gone through the turbulent years of the occupation. He was reluctant to talk about his wartime experiences. Thanks to his innate talent and hard work, Jerzy Lipman's name soon came to be featured in the credits of many of the most renowned films of the Polish film school. Jerzy Stefan Stawiński explained: "The case is simple: the Stalinist glaciation was followed by several creative years which later also came to a halt. But this brief period brought works that were genuinely interesting to the viewers because they dealt with real issues from Poland's recent history. This required abandoning the artificial, deceitful style ossified in filmmaking. Lipman's eye helped usher in a new perspective. He turned out to be the right artist in the right time. His camera allowed us to take a fresh look at the world around us." Unfortunately, Lipman did not enjoy his exciting and rewarding job for long. The nation-wide anti-Semitic campaign of 1968 forced the respected cinematographer and his family to emigrate. He was never allowed to return to Poland.

Anna Styczyńska

Bibliography

  • Michalak B., Zatrzymani w kadrze, Warszawa 2016.
  • Lubelski T. (ed.), Zdjęcia: Jerzy Lipman, Warszawa 2005.

 

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