From Summit to Screen: Polish Mountaineering Films
default, Photo from 'Broad Peak' production, photo: Dariusz Załuski / East Studio promotional materials, center, leszek-dawid-na-planie-filmu-broad-peak-fot_dariusz_zaluski_promo.jpg
Mountaineering films are climbing out of their niche status. They are no longer tales for sports fanatics, instead focussing on personal trajectories and universal stories of humanity, ambition and overcoming weakness.
It was 5 March 2013 when a quartet of Polish mountaineers in the Himalayas stood on the top of Broad Peak – the 12th tallest mountain in the world. Maciej Berbeka, Adam Bielecki, Artur Małek and Tomasz Kowalski were the first in history to complete a winter ascent of this peak. Only two of them returned to base camp – Berbeka and Kowalski remained at the summit. Three days later they were pronounced dead.
For Berbeka, that was his last, but not only meeting with Broad Peak. He had previously attempted a winter ascent in 1988. Exhausted and battling unfriendly weather conditions, he reached the subpeak, a little below the proper summit. Due to the poor visibility from the heavy weather conditions, he believed he had reached the very top. Only once he returned to his friends down at base camp did they tell him the truth – they had witnessed his ascent from their viewpoint but chose not to radio in, fearing that the weather would have left him without a safe descent had he chosen to go further. Saving his life, they hid the truth. Twenty five years later, when he had another chance at tackling Broad Peak, he decided to once more go head-on against this powerful mountain.
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This true story is dramatised in Leszek Dawid’s Broad Peak, which tackles a feature about a man fighting with his own limits while bounding after his passion. Ireneusz Czop takes on the role of Maciej Berbeka and Maja Ostaszewska plays his wife, Ewa Dyakowska-Berbeka. For Czop, the role was a real challenge. To prepare for filming, he trained as a mountaineer and prepared himself for the high altitudes. Production actually took place in the Himalayas and the Alps.
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Those were not the only challenges that faced the creators. Broad Peak filmed over multiple time periods, with production in the Himalayas requiring the help of Sherpas, and the scenes in the Alps taking place in near-zero temperatures and at dangerous heights. Much like to the original climbers, the weather proved a difficult adversary for the film crew. In the Alps, a basecamp built to look like Berbeka’s from 1988 was buried under snow the day of filming. Leszek Dawid spoke with Culture.pl:
When we dug it out, it turned out the tarpaulins were ripped, the tent poles – snapped. The whole crew, along with the actors, sewed the tarpaulins so we could return to work. These kinds of moments, though difficult, cement the relationship of the crew.
A tale beyond language
This was not the first time Leszek Dawid had dealt with climbing themes. In college, as a young climbing enthusiast, he created two films about the mountains, the second of which led to his expulsion from college. It was then he discovered how difficult it is to express the passion people have for climbing, about the secret communions people have with nature. That’s why Broad Peak is not about the physical aspect of mountaineering, but about the psychological toll it takes on people. In his conversation with Culture.pl, he said:
Mountains are like a costume for me. Because it’s a universal story, the attempt to find the limits of passion. Sometimes we convince ourselves we can do many things in life, but the truth is there is one passion that pulls us and whom we must answer. ‘Broad Peak’ is a story of its mystery.
The mountain that asks
K2. Dotknąć nieba – zwiastun
Alongside Leszek Dawid’s Broad Peak, another mountaineering film has a projected 2020 release – Eliza Kubarska’s Ostatnia Wyprawa (Last Journey), which tells the story of climber Wanda Rutkiewicz and her journey up Kangchenjunga. The story of Rutkiewicz’s journey, full of mysteries and twists, is only the starting point for Kubarska’s documentary about humanity’s mystery. To discover the truth of Rutkiewicz’s life and climb, Kubarska travels to the Himalayas to take part in an expedition.
Just like Leszek Dawid, Ostatnia Wyprawa is not Kubarska’s first filmic encounter with mountaineering. In 2015, the director created an incredibly moving documentary on the topic – K2: Touching the Sky. The subjects of the film were the children of mountaineers whose parents had died on their expeditions. They travelled to Karakoram, where they talked about their parents’ passions, the addictive beauty of mountains and the need for challenges and ambitions. Her film was an attempt to understand what causes people to go to such extreme lengths, what causes them to risk their lives, to reach the summit.
But K2 was also something greater – the director’s confrontation with her fears, a form of immersion therapy. Kubarska, who also climbs the same mountains, posed this question to herself in the documentary: as a future mother, do I have a right to risk my life for my passion? Her documentary told of the fine line mountaineers walk between success and loss, about egoism and the dangerous lure of the mountains, which you cannot shake off.
A father’s shadow
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Staszek Berbeka’s Dreamland poses similar questions about boundaries you cannot cross and family responsibilities. Berbeka dedicated the film to his father, Maciej, one of the original Broad Peak climbers. The film premiered on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy. Berbeka created a touching portrait of his father, in which sentiment is paired with a rational distance.
In Dreamland, the story of his father’s passion feels like peering into a family photo album. There is no sensational tone or attempts to dramatise the history. Berbeka simply begins with his father’s early climbs, talking with his friends and other family members to better understand his father, and humanise his figure for the audience.
The final effect is a portrait of a smart, sensitive man whose passion doomed him to walk two parallel paths – on one side, being a family man, and on the other – a man in need of the solitude that only mountaineering could give him. The director shows the two side of this loss, uncovering the lack of fulfilment and hunger that pushes a person to adventure, and of nature’s seductiveness, taking control of any man who touches it once.
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Film Trailer: Deklaracja nieśmiertelności / Declaration of Immortality
In the past few years, the sphere of mountaineering documentaries has stayed focused on individual, internal journeys of their creators. In Sceny Narciarskie z Franzem Klammerem (The Skiing Scene with Franz Klammer), Bogdan Dziworski, Gerald Kargl and Zbigniew Rybczyński used the backdrop of mountaineering as a pretext to create a humorous experimental film. Nowadays, the topic is much more personal for creators. It is used to explore questions of parental obligations, crossing boundaries and the tipping point between passion and the egoism necessary to make that passion a reality.
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Among those with a fresh spin on the topic is Marcin Koszałka. The ambitious documentary filmmaker, whose later works look into obsessions and fears of death, began with the documentary Declaration of Immortality about Piotr ‘Szalony’ (Crazy) Korczak, the charismatic and extreme Polish climber. In one scene, Korczak says:
Only once in life have I felt like I grabbed God by the legs. It was when I was competing in the Madonna di Campiglio competition. I missed third place by a hair. I was almost tied. It was my best score. The best score achieved thus far by a Pole (…) To this day I feel the edge of the hold I leaped for and didn’t secure.
In Declaration of Immortality, these words create a dramatic heaviness. Because Koszałka talks about memories of greatness, about the aging of the body, which no longer responds to commands from the brain. This fascinating documentary turns into a story about something more than climbing – about one’s sense of self and the split between spirituality and the focus on the corporeal self.
Warriors in a land of ice
JUREK - trailer filmu o Jerzym Kukuczce
The mountains as an existential metaphor return in Paweł Wysoczański’s documentary Jurek, a biographical tale of the life, career and death of Jerzy Kukuczka. Pulling from archival footage and conversations with family and friends, the director built a portrait of a man for whom mountaineering was a path to self-actualization. Thanks to his tenacity, Kukuczka paved a path from socialist worker to international media darling. A modest man who traveled to the Himalayas with little money and no modern equipment, he rose to the top of the rankings through his own talent and became a rival for a climbing legend – Reinhold Messner.
Wysoczański’s film received accolades at festivals in Islamabad, Copenhagen, Kathmandu and Vancouver. Here the mountains are portrayed as an arena for self-improvement, a place where someone could test what they’re made of, and maybe even spread their wings. His film went beyond the boundaries of a strict biographical documentary and instead explained where Kukuczka’s legendary status came from.
His film was also a portrait of Polish mountaineers. Full of unique characters, moved to action by rivalry to sometimes toxic degrees. In the grey years under communist rule, Polish climbers earned the nickname ‘Ice Warriors’, and their achievements awed the climbing world.
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Art of Freedom - trailer
In Art of Freedom, Wojtek Słota and Marek Kłosowicz also attempted to tell the mountaineers’ story. They focused on the biggest names: Jerzy Kukuczka, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Krzysztof Wielicki and Andrzej Zawada. In one of the archival clips, Kukuczka says:
I could never bring myself to be satisfied with nothing. I always tried again. Sometimes beyond the point of logic, but in tune with my own internal beliefs.
jacek hugo bader
K2 Dotknąć nieba
art of freedom
Art of Freedom tells the story of these people, who go beyond their own limitations to reach the summit. But it’s also a story of communist rule in Poland, in which mountains were symbols of freedom, methods of breaking through socio-political constraints.
Słota and Kłosowicz’s film, funded by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, was one of the most commonly awarded Polish sports film in the last few years. Possibly because the directors were able to break past the genre boundaries of ‘sports films’ to create a portrait of a society, whose innate desire of freedom was at war with the constant restrictions placed upon them.
Polish film is getting better and better at the metaphorical and dramaturgical potential in the hidden stories of mountains and the people who chase their summits. And since these tales have constantly gotten better reception, it is easy to assume there will be an uptick in these stories. Let’s hope they are all as brave and bold as Koszałka’s Declaration of Immortality.
Originally written in Polish, translated by AZ, Sep 2019
Art of Freedom - Wojciech Słota and Marek Kłosowicz