A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Cinema
2016 update: You can read our fancy new multimedia version of this guide to Polish film by clicking on the image below!
Of all the areas of Polish culture in which a foreigner requires guidance, cinema comes to mind first. Many are acquainted with its international stars, but few know the background story and the gems that haven't yet made it globally. To brush up on your knowledge – or to tackle your complete ignorance – simply select your profile, click and enjoy!
There is no mistaking the forefathers of cinematography - while Edison created the kinetoscope which recorded film onto tape, Auguste and Louis Lumière patented the cinematograph, which allowed viewing by multiple parties at once. But the geniuses from France and America weren't alone in contributing to the invention of film.
In 19th-century Poland, several inventors, among them Piotr Lebiedziński, were working on creating a cinematograph of their own. In 1893, Lebiedziński, a chemist and amateur photographer, beat the Lumière brothers by two years in developing a machine called the pleograph, which could record short films. For technical reasons, the device was never used on a large scale. The invention, however, continued to evolve thanks to inventor Kazimierz Prószyński.
Polish inventors played an important role in the development of cinematography and television. In 1897, a brilliant inventor referred to as the "Polish Edison", Jan Szczepanik, obtained a British patent for his "telectroscope". This television prototype could transmit image and sound, thus enabling live viewing of remote images and sounds. With the invention of appropriate technology years later, his concept became reality.
Another inventor whose work was part of the incremental development process is Siegmund Lubin (Zygmunt Lubszyński), an American Jew of Polish origins. He is credited with the invention of the first cinema projector. While Thomas Edison patented a kinetoscope that weighed almost a ton, Lubin's phantoscope weighed a mere 25 kilograms (55 pounds) and was altered to be even lighter. In the dog-eat-dog film industry, Lubin, previously a contact lens salesman, became Edison's number one competitor.
Polish cinematography dates back to the end of World War I, when Poland regained independence following 120 years of occupation. Yet the first, and only left undamaged, Polish feature film is Pruska kultura (Prussian Culture) from 1908. The large majority of the films produced by the burgeoning industry were melodramas and patriotic films.
Polish cinematography developed dynamically during the inter-war period. Over 150 film studios were set up. Among the most important ones were Sfinks, Leo-Film and Falanga. Their yearly production would amount to 30 features and between 100 and 300 shorts. The most important film of the period was an adaptation of Eliza Orzeszkowa's novel Cham (The Boor) directed by Jan Nowina-Przybylski, which was shown in 13 different countries.
The inter-war period also had its star actors: Adolf Dymsza, Jadwiga Smosarska and Eugeniusz Bodo.
The masterminds and pioneers of Polish cinema of the period were Jewish businessmen. They invested in the new industry and thus furthered its development. Films in Yiddish were an important part of the Polish cinematography of the pre-World War II period.
70 of the 170 Jewish films brought out between 1910 and 1950 were made in Poland. Poland was one of the three main centres of Yiddish culture in the world, along with the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite increasing economic problems and a strenuous political situation (including growing anti-Semitism), there were three million Polish Jews in Poland and the country had become a hub for inter-war Jewish cinema.
In the first decades of the 20th century, the Polish film industry was almost entirely in Jewish hands. Thus, as Natan Gross, author of Film żydowski w Polsce (Jewish film in Poland) writes, there were "no anti-Semitic films produced in Poland during the twenty years of the inter-war period".
The most important producers of the time were Jewish - Józef Green, Leo Forbert and the Ginzburg brothers, as were the most talented directors: Aleksander Ford (Mosze Lifszyc), Józef Lejtes, Konrad Tom, Henryk Szaro (Szapiro) and Michał Waszyński (Mosze Waksberg). Waszyński would author what became the most celebrated Yiddish film – 1937's The Dybbuk, based on a play by Szymin An-Sky.
Growing anti-Semitism in the 20s and 30s led a number of Jewish entrepreneurs and artists to leave Poland. They were fleeing frequent pogroms and the extreme poverty that was spreading throughout Austrian Galicia. Hollywood was among the most popular destinations. While in Los Angeles Polish Jews set up the biggest and most important film studios – MGM and Warner Bros, Broadway was created, among others, by the Shubert Brothers from Wejherowo, Poland.
Sam Goldwyn, best known for being the founding contributor and executive of several motion picture studios in Hollywood, was born in Warsaw as Szmul Gelbfisz. Before he went into the business of films, he was in the glove trade. He changed his name twice. At first, Samuel Geldfisz became Sam Goldfish, and after setting up Goldwyn Productions with the Selwyn brothers, Goldfish turned into Goldwyn. He knew he had struck gold with Hollywood and wanted the brand to be associated with his person. That didn't stop his partners from forcing him to sell his shares. He sold them for a million dollars, an unthinkable sum for the time.
Other Polish immigrants - the four brothers Aaron, Hirsz, Szmuel and Izaak Wonsal, would also leave their imprints on history. Their father emigrated from Poland in the 1880s and started a new life as Warner. They first lived in Canada and later moved to the United States where in 1903, wanting to get into the new booming film industry, Albert and Sam (Aaron and Szmuel) opened their first theatre, the Cascade, which they rapidly turned into a cinema. A mere four years later, they owned a chain of 15 cinemas, and soon expanded into the film distribution and rental business.
In 1918, the Warner brothers bought property and established the film studio Warner Features, Hollywood's third film studio after Paramount and Universal (co-founded by Mark M. Dintefass – an emigrant from Tarnów).
With the success of films featuring Rin Tin Tin, the German shepherd dog, the Warner Bros. became film moguls. In 1927, they released the world’s first "talkie" ( feature film with synchronized sound), Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer and – as Al Jolson foretold in this milestone movie – "you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!" Two years later, the Warners presented the first all-colour feature length film – On with the Show (1929) – to the world. Their company has since produced thousands of film and continues to be a global leader.
There were many stars of the silent cinema period. Pola Negri (born Apolonia Chałupiec), a Polish immigrant, was one of the most striking.
Negri's early life was marked by the departure of her father, who was arrested in 1902 by the Russians and sent to Siberia. She subsequently moved to Warsaw with her mother, where she enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Ballet. After a period of financial hardship, Negri began a new chapter in her life in 1908 by debuting in Tchaikovsky’s epic, Swan Lake, for which she gained critical praise.
Pola worked her way up and gave a solo performance of the Saint-Léon ballet production Coppélia, again achieving commercial success.
In 1914, Pola Negri debuted in her first film Niewolnica Zmysłów (Slave to her Senses), directed by Jan Pawłowski. She became the first Polish actress to foster such an onscreen image of desire and intrigue. During World War I, Alexander Hertz's films starring Pola Negri ended up on the German market.
Her popularity throughout Europe grew – so much so that Richard Ordyński invited her to Berlin to act in a revival production of Sumurun, to be directed by Max Reinhard at the Berlin Deutsches Theatre.
While living and acting in Berlin, Pola first signed with Saturn Films, acting in films such as Mania (1918). Thereafter, she signed fully to UFA and Lubitsch convinced the studio to create a high-end movie with Pola as the star. The following films were born from this venture – each greater than the next: The Eyes of the Mummy Ma, Carmen (1918), and Madame Dubarry (1919).
When, following one of his trips to Europe, Charles Chaplin was asked what he had found interesting in Europe, he replied: Pola Negri. With his help and that of others, Negri became a star of 1920's Hollywood.
In the summer of 1927, she left for Paris to marry Georgian Prince Serge Mdivani. Way of Lost Souls (also known as The Woman He Scorned), released in 1929 was Negri's final silent film. Her career ended with the beginning of talking films.
The Polish film industry ceased to function during World War II. After the war, the Łódź Film School (Państwowa Szkola Filmowa) formed the bedrock of the reborn Polish cinema. The school opened on October 8th 1948 and among its students were names that would go into the history books: Andrzej Munk, Andrzej Wajda, Janusz Morgenstern, and Kazimierz Kutz, documentary filmmakers Kazimierz Karabasz and Andrzej Brzozowski and cinematographers Jerzy Wójcik, Witold Sobociński, Mieczysław Jahoda, and Wiesław Zdort.
Post-war cultural and artistic life in Poland unfolded slowly and had to put up with the beginning of censorship. Against that backdrop, Łódź Film School was progressive and innovative, a veritable bastion of artistic freedom. Lecturers and students followed the trends in European avant-garde, read the works of the Theatre of the Absurd, and revered the deep psychological analysis of Witold Gombrowicz and Franz Kafka. It was one of few places in the country which screened foreign films, European classics and the newest works of the Italian neorealist school. Its cinema rooms could barely hold the masses of students and visitors who wanted to see something unique.
Łódź-launched masters include Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Roman Polański, Andrzej Munk, Krzysztof Zanussi and Marek Koterski. Over the years, the school has continued to educate generation of filmmakers. Its more recent graduates include Wojciech Smarzowski, Małgośka Szumowska, Jan Jakub Kolski, Krzysztof Krauze and Andrzej Jakimowski. In 2014, the Leon Schiller National Film, Television and Theatre School in Łódź (its full name) was ranked among The Hollywood Reporter's Top International Films Schools.
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Shortly after the war, the role of cinema within society and its relation to the government was decided. The communist regime saw film as a propaganda tool which would be fundamental in building a truly socialist country.
The works of documentary and feature filmmakers were marked by social realism. The first Polish film that was faithful to social realism and displayed a vision of socialism favourable to the ruling class was Jasne łany by Eugeniusz Cękalski. There were many others: Uczta Baltazara by Jerzy Zarzycki and Jerzy Passendorf from 1954, and Przygoda na Mariensztacie by Leonard Buczkowski from 1953 (the first Polish film technicolour film). The first films of the greats were also affected by the dogma of social realism: Celuloza by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Generation by Andrzej Wajda or Piątka z ulicy Barskiej by Aleksander Ford.
Aleksander Ford's Piątka z ulicy Barskiej was one of the best films of the 50s. The director's efforts were awarded at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival.
All over Europe, years of painful war had produced a need for films that would heal wounds. In Poland, Leonard Buczkowski's Zakazane piosenki (Forbidden Songs), which showed everyday life in occupied Warsaw, answered that call.
Other films, such as Wanda Jakubowska's Ostatni etap (The Last Stage), based on the true story of a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau, also appealed to the foreign public. The film was shown in 50 countries. In France it had 2.8 million viewers. In 1950, Wanda Jakubowska received the International Peace Prize of the World Peace Council. Among the same year's winners were Pablo Neruda and Pablo Picasso.
Also highly popular throughout Europe was Aleksander Ford's war drama from 1948, Ulica graniczna. The story dealt with Jewish and Polish children during World War II. It had almost one million viewers in France.
Out of the ashes of the war, a current in film arose in the 1950s - the Polish Film School. Its followers set out to create works that would help in coming to terms with the war. Most of its students were from the generation born in the 1920s . The war had interrupted and ruined their young adulthood and they became adamant about showing its consequences on camera. The current was represented by several directors: Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, and Wojciech Jerzy Has.
In 1956, changes in the political climate allowed the Polish Film School to surface. The artists rejected social realism and what it stood for, having another goal in mind - to free art from excessive romanticism and the use of national myths.
Film critic Zygmunt Kałużyński wrote in 1959, "It was a crackdown on the widespread ideal of being a hero at all costs, on the cult of blind patriotism [...]". ("Film" 48/1959)
Following Stalin's death, the Soviet Union’s influence over Poland was starting to slacken and the communist leadership in Poland permitted the setting up of production units. The period's greatest directors were part of the movement.
Film critic Professor Tadeusz Lubelski wrote:
- In a country where there was still no debate about the war that had just ended, the films produced by the Polish Film School set out to engage the public in a deep emotional dialogue that would prove to be therapeutic. Through stories which unfold in a near past, they touch upon different current topics: the Poles spirituality and their future perspectives.
Examples of the films of the Polish Film School include Canal by Andrzej Wajda (1956), awarded at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, his Ashes and Diamonds (1958) and Lotna (1959), as well as films by Andrzej Munk – Man on the Tracks (1956), Eroica (1957) and Bad Luck (1959).
Both directors analysed the same subjects in their creations. They talked about the history of Poland, national defeat, honour, patriotism, and responsibility towards the motherland. While expressing their belief in these values, they simultaneously questioned them.
The Polish Film School is also noted for creating psychological and existential films. These include Wojciech Jerzy Has' The Noose (1957), Farewells (1958) and Roomers (1959) as well as Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Real End of the Great War (1957), Night Train (1959) and Mother Joan of the Angels (1960). Along the same lines is Tadeusz Konwicki's The Last Day of Summer (1958) and All Souls' Day (1961).
The Polish Film School's impact on world cinema cannot be overstated. Martin Scorsese, who holds an honorary doctorate from Łódź Film School, commented:
I cannot explain how your cinema - from Wajda, Polański, to Skolimowski, the whole lot - influenced my cinematic output. But it still does. At some point, I realised that when I wanted to make actors or cinematographers understand something, I show them Polish films from the 1950s.
There's no discussion about Polish cinema without mentioning Andrzej Wajda. For years, he was the voice of a generation - his films mirrored changing social and political circumstances. Although they aren't documentary films, his cinematic works are like history books on film. At the start of his career, his films dealt with the war, later, with the films Man of Marble and Man of Iron, he showed the Solidarity trade union and the part it played in suffocating communism. He has received worldwide acclaim and has a faithful following in Japan. In 2000, he won an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
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Wajda didn't plan on becoming a director. He studied painting in Kraków, and when he eventually dropped out from his course, he decided to try his hand at filmmaking. He enrolled at Łódź Film School. Painting continues to influence his cinematic approach - he pays attention to the visual layer of his films, often referring to classic Polish paintings in films like Ashes and Diamonds, Birch Wood or The Wedding.
Ashes and Diamonds is a significant work. It defined how Poles viewed their country after the war. In another film, Generation, Wajda was the first to shed light on the tragic fate of the "Generation of Columbuses" – the generation of Poles born soon after Poland regained independence in 1918 and whose adolescence was marked by World War II. Lotna, his first film in colour is a cruel portrayal of Polish romanticism, Man of Marble draws attention to the lies spread by the communist government, and its sequel Man of Iron ensures that Solidarity and the fight against communism will never be forgotten.
Wajda never ceased dismantling national myths in his films. In a society which revered national heroes, he told stories of heroism but finished them with his signature move – the question: and what's the point? In doing so he didn't gain any favour with the majority of the population. But in a weird way, that's what made him into who he is now: one of the biggest authorities on all things Polish.
Though historical films were his bread and butter, Wajda made other types of films from early on. In the New Wave Innocent Sorcerers (1960), he showed the mutinous and marginalised young people of the jazz generation. In Everything for Sale, shot after the tragic death of his friend, the well-known actor Zbigniew Cybulski in 1968, he created a sad self-portrait of the artistic milieu. In Birch Wood (1970), based on a story by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, he dealt with the topic of death and illustrated the poetic dance of Eros and Thanatos.
The Promised Land, a picture of the uncivilised reality of capitalism at the end of the 19th century, is one of the greatest films of Polish cinema. In 2007, Wajda created one of the most personal films of his career. The Oscar-nominated Katyń is the real-life story of the massacres which took place in April and May of 1940, when some 22,000 Polish citizens were murdered by the the Soviet secret police - the NKVD. The events are of personal significance to Wajda, whose family suffered directly from the tragedy.
Andrzej Munk was another important figure of the Polish Film School. Wajda used stories of heroism and romanticism to help Poles recover from the war. Munk, on the other hand, used rationalism to criticise Polish romanticism.
"Munk's style" - Jackiewicz wrote about Eroica (1957) and Bad Luck (1960) - "clearly broke away from the lyricism of the rest of the school. His films should rather be compared to 18th-century philosophical tales than with narrative poems like those of Wajda. Munk's essence was realism with some para documentary elements [...] his metaphors were more like the surrealism of Chaplin's comedies rather than Bunuel, as was the case with Wajda."
Before he would become famous for Eroica and Bad Luck, Munk was in fact a documentary filmmaker. Respecting the guidelines of the social realist doctrine and sometimes exaggerating them, he filmed the working conditions of railway workers and miners.
With just three feature films in his portfolio, he became one of the most important filmmakers of his generation. Man on the Tracks, often referred to as the Polish Citizen Kane, is the story of an unemployed railway worker. In other films, he tackled the war. In Eroica and Bad Luck, he used irony and objectivity to discuss Polish recent events, the war trauma and the reverence of heroism. Eroica was called an "anti-heroic" film.
"We wanted to show how spreading the ideal of being a hero at all costs influences individuals who aren't natural heroes and how it makes them into heroes", the director said in an interview.
Munk died in a car accident in 1961; leaving behind an unfinished work - Passenger.
Alongside the Polish Film School, a new current appeared in cinema in the mid-60s. It was dubbed "the third Polish cinema". After the first film efforts after the war, which maintained the pre-war style, and following the account-settling of the Polish Film School formed by people who had taken part in World War II, young artists entered the scene. They had been brought up after the war and so had only experienced the post-war reality. It was the end of the Stalinist era and instead of coming to terms with the nation's history and building a socialist motherland, these young filmmakers talked about their everyday lives, moral choices, opportunism and fear of adulthood.
Jerzy Skolimowski deserves to be called the leading representative of this generation of Polish filmmakers.
Film director, script writer, actor, poet and painter – Skolimowski is many things. In his youth, he was a boxer. He later made a short film titled Boxing, which won the Grand Prix at the International Sport Film Festival in Budapest in 1962. His script-writing debut happened in 1960 when he wrote Innocent Sorcerers, which was directed by Andrzej Wajda. He also authored the script to Roman Polański's Knife in the Water. The first film he directed was Identification Marks: None in 1964. He used an unusual method – he compiled several of his student films into one long feature.
In his third film, Barrier, while remaining faithful to principles espoused by "the third Polish cinema", Skolimowski broke with realism and used the language of symbols. Unlike his other films, Barrier is also less personal because of interference from the censors.
Skolimowski faced even greater problems with his next film, Hands Up! (1967). The censors disagreed with his portrayal of members of the Union of Polish Youth (a youth organisation closely affiliated with the Communist party). In one scene, the students are putting up a poster of Stalin and mistakenly give it two pairs of eyes. As a result, Hands Up! was banned for many years, only to be released in 1981.
Skolimowski decided to emigrate in 1967. The two films he made during his first years abroad, Le Départ and Deep End, seemed to define a new path for the director.
In 1991, he brought out 30 Door Key, based on Witold Gombrowicz's novel Ferdydurke, a work with which the artist was greatly unsatisfied and which led him to abandon the profession for 17 years. He made a successful comeback in 2008 with Four Nights with Anna.
He didn't stop at that. In 2012, he filmed Essential Killing - the story of an Afghan prisoner who escapes a secret European CIA prison and needs to survive in the wilderness. The script to the film was written by the 72-year old Skolimowski in the span of a couple of days and inspired by media accounts of secret CIA prisons in Poland.
There were many great filmmakers of Polish cinema. Wojciech Jerzy Has, the creator of unique and unforgettable visual universes, was one of them.
Has is often referred to as a visionary of Polish cinema. Critics note that he created a body of work that was surprisingly cohesive in its poetry, as if the director were recounting the same tale in various ways. He created his own world in practically every film. The adventures of his protagonists, their problems and the storylines in which they become embroiled were always of secondary importance to the visual environment in which the action takes place. These worlds are like journeys through the labyrinth of time with a particular narrative rhythm and the use of strange objects (critics often use the Polish term "rupieciarnia" - a random collection). Has explained, "In the dream that is a film, one often has a singular time loop. Things of the past, issues long gone, are overlaid onto current reality. The subconscious invades reality. Dreams thus allow us to reveal, to show the future".
Has avoided political or commercial overtones in his work, which often alienated him from the propaganda-driven industry. Although he produced his most important films at the height of the famed Polish Film School, his films were stylistically different. Fellow director Aleksander Jackiewicz said of Has that if he had been a painter, "he would surely have been a Surrealist. He would have redrawn antique objects with all their real accoutrements and juxtaposed them in unexpected ways".
In his private life, he was a loner, rather grumpy and uncommunicative, but he spoke through his work. His best known films, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1965) and The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (1973), are cult classics of world cinema.
The Manuscript... has many fans: Luis Buñuel, Pedro Almodóvar, David Lynch, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese, to name but a few. In 1998, Scorsese helped restore the dilapidated works, and as part of the series Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola Present, the film came out on DVD in the United States in 2002.
While the Polish Film School was busy analysing the fate of the Poles, Kawalerowicz chose more universal themes.
His first films are neo-realistic. He used the style to poeticise boring everyday reality. He soon gained recognition as an excellent observer of reality, and a portraitist of authentic characters through sensitive visual imagery.
He is best known for his films Mother Joan of the Angels (winner of the Silver Palm Special Jury Award at the 1961 Cannes IFF) and Pharaoh (nominated for an Oscar in 1967). Both films are exemplary of Kawalerowcz's directing style.
"He was the best craftsmen among the artists of Polish cinema. Which, of course, is a compliment," Łukasz Maciejewski wrote in the review Film, "His cinema was worldly, European and timeless. [...] While his fellow Polish filmmakers were referring to past period of Young Poland and Romanticism, he adorned poetry with prose." (Film, 2008, no. 2)
Despite the diversity of the subjects he took up, there is an overarching trend in his artistic output – a deeply rooted and instinctive opposition to any unbridled individual and collective emotionality. This approach went hand in hand with the rejection of Romanticism. Film critic Maria Kornatowska famously said that he prefers the "wise man's looking-glass and eye" to "feeling and faith".
The 60s in Polish cinema were dominated by historical dramas and costume dramas. Jerzy Kawalerowicz received an Oscar nomination for his feature film from 1965, Pharaoh, a big-budget film set in ancient Egypt. Andrzej Wajda triggered a national debate with his adaptation of a novel by Stefan Żeromski - the period drama Ashes (1966). In the film, Wajda openly criticised the Polish tradition of romanticism. Meanwhile, Polish and international audiences were impressed with Wojciech Jerzy Has' oneiric The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1965).
But the Godfather of Polish period dramas is Jerzy Hoffman. Until he gained famed in 1969 with his cinematic debut Colonel Wołodyjowski, based on a novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, he made provocative documentary films.
Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) wrote historical novels that were meant to raise national spirits. With his black and white adaption of Colonel Wołodyjowski, Hoffman began to be viewed as a specialist in entertainment films, and so he made more of them. The Deluge, another Sienkiewicz adaptation, is considered his greatest achievement. Made in 1974, the five-hour-long film has both action and romance in its plot. The film is set in the 17th century, during the Swedish invasion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of 1655 to 1658, known as The Deluge, which was eventually thwarted by the Polish-Lithuanian forces. The protagonist is a brave soldier who risks his life to save his motherland, and falls in love with a Polish girl, Aleksandra Billewicz.
Hoffman's Oscar-nominated film fused melodrama with adventure. The Academy Award nomination came in 1975. Over 27 million viewers saw the film in cinemas and millions more on TV.
Big changes occurred in Polish cinematography in the 70s. Historical topics were no longer at the forefront. Polish filmmakers began to pursue the psychological aspects of everyday reality in the People's Republic of Poland. They spoke of life in small cities and the countryside, corruption, nepotism and the clash between communist ideals and the problems of a communist state.
A speech by Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi during the Filmmakers Forum in Gdańsk in 1975 marked the beginning of the new current. The filmmakers accused communist leaders of smothering artistic freedom and hindering the possibility of holding a public debate on vital social and political issues.
Janusz Kijowski, who coined the term "cinema of moral anxiety", explained that moral anxiety is the foundation of cinema because "anxiety is conflict, conflict of interests […] In Poland at the end of the 70s, the term had another connotation. For the ruling party, it was iconoclastic because those in power feared all noble words. Morality was one of those things that didn't function without a socialist adjective glued to it. They were threatened by references to the decalogue, to principles, un-systematic values that weren't endorsed by the communist party."
The first film "of moral anxiety" was Krzysztof Kieślowski's Personnel from 1976. It was also his feature debut. However, the current was at its peak after the release of Andrzej Wajda's Man of Marble. The most important works of the "cinema of moral anxiety" are Agnieszka Holland's Provincial Actors and Lonely Woman, Krzysztof Zanussi's Camouflage, Illumination and The Constant Factor, Feliks Falk's Top Dog, Andrzej Wajda's Rough Treatment and finally Krzysztof Kieślowski's Blind Chance.
Krzysztof Zanussi wasn't directly linked with the "cinema of moral anxiety", nor can his films be considered along any clearly-defined track or trend in Polish or international filmmaking. He said,
"My films are derived primarily from literature, and are a kind of human speech. The idea of visual cinema has always raised my doubts." (Film magazine, 1992 No. 17)
In the 70s, Zanussi made Family Life, Behind the Wall, Illumination, Camouflage and Spiral. All these films had a protagonist built along the same lines - a man faced with a choice between values and the temptation to reject them.
Zanussi's films are regarded as examples of "auteur cinema". He wrote the script to almost all his films. Looking at how they manifest themselves in the world today, Zanussi explored the perennial problems of love, death, happiness and conscience.
Film critic Andrzej Luter commented that Zanussi's films are existential:
"In his films, Zanussi provokes us - he asks us key questions: whether spiritual wealth, religion and faith can be a sufficient and convincing answer against evil and suffering, which in itself has no meaning and can they be a sufficient answer to the mystery of death?" (Kino 2009, No. 6)
Krzysztof Kieślowski is one of the best known Polish directors in the world. But he didn't always want to be a filmmaker. "To tell you the truth, I never really wanted to go to school" the filmmaker admits in Krzysztof Kieślowski: I'm So-So. "I wanted to be a stoker." When he finally decided to enrol at the Łódź Film School, it took him three trials to get accepted. But he was relentless, "I was really stubborn [...] If the motherfuckers don’t want me, I’ll show them by getting in".
But it was worth it. At the school, he met people he could look up to – Kazimierz Karabasz, a lecturer and praised documentary filmmaker, and Jerzy Bosak. After graduating he started working for the Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych i Fabularnych (Documentary and Feature Film Production Company) on Chełmska Street in Warsaw. Back then he had no interest in features, so he made documentaries about life in the People's Republic of Poland.
Film critic Marek Hendrykowski writes,
Documentaries were Krzysztof Kieślowski's first great love. Today, when his worldwide successes as a director of feature films have obscured his documentaries, eclipsed them, we somehow forget how significantly the documentary film years preceding this success shaped Kieślowski's artistic identity and how much his features owe to his experience as a documentary filmmaker.
The documentary genre taught him how to be a still observer of reality. From that vantage point, he filmed his first features about the dark side of socialism – Personnel and Amateur.
1985 marked the beginning of Kieślowski's long-time collaboration on screenplays with renowned Warsaw attorney Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Together they made several films: No End, Short Film About Killing, Short Film About Love, The Decalogue, The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours trilogy. At the beginning of the 90s, Kieślowski relinquished realistic poetry for the language of mystique. His films gained international praise.
After completing the Three Colours trilogy (1993-94), Kieślowski announced that he was abandoning the filmmaking profession. During the last months of his life, he worked with Piesiewicz on a screenplay for a triptych consisting of works titled Paradise, Purgatory and Hell. In 2002, German director Tom Tykwer's feature Heaven, produced in Germany and Italy, was based on Kieślowski's and Piesiewicz's screenplay for the first part of the unfinished trilogy.
"Since Kieślowski, Polish cinema hadn't seen such a persistent author", critic Tadeusz Sobolewski said about Marek Koterski.
His autobiographical films are therapeutic. With Nothing Funny (1995), The House of Fools (1984), Day of the Wacko (2002) and We're All Christs (2006) he proved worthy of being called one of the best Polish directors. Through his films, Koterski talks about his own limitations, weaknesses, misogyny, gullibility, arrogance and pettiness with self-awareness and humour. The traits start to seem characteristic to the viewer.
"This is only pseudo-exhibitionism. Koterski makes himself mediocre so that everyone may discover himself in one of his protagonists" – Tadeusz Sobolewski wrote in Gazeta Wyborcza. Critics have compared Koterski to American underground comic book writer, music critic and media personality Harvey Pekar.
The Pole sees laughter, irony, the absurd as a lifebuoy which helps keep us afloat. Idealism is another such life preserver which forces him to continue directing his own theatre plays, turning plays into film scripts and filming them for the big screen.
The most recognised Polish filmmaker, Roman Polański started off as a child actor in a Kraków theatre. His acting talent presaged a future in the film industry – but in front of the camera rather than behind it.
He was discovered by Antoni Bohdziewicz, a director and pedagogue who saw Polański on stage for the first time in 1953. He offered him a role in the film Trzy opowieści (Three Stories). It wasn't long after that the future director played in Andrzej Wajda's big debut film – Generation. The film marked the beginning of Polanski's path because it gave him an incentive to study filmmaking. He went to the Łódź Film School.
From the beginning, Polański's films were hard to categorise by Polish standards. He wasn't concerned with the same topics as the other upcoming directors. His films didn't tackle national traumas and history. He created his own cinematic world, grappling with loneliness and memory, sexuality as a tool of domination, and the relation between human urges and social roles.
After Knife in the Water, in 1962, Polański left for France. His films garnered awards at international festivals: the FIPRESCI Award in Venice, special mentions in Tehran and Panama, and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 1963 (it lost to Fellini’s 8 1/2).
This success allowed Polański to pursue his cinematic projects. After filming Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac, Polański went to Hollywood, where he created the masterpieces Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. He was arrested in the U.S. in March 1977 and charged with seducing and raping Samantha Geimer, then a minor. After a year’s battle in court – of the judge's abuse, Polański recalled that "I was treated like a mouse that a huge bored cat simply plays with" – he fled the U.S. hours before the official proclamation of the sentence, never to return there again. Since, then he has filmed mainly in France: The Tenant, Tess, Frantic, Venus in Fur. In 2003, he received an Oscar for Best Director for The Pianist.
Alongside Polański and Pawlikowski, Agnieszka Holland is the second living Polish director to work predominantly outside of Poland. She studied at the Prague Film School (FAMU). After graduating in 1971, Holland returned to Poland to work as an assistant director on Krzysztof Zanussi's Illumination and later, on Stanisław Latałło's Letters from our Readers. She also worked with Andrzej Wajda and his X Film Studio. She wrote several scripts with Wajda before directing her own films, which were soon winning awards at festivals. In Poland, she gained notoriety as part of the Polish New Wave. Her international breakthrough came with Angry Harvest (nominated for the Oscar in 1985), Europa, Europa; Olivier, Olivier, The Secret Garden and Washington Square.
She takes part in international coproductions and has directed episodes of American TV series The Wire, The Killing and Cold Case. In 2010, Agnieszka Holland was nominated for an Emmy Award for her work directing the pilot episode of the HBO series Treme, which revisits New Orleans after Katrina.
Her films In Darkness, about a sewer worker who decides to save Jewish lives during World War II, received an Oscar nomination in 2012. Burning Bush, an HBO series about the factual story of Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in 1969 in an act of protest against the military aggression of the Warsaw Pact countries against Czechoslovakia, came out in 2013.
Poland has many great cinematographers who are the unknown faces behind many box office hits. Andrzej Sekuła worked alongside Quentin Tarantino on Pulp Fiction, Four Rooms and Reservoir Dogs. Janusz Kamiński has been Steven Spielberg's inseparable collaborator since Schindler's List. They worked together on Saving Private Ryan.
Other off-screen talents include Sławomir Idziak, who filmed Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, Andrew Niccol's Gattaca and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Dariusz Wolski was the cinematographer on Pirates of the Caribbean, Paweł Edelman has worked for Polański and on the Oscar-winning Ray, Piotr Sobociński filmed Ron Howard's Taken and Andrzej Bartkowiak was behind the camera on Speed, Lethal Weapon 4, The Devil's Advocate, and Dante's Peak.
Among the younger Polish cinematographers is Michał Englert, who was the cameraman on Arie Folman's Congress and Magdalena Górka, who did the camera work for I'm Still Here: The Lost Year of Joaquin Phoenix, a 2010 mockumentary film.
Unlike Romanian or Green cinema, which started concentrating on portraying specific topics and adapting unique senses of aesthetics after the year 2000, a new strand of cinema emerged in Poland and went on to prove its diversity.
Among the creators of new Polish cinema is Wojciech Smarzowski. In The Wedding (2004), he took the key 1901 play by Stanisław Wyspiański and updated its critical, sarcastic exposure of 19th-century Polish society. He drew a caricature of Polish society and all its national sins: drunkenness , pride and disobedience towards the law. His next films cemented his position as one of the most severe societal commentators after the fall of communism. In The Dark House (2009), he showed the marginalised who drink and do evil, and criticised the overuse of the legend of the Solidarity trade union movement. In the award-winning Rose (2011), he looked into the topic of war and its consequences. His criticism of Polish reality also came through in Traffic Department (2013), a conspiracy thriller about a policeman conned into a murder and Angel, in which he paints a ruthless portrait of human decay.
Comparing and setting him apart from Wajda, Zdzisław Pietrasik wrote in Polityka magazine,
"Smarzowski unexpectedly became the most important director of out times. As Wajda once did, he portrays Poles, but he shows entirely different and ugly faces. Maybe more faithful ones?"
What permeates the films of Andrzej Jakimowski is his vision of the world, one that is entirely different to that professed by Wojtek Smarzowski. With every new film, he builds a cinematic world composed of memories, small human dramas, intuition and feelings. Every film is an intimate conversation to which he invites his viewer. His feature debut, Squint Your Eyes (2003), was dedicated to his daughter. It showed her the concept of time. Imagine (2012), is dedicated to his wife, to remind her that closeness lies in discovering and understanding the world together. In the meantime, he filmed Tricks (2007), a film set in books of magical realism.
Jan Jakub Kolski
New Polish cinema has another face: Jan Jakub Kolski.
Kolski took his first steps in the film industry as a youth, when he worked at the State Film Studio in Wrocław. He later worked as an assistant cameraman at the Wrocław regional branch of Polish State Television and finally went to Łódź Film School. There, he first studied cinematography and later on directing, before graduating in 1985. He made numerous shorts, documentaries, and educational films.
As a director, he released his first feature in 1990. It was called The Burial of the Potato. Since then, Kolski has almost exclusively made full-length features and is considered one of Poland's most original filmmakers.
As a director of auteur films, Jan Jakub Kolski creates magical, surrealistic worlds that he calls Jańcioland (Johnnieland) – a name that derives from one of Kolski's protagonists and also references the director's own name. He has adapted novels by Witold Gombrowicz (Pornography, 2003), told fairy-tale like stories (Johnnie Aquarius ,1993; The History of the Cinema in Popielawy, 1998) and shot psychological war dramas (Keep Away from the Window, 2000).
Krzysztof Krauze is another big name in Polish cinema. His film Debt (1999) was one of the best films of the decade – a story of people forced to make dramatic choices in a dangerous and unstable environment. My Nikifor, filmed five years later, is an intimate story about the well-known Polish folk artist and a reflection about what it means to be an artist. The co-writer of the script was the director's wife, Joanna Kos-Krauze. My Nikifor was a big success. Among others, it was awarded with the Crystal Globe at the Karlovy Vary Festival. In 2006, the creative duo (this time, with Joanna Kos-Krauze as co-director) shot Saviour Square. In 2013, they released another accomplished film, this time about the Polish-Romani poet and singer Bronisława Wajs – Papusza. Since the success of Saviour Square and Papusza, Joanna Kos-Krauze is thought of as one of Poland’s best directors, right alongside Agnieszka Holland and Dorota Kędzierzawska.
Dorota Kędzierzawska is another of the outstanding directors of European cinema. Her inconspicuous, soft films show lonely people searching for feelings and closeness. She draws moving psychological portraits of different characters, in particular children. Childhood is explored in Crows (1994), Nothing (1998) and Tomorrow Will Be Better (2010) for which, in 2011, she won the Berlinale Peace Prize and the Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk Grand Prix.
Her mother was a filmmaker who specialised in children's films, and Kędzierzawska often accompanied her to film sets. She has continued to show an interest in children and the elderly as topics for films throughout her studies. They helped her overcome her own shyness. Her subtle and emotional films don't fall under any single genre.
In the last decade, Małgośka Szumowska has emerged as one of the most interesting contemporary directors. In 2004, she brought her maternal story about motherhood, pre-natal fear of birth, and roles prescribed by society to the screen in Stranger. But her breakthrough came in 2008 with 33 Scenes from Life. The film is an autobiographical story about a young artist struggling with the death of both parents. 33 Scenes.. was also the filmmakers first cinematic provocation. In Elles (2011) and In the Name of... (2013), she broke social taboos by talking about student prostitution and the erotic life of clergymen.
The BBC called him "one of Britain's leading filmmakers", in his work, film critic Steve Blandford has found, "the purest essence of Englishness in contemporary cinema". So how Polish is Paweł Pawlikowski? He's not your run-of-the-mill Polish director. Pawlikowski was born in Warsaw in 1957 and left Poland at the age of 14. He is a "hybrid-filmmaker" who seems caught between realities. His imagination and way of illustrating are closer to Western European traditions than those espoused by the Polish Film School or the "cinema of moral anxiety". He studied literature and philosophy in London and Oxford. He went into the business of films at the age of thirty and made his first feature at forty. He started off as a documentary maker with the BBC Community Programme Unit and made his name with From Moscow to Pietushki in 1990. He made other documentaries for the BBC: Serbian Epics, Dostoevsky’s Travels and Tripping with Zhirinovsky. Last Resort, his first full length feature, mirrored his own experiences as a refugee. It earned him the critics' award at the London Film Festival. My Summer of Love, which came three years later received a BAFTA award.
In 2013, Pawlikowski became a internationally well-known figure thanks to the film Ida. Shot in Poland, the black and white psychological drama not only made headlines but received a nomination for an Oscar in 2015.
Paweł Pawlikowski – Ida - one of the most awarded films of the 2013 festival circuit. The film is a black and white story about the Holocaust, Stalinism, and how history breaks moral backbones. It's also the story of two women - a young nun and her aunt, a Stalin-era judge known as Bloody Wanda. Ida is one of the most talked about films of 2013/2014, and a strong nominee for the 2015 Oscar.
Marcin Krzyształowicz – Manhunt (2012) – considered one of the best Polish films of the last decade, the thriller is both a WWII drama about the evil that lurks in humans and a morality play about universal values – the film's characters are ruthless and brutal but only in the name of patriotism and loyalty. Krzyształowicz proved that you don't need a big budget to create great cinema. The film won the Silver Lion prize at Poland's national film festival in Gdynia.
Tomasz Wasilewski – Floating Skyscrapers (2013) – the first Polish film with a homosexual agenda. While his previous film, In the Bedroom, showed promise, with Floating Skyscrapers Wasilewski proves himself to be one of the most interesting voices amongst young Polish directors. Floating Skyscrapers blazed a new trail in Polish cinema.
Bodo Kox – Girl From The Wardrobe (2013) – it's been called the Polish Rain Man. The tragicomedy reminds us that we are all freaks, that we all have our own little dramas, longings and fears. The film marked Kox' transition from independent to mainstream films. Kox eloquently combines a fairy tale film with images of grey Polish reality.
Wojtek Smarzowski – Rose (2011) – Smarzowski pulls off a love story between a Home Army soldier and a woman whose husband died in the war, all the while illustrating the horrors of World War II and its aftermath. Despite the terrible things that have happened to her, Rose, the film's protagonist is still able to love.
Maciej Pieprzyca – Life Feels Good (2013) – when Pieprzyca's film premiered at the Montreal Film Festival, it received two awards – one from the jury, the other from the public. Pieprzyca's film is the first Polish feature to deal with disability. The story is loosely based on true events. The protagonist suffers from cerebral palsy and with all the odds stacked against him, he has to fight for his dignity. With a brilliant performance by Dawid Ogrodnik, the film has been compared to Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot and Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Andrzej Jakimowski – Imagine (2012) – The film tells two stories. One of love and the other of achieving the impossible. While teaching blind childen to walk in the street without the use of a cane, Ian falls in love. He is a teacher, she is a student and both of them are blind. With this touching story, Andrzej Jakimowski created a beautiful melodrama full of subtlety and tenderness. Starring Alexandra Maria Lara and Edward Hogg.
Krzysztof Krauze, Joanna Kos-Krauze – Papusza (2013) – biographical film of Polish-Romani poet and singer Joanna Wajs, also known as Papusza. The Krauzes picked up where Papusza left off and created a film that is a poem: clear, terse, meticulous, one that summons feelings of loneliness and illustrates the role of art. The storyline is set in pre-war Gypsy societies, travelling caravans and small pre-war Jewish cities.
Agnieszka Holland – In Darkness (2011) – twenty years after she became famous and received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for Europa, Europa, Agnieszka Holland returned to the topic of the Holocaust. In Darkness shows the deeds of a sewer worker, "the Polish Schindler", who risks his life to save a group of Jews from the ghetto of Lviv. The 2012 Oscar nominee which defies the black-and-white boundaries of good vs. evil is based on a book by Krystyna Chimer, ones of the people saved by the sewer worker.
Władysław Pasikowski – Aftermath (2012) – one of the most controversial films in Poland in recent years. Władysław Pasikowski, previously known for making lighter films, touched upon a difficult topic – Polish antisemitism. He created a thriller about a Polish village with a dark secret. The film is an important picture with wide public appeal that could influence the way audiences views Polish history.
Jerzy Skolimowski – Essential Killing (2012) – the story of an Afghan prisoner who escapes a secret European CIA prison and needs to survive in the wilderness. The script to the film was written by 72-year old Skolimowski in the span of a couple of days and inspired by media accounts of secret CIA prisons in Poland. Shown at the festival in Venice, Skolimowski's work met with mixed reactions. Part of the public booed him, the other showed him support.
Lech J. Majewski – The Mill and the Cross (2010) – perhaps the most unique Polish film of the last decade. Nothing like it has ever been made in Poland. The Mill and the Cross, featuring Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling and Michael York, is inspired by Pieter Bruegel's 1564 epic masterpiece, The Procession to Calvary. Unsung CGI technology director, poet and painter Lech Majewski, brought life the painting to life. The creative process took three years.
Marek Lechki – Erratum (2010) – it took Marek Lechki eight years to find a producer for his first feature. He finally took matters into his own hands. The production of Erratum cost 1,35 million złoty (around 450 thousand US dollars). Lechki's film ended up being sincere, simple and truthful – the story of a thirty-year old man who returns to his home village to face his childhood traumas, showing how growing up means forgiveness and letting go of the past.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translator: Marta Jazowska 28/08/2014