Polish film-makers are becoming bolder, tackling hot topics and participating in media debates. They raise issues such as refugees, the environment, anti-Semitism, the role of the Catholic church, and the spread of nationalism. Yet unfortunately they often preach to the converted instead of launching a discussion.
When the Austrian Cultural Forum in Warsaw organised a meeting devoted to the work of Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard in 2016, they gave it the eloquent title of ‘Imported Self-Criticism’. Someone present asked why Poles are so fond of works by angry Austrian authors, since there are no socially-engaged figures like Jelinek, Bernhard or Seidl in Polish literature and cinema.
Parricide in the land of double standards
The trio’s success in Poland is proof that local audiences are partial to provocative iconoclasts who pick at old wounds and value criticism more than tribal affiliation. It also explains why Martin Pollack’s description of how Austrians (including his own father) took part in the Holocaust is constantly in print, and why Maciej Zaremba Bielawski – a Polish writer working in Sweden – is acclaimed for his book Higieniści (Hygienists), which details his father’s work in eugenics. It also accounts for the popularity of Michel Houellebecq, whose books have long been slamming French middle-class smugness, and Scandinavian directors who force their fellow countrymen to look in the mirror and lay bare their inadequacies, e.g. Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (The Celebration) and Jagten (The Hunt). Nordic noir authors in the style of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell are doing much the same thing, albeit not so blatantly.
The hushed-up decades
These authors’ sincerity and bravery are doubly obvious when compared to the ideological lethargy so typical of Polish cinema in the past two decades. After 1989, Polish cinema learned to play deaf to social problems. Directors were terrified of being labelled as political, feeling that speaking out on current issues would leave them hostages of one of the sides in the media debate. This suspicion of socially-engaged art was a sad throwback to the communist era, which conditioned artists to mistrust all things political, and equated engagement with propaganda.
Therefore, Polish cinema became the domain of introspective individualists who invited audiences into their intimate little worlds. It lost touch with society’s ills and rarely commented on the social changes that were taking place.
In Topografia Pamięci (Topography of Remembrance), Martin Pollack described Austria’s attitude to the past as follows:
After 1945, many things were left unsaid, hushed up, and skipped over for years. My generation grew up in a silence that was almost deafening sometimes.
In the 1990s and the new millennium, Polish cinema adopted a similar strategy of hushing up the country’s problems. Victims of the political transformation period that had turned social and class relations upside-down were mentioned all too rarely. Consequently, the best film about the 1989 transition was Władysław Pasikowski’s (superb) Psy (Pigs), but only documentary film-makers were interested in the fate of former state-farm workers. There were a few exceptions, of course, such as Krzysztof Krauze’s Dług (The Debt) and Feliks Falk’s Komornik (The Bailiff), but they were drowned out by the cinematic mainstream.
Populists and philanthropists
The tide has only begun to turn fairly recently, as more Polish film-makers choose to delve into themes that merit in-depth public discussion, e.g. anti-Semitism, the stratification of society, or the dirty world of politics. Unfortunately, instead of being thought-provoking, this has actually led to ideological squabbles.
These are usually won by populists, as local directors are well aware. Polish cinema criticises perversions of the social system, but never the system itself. Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik’s Pokot (Spoor), an environmental fable based on a novel by Olga Tokarczuk, avoids putting Polish society on trial and simply targets its black sheep. The ‘Squire’, ‘Bailiff’ and ‘Parson’ characters represent the forces of darkness, backwardness and stupidity, as opposed to the ‘ordinary people’ – victims oppressed by the ruling class. As in a fairy tale, the evil originates from the outside and takes on demonic form.
In order to appreciate the gulf that separates Polish socially-critical cinema from its Scandinavian counterparts, one may simply compare Krzysztof Łukaszewicz’s Lincz (Lynch) with the Swedish–Polish Efterskalv (The Here After) by Magnus von Horn, and Thomas Vinterberg’s Jagten from Denmark. All three revolve around mob justice in small communities.
For von Horn and Vinterberg, the theme acts as a springboard to discuss the evil lying dormant in ordinary people, the illusion of social solidarity, and the lies on which Scandinavian civil societies are built. Both directors seem to agree with Polish writer Dorota Masłowska’s diagnosis that ‘Society is Mean’, accusing themselves and their audiences, rather than blaming degenerate individuals. They regard cinema as a mirror designed to reveal their own society’s hideous, somewhat forgotten face.
Although similar to both Scandinavian films in terms of its plot, Łukaszewicz’s Lincz applies an entirely different strategy. Here, those responsible for the lynching are painted as victims of the state’s failure, abandoned by its institutions and left to confront the evil – an aggressive local drunk.
Łukaszewicz never questions the legitimacy of the titular lynching and, steering clear of moral dilemmas, absolves his heroes and the audience, making them accomplices to the film’s events. Instead of jolting the audience out of its complacency, like Vinterberg and von Horn (not to mention Bernhard, Jelinek, Pollack, Houellebecq et al), Łukaszewicz acts like a tabloid editor, siding with the majority and eagerly patting them on the back.
This is not just one director’s approach, however. Socially-engaged Polish cinema normally opts for short-cuts – the path of easy emotions, simple slogans and glaring contrasts. Artists of various generations and genres are united in an odd mutation of populism. In Układ Zamknięty (The Closed Circuit), Ryszard Bugajski shows an evil clique running a decent, basically good community; Patryk Vega’s films offer a Manichean vision of the world in which the elite – the secret services in Służby Specjalne (Secret Services), or doctors in Botoks (Botox) – oppress the simple folk; while Przemysław Wojcieszek’s poster-like films deliver platitudes about social outcasts.
Socially-engaged Polish film-makers prefer to avoid offending their audiences or putting them in an uncomfortable position, faced with tough, personal questions. Patryk Vega, Agnieszka Holland, Krzysztof Łukaszewicz and Przemysław Wojcieszek joyfully chorus ‘Hell is Other People’, producing films where the criticism is barely implied.
Perhaps this was what led to the affair surrounding the most controversial socially-engaged Polish film of the last decade – Pokłosie (Aftermath). Pasikowski’s story of the Jedwabne massacre divided audiences instantly: some seeing it as an exposé, others a disgraceful attack on their national pride and their ancestors’ memory. Its actual cinematic merits quickly faded into the background – nobody mentioned the script’s failings, the continuity and production errors, or the plasterboard bus shelter, since its theme became the key issue.
Unlike Łukaszewicz’s Lincz, Holland and Adamik’s Pokot, or Bugajski’s Układ Zamknięty – tales of good communities and bad individuals – Pasikowski reversed the proportions. He applied a Western-style formula to depict one good man’s fight to set the record straight, implicating the community (along with his audience) in a conspiracy of silence. Although his exaggerated character portraits offered a rather simplified perspective, unlike the film populists he was brave enough to accuse his viewers.
Pasikowski’s strategy was bound to whip up a public backlash. In a Poland consumed by heated political debates, his film became the pretext for a minor tribal war between the ‘progressives’ and the ‘conservatives’, in which the film and its artistic drawbacks rapidly ceased to have any relevance.
Remembrance or identity?
Pokłosie was not the only film about the Polish–Jewish past to be disowned. A similar controversy surrounded Paweł Łoziński’s excellent 1992 documentary Miejsce Urodzenia (Birthplace). It tells the story of a Polish Jew, Henryk Grynberg, who, after living in America for many years, returns to Poland to unravel the mystery behind his father’s death. This documentary about Polish guilt dating back to the Holocaust was rejected almost automatically by one segment of the film community, and it took a long time for Miejsce Urodzenia to earn the acclaim it deserved.
Other recent films about Polish anti-Semitism have provoked similar controversies, e.g. Jerzy Śladkowski’s Amnezja (Amnesia) about the Kielce pogrom, and Z Daleka Widok Jest Piękny (It Looks Pretty from a Distance) by Anna and Wilhelm Sasnal. Anti-Semitism is not the only topic to have stirred up such a furore, however. Ever since ‘historical policy’ has become a fundamental element of Polish politics, historical films have turned into a battleground for domination, not a field for artistic exploration. On the one hand we have simplified portraits of Polish anti-Semitism à la Pasikowski, and on the other, Konrad Łęcki’s Wyklęty (Cursed) about angelic ‘cursed soldiers’ versus evil communists.
Luckily, in between the extremes of this media/cinema dispute there is room for directors who would rather not dish out moral assessments, and prefer to broach complex issues that touch human emotions. Films like Wojciech Smarzowski’s Róża (Rose), concerning the grim fate of Masurians after the war, or Maciej Sobieszczański’s Zgoda (Reconciliation), about victims who become prison-camp executioners themselves, prove that the past can be portrayed without tabloid oversimplifications.
Experience it for yourself
Before the 42nd Polish Film Festival in Gdynia, Łukasz Maciejewski wrote for Onet:
People worldwide and in Poland have been seething with anger for several years now. We clash over our outlooks, we’re in a social and political frenzy, yet nothing in our cinema reflects that situation, and escapist biopics, genre flicks and meta-fiction abound.
2017’s Gdynia festival proved him wrong, however. A few films on burning contemporary issues suddenly appeared amidst the run-of-the-mill fare and small, intimate dramas.
The most interesting of these dealt with economic migration – Piotr Domalewski’s Cicha Noc (Silent Night) and Urszula Antoniak’s Beyond Words. These films are far-removed from current politics. Both avoid oversimplification like the plague and tell it straight from the heart. In Cicha Noc, Domalewski shows us a young man returning from abroad to his family home for Christmas, while Antoniak presents a young Polish émigré living in Berlin. Domalewski’s screenplay echoes the story of his own family, some of whom left the country to earn a living. Antoniak relates her own emigration experiences after working in between Poland and Holland for years.
Perhaps that is what makes these films so poignant. The truth they contain doesn’t need to be spiced up with political allusions and messages. Their strength lies in being frank with their audience, their characters, and themselves.
The truth also shines through in Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze’s film Ptaki Śpiewają w Kigali (Birds are Singing in Kigali), set during the Rwandan genocide, which fits in with the current debate on the refugee crisis. The Krauzes’ film examines the hate that scars people and places, but also highlights the West’s political guilt for turning a blind eye to Africa’s plight and condemning the Dark Continent to become a world of inequality and injustice.
Once again, the Krauzes’ film is hard-hitting, not thanks to sophisticated film-making, but to the directors’ authentic storytelling. With many years of experience in Africa, the Krauzes defend and adore it, and the underlying emotions transport Ptaki… way above the current on-screen offerings.
Socially-engaged cinema requires genuine emotions and real bravery. It only works when it is a visceral and strident statement, not the result of cynical calculations and artistic prevarication.
Sources: Onet, Martin Pollack Topografia Pamięci, trans. Karolina Niedenthal, Czarne 2017. Originally written in Polish, Oct 2017; translated by MB, Jan 2018