Do you know what connects Spectre, Pulp Fiction, Black Hawk Down, Pirates of the Caribbean, Midnight Cowboy, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Ray, and Speed? It’s the Polish cinematographers standing behind the camera for each of these famous productions. In Hollywood, these professionals have even been monikered the Polish mafia, and they are a source of national pride as well as the best export material of our local film schools.
Pioneers and masters
Jerzy Lipman, 1922 - 1983
It all began with Lipman, as he was the first to introduce the best Polish cinematographers into the realm of film. Lipman transplanted the accomplishments of Italian new realism onto Polish ground. As Andrzej Wajda would later recall, “Jurek’s motto was that the camera could do anything. A pioneer, Lipman was the first to make tracking shots dozens of metres long, and in Kanał he dared to dip the camera in mud in order to film its surface.
Because of his Jewish descent Lipman was a prisoner of the ghetto in Wołomin, and later of a concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Due to anti-Semitic repressions in 1968 he was forced to leave the country. He spent years working in western Europe, and died in forced exile in 1983.
Jerzy Wójcik, b. 1930
Wójcik is one of the few truly great masters of the Polish school of cinematography. His ascetic images, beautiful and incredibly modest, would mark out the style of such iconic productions as Ashes and Diamonds by Andrzej Wajda, Mother Joan of the Angels and The Pharaoh by Jerzy Kawalerowicz.
When he showed up at the film school's entry exams in 1950, he didn't have any photographs with him – his family couldn't afford a camera. Instead, he brought drawings, and based on these, he was accepted into the school. He spent nearly his entire life there, and it would be difficult to find even one Polish cinematographer for whom Wójcik is not a source of inspiration.
Witold Sobociński , b. 1929
If one could call Wójcik a philosopher and a poet of the image, then Sobociński is a cinematographic jazzman, with inclinations towards mad improvisation. Before he became engaged with film it was jazz (a problematic genre in the eyes of Communist authorities) that allowed him to fulfil his artistic passion.
He never became a percussionist, but instead he created such excellent pictures as The Promised Land by Andrzej Wajda, The Hour-Glass Sanatorium and Polański's Frantic. Sobociński is also the head of a cinematographic clan. His son was Piotr Sobociński, who shot Kieślowski's films, and currently his two grandsons, Piotr Jr. and Michał, are rising cinematographic stars.
Jan Laskowski , 1928-2014
One of the pioneers of Polish new wave. After the war, during his adolescent years, Laskowski lived in Łódź, where he studied and worked. After many years, this is how he described his beginnings in film:
Once, on my way to work, I bought a camera and started to take photos. On my way to school, I saw a poster for the film The Bellman of Notre Dame, and I was hooked. I read a notice on the door of the entrance to the Film School, which announced entry exams. Why do you want to study here?, Antoni Bohdziewicz asked me. "Because I want to make films like the Bellman of Notre Dame
He was accepted and would later become one of the key film artists of the 1950s and 1960s. He shot such famous films as The Last Day of Summer and See You Tomorrow by Janusz Morgenstern and the award-winning Train by Jerzy Kawalerowicz.
Mieczysław Jahoda, 1924 -2009
He was a pioneer of new photographic technologies. Jagoda was the first to realise a Polish film on Eastmancolor tape (Knights of the Teutonic Order) and panoramic pictures shot in the Cinemascope system (the experimental Stadium from 1959).
He collaborated with some of the most important Polish directors of his time – Wojciech Jerzy Has (with whom he made The Loop and The Manuscript Found in Saragossa), Aleksander Ford (Knights of the Teutonic Order) and Andrzej Żuławski (The Song of Triumphant Love).
Adam Holender, b. 1937
The life of Adam Holender is itself material for a film. During the war, as a boy only three years of age, he found himself in the Siberian gulag along with the other members of his family. When he returned to Poland, his family's heritage had been stolen and most of his relatives had been murdered in the Holocaust. Going against family tradition, he did not want to study architecture and chose Film School instead of the Institute of Technology. A few years after his graduation, he travelled to the United States where he worked as a truck driver for a film production company.
When one day a hungover cinematographer didn't show up for shooting, Holender took over his task. And thus began his climb up the professional ladder. In 1969, he was behind the camera for Midnight Cowboy, one of the most famous pictures of time. Other titles worth noting among Holender's achievements include Jerry Schatzberg's The Panic in Needle Park, Wayne Wang's Smoke, and To Kill a Priest by Agnieszka Holland.
The cameramen of Polish masters
Paweł Edelman, b. 1958
Even before he was presented with the Cesar for his photography to The Pianist and prior to his American Association of Cinematographers' award for Ray, Edelman was considered one of the best in his generation. In 1999 he was listed as one of the most interesting cinematographers by Variety magazine. This was not by chance – by then he had already made films with Wajda and Władysław Pasikowski. Ever since The Pianist he's been the regular cinematographer for Roman Polański's films, with whom he also shot Oliver Twist, Ghost Writer, Carnage, and Venus in Fur.
Jacek Petrycki, b. 1948
One of the key artists of the so-called cinema of moral concern which addressed the lives and dilemmas of people living behind the iron curtain. In 1971, Petrycki made his debut as a documentary cinematographer. He worked with Marcel Łoziński (one of the most proclaimed documentary filmmakers in the history of Polish cinema) on 24 of his films. He also collaborated with Kieślowski on his early documentaries. Together with the latter, he made feature films, such as The Amateur (1979) and Peace (1976). With Agnieszka Holland, Petrycki shot Provincial Actors (1978) and The Lonely Woman (1981).
Edward Kłosiński 1943 - 2008
In 1978, in an interview conducted by Marcin Giżycki, Kłosiński said, 'Photography cannot become a 'surface' that divides the viewer from the film. For if the images are that aggressive, the viewer will be in awe of them – 'oh, how beautiful' – and then, the essence of the film escapes him.”
In his films, the beauty of the photographs does not overshadow meaning. This quality was the very reason why his work was appreciated by directors such as Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Janusz Zaorski, all of whom he worked with on films. Kłosiński was the cinematographer for such pictures as Three Colours: White by Kieślowski, Wajda's Man of Marble and Zanussi's Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease.
Sławomir Idziak, b. 1945
I do not believe in the mission of cinema, but I believe that our thoughts can be stimulated so as to let us ponder and reflect for a moment about our reality, about Poland, about ourselves – and this is the kind of cinema that seems to be most valuable to me, Idziak stated in an 1978 interview published by Kino magazine.
Before shooting for Hollywood hits such as Black Hawk Down and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as well as A Tale of Love and Darkness, Natalie Portman's directorial debut, Idziak was the key figure of the so-called cinema of moral concern. In the 1970s and 80s, he shot the films of Krzysztof Zanussi, such as Bilans kwartalny (1974) and Constans (1980). He become famous for his collaboration with Krzysztof Kieślowski – A Short Film About Killing (1987), The Double Life of Veronique (1991), and Three Colours: Blue (1993).
Piotr Sobociński, 1958 - 2001
It was Kieślowski's Decalogue that turned out to be Piotr Sobociński's gateway to an international career. In 1988, he worked on two parts of the television series created by Kieślowski, and six years later he encountered the director on the set of Three Colours: Red. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1985, and this gave rise to his international popularity.
In the subsequent years, together with Ron Howard he shot The Ransom with Mel Gibson starring in the main role. Then, there was Marvin's Room by Jerry Zaks (1996) and Twilight starring Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon, as well as Hearts in Atlantis (2001) by Scott Hicks and 24 Hours (2002) with Charlize Theron and Kevin Bacon. Sobociński died of a heart attack at the young age of 43 whilst working on a film.
Ryszard Lenczewski , b. 1948
A laureate of the Golden Lions, the European Film Award, and BAFTA for the best cinematography. He was also nominated for his work on Pawlikowski's Ida (2013).
Lenczewski always manifested an experimental approach to things. In the documentaries which he realised together with Bogdan Dziworski, he transgressed the barrier of documentary observation while searching for new means of expression. In the intimate and modest films of Andrzej Barański, he made the camera into an almost invisible observer. His biggest achievements are bound with the career of Paweł Pawlikowski, with whom, apart of Ida he also realised Last Resort (2000), My Summer of Love (2004), and La Femme du Vème (2011).
Krzysztof Ptak , b. 1954
Whenever I get an offer to shoot a film, I think – in a selfish way – of what this film could bring me. I always try to have a concept of how to make the film. Otherwise, it would be devoid of any character, at least on the visual level, claimed Ptak in an interview.
His camera work is a blend of poetic beauty and technical skill. Ptak is an artist who follows the newest trends (he was the first one in Poland to realise films in HD), but regardless of whether he is shooting on film or using the newest digital cameras, he paints breath-taking and beautiful stories on the silver screen. He has collaborated with directors such as Wojciech Marczewski, Jan Jakub Kolski, Krzysztof Krauze, and Joanna Kos-Krauze.
Jolanta Dylewska, b. 1958
One of the best women cinematographers in the world, Dylewska was the cinematographer for Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness, which was listed among the Academy Award nominees in 2012. She also shot the exceptional Tulpan by Sergey Dvorcevoi.
Prior to meeting the Polish cinematographer on the set, the Russian director couldn't believe that a woman would even be able to stand working in the 50-degree heat of the Kazakhstani desert, among sandstorms and scorpions. Dylewska wasn't afraid of the work conditions and thus, after a few years of hard work with Dvorcevoi, she created an ingenious film, crowned with awards from dozens of international film festivals. She is also the director of documentaries, among them Po-lin. Okruchy pamięci (Po-lin: Crumbs of Memories) and I była miłość w Getcie (And There Was Love in the Ghetto).
Not just Hollywood – the cinematic emigrants
Andrzej Bartkowiak, b. 1950
One can only do such crazy things in youth, as the cinematographer summed up his journey to the US. “I was only 22 years old then, in the middle of my studies at the Film School in Lodz, and filled with great dreams. I was attracted to Hollywood. When the borders opened up in the 1970s, I went to America without any preparation, without knowing anyone,” he would later admit in an interview conducted by Barbara Hollender from the Rzeczpospolita daily.
Before he became the cinematographer for major blockbuster hits of the 1990s, he shot commercials and video clips. Later, he became a consultant for super-productions such as Lethal Weapon 4 by Richard Donner, The Devil's Advocate by Taylor Hackford, Falling Down by Joel Schumacher and Dante's Peak by Roger Donaldson, and these are only some of the impressive titles which Bartkowiak has worked on.
Andrzej Sekuła, b. 1954
Before he hooked up with Tarantino to shoot Pulp Fiction, Andrzej Sekuła tried to get into the Cinematography Department of the Lódz Film School six times – and he never got accepted. So, instead he graduated from the prestigious National Film and Television School in London. He left Poland in 1980, and after many years of work, became the man behind the camera for films such as Four Rooms and Reservoir Dogs by Quentin Tarantino, as well as American Psycho by Mary Harron. He has also directed Cube 2.
Dariusz Wolski , b. 1956
With Johnny Depp as the flamboyant Jack Sparrow, one of the best-known film characters of recent decades, this successful film series was filmed by the Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski with 3-D cameras similar to those used in the production of Avatar. Wolski, who also worked with Depp on The Rum Diary and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, will also work the camera on the next Pirates sequel - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, out in 2016.
Wolski, a film and music video cinematographer, is also known for his work on Alex Proyas' The Crow and Dark City, Eminem's Stan featuring Dido, and Aerosmith's Janie's Got a Gun. Wolski left Poland in 1979 to work the camera on indie movies and documentaries, then graduated from the American Film Academy.
Janusz Kamiński, b. 1959
When you think of Steven Spielberg you think Jurassic Park, E.T. and Jaws, but you should also think of Janusz Kamiński. The Polish-born cinematographer has been Spielberg's inseparable co-worker since Schindler's List, the film that brought the cinematographer to fame. A two-time Oscar winner for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, and a six-time nominee, the off-screen talent left Poland as a young man and started his career in the U.S. His big break came with Diane Keaton's 1991 TV film Wildflower.
Spielberg and Kamiński have a signature style they've captured together: mystical lighting streaking in from the outside and casting dramatic shifts visible in Saving Private Ryan, a film that set the tone for cinematic war drama films to come. The future brings Spielberg-Kamiński collaborations, with Bridge of Spies coming out in 2015.
Talents of (not just) the young generation
Among the greatest stars of Polish cinematography, rising talents can also be found next to the old masters and experienced iconic artists.
Łukasz Żal, b. 1981
Łukasz Żal is only 34 years old, but among his achievements are films such as Joanna by Aneta Kopacz, Paparazzi by Piotr Bernaś, and Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski, as well as a European Film Award, a BAFTA Award nomination, two Golden Frogs at the Camerimage Festival and an Oscar nomination.
Variety magazine named him one of the most promising cinematographers whose upcoming films should be given particular attention, and in February 2014, members of the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers gave him the Spotlight award for cinematography for Ida.
Wojciech Staroń, b. 1973
He is a cinematographer and a director of documentaries, a poet of the cinema capable of transferring his extraordinary sensitivity onto the silver screen. He was presented with the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his work on El Premio. He filmed Saviour's Square and Papusza by Krzysztof Krauze and Joanna Kos-Krauze, as well as the documentaries of Paweł Łoziński and Jerzy Śladkowski.
Staroń has also directed prominent documentaries – Siberian Lesson, Argentinian Lesson and Brothers for which he garnered awards at festivals in Locarno, Kanton, Leipzig, Montreal, Florence and New York.
Michał Englert, b. 1975
One of the most popular cinematographers of the young generation, and a regular collaborator of Małgorzata Szumowska. Together, they shot 33 Scenes from Life, Stranger and Body/Ciało, with Englert as not only the cinematography for the latter, but also as co-author of the script. In 2013 he was behind the camera of Ari Folman's The Congress, based on the novel by Stanisław Lem.
Arkadiusz Tomiak, b. 1969
In the year 2000, Tomiak was one of the youngest cinematographers in history to receive an award at the Gdynia Film Festival, for his work on Jan Jakub Kolski's Keep Away From The Window. Today, at the age of 46, Tomiak has shot more than 50 films. The best ones among them are: Marcin Krzyształowicz's Manhunt, Daas by Adrian Panek, and Bodo Kox's Girl from the Closet.
Piotr Sobociński jr, b. 1983
Another descendant of the prominent cinematographers' clan. His father, Piotr senior, worked on the best known of Kieślowski's films, and his grandfather, Witold co-created the films of Andrzej Wajda and Wojciech Jerzy Has. Much like his younger brother Michał, Piotr Jr. has also followed in the father's and grandfather's footsteps. And, although he is only 32 years old, he has already made a dozen films, and some of which are well acclaimed – Roża and Traffic Department by Wojciech Smarzowski, Gods by Łukasz Palkowski and Strefa nagości (Nudity Zone) by Urszula Antoniak.
Edited by BS, translated by Paulina Schlosser, Fall 2015