Appraising the past 20 years of Polish film from a non-Polish perspective is challenging. As we arrive on the scene, as it were, in 1989, a momentous change is occurring. We experience something similar to what Véronique encounters on her trip to Poland in Krzysztof Kieślowski's "La double vie de Véronique": a vague political rumbling with plainly ominous consequences.
Appraising the past 20 years of Polish film from a non-Polish perspective is challenging. As we arrive on the scene, as it were, in 1989, a momentous change is occurring. We experience something similar to what Véronique encounters on her trip to Poland in Krzysztof Kieślowski
's La double vie de Véronique: a vague political rumbling with plainly ominous consequences.
This essay will survey international criticism of Polish cinema from 1989 to 2009. It considers almost exclusively those films which were screened at international festivals, as those films which did not travel beyond Poland's borders were seldom encountered by foreign viewers. As readers will see international critics generally hold the films in question to very high standards; the purpose here is neither to second-guess the opinions of critics nor to treat their remarks as beatification, but rather to gauge the response to the films of this period, when possible, upon their international premieres.
So we return to a moment 20 years ago: As near as we can tell from our limited perspective, the censorship and martial law of the People's Republic of Poland has collapsed and a new era is beginning, heralded by the release, seven years after its completion, of Ryszard Bugajski
's film Przesłuchanie / Interrogation
. As most readers will know, Bugajski emigrated to Canada in 1985 with a copy of his film. The Toronto Film Festival screened a video version of Przesłuchanie in 1989, giving its audiences a glimpse of what scared the Polish authorities and a glimpse of the fierce film culture under their heel. Poland's cinema of moral anxiety was largely shuttered when martial law was imposed in 1981, but Polish filmmakers still sought to awaken the public conscience.
Przesłuchanie was set in the 1950s but foreign audiences immediately recognized it as a mirror of Poland in the 1980s. Whether it was a good film at the time was entirely beside the point. Washington Post critic Rita Kempley called it a "difficult but worthwhile film [which] looks at the triumph of the individual over the cruel, all-powerful state." Its presence at the Cannes International Film Festival and subsequent festivals was less a celebration of the film itself but of Polish cinema's regained freedom, and the anticipation of what might come next.
The world hadn't long to wait. Kieślowski's Dekalog / Decalogue had been released in Poland in December 1989 after collecting honors at Venice, Sao Paulo and San Sebastian. Kieślowski was already known internationally since at least the Amator / Camera Buff, which won the Otto Dibelius Film Award in Berlin in 1980, and the one-two punch of Krótki film o miłości / A Short Film About Love and Krótki film o zabijaniu / A Short Film About Killing, which in 1988 collected prizes in San Sebastian, Sao Paulo and Cannes, respectively.
Exhibitors, theatrical distributors and festivals found Dekalog's format unwieldy. It was only released in the United States on DVD and VHS in 2000; it did receive a theatrical release in Canada in 2001. Years later, as the film was being released in home entertainment formats and in retrospective screenings at film societies, the back story of how Kieślowski wrote the scripts with Krzysztof Piesiewicz ("a lawyer he'd met in the early 1980s, during the Solidarity trials [who] didn't know how to write," Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times) had become as essential to the Dekalog story as the films themselves.
Given its origins in the Solidarity struggle and its portentous inspiration, Dekalog became a legend. International critics saw it both as rara avis and, perhaps unfairly, the standard by which they would judge Kieślowski's later films and those of Polish filmmakers in general. New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote some years after Kieślowski's death: "Among Kieślowski's films, including his celebrated Red, White and Blue trilogy, the work that towers over everything is The Decalogue. The profound pleasures [the 10 films] offer derive not only from their deft metaphysical playfulness but also from their storytelling genius."
In 1990, Cannes screened Andrzej Wajda
's film Korczak out of competition. Here was another film from an established master, opening grandly on an international stage. Again, the production was rooted in the struggle for democracy in Poland — Wajda himself said that the shooting was complicated by events during the 1989 election. And again, the story was monumental. As Stephen Engleberg wrote in the New York Times, the film "recounts the life and death of Janusz Korczak ... a Jewish teacher, doctor and writer who struggled in vain to save 200 children living in his orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto." Wajda was tapping the same vein that Stephen Spielberg would mine so effectively, and profitably, in Schindler's List years later.
The premiere at Cannes received a standing ovation, but, as Wajda himself noted, "By the next morning, the review in Le Monde had transformed me into an anti-Semite, and none of the major film distributors would agree to circulate the film outside Poland."
The root of the trouble was the film's final scene, which some French critics interpreted as an attempt to absolve Poland of complicity in the Holocaust. Daniéle Heymann's review in Le Monde first damned the film with faint praise, calling it "well made, since Wajda, the 'man of lead', is a competent craftsman," before unleashing his attack: "Whom do we see around Korczak, played with understandable pleasure by Wojtek Pszoniak? Germans (obviously brutal) and Jews, resigned or collaborating. There are no Poles. The Warsaw ghetto? This is a matter between Jews and Germans. This is what the Pole wants to convince us of."
Elisabeth de Fontenay came to Wajda's rescue in Messager Européen, decrying the director's "hastily fabricated anti-Semitic reputation," adding that Korczak "might be the first signal of a Polish-Jewish symbiosis which would be the Nazis' final defeat."Betty Jean Lifton, author of a Korczak biography The Children's King, wrote in the New York Times:
"What a shame that Wajda was unable to accomplish his original idea of making a Polish 'Doctor Zhivago', showing Korczak's pioneering work in the field of children's tribunals, children's rights, and moral education. Instead of stirring up Polish-Jewish antagonisms, we should rather be thankful for the sincere sympathy with which Wajda attempts to recreate this modern Jewish hero who died — like he lived — for his children."
Rita Kempley wrote in the Washington Post: "Stunningly photographed in black-and-white by Robby Muller and deftly scripted by Agnieszka Holland
, Korczak also serves as a richly detailed, hugely tragic document of Warsaw ghetto life. And like so many Holocaust films, it portrays the ultimate triumph of human dignity over incomprehensible barbarity."
Korczak ultimately secured distribution in France, Germany and the UK where it had the production support of Erato Films, Regina Ziegler Filmproduktion and the BBC, respectively. It was also distributed in Australia, Japan and the US. Korczak screened at the Toronto International Film Festival but earned no awards save a German Film Award in 1991 for Robby Mueller's cinematography. Ultimately the furor surrounding the film overwhelmed the film itself.
Cannes offered a more hospitable reception for Kieślowski's La Double Vie de Véronique / The Double Life of Véronique in 1991 — not surprising, perhaps, given the involvement of Canal+ in the production and predominance of French language, talent and locations in front of the camera. It won the FIPRESCI Prize and that of the ecumenical jury, as well as Best Actress for Irene Jacob.
Critics praised Jacob's performance and Sławomir Idziak
's cinematography, and nodded somewhat condescendingly at the central puzzle of Weronika/Véronique's dual existence, while conceding (one can almost hear the chin whiskers being stroked) that Kieślowski's new film was not as good as his previous work. As Matthew Leyland wrote for the BBC: "It's a ravishingly pretty piece, but it may tax viewers searching for answers that remain out of reach. ... Still, if Double Life is arguably only half as rewarding as some of Kieślowski's other films, then it remains an indelible entry in an outstanding career."
Anthony Lane wrote a lengthy review of the film in the New Yorker, reading deeply into the director's imagery and metaphysics, but by turns arrived at the film's geohistorical implications:
"[T]he very idea of the movie's transit between Western and Eastern Europe was a declaration of newly acquired liberty. There is a clue in a postmark on an envelope that Véronique inspects with a magnifying glass: "1990," it reads, the year in which the Communist Party of Poland was finally dissolved. The bodies of its citizens, as well as the souls of its singers, were henceforth free to travel where they desired. Could it be that our two, mirrored heroines were the product of a divided continent, and that, with the melting of borders, only one of them was now required?"
Here again we see the international critique of the Polish film as a product of Polish politics. Of course, the changes occurring in Poland are not extra-textural (we even glimpse them on screen). Furthermore, the Solidarity struggle and democratization were becoming part of the Polish film brand, to borrow a term from marketing. This was positive to the extent that familiarity with then-recent events in Poland helped global audiences access Polish films. The liabilities of this brand identity became apparent later when Polish directors moved on from these topics while audiences lingered.
In his Washington Post review of the film, Desson Howe invoked Dekalog ("awesome") but panned the new film:
" 'The Double Life of Véronique' doesn't stand up to rigorous scrutiny, nor does it deserve it. It operates purely on visual juxtapositions, emotion and the presence of lead actress Irene Jacob. ... Francois Truffaut reputedly once said all you need for a movie is to find a beautiful woman and let the camera run. 'Double Life' illustrates that maxim perfectly."
As with the films above, La Double Vie de Véronique also had to contend with its own back story. Caryn James noted in the New York Times that Kieślowski had originally intended to screen different versions of the film in different theaters — a challenge to which the director (and presumably editor Jacques Witta) were equal, but which would have proved prohibitive to international distributors.
In fact the version of the film which James' readers saw had a different ending from the one released in France. James, like many American critics, demonstrates a limited appetite for auteur cinema and directors who tend to let their genius show. She writes:
"If the film is frustrating to many viewers, it is partly because Mr. Kieślowski plays with the jigsaw-puzzle approach, creating too many parallels and coincidences, photographing too many mirrors and reflections in windows. The images are richly beautiful, but the director sometimes seems to be scattering clues and red herrings across two countries and two lives. ... 'Véronique' is poetic in the truest sense, relying on images that can't be turned into prosaic statements without losing something of their essence."
This is not to say that La Double Vie de Véronique was not praised. Peter Bradshaw wrote in the Guardian: "[I]t is as beautiful and mysterious as a poem and its formal elegance and conviction are unarguable." Philip French wrote in the Observer that film "marked Krzysztof Kieślowski's transition from his realistic, political movies to a mystically patterned, self-consciously poetic cinema."
The film had a strong festival career after Cannes, screening in festivals in Boston, Munich, Montreal, New York, Haugesund (Norway), Palm Springs, Telluride and Toronto. It was nominated for two César's (Best Actress and Best Music), foreign-film honors at the Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Awards and National Society of Film Critics Awards in the US. In addition to these territories, it was released in Argentina, Finland, Germany, Netherlands and Sweden in its first year.
At this time Kieślowski's stature eclipsed the rest of the Polish film universe, to the (temporary) benefit of the Polish film brand. La Double Vie de Véronique was a success for Canal+, which agreed to back the director's ambitious Three Colors trilogy. Miramax signed on as the films' world sales agent. Kieślowski hurled himself into the production, sometimes working on multiple films at once and driving himself to exhaustion.
The resulting films remain among the most emblematic of European cinema. French of the Guardian made the films No 5 in his list of Top 10 Film Trilogies — in between John Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy" and Peter Jackson's "The Lord Of The Rings". After Kieślowski's death, Lane wrote of the trilogy: "Despite the titles, these films make no effort to fly a revolutionary flag; rather, they are intimate studies of disconnection and loss, whose melancholia is forever interrupted by non sequiturs and bitty jokes." Guardian critic Derek Malcom wrote in 2000 that the Three Colors films were "brilliant" but that Kieślowski's "style became too refined, sometimes dominating the content." The refrain is common in criticism of Kieślowski's later films.
Trois couleurs: Bleu / Three Colors: Blue saw its premiere in Venice, where it won the Golden Lion. It also screened at festivals in New York, Porto (Portugal), Telluride, Toronto and Warsaw, and was released in 12 territories its first year. It received a Goya for Best European Film and nominations for the European Film Award and three Golden Globes.
Ebert noted at the time that Kieślowski was "in the opinion of some, the best active European filmmaker". Most critics did acknowledge the director's ability but were cool to the film. Lisa Nesselson wrote in Variety that Bleu "falls short of the mystical perfection that characterized The Decalogue, but boasts a riveting central performance by a carefully controlled, lovingly lit Juliette Binoche."
Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times:
"All of Mr. Kieślowski's considerable film-making talents can't bring this impossibly highfalutin composition to recognizable life. It's a 40-finger exercise for the director and his three screenwriting associates. It's full of the mystical bravado that distinguished the French portion of his 'Double Life of Véronique', and it's dead... The narrative is too precious and absurd. The interpretation it demands seems dilettantish. [...]The cinematography is bold but also a little silly; it favors curious close-ups and point-of-view shots from positions no one could ever get into except a movie director. [...] 'Blue' also represents an aridly intellectual kind of film making thought highly of in Europe."
Even Lane, one of Kieślowski's most consistent supporters, wrote that Bleu was "perplexing ... more like a sound-and-light show than a drama. It could easily have been too grand and mournful for its own good, but it's lightened, against all expectation, by a glancing comedy ... See it once, and 'Blue' will most likely annoy you so much that you'll have to see it again."
It is interesting to note that, while international critics were quick to demonstrate their support for democratization in Poland and in Polish film, they largely ignored European unification as a topic in Bleu and the subsequent films in the trilogy. Nesselson did acknowledge "Zbigniew Preisner
's music, whose thundering chords evoke memory, loss and the tenuous promise of European unity" and, like others, praised Idziak's cinematography.
After red carpets at Cannes and Venice, Kieślowski and his producers set their sights on Berlin, which saw the world premiere of Trois couleurs: Blanc / Three Colors: White in 1994. The film earned Kieślowski the Silver Bear for Best Director and, later in the year, another nomination for the European Film Award. Blanc's international distribution was unprecedented for a Polish-language film and it grossed $468,000, compared to Bleu's $539,000.
Blanc is the most Polish in the trilogy, employing more Polish talent on both sides of the camera. Edward Kłosiński
replaced Idziak as cinematographer on this installment and the difference is notable. Whether critics responded more to Kłosiński's camera work or the Polish locations is unclear, but the film renewed interested among some who had dismissed Bleu.
"Anyone who has seen the austere, pretentious 'Blue' ... will scarcely believe that the witty, deadpan 'White' was made by the same man," James wrote in the New York Times and, unable to resist temptation, added: "Though 'Blue' was widely praised by some critics when it opened last year, its minimalist manner and laughably serious tone played like a parody of a film by a Major European Director."
Nesselson echoed James in Variety. "Those put off by the glossy aesthetics of 'Blue' will find 'White' a fairly straightforward black comedy that skirts pretentiousness and goes easy on the symbolism while retaining Kieślowski's eerie gift for spinning mystical narrative gold from the simplest of ingredients," she wrote, adding support for the director's notional return to Poland: "Fans of Kieślowski's earlier work will be delighted to find him back at work in his native language, with the cream of Polish [actors] peopling bit parts."
Hal Hinson praised Kieślowski's earlier work in his Washington Post review, calling him "arguably the most gifted filmmaker working in Europe." In Blanc, Hinson wrote, the director "is more realistic, and his style more prosaic, but the results are no less inscrutable — and no less engaging."
Howe changes tack on Kieślowski in his review of Blanc, calling it "continuing testament to the Polish director's poetic mastery. ... 'White' articulates a whole language of sensations, images, ironies and mystery — often with a minimum of dialogue."
Detractors included Terrence Rafferty, who wrote in the New Yorker:
"Mysteriously, this great filmmaker lacks the mundane skills to keep us interested in a story that has no real spiritual dimension: the characters are monotonous, the storytelling isn't clear, and the images look flat, merely functional. In this picture Kieślowski isn't searching for immanence: everything has only its face value, and you feel as if a light had gone out in the world."
James and other critics responded favorably to rather different side of European unification presented in Blanc. Whereas the Europe of Bleu is one of grandeur, romance and hope emerging from tragedy, the Europe of Blanc is a shoddy, greedy and pimped by capitalist thugs — which Kieślowski uses to good humorous effect. Karol's brother installs a gaudy neon sign above his homespun hair salon, explaining "This is Europe now." When Karol buys a farmer's home for a meager sum, the peasant is unmoved by the prospects of buying new things with the money, but likes the idea of burying the money in a jar in the ground.
Critics found it difficult to view Trois couleurs: Rouge / Three Colors: Red as anything other than a triumphant climax. The film alone gave them ample reason, but most are mindful in their critiques of Kieślowski's vow to retire. It also inspired many to rhapsodize as Ebert did in the Chicago Sun-Times: "This is the kind of film that makes you feel intensely alive while you're watching it, and sends you out into the streets afterwards eager to talk deeply and urgently, to the person you are with."
The film's festival career began at Cannes in 1994 and included screenings in Locarno, London, New York, San Sebastian, and Toronto, among others. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, four BAFTAs, the European Film Award and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film. Rouge was released in 14 territories in its first year and grossed $858,000 worldwide.
It is difficult today to read reviews of Rouge, or indeed of the entire trilogy, and not think of eulogies. Nesselson described Rouge as "beautifully spun and splendidly acted ... [Irene Jacob] is photogenic under any circumstances, but she has never been so radiant as in her work with Kieślowski. ... Denouement and final image are a satisfying grace note both to this film and the entire trilogy."
" 'Red' succeeds so stirringly that it also bestows some much-needed magic upon its predecessors, 'Blue' and 'White'. The first film's chic emptiness and the second's relative drabness are suddenly made much rosier by the seductive glow of 'Red'," Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, continuing:
"The greatest virtue of 'Red' is its profound sense of purpose. At last, making the whole trilogy transcend the sum of its parts, Mr. Kieślowski abandons the merely cryptic in favor of real consequence. ... In addition to being the best-acted of these three films, 'Red' is the one that weaves the most enveloping web. Working more assuredly and less arbitrarily than he did at the series' start, Mr. Kieślowski plays deftly with the crossed wires that either connect or separate his principals in mysterious ways."
Lane called Rouge the "best film in the trilogy" and seemed reluctant to acknowledge the shortcomings he finds. "The movie itself shades from coldness and contrivance into a story as touching and mysterious as anything Kieslowski has ever made," he wrote. "At the end, Kieślowski, too, assumes the mantle of Prospero, magically (and rather absurdly) assembling the trilogy's main players, and it's hard to begrudge the master his final flourish."
Kieślowski's retirement (and subsequent death) deprived Polish cinema not only of a leading light but also of an international ambassador. Wajda was known, but lacked the star-power Kieślowski had acquired from so many appearances at so many leading festivals. Roman Polański
was regarded more as the Hollywood director of Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby than as the Polish renegade who directed Nóż w wodzie / Knife in the Water; in any event his legal troubles in the United States gave him a rather different renown.
Kieślowski's absence presented an opportunity, however, for other talents to emerge, and not a few women directors among them. Barbara Sass had been directing films since 1955 but did not appear in competition in an international festival until 1996, when Pokuszenie / Temptation screened in Karlovy Vary. It is worth noting that a new organizational team, led by artistic director Eva Zaoralova, took over the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 1994 and began turning the event into a prestigious showcase of films from Central and Eastern Europe.
Pokuszenie received three awards at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia in 1995. Upon its international premiere in Karlovy Vary the following summer, it received the FIPRESCI award. Derek Elley reviewed the film there for Variety, calling it "a talky but involving drama that boasts top-notch playing and an intelligent script."
Without going so far as to identifyPokuszenie with feminism or women's cinema, Sass' film does touch on issues of equality and exploitation as seen in other female directors (e.g. Margarethe von Trotta [with Volker Schlöndorff], "Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum"; Jane Campion, "An Angel at My Table" and "The Piano"; Julie Dash, "Daughters Of The Dust"; Sally Potter, "Orlando"). Pokuszenie also echoed Bugajski's Przesłuchanie in its depiction of Poland's police state.
Pokuszenie went on to the Montreal World Film Festival, Vancouver International Film Festival, AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival, Palm Springs International Film Festival, and San Francisco International Film Festival. It did not, however, secure an international sales agent or theatrical distribution outside Poland.
In 1998, Dorota Kędzierzawska
released Nic / Nothing. Whereas Pokuszenie dealt with subjugation of the will and mind under totalitarianism, Nic was an intimate portrait in which a woman's body is the battlefield. As such, it moved Polish cinema in a new direction.
Nothing was Kędzierzawska's third feature but her first to tour the festival circuit. Just days after its international premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Nic went to the United States, where it opened the Cinema Seattle/Women in Cinema Film Festival. The film went on to screen in festivals in Brussels, Chicago, Denver, Karlovy Vary, Seattle and Sochi, among others. At the Seattle International Film Festival, Kędzierzawska was programmed in a sidebar of Emerging Masters alongside Francois Ozon, Tom Tykwer and Michael Winterbottom.
Eddie Cockrell reviewed the film for Variety, calling it "stunningly photographed and thematically provocative." Kędzierzawska, he wrote, "brings a distinctive eye and precise feel for the delicate interplay between the light world of youngsters and the dark forces of adulthood ... . Kędzierzawska captures extraordinarily intimate and unguarded moments of childhood mischief that suggest a filmmaker possessed of patience, compassion and luck in equal measure."
Kędzierzawska was the subject of a lengthy profile in the Guardian which, combined with her film's festival tour, helped ensure international attention would be paid to her subsequent work.
In 1999, Polish cinema saw its first so-called "event film" with the release of Pan Tadeusz. Wajda had directed four films since Korczak, including Wielki tydzień / The Holy Week, 1995) which screened in competition at Berlin and at Copenhagen and Toronto but left little impression on critics. Pan Tadeusz seemed destined to rouse popular attention, starting from its source material, a 19th-century epic poem by Polish-Lithuanian author Adam Mickiewicz. Indeed, the film saw more than 10 million admissions in Poland and received a private screening at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II.
The producers were plainly motivated more by awards season than by any festival honors. Pan Tadeusz saw its world premiere at the Warsaw International Film Festival and was screened publicly in Lithuania, Canada and the US before being shown to audiences at the Berlinale. It was named Poland's submission to the race for Best Foreign Language Film at the 72nd Academy Awards.
Ultimately Pan Tadeusz failed to make the Oscar short list. The American Academy nonetheless presented Wajda with an honorary statuette "in recognition of five decades of extraordinary film direction."
Despite its impressive scale and the contributions of such Polish masters as cinematographer Paweł Edelman
, production designer Allan Starski and composer Wojciech Kilar
, international critics felt let down by the final result.
Lawrence Van Gelder wrote in the New York Times that the film needed "sterner editing": "A long narrative that achieves painterly beauty and grand spectacle, 'Pan Tadeusz' regrettably remains incapable of rousing passion for either its characters or the cause of Polish freedom... 'Pan Tadeusz' has sufficient tinder to light a roaring fire, but the essential spark is never ignited."
Elliott Stein called Wajda an "erratic talent" in the Village Voice and called the new film "one of his lesser works. It becomes a lumpy mélange of revenge melodrama, low comedy, and pale romance; far too much time is taken up by the dull humor of village dolts. Wajda completists will not want to miss it, but 'Tadeusz' is unlikely to make any converts."
David Stratton in Variety described the film as "lavishly staged" but suggested Le Studio Canal Plus would have a difficult time marketing the film to international audiences unfamiliar with the source material. He criticizes the writers' decision to render the dialogue in rhyming couplets: "For Poles, this works wonderfully well; but for the rest of the world, forced to read subtitles that make no attempt to rhyme or even to retain the poetic format, the film looks overwritten and talky."
The film afforded the world another opportunity to try to fix Polish identity on the map. International coverage of Pan Tadeusz cast the film as an eloquent demonstration of Polish patriotism — and Wajda as an eloquent patriot. Kate Connolly of the Guardian called it "elegant" and "the perfect storyboard for a film, including threads of crime, passion, betrayal, jealousy and war." Wajda's statements in Connolly's story are suitably oracular:
"It's a great story that focuses on our national characteristics ... The Poles in 'Pan Tadeusz' are the same as we are now: sometimes wise, sometimes stupid. It's basically a picture of how we are now and allows us to look at ourselves and see who we are and where we're going."
Kevin Thomas also invoked Wajda in a lengthy profile in the Los Angeles Times: "Always one to look ahead, not backward, Wajda is reluctant to sum up his career and his accomplishments. 'A real director is worth only as much as his latest film, and every latest film may be his last,' he said ..."
In the excitement surrounding Pan Tadeusz, much of the international media overlooked the release of Dług / The Debt, the fourth film from writer-director Krzysztof Krauze
. Dług screened in the Panorama section at Berlin in 2000, where audiences were curious to see a Polish director exploring genre filmmaking.
Cockrell wrote, "taking full advantage of the cautionary socioeconomic moral inherent in the true story on which this cool, deliberate thriller is based, 'The Debt' has contempo[rary] cultural resonance beyond its genre roots."
The film's novelty (Cockrell called it 'something less arty') carried it to the Philadelphia Film Festival, where Krauze won the jury award for Best Director. Dług also screened in Toronto and in Bergen, Norway. It also inaugurated Krauze's partnership with Canal+ Polska, which would help promote his work internationally in the future.
With the dawn of the new century, Polish cinema had achieved a healthy diversity. Period pictures Pan Tadeusz and Jerzy Hoffman's epic Ogniem i mieczem combined garnered 60% of all Polish admissions in their first year. Spielberg's Schindler's List, which used Polish locations and Polish crews, also inspired local filmmakers to think big. At the same time, some filmmakers were trying to tell realistic stories from contemporary society — films that might not earn much at the box office but could advance the state of the art. These films, combined with comedies and other audience films, ensured a healthy demand for Polish product. Jerzy Kawalerowicz
's 2001 film Quo Vadis followed the event-film model, with its producers drawing attention to its unprecedented £7.5 million budget and staging the film's world premiere at the Vatican.
"We thought from the very beginning that if we had a chance we would show this film to the Pope," Jurek Jednorowski, chairman of distributor Syrena Films, told Screen International. "This is not just a film, this is a Polish national project. The Pope has taken an interest in the film almost from the beginning."
When Kawalerowicz died in 2007, Ronald Bergan wrote the director's obituary in the Guardian, calling his Quo Vadis "the fifth and best screen adaptation" of Henryk Sienkiewicz
's 19th-century novel of Rome under Nero. "Kawalerowicz had dreamed of directing it for 35 years because he felt that previous versions had not done sufficient justice to the style and content of the book. With a budget of the highest ever for a Polish film, he was eventually given the chance to render the epic Christian tale faithfully."
Bergan's eulogy was at odds with Kevin Thomas' review in the Los Angeles Times, which suggested Sienkiewicz's story had received better treatment in the silent-film era and pondered why swords-and-sandals director Cecil B. DeMille did not make his own version. "Kawalerowicz directs with briskness and vigor but cannot keep the first half of his film from slipping into tedium," he wrote.
Quo Vadis had a short festival career, screening at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2002 before going on to Febiofest in the Czech Republic, Mar del Plata in Argentina, and the Moscow International Film Festival in Russia.
If Quo Vadis was the Polish event film of 2001, the art film of the year was Robert Gliński
's Cześć Tereska / Hi, Tereska
. The film saw its world premiere at Karlovy Vary, where it won the Don Quijote Award and FIPRESCI and Special Jury Prizes. It screened in Toronto and at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival later that year, as well at the Denver Film Festival, where it won the Krzysztof Kieślowski Award for Best Feature Film. The following year, it won the Golden Lily at Wiesbaden goEast and the Silver Dolphin for Best Director at the Troia International Film Festival.
Matthew Tempest and Alex King wrote in the Guardian: " 'Hi, Tereska' is a very bleak and disturbing rites-of-passage drama set in anonymous, suburban Poland and shot in stark monochrome. It boasts a striking central performance from Aleksandra Gietner in a cast largely made up of non-professionals, all of whom are extremely effective."
Cockrell compared the film to the Dardenne brothers' Palme d'Or winner Rosetta and called it "a tough but rewarding experience". "Gliński and co-writer Jacek Wyszomirski clearly understand this world and are just as pessimistic for the future of those unable to escape it," he wrote in Variety.
Anna Franklin wrote in Screen International: "A spare, economic telling of the tale without sentimentality or sensationalism makes the film a bleak and insightful vision of the generation growing up in the ugly, communist era high rises around Poland's large cities without religion or ideology to believe in."
Plainly Cześć Tereska had charmed the international arbiters, who endorsed Gliński's grim vision of modern Poland while largely dismissing Kawalerowicz's Quo Vadis as anachronistic spectacle. But observers of Polish cinema had reason to be hopeful: scarcely a decade after the collapse of martial law, Polish cinema was diverse and prolific. The challenge now was to sustain a climate in filmmakers could work for both art and commerce.
Reasonable people can argue against including The Pianist in a review of Polish films. Polański had directed 15 films since he had last worked in Poland, on Nóż w wodzie
. The majority of the funding came from France and Germany. The principal actors were not Polish and film language was English.
The counter argument runs that Polański
was raised in Cracow and began his film career in Poland. We can no more deny him of his Polish identity than we can of the millions of other Polish emigrants worldwide. Polański may have established himself as a Hollywood figure with Chinatown, Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, but this hardly disqualifies him from returning to his roots. The Pianist may bear the influence of Hollywood, but then so does Quo Vadis, as we have already seen.
Let us then acknowledge that while The Pianist, like Kieślowski's later works, certainly contains foreign elements, it is also the combined effort of many Polish film professionals, not least among them the director, whose own experience with the Holocaust parallels that of the film's main character. Receiving his Palm d'Or in Cannes, Polański said, "I'm honoured and moved to accept this prize for a film that represents Poland."
As with Korczak, controversy dogged The Pianist from the moment of its world premiere. Stuart Jeffries, who covered the Cannes festival for the Guardian, reported accusations that the jury had given Polański the Palm d'Or as a placatory gesture. Some Jewish groups had called for a boycott of the festival in Cannes, where the right-wing National Front had considerable popular support. "The film was not favoured for the top prize by critics. It was not considered to have the high degree of artistic creativity of some of his early great movies," he wrote.
As David Thompson would later write in Sight & Sound: "Winning the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival apparently did Roman Polański few favours. Many critics dismissed 'The Pianist' as a conventional exercise in Holocaust horror, displaying little of the Polish director's expected flair for the macabre and absurd."
Bradshaw praised Edelman's cinematography and Starski's production design in his review in the Guardian. "It is unwatchably harrowing. And the images of devastation are positively retina-scorching," he wrote. " 'The Pianist' is a weighty and moving film. A genuine achievement."
The film moved critics to reach for new adjectives and metaphors. A.O. Scott's review in the New York Times called the film "a tour de force of claustrophobia and surreal desperation," but was mixed. Like others, Scott felt The Pianist was an exception for the director. "This is certainly the best work Mr. Polański has done in many years (which, unfortunately, is not saying a lot), and it is also one of the very few nondocumentary movies about Jewish life and death under the Nazis that can be called definitive (which is saying a lot)."
The film drew inevitable, often unfavourable, comparisons to Schindler's List, which also filmed in Poland; Spielberg had approached Polański, among others, to direct the film. Starski lent his considerable talent to both films.
Reviewing the film for the New Yorker, David Denby wrote:
"['The Pianist'] is not a work of great originality or imagination. Its protagonist lacks depth, and the theme of survival through hiding is, by its very nature, redundant. ... Yet Polański offers a superbly confident and poised depiction of the stages of destruction and the anomaly of escape ... This is a big movie made utterly without strain, large-scaled when it needs to be, intimate when intimacy is called for."
Generally The Pianist was a critical success — "a work of sustained tension and ferocious clarity, and as near-perfect a marriage of subject and artist as could be imagined," Thompson wrote. It screened in festivals worldwide and was released theatrically in more than 40 territories. In the US, it grossed nearly $33m.
The Pianist ultimately won Oscars for Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay; the BAFTA for Best Film; and earned Edelman the European Film Award for Best Cinematography. It also won 8 Eagles at the Polish Film Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
On the heels of the warm, Polish reception for The Pianist, Polański appeared before the camera in Wajda's 2002 release, Zemsta / Revenge. The film went to the Cannes Marche du Film but for the most part found few takers among festival programmers.
Pre-release publicity made much of the collaboration between Wajda and Polański. After the premiere, most critics thought best to give the film a wide berth rather than smear Wajda's name. Edward Guthman of the San Francisco Chronicle took the alternate route to praise, writing: "It's Polański's show, clear and simple. On the heels of his well-deserved Oscar for 'The Pianist', it's a treat to see this terrific artist reveal another, unexpected dimension of his talent."Agnieszka Holland
had better luck getting her 2002 film into festivals. The film was sold worldwide by Overseas Filmgroup, which acquired Julie Walking Home while it was still in production, mindful of Holland's past collaboration with both Kieślowski and Wajda. The film premiered at Venice and went on to Toronto before screening in Warsaw. The film's world tour continued the next year with Palm Springs, Moscow and Hamburg, to name a few.
Writing in Variety, however, Deborah Young called Julie Walking Home "a popularized version of a Krzysztof Kieślowski film" and a "mixed bag". "The disappointing thing is that 'Julie' first hints at mysteries lying below life's surface, then fails completely to come to grips with them, preferring to follow the heroine's personal and far less interesting drama," she wrote.
Young likewise had little sympathy that year for Zmruż oczy / Squint Your Eyes
, the debut feature from Andrzej Jakimowski
. " 'Squint Your Eyes' is so laid back it will pass for dull with most audiences," Young wrote. "Jakimowski's whimsy sometimes slips into the merely silly, he shows a talent for wedding gentle humor to confident camerawork."
Zmruż oczy premiered at the International Filmfest Mannheim-Heidelberg in 2002, where the FIPRESCI jury awarded it a Special Mention "for a promising debut, presenting a variety of well observed characters in a poetic yet realistic setting."
The film had a respectable festival tour, competing at Tribeca and winning the Grand Prix at the International Young European Cinema Festival in Torun 2003 and in 2004 winning the SKYY Prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Golden Rose at the Sochi International Film Festival 2004.
It should be noted that throughout the past 20 years, Polish filmmakers have found work abroad. At the time. Among them, director Greg Zglinski, cinematographer Witold Płóciennik, composer Mariusz Ziemba and editor Urszula Lesiak all signed on to the Swiss-majority co-production Tout un hiver sans feu,which won the Signis Prize and CinemAvvenire Prize in Venice in 2004. Cinematographer Bogumił Godfrejow
was nominated for the European Camera Award in 2003 for his work on German-French co-production Lichter.
Four years after his Berlinale title Dług, Krauze returned with a very different film. Mój Nikifor / My Nikifor created considerable stir owing to the outstanding lead performance by Krystyna Feldman
as artist Nikifor Krynicki
. In 2005, Feldman won Best Actress awards at Karlovy Vary, where the film also won the Grand Prix and Best Director, and at the Chicago, Cinemanila and Valladolid international film festivals, to add to the prize she won the previous autumn in Gdynia. Other international appearances included festivals in Reykjavik, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Palm Springs and Seattle.
Reviews of Mój Nikifor were generally reserved. Guardian critic Xan Brooks called the film "unassuming" while French at the Observer opted for "intriguing", both men praising Feldman's performance. Duane Berg of the Hollywood Reporter wrote, " 'My Nikifor' is a study in compassion and artistic compulsion," calling the film a "spare, spectacular story."Krzysztof Zanussi
returned to Venice in 2005 with Persona Non Grata, 21 years after he won the Golden Lion there with Rok spokojnego słońca / A Year of the Quiet Sun. The director had been largely absent from the international scene in the interim years; Życie jako śmiertelna choroba przenoszona drogą płciową / Life As a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease had won the Golden St. George in Moscow in 2000, and Suplement / The Supplement had competed at Moscow and Bangkok in 2002 and 2003, respectively, but Zanussi's 13 other films in the meanwhile had not found berths in major international film festivals.
Zanussi's reputation as a friend and collaborator of Kieślowski's goes some way to explaining his grip on international critics, who tend to handle his work with kid gloves. In her Venice review for Variety, Young called Zanussi's script "beautifully balanced", adding " 'Persona Non Grata' may not be cutting-edge cinema, but such a well-crafted example of classic, old-school filmmaking has its own appeal."
Fainaru praised Edward Kłosiński
's cinematography and Kilar's soundtrack in Screen International, but was critical of the director:
"Zanussi makes films for mature, specialised audiences, interested in human nature and ethical standards rather than in plots, heroes and villains. If this dooms him to a small, appreciative cinema-going crowd and to selective festivals (like his competition slot in Venice), then so be it. He has never appeared to be bothered by the fact before, and 'Persona Non Grata' gives no indication that he has any intention of changing."
Kędzierzawska also returned to the festival circuit in 2005, with the child-centered drama Jestem / I Am. That the film saw its world premiere in Toronto, even before the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia, suggests that the producers believed they had an exportable film. Indeed, Jestem went on to screen at festivals in New York and Seattle and earned a Special Mention in the Kinderfilmfest/14plus at the 2006 Berlinale.
Writing in Variety, Leslie Felperin called the film "outstandingly good" and "near perfectly made". In particular she credited the director for her work with her child actors: "[Kędzierzawska] manages to coax nuanced [performances] from the younger cast, by keeping their dialogue to a minimum and concentrating on their expressive faces."
New York Times critic Holden likewise praised the children's performances but criticized the film as "too studiedly artistic for its own good", reserving special scorn for what he calls the "ponderous, romantic, minimalist score by the British composer Michael Nyman." The Village Voice also disliked Nyman's score and took issue with Artur Reinhart's "swooningly lovely autumnal cinematography", adding, "Childhood suffering shot like a Hallmark card is difficult to take seriously."
Ironically, Nyman's soundtrack for Jestem won Best Score at the Polish Film Festival. Reinhart's work on the film earned him Best Cinematography in Gdynia and at the Polish Film Awards in 2005.
Krauze sought to repeat his success on Mój Nikifor in 2006 with Plac Zbawiciela / Saviours Square
, which he co-directed with his wife, Joanna Kos-Krauze. The film had a promising start in Gdynia, where it left the audience at the premiere in awed silence and won both the Golden Lion and the Critics Award.
The international premiere came the following summer in Karlovy Vary, where it left little impression. Cockrell wrote that Plac Zbawiciela owed a debt to Dług and that the film's "unrelenting emotional energy drags the story into a melodramatic pit." Plac Zbawiciela nonetheless went on to win top prizes at the Trieste Film Festival and the Valladolid International Film Festival and screened in Palm Springs, London and Chicago.
In 2006, Polish film returned to Cannes competition for the first time since The Pianist with Sławomir Fabicki's feature debut, Z odzysku / Retrieval, screening in Un Certain Regard; the Ecumenical Jury awarded Special Mention to the drama, about an honest young man dragged into the criminal underworld. The film screened in Toronto, collected Best Director in Thessaloniki, Audience and FIPRESCI awards in Bratislava, and Best Foreign Language Film in Palm Springs. It became Poland's submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Hollywood Reporter praised the technical credits of Z odzysku: "The film's depiction of the harsh, coarse world of 'modern' Poland is gut-wrenchingly sketched. Wojciech Zogata's spare and squalid production design shows us the brutality of everyday life." Felperin wrote in Variety, "what the film lacks in originality, it makes up for in its screenplay, technical credits and Antoni Pawlicki's lead performance."
Felperin's note of the lack of originality in Fabicki's film was echoed a year later by her colleague Alissa Simon in Karlovy Vary, where she reviewed Marek Stacharski's Przebacz / Facing Up, also a tale of urban gang culture in contemporary Poland: "Debuting writer-director Marek Stacharski brings nothing new to a familiar tale that's been seen often and told better."
The point here is not to emphasize the negative criticism, but to point out a converging trend toward genre —in this case, urban drama — among Polish directors. Add to this the broken families of Jestem and Plac Zbawiciela and increasingly the image of Poland presented to international film audiences becomes one of a dysfunctional, materialistic society.
The broken family reappears in two films released to international acclaim in 2007: Jakimowski's Sztuczki / Tricks
and Kędzierzawska's Pora Umierać / Time to Die. The latter film screened in Toronto and with distinction in Edinburgh and Triest, not to mention the numerous awards it collected in Gdynia.
Simon wrote in Variety, "Chief among the [film's] many visual pleasures is [Danuta] Szaflarska's remarkable perf[ormance]." Neil Young also praised Szaflarska
's performance in the Hollywood Reporter and both reviews singled out the talents of the dog.
Sztuczki had no dog, although the film's pigeons certainly performed admirably. Simon called Sztuczki a "realistic yet poetic gem," praising the performances of its non-professional lead actors for giving the film "a poignant authenticity, spontaneity and uniqueness." The film topped film historian Peter Hames' list of Films of the Year 2007 in Sight & Sound, where he wrote, "Beautifully made, it reveals a director who genuinely 'thinks' in film, making films that evoke what he describes as 'a cinema that has disappeared.' "
Ali Catterall of Channel 4 Film also picked up on Jakimowski's influences, writing on the Channel 4 web site that his second film "already feels like the work of a more seasoned director."
"Indebted to both neo-realist Italian cinema and a gently spellbinding magic realism, 'Tricks' richly succeeds in portraying life from an imaginative child's perspective, in which the most ordinary of objects and places take on an enchanted significance; Fredric Jameson's 'poetic transformation of the object world'. The importance of local community, and the role it plays in shaping affairs, is often central to the magic realist tradition, and here, Adam Bajerski's lush, golden-hued photography brings Stefan and Elkas's otherwise dingy, working-class mining town to vivid life, with its diverse population of street-sellers, village "sluts" and bird fanciers."
Sztuczki had its world premiere at Venice, where it won the Europa Cinemas Award. It won Special Jury Awards in Sao Paulo and Mannheim-Heidelberg, a Grand Jury Prize at the Miami International Festival, Best Actor for Damian Ul at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and the FIPRESCI Award in Bratislava.
That Sztuczki and Pora Umierać both received due consideration is testament to the international appetite for Polish film. That appetite appeared to build in 2008 with the international premieres of Polish films in Berlin, Cannes, Locarno and Rome.
Wajda's Katyń was inevitably going to be important to international film watchers, given its subject matter — the massacre of 15,000 prisoners of war during World War II. In 2008 it screened, out of competition, at Berlin, Tribeca, Karlovy Vary, Sao Paulo, Locarno and Venice.
Even before its release, the film was approached with reverence, especially given that Wajda's own father was among those killed in Katyń. The back story was well-reported and audiences aware of how communist authorities manipulated history, insisting for decades that the massacre was the work of the Nazis, not the Soviets. Wajda's honorary Golden Bear at Berlin in 2006 further whetted appetites. The director gave interviews to the Hollywood Reporter, Screen International and Variety.
It was widely reported that Gdynia audiences gave Katyń a "silent ovation" at its premiere, and that the Polish minister for defense publicly considered making the film mandatory viewing for all members of Poland's armed forces.
International response was predictably supportive. Lee Marshall wrote in Screen International, " 'Katyń' is not so much a film as a collective national ritual — at once defiant J'accuse, proud statement of identity, and trauma-healing funeral ceremony." New York Times critic Scott wrote that the film possessed "a stately, deliberate quality that insulates it against sentimentality and makes it all the more devastating."
Reviews often revealed that their authors had been expecting a more linear treatment of historical events, while quickly acknowledging that Wajda had done well to approach the massacre from multiple angles, creating several story lines which intersect at the horrific scene of the mass murder itself. As Lane wrote in the New Yorker, "['Katyń'] crafts a wreath of stories around the event; some non-Polish viewers have found the result hard to follow, but the broken narrative feels appropriate."
The genuflecting of most reviews effectively turned the film's weaknesses into its strengths, while the likely truth is that Wajda's heroic efforts might have been better served by a mini-series which could have given the film's many stories greater attention.
Katyń won the European Film Award in 2008 and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It received the People's Choice Award for Best Feature at Denver and the Audience Award at the Ljubljana International Film Festival. Jerzy Skolimowski
's Cztery noce z Anną / Four Nights with Anna
opened the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2008. Skolimowski had abandoned directing after Ferdyduke, which screened in competition at Venice in 1991, so Cztery noce z Anną was welcomed as the return of an auteur.
World sales agent Elle Driver picked up international sales on the film. After Cannes, Cztery noce z Anną screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, the New York Polish Film Festival, the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Sydney Film Festival. It was selected for the European Film Awards.
Peter Brunette wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that "the film is an exercise in tedium marked by only the tiniest of redeeming moments," while Variety critic Elley called it "a highwire act in maintaining dramatic momentum." Screen International's review landed somewhere between the two chairs, calling the film "well-shot and resonant with allegory" but adding, self consciously, that "respect [for the director], rather than enthusiasm, will dominate reactions."
Another international success of 2008 was Małgorzata Szumowska
's drama 33 Sceny z życia / 33 Scenes from Life
. Trust Film Sales of Denmark signed on to handle international sales while the film was still in production. The film saw its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award. It was selected for the 2009 European Film Awards, opened the 7th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in London and also screened in festivals in Toronto, Warsaw, Trieste and Seattle.
33 Sceny z życia succeeds thanks in no small part to German actress Julia Jentsch's lead performance and the seamless dubbing which creates the illusion that Jentsch is speaking Polish with the rest of the cast. The authenticity of the story is informed by Szumowska's own experience; her own parents died within a year of each other. Writing in Variety, Jay Weissberg noted that the film "impresses on several levels, but tends to treat well-established absurdist elements as if they're new discoveries, and is at times overly voyeuristic."
Zanussi's Serce na dłoni / A Warm Heart screened in competition at the Rome International Film Festival after premiering at the Polish Film Festival. Gdynia audiences responded enthusiastically, their excitement fueled perhaps by a media campaign highlighting pop star Dorota Rabczewska's role in the film, which proved to be more or less a cameo.
In Rome, Bohdan Stupka was named Best Actor, but otherwise the film largely failed to impress. "Zanussi's latest is a surprisingly simplistic morality tale that offers few laughs and even less involving drama," Boyd van Hoeij wrote in Variety. By and large the film confirmed suspicions that Zanussi had settled comfortably into his laurels.
Wajda returned to the Berlinale competition in 2009 with Tatarak / Sweet Rush. The film won the Alfred Bauer Award there, and the producers signed a deal with Les Films Du Losange to handle world sales.
Critics praised Krystyna Janda
's performance and Edelman's camera work, but were generally confounded by unwieldy combination of plot elements. " 'Sweet Rush' is worth pondering, but the emotional elements largely slip through the master's fingers," Weissberg wrote in Variety. Fainaru wrote in Screen International:
"The story works fine as a short story but there's not enough material for a feature. It's also confusingly told and the progress of the relationship between the wife and the young man is unconvincingly drawn. Nothing in it, neither the melodramatic way it is shot nor the overwrought way it is performed, comes close to matching the quiet power of Janda's monologue which begins the film."
Tatarak was also selected for the European Film Awards. A short list of nominees was due to be announced in November with awards in December.
In the survey above we have considered primarily the works of Polish directors. Due consideration must be given also to other film professionals who have contributed to these successful films and whose work abroad has further promoted awareness of Polish filmmaking.
We have already noted cinematographer Godfrejow in connection with his work on Hans-Christian Schmid's Lichter. Godfrejow also worked with Schmid on the German director's successful Requiem (2006), which won awards in Berlin and Chicago, was nominated for the European Film Award, and won five German Film Awards. Godfrejow shot Armagan Ballantyne's Rotterdam competition title Die Magie des Wassers, which also screened in Berlin, Seattle and Bangkok. Godfrejow and Schmid collaborated again on Sturm (2009), which screened in competition in Berlin and Munich.
Holland is well established as a filmmaker in Poland and abroad, where her upcoming titles Christine: War My Love, Hidden and Peter and Catherine are highly anticipated. Indeed, she often appears to be the hardest working woman in European cinema. She is also successful in American television, directing episodes of award-winning crime thrillers Cold Case (CBS) and The Wire (HBO).
Production designer Waldemar Kalinowski is another Polish filmmaker who has made a name for himself abroad, working on such films as Mike Figgis' Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas, Ed Harris' Appaloosa, and CBS movie The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.
Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński
is a long-time collaborator with Spielberg, having won Oscars and other awards for Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List, and Oscar nominations for his work Amistad and on Julian Schnabel's Le scaphandre et le papillon. Kamiński recently re-established his connection to his homeland, returning to Poland to direct and shoot Hania (2007).
Composer Zbigniew Preisner
's achievements include not only award-winning scores for Kieślowski's La double vie de Véronique, Bleu and Rouge. He has also written soundtracks for Louis Malle's Damage, Agnieszka Holland's The Secret Garden, Max Färberböck's Eine Frau in Berlin and Kar Wai Wong's 2046.
Costume designer Anna Sheppard is internationally recognized as a leading talent in her field, with numerous nominations for her work on The Pianist and Schindler's List. She has contributed to such major international films as Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, Peter Webber's Hannibal Rising, and Polański's Oliver Twist.
Production designer Starski worked with Wajda on Człowiek z marmuru
, Panny z Wilka, Człowiek z żelaza and other films, but is best known internationally for his work on Schindler's List, for which he won an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. His other international credits include The Pianist, "Oliver Twist"" and "Hannibal Rising".
In considering the international achievements of Polish film in the past 20 years, one should also note Polish filmmakers' achievements in the area of short films. To name just a few:
- Diabeł (2005, dir. Tomasz Szafrański) earned a Special Jury Recognition at the SlamdanceFilm Festival.
- Holiday (2005, dir. Marcel Sawicki) screened at festivals in Austin, Rome, Sao Paulo and Seattle.
- Madame Tutli-Putli (2007, dir. Maciek Szczerbowski and Chris Lavis) was named Best Short Film at Cannes, was nominated for an Oscar, and received numerous other international awards.
- The Loneliness of the Short-Order Cook (2008, dir. Marcel Sawicki) screened at Cannes and at the Chile International Short Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Fiction.
In considering Polish film achievements in recent years, credit is due to the Polish Film Institute (PISF), created in 2005 by the Act on Cinematography to s support the development, production, promotion and distribution of Polish films. The PISF administers an annual budget of more than PLN 100m, of which 60% is earmarked for production.
This is a considerable boon for Polish filmmakers and allows them to work with significant budgets. Wajda's Katyń, for example, received PLN 6m in production support for Katyń - nearly half the film's budget; Tatarak received PLN 2.6m, about a third of the budget. Szumowska's 33 sceny z życia receive PLN 1.8m, also roughly a third of the budget. Jakimowski's Sztuczki received almost PLN 1.5m, more than half its budget. These examples alone suggest PISF funding is a worthwhile investment.
PISF funding also helps attract international co-productions to Poland, where they spend money on Polish film services and employ Polish film professionals. Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching, Ken Loach's It's A Free World, David Lynch's Inland Empire, Sergei Dvortsevoy's Tulpan, Petr Zelenka's Karamazovi, Michael Glawogger's Contact High and Marleen Gorris' Within the Whirlwind all accessed PISF support.
PISF has also been instrumental in developing the Polish-German Co-Development Fund with Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and Mitteldeutsche Medienfoerderung, which enables Polish and German co-producers to start cooperation on a project in the development stage. Poland also has eight regional film funds to support film production around the country.
But perhaps the greatest credit for the enduring strength and quality of Polish films goes to the Polish people themselves. Since European unification, the lion's share of admissions at Polish cinema - roughly 700 today - go to Hollywood blockbusters. But local films are increasingly drawing larger audiences in Poland. According to the Polish Film Institute, whereas Polish films had a 3.4% market share in 2005, that share had risen to 16% just two years later. Polish audiences are particularly fervent about films that deal with topics of national identity, such as Katyń, Pan Tadeusz and those dealing with the life of Pope John Paul II.
Polish films are reaching larger audiences than ever thanks to movement of Poles abroad. For example, more than 200,000 Poles live in London, according to British government statistics. There, the annual Kinoteka Polish Film Festiwal organized by the Polish Cultural Institute draws not only expatriate Poles but also a broader audience, including notably members of the international press who spread word of Polish film still further.
The Kinoteka Polish Film Festival also presents screenings in Belfast, Canterbury, Bristol, Warwick and Wolverhampton and many more cities in the UK. Polish film festivals are held in the United States in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle; in Paris; and in Germany in Hannover, Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck.
In conclusion, we can say that Polish cinema has a robust international profile, reaching broad audiences and winning honors at the world's leading festivals. Buoyed by audience demand and public support, the Polish industry seems likely to continue producing a variety of films to suit both popular and artistic tastes. If the Polish films that emerge at the international level tend toward realist dramas, this is owing largely to the demands of festival programming.
For most international critics, Kieślowski - and to a lesser extent Wajda and Polański - remains the primary reference point for Polish cinema. It is difficult to predict which directors working today will emerge as the leading auteurs in another 20 years. While it would benefit Poland's stature to produce more geniuses, the diversity of talent is also a sign of health. So while Polish film does seem to labour in Kieślowski's shadow, certainly a national cinema could do worse.
Author: Theodore Schwinke