In 2011 many new and established directors have brought a diverse array of riveting characters to the stage, while the annual film festival in Gdynia has changed for the better, presenting a more comprehensive picture of the Polish cinema scene
Debut filmmakers were strong this past year, with major cinematic events such as the Gdynia Film Festival reflecting the state of the industry. Michał Chaciński, the new director of the event, decided to move away from the previous form of the festival, which was generally just a review of almost everything that the Polish directors had cooked up that year and given it more of a critical edge. Following the premise that value is easily lost in mass leaving mediocrity to triumph, Chaciński narrowed the programme down to a strict selection of the titles, which hit the nail on the head. Separating the film wheat from the chaff turned out to be a great idea when qualifying titles for the main competition. The competing twelve were the very essence of Polish film production of the past year - its crème de la crème. Nothing was lacking, nothing was unnecessary (maybe only the presence of "W imieniu diabła"/ "In the name of the devil" by Barbara Sass-Zdort was slightly debatable). Thanks to all these changes the festival gained more meaning and clarity, which is abslolutely necessary to build the event's reputation. And reputation is essential if Poland wants Gdynia to attract decision makers at international film festivals.
One question is worth asking, however: does Gdynia need the aforementioned foreign experts and selectors in the jury? I would say that it doesn't. After all, the experimental international jury proved cumbersome this year. The verdict can serve as proof. The Golden Lion and four other important awards (for directing, cinematography, music and editing) went to Jerzy Skolimowski's "Essential Killing", raising some questions, even objections about this shower of awards for Skolimowski's production, which seems to be somewhat undeserved, interfering with the image of the whole festival, as it falsely suggests that "Essential Killing" dominated the event. I'm not claiming that this movie is a bad production. Not at all, however the director tends to go for the effect at the cost of truth. I wrote this in the last year's Polish cinema summary so I am not going to repeat myself. "Essential Killing" is still being praised (e.g. it was placed among the top 10 movies of 2011 by the French magazine "Cahiers du Cinéma"), but I will stand by my opinion that, to a large extent, it is a flashy, showy motion picture. Fascinated by all the fancy awards given to "Essential Killing" in 2010, the jury apparently decided to follow this road. This was the safest choice for the foreign judges (there were five of them), since they couldn't make out the historical context of films such as "Róża" (which they admitted this themselves). So, just in case, they chose to award the internationally recognised product. It was not the most spontaneous act and other deserving productions fell into the background.
The composition of the jury might do with some reconsideration. However, regardless of what director Chaciński decides in this matter, we should all keep our fingers crossed for him. For he is a man, who transformed this 'celebration of Polish cinema' from a party of industry elbow-rubbers into a cultural event. Not to mention the fact that he raised the bar for the filmmakers, and this simply has to have some impact on the quality of Polish productions.
Back to Wojciech Smarzowski's "Róża"… In Gdynia, it won the journalist award and the audience award (The Golden Klakier), with Marcin Dorociński receiving the Best Actor Award in a Leading Role award. Not enough? Well yes, actually. At least according to the so-called industry, the jury not only underrated the movie, but were absolutely unjust about it. There is some truth in that, because "Róża" is surely one of the most important Polish movies of 2011. And one of the most powerful, too. A cruel film, true, but it couldn't be different, as Smarzowski shows issues and wounds Polish cinema had remained silent about, thus far. Such a film has to hurt.
The plot takes place in 1945 in Masuria, which has just been the front line. There are only two main characters here. Tadeusz (Dorociński) went through hell of the Warsaw Uprising, Róża (Agata Kulesza) is still in hell, because as a Masurian she is an alien to everyone: the Poles treat her as a German, and her own people as a Russian whore. Treated as war loot, frequently mugged, robbed and raped (Polish looters and soviet army marauders still prowl the surrounding no man's land), the woman gradually looses her will and strength to live. This is when she meets him. The sense of danger and suffering brings Róża and Tadeusz close together, quickly making them each other's only support. And then there is love, which is really the main theme of the story. "Róża" is not a historical movie, not mainly, anyway. It is in fact a classic melodrama, but in scenery of barren land that has just witnessed the Apocalypse. Smarzowski consciously reaches to clichés of melodrama and western, but he has staged them in his own way, combining extreme naturalism with poetry. This is his third feature movie and again, very clearly he presented his unique style, although it's the first production not based on his own script (Michał Szczerbic was the screenwriter for this one). But is "Róża" a better movie than "Dom zły" / "The Dark House"? It's hard to say. Surely it is a completely different movie, and that's what we should stick to. Especially considering the fact that the list of awards for "Róża" continues to grow (Grand Prix and the Audience Award at the Warsaw Film Festival, the Special Jury Award at the Polish Film Festival in America, the Special Jury Award at the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn).
The case of "The Mill and the Cross" is much clearer, because, at least in the opinion of yours truly, this is the best movie by Lech Majewski so far. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Majewski disciplined his film language, focusing on images and silence. Quite literary, to be honest, as the main object of meditation (I guess this is how one should put it) here is "The Procession to Calvary" by Pieter Bruegel.
Someone once said about Bruegel that he "painted many things, which were impossible to paint". Majewski tries to reach the impossible that the great Flemish made possible. And he succeeds. How? Primarily by trying to present this, what cannot be measured, through that, which can be seen. By using modern computer technology, including 3D, the director brings out the "old" beauty and truth from Bruegel's painting, emphasising their timelessness. Literarily and metaphorically he enters the painting, revealing the consecutive layers of the 16th century Nederland picture, and bringing some of the characters to life. Breugel (Rutger Hauer) himself is amongst them, commenting the world he is creating. He is a very significant character, since Majewski's aim was not to simply decipher the symbolic codes from the picture. For him, reflecting on the role of the artist and the nature of art in general is equally as important. There is one characteristic scene in the film, when Breguel, seeing that nobody notices the suffering of Christ, because they are all busy with their everyday activities, raises his hand and says "I suspend this moment". Everything freezes as if someone paused a movie. This ecstatic film strikes with its plastic beauty (great shots by Adam Sikora and Lech Majewski). It thrills and hypnotises. Experimental cinema, but you watch it as the most fascinating epic. Majewski follows the painter's footsteps, but in the opposite way, magically transforming the "pause" into cinema, that opens completely new perspectives for filmmaking. I've seen this film several times - fascinated every time. At the festival in Gdynia "The Mill and the Cross" received numerous awards for stage design, sound, costumes, the Special Jury Award, as well as the Grand Prix at the International CinEast Festival in Luxemburg, and The Main Award at the "Popoli e Religioni" Film Festival in Terni.
Another deserving film that made it to the main competition in Gdynia, but did not receive any award is "Italiani" by Łukasz Barczyk. This production is obviously not as seducing as "The Mill and the Cross". It is a provocative film, but primarily as a result of the strategy of the filmmakers, who combined the plot pattern straight form "Hamlet" with sexual perversions and obsessions taken from Visconti's "The Damned". An "artistic" concept and crude artificiality can be felt here, but the result is actually quite intriguing. Barczyk created an intimate portrait of a family, where the emotional tension between the characters, and the darkness of their souls makes them exhibitionists to a much larger extent, than their nudity. And what about the fact that, while watching "Italiani" we often ask ourselves, whether this work still fits within the confines of film? This way the director invites us into a discussion about cinema and its boundaries.
A so-called full-scale film is without a doubt "Wymyk" by Greg Zgliński. You might say it's the Polish "East of Eden" and a modern psychological thriller referring to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, at the same time. Also, it was designed with a Swiss precision (quite rightfully it got an award for the script at the festival in Gdynia). It is a story of two brothers, Alfred and Jerzy. Alfred feels unappreciated and less loved by his father and tries to put on a tough face, but the man does not live up to the challenge that life throws at him, letting bandits throw his brother out of a train, killing him. Is "Wymyk" a study cowardice and confusion? Or perhaps, paradoxically, it is a film about maturation, which we reach much quicker through failures than through success. These questions remain open, and that’s good. This means that Zgliński has not actually created a morality play in the style of Krzysztof Kieślowski. On the contrary, Zgliński avoids metaphysics as the plague and keeps his feet on the ground. His film has psychological authenticity (a lot of the credit goes to the actors, especially Robert Więckiewicz as Alfred and Gabriela Muskała as his wife) and presents reality in a credible way. In no other film have I seen such a realistic and convincing image of Polish province. In short, truth is the strength of this movie.
The strength of "Baby są jakieś inne" / "Women are Different Somehow" by Marek Koterski is irony. This is because Koterski knows what he knows: the feminist revolution has taken place and there is no turning back. The Apocalypse has become fact. The only thing left for men nowadays is complaining. And two of the characters in the movie (a brilliant duo of Robert Więckiewicz and Adam Woronowicz) are doing exactly that. They are travelling by car and talking about women, complaining about how cold and evil they are. And they have so many issues that they don't repeat themselves even once. And with what? Well, with everything. With the fact that women indicate a right turn, but turn left, that they click with high heels on the street, and rustle with newspapers at home, that they don't say anything when they run out of toilet paper, event though they utter 20000 words a day (including 19993 that are utterly unnecessary), that in bed they treat men as if they were disabled, and that they abandon them all the time, not to mention the fact that they compete with men at work. The horror. However, this whining will not change anything, since the losers are wrong, which makes their explicit grumbling just a cry after a lost toy.
Koterski's film caused much of controversy. Some were impressed (e.g. yours truly), some accused the author of lack of political correctness, misogyny, sexism, vulgarity, bad taste and even simple rudeness. The form of the film did not appeal to everyone as well, because what kind of film gets shot almost entirely inside a studio? But one has to remember that this movie is just a mischievous comedy and shouldn't be taken literarily and too seriously. After all, "Baby sa jakieś inne" is not a film about, how mean women are, but about, what modern men are afraid of. It's actually a compilation of all male fears.
The film was not present at the Gdynia festival because the director did not manage to finish it in time. The latest work by Agnieszka Holland was also absent at the festival, for different reasons, however. The producers, looking further afield, namely Venice, were afraid that a local festival would block access to an international festival. "In Darkness" did not enter the Venice competition, but it became the Polish candidate for the Oscar. And deservedly so, because this film has a real chance of winning the Academy Award. Perhaps it's not a complete masterpiece, but this tale of a sewer worker from Lviv, who, during the Nazi occupation, hid group of Jews in a sewer, risking his and his loved ones' life, contains a universally recognisable truth that you simply need to grow up to being human, which in term, quite frequently, requires a fair amount of courage. Holland presents how Leopold Socha (real character) gradually transforms from a city slicker, who initially helps the Jews for money, into a kind guardian from the heart. This is the most impressive part of the plot, authenticated in every little detail by Robert Więckiewicz's, who, without a doubt, has become the number one actor in Poland over the last year. Of course, Holland allows for some spectacular "bonuses", such as the love scene in the sewer, or shots of people praying in a church or hiding in its catacombs, but that does not diminish the values of the film. To sum up, "In Darkness" is a very solid film when it comes to the realisation, and very authentic in presenting the truth, both historical and human. This has been recognised by various international bodies, e.g. at the festivals in Valladolid, where Agnieszka Holland received an award for directing, and Mar Del Plata, where the movie received the Audience Award, whilst at the Plus Camerimage festival in Bydgoszcz, Jolanta Dylewska received the Golden Frog for cinematography.
There are several more important pictures of 2011, such as "Erratum" by Marek Lechnicki, which did not win in Gdynia, but took home a whole lot of other awards, including the third prize in the Directorial Debut Category at the 46th International Film Festival in Chicago in mid-October. According to the jury's statement, the film offers hope that it's never too late to address life's mistakes, big and small, through insightful and emotionally poignant encounters. Antoni Krauze's "Black Thursday" (Special Jury Award in Gdynia, the FIPRESCI award at the World Film Festival in Montreal, Special Jury Award at the Professional International Film Festival "Listapad" in Minsk) is an incredibly moving reconstruction of the tragic events from the Polish coast in December 1970. Krauze manages to brilliantly combine the plot with documentary images, and very suggestively bring back the atmosphere of that time. History, however, is presented here through the tragedy of one simple man. And this does not leave the viewer indifferent.
And what about all the other famous directors? Well, they too shot, but not all of them fulfilled themselves. Not completely, anyway. However, let us focus on some of the talented debutants, and there were a few in Polish cinema, this year. And with films so mature that they easily made it to the competition at the Gdynia festival. I’m thinking about "Daas" by Adrian Panek, who managed to make a surprisingly magnificent costume movie for a relatively small amount of money. Beautiful in an artistic, Wojciech J. Has manner, but at the
"Lęsame time, creating a fair amount of suspense. And also very thought-provoking, as there is a lot of our current times in this story of Jakub Frank, a pseudo-messiah from the 18th century. I'm also thinking about Leszek Dawid's "Ki", a film presenting, not only a very real portrait of a struggling, lost, young mother (Roma Gąsiorowska received the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award in Gdynia for this), but also an image of current human relations, which seem to have gradually less and less chemistry. A world, where loneliness and solitude are becoming more and more natural.
The same problem, but in a more personal and intimate, can be seen in the debut of Bartosz Konopka. His "Lęk wysokości" / "Afraid of Heights" tells the story of a son, trying to keep his mentally ill father on this side of reality. It is a subtle study happening between closeness and alienation. Even though "Lęk wysokości" has not opened in cinemas yet, it has already received recognition abroad. It won the 2nd award in Bombay (Mumbai Film Festival) and the Special Award for cinematography at the Mannheim-Keidelberg Film Festival. "Kret" / "The Mole" by Rafael Lewandowski also deals with the parent-child relationships. This subject seems to be very popular amongst first-time directors, as "Sala samobójców" / "Suicide Room" also follows this topic in telling the story of a teenage boy who gets dangerously tangled up in an online fantasy game that brings on real-life repercussions.
"Kret" is a film that brings back socialist Poland, chock full of security files, secret agents and persecutions. However, the political plot is much less important from the psychological aspect, because it tells a story of love between father and son. It is a tale about an emotion usually expressed with silence, rather than teary gestures and declarations. This silence seems to be part of the dialogue, which is brilliantly acted out by Marian Dzięciel, and especially, Borys Szyc. And finally Szyc is not playing himself. He's focused, quiet and authentic through and through. He is not trying any flashy tricks, focusing on minimalistic expression and truth instead. He transforms into an actor we haven't seen before. A good actor, who received an award at the International Film Festival in Montreal.
At this point it would be appropriate to note that recently numerous talents of the young and middle generation have become a very significant force in Polish cinema. Names such as Robert Więckiewicz, Marcin Dorociński, Borys Szyc, Roma Gąsiorowska, Agata Kulesza and Magdalena Popławska ("Lęk wysokości"). Without a doubt, we have to also include Jakub Gierszał, and not only because the European Film Promotion placed him amongst the 10 most promising European actors. The leading actor of Jan Komasa's "Sala samobójców" has got all it requires to become a star, including talent. Anyway, I believe he is the strongest element of Komasa's film, a film clearly showing form over content.
Of course, I do realise that "Sala samobójców" received the highest praise from all debut productions (Silver Lions in Gdynia, a Golden Duck - the award of Film magazine, the Main Award at the International Film Festival Cinema Tout Ecran in Geneve, the Special Award for the best feature film at the Youth Festival in Kiev), but the storyline is rather predictable, as if it was taken directly from a warning poster. The plot mixes here with trivial diagnosis and obvious morals. The film is very impressive, but it lacks real emotion.
Finally, something about some recent action in our entertainment cinema. Following the triusm that 'it doesn’t matter how stupid, some people will buy it' we had some rubbish ("Weekend"), some junk ("Wojna żeńsko-męska" / "Men and Women at War"), some replays ("Och Karol 2", "Jak się pobyć celulitu" / "How to Get Rid of Cellulite"), some overdone movies ("Wygramy" / "We Shall Win"), and some script and stage design failures ("Battle of Warsaw 1920"). Fortunately, there were some titles (in the entertainment category) not too offencive to the common viewer (including me), such as "Uwikłanie" by Jacek Bromski, a smooth and engaging adaption of Zygmunt Miłoszewski's criminal, and Waldemar Krzystek's "80 milionów" / "80 Million", which uses a Solidarity legend to play with film genres. We also have to mention the romantic comedy "Listy do M." / "Letters to M.". Even though Mitja Okorn followed the English formula, he did it with skill and intelligence. It turned out this was enough to become a hit and the box office leader. Apparently, intelligence is not bad for entertainment. Another Polish myth busted.
Selected films mentioned:
Essential Killing by Jerzy Skolimowski
Róża (Image gallery) by Wojciech Smarzowski
The Mill and the Cross by Lech Majewski
Wymyk by Greg Zgliński
In Darkness by Agnieszka Holland
Erratum by Marek Lechnicki
Black Thursday by Antoni Krauze
Daas by Adrian Panek
Suicide Room by Jan Komasa
Battle of Warsaw 1920 by Jerzy Hoffman
80 Million by Waldemar Krzystek