Polish Cinema 1989-1999:
A Decade Crowned by an Oscar
default, Polish Cinema 1989-1999:
A Decade Crowned by an Oscar
, Małgorzata Kożuchowska & Cezary Pazura in the film 'Kiler', directed by Juliusz Machulski, 1997, photo: Jacek Szymczak / Studio Filmowe 'Zebra' / , kiler.jpg
The transformation of 1989 to 1990 was a necessarily stormy one for Polish cinema, which saw major changes with the collapse of the communist regime. Filmmakers no longer faced restrictions on artistic freedom, but with the free market, new problems appeared.
A difficult transformation
The turn of 1989 to 1990 was a necessarily stormy one for Polish cinema, which saw major changes with the collapse of the communist regime. Filmmakers no longer faced restrictions on artistic freedom, but with the free market, new problems appeared – such as competition. This process had actually begun even earlier, during the 1980s.
During their last decade in power, the communist authorities allowed cinemas to show American films with almost no restrictions. In earlier years, there had been very few films from the United States shown in Poland. At the beginning of the 1990s, Polish films were hardly present in cinemas. They were released, but after a few days (sometimes even the day after the premiere), they disappeared from the screens in order to make way for American films. The younger audience quickly focussed its interest on these films. Meanwhile, the middle-aged and older generations all but stopped going to the cinema during this difficult 10-year period.
Oh, the Horror! Polish Horror Movies Under Communism
Polish films were still being produced, however – financed by state subsidies and public television. A few years later, additional funding came from the Canal+ television network, and production companies began to join in. The major financial success of Ogniem i Mieczem (By Fire And Sword), a historic picture set during the 17th century and based on a long-popular novel, opened the way for banks to finance films.
The sudden explosion of freedom at the beginning of this decade, which is primarily understood as an artistic phenomenon, in fact took a more surprising form. When martial law, declared on 13th December 1981, was revoked after 19 months, the atmosphere was still heavy – the difficulties of the daily life remained enormous, and it seemed that there was no hope that the status quo could ever change. After the turning point of 1989, Polish cinema was dominated by a nihilistic, dark vision of humanity. Older artists, who knew that it would be difficult to rebuild a rapport with the audience, were, for the most part, silent.
This specific generation gap was filled by new artists, and many of their films saw little success. This difficult period was summarised by this question from a distinguished Polish film director, Wojciech Marczewski at the Gydnia Forum of Filmmakers at the Polish Film Festival in 1991:
Shivers - Wojciech Marczewski
Friends, did you really HAVE to make all these films?
Marczewski himself directed the only outstanding film of that period, in 1990, after nine years of silence. Escape From the 'Liberty' Cinema (originally: Ucieczka z Kina 'Wolność') takes place in Poland under the communist regime. The main character is a censor – and an atypical one at that. Previously, the character was a literary critic, or perhaps even a poet. He is gifted with a somewhat perverse and slightly cynical intelligence, a sceptic with a sense of personal defeat. He attempts to escape into alcohol.
This period of downfall in Polish cinema ended in 1992 with a film directed by Władysław Pasikowski, titled Dogs (originally: Psy). This film is not, however, about 'man's best friend’, as ‘dogs’ was a slang term for the police during the communist regime. Critics were shocked: Three years after the collapse of communism, a young director showed the most hated type of policeman – a secret police officer – as a man of strong character, aware of his own value, a person with both personal courage and a very attractive form of intelligence expressed in a sense of humour about himself.
The film was very well made, and received five awards at the Polish Film Festival, but most of all, audiences took to it. To be precise, the film found favour among a younger crowd, who made it possible for the actors Cezary Pazura and Bogusław Linda to become idols of their generation. Up to this point, such stardom was reserved for actors of American films.
The attractive features of Dogs seemed obvious. It is an action movie, the first successful ‘copy' of the American cinema. The attractive dialogues featured street language, and the main character responded to a hidden desire for personal courage. Such courage seemed particularly valuable during these first few years of Poland's new reality.
Pass the Popcorn: Polish Cinema After 1989
There is one scene in this film, however, which appalled older audience members. Policemen – ex-secret police officers – make a parody of an event that took place during the bloody pacification of a workers' protest in Gydnia in 1970. During the pacification, workers carried the body of one of their colleagues, who had been killed by police. Andrzej Wajda featured this scene in his 1981 film Man of Iron (originally: Człowiek z Żelaza).
Why did Pasikowski decide to introduce such a scene to his film? Why did young people accept it? Would it be enough to explain this if we were to refer to psychological explanations: i.e. that iconoclastic (rebellious) tendencies are characteristic to every young generation? This could, however, be a topic for a separate study.
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A still from Andrzej Wajda's ‘Man of Iron’, photo: Renata Pajchel / Zebra Film Studio / The National Film Library
man of steel 5.jpg
Pasikowski’s Dogs started a new way of thinking about Polish cinema, one as of yet unfamiliar to Polish filmmakers. Films were to be commercial goods, goods which were supposed to make profits. During the years that followed, the commercial cinema strengthened its position, but fortunately, this didn't mean that films with more artistic ambitions disappeared.
The artistic cinema of the ’90s
Jan Jakub Kolski
Jan Jakub Kolski established himself as one of the most important film directors with artistic ambitions. Similar to Władysław Pasikowski, Kolski debuted after 1989. Apart from this, the two directors represent completely different personalities. Both of them were able to express their fields of interest very clearly. In the case of Pasikowski, it was action movies, and for Kolski, a mythical vision of a village, built on a realistic foundation (Kolski spent his childhood in a village).
To Kill a Beaver - interview with Jan Jakub Kolski [video]
A 1993 film by Kolski titled Johnnie Aquarius (originally: Jańcio Wodnik) was shown in Polish cinemas soon after Dogs. This film, too, won the support of the audience, although it was a different audience – a smaller one. Most enthusiasts of this film were also younger, but more interested in a director’s artistic vision – including the originality, novelty and even strangeness of the aesthetic proposals – than in the story itself. Johnnie Aquarius is a film phantasmagoria, which had no predecessors and has no imitators in Polish cinema. It would also be quite difficult to identify anything like it in other countries’ cinematic traditions.
In years following, Kolski directed other films that take place in a similar setting, maintaining a similar style: Miraculous Place (originally: Takie Cudowne Miejsce) (1994), Legacy of Steel (originally: Szabla od Komendanta) (1995) or Playing From the Plate (originally: Grający z Talerza) (1995). History of Cinema in Popielawy (originally: Historia Kina w Popielawach) (1998) brought more maturity and sensitivity to Kolski’s work. The film tells the history of the cinema in general – but this version of history is as fantastical as the director’s other films.
In History of Cinema in Popielawy, Kolski imagines that the cinema is invented more than a century ago – by a village blacksmith in the village of Popielawy. He uses horseriding gear to move images painted on a fish bladder. Years go by and generations change, but a passion for cinema remains in that family as the dream of a more interesting world. This passion, however, ruins the real lives of the dreamers.
This is a very personal film, as Kolski comes from a family which has been connected with the cinema for three generations. It also refers to the history of Poland, offering a picture of changing morals. In the film, there are of course fantastical ideas typical to Kolski – such as when a coachman freezes, together with his horse, and becomes an ice sculpture … only to defrost and come back to life.
Jasminum - Jan Jakub Kolski
Certainly the most important artistic phenomenon of the cinema in the mid-’90s were the films directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski: The Double Life Of Véronique (originally: Podwójne Życie Weroniki) and the Three Colours trilogy (originally: Trzy Kolory, including Blue [Niebieski], White [Biały], and Red [Czerwony]). These films were co-produced with the French Studio Tor, managed by Krzysztof Zanussi. The Double Life Of Véronique and White are the only of these films where some of the events take place in Poland – but although Kieślowski made most of his later films abroad, he remained a truly Polish film director.
I make films abroad, but I don't live in any of these countries, and I don’t want to live in them. I live in Poland simply because I understand everything that happens here perfectly well. When I hear an argument on the street, for example, I don’t have to hear every word that’s being spoken. I understand the intentions of the people arguing, and I know what they are arguing about. All this is clear to me. That is why I never actually left Poland and continue living here.
The director also added, however:
It seems to me that when you tell a story, you should look at it in such a way that would make it possible to find its individual qualities, and at the same time, to identify a very wide spectrum which can appeal to all people. In other words, it’s important to make films about things that are important to every person in the world. Every person in the world cares about loneliness, every person in the world cares about love, every person in the world cares about the lack of love. Every person.
This is exactly what Kieślowski says in his films themselves.
Years later, now that we know how Krzysztof Kieślowski lived and died, The Double Life Of Véronique takes on a new, disturbing meaning. Véronique, a young singer living in Poland, suffers from a heart disease – but not wanting to give up her art, she dies while performing a concert. Another Véronique, in France, is different – although somehow she is the same, a twin version or an incarnation of the Polish Véronique. She chooses a different solution: She stops singing in order to live.
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Kieślowski’s life and fate were marked by something of that dilemma, although it was somehow reversed by the mysterious ironist. His years working abroad were the most intensive period of creation in Kieslowski's life. Not long before his death, he said: ‘I have no energy any more. Right now, to tell you the truth, I have no energy at all’. The director passed away after a heart operation. He didn’t have the the time to carry out the alternative solution from The Double Life Of Véronique – one he did consider as a chance for himself. He intended to stop making films:
What will I do? I will live, I will read, I will probably do a little writing. In my case, however, it is not so important to know what I will do. It is important for me to know what I will not do. I know that for certain I will not make films.
This part of Kieślowski's expectations came true – but in a tragic way.
In Blue, the most tragic of all films directed by Kieślowski, a young woman – the wife of a composer, who lost her husband and daughter in a car accident – says to her mother: ‘From now on, I will do what I want to do – that is, nothing.’ After the shock of losing her family, she moves to a busy district in the city centre, sinking into the crowd.
Love, memories, friends, everyday things, even art (at the beginning Julia wants to destroy an unfinished composition of her husband’s) are worthless if the point of a life is – who knows? Maybe nothing? By the end of the film, the song A Hymn to Love – composed by Zbigniew Preisner and featuring the words of the Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, takes on a truly bitter meaning.
Although lacking the depth of films like Kieślowski’s, the Polish artistic cinema of the ’90s did touch on existential problems. The films of Andrzej Kondratiuk were the most original and successful in the artistic sense. A unique artist, he ostentatiously refused to accept the fact that the cinema was becoming more and commercial.
During the 1990s, Kondratiuk directed two films and financed their production. In both films – The Spinning Wheel Of Time (originally: Wrzeciono Czasu) and The Sundial (Słoneczny Zegar) – he primarily explored his own experiences. As is the case of all the films directed by Kondratiuk, the ‘personal' has a deeper meaning that it may appear. Years ago, Kondratiuk bought a house located just outside a village, overlooking a stream, and he moved there almost for good. In that house, he makes his films – telling stories about himself and his wife, Iga Cembrzyńska (an actress).
Million Dollars - Janusz Kondratiuk
In his earlier films, Kondratiuk also features his parents and brother. Merging reality with fiction, he takes his viewers behind the scenes and shows them how he works, sometimes including neighbours or guests. He looks closely at plants and household animals. He watches changes that take place at different times of the day and at different times of the year. By showing this kind of existence, he actually speaks to something else: the immense loneliness of man in face of the world and the universe and the fear of the inevitability of everything coming to an end.
A young director, Dorota Kędzierzawska brought her original talent, and her own view of reality into the Polish cinema of this decade. Her film Crows (originally: Wrony) was the artistic event of the mid-‘90s. This film went against everything that was present and beginning to appear in Polish cinema at the time. The starting point for the screenplay was a true story – the kidnapping of a small child by a 10-year-old girl. Kędzierzawska shows the reality through the eyes of that very girl. Although the girl comes from a lower class background, her wealth is the charm of the world.
Children are the main characters of this story, watched by the sensitive eye of the camera. The beautiful photography by Artur Reinhart is the film’s main attraction, showing the beauty of the old city and the sea. It would seem that such a film would go unnoticed. The fact that it was not, however, is a confirmation of the truth that real artistic values never disappear. The film was well-receive by the audience, critics and juries at a number of festivals.
Nothing (originally: Nic), another film by Dorota Kędzierzawska, made four years after Crows, turned out to be completely different – but just as exceptional. A dark, gloomy picture, it explores the helplessness of a young woman facing a task too difficult to bear. As with Crows, the starting point for the screenplay was a true story: A young woman, the mother of a number of small children, helpless and resourceless, strangles her newborn baby. The woman also concealed her pregnancy from her husband, who threatened to leave her if she were to have another baby. Claiming illness, she explains her changing figure as a growing tumour.
Dorota Kędzierzawska - Tomorrow Will Be Better - Video Trailer
With Nothing, Kędzierzawska shows the tragedy of deepest loneliness – it doesn’t matter that the woman in the film actually has a family. ‘Nothing' is the response the character gives during a court case, when asked what can say to defend herself. Those who didn't help her when she needed it, however, are not on trial – they appear in court only as witnesses…
Actor-Directors: Stuhr, Janda & Kondrat
Another new phenomenon in Polish cinema of this period was the phenomenon of actors debuting as film directors. During the 1990s, Jerzy Stuhr, a distinguished actor, joined the group of film directors who make films of artistic value.
Stuhr previously collaborated with Krzysztof Kieślowski, and his input was much greater than just carrying out the tasks given to him as an actor. Stuhr directed The Register Of Adulteresses (originally: Spis Cudzołożnic), Love Stories (Historie Miłosne) and A Week In The Life Of a Man (Tydzień z Życia Mężczyzny).
The renowned actress Krystyna Janda debuted as a film director by making her first film, Pip (originally: Pestka), which premiered in 1995.
Marek Kondrat, who in 1999 directed A Father's Right (Prawo Ojca), is yet another actor turned film director.
Masters of cinema
The Polish masters of film directing: Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and Kazimierz Kutz, also made films during the 1990s. In this period, Wajda directed five films. He directed The Ring with a Crowned Eagle (originally: Pierścionek z Orlem w Koronie), Nastassja (originally: Nastazja), Holy Week (originally: Wielki Tydzień) and Miss Nobody (originally: Panna Nikt). He closed the decade with the huge success of his film version of Adam Mickiewicz’s national epic – Pan Tadeusz.
Today, the director considers The Ring with a Crowned Eagle a mistake. The story of this film takes place in 1945. This return to the period between war and peace, to dilemmas of faithfulness and treachery, came two generations late. Audiences did not take to the film. Nastassja, by contrast, is connected with Wajda's interest in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and in Japanese theatre. In this unique adaptation of The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, the double role of Nastassja and Myshkin is played by an onnagata, a kind of Japanese actor. In the classical Japanese theatre, onnagata actors, who are men, play female roles.
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With Holy Week, Wajda returned to the tragedy of hatred and violence towards the Jewish people during World War II, thus touching on the sensitive issue of Polish anti-Semitism. This film was an adaptation of a short story by a remarkable Polish writer, Jerzy Andrzejewski (also the author of the novel on which Wajda based his film Ashes And Diamonds [originally: Popiół i Diament]). Andrzejewski’s story was written during the Second World War, just after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The audience again took little notice of this film, deepening Wajda's conviction that he had lost contact with viewers.
The director attempted to regain this contact by filming a popular contemporary novel written by Tomek Tryzna, Miss Nobody. The main characters of both the film and the novel are 15-year-old girls. In this surprising attempt to enter the world of teenagers, the director was trying to see the diversification and contrasts of today through their eyes. Wajda’s hope that this film would allow him to show something more than just the story turned out to be an illusion.
It was Pan Tadeusz, however, that brought Wajda’s audience back – one greater than anyone could have expected, numbering more than six million people. Pan Tadeusz was yet another successful attempt by Wajda to reveal hidden levels of subconsciousness, even mass subconsciousness, through film. In one of his interviews, thinking of martial law (imposed by the communist regime in 1981), Wajda said: ‘At that time Poland broke into pieces and until now it cannot put itself together.’ The filming of Pan Tadeusz turned out to be of those events that brings Poles together.
Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz is a national epic, written in 1834. It gives a superb picture of the residents of an early 19th-century nobleman's manor house and of the residents of a yeomen's settlement. It also gives a picture of a nation spirited by the hope of regaining independence – the hope that Napoleon deluded the Poles with. This pillar of national culture as interpreted by Wajda enchanted the Polish audience. In the epic poem by Mickiewicz, a mythical picture of, as the poet says – ‘the country of his childhood years’ – is mixed with bitter truth about Polish society. Wajda was also able to extract other important elements of the original text: its irony, its humour and its comic aspects.
The financial success of Pan Tadeusz was preceded by the similar success of a film version of By Fire and Sword, which was shown in cinemas a year earlier. This film was directed by Jerzy Hoffman – who had to wait for changes in the political system in order to be able to film the first part of Trilogy (originally: Trylogia), written by Henryk Sienkiewicz. (Many years prior, Hoffman had filmed part two – The Deluge [originally: Potop] and part three – Pan Wołodyjowski).
Trilogy by Henryk Sienkiewicz is a historical fresco, set during the 17th century. On the level of fiction, it is a novel of romance and adventure. Its first part concerns a war between Poland and a rebellious Ukraine, which at that time, was a part of Poland. Under the communist regime, this subject was considered taboo, while the contemporary audience received the film with enthusiasm.
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In the year 2000, Andrzej Wajda received an Oscar for his accomplishments as a film director. We should also remember that in 1994, Polish specialists working with Steven Spielberg on Schindler's List received three Oscars as well. Schindler's List was filmed in Poland, featuring collaborations with Polish artists. Oscars were awarded to Allan Starski for scenography and Ewa Braun for decorations, as well as Janusz Kamiński, a Polish director of photography working in the USA.
Fashionable & unfashionable topics
A striking matter, an issue worth noting, is the unwillingness of filmmakers to ‘settle accounts' onscreen with the communist regime. The dreams at the end of the 1980s that the cinema of a free Poland would finally ‘demonstrate’ and ‘accuse’ turned out to be an illusion. Only two such films were produced, and only one was a success: Death As a Slice Of Bread (Śmierć jak Kromka Chleba), filmed by Kazimierz Kutz. The director, who knows the Śląskie region quite well, created a film reconstruction of the greatest tragedy of martial law – the bloody forced pacification of one of the area’s coal mines. The film was both valuable and moving, but its cinematic run was a short, quiet one.
If for young filmmakers, the period under communism is a distant history, for directors in their 60s, they are their ‘country of childhood years’. Krzysztof Zanussi went back to these years in his film titled At Full Gallop (originally: Cwał). The trump card of this film is the aunt of the 10-year-old boy protagonist. The aunt is both a tragic and a comic figure of the former social elite, played by Maja Komorowska, a great actress. After the change of the political system in 1945, the aunt has had to save herself with an ingenious lie, but never lost her old 'uhlan's spirit’ (in pre-war Poland, this was a synonym for a kind of bravado).
Horses played an important role in this film. Both the boy and his aunt loved horses, although this passion for horses was not well perceived by the socialist authorities – according to them, it was ‘lordly’. Horses are still loved by Poles, however, and this might actually have been one of the reasons why At Full Gallop was enjoyed by so many people.
However, the truly mass audience – the young audience, of course – was ultimately won over by commercial films. After Dogs, their attention turned to wolves, with Fast Lane (originally: Młode Wilki; ‘wilki’ means ‘wolves' in Polish). This film was directed by a young cameraman named Jarosław Żamojda, representing his debut as a film director.
The young wolves in this film, i.e. single beasts of prey, are boys who have just graduated from secondary school and decide to busy themselves smuggling cars, having come to the conclusion that ‘an intelligent person' has to have money. This very popular film was evidently commercial and presented some shocking sociological discoveries. There was, however, some truth in these discoveries. No one since Żamojda has presented such an extreme vision of that generation.
The world of crime also became a fashionable topic, and ’90s Polish filmmakers found a way to have some fun with it. The main character of two comedies directed by Juliusz Machulski – Kiler (Killer) and Kilerów Dwóch (Two Killers) – is a professional assassin. At first a taxi driver, the character is pulled into a criminal scandal because of his last name. Jurek Kiler, a nice ‘buddy’ who is able to outsmart the mafia (which itself is not presented too seriously), quickly became a favourite of the public.
Towards the end of the decade, a few new directors appeared, creating films that, if somewhat modest, offered hope for the future. Michał Rosa, awarded for his debut, Hot Thursday (originally: Gorący Czwartek), also directed Paint (originally: Farba). Although an artist, Rosa looks at the world a bit like a sociologist and a moralist. The young people presented in his films will never become ‘young wolves’, although they may try to steal (like the boys from Hot Thursday) or cheat to make some money (like the couple from Paint). They have far too much of one thing – internal restraints? – and too little of another – determination or recklessness? – for that.
The young Polish directors of ambitious non-commercial films dealing with contemporary issues drew closer to European rather than to American filmmakers in their search for characters and topics. Their interests lay with people placed somewhere in the middle – not ‘wolves’ from wealthy homes with beautiful cars in their garages, and not in ‘sheep’ from shelters for the homeless. Given concerns that Polish cinema had begun to lose its value by imitating the American, these films offered hope that this tendency would change.
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In The Junction (originally: Torowisko), Urszula Urbaniak revealed a valuable skill: the ability to get under the skin of her characters. Here, she demonstrates her solidarity with a group of young women from a small town – who are, as some might say, waiting for their lives to begin. As for Paweł Łoziński, after his debut, Kratka (Grate, 1996), he began an attempt to make feature films from documentary observations of real life, with Taka Historia (Such a Story).
Krzysztof Krauze also showed promise as a director with The Debt (originally: Dług) in 1999. Besides Pan Tadeusz by Andrzej Wajda, the film was the greatest event of the season in Polish cinema. Krauze was the first to show on the screen, with no commercial shortcuts, the mechanisms of a new violence and helplessness in their full horror.
In The Debt, Krauze shows that there must be something wrong with the state: It exists somehow just for itself, as it increasingly refuses its obligations towards its citizens. There also must be something wrong with the law: It exists, but there is no justice, and when you begin to look for justice yourself, you’re punished. There must be something wrong with society, the film says: Social Darwinism is destroying it in front of our eyes, probably forever. There must also be something wrong with our values: For the first time nobody knows how to answer the fundamental question of how to live your life.
In The Debt, two young men from ‘white-collar' families want to start up a business. They count on getting a bank loan, but it turns out that they cannot. At that point, by coincidence, they meet an ex-neighbour of one of the pair. He is their age and presents himself as a businessman. He offers to organise a guarantee required by the bank, of course expecting to receive an adequate commission. During the next meeting, the commission increases, and when the two partners change their minds, the businessman claims to have already borne some costs. If they don't pay, he will increase the debt by 1,000 US Dollars every day.
They pay, but hear that the dollars given by them were forged (although they were not). A piece of land taken away from one of the victims – he is threatened with a gun and forced to sign it over to their tormentor – doesn’t resolve the problem, as by then, the debt has increased to an astronomical figure. When the victims notify a prosecutor, she says that in fact, she can essentially do nothing – only call the oppressor to her office and reprimand him. In the meantime, his demands escalate – he arrives with hired gangsters and says that he wants to get back what is rightfully his...
In this story – we should add that it is based on a true story -– there is nothing schematic, and at the same time, it includes everything. There are portraits of decent people, who when attempting to function under new conditions, have to accept the fact that a ‘commission’ for an ‘organised' guarantee is something obvious. These people are helpless when they faced with deceit and violence. The film presents a picture of the personality of the blackmailer. It is impossible to negotiate with him, because he has only one objective – to take everything away from his victim. There is also the picture of a state which refuses to carry out its obligation to protect the victims, and at the same time, maintains the right to retaliate if a victim tries to protect himself using the very methods imposed on him by his tormentor.
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For the first time in the 1990s, both viewers and critics were convinced that this would be the first Polish film which – similar to the impact it had on the Polish audience – would impress audiences in other countries. Surprisingly, The Debt was rejected from the foreign festivals for which it was proposed.
For many years, Polish films were known in many countries, making it difficult to accept the different situation now. It is especially difficult to understand why this is happening. Clearly, we cannot compete with American films; at the same time, it is also clear that not all Polish films deserve attention, even in Poland itself. It’s not easy to find an answer to the question why some of the best Polish films hav been unable make their presence in Europe. Fluctuations in popularity, an evolution of tastes and expectations, changing fashions? Only time will tell.
polish film industry
jan jakub kolski
Written by Bożena Janicka, 2001; edited by LD, May 2019