In the decade after the end of WWII, Europe was still getting back on its feet both politically and economically. The films made during this period were either stark, bare-bone depictions of the emptiness and desperation of society (as in the Italian Neorealism) or the frivolity of youth (French New Wave).
Still from "Knife in the water" (1961) dir. Roman Polański
The situation was not different in Poland. By the mid-1950s, the communist regime in Poland had lost much of its ideological focus. For the most part, Polish cinema at the time was able to avoid the rigorous censorship, and tell stories of folk heroes from both during and after the war.
The result was one of the most important periods in the country's cinema, now known as the "Polish Film School" – an informal name for the films made between 1956 and 1965. Among the most prominent film-makers of the period were: Andrzej Wajda, Wojciech Jerzy Has, Kazimierz Kutz, Janusz Morgenstern, Tadeusz Konwicki and Roman Polański (who acted more than he directed during this period). Many of these had lived through the war and still had vivid memories of the ravages of war. It is therefore no surprise that war-themes were central in the School's works.
In 1957, Andrzej Wajda's Kanał / Canal, won a Jury Special Prize at that year's Cannes Film festival. The story starts in Mokotów, a district of Warsaw, in mid 1944, the fifty-sixth day of the Warsaw Uprising. The Uprising will shortly fall after sixty-three days of fighting. After a decimated resurgent detachment makes a failed attempt to break away from the German troops' encirclement, Zadra, the commander, orders them to get through the waste-water piping to the city centre where the fighting is still going on. The group moves through the dark, winding underground system which is half filled with water and excrement, while the Germans guard at the manholes to throw grenades.
The film, the second in a war trilogy by Wajda, is still considered to be one of the director's best: Tom Huddleston wrote in Time Out New York,
On paper, the film sounds like a tough slog, and in some ways it is. Wajda lets us know from the very beginning what these soldiers’ fate will be, as a doom-laden voiceover informs: ‘These are the tragic heroes. Watch them closely in the remaining hours of their lives.’ But the director is never content with simply detailing the tragic decline of a group of faceless walking wounded. He forces us to care for these characters, sketching their personalities in subtle, effective strokes: the grim and desperate captain, the love-struck youth, the out-of-place artist.
The term "Polish Film School" was coined in 1954 by critic Aleksander Jackiewicz who expressed a hope that there would emerge a "Polish film school worthy of the great tradition of our art". (Prawo do eksperymentu, 1954)
The school produced other films dealing with topics which were taboos until Stalin's death in 1953.
Political events gave rise to the start of the school. The death of Stalinist Prime Minister Bolesław Bierut in 1956 brought forward a a short period of de-Stalinization. In June of that year, however, there was an uprising in Poznań. Former PM, Stanisław Gomułka returned to power in October of that year.
The eruption of artistic energy and the emergence of the new wave of filmmakers in Poland after 1956 is usually described as the Polish School phenomenon - wrote Marek Haltof in Polish National Cinema. The political changes introduced after the Polish October of 1956 enabled young filmmakers to move away from socialist realist cinema and, to a large extent, to build their films around their own experiences.
Despite the tense times in which the School operated, the films were not all high-browed. "The Polish School period is characterised by differing themes, incompatible poetics, edginess in terms of style and ideology, as well as sheer entertainment value", wrote Haltof, referring to films ranging from romantic themes, such as Wajda's Kanał and Popiół i diament / Ashes and diamonds (1958), to historical epics such as The Teutonic Knights (1960, Aleksander Ford) to comedy such as Ewa chce spac / Ewa wants to Sleep (1958, Tadeusz Chmielewski).
Although many critics today agree that the Polish School was a central part of the country's industry, in the mid 1950s and early 1960s, there was no agreement that such a group even existed. Philippe Hadiquet commented an interview given to Le Monde in 1963 by Kazimierz Kutz, that "Polish cinema is decentralised" and that "there is no school".
Nor did the concept of the "school" feature in Bolesław Michałek's and Jerzy Płażewski's seminal articles at the time, in Sight and Sound (1960) and Cahiers du Cinema (1958) respectively.
However it is now obvious that the school's activities gravitated around the Łódź Film School, which at the time was one of the leading institutions in Europe.
The School's eventual dissolution might be in part because of the group's disenchantment with the idea.
In the word of Andrzej Wajda, "The real weakness of the Polish School of the 1950s, and the reason for its inevitable disappearance, was that its films presented heroes who were more stupid than History. In my mind, it's wrong to stand on the side of History instead of on the side of your hero".
- Kanał / Canal (1956) dir. Andrzej Wajda
- Człowiek na torze / Man on the tracks (1956) dir. Andrzej Munk
- Cień / Shadow (1956) dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz
- Eroica (1957) dir. Andrzej Munk
- Prawdziwy koniec wielkiej wojny (1957) dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz
- Popiół i diament / Ashes and diamonds (1958) dir. Andrzej Wajda
- Ostatni dzień lata / Last days of Summer (1958) dir. Tadeusz Konwicki
- Pożegnania (1958) dir. Wojciech Jerzy Has
- Baza ludzi umarłych (1958) dir. Czesław Petelski
- Ewa chce spac / Ewa wants to Sleep (1958) dir. Tadeusz Chmielewski
- Pociąg / Night train (1959) dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz
- Zezowate szczęście / Bad luck (1960) dir. Andrzej Munk
- Krzyżacy / The Teutonic Knights (1960) dir. Aleksander Ford
- Nóż w wodzie / Knife in the water (1961) dir. Roman Polański
- Jak być kochaną (1962) dir. Wojciech Jerzy Has
- Pasażerka / The passenger (1963) dir. Andrzej Munk
- Salto (1965) dir. Tadeusz Konwicki
Roberto Galea, August 2012