Roman Polanski, Two Men and a Wardrobe, Dwaj ludzie z szafa, 1958.

Norman N. Holland

Enjoying:  I’d read the essay first. This film is like “Theater of the Absurd.” It helps to have a way to make sense of it.

    Fifteen minutes of film, shot by a twenty-five year-old still in film school. What can you do in fifteen sixteen minutes of film? If you're Roman Polanski, you can do a lot.

    Two men (or clowns) come out of the sea bearing between them a huge, heavy wardrobe, the kind of thing Europeans have instead of closets built into their walls. Coming out of the sea--any professor of symbology not otherwise busy rescuing the Vatican could tell you that that's an image of birth. They--and their wardrobe--are born, and for a little bit they frisk on the beach like children (possibly gay--possibly polymorphously perverse).

    The wardrobe has two doors and a mirror in between, a mirror that sometimes reflects the subsequent encounters.

    They carry their wardrobe up to the town, where they have a series of encounters. They try to put it on a trolley, but are pushed away. They try to interest a girl, but she walks away. They pass a pair of laughing gays, but one is busy picking the pocket of the other. They try to bring the wardrobe into a restaurant, but are pushed out. And then they break for lunch, after which their encounters become a bit more complicated.

    They try to bring the wardrobe into a hotel, but are again rejected. A vain man stares into the mirror, so concerned with his own appearance that he doesn't notice when the two men carry the wardrobe away. They encounter a group of hooligans who cruelly kill a cat and are about to hassle a girl when the wardrobe gets in the way. The leader breaks the mirror and slugs one of the two clowns, leaving the decisive beating-up to a short thug (played by Polanski, as in Chinatown). One of the carriers cleans up the one who got beaten up, and they resort to a junkyard full of empty barrels. There, a watchman beats them up and chases them away. They pass a murder on their way back to the beach. There, they pass a child making a vast number of pointless sand pies and the child, like everyone else, ignores the wardrobe. The men and the strange new thing they brought with them disappear into the water in a reversal of the shot of the original miraculous birth.

    Is Polanski's little film any the less pointless than the sand pies? He gives us a picture of a heartless, criminal, even murderous society that automatically rejects these two newcomers with their wardrobe. But why the wardrobe? I think the point is that no one looks inside. Here these two men come from the sea, almost miraculously, bearing a box that contains--what? Nobody gives a damn. At the most people look into the mirror and see themselves, or break the mirror. There are hundreds of empty barrels that people looked into, but not this wardrobe. Whatever strange and perhaps wonderful thing is inside, that no one cares to explore. And that is the ugly truth about society that Polanski is giving us. No one wants something perhaps wonderful, perhaps amazing. They just want to go on doing their thing, be it eating or staring at yourself in a mirror or bullying or murder or something as ridiculous as sand pies. In other words, in fifteen minutes, Polanski gives us a whole world-view, not a very pleasant one. It is in fact, quite brutal, but very Eastern European.

From the waters

Polanski as hooligan

The vain man

    And why two men? Why not one? Well, obviously, it takes two men to carry that wardrobe. But that's a dumb answer. I think it's because the two men are essentially interchangeable. They're not important. What's important is that strange, wonderful, hidden, unknown thing that they bring that's inside the wardrobe, the thing no one wonders about or cares about. Except perhaps, an errant film critic.

Enjoying:  After I've seen this short film, I like to sit for a few minutes and absorb its bleakly comic view of the human race.