Film director, script writer and cameraman. Born in 1921 in Kraków. Died tragically in 1961.
Film director, script writer and cameraman.
Whilst his documentaries shot under communist occupation until the mid-1950s were propaganda productions, his later feature films broke with the schematic formula and subtly pointed out the drawbacks of a politicised approach to labour. Having gained a reputation as a great documentary maker, he managed to create works that were inscribed into the socialist realism pattern but at the same time opposed it. Munk claimed that his films were ‘a response to the official tone of the documentaries of the time, to their laconic, over-optimistic tone. I tried to show issues that had been made banal, I wanted to show the hardship, sacrifice, heroism, beauty of everyday work’.
Having played an unquestionably important role in Polish documentary filmmaking, Andrzej Munk the director of Eroica, Bad Luck and the unfinished Passenger, films which have entered the canons of Polish classics, next to Andrzej Wajda, was the main author of the restoration-oriented trend in Polish cinema dubbed the ‘Polish school’. Showing motifs of armed action and heroism requiring sacrifice in a de-mythologized way, the school emerged in the mid-1950s out of the need to shed the burden of the socialist-realist model. Critics have commented that although a part of the anti-heroic trend of the Polish school, Munk’s works stood out because of their realistic tissue, with a tendency for quasi-documentary figures as opposed to Wajda’s ‘epic poems’ and the school’s tendency for lyricism. He played an anti-Romantic role in the ‘Polish school’.
He began his career directing films that followed the spirit of the times. Several of his documentaries such as Nauka bliżej Życia / Science Closer to Life, or Kierunek Nowa Huta / Destination Nowa Huta, were used as propaganda material. Although critics argue that today it is difficult to notice the nuances that distinguish a film in compliance with the enforced pattern and one that breaks with it, according to film essayist Bożena Janicka:
Andrzej Munk – and only he – grasped the vibration between official propaganda, which used methods imported from the east to encourage people to work hard, and the genuine commitment of the people, who would have done what they did even without the propaganda, declarations, campaigns, and dull speeches. Andrzej Munk knew that the imposed propaganda ritual could conceal the real truth about people who act out of a genuine, not forced sense of responsibility for themselves and others. This was an inconvenient conclusion at the time, as it questioned the grounds for the authorities’ sense of being the masters [...].
In 1952 Andrzej Munk made Pamietniki Chłopow / Peasant Diaries, a propaganda film that intended to portray the how blissful and secure the lives of Polish peasants in post-war Poland had become. His later work on the other hand, while not standing out as opposing the regime, puts stress on showing the value of human labour and the efforts of the working class. Kolejarskie Słowo /A Railwayman’s Word is a story about the work of railwaymen who overcome obstacles to carry out their task – carrying a shipment for the steel mill to its destination on time. Apart from breaking with the ideological model, Munk’s documentaries were also valuable for their innovative and sophisticated form. In A Railwayman’s Word, Munk builds the drama with the train’s motion, he juxtaposes movement with immobility and uses sound as a counterpoint to the image. Similarly, the critics emphasise the artistry with which Munk extracts the drama of the natural scenery in his short film Gwiazdy Muszą Płonąć / Stars Must Burn where he captures men going down to an old coal mine shaft.
Gradually Munk began to ‘fictionalise’ his documentaries, and calling them ‘dramatised documentaries’, he uses authentic machines and workers but stages various scenes. The Men of the Blue Cross was called Munk’s last documentary by some, and his first feature film by others. Based on a literary text, that dealt with real events, the film featured professional actors and amateurs re-enacting past events in which they had taken part.
In 1958 he made the first of his most famous films, Eroica, followed by the second in 1960, Zezowate szczęście / Bad Luck. Dubbed an ‘anti-heroic’ film, Eroica aims to demystify the archetypal image of heroism. Set during WWII, the film tells two tales of courage and valour which show the atmosphere of foolhardy heroism which even influences those not concerned with becoming heroes. Dzidzius, a seemingly irresponsible and selfish man finally joins the uprising against the Nazis he is turned into a hero. The second tale is set in a POW camp whose Polish inmates cling to their hopes for an eventual escape, encouraged by the legendary yet entirely fictional escape of one of the prisoner. Munk’s specificity lies in his objective drive to unveil an objective truth and defend rationalism. Film critic E. Nurczynska-Fidelska wrote:
Making Eroica and Bad Luck Munk stood next to those who play the role of ‘mockers’ in processes of shaping national and cultural awareness. Their scorn and mockery fulfils a cleansing function, though, aimed at rejecting mythologized values and developing new ones.
In Passenger, his last and unfinished film, Munk reached for a different, serious language which was no longer mockery but continued to deal with heroism. Fascinated with the story of two women, a guard and a prisoner of a concentration camp, which he heard on the radio, he presented a new dimension to freedom. Marta, a prisoner, creates her beautiful humanity within the confines of imprisonment, unlike the officers in Eroica, she does not create a national myth of freedom but defends freedom as her private, intimate cause.
Andrzej Munk’s youth fell under the time of Nazi occupation. He took part in the armed resistance movement, later took on various jobs, working as a labourer and a technician. After the war, he started a course in architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology, then studied law but failed to finish either. In 1951 he graduated from the Łódź Film School. From 1957 until his death he was a lecturer at the Łódź Film School. He was killed in a car crash in 1961, leaving the film Pasażerka / Passenger unfinished. Since 1965, the Łódź film School has granted an annual Andrzej Munk Award for the best directing debut.
Documentaries and short films:
- 1949 Sztuka młodych / Art of The Young (documentary) graduation film.
- 1951 Nauka bliżej życia / Science Closer to Life (documentary). A propaganda image.
- 1951 Kierunek Nowa Huta / Destination Nowa Huta (documentary). A propaganda picture about the flagship construction project of People’s Poland – the construction of the city of Nowa Huta and a metallurgical plant which began in 1948 near Krakow.
- 1952 Bajka / The Fairy Tale (documentary). A film about a concert by the Warsaw Philharmonic orchestra at the factory club of the tractor manufacturer Ursus, where Stanislaw Moniuszko’s symphonic poem Bajka was performed.
- 1952 Pamiętniki chłopów / Peasant Diaries (fictionalised documentary). Using the language of pure propaganda, the film, based on the narratives of the heroes, confronts life in the countryside before and after World War II. Munk found the writers of some well-known diaries published before the war, and then compared their lives in the two inter-war decades with the post-war period.
- 1953 Kolejarskie Slowo / A Railwayman’s Word (fictionalised documentary). A film about the hard work and dedication of railwaymen.
- 1954 Gwiazdy musza płonąć / Stars Must Burn (fictionalised documentary) A two-part film. The part made by Munk is about the work ethos of miners. It is a story about people from the mine’s management who want to fulfill the production quota, which is at risk of not being met, and go down an old, unused mine shaft to look for coal.
- 1955 Niedzielny poranek. Scherzo / One Sunday Morning. Scherzo (short film). An impressionistic image of Warsaw and its residents rebuilt after the war.
- 1958 Spacerek staromiejski / A Walk in the Old City of Warsaw (short film) based on an idea of the composer Andrzej Markowski. A lyrical tale of how a teenage music school student wanders among the alleys of Warsaw’s Old Town, finding beauty in ordinary urban sounds.
- 1955 Błękitny krzyż / The Men of the Blue Cross, based on a short story by Andrzej Liberak. A reconstruction of authentic events featuring the real-life participants and professional actors. It presents a daring operation by the Tatra Mountain Rescue in the winter of 1945, helping the wounded in a field hospital organized in a mountain cabin in Slovakia. The wounded are carried across Nazi lines. (Awards: 1955 – 16th International Film Festival, Venice, Bronze Medal, 4th International Mountain and Travel Film Festival, Trent, second prize – Silver Rhododendron)
- 1956 Człowiek na torze / Man on the Tracks. An elderly engine driver is let go from work as punishment for his alleged hostility towards the political system and is later killed by a train. A special commission tries to shed light on the circumstances of the death. (Awards: 1957 – 10th International Film Festival, Karlovy Vary, for best director, 1958 – Warsaw Mermaid Polish Film Critics’ Award for best Polish film of 1957)
- 1957 Eroica. Heroic Symphony in Two Parts. (part I Scherzo alla pollacca, part II OStinato Lugubre) Based on J.S. Stawinski’s short stories Wegrzy / The Hungarians and Ucieczka / The Escape. Part one tells how circumstances transform Dzidzius Gorkiewicz from an anti-hero into a hero. A rational and selfish man who does not like to take risks, as the Warsaw Uprising draws to its tragic end, Dzidzius by accident enables some Hungarians wanting to join the uprising to contact its commanders. Dzidzius risks his life by traveling from Zalesie near Warsaw to the fighting Polish capital but fail to secure the alliance. However, he gets more and more involved in the lost cause, begins to consciously behaves like a hero, and finally joins the insurgents. The second part two is set in an POW camp where Polish officers are being kept by the Nazis. To keep up the spirits of their fellow prisoners, two of them invent the legend of the heroic escape of Lieut. Zawistowski. In reality the alleged hero is hidden in an attic where he eventually falls ill, suffers a breakdown following the death of his friend, and dies. The legend’s inventors continue to uphold the story of the escape, seeing the beneficial influence of the legend on their fellow prisoners’ morale, and secretly get rid of the body. (Awards: 1959 – Warsaw Mermaid Polish Film Critics’ Award for best Polish feature film of 1958, 1st Mar del Plata International Film Festival, film critics’ award with a special mention for the director, FIPRESCI award and award for the best festival set of films together with Jerzy Passendorfer’s Zamach / Answer to Violence)
- 1959 Zezowate szczęście / Bad Luck, based on J.S. Stawiński’s novel Sześć wcieleń Jana Piszczyka / Six Incarnations of Jan Piszczyk. A comic take on the story of a man whose life is a series of fiascos. Piszczyk says he is unlucky, and blames bad luck for his sad fate. In reality, driven by a need to be successful, he behaves like an unprincipled opportunist, which combined with his innate stupidity sets him far away from his goals. Critic A. Jackiewicz wrote, “Bad Luck is not just a tale about an opportunist’s life but also, or perhaps primarily, a tale about the country’s history which made such opportunism possible”. (Awards: 1960 – 14th International Film Festival, Edinburgh, special mention, 1961 – Warsaw Mermaid Polish Film Critics’ Award for best Polish feature film of 1960)
- 1961-1963 Pasażerka / Passenger. Left unfinished after Munk’s death, the materials were put together by Witold Lesiewicz. The film shows a psychological duel between a perpetrator and a victim, a German woman who was a guard at a concentration camp and a Polish woman who was a prisoner there. The story is told through the reminiscences of the German, who is traveling with her husband and thinks she recognises her former victim, Marta, on board of the ship. (Awards: 1964 – 16th International Film Festival, Cannes, Jury’s Special Mention, FIPRESCI award, International Film Festival, Venice, special mention for a film outside the competition, award from the Italian Journalists’ Association, 15th Czechoslovak Festival of the Working People, Prague, Main Prize, award from the Czechoslovak Union of Anti-fascist Fighters, award from the Club of Friends of Film Art, Warsaw Mermaid Polish Film Critics’ Award for best Polish feature film of 1960; 1965 – Helsinki, award from the Finnish Film Critics’ Association)
Films featuring Andrzej Munk’s life and accomplishments: Eugeniusz Cekalski. Antoni Bohdziewcz. Andrzej Munk (1978) directed by Władyslaw Wasilewski, and Ostatnie zdjęcia. Brulion / The Last Pictures (2000) directed by Andrzej Brzozowski.
Based on the text by Ewa Nawój, April 2005, edited by Marta Jazowska