Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: Polish Films About Sports
Depicting sports in the cinema means not only biopics of legendary athletes but also poignant documentaries and unknown stories of personal success. Culture.pl presents an overview of the most intriguing Polish sports films out there.
Stars by Jan Kidawa Błoński (Gwiazdy, 2016)
In Jan Kidawa-Błoński’s latest film, we embark on a journey into the world of football legends, rife with sweat, tears, unrequited love, big success stories and bitter failures. Stars tells a story inspired (albeit, somewhat loosely) by the life of Jan Banaś, a football player, of Polish-German origins, who played for the Polish national team.
Advertised as a sporty response to the film Gods by Łukasz Palkowski, Kidawa-Błoński’s film is not as much of success as the biopic on the heart specialist, Zbigniew Religa. Moments of sports drama are drowned in melodramatic gravy while main character’s identity crises are not sufficiently highlighted. Stars shows, however, that sports stories do have great cinematic potential. We haven’t seen much of that on Polish screens, but it seems that we are in for a change.
The Fastest by Łukasz Palkowski (2017)
Let’s take, for example, The Fastest by Łukasz Palkowski: it is a story about Jerzy Górski, a Triathlon World Championships record-breaker, who completed the legendary ‘Death Race’. The Fastest tells a story of hitting rock bottom and rising to the top. It opens in 1983 in a drug rehabilitation centre in Wrocław, where Górski is seeking treatment. A few years later, as a junkie turned athlete, he trades one addiction for another – sports. Soon afterwards, he becomes a world record-holder who wins the gruelling Double Ironman Triathlon. Until now, Górski was practically unknown in Poland.
Speedway by Dorota Kędzierzawska (Żużel, 2018)
The year 2018 will likely see the premiere of another sports drama – Speedway, directed by Dorota Kędzierzawska. The film tells the story of a young boy, trying to make it in motorcycle speedway, using the sport as a springboard to success. As Kędzierzawska emphasised in an interview for Polish Radio:
The full title of the movie is 'Speedway: The Chronicles of Ups and Downs‘, and I think each of us can relate to it. Every day on the track, during a race, anything can happen. I find it absolutely fascinating.
Speedway is likely to be one of the most unique Polish sports films, which is mostly thanks to the director, who hadn’t dabbled in sports topics before. In Speedway Kędzierzawska, one of the most sensitive Polish filmmakers, will surely find a way to include coming-of-age topics, a common leitmotif of her oeuvre.
The Boxer by Julian Dziedzina (Bokser, 1966)
In Stars and The Fastest both Jan Kidawa-Błoński and Łukasz Palkowski tell stories inspired by the lives of Polish athletes. A practice very much in line with the sports cinema tradition in Poland, typically building stories around biographies of real athletes – and not necessarily big stars. The Boxer by Julian Dziedzina is a case in point.
It is a story of a talented young boxer, Tolek (played by Daniel Olbrychski), who drifts into crime and soon finds himself behind bars. Having left prison, he goes back to boxing to prepare for the forthcoming Olympics accompanied by his experienced coach. The story of Tolek was inspired by real events, but there was no an actual boxing champion behind Tolek’s character. The Boxer is not a biopic, but rather a film about getting back up after a fall. If there are slivers of truth here and there, it is thanks to the outstanding Olbrychski and two sports legends: the boxer Leszek Drogosz, who makes an appearance, and Bohdan Tomaszewski, famous sportscaster, who co-authored the script.
Aria for an Athlete by Filip Bajon (Aria dla Atlety, 1979)
Filip Bajon chose to use the biography of a real-life sportsman in one of his most important works Aria for an Athlete. The film tells the story of a Władysław Góralewicz, a young man from a little village in Galicia who, thanks to his phenomenal strength, becomes a European wrestling star and a circus audiences favourite act.
Zbyszek Cyganiewicz, a two-time world champion in catch wrestling (1921,1925) served as the inspiration for the main character. But, just as with The Boxer, Aria for an Athlete wasn’t meant as a faithful telling of the story of Cyganiewicz’s life, but rather as a metaphor.
The story of young Góralewicz (the masterful performance by Krzysztof Majchrzak) morphed into a story about humanity standing at a crossroads between the physical and the spiritual, about the Nietzschean cult of strength, and existential yearning that solely art can quench.
The Offsiders by Kasia Adamik (Boisko Bezdomnych, 2008)
This film was inspired by an article. It described the story of a football team composed of Polish homeless people who decided to participate in the Homeless World Cup. Kasia Adamik created a beautiful film about life outcasts who, thanks to pure coincidence, find a new life purpose – sport turns out to be a way towards redemption and to recreating the sense of belonging.
Bogdan Dziworski’s documentaries
Meet Polish cinema’s ultimate specialist in sports stories: Bogdan Dziworski is a one-man film institution. A documentalist, cinematographer and lecturer. In the 1970s, it was Dziworski who staged a revolution in sports documentaries. Not only in Poland but worldwide. In his Ice Hockey (1976), he placed the camera directly on the rink in order to provide a closer look at this brutal sport with its cracking bones and flowing blood. In The Fencer (1980), he filmed a fencing dual as a waltz set to Strauss’ music. In the 11-minute-long Nordic Combination, he penned a short treaty on human physical capacities with his camera.
All of these films, as well as The Arena of Life (1979) and A Few Stories About Man (1983), have recently been released on DVD. Dziworski cinema is worth coming back to, as it shows us that sport can be as spectacular as it can be poetic.
Mundial: The Highest Stakes by Michał Bielawski (Mundial: Gra o Wszystko, 2013)
Michał Bielawski proves that sport is something far more than a mere spectacle of strength and speed. He directed The Team about the Polish men’s national volleyball team and Mundial: The Highest Stakes – a film in which sports meet politics.
The movie is set in 1981 and 1982. As Martial Law is declared by General Wojciech Jaruzelski in December 1981 in Poland, military tanks roll out on to the streets. Soon afterwards, the Solidarność movement is outlawed and its activists imprisoned. At the same time, the Polish football team is preparing for the 1982 World Cup. And, regardless of their political beliefs, the players fall victim to political ostracism – in response to repressions against Solidarność, they were banned from playing warm-up games. The repressions were such that it looks like they may even be banned from competing in the World Cup. As we know now, that didn't end up happening. Instead, Boniek, Lato, Smolarski, Żmuda and Młynarczyk became everybody's heroes, including the imprisoned members of Solidarność.
Bielawski succeeds in putting together two different perspectives and tells a story of a uniting force derived from competition and the complex political reality of the 1980s. And since he's a great storyteller, his film will keep you on the edge of your seat like the best football games do.
Fighter by Jacek Bławut (Wojownik, 2007)
As the story unfolds, Mundial turns its audience into sports enthusiasts. A film by one of the top contemporary Polish documentarians Jacek Bławut. Fighter will also pull you in. The film tells the story of Marek Piotrowski, a ten-time kickboxing world champion, a boxer, a karate fighter, who came to be a true martial arts legend in the 1990s.
Bławut offers a close look at Piotrowski's career, guiding the audience through its stages. Interviews with the fighter and his relatives are mixed with archival footage of Piotrowski. Thereby, a portrait of the fighter emerges – a boy born into a religious family, who later in life finds God to be a driving force which helps him rise back up. The Fighter is not a tribute to an accomplished athlete – it is more of an homage to steadfastness and a will to fight so strong, that it makes one pick themselves up, even when everything seems lost.
Life of a Butterfly by Piotr Bernaś (Życie Motyla, 2015)
We find quite the opposite in Piotr Bernaś’s Life of a Butterfly. The main character, Marcin Różalski, is one of Poland’s best mixed martial arts fighters. Yet the film is not really a biography but rather a psychological portrait of a broken man. It shows us what price has to be paid for the relentless pursuit of one’s goal.
Różalski, as presented by Bernaś, is a man stubbornly heading towards self-destruction. Despite health problems, Różalski continues fighting, all while putting his wrecked body through agonising training sessions. Banaś’s film is indeed an impression on pain and loneliness, the drowning of despair, as well as looking for an outlet for one’s self-destructive tendencies.
Art of Freedom (Sztuka wolności, 2011)
This documentary about Polish mountain climbers is a must-see. Poland has much to be proud of when it comes to this particular sport. Art of Freedom is one of the most beautiful film homages ever paid to these mountain climbers who, for decades now, have never failed to take the world's breath away.
Wojtek Słota & Marek Kłosowicz's film tells the story of the biggest Polish names in mountain climbing of the 1970s and 1980s: Jerzy Kukuczka, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Krzysztof Wielicki and Andrzej Zawada. A collage of archival footage and interviews makes for a story about the very substance of climbing – overcoming one's own weakness. But this story about Polish eight-thousanders ascenders is also a metaphor of country's burning desire for freedom under the communist regime.
Sources: Polskie Radio, Filmpolski.pl, own sources, compiled by BS, translated by MS, Mar 2018