11 Polish Movies That Almost Won an Oscar
small, 11 Polish Movies That Almost Got an Oscar, From the left: ‘Man of Iron’, photo: Renata Pajchel / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl; ‘Nights and Days’, photo: Polfilm / East News; &nbs, center, oskary_historia_otwierajace.jpg
Close, but no cigar! There was always something – politics, money, or the works of the great masters of cinema – that stood in the way of a Polish triumph at the Academy Awards. Culture.pl presents eleven Polish movies which almost won an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Knife in the Water – 1963 Oscars
When Roman Polański started filming his debut, he was still a student of the Łódź Film School. He wrote the screenplay with Jerzy Skolimowski back in 1959, but the filming process began much later. Communist authorities didn’t like the ‘lack of social engagement’ in the work, so they refused to allow its production.
It was two years later when they could finally start filming the movie. It was met with a lukewarm reception under the communist regime in Poland. When communist leader Władysław Gomułka said that the protagonists were ‘unrepresentative’ for the majority of the society, the film had no chances for critical acclaim. The producers accepted their failure – they never organised a proper premiere and the movie was only shown in a handful of cinemas.
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However, Knife in the Water triumphed abroad. Americans actually wanted to produce a remake with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Paul Newman. Polański was the first Polish director to ever receive an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film lost to Federico Fellini’s 8½.
Pharaoh – 1966 Oscars
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Three years later, yet another Polish movie had a chance of winning an Academy Award. Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Pharaoh was a hit at Polish cinemas in the 1960s. Kawalerowicz prepared to film this adaptation of Bolesław Prus’ famous novel for four years. Cameras started rolling in June 1963 and the crew spent seven months in the deserts of Kyzylkum and Karakum. They created one of the most spectacular movies in the history of Polish cinema.
The film captured the hearts of audiences in Poland, but also abroad: at festivals in Cannes, Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. In 1966, it was nominated for an Oscar. Other nominees included Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman and Miloš Forman’s Loves of a Blonde. In the end, it was Lelouch’s film that took home the award. Years later, Kawalerowicz would say that the movie lacked adequate promotion and that Poles didn’t have the necessary funds to rent places for special screenings and banquets for people from the film industry.
The Deluge – 1974 Oscars
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Małgorzata Braunek & Daniel Olbrychski in ‘The Deluge’, directed by Jerzy Hoffman, 1974, photo: Polfilm / East News
Poles had to wait eight years for another Oscar nomination. It was for The Deluge directed by Jerzy Hoffman, which was also a major production. The movie cost about 100 million PLN, the filming process lasted 535 days, with about 400 actors on set. Although The Deluge premiered in September 1974, Polish cinema authorities weren’t very eager to submit the movie to the Academy.
In the words of Jerzy Hoffman:
‘The Deluge’ was never an official candidate of Film Polski (editor’s note: the state-run film production and distribution organisation of Poland, founded in 1945). It received a nomination due to a series of fortunate events. Bronisław Kaper, our amazing composer, Oscar winner and a member of the Academy, was a great friend of Stanisław Dygat, who told him about the movie. Kaper watched it in Warsaw and was determined to bring it to the USA.
The screenings organised by Kaper attracted hundreds of people; Artur Rubinstein even cancelled his New York concert to watch the movie. And although Hoffman’s movie enjoyed great popularity in the United States, it lost in the Oscar race against Amacord by Fellini, who yet again won the award.
The Promised Land – 1975 Oscars
The Deluge, directed by Jerzy Hoffman – Image Gallery
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A still from ‘The Promised Land’, directed by Andrzej Wajda. Pictured: Daniel Olbrychski & Andrzej Seweryn, photo: Polfilm / East News
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The Deluge was the beginning of a lucky streak for Polish cinema. Between 1974 and 1976, three Polish productions received Oscar nominations. In 1975, it was The Promised Land, a masterpiece by Andrzej Wajda based on the novel by Nobel prize winner Władysław Reymont.
Ever since its premiere, the movie has been considered one of the biggest achievements of Polish cinematography. In 1975, together with Nights and Days directed by Jerzy Antczak, it won the second edition of the Polish Film Festival, also winning awards for Best Actor (Wojciech Pszoniak), Best Production Design (Tadeusz Kosarewicz) and Best Music (Wojciech Kilar).
In 1976, when The Promised Land made the list of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees, many believed it would win. Unfortunately, politics stood in the way – Western journalists accused the movie of anti-Semitism.
Years later, Wajda said:
I had always wanted to make an ‘American’ movie. It’s not surprising that the Oscar nomination raised our hopes for popularity in the USA. Yet I was soon to be disillusioned. A press conference in Hollywood boiled down to a discussion on Polish anti-Semitism and it ended in an absurd way. When asked whether he watched the movie, a journalist from Israel who was the harshest critic of my film, answered that he ‘Doesn’t have to watch the movie, it’s enough that it comes from Poland’. It was then that I understood that the tragic situation after the extermination of Jews on Polish lands cannot be resolved by any film, especially one from Poland.
Political issues made it impossible for Wajda to win the Oscar. Suffice it to say, the Academy justified their choice of the winner (Dersu Uzala by Akira Kurosawa) by stating that they awarded a movie which would not offend anyone.
Nights and Days – 1976 Oscars
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A still from ‘Nights and Days’, directed by Jerzy Antczak. Pictured: Jadwiga Barańska & Jerzy Bińczycki, 1975, photo: Polfilm / East News
Poles didn’t have to wait long for another Oscar nomination. Jerzy Antczak Nights and Days was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film of 1976. Jadwiga Barańska, who played the main character of the film, said in an interview:
… we went to Hollywood for the ceremony. Romek Polański drove us around the city in a Rolls-Royce. It was Nicholson’s car and Romek crashed it on the first possible wall. Anyway, we were driving by Filmex, a huge cinema with 3,000 seats. There was a huge queue in front of it. I asked: ‘Romek, what are they waiting for?’. ‘They want to see your film’ – he answered. ‘I can’t believe it!’, ‘Let’s go check!’He was right. When I saw these people who wanted to wait for so long only to see ‘Nights and Days’, I considered it a larger success than the nomination itself.
Unfortunately, the movie was defeated by Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black and White in Colour. One of the reasons was insufficient promotion by Film Polski. While Annaud’s film was supported by a huge American distributor, Nights and Days didn’t even have an official distributor and only $5,000 were devoted to promotion.
The Maids of Wilko – 1979 Oscars
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A still from the movie ‘The Maids of Wilko’. Pictured: Daniel Olbrychski & Christine Pascal, photo: Studio Filmowe Perspektywa / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
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Three years later, Andrzej Wajda had yet another opportunity to win an Oscar. The Academy Award named his The Maids of Wilko one of the best movies of 1979.
In this adaptation of a short story by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, the protagonist is Wiktor Ruben, a thirty-something-year-old man, who goes back to visit his relatives in the countryside after losing a friend. His reunion with old friends sparks memories from the past and leads him to difficult thoughts about his life. In the words of Edward Kłosiński:
It’s surprising that Andrzej got a nomination for this movie, which in fact was his whim. Making ‘The Maids of Wilko’, we had different things in mind and we considered other things important. This is why we overlooked that Andrzej made one of the most important films in his career. A film which was absolutely not what Andrzej usually did. He made ‘The Maids of Wilko’ with the intention of creating something nice, something that wouldn’t be an element of the struggle for the national cause or remind people about imponderables. He wanted to make beautiful cinema. And he did.
Unfortunately, he didn’t win the Oscar. The Academy Award went to The Tin Drum by Volker Schlöndorff.
Man of Iron – 1981 Oscars
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A still from ‘Man of Iron’, 1981, pictured: Krystyna Janda & Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
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When Andrzej Wajda visited the Gdańsk Shipyard during the Solidarity strikes, he was already considered one of Poland’s ‘national directors’. One of the workers came up to him and said: ‘Make a movie about us!’. The director reminisced: ‘I’d never made a movie on demand, but I just couldn’t ignore this request.’
The screenplay by Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski was written in six days and ,although they only started filming in January 1981, the movie was already shown in the striking factories across Poland in June. Politics, which was the reason for The Promised Land’s Oscar failure, was a strong advantage of Man of Iron. Years later, Edward Kłosiński, the movie’s cinematographer, said:
I think that the subject matter of the movie and what happened in Poland on 13th December 1981 contributed largely to the Academy’s decision to nominate Man of Iron in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Wajda’s film, awarded the Palme d’Or in Cannes, was one of the Oscar front runners. However, it lost to Mephisto, a masterpiece by István Szabó based on a novel by Klaus Mann.
Katyń – 2007 Oscars
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A still from ‘Katyń’, directed by Andrzej Wajda, 2007, pictured: Danuta Stenka, photo: Fabryka Obrazu / East News
Andrzej Wajda had to wait 26 years for another nomination. He got it for Katyń, one of the most personal movies in his career. As he said in an interview with Tadeusz Lubelski for Kino magazine:
It was a story about my mother. My mother was a victim of the Katyń lie and my father was the victim of the Katyń massacre. It would be wrong not to show both of these in the first movie devoted to this subject.
In the movie, the stories of prisoners of war murdered by the NKVD in the forests near Smoleńsk were told by widows awaiting their husbands’ return. Katyń settled the ‘panorama of Polish fate’, as Wajda would say. The film was nominated in 2008 in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Unfortunately, the golden statuette went to Stefan Ruzowitzky for The Counterfeiters.
In Darkness – 2012 Oscars
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A still from ‘In Darkness’, directed by Agnieszka Holland, photo: Robert Pałka / Fotos-Art / Studio Filmowe Zebra
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It was also a historical drama that gave Agnieszka Holland an Oscar nomination. The most highly regarded Polish female director impressed audiences around the world with her In Darkness. The movie tells the story of Leopold Socha, a sewer worker and thief from Lviv, who saved a group of Jews during World War II.
Holland’s movie, with excellent cinematography by Jolanta Dylewska, won ten Golden Lions at the Polish Film Festival, but it also triumphed in Saint Louis, Chicago, Valladoid, and Mar Del Plata. It is not surprising that In Darkness got an Oscar nomination. However, the Academy members chose A Separation by Asghar Farhadi instead.
In a conversation with Bartosz Michalak, Jerzy Antczak, the director of Nights and Days, said:
Polish directors aren’t doing badly at all. Kawalerowicz, Polański, Hoffman and Holland all received nominations. No Polish movie has ever been awarded, but we will sooner or later get that Oscar.
His prophecy finally came true thanks to Paweł Pawlikowski and his Ida. In February 2015, the movie won the first ever Polish Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category and of course made its mark in the history of Polish cinema.
Cold War – 2019 Oscars
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Cold War is a tale that spans the decades of Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor’s (Tomasz Kot) tumultuous love story. Coming together and falling apart, through the post-war era in rural Poland, through 1960s France, all the way to Yugoslavia. It’s a love story about people who are bound together, yet, at the same time, can’t stand to be together. This poetic film quickly captured the hearts of viewers in Poland and abroad.
Hopes were very high. Paweł Pawlikowski’s black-and-white drama was nominated for (a Polish-record-breaking) three Academy Awards: for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography for Łukasz Żal, and Best Director for Pawlikowski. Although the nomination for Best Foreign Language film was expected, considering how well the film had been doing at international festivals and awards, Żal and Pawlikowski’s nominations came as something of a pleasant surprise.
But 2019 saw a big rivalry in the Best Foreign Language film category: Cold War was up against a very strong contender – Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Also filmed in sweeping black-and-white, in the end it was Roma and Cuarón which took home the three trophies Cold War, and Poland, was hoping for.
Corpus Christi – 2020 Oscars
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Despite an original tale about a young former offender who pretends to be a village's new priest and a blistering performance from Bartosz Bielenia in the main role, Corpus Christi by Jan Komasa was up from some stiff competition. The eventual winner of the Best Foreign Film category, Parasite by Bong Joon-ho, did go on to win Best Film overall that evening, the first time a foreign film had ever won the category in Oscar history, so Polish film lovers didn't feel too badly like their category had been unfairly stolen.
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nóż w wodzie
człowiek z żelaza
panny z wilka
noce i dnie
Originally written in Polish, Feb 2015; translated by AJ, Jan 2019; additions by NR, Feb 2019, & AZ, Feb 2020
Sources: 'Polskie Oscary', Bartosz Michalak, Warszawa 2000; 'Kino i reszta świata', Andrzej Wajda, Kraków 2000; '535 dni Potopu', Maria Oleksiewicz, Warszawa 1975