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Martin Scorsese Presents 21 Masterpieces

Marta Jazowska
Still from Andrzej Wajda&squot;s "Ashes And Diamonds", 1958, photo: Polfilm / East News
Still from Andrzej Wajda's Ashes And Diamonds, 1958, photo: Polfilm / East News

Probably as a break from the hard-partying, money-wasting, morality-shunning corporate traders he put on screen in The Wolf of Wall Street with Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese fields his 21 restored Polish classics that have been a source of  "inspiration and influence" for the great director.

Scorsese is a long-standing admirer of Polish cinema who, on receiving an honorary doctorate from the National Film School in Łódż in 2011 spoke of the importance to him of the films of Wajda, Munk, Has, Polański and Skolimowski:

At some point I realised that when I wanted to make actors or cinematographers understand something, I'm showing them Polish films from the 1950s. I often showed Wajda films to different producers in Hollywood and they couldn't believe it because they had never seen anything like it before.

Martin Scorsese explains the project in details here.

The largest presentation to date of restored Polish cinema, the screening series will tour the U.S. and Canada throughout 2014. Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City from the 5th to the 16th of February. The full schedule is available here.

The films will be presented in the highest possible quality thanks to extensive digital picture and audio restoration.

Andrzej Wajda - Ashes and Diamonds

Still from Andrzej Wajda&squot;s "Ashes And Diamonds", 1958, photo: Polfilm / East News
Still from Andrzej Wajda's Ashes And Diamonds, 1958, photo: Polfilm / East News

This 1958 film earned Wajda his reputation among the new post-war generation of European filmmakers and became the calling card of the Polish School of filmmaking. Concluding the director's trilogy relating the story of young people during and just after the German occupation, Ashes and Diamonds is the romantic myth of a free-spirited Pole (the legendary actor Zbigniew Cybulski) who, at any cost, wants to live in a free homeland. The film is based on a novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski.

Read more on Ashes and Diamonds on

Jerzy Kawalerowicz - Austeria

Still from Jerzy Kawalerowicz&squot;s "Austeria", 1982, photo: Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa/
Still from Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Austeria, 1982, photo: Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa/

Based on a novel by Julian Stryjkowski, with a screenplay by Tadeusz Konwicki and Julian Stryjkowski, this 1982 film takes place in 1914, on the first day and night of the war. The Austeria of the title, an inn, becomes a refuge for Jews fleeing Russian forces. Wealthy bourgeoisie and poor people, conservatives and radicals form a vivid cross-section of society. Kawalerowicz's masterpiece shows a confrontation of people's different attitudes in a situation of uncertainty and danger.

Read more about Austeria.

Aleksander Ford - Black Cross

Still from Aleksander Ford&squot;s "Black Cross", 1960, photo:  Polflim / East News
Still from Aleksander Ford's Black Cross, 1960, photo:  Polflim / East News

Based on an adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, the film had its debut in Polish cinemas on the 22nd of August 1960. The production was commissioned by the government to commemorate the 550th anniversary of the historic battle of Grunwald. The spectacular picture proved a box-office hit and one of the most popular films of Polish cinema, and gained recognition abroad.

Read more about the film. 

Krzysztof Kieslowski - Blind Chance

Still from Krzysztof Kieslowski&squot;s "Blind Chance", photo: Photographs courtesy of the National Film Archives -
Still from Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blind Chance, photo: Photographs courtesy of the National Film Archives -

Three stories of a young man named Witek Dlugosz. In each, the hero purchases a train ticket. In the first, he makes the train and meets a Communist idealist who inspires Witek to become a Communist Party activist. In the second, he gets into a fight on the platform, is arrested, brought before a court and becomes an opposition activist. In the third, he does not make the train and meets a woman at the station, falls in love and goes on to lead a normal life. The first and second stories end with the hero drowning in dilemmas and bitterness during the workers' protests of August 1980. In the third, which might seem the happiest, the hero dies in an airline crash. In the film, Kieślowski portrays coincidence as the unpredictable director of human fate.

Read more about Blind Chance. 

Krzysztof Zanussi - Camouflage

Digitally reconstructed "Camouflage", dir. Krzysztof Zanussi. Pictured: Zbigniew Zapasiewicz and Piotr Garlicki. Courtesy of distributor.
Digitally reconstructed Camouflage, dir. Krzysztof Zanussi. Pictured: Zbigniew Zapasiewicz and Piotr Garlicki. Courtesy of distributor

During a student research camp, a young assistant, Jarosław, meets an assistant professor named Jakub. Each represents a different attitude towards life: the first is an idealist, the other a cynic. The conflict of these attitudes, as well as a description of the academic environment, are the indelible main themes of the film (the Polish title translates more accurately as Protective Colouring). This Zanussi film is from 1976.

Read more about Camouflage on

Andrzej Munk - Eroica

Still from Andrzej Munk&squot;s "Eroica", photo: East News / Polfilm
Still from Andrzej Munk's Eroica, photo: East News / Polfilm

Created by Andrzej Munk in 1957 and aiming to demystify the archetypal image of heroism that was prevalent during the social-realism era, Eroica is set during the Second World War and tells two stories. (The full title is Eroica. Heroic Symphony in Two Parts, Part I Scherzo alla pollacca, Part II Ostinato Lugubre.) Showing the atmosphere of foolhardy heroism that even impacts those not concerned with becoming heros, the award-winning film is a landmark of Polish cinema and has been called "A darkly comic, intelligent, and unorthodox chronicle... a clever, engaging, and insightful satire on duty, courage, and heroism". (Strictly Film School)

Read more about Eroica. 

Wojciech Jerzy Has - The Hourglass Sanatorium

Still from Wojciech Jerzy Has&squot; "The Hourglass Sanatorium", photo: Polfilm / East News
Still from Wojciech Jerzy Has' The Hourglass Sanatorium, photo: Polfilm / East News

Has tells his viewers, through the character of the priest in The Hour-Glass Sanatorium,  how to understand his cinema: "One thing you have to beware of in these matters: pettiness, pedantry and word-for-wordness. Have you ever noticed that between the lines of certain books, swallows proudly fly by, whole verses of swallows. You should read from the flight of those birds" [editor's translation]. This 1973 film is based on the story collection by Bruno Schulz and brings back the forgotten time and place of Poland's pre-war shtetls.

Read more about Has's film here.

Krzysztof Zanussi - The Illumination

from Krzysztof Zanussi&squot;s "Illumination", 1973, photo: "Tor" Film Studio / Filmoteka Narodowa /
Still from Krzysztof Zanussi's The Illumination, 1973, photo: Tor Film Studio / Filmoteka Narodowa /

The film is the story of a physics student searching for the meaning of life through study, reflection and contact with others. Despite his efforts, he does not experience the sought after "illumination", but events that happen along his path – the death of a friend, a short romance and an unexpected pregnancy - help him understand that he cannot control his life. Zanussi's film (1973) uses the technique of open dialogue, with the actors involved in improvisation.

Find out more about The Illumination.

Andrzej Wajda - Innocent Sorcerers

Roman Polański, Jan Zylber, Andrzej Trzaskowski, Krzysztof Komeda, Andrzej Nowakowski, Henryk Kurek, Tadeusz Łomnicki, Andrzej Wojciechowski in Andrzej Wajda&squot;s "Innocent Sorcerers", 1960, photo: Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa/
Roman Polański, Jan Zylber, Andrzej Trzaskowski, Krzysztof Komeda, Andrzej Nowakowski, Henryk Kurek, Tadeusz Łomnicki, Andrzej Wojciechowski in Andrzej Wajda's Innocent Sorcerers, 1960, photo: Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa/

Wajda made Innocent Sorcerers at age 33, after his renowned War Trilogy (A Generation, Canal and Ashes and Diamonds). Portraying contemporary youth through a day in the life of a young doctor who drums in a jazz band, the film is a revealing yet concise commentary on the lives of young Polish people who, though born during the Second World War, didn't fight it first-hand and came of age in communist Poland.

Read more about the film.

Tadeusz Konwicki - Jump

Still from Tadeusz Konwicki&squot;s "Jump", photo:
Still from Tadeusz Konwicki's Jump, photo: Zbigniew Hartwig /  Kadr Film Studio / Filmoteka Narodowa /

A Mr Kowalski-Malinowski comes to a small town, telling a number of versions of his life story, all apparently related to the locality. The visitor attracts attention, builds a strange, self-contradictory legend and undermines the sleepy quietness of the semi-surrealist town. Konwicki's 1965 film is a mocking picture of a war veteran, with equally mocking representations of national attitudes, derived from national mythology and represented by the local people.

Tadeusz Konwicki - The Last Day of Summer

Still from Tadeusz Konwicki&squot;s "Last Day of Summer", photo:
Still from Tadeusz Konwicki's "Last Day of Summer", photo: Studio Filmowe "Kadr" / Filmoteka Narodowa /

Two lonely people meet on a deserted beach, trying vainly to get closer to each other, prevented by memories of past dramas. The woman is particularly haunted by the war memories, the noise of airplanes reminding her of the death of the pilot she loved.
Turning limitations into strengths, Konwicki made a film in which the power lies in the performances of just two actors set in the seaside wilds. Meticulously shot and released in 1958, the film is profoundly symbolic and quite dynamic - despite the seeming inaction - owing to studied close-ups of the actors' faces and the use of the American plan.

More about The Last Day of Summer on

Andrzej Wajda - Man of Iron

Still from Wajda&squot;s "Man of Iron" 1981, Photo: Renata Pajchel / Studio Filmowe "Zebra" / Filmoteka Narodowa
Still from Wajda's Man of Iron 1981, Photo: Renata Pajchel / Studio Filmowe "Zebra" / Filmoteka Narodowa

The film was made in the heat of evolving protests, during the thaw in communist censorship between the formation of Solidarity in August 1980 and its banning and the imposition of martial law in December 1981. The title character, Maciej Tomczyk, is the son of the protagonist of Man of Marble, the Wajda film that preceded it. Man of Iron (1981) documents the rise of the Solidarity trade union; Tomczak is a shipyard worker involved in the trade-union movement, described as "the man who started the Gdańsk Shipyard strike".

Find out more about Man of Iron.

Jerzy Kawalerowicz - Mother Joan of the Angels

Still from Jerzy kawalerowicz&squot;s "Mother Joan of the Angels", photo: Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa/
Still from Jerzy kawalerowicz's Mother Joan of the Angels, photo: Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa/

Released in 1960, this Kawalerowicz masterpiece won the Jury Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1961. When a prioress, Mother Joan, and other nuns are possessed by demons in a monastery in east Poland in the18th century, the church authorities send Father Suryn to perform an exorcism.

Read more on Mother Joan of the Angels on

Jerzy Kawalerowicz - Night Train

Still from Jerzy kawalerowicz&squot;s "Night Train", photo:  East News / Polfilm
Still from Jerzy kawalerowicz's Night Train, photo:  East News / Polfilm

The abstract, formally ambiguous Kawalerowicz film remains an exception to the palette Polish films drew on in the same period. Despite the lack of explicit reference to heavy historical and political context of the 1950s, Night Train manages to capture the essence of the termination of the Polish Spring, its accompanying disappointment and anxious atmosphere. Keywords - claustrophobia, paranoia, fear - are captured within a frantic Hitchcockian atmosphere that marks the collapse of society and individuals crushed by evil politics and war.

More on Night Train.

Jerzy Kawalerowicz - Pharaoh

Still from Jerzy Kawalerowicz&squot;s "Pharaoh", photo: Polfilm / East News
Still from Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Pharaoh, photo: Polfilm / East News

The young pharaoh, Ramses XIII, intends to reform Egypt. Herhor the priest opposes him. The power struggle between them is the focus of the film. Other themes include the friendship with Pentuer the priest, the love for Sara the beautiful Jewess and Kama the priestess, the story of the secret pact with Assyria, the solar eclipse and how the priests used it to subdue the crowds, and the assassination of Ramses XIII at the hands of his look-alike. A historical fresco of universal meaning (adapted from the lauded novel by Bolesław Prus), revealing the mechanisms of power and the influence of religion on social life.

Find out more about the film.

Andrzej Wajda - The Promised Land

Still from Andrzej Wajda&squot;s "The Promised Land", photo: Polfilm / East News
Still from Andrzej Wajda's The Promised Land, photo: Polfilm / East News

The Promised Land is an apex among Wajda's cinematic achievements. Set in Łódź at the end of the 19th century as the Polish textile industry flourishes, the director exposes through the story of three fledgling businessmen the inner emptiness accompanying their drive to make big money.

Read more about The Promised Land on

Wojciech Jerzy Has - The Saragossa Manuscript

Still from Wojciech Jerzy Has&squot; "The Saragossa Manuscript", photo: Polfilm / East News
Still from Wojciech Jerzy Has' The Saragossa Manuscript, photo: Polfilm / East News

For The Saragossa Manuscript, Has adapted Count Jan Potocki’s astonishing frame-tale novel, set during Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. Two soldiers discover a strange manuscript at an war-ravaged inn, which chronicles the adventures of Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) of the Walloon Guards. Van Worden’s crossing of the dangerous Sierra Morena mountains is repeatedly interrupted by seemingly random encounters with an assortment of larger-than-life figures (played with larger-than-life verve by the splendid cast). The film's comic digressions weave together fantastic tales of Moorish princesses, picaresque adventurers and the Spanish Inquisition.

Read more on The Saragossa Manuscript on

Krzysztof Kieslowski - A Short Film About Killing

Still from Krzysztof Kieslowski&squot;s "A Short Film About Killing", photo: Photographs courtesy of the National Film Archives -
Still from Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing, photo: Photographs courtesy of the National Film Archives -

The cinema version of the fifth installment of the Decalogue television series. A young man murders a taxi driver without any specific reason. He is caught, tried and sentenced to death. His execution is presented in extraordinary detail, a measure that was the filmmaker's protest against the death penalty.

Learn more about Kieślowski's film.

Andrzej Wajda - The Wedding

Still film from Andrzej Wajda's Wesele, 1972, photo: Studio filmowe Zebra / Filmoteka Narodowa /
Still from Andrzej Wajda's The Wedding, 1972, photo: Studio filmowe Zebra / Filmoteka Narodowa /

The 1973 film is an adaptation of the influential play by Stanisław Wyspiański. The cinematic tribute to traditional Polish weddings "replaces the long never-ending monologues […] with images" as Wajda said in an interview. Krzysztof T. Toeplitz wrote in 1973 in the magazine Miesięcznik Literacki that "The fabric of the drama is palpable and material. The wedding room in Wajda's film is cramped, stuffy and overcrowded, the hall is narrow, the yard is bleak and muddy, the host's unfinished canvases lie around discarded in the shed alongside farming equipment. And then this material reality suddenly breaks through the convention of the theatre: theatre cannot happen in such surroundings; life, that is, film can".

The Martin Scorsese list of 21 Masterpieces of Polish Cinema is complete with the addition of:

Check for a screening coming to a city near you: Martin Scorsese presents.

Author: MJ 14.10.2013

Sources:,, wpolityce, The Guardian

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