Polish cinema has had a fruitful last couple of years with notable international recognition, including awards at major festivals in Chicago, Cairo, Kiev, Arras, Locarno and more. Interesting titles like Suicide Room about the hazards of the virtual world, and The Last Family, the story of lauded painter Zdzisław Beksiński’s private life in Warsaw, were both box-office and artistic successes.
In 2015, two Polish movies won prestigious international awards: the stylised historical drama Ida won an Oscar and Body, a tale about an anorexic girl, was distinguished with a Silver Bear. It’s come to the point where the question isn’t whether there’s a boom in Polish cinema, but rather what’s its scope. These recent success and others like them can be accredited, among other things, to the appearance of a new generation of talented creators as well as to the sensible actions of the Polish Film Institute, a state cultural institution established in 2005 that has made some judicious investments to help the growth of Polish cinema.
Cops ‘n’ robbers
Amidst the general surge in popularity of Polish movies, crime films hold a unique place. Not only because they constitute a rather distinct category, but also because they attract record audiences that run into the millions. Essentially, they’re experiencing a renaissance. Only recently have the classic films about cops ‘n’ crooks from Poland’s 1990s, like Pigs, met their match in terms of resonating with viewers or providing a commentary to current issues.
The crime films of late are special also because their rise is strongly linked to a non-cinematic phenomenon – the ongoing craze for Polish crime books. The demand is so strong that almost every other day a new one is published, with authors including acclaimed writers like Marcin Świetlicki and Olga Tokarczuk. This interest in crime literature is what’s fuelling the popularity of crime movies, since some are screen adaptations of notable books.
On the edge of your seat
A recent Polish film that clearly stood out from the crime pack was Traffic Department, written and directed by the renowned Wojciech Smarzowski. In this 2013 picture, which is ‘dark and provocative’ according to one critic, a traffic policeman becomes a fugitive as he tries to avoid being framed for a murder. Set mainly in contemporary Warsaw, the picture merges the thriller and docufiction genres and presents the ties between high-ranked state officials and organised crime in a manner that’s truly disturbing because of its seeming realism. Thanks to the pace of the action and the superb acting of Polish stars such as Bartłomiej Topa and Arkadiusz Jakubik, Traffic Department keeps you on the edge of your seat for the better part of its duration.
Dogs and pigs
Another title that ought to be mentioned here is Patryk Vega’s 2016 hit Pitbull: New Order. Vega, who in the 2000s co-created a documentary series focussing on Warsaw’s police entitled True Pigs, has a gift for showing fictitious lawmen and criminals with great authenticity. Pitbull: New Order tells the story of a ruthless gangster striving to settle a personal grudge with a crew of violent football fans, while his case is being worked by a determined police officer. Among the picture’s strongest points is its menagerie of shady types: bodybuilders, football thugs and crooks from the Causasus. Pitbull: New Order features Polish action movie legend Bogusław Linda in the avenger’s role and the intriguing role of a gangster’s girlfriend played by Agnieszka Dygant.
The Vampire of Zagłębie
A very well-received film is last year’s I’m a Killer by Maciej Pieprzyca. Based on actual events, the picture revolves around the notorious 1970s case of the so-called ‘Vampire of Zagłębie’, a serial killer responsible for taking the lives of 14 women in Silesia. Many believe that the sentencing of Zdzisław Marchwicki, the man eventually convicted of the murders, wasn’t proven beyond reasonable doubt, an issue the movie addresses in a thought-provoking way. Praised for its portrayal of the realities of the communist 1970s in Poland, the film includes Mirosław Haniszewski as the policeman tasked with solving the Vampire’s case and Magdalena Popławska as his wife.
Approval from the writer
A Grain of Truth is a good example of a popular crime book adapted for the big screen (it was also adapted by BBC Radio in 2016). The 2015 film adaptation of the novel by celebrated author Zygmunt Miłoszewski was directed by Borys Lankosz. The writer gave the project his seal of approval by co-writing the screenplay. In the film, a legal prosecutor called Teodor Szacki (played by the celebrated Robert Więckiewicz) tries to solve the mystery of what looks like a ritual murder committed in the picturesque town of Sandomierz. As his investigation deepens, it begins to stirs up ethnic biases deeply rooted in local history. It’s worth adding that Szacki is the protagonist of an entire trilogy by Miłoszewski, the first part of which was also turned into a movie, Entanglement. However, this 2011 film, directed by Jacek Bromski, wasn’t met with any enthusiasm from the novel’s author. Of course, it came out before the current wave of high-quality productions, and is ultimately a footnote before the renaissance began.
More coming up
Noted Polish titles of late that haven’t yet been mentioned include the 2014 Jeziorak which references the aesthetic of Scandinavian crime cinema and 2015’s The Red Spider, another film based around true events that went on to win big at international film festivals.
Fortunately for those who enjoy Polish crime dramas, there are more on the way. February will see the premiere of an adaptation of an Olga Tokarczuk novel, directed by the Oscar-nominated Agnieszka Holland. Based on Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead, Spoor merges the themes of murder and ecology in unexpected ways. Also, Patryk Vega is said to be continuing his Pitbull series as soon as possible. It looks like the genre will continue to grow and film lovers are in for plenty of surprises along the way.
Author: Marek Kępa, Jan 2017
N.B. All movies available with English subtitles or will be in the near future.