A film director and screenwriter. Born on 29 October 1948 in Wrocław.
He graduated in mathematics from the Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry of Wrocław University in 1971. He also studied art history and journalism. He completed a screenwriting course at the National Film, Television and Theatre School (PWSFTViT) in Łódź in 1980.
In 1974-81 he ran the film sections of Opole monthly and later Odra magazine. He was active in the 81/2 Academic Film Club. He worked with the X Film Studio from 1977. He was a member of the Karol Irzykowski Studio's Artistic Council in 1985-90, and vice-president of the Association of Polish Filmmakers in 1987-90 and 1994-96. He is a member of the Programme Council of Odra monthly, and lectures on directing and screenwriting at film schools in Poland and abroad. In 1975 he received the Karol Irzykowski Award for his film publications. In 1990 the Jury of the John Paul II Foundation granted him an award for film production 'displaying special concern for the human lot, for fundamental humanist values, especially in the extremely complex Polish social and moral conditions'. He received the City of Wrocław Award in the same year.
He began as a film journalist. He has a light, intelligent and vigorous writing style, and his reviews are biting though carefully balanced. He has published two volumes of feature articles on film: Wróżenie z kina (Reading the Future from Cinema, Ossolineum 1978) and Niewinność utracona w kinie (Innocence Lost in the Cinema, Ossolineum 1981) as well as a collection of reportages, Pierwszy stopień do piekła (First Step to Hell, Wyd. Łódzkie 1978). This is what he has to say:
I was a film critic as a substitute career. I already knew in secondary school that I would try to make films one day. At the time I understood directing (...) as a kind of vocation. This was the result of being brought up on films from the 'Polish school'. (Film 1988 No. 51)
Even before he completed his university studies, he tried his hand at making films, and in 1971 won first prize and the audience's award for his short Wielki Świat (Big World) at the Katowice festival of student films. In 1977 he wrote the script for the television film Poza układem (Outside The System). During the making he assisted director Jan Rutkiewicz and played the part of Stefcio. He was subsequently Andrzej Wajda's assistant for Dyrygent (The Conductor, 1979) and assistant director for Sylwester Chęciński's TV film Bo oszalałem dla niej (Because I'm Crazy About Her, 1980). He also collaborated with Wojciech Marczewski on Dreszcze / Shivers (1981). He wrote the screenplays for the films Planeta Krawiec (The Planet 'Tailor', dir. Jerzy Domaradzki, 1983) and Paradox Lake (dir. Przemysław Reut, 2002); the latter film won him an award at the Milan IFF in 2002. He is also the scriptwriter for all his own films, and a film producer (Saco Films).
His career as a director began badly. His first film, the television project Wolny Strzelec (Freelancer, 1981) was not admitted for distribution, and was only shown on television six years later. In the meantime Saniewski wrote the screenplay and directed his next film, Nadzór (Custody, 1983), and this is often considered to be his directing debut. The film, set in a women's prison and touching on themes including unjust sentences passed by the courts, was not a favourite with the communist authorities of the time, and its wider distribution did not take place until 1988. Maciej Pawlicki wrote:
Custody is an embarrassing film. It irritates and worries, asking itself and us inconvenient questions. At the same time it keeps away from easy accusations, but comes close to some very difficult ones. All this is because it is an important film, and one that is honest with the audience. (Film 1988 No. 05)
Even from these two films it was obvious that Saniewski wanted to take on difficult and socially important topics in his work. His third film, Sezon na bażanty (The Stalking Season, 1985) concerns the problem of Poles' emigration, an inconvenient problem for the authorities. In Dotknięci (The Touched, 1988), he returns to the issue of an imprisoned person's isolation and their yearning for freedom in the broadest sense. This time, however, he does not lead us behind prison walls but into a psychiatric hospital. Once again he touches on the problem of people being treated like objects, as one of the dangers which many Polish people had to struggle with. The director himself saw the issue in an even wider aspect:
With 'The Touched' I built a more general level: I tried to see the film as a parable of reality in which some play the part of the patients while others play the doctors, but all of them are locked up together within the realm of the same disease. (Film 1988 No. 51)
Saniewski made these four films before the breakthrough year 1989, and each of them includes a hidden criticism of enslavement. His next film, Obcy musi fruwać (Stranger Must Fly, 1993), was made in free Poland and is a comedy-drama in which Saniewski presents the situation of artists in the new times, while in Deszczowy żołnierz (The Rain Soldier, 1996) he returns to the tragedy of Stalinist crimes. In Bezmiar sprawiedliwości / Immensity of Justice (2006) the director again concerns himself with the problem of confinement, this time of a man sentenced for a crime he did not commit. The film analyses problems of the judiciary's functioning.
Saniewski's last film up to date is Wygrany / Winner (2011). The story is set in two distinct worlds: the exclusive world of piano competitions and the world of horse racing (which is a private passion of the director as well).
Winner is a story about a friendship that seems impossible; about people who search for their place in life - a place where their personal freedom would be the central point. It is a film about what is most important in everyone's life, and what is often forgotten. It is also a film about what gives us wings - about realizing our dreams - said the director.
It is characteristic of all of Saniewski's films that they mix conventions and styles. The director believes such measures enliven the narration, break set patterns, and are characteristic of contemporary cinema.
My films usually have a visible thriller layer, or a melodramatic one, which of course is not the most important, but on its basis I try to build deeper meanings. Emotions can be reconciled with the intellectual sphere. Both these spheres should exist in a film if it is to have any importance and get through to the audience. (Kino 1986 No. 05)
- 1981 Wolny strzelec / Freelancer. A young woman dies in a factory fire. Piotr, a reporter (the title freelancer), is on the case and blames the plant's director, Labus, for the accident. After submitting his text for publication, the reporter discovers the director is innocent, but it's too late to withdraw the story. After reading the accusations, Labus has a heart attack and dies. Piotr, who has turned out to be as naïve as he is uncompromising, was a tool in the hands of skilful manipulators who wanted to oust the director.
- 1983 Nadzór / Custody. The protagonist is a young female prisoner, Klara, sentenced for embezzlement to a draconian and incommensurate punishment of life imprisonment. She finds out in prison that she is pregnant. Despite her hopeless situation, she decides to have the baby. She does this to spite the whole world, though she knows her child will be brought up without a mother. For Klara, however, giving birth is the last chance to escape despair, the baby becomes her only hope. An extraordinarily evocative psychological drama, stimulating the viewer to reflect on the limits of human freedom, on justice and the relations between the individual and society. Awards: 1984 - Don Quixote Award of the Polish Federation of Film Debating Societies; Andrzej Munk Award from the PWSFTViT in Łódź; 1985 - award for best directing debut at the Polish Film Festival in Gdańsk; FIPRESCI Prize at the Mannheim Festival; Award for best film of the year from the Solidarity Independent Cultural Committee (for 1984); 1986 - Golden Reel awarded by the critics' section of the Association of Polish Filmmakers in the Polish film category (for 1985).
- 1985 Sezon na bażanty / The Stalking Season. The film is set in 1981. The ex-wife of young épée fencer Paweł leaves the country secretly, taking their son with her. Paweł follows them. After many adventures he manages to get his son back and return to Poland with him. Television tries to turn him into a hero and patriot who wants to have his son brought up in his homeland. For Paweł it's all a matter of ambition, and he's happy to have won. As he celebrates victory, forgetting about his son, the boy runs away and travels on foot towards the border, where his mother is. A family drama with a thriller theme.
- 1988 Dotknięci / The Touched (screenplay based on Andrzej Kijowski's short story Oskarżony / The Accused). Joanna is in a mental hospital. Her husband Jan takes her home, where Joanna commits suicide. Jan is accused of murder and subjected to a psychiatric examination. Although the prosecutor dismisses the case, Jan is apathetic after a series of electroshocks and stays on in the hospital. He finally comes home persuaded by his son. The film is an expression of fear and strong opposition to violence and people being manipulated. Awards: 1988 - Journalists' award at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia; 1989 - Award of the Head of Cinematography for achievement in feature films, for the directing and screenplay.
- 1993 Obcy musi fruwać / Stranger Must Fly (prod. Poland, Germany). The film is set in Berlin in the early 1990's, soon after the wall came down. Theatre director Maks comes to visit his Polish friends who have been living here for some time. They want to stage an ambitious play together, but they don't have the money. They raise funds by selling pieces of the Berlin wall, among other schemes, struggling against bureaucracy. When they overcome a multitude of problems and the play finally premieres, just two people come to see it. This story of people who want to make their dreams come true in another country touches upon still topical issues of chauvinism on both sides of the border. The film won first place on the journalists' ranking list in the "New Times" weekly. Awards: 1993 - Awards for best film and best foreign film at the Phoenix IFF; 1994 - Silver Award at the 27th Houston IFF; 1997 - Silver Award at the Charleston IFF.
- 1996 Deszczowy żołnierz / The Rain Soldier (prod. Poland, Germany). The honest and incorruptible young Prosecutor Anna meets a man in the rain; he remembers nothing and doesn't even know who he is. She hides him in a deserted town where Soviet forces were once stationed. Anna tries to discover the identity of the mysterious man, for whom she is starting to have feelings. The clues lead Anna to her own father and a tragic story which took place in 1949. The film was very badly received in Poland but appreciated abroad, being screened in many countries around Europe. "Variety", Hollywood's most influential weekly, published a very positive review of the film. Awards: 1996 - Award of the Polish Cultural Foundation at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia; 1997 - Gold Star Award and award for directing at the 30th Houston IFF.
- 2006 Bezmiar sprawiedliwości / Immensity of Justice. The main character is Łukasz, a young law graduate, who wants to find out whether Jerzy, sentenced to 25 years in prison, really did murder his pregnant lover. The trial is shown from the point of view of the prosecution, the defence, and the judge. In the course of his search Łukasz finds a piece of evidence, overlooked by everyone during the investigation, proving that the man is innocent and was wrongfully sentenced. Awards: 2006 - Special mention from journalists at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia;
- 2011 - Wygrany / Winner. Oliver Linovsky, a young and promising pianist has a personal crisis. His defeat - according to many experts unjust - in the Chopin Contest put a shadow over his career. Fame and money come with prestigious awards, mere talent is not enough. Linovsky, hunted down by his despotic mother and a selfish agent, finds solace only with his wife. When she leaves him too, his world falls apart. The pianist unexpectedly interrupts his European tournee during a concert in Wrocław. Angry organizers throw him out of the hotel. He cannot return to the States either, especially since his credit card suddenly stops working. Linovsky, who has Polish roots, but has been living in the US for a long time, doesn't speak Mickiewicz's language too well and knows almost nothing about Wrocław. Fortunately in a bar he meets Franek - a retired maths professor, addicted to horce racing. Between this solitary man and the great pianist an unexpected friendship is born. The film got the Audience Award in Tarnów and in Chicago, at the Polish Film Festival.
- 2002 Wracając do Marka / Returning to Marek - a film about the relationship between Marek Hłasko and Sonja Ziemann.
- 2003 Zwyczajna świętość / Ordinary Sanctity (script with Helena Saniewska) - the film presents the profile and activity of Urszula Ledóchowska, the canonized founder of the Ursuline Sisters of the Agonizing Heart of Jesus.
- 2004 Rozdarcie, czyli Gombro w Berlinie / A Split, or Gombro in Berlin - dramatized documentary about Gombrowicz's stay in Berlin in May 1963.
Author: Halina Olczak-Moraczewska, December 2006; updated by NMR, November 2016.