25 Films for 25 Years of Freedom
default, 25 Films for 25 Years of Freedom, A scene from the film ‘Plac Zbawiciela’ (Saviour's Square), directed by Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze, plac_zbawiciela_flesz_10000.jpg
The fall of communism and the ensuing political revolutions. The victims of the economic transformation and the fall of Solidarity. The young people deprived of chances, and the wildness of Polish capitalism. Culture.pl shows how Poland's most pertinent problems of the past 25 years are reflected in these 25 films.
A world devoid of values
Known as Psy, or dogs, in Polish, Pigs is the arguably the most important film of Poland’s transformation period. Whilst telling the story of a former SB, or communist secret service officer, forced to construct his life anew, Władysław Pasikowski depicted the dilemma faced by many Poles after the fall of communism in 1989.
He also seized the opportunity to depict a world devoid of clear moral guidelines. During the communist period, the dividing line between good and evil seemed clear and nearly institutionalised (the good people vs. the evil authorities), but now, the borders seemed to become blurred – and Pigs was a postcard from a land with no values.
In his film, Pasikowski soiled holy national treasures. For example, he alluded to a famous scene from Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds, as well as Wajda’s Man of Iron, in order to portray how a capitalist and democratic Poland had turned into a place where the old rules had broken down and the winners were always simply the stronger and more cunning.
The end of censorship as the beginning of a difficult freedom
Shot in 1989, Wojciech Marczewski's Escape From the ‘Liberty’ Cinema is now perceived as one of the most penetrating narratives about the path from communism to democracy. Its main protagonist was a censor in the communist period. One day, he witnessed a strange situation. During a screening of Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo, the cinematic heroes begin to live a life of their own – they stop sticking to the script, and they start to incite the cinema audience to rebel with them.
Marczewski told a story about the need for freedom. At the same time, he also depicted that after years of communism, Poles did not know exactly what this freedom was supposed to be like. In one of the scenes, the censor's assistant asks his boss what the rebellious crowds wanted, and he replies:
They want freedom. They think that now, they will have new wives and better children.
Marczewski's ironic film told the story of a difficult transformation, of entry into a new reality which still wasn't recognised. For Marczewski himself, the transition from communism into a new Poland proved difficult indeed. Not wanting to pander to the low tastes of the Polish audience, he became silent for many years – and only made three films after Escape From the ‘Liberty’ Cinema.
The tough East-West neighbourhood
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A scene from ‘89 mm from Europe’, written and directed by Marcel Łoziński, photo: planeteplus.pl
The titular 89 mm is the actual difference in the track gauge of the railways of Poland and Belarus. In order for trains from Poland to be able to enter the territory of former Soviet Union states, they need to enter a special hall where workmen exchange the chassis of the trains' carriages. In this 12-minute documentary, Marcel Łoziński observes the border crossing in Brest, depicting the mental differences between the West and the East.
In a review for the Gazeta Wyborcza daily, Tadeusz Sobolewski wrote:
The passengers of lifted train cars look onto the workers from on high, from Guliver's perspective as he observes the ant-like work of the Liliputians. In passing, Łoziński evokes our ambiguous relationship with Russia and Russians [...] – a sense of superiority, mixed with fear. [...] any sense of strangeness is an illusion and only a matter of perspective.
The world of politics & new divisions
Wiping the slate clean in Chile
During the first years after regaining freedom, Polish cinema rarely spoke about politics. When film directors did take up this theme at all, they depicted politicians in a comical light (such was the case in Marek Piwowski's Abduction of Agata). At this time, Roman Polański, who had been working abroad for a long time, decided to shoot a film which alluded to the most significant problems of Poland after 1989.
In Death and the Maiden, Polański asked the question of whether those guilty of the past system's injustices should suffer punishment, or whether, in the name of building a community, their past sins should be forgotten. He told the story of a woman tortured by the Chilean system, who, after many years, has to decide whether she will forgive her torturer or seek revenge.
Here, the director takes the side of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland's first Prime Minister in the democratic system – who introduced the idea of ‘wiping the slate clean’ (which in its original Polish version would translate more literally as ‘drawing a thick line’). Mazowiecki’s approach aimed at breaking away from the painful past in order to build a future together.
The need for settlement
One of the most widely commented on documentaries of the past decade, the film deals with the death of Stanisław Pyjas. Pyjas was a student and opposition activist who was murdered by the SB security services of the communist regime. He was friends with Bronisław Wildstein and Leszek Maleszka, who, after many years, admitted to collaborating with the services.
Stankiewicz and Ferenc's documentary constituted a story about the influence of political decisions of the transformation period on the life of people in a free Poland. According to the authors, the lack of de-communisation and the so-called ‘thick line’ (another term for the aforementioned ‘wiping the slate clean’), proposed by Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, resulted in a pathological situation wherein the new Poland was still ruled by its former oppressors.
Wałęsa the accused
One of the most controversial Polish films of the mid 1990s, Nocna zmiana (Night Shift) portrays the backstage of the revocation of Jan Olszewski's right-wing government in 1992. The film, which was realised by Michał Balcerzak and Jacek Kurski (who went to become a right-wing politician), was an attack on Lech Wałęsa. The Polish President and Solidarity hero was portrayed as a passionate enemy of the process of political scrutiny (lustracja in Polish) and someone who opposed settling the scores of people's pasts in the communist state. The film played the role of a founding myth for the Polish right-wing movement.
The toils of transformation
An intellectual on the margins of society
In Poland, the transition from a communist state to a free one brought about a debasement of the ethos of the intelligenstia. Those who had earlier found themselves at the forefront of transformation as they set the tone of the Solidarity revolution now saw their role in society diminish as they were pushed off the stage by stronger groups in society.
Intertwining the comic dimension with an acute observation of society, Marek Koterski depicted a bitter and frustrated intellectual, sketching out a ruthless self-portrait in Day of the Wacko (Dzień Świra in the original Polish). Adaś Miauczyński – Koterski's alter-ego – poured out his misery and hated everyone around him. He felt simultaneously superior and inferior to everyone. The film has become a cult classic, and is one of the most popular Polish films of the past 25 years.
Eastern Europe at the twists & turns of history
"Has the 1989 revolution in Central Europe devoured her own children?", Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz asks in her 2002 documentary. Dissidents from Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Berlin sat in front of her camera for this piece. They spoke about their struggle against the communist regime, but also about the problems that were brought about by freedom – social inequalities, the victims of political and economic transformation, and political divisions.
Zmarz-Koczanowicz directed another film, Pokolenie 89 (The '89 Generation), in which she portrayed the beneficiaries of the new system. The film told the stories of young opposition activists who developed their careers in the new Poland.
After the Victory 1989-1995, dir. Marcel Łoziński, 1995 - The threats of transformation
Marcel Łoziński, one of the most prominent documentarians of Polish cinema, made a film timeline of the political transformation in Poland. He depicted the social, economic, cultural, and political aspects of a series of reforms. He portrayed the hyperinflation which took place during the period of transition, as well as the process of privitisation and tumultuous political change. To date, his picture is one of the most fascinating portrayals of the turbulent Polish transformations.
Debt, dir. Krzysztof Krauze, 1999 – The demonic face of capitalism
One of the strongest and most important films of the last 25 years. 10 years after the first free elections, Krzysztof Krauze created one of the most gripping tales about the ugly face of Polish capitalism. Dług is the story of two young businessmen who fall prey to a blackmailer, and, in the end, murder their persecutor.
Tadeusz Sobolewski commented in a review of the film:
An anatomy of murder – blackmailing, harassment, bloody revenge and what comes afterwards. This crime takes place among people like us - it is a natural effect of the situation. The horror surfaces unnoticeably in a world of trendy pubs, chic stores, banks made of glass and marble and the 'cool' of the new times, among green tea and constantly dieting girls. The villain is in the midst of this world. He doesn't look or act any different than we do. But the most terrible thing is that in the end we turn out to be the villain ourselves!
Egoists, dir. Mariusz Treliński, 2000 – Capitalism with no moral compass
A portrait of the generation who have made it to the top of their careers thanks to the 1989 transformations. One of the best Polish opera directors, Mariusz Treliński, depicted the moral void which hid beneath the surface of never-ending parties and semblances of fulfilment.
Mateusz Werner wrote in his review for Film magazine:
Regardless of the author's intentions, Treliński's film touches upon a totally basic issue, without which one cannot understand the 1990s in Poland – this strange and clumsy time of a metamorphosis from former slaves into free people (…) Anyone who claims that this problem is only relative to the carefree nouveau-riche youth in Warsaw is severely wrong. The trouble with freedom, which we come to learn through our own mistakes, is a commonly carried hunch.
Saviour's Square, dir. Krzysztof Krauze, Joanna-Kos Krauze, 2006 – The young and lost
A couple of 30-year-olds with two kids takes out a loan for an apartment in Warsaw. Before they get the keys to their new place, they decide to stay with the mother of Bartek, the husband. When the developer goes bankrupt, the couple loses all their money. So begins a showdown of mutual remorse and regret. In their portrayal of 30-year-olds who cannot cope in the reality of the wild Polish capitalism, Krzysztof and Joanna Krauze depict the clashing of two generations – the parents who were the relative winners of the system change, and the young who can hardly find their own place within the new capitalism.
The Excluded are Next Door
Happy New York, dir. Janusz Zaorski, 1997 – The sadness of Polish emigration
The late 1990s had Polish artists observe the fledgling capitalism of the Third Republic more and more attentively. At the same time, they became more daring in exposing our society's myths. In 1997, Janusz Zaorski shot the comedy, Happy New York, in which he depicted the sad truth about Polish economic migration, cultural estrangement, and the price that Polish emigrants had to pay for chasing the dreams that they could not fulfill in their home country.
Arizona, dir. Ewa Borzęcka, 1997 – The victims of a new democracy
That same year that Zaorski was presenting the sad faces of Polish emigrants, Ewa Borzęcka was shooting one of the most significant pictures of the decade. Arizona tells the story of a small village which had been home to a PGR (short for Państwowe Gospodarstwo Rolne, State Agricultural Farm) in the communist period. These collective farming enterprises often provided work for the entire village. Upon their destruction, people lost their jobs and began drowning their sorrows in litres of cheap wine. Borzęcka depicted the villagers who dreamt of a better life in front of the camera and reminisced about the communist past with nostalgia.
In 1997, her film fired up a great debate, and it was seen by some 6 million people. After Arizona was presented with the Kraków Film Festival's grand prix, many people accused the film's authors of crossing a line in filmmaking ethics as they exploited human misery. But it was Borzęcka's film that brought about change in the perception of those who were victims of the economic and political transformation.
At Home in Pietrasze, dir. Lidia Duda, 2002 – A letter from a worse world
Lidia Duda - o filmach from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
Two similar titles followed Arizona. Another documentarian who fought for a voice for the excluded was Lidia Duda. In 2002, she created At Home in Pietrasze (U nas w Pietraszach, in the original), a television reportage about a village in Mazury. After the closing down of a PGR there, people in Pietrasze lived on the brink of poverty.
The main protagonist of the film was a small boy who sent a letter to the television station requesting help for his mother. When the film was aired, it was seen by 4.5 million viewers, and people started to send in money and various necessary items to Pietrasze. Duda's film also played a role in changing the politicians' perception of former PGR workers. The minister Barabara Labuda set up a special team which was to develop a strategy to help villages similar to Pietrasze.
The film can be viewed here
Goat Walker, dir. Bartek Konopka, 2003 – Hope for the losers
Bartek Konopka also portrayed transformation victims in his Goat Walker (Ballada o kozie in the original). In 2003, he travelled to a small village in Lower Silesia and shot a film about the action of local authorities, who presented poor families with goats. The goat were meant to provide children with healthy milk. But the film that Konopka created was something more than a documentation of this social endeavour. With time, it became a story about the hope that keeps people alive in the most difficult moments.
A Bar at Victoria Station, dir. Leszek Dawid, 2003 – Cast away from the Promised Land.
The most truthful and most moving film about Polish economic migration. Ten years after regaining freedom, the rate of unemployment in Poland was still very high. When the countries of Western Europe opened themselves up to Polish workers, nearly 2 million Poles left the country in search of a better life.
The two protagonists of A Bar at Victoria Station were among these 2 million. In Leszek Dawid's picture, Piotr and Marek are thirty-year-olds from a provincial town. They don't have a job or money, so they decide to go to England and start a decent life there. When they get to the island, the brutal reality hits them head-on, as everyone wants to take advantage of them, and no one wants to help them. Soon, they have to admit defeat for a second time. Their fate reflects the unhappiness of many Poles who were forced to leave by the country's economic situation.
This Is No Country for Young People
Louder than the Bombs, dir. Przemysław Wojcieszek, 2001 – The new Polish patriotism
While a majority of filmmakers of the late 1990s depicted Poland as an unbearable place to live, Przemysław Wojcieszek presented an entirely different vision. The main character of his film is a young man who convinces his girlfriend to give up the idea of travelling to the US, and to stay with him in his home town. Wojcieszek blends an anarchistic tone with a positivist message, while convincing viewers that it's possible to create a place to live a life of one's own in Poland. Tomasz Turyn wrote in his review for the Gazeta Wyborcza daily:
A strong voice of the young generation. Instead of whining about the "poverty of the estates" or entanglement with failed formal experiments, we finally have a film with some nerve, an interesting story, and an anarchist spirit, as well as a somewhat black sense of humour.
You Are God, dir. Leszek Dawid, 2012 – A voice from the block
Leszek Dawid has become one of the advocates of the excluded. While A Bar at Victoria Station told the drama of two emigrants, You Are God portrayed the lost generation of young who entered adulthood towards the late 1990s. The protagonists of the film were members of the iconic hip-hop band called Paktofonika, who attempted to break free from the sad world of Silesian estates as they struggled to make it in the tough music business.
Suicide Room, dir. Jan Komasa, 2010 – Lost in the internet
In his loud debut film, Jan Komasa drew attention to a generation that had been completely omitted thus far. In Suicide Room, he told the story of teenagers in search of substitutes for real life, as well as for emotions, on the Internet. The main character of the film was a boy about to graduate from high school, who hid the secret truth of his solitude under the guise of a rich life. He found an escape from his loneliness in a friendship with a girl he met in the virtual space of the so-called Suicide Room.
Fuck For Forest, dir. Michał Marczak, 2012 – Rebellious and lost
The story of young people who cannot find their place in the contemporary world. Although they really want to rebel, they don't quite know what to rebel against. Marczak depicts activists from the Fuck for Forest group, who record their own porn in order to save Amazon rainforests with the money they make. Marczak distances himself from the portrayed people. Fuck For Forest tells the story of a hopeless escape from a reality of hypocrisy and fake ideals, which hides no deeper truth than that of fear.
Polish Myths Flipped Inside-out
The Wedding, dir. Wojtek Smarzowski, 2004 – Our funny patriotism
In new Polish cinema, no other artist has won himself a position as strong as that of Wojtek Smarzowski, who has already been hailed a successor to Andrzej Wajda by the Polish media. Just like Wajda, Smarzowski keenly reviews all of the Polish national myths, performing a vivisection of Polish fantasies on the silver screen. The first film which made his name known to the collective consciousness was The Wedding (Wesele in the original Polish).
Smarzowski alluded to the classic piece by Stanisław Wyspiański, a tale of Polish national myths, in order to depict how outdated some of these are in today's world. At the same time, Smarzowski portrayed a Poland suspended between an idealised past and a present of wild capitalist.
The Dark House, dir. Wojtek Smarzowski, 2009 – In the swamps of Communist Poland
Smarzowski's next film, The Evil House (Dom zły in the original), also described the foundation of collective Polish identities. It spoke about the Martial Law period from the perspective of a Polish provincial area. In his film, the ideals of the Solidarity movement turned out to be a mere mask, hiding the ugly truth of dumb power and crudity. In The Evil House, Smarzowski described how people who had lived in complete enslavement for years simply turn into animals with no moral backbone.
How It's Done, dir. Marcel Łoziński, 2006 – Dumbed-down with politics
While Smarzowski conveys the intellectual ravages that took place in Communist Poland, with the documentary How It's Done, Marcel Łoziński shows what a caricature democracy has turned into with time. For a period of three years, Łoziński observed an experiment conducted by a well-known political marketing expert, Piotr Tymochowicz. The experiment was meant to prove that by using PR tricks, anyone can make it to the top of the political ladder. Łoziński was keen to show how a world of consumption and satisfaction easily leads people into giving up thinking for themselves. Tadeusz Sobolewski's review for Wyborcza read:
This is one of the very few films made after 1989 that is truly political. Political meaning, in this case, irritating. This is a film that cannot be liked by any party. It is a film in which we watch the games of power as an ironic observer from the outside. It's all funny and awful at the same time.
Argentine Lesson, dir. Wojciech Staroń, 2011 – Poland opens up to the world
The documentary films of Wojciech Staroń are tales about encounters with strangeness. The young director and excellent photographer has gained recognition for his documentary series called the Siberian Lesson, one of the most intimate and most beautiful documents in Polish cinema. In Siberian Lesson, Staroń portrayed his fiancée, who was travelling to Siberia in order to teach Polish.
After a few years, the Starońs leave for Argentina with their small son. They go there for a year, and little Janek – Wojciech Staroń's son – has to face an unknown world while his father creates Argentine Lesson. A meeting with the daughter of Polish emigrants is the beginning of a fascinating journey. Staroń's film about the friendship between two children is also the story of a new Poland – one open towards the world, and curious about differences.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by Paulina Schlosser, 9/06/2014