The Colours of Polish Cinema: A Palette Analysis
Andrzej Żuławski’s steel blue cosmos, Jan Jakub Kolski’s soft fairytale hues, the colours of dreams and nightmares, and various shades of memory: this short guide will help you understand the palette of Polish cinema.
Patti Bellantoni, author of If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die: The Power of Colour in Visual Storytelling, wrote in her book:
It’s a sneaky business, this thing called colour. It’s right there in front of you but more times than not you don’t notice what it’s doing.
Often ignored by viewers, colours may constitute a significant element of a film. They may transfer emotions and create meanings. They may change the scene’s atmosphere or make a seemingly meaningless object into an important symbol. Below, you will find a number of Polish films in which colour plays an important role.
A Short Film about Killing by Krzysztof Kieślowski
After A Short Film about Killing was showcased at the Cannes Festival in 1988, a French critic wrote in his review that it had been shot in ‘the disgusting colour of urine’. Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak, who co-made the film, later admitted that this was the most pertinent review the production had received. The story of a young man who is sentenced to death for committing murder is painted in bizarre yellowish images, with a camera that seems to suck all life and colour from reality. Idziak explained that this was meant to reflect the hopelessness and ugliness of the depicted world.
The idea for the film’s palette, however, was not initially obvious either to the cinematographer or to the director. After watching it for the first time, Kieślowski got angry and left the room, slamming the door. Idziak, too, was dismayed as he came into the conclusion that his experiment had gone too far. But once the film was edited, the idea turned out to be relevant, as it reinforced the emotional power of the film. The film’s premiere in Cannes contributed to the spectacular international success of The Decalogue, and Kieślowski would boldly use a range of colours as a tool to create meanings in his later films (from The Double Life of Véronique to Three Colours: Red).
Jasminum by Jan Jakub Kolski
Jan Jakub Kolski’s career path has led him from cinematography to directing. As a trained cinematographer, he is more sensitive to the cinematic significance of colours, shades and light than most other Polish directors. In Pornography, based on a novel by Witold Gombrowicz, the colours are initially bright, but they fade as the psychological story gets gloomier. In A History of Cinema in Popielawy Kolski draws a visual distinction between the sunny story of the mythical past and the grey realistic story of the Andryszek family.
Jasminum is one of his most interesting films in terms of its palette. ‘Soft’ pastel colours are used to paint the visual story of a five-year-old girl who arrives with her mother, a conservator and restorer, at an enclosed monastery to change the lives of its inhabitants. Thanks to Krzysztof Ptak’s camerawork viewers can almost ‘smell’ the perfume and ‘feel ‘ the texture of the presented world.
Manhunt by Marcin Krzyształowicz
This realistic story of a Home Army executioner who hides himself with a partisan division in the woods by Nowy Sącz may seem an unlikely candidate for a cinematic experiment with colour. The historic film genre, after all, is governed by its own laws. In Manhunt, however, Krzyształowicz applies a characteristic palette to uncover symbolic meanings and reinforce the main character’s story.
This effect is achieved by the film’s scenography – a beech forest which becomes a hiding place for Polish soldiers. High silver beeches in the middle of an enormous green and brown pine forest resemble a steel grid. Arkadiusz Tomiak, the film’s cinematographer, creates a double illusion of oppression. On the one hand, the main character’s hiding place is like a cage. On the other hand, he is oppressed by his own remorse and the mistakes of his past.
On the Silver Globe by Andrzej Żuławski
On the Silver Globe by Andrzej Żuławski became famous mainly due to the problems encountered during its production. Work on this science-fiction adaptation of Jerzy Żuławski’s novel started in 1976, but the film had to wait twelve years for its first screening. The state authorities suspended work, the film had to move from one studio to another, and some material was destroyed on the way.
But this is not the only reason why On the Silver Globe may be considered one of the most interesting films in the history of Polish cinema. What makes it unique is its characteristic palette. The story of astronauts who one day land on an Earth-like planet features a gloomy array of greys and blues. Cinematographer Andrzej J. Jaroszewicz reached this effect by treating negatives with special chemicals which faded their bright colours.
When the German television channel 3sat planned to broadcast the film, they decided to correct it. They thought the film tape had been damaged by being improperly stored, so they ‘repaired’ it by infusing the film with warm colours the director simply never intended.
Life Feels Good by Maciej Pieprzyca
Maciej Pieprzyca shows in his film that colour may be a powerful tool for describing the atmosphere of places and characters’ emotions. Life Feels Good is the story of a boy with cerebral palsy who one day leaves his loving family and moves to a strict care home whose patients are treated almost inhumanly.
In order to underline the contrast between the family home and the cool hospital rooms, director Maciej Pieprzyca and cinematographer Paweł Dyllus play with the film’s colours. Scenes in the family home are shot in warm browns, whereas the care home rooms in the second part of the film are full of cold blues and greens. When the mother comes to visit her son in the hospital wearing brown clothes, the viewer understands that she brings some warmth into the heartless reality of the care home.
Disco Polo by Maciej Bochniak
The dreams of the masses – what colour are they? This is one of the questions posed by Maciej Bochniak in his debut film Disco Polo. Its action is set in the mad 1990s, when Polish society, after years of socialism, embarked on a rush to achieve economic success, identified widely with American pop culture.
Bochniak portrays this period in a very unconventional way: instead of copying realistic images, he reconstructs bright and colourful memories of bygone days. The film can thus be understood partly as a story about how memory can mythologise the past.
The Mill and the Cross by Lech Majewski
How to breathe life into paintings so that they look authentic on the big screen? A look at such films as Mr. Turner, Girl with a Pearl Earring or Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon is enough to understand that in terms of transposing the world that is hidden in art nothing is better than colour.
While working on The Mill and the Cross, a film which instils movement into the famous Pieter Bruegel painting The Procession to Calvary, Lech Majewski and his co-cinematographer Adam Sikora made an effort to imitate the original palette used by the Flemish artist. The colours play a key role in his film. All costumes were handmade and infused with a special dye. Graphic designers and post production specialist spent long months to achieve the desired effect. Finding the right shade of purple was supposedly the biggest challenge.
The Hourglass Sanatorium by Wojciech Jerzy Has
This adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s prose is arguably the most unusual Polish film in terms of its colours, scenography, objects and characters. Wojciech Jerzy Has managed to bring the screen the dreamlike world of Schulz’s stories. The Hourglass Sanatorium deals with the concepts of time and evanescence, but time there is not real. It passes as if in a dream or a memory, full of mythical images and long-suppressed emotions.
Wojciech Jerzy Has renders the drowsy atmosphere of Schulz’s stories by creating a hyper-real world composed of tiny details. Each colour has a meaning. Even colour intensities are meaningful: the more intense the colour – the more vivid the character’s recollection. It is to a large extent through colours that viewers experience the magic of the story.
If you want to enjoy the full palette of the film, it is worth watching the new digital version of it. The film’s restoration was supervised by Witold Sobociński, one of the best Polish cinematographers, who co-made the film.
How Far, How Near by Tadeusz Konwicki
There are films in which colours follow the entire plot and are responsible for creating meaning, but there are also other films in which the palettes of individual scenes sink deep into your memory and become the first images that come to mind when you think about the film. How Far, How Near by Tadeusz Konwicki is one such example. It is the hallucinatory story of a man who embarks on a journey into his memories in order to find out why his friend has committed suicide.
The opening scene, which also appears at the end of the film, is perhaps its most bizarre and interesting. It shows a Jewish man flying through the sky. Konwicki shows his flight in an unconventional way: instead of using the usual film positive he used a chemically treated negative. As a result, you can only see a black outline of the man and an interplay of purples, blues and greys. The world underneath is bathed in strange greens and blacks. This journey stresses the supernatural aspect of the depicted world.
Salt of the Black Earth by Kazimierz Kutz
This first part of Kazimerz Kutz’s Silesian trilogy tells the story of seven brothers who took part in the Second Silesian Uprising in 1920. This poetic and moving film is not a traditional war story but rather a cinematic ballad on Silesia (Śląsk), its inhabitants and their struggle for Polishness.
In one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, the insurgents leave their safe hiding place to face the enemy’s troops. When they start running, the trembling camera operated by Wiesław Zdorta follows them, showing their white-shirted backs. Suddenly, there is a burst of fire from the German division behind. The shirts of the insurgents, whom Poland has failed to help, are stained with blood and transformed into the nation's flag.
The Birch Wood by Andrzej Wajda
Andrzej Wajda is perhaps the most prominent Polish director who makes use of the visual power of paintings. There are even essays and dissertations dealing with the imagery of films such as Landscape After the Battle, Sweet Rush or The Wedding. The Birch Wood is one of the most interesting testimonies to Wajda’s visual sensitivity. This adaptation of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s prose is a story about the desire for life and the inevitability of death, and a meeting place of Eros and Tanathos. Different colours are applied to describe the emotional states of the characters.
In one of the first scenes, Staś (Olgierd Łukaszewicz), arrives at a little lodge in the forest. He has not bought a present for his niece, so, instead, he gives her an orange. The colour of the fruit remains in stark contrast with the grey surroundings. It becomes a symbol of life and strangeness.
This is how Hanna Książek-Konicka described the scene:
The orange Staś gives to the pale little girl makes viewers realise how poor life in the lodge is, and, at the same time, contrasted with these surroundings, becomes a symbol of his ‘foreignness’, of the different world he has come from, and of his own emotional strangeness.
This article was inspired by the @CinemaPalettes account on Twitter. Culture.pl has created their own palettes to the most interesting Polish films in terms of colours, which are absent from the Twitter collection.
Sources: Polish Film Academy, SFP Film Magazine, If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die: The Power of Colour in Visual Storytelling by Patti Bellantoni. Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, in collaboration with Dagmara Staga and Janusz R. Kowalczyk, transl.: EP, Aug 2016.