Polish documentary filmmakers rarely saw politics as an interesting subject for their work. But when they did decide to delve into it, they were often highly critical. Here are seven powerful political documentaries by Polish filmmakers, which are definitely worth your while.
The Parade by Andrzej Fidyk, 1989
It was 1988, when Andrzej Fidyk left for North Korea to make a film about life under Kim Il-Sung’s regime on the country’s 40th anniversary. And what he ended up with was nothing like anyone has ever made before.
While most filming crews tried to escape from the strict rules of their Korean supervisors, who made sure nothing undesirable for the Party made it to the screen, Fidyk took the opposite approach. He filmed everything strictly according to the official guidelines. The Parade uses the tools of propaganda, unveiling the mechanisms that rule a totalitarian regime. Although at first, Korean officials wanted to award Fidyk a prize for his film, they refrained from doing so upon realising that the movie was, in fact, an accurate critique of their system and did not sing its praise.
Hear My Cry by Maciej Drygas, 1991
The documentary by Maciej Drygas is not only one of the best Polish political documentaries but one of the best documentaries ever made in Poland. It tells the story of Ryszard Siwiec, a clerk, who committed suicide by self-immolating on 8th September 1968 during a harvest festival at the Stadion Dziesięciolecia (10th-Anniversary Stadium) in Warsaw, as a protest against ‘tyranny and falsehood taking over the world’.
Communist officials covered up the happening but a seven-second-long piece of archival footage survived, showing the shocking ‘human torch’. Maciej Drygas used it as a starting point for a narrative about honour and the necessity to fight for ideals.
Hear My Cry is made mainly from archival footage, interviews with Ryszard Siwiec’s family as well as witnesses of the tragic event. The result is a powerfully damning portrait of communism.
But ironically, it’s not the political relevance of the film, but the dramatic storytelling which makes Hear My Cry such a powerful movie. It proves that despite the strangeness of the depicted events for contemporary viewers, the film poses universal and relevant questions.
How It’s Done by Marcel Łoziński, 2006
Together with the fall of the communist regime, Poland did not become any less ‘political’. Though Polish cinema often looks back on life in Poland under the communist regime, rather than the present, it is safe to say that artists took an interest in the realities of life in Poland after 1989.
One of the keenest observers of the new reality was Marcel Łoziński. First in Katyń Forest ( 1990), he told the story of the NKVD murder of Polish officers, later in 89 mm from Europe he showed the immense changes in the Polish mindset after breaking free from the yoke of Soviet influence. In 2011, with Tonia and Her Children, Łoziński presented the ideological choices of the post-war generation and the price that children had to pay for their parents’ political leanings.
It doesn’t come as a surprise then, that Łoziński managed to make one of the most relevant political documentaries of the past decades. How It’s Done is a story about Piotr Tymochowicz, a media advisor, on a mission to prove that anyone can become an influential politician. The movie, which he worked on over a span of 3 years, shows the ruthlessness of post-politics, populism and cheap demagogy, which has replaced working for the common good.
Destination Nowa Huta! by Andrzej Munk, 1951
Andrzej Munk’s documentaries prove that a politically engaged film can also be a work of art. One of the masters of Polish cinema took his first steps in the business in a time when cinema was forced into the rigid framework of social realism – artists were expected to praise the working class and oppose to the ideology of the imperialist West.
Destination Nowa Huta!, one of the first movies in Munk’s portfolio, is still largely influenced by the social realist guidelines. The documentary is a communal portrait of the workers of Nowa Huta – a model city built near Kraków. Andrzej Łapicki’s propagandist commentary accompanies a series of smiling labourers, who left the poor countryside to find meaning in life by becoming part of the massive socialist project, which Nowa Huta undoubtedly was. But Munk’s motion picture, faultless in form, overshadows most propaganda movies of the time. His following projects, although still in-keeping with the socialist model, were always full of dramatic precision (A Railwayman’s Word) and artistic force (Men of Blue Cross), so characteristic of Munk’s genius.
Wanda Gościminska, A Textile Worker by Wojciech Wiszniewski, 1975
This short film by Wojciech Wiszniewski, one of his best works, can be called the documentary equivalent of Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble. The documentary is based on the story of Wanda Gościmińska, a textile worker from Łódź, who through her hard work, became a symbol of success in the People’s Republic of Poland. Propaganda officials made her a symbol of the communist regime – she was visited by journalists, who praised her hard work.
But Wiszniewski’s movie doesn’t serve as an apologetic tool to justify the Party’s actions – quite the opposite. In Wiszniewski's moving film, the heroine becomes a victim of the system, trapped for years in the false image of herself and the world around her.
The movie didn’t make it through the censors when it was finished in 1975, which is no surprise. Wiszniewski died six years later in 1981, at the age of 34, from a heart attack. He never had the opportunity to see his movie on the big screen.
The Overture by Marek Piwowski, 1965
This six-minute-long documentary etude by Marek Piwowski is probably the funniest short film about Poland under the communist regime. The movie shows young army conscripts sitting in front of a medical commission to be assigned a health category and military unit. Each subsequent scene shows the absurdity of the entire situation – the medics ask the same questions over and over again, while army representatives ask the boys about their unit preferences, ultimately ignoring their answers.
Piwowski film this world with an ironic detachment, showing humorous, rather than frightening moments. But in the end, The Overture is a story of a system that treats individuals in an inhumane manner and ignores its people. The small room where the military commission deliberates becomes a miniature diorama of the People’s Republic of Poland, with all its absurdity, horror and disarming stupidity.
Mundial: The Highest Stakes by Michał Bielawski, 2012
In December 1981, after martial law was imposed by General Wojciech Jaruzelski and tanks were out on the streets in Polish cities, the Solidarity movement was outlawed and its activists arrested. At the same time, Polish soccer players were preparing for the 1982 FIFA World Cup and were close to being disqualified. Luckily, the team with Boniek, Lato, Smolarski, Żmuda and Młynarczyk, managed to make it through the Spanish qualifier. Their victory raised the spirits of the political prisoners detained at the Warsaw's Białołęka Prison.
Michał Bielawski combined two, seemingly disingenuous narratives: the World Cup as a huge sport even and the political prisoners in Warsaw, for whom the soccer game was a glimmer of hope in a dark time. The movie shows the Polish underground in a different light: one deprived of pathos and martyrdom.
Sources: filmpolski.pl, 0wn materials; originally written in Polish; translated by WF, edited by NR May 2017