Smarzowski earned an important place among filmmakers after the year 2000. His films The Wedding, The Dark House, Rose, Traffic Department and Angel tackle crucial social problems and reveal vital issues of Polish identity. He is considered one of the most severe societal commentators since the political transformation in 1989.
Film and theatre director, screenwriter and documentary filmmaker Wojciech Smarzowski represents the creative contingent of Polish cinema makers that emerged after the year 2000. For 10 years, between the fall of communism in Poland and the year 2000, the film industry, once subsidised by the regime, had to adapt to reduced support from the government budget. films would no longer be censored, but economics in the transition period demoted the role of cinema in social life. Cheap reproductions of Hollywood action films were made, and the masters of cinema - Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi - found it hard to adapt to the new realities.
A new current in Polish cinema emerged with the establishment of the Polish Film Institute in 2002, which finances film production, supports young filmmakers and promotes Polish cinema abroad. In 2004, Smarzowski, who was "doubtful about making a film in the official system" - i.e. with a sufficient budget - made The Wedding, an independent movie on a small budget. The film received a mention at the Locarno Film Festival and brought him unexpected recognition in Poland. Other prizes include the Jury Special Prize and prize for Male Role at the Gdynia Film Festival, seven Eagles - the Polish Film Prize - and a Polityka magazine Passport award.
The Wedding / Wesele is an adaptation of an important piece of Polish culture - Stanisław Wyspiański's play of that title from 1901. Smarzowski's film updates the original's critical, sarcastic exposure of 19th-century Polish society. Against the backdrop of the wedding of the pregnant daughter of a rich villager who marries her off to a man who agrees to take her for his wife in exchange for a modern sports car, Smarzowski drew a caricature of Polish society and all its national sins. To evade the cold, calculating gangster who delivered the sports car, the father bribes a notary, a policeman and even the priest. In contrast to Wyspianski’s country folk, intoxicated by visions of the struggle for national independence, Smarzowski’s villagers are preoccupied with envy and greed.
The Varlovy Vary film festival programmers, when The Wedding was shown there, called it a "blackly absurd comedy of unchecked monetary obsession". The wedding - the film's priest nonchalantly says "If no-one gets thrashed, a wedding's a failure" - is a metaphor of the overall state of society. "Even if many of the cultural references are lost in translation", Anna Smith writes for the BBC Films website, "others survive the journey: drunken wedding guests get everywhere, after all". Smith notes the "Severed digits, dead bodies, exploding toilets, forbidden nookie and lashings and lashing of vodka. If all this makes it sound like a gross-out comedy, think again: this is a grim, intense world in which the only laughs are jet black".
The strength of Smarzowski's cinema lies in his portraying a rotten universe. The Dark House / Dom zły from 2009 is set during martial law in Poland in the 1980s. In the Bieszczady Mountains in remote southeast Poland, an unemployed zootechnics specialist with a dark past and a growing drinking problem tries to start over with a clean slate. Taking up a new job at a State Agricultural Farm in the region, he makes an accidental stopover in a farmhouse. He stays for the night with a random family.
Initial distrust between guest and hosts is quickly dispelled and turns into friendship. A plan of making a joint business arises, then passion and lust lead to surprising, tragic consequences. The unfolding story is intertwined with a parallel one which sees the protagonist four years later, during the martial-law era, taking part in a reenactment of the events that traspired at the house during his visit.
The Dark House questions the image of the Polish People's Republic shown in Stanisław Bareja's comedies, as an expression of the need to restore appropriate balance. Smarzowski shows degraded people who drink and commit evil, and simultaneously he comments bitingly on the myth of Solidarity - a founding legend of the new Poland. The Dark House received three awards at the Gdynia Film Festival, an award for its cinematographer, Krzysztof Ptak, at the Camerimage Cinematography festival, and four Eagle Awards.
The director's multi-award winning film from 2011, Rose, deals with post-war Poland in the northern region of Masuria, which had been handed to Poland after aggressive Germanification in the war years. The film shows history, identity and the existential problem for German settlers remaining in Poland, through the prism of the emotional tie between a Pole, Tadeusz, a former soldier, and the widow of a German soldier, named Rose.
In summer 1945, Tadeusz, who lost everything in the war, arrives in Masuria. He comes to the house owned by Rose, the widow. Tadeusz learns the dramatic story of the woman's life – she had been brutally raped by soldiers then forced into prostitution by the Soviets. Rose is treated with contempt by new settlers in Masuria, who look upon her as a German.
In interview with Konrad Zarebski, Smarozwski comments,
The film's basic plot is a story about love - tough and built on ruins. She is a Masurian, German, Polish perhaps. The term is relative and depends on political manipulation, which was particularly severe at that time. Nonetheless, above all she is a woman who suffered from the Russians and later from the Poles; who experienced tragedy and the worst of humiliations. [...] She is a human wreck. A ghost. They become connected through a biological impulse of survival, but it soon turns out that their mutual closeness makes it possible for them to be reborn.
A "moving story that restores faith in love in spite of fate, a true picture of an important part of Central European history" as festival-jury members commented, the film received awards, among others six Golden Lions at the Gdynia Film Festival, seven Golden Eagles and Best Film at the Warsaw Film Festival.
Representing the same dirty world that was visible in The Wedding, The Dark House and Rose, Traffic Department exposes corruption, drugs and alcohol abuse in Warsaw's police department.
Set on the streets of contemporary Warsaw, seven policemen from the eponymous Traffic Department are colleagues and good friends who work hard and party hard. The plot thickens when one dies in mysterious circumstances and his colleague, Sgt. Ryszard Król, is accused of being involved. Attempting to clear his record, Król discovers the truth about links between government and criminals.
In its thrilling story, the film contains a social critique of a "nihilistic world where human venality and immorality are the order of the day", as Variety's Alissa Simon writes. Edinburgh festival organisers noted the "Lightning-fast editing [that] crams enough plot developments to fill a mini-series into a 117-minute frenzy of sleaze and corruption".
The film shows reality stripped of intimacy, without room for empathy and understanding. It is a reality that can be glimpsed - certain scenes are recordings from mobile phones and CCTV cameras. "But the contemporary 'peeping Tom' doesn't have the face of Karlheinz Böhm from Michael Powell's film nor than of James Stewart from Hitchcock's Rear Window", Bartosz Staszczyszyn writes for Culture.pl, "it's intrusion, not curiosity."
Smarzowski's fifth feature (released in 2014) is an adaptation of Jerzy Pilch’s novel The Mighty Angel, considered Poland’s most famous story of alcoholism, which has been compared to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki. The novel was awarded the Nike in 2009, Poland's most eminent literary prize. Juruś, the protagonist of Angel, is an alcoholic who goes from detox wards to rehabilitation centres and his local bar, the Mighty Angel. "Alcoholism affects people from different spheres, the educated and the uneducated", the director comments. "This film is about drinking, about alcoholism as an illness, and starting anew".
Smarzowski uses Pilch’s novel as a base for his film. He wrote the script and, as he has mentioned to the media, he hoped to find a balance between maintaining Pilch’s style and blending in his own. About the structure of the film and his intentions regarding its reception, Smarzowski says,
A drunkard’s conception of time is not linear. I start the story off normally, then we get lost in what is the present and the past. I would like this film to animate a discussion because I think that there are few among us who haven’t been directly or indirectly affected by the illness.
Smarzowski's next feature, Volhynia premiered at the 41. Polish Film Festival in Gdynia, and although it was one of the most anticipated events of the festival, it also became the most under appreciated, getting only three awards. Michalina Łabacz, a student of the Warsaw Theatre Academy was awarded for best acting debut: she plays a role of a young girl escaping the Volhynia massacre. Ewa Drobiec was honoured for Best Makeup and Piotr Sobociński jr - for Best Cinematography. The jury neglected Smarzowski's film while giving out major prizes - Gold and Silver Lions and the Best Director award.
Despite of that Smarzowski's film was a big event, a commercial success and the theme of a major debate among the critics and the public. In his anticipated film, Smarzowski speaks about the difficult history of Polish-Ukrainian relations, trying to escape from black-and-white visions, in which the Poles are the victims and the Ukrainians are always the executioners. Volhynia turned out to be not a settling of accounts, but a story about hate that has no nation. Smarzowski's film, which hit the screens at the time when xenophobia and nationalism are becoming more and more threatening in Europe, is a warning against ideologies that lead to violence.
Editor: Marta Jazowska 25.06.2013; updated by NMR, November 2016.
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