This situation of polish cinema changed drastically after the turn of 1989...
Krystyna Janda and Adam Ferency, still form "Interrogation, photo: East News / Polfilm
I. The Communist Era
If we look at the films made in the Polish People's Republic without prejudices (we have the right to do so now more than ever), it turns out that the particular flavour of this cinema lies in the overwhelming presence of politics and artistic ambition. Without judging whether the Polish specificity was indeed an affliction of the whole cultural region of Eastern and Central Europe that was scooped up by the Soviet system after 1945, or if it had a deeper meaning that reaches back into the 19th century tradition of dealing with enslavement by means of culture, I advance the thesis that these two points are key indicators that define the 'essence' of the Polish cinema of that period. Describing them can help us understand the change that took place in cinema place after 1989.
Film-makers, who sought to establish a relationship with a wider audience, found it embodied in the more or less convoluted political critique of the contemporary situation. The creation of one's own language almost universally meant a establishing a unique 'Aesopean language' that was used to pass content prone to censorship. These secret codes provided an alibi for the creators before the authorities, but were infallibly deciphered by the public. They were deeply rooted in the historical context and were formulated differently in 'the Thaw' of 1956 than in, say, the era of Solidarity. A gradation of the dissident messages' coding could be displayed on a graph: from the still social realist films by Munk and Wajda (Czlowiek na torze - Man on the Tracks; Pokolenie - A Generation), where one could sense a gust of the new times, to the films from the early 80s that directly deny the political foundations of the Polish People's Republic, such as Czlowiek z zelaza (Man of Iron), or Przesluchanie (Interrogation) by Ryszard Bugajski.
The political dimension of this cinema is visible in the concurrence of the rhythm of historical turning points with the generational divisions among the artists - instead of the term 'the Polish Film School', one could say 'cinema of the Polish October' and everyone would understand. Later, there was the 'cinema of slight stabilization' of the sixties and - after the events of March, 1968 - 'cinema of moral unrest' that was to transform later on into 'Solidarity cinema' and 'martial law cinema'. All these terms associate certain aesthetics of communication with a certain fragment of the PPR's political history, to which it was an artistic reaction. It is not accidental that this political language of description has not yet been overcome, for it actually relates to the logic of the Polish cinema's development and to resign from it would be an artificial, fictional treatment that would falsify the picture of the events.
The second element that constitutes the Polish specificity was the unusually strong position of the ambitious, artistic cinema that sought new forms of expression in the cinematic language - ones forms that would allow, on par with literature, to touch the most important existential and philosophical issues. This attitude was displayed not only by the film-makers who, like Jerzy Wojciech Has or Grzegorz Królikiewicz, according to the best art circles' patterns shown showed their désinteressement for the wider public and made films for their own sake according to the best art circles' patterns, but also those, who treated the cinema as a tool for social communication. For Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Kazimierz Kutz, Roman Polanski, Tadeusz Konwicki or Jerzy Skolimowski, the point of reference was not the popular Hollywood cinema, but European 'auteur' cinema - Italian neorealism, French New Wave or the British Angry Young Men. It is noteworthy that even the lighter films, such as comedies of manners, crime dramas etc. were judged according to the criteria adopted from artistic cinema. This is what happened to the interesting output of Stanislaw Bareja, creator of a series of comedies in the 70s that are still very popular today and have attained a cult status. He was fiercely attacked for his conventional, bourgeois taste and was deemed talent-less, even though he started in the category of entertainment, a different one than those explored by Krzysztof Kieslowski or Krzysztof Zanussi.
Of course, apolitical entertainmenting cinema was made in Poland as well, just like the politically correct kind. But it passed into oblivion, without having stirred any emotions. Film-makers that subordinated themselves to the propaganda slogans were not numerous and belonged to the margin. There were no strong personalities or greater talents among them. Certainly, the work of Sylwester Checinski was a certain phenomenon. He was the creator of immensely popular and, at the same time, politically safe comedies. Others, such as Jan Lomnicki or Jerzy Gruza, were responsible for a number of TV series. The first film-maker that wanted to make, as a rule, only good, pure entertainment in the western manner and had the divine spark within himself was Juliusz Machulski, who debuted at the beginning of the 80s. But even in his lighter comedies people saw a subtle stylistic dialogue with the convention of gangster movies (Vabank - Hit the Bank), or political allusions (Seksmisja - Sexmission). The tone of the Polish cinema was imparted by artists and, for that matter, politically engaged artists.
Jerzy Stuhr in "Sexmission", dir. Juliusz Machulski, 1983, photo: Kadr Film Studio / The National Film Library / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
This situation changed drastically after the turn of 1989.
The change of the political system into democracy caused the cinema to lose its status of a public forum, an unofficial substitute for a free idea exchange. Politics has moved out of the movie clubs and art houses into the parliament. Artists, just like priests, ceased to be the 'speakers for the nation' and, therefore, lost the unique sense of their position and public mission. Many of them have simply turned to politics and were elected to the Parliament. Despite the individual implications of this change, it had a tremendous impact on the language of the cinema. It lost its 'ciphered political code' that smuggled in the message, integrating the people who visited cinemas in order to eat of this 'forbidden fruit'. From 1989 it was possible to say everything in the movies directly, without convoluted allusions. But it was not necessary to go to the cinema to hear it. It was sufficient to turn on the TV and watch the parliamentary proceedings. The new situation influenced the mental state of the 'pure artists' as well. They felt that they had lost the justification for their solemn attitude, since escapism in the times of censorship was something different than what it is in the times of freedom of speech and image.
On the other hand, the change of the economic system to capitalism has brought about a new hegemony - the mass consumer. The film-makers, out of fear that the audience will would turn away from them and feeling on their necks the breath of competitive Hollywood films that flooded the Polish cinemas, began to seek a new formula that could replace the old, political thread of communicating with the audience. For the sophisticated artists, on the other hand, capitalism meant difficulties in finding money for their ambitious experiments. The atmosphere of the 'the wide audience always being right' did not allow for such an elevated attitude, especially because the financial means were still flowing mainly from the state budget, not from the accounts of rich patrons that could finance their fancies. All this amounted to great bewilderment among both the political and artistic film-makers. At that time, a lot of projects were made in an attempt to blend the artistic and commercial ambitions and achieve a compromise between the calculation of audience expectations and original artistic experiments. 'Popular auteur cinema', internally contradictory and, because of that, insincere, full of forced artificial ideas, was a reflection of the organizational and financial situation in which Polish cinematography found itself. The production apparatus and the financing system were fit for original cinema, while the projected audience expectations were 'populist' and 'mass-oriented'.
This new situation at the beginning of the 90s was best tackled by the debutants. On the one hand, we have Wladyslaw Pasikowski, the author of Psy (Pigs) and Psy 2 (Pigs 2), the biggest commercial success of the time. As a director, he has consciously decided to fake the American action cinema in a Polish setting. Moreover, he created, through his characters, the biggest male star of the 90s - Boguslaw Linda, who is today known for playing plays ruthless and brutally tough guys. On the other hand, there is Jan Jakub Kolski, who consistently builds rural landscapes fused with the fantastic and magical atmosphere of his films which, despite their artistic sophistication and specifically slow narration, won a big audience, especially the flagship Jancio Wodnik (Johnny Aquarius) that was shown in Cannes, outside the competition.
The success of these two artists became a signpost in the mid-90s for many film-makers that were seeking their place within thise new situation. Pasikowski had many imitators, such as Jaroslaw Zamojda or Olaf Lubaszenko, whose aim was to reach the younger audience, fascinated with new phenomena that were known only from American films, such as organized crime, the everyday life of gangsters, the luxury of upstart financial and social elites etc. Next, the work of Kolski has created a fashion for cinema in 'Czech style' that presents, with humour and irony, the lives of 'ordinary people' somewhere in the province, where time seems to flow differently. This fashion is already gone. 'Ordinary people' are shown without sparing any severity, for example in Czesc Tereska (Hi, Tereska) by Robert Glinski, Edi by Piotr Trzaskalski or Zurek (Sour Soup) by Ryszard Brylski. Kolski himself has tested his strength beyond his characteristic style in adaptations of books by Hanna Krall (Daleko od okna - Keep Away from the Window) or Witold Gombrowicz (Pornografia - Pornography). Kolski's newest film Jasminum, although very well received by the public, returns to the old idiom, bordering on auto-parody.
Among Kolski's peers, who, despite the temptations of populism, have remained true to their artistic choices from the moment of their debut, there are people like Mariusz Trelinski and Dorota Kedzierzawska. Their sophisticated,, precise, and characteristic films have almost always appealed to the critics, but rarely reached a wider public.
III. The Breakthrough
Towards the end of the 90s, there was a breakthrough in the Polish cinema.
Still from the movie, photo: Mirek Noworyta / Agencja SE / East News
Two great productions based on classics of Polish literature - Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword, 1999) by Jerzy Hoffman, based on a novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, and Pan Tadeusz (Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania ,1999) by Andrzej Wajda, based on the national epic by Adam Mickiewicz, were a bigger box-office success than all the American films shown at that time combined. For the first time since 1989, the Polish cinema has proven that it has its public. This success of film-makers of the older generation has encouraged others, and soon other adaptations followed with record budgets (e.g. Quo Vadis by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, ca $22 million) and advertising campaigns hitherto unseen in Poland. Most of them brought profits. At the same time, there appeared such movies as Dlug (The Debt, 1999) by Krzysztof Krauze and Czesc Tereska (Hi, Teresksa, 2000) by Robert Glinski, which rebuilt the dialogue between the film-makers and the audience that was broken at the beginning of the 90s. In both of these films, the directors speak in the convention of a public confession and the public felt that they are not only a ‘target group', but also a partner in a discussion on the problems that affect everyone who lives 'here'. In their look at the danger of crime and poverty of the big city high-rise complex, the directors have assumed the perspective of public opinion. They observe that the gangster who demands protection money is not a photogenic and manly 'black character', but a real threat, while the groups of 'stray' children rummaging through the vast neighbourhoods are not an abstract phenomenon from sociological papers, but an acute reality. The newest film by Krzysztof Krauze, Plac Zbawiciela (Saviour Square), winner at the 2006 Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdynia, is a continuation of this form of dialogue, in which the viewer is treated as a partner and not as a consumer of sensation. In Krauze's deep, psychological description of a family conflict, which is the main subject of the story, there are no easy, media-like divisions into the guilty and the victim. The tragedy that takes place at the end of the film is pictured as a result of a 'normal' situation from an 'average' home, which in turn becomes a signal from the author that the problem touches us all, including the makers of the film.
Towards the end of the 90s, there emerged a strong group of young people who received their film education already in the new reality. Some of them, like Malgorzata Szumowska, Lukasz Barczyk, Iwona Siekierzynska, Artur Urbanski, Marek Lechki or Dariusz Gajewski were given a chance to debut in the public television (TVP) as part of a cycle 'Generation 2000'. This rather misleading name - the age range of these young artists is rather large - accurately renders the intention of the producer: to select new individuals, whose artistic sensibility and knowledge of the world have been shaped throughout the 90s. Others, like Piotr Trzaskalski, Andrzej Jakimowski or Przemyslaw Wojcieszek have made it to the top themselves by finding private producers for their projects or by beginning from the semi-professional stance of 'off-cinema'.
Of course, their films are extremely varied. But there is a common need for communication that links them. They want to tell the viewer (sometimes gaudily, sometimes in a gibberish manner, sometimes in plain prose) of their own certainty or uncertainty, or, to speak loftily, their truth. But before it takes place, they show the viewer how this truth has been constituted, where it came comes from and from which point of view it can be seen. In this way I see Patrze na ciebie Marysiu (I'm Looking at You, Mary) and Przemiany (Changes) by Lukasz Barczyk, Edi by Piotr Trzaskalski, Glosniej od bomb (Louder Than Bombs) by Przemyslaw Wojcieszek and Moje miasto (My Town) by Marek Lechki. The first shouts at me "I will saytell what I am afraid of", the second mutters "I will say what I believe in", the third announces "I will say what is going on here" etc. There is none of the fake seriousness, so often encountered among young actors, no tension, insolent play or the usual commercial calculation. These films are rather a humble confession, an attempt at a definition of one's own place, sometimes a therapeutic session, a notebook of everyday matters, or a ceremony of intimate emotions. Despite the display of a private perspective, I would not call this type of cinema egotistic or self-centred. The intimate mood is rather a reaction to the overwhelming ideological buzz of the media and the politicized history of Polish cinema.
Paradoxically, thanks to the restriction of the field of view to a private perspective, there is a lot of surrounding reality in the films of the younger generation in comparison with their older colleagues. A sharp, satiric vision of small-town boredom kindled with the capitalistic rouse of the 'new money' is drawn in Glosniej od bomb (Louder Than Bombs) by Przemyslaw Wojcieszek. His film has been brilliantly supplemented a few years later with Wesele (The Wedding) by Wojciech Smarzowski, a movie that through its uncompromising spitefulness in the portrayal of modern Polish countryside balances on the border of an anarchistic lampoon. Two students' struggle with life is passionately and humorously described by Iwona Siekierzynska. In the tripartite Oda do radosci (Ode To Joy), well received by the critics, the three debuting directors, Anna Kazejak-Dawid, Jan Komasa and Maciej Migas, touch upon a key experience of their peers' generation - the immense wave of emigration in search for money among young Poles, who are discouraged by unemployment and the ruthless battle for survival at the end of the 90s in Poland. Dariusz Gajewski, on the other hand, winner of the 2003 Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdynia, has contained in his Warszawa (Warsaw) something that has been long awaited by everyone - a visual metaphor of the modern times. It is neither, as Natalia Koryncka would have it in Amok, the stock exchange building, nor a big city high-rise, a ruined state farm or the police headquarters, as others have conceived of it. I do not know of a place that would describe our times better than our capital city, with its Communist Party Headquarters changed into a business centre and the Ministry of National Education situated in the former Gestapo seat. The makers of Warszawa have tried to capture this fundamental confusion of the reality in which the Poles now live. This permanent fit of group amnesia and the common dressing-up function as a panic escape from our own identity;, too painful, poor and traumatized to bear, be ill with and finally cure. For the first time in ages, Warsaw does not pretend to be the backdrop for a film about the rich, the hooligan jocks or the Europeans, but precisely Warsaw, a place that speaks for itself. And this is the real triumph of cinema over reality.
Author: Mateusz Werner
From the catalogue "Young Polish Cinema" published by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, June 2007