Tag Archives: Stephen Cooper


“Struggle”: A Film about a Polish-American Sculptor

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Struggle: The Life & Lost Art of Szukalski (2018)
Directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski
Written by Stephen Cooper & Ireneusz Dobrowolski
Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio et al.

Stephen Cooper, an internationally recognized authority on the writing of John Fante, turned his attention about five years ago to yet another neglected artistic figure, the sculptor Stanislaw Szukalski (1893 – 1987). I would have probably never thought about watching “Struggle,” a documentary initially focused on Szukalski’s lost artistic projects, if I had not first spent a few minutes every semester or so discussing the progress of the film with Steve, who served as one of the co-producers along with a host of “executive producers.” As I recollect our conversations in the Department of English’s mail room, one of the final tasks involved some filming on Easter Island; in fact, in retrospect, this aspect of the film’s production was so much the main topic that when I first heard about a screening of “Struggle,” I wondered what had happened to the project that Steve was working on that required location shooting on Easter Island.

It turned out that Easter Island is the resting place for Szukalski’s ashes, in large part because he believed that all human culture originated from that remote domain of vanquished sculptors. Every human civilization, according to Szukalski’s fantasy, is the result of a diaspora that launched itself from Easter Island, either before or after the Great Flood. I’m uncertain of Szukalski’s “Great Flood” chronology because I didn’t see how it made any difference which came first. I found Szukaski to be an artist who possessed great technical facility as a young sculptor, but who succumbed to fantasies of being a genius. In the course of the film, we learn that these fantasies in the 1930s included nationalistic fervor embedded in right-wing blood and soil ideologies.

The biggest mistake of Sukalski’s life was returning to Poland, his birth country, from the United States, where he was beginning to establish an artistic reputation, and attempting to become the singular master of imagining Polish national identity. Although the second half of the film includes interview footage in which he seems to renounce the anti-Semitism with which his artistic impetus became associated, it is difficult to overlook how the right wing in Poland in this decade appears to have appropriated his work in its contemporary programming.

The film itself seems all too much like a PBS documentary, heavy on still photographs that provide a bridge between favorable footage and the exculpatory exegesis of various critics. I wish more biographical detail had been provided: how exactly did Szukalski manage to escape from Poland after the Nazi invasion? What stories did he tell his screenwriter friend, Ben Hecht, about his time in Poland, in which he appears to have been associated with a fascist, anti-Semitic insurgency? (It seems telling that the film’s title echoes the title of Hitler’s infamous manifesto.) Did anyone involved with the film contact his former co-workers at Rocketdyne, where he is said to have been employed for several years? “Struggle” features the executor of Szukalski’s artistic estate, Glenn Bray, in the lead role of his posthumous advocate. Bray, in fact, probably deserves some formal credit for “Struggle” in that the film could hardly have ever come to pass without his hundreds of hours of video footage serving as an archival resource. No doubt much of it would make for tedious viewing. Szukalski’s proposed universal language of “Protong,” for instance, is sufficiently bizarre that if it were taken out of context, I can imagine its inventor being held for observation at a facility for the mentally ill.

At the end of the film, in fact, I found myself infinitely more inclined to watch a full-length documentary about Ben Hecht, and wondering how big a role Szukalski might play in it. Despite the passages from Hecht’s writing, which are read in the film, that record the strong impression Szukalski made on him, I suspect that any substantial documentary film on Hecht would only include a very small cameo appearance by Szukalski, and even that might be more than he deserves.

“Struggle” debuted last month in Amsterdam and this month in Los Angeles. It started streaming on Netflix on Friday, December 21.

(Post-script: December 31, 2018 — The original blog post about this film was considerably shorter, and primarily noted that the film would be available for viewing on Netflix. The review has intermittently been revised and substantially expanded during the past two weeks.)



The following critique of Szukalski deserves our close attention:
Who Is Stanislav Szukalski, the Obscure Artist Leonardo DiCaprio Is Trying to Make Famous?

In reading about Szukalski’s theories, I began to wonder what kind of metanarrative he might have come up with if current scientific discourse about Neanderthal DNA had been wide-spread knowledge at mid-20th century.