Pass the Popcorn: Polish Cinema After 1989
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Polish Cinema After 1989, Actors celebrating the end of the filming of 'Pigs', directed by Władysław Pasikowski; photo: Krzysztof Fus / Filmoteka Narodowa, center, psy_werk_1992.jpg
Over the last 30 years, in the wake of momentous social and political changes in Poland, Polish popular cinema has been searching for its identity, always attempting to create its own modes of self-expression.
Thus far, few directors in Poland have managed to find their own cinematographic language – with the exception of Władysław Pasikowski, whose Pitbull: The Last Dog premiered in 2018. With its trademark title (and protagonists who are already art-market commodities), this film merges craftsmanship with mass culture.
The Pitbull franchise was initiated in 2005 with a film and TV series by Patryk Vega, but has since been met with ridicule, its reputation tarnished by its original director. Featuring Warsaw cops and dangerous gangsters, who believe that violence is the only universal language, the next editions of the story represented a triumph of opportunism and mediocrity. With Last Dog, the series returns to its roots; its director, to action films; and the actor Marcin Dorociński to role of the tough guy, Despero.
Early into Pitbull, Vega invited audiences on a tour of a sad, dirty world, but in subsequent films, he detached the characters from their social environment. Instead, he chose to concentrate on comedy gags, violence and vulgar sex scenes. Vega cared little to make proper films, rather combining urban legends and internet jokes with catchy one-liners. Instead of creating one dramatic whole, he simply blended these ingredients into a hard-to-digest, if visually appealing cocktail.
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Perhaps that’s why Pitbull’s producer hired Władysław Pasikowski to direct the last part of the police saga. Pasikowski values the craftsmanship of film, displaying an understanding of the principles of cinematic grammar. As a result, Pitbull: The Last Dog engages the viewer in a real conversation, rather than a mere a sequence of gags. The movie shows contemporary Poland through the lens of the genre. Although the tenebrous story of gangsters and jaded policemen is far from subtle sociological analysis, it does accurately portray some aspects of the Polish reality.
Pasikowski is definitely a one-of-a-kind director. As possibly the only artist in Poland who has established his own style in genre cinema over the past three decades, his name has become all but a brand in and of itself. In his films, one can expect flawed male protagonists, not unlike Chandler from Friends (not to mention chauvinistic portraits of women – a topic for another article). The storylines, written with respect for the values of drama and entertainment, often surprise with the accuracy of their insights.
In the 1990s, Pasikowski served as both father and ‘midwife’ of entertainment cinema in Poland. Its birth was a process neither easy nor obvious.
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In the land of the shamans
Polish cinema was built around the ‘cult of the auteur’ – the artist who, in accordance with the tradition of the Polish intelligentsia, guided viewers through the complexities of reality. Post-war filmmakers in Poland rarely wanted to be seen as mere providers of entertainment. They were missionaries, or ‘shamans of their tribe’, as Amos Oz would have it.
The Polish cinema school exorcised post-war demons, engaging viewers in psychotherapeutic group sessions, while the the cinema of moral anxiety asked the price of the country’s attempts at stabilisation. Directors such as Jerzy Kawalerowicz posed philosophical questions about the nature of power. Others, including Andrzej Wajda and Ryszard Bugajski, criticised the communist regime in their works.
By contrast, genre cinema appeared inferior, unworthy of serious inquiry. Crime stories from the times of the communist regime were burdened with propaganda, so filmmakers rather avoided them. Melodramas were considered to be too simple and basic. Science fiction did little better, although there were several talented precursors – like Marek Piestrak and the great Piotr Szulkin, as well as Andrzej Żuławski, who, even in his fantasy films, stayed true to his own style. Only comedy had its heyday under the communist regime, from the likes of Sylwester Chęciński and Stanisław Bareja to Janusz Kondratiuk and Marek Koterski.
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For capitalism had deprived them of this authority. Cinema was now tasked with becoming self-sufficient. Subsidies from the Cinematography Committee were inadequate, while private investors, in turn, weren't non-profit organisations, instead seeking to grow their assets. One of the first directors to learn this was Jerzy Kawalerowicz, who created Quo Vadis in 2001 and collided with the new, ruthless order, in which revenues had to outnumber costs.
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The ineffable world of ‘Pigs’
Pasikowski is one of those rare artists who has found a way to truly capture the hearts of his audience. After 1989, he understood the ways society had changed in Poland, but he also knew how to respond to the fears that this had generated among the public.
In his 1992 crime thriller, Pigs (Psy), he described the transformation in Poland, showing a reality in which old values had lost their importance, while new ones had yet to crystallize. The young director attacked the 'holy' elements of Polish culture, entering into sacrilegious dialogue with the historic films of Andrzej Wajda.
With Pigs, Pasikowski transformed the historical wasteland – which took the life of the protagonist of Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds – into a heap of oblivion, where exhausted policemen 'burnt their whole fucking past'. Ballada o Janku Wiśniewskim (The Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski) became the subject of cruel travesty amid their alcoholic libations. It’s no wonder that after watching Pasikowski's movie (and seeing the audience’s reaction), Wajda stated that Pasikowski understood something about Polish audiences that remained a mystery to himself.
Pasikowski understood new audiences indeed, and he also appreciated the new Polish reality, which was now 'ruled' by none other than the same people as before. Here, no one knew what the future held, and everyone was fighting for a higher place on the social ladder.
In Pigs, Pasikowski depicted this in the excellent scene where two former officers of the secret police, played by Marek Kondrat and Janusz Gajos, meet. In this short scene, Pasikowski presented a world that had been divided into winners and losers, one in the midst of an active transformation. Individuals who had become accustomed to the new reality may have already been wearing gold watches, but were they to order a whiskey and Coke, they would still have to settle for straight vodka.
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The realm of predators
Other Polish filmmakers also attempted to keep up with the West. Maciej Ślesicki (Tato [Father], Sara) borrowed elements from Hollywood genre cinema. Jarosław Żamojda depicted young rebels in his Young Wolves, and Olaf Lubaszenko (Guys Don't Cry) pretended to be Quentin Tarantino. Marek Kondrat posed as a Polish version of Charles Bronson in his directorial debut, Father's Law.
The 1990s brought a wave of action films and crime stories to Poland, featuring gangsters, corrupt cops and fallen heroes. These movies could have been ignored and forgotten, were it not for their popularity. Their creators sought to please the masses, but the movies did actually describe the reality of the 1990s – a world of violence, dominated by predators, where weaker individuals had no chance at success.
Although early 1990s audiences considered B-grade American cinema to be the global standard, Polish creators soon abandoned the practice of copying American clichés. Viewers weren't drawn to action films anymore; already, they longed for a breath of fresh air.
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In the early 2000s, 'male' action films gave way to 'feminine' romantic comedies in Poland. Rom-coms became – as they remain today – the most reliable commodity on the Polish cinema market. Not only do they attract large audiences, finding a place among the most-watched Polish films almost every year, but they also carry a significant advantage over action or fantasy films: sufficient funding.
It’s well-known that action films cost a fortune and that fantasy films can't be properly finished without the appropriate budget and infrastructure. Marek Brodzki learned it the hard way in 2002, with The Witcher. Filming a romantic comedy is far less expensive, and recent decades have proven that the it often pays off. Over the past few years, romantic comedies have proven themselves a solid business investment.
At the start of a new century, Polish audiences needed a change. Action films from the beginning of the 1990s were replaced by stories about victims of the transformation era: Silesian families, expats, fired state farm workers, or excluded and forgotten people (examples include Janusz Zaorski's Happy New York and Witold Adamek's Monday). These painful stories may be true, but have brought audiences little relief. Polish spectators have sought comfort instead, ultimately finding peace in rom-coms.
Piotr Wereśniak's fairy-tale films (The Loving Ones), adaptations of popular novels by Katarzyna Grochola (Nigdy w Życiu, Ja Wam Pokażę), or Mitji Okorna’s comedies (Letters to Santa, Planet Single) describe the picture-perfect world that audiences wish they could live in. Stories of love, lost and then found, take place in imagined realities, where issues can be solved with a single kiss, and the protagonist's problems involve little more than their love lives.
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The world of plastic & dreams
Inspired by American and British patterns, especially those from Richard Curtis' excellent films, such Polish filmmakers have constructed escapist images of plastic people and pastel scenery on-screen. Metropolitan Warsaw resembles New York, while its Morodor district claims to be the corporate centre of the world. Protagonists live in apartments taken straight from furniture catalogues.
The vision of the world brought by romantic comedies has also been popularised by television, especially TVN, which has created its own universe over the past several years. Television series such as Magda M, Kasia and Tomek, or True Law have bolstered the channel’s popularity, but they have also created a world where 'people live well', everyone has access to prosperity, social problems hardly exist and the representatives of the upper middle class live in a safe bubble. The popularity of such drama series, together with the commercial success of romantic comedies, only prove the audience's need to escape from reality and their longing for simple rules to govern human relationships.
After 1989, Polish popular culture has remained a mirror of Poland’s collective aspirations and dreams. First, it was all about catching up with the West. Today, the goal is more to forget everyday struggles, get rid of pressures and vacation to a secluded house on the shore of a quiet lake. Regardless of genre and premiere date, the commercial hits of Polish cinema very often turn out as faded copies of foreign originals.
Years may have passed since the era of the communist regime, and few still believe in the supremacy of the director, but Polish popular cinema still lacks many creators capable of making their name in cinema for the masses.
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Originally written in Polish, March 2018; translated by AJ, Feb 2019