An introduction to Polish cinema

James Oliver

Broaden your cinematic horizons by delving into some of the greatest Polish films ever made 

Polish filmmakers haven't always had the best of luck. True, they got off to a good start—movies were made in Poland from the end of the 19th century—but it's hard to see anything made before 1945: the country's cinematic heritage was all but destroyed in the Second World War.

And once the war was over, and film production began again, it was under the auspices of the Soviets, for whom artistic freedom came a poor second behind ideological purity.

It says a lot about Polish creativity that a new generation of filmmakers were not just to work under those restraints but positively thrive: the word “masterpiece” is much overused but it's the only one that will do for many of these films.

Whatever the downsides of communism, it did at least facilitate film production. When the old order collapsed, Polish filmmakers found the free market much less supportive of their ventures (probably a small price to pay for the end of secret police, arbitrary detention and torture but a nuisance nonetheless). But although it's been harder to make distinctive films since then, it’s not impossible: great movies are still being made.

One of those is called Cold War; it's opening soon and is well worth checking out. If it inspires you—and it's very much to be hoped that it will—you've come to the right place, because we've prepared an introduction to some of the classics of Polish film JUST FOR YOU.

 

ASHES AND DIAMONDS

Popiól i diament, 1958


Image via filmlinc.org 

There's no other place to start. Andrzej Wajda was the undisputed champion of Polish cinema—he's the reason this list is limited to one-film-per-director, so everyone else would get a look in—and this is (probably) his most celebrated movie.

It's the final part of his War Trilogy, three separate films about... well, you can probably guess that. The first is A Generation, about youthful resistance fighters. It was followed by Kanal, which followed the doomed survivors of the Warsaw uprising as they fled through the sewers.

Ashes and Diamonds is set on the final day of the war, but there’s still work for the resistance even as the demise of the Hitler gang is celebrated; a group of fighters has been charged with the assassination of a communist boss and we follow them as they prepare for their grisly task, mourning what was and dreaming about what might be.


Andrzej Wajda. Image via rogerebert.com 

By this stage, Wajda was a fantastically assured director and he pulls out all the stops. Visually, it's remarkable, filled with imagery that resonates to this day. The symbolism of the short sequence in a bombed out church, complete with upside down crucifix, might be a better description of what happened to Poland in the years 1939-45 than the entire 26 episodes of The World and War.

It's not just Wajda's show, though. It stars Zbigniew Cybulski, the so-called “Polish James Dean”, a description that sells him short. Cybulski was the greatest star of Polish pictures and never more iconic than here, with shades, guns and the aura of a doomed man, heading to his inevitable death.

 

KNIFE IN THE WATER

Nóż w wodzie, 1962


Image via mspresents.com

Roman Polanski is an awkward figure; he’s a convicted felon and a fugitive from justice, even before we get into the specific nature of his crimes. But he made a number of films that can't easily be ignored, no matter how we feel about the man who made them.

He began as an actor (you can see him in Wajda's A Generation, wearing alarmingly short shorts, if memory serves), then turned to directing, first with acclaimed short films and then features. Knife in the Water was the only Polish feature film he ever made and it establishes the template that would characterise almost all his films thereafter.

It's set in a confined space (in this case a yacht), over a short period of time during which a succession of psychological power games are played. Here, a young couple pick up a hitchhiker and invite him to spend the weekend with them on their yacht—with hilarious consequences! Only joking: a series of psychological power games are played instead.

Polanski escaped communist Poland for London and then Hollywood. Given all that happened thereafter, it's worth pondering what might have happened if he'd remained. Hopefully he would have continued to work and produce remarkable films. But, just possibly, their creator would carry less baggage.

 

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT

Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1964

Great works of literature seldom make for good films. Here’s one of the most blissful exceptions. It's taken from The Manuscript at Saragossa which—although written in French—is considered a Polish classic, given that its author (Jan Potocki) was a Pole (an aristocratic, no less). His novel is a celebration of storytelling, comprising stories within stories, and stories within stories within stories. And Stories within st... you get the picture.

The film version, directed with great style by Wojciech Has, compresses things just a little but it's still one of the wilder films of the 1960s, and the very antithesis of the social realism so often associated with Polish cinema. Zbigniew Cybulski—him again—stars as an army officer who heads into a supposedly haunted region, encountering ghosts, gypsies and practitioners of esoteric rituals. Or does he? Maybe it's all just a game.


Zbigniew Cybulski. Image via imdb.com 

Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola adore it and they're not the only famous fans: it was the favourite film of no less than Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

 

MOONLIGHTING

This is a little bit of a cheat: even though the main character is Polish, the fact he's played by Jeremy Irons rather gives the game away that this is actually a British film.

But it earns its place here because it was made by one of Polish cinema's very greatest talents. Jerzy Skolimowski. A sometime boxer and all-round bad influence, he entered movies as a writer for Andrzej Wajda, who needed someone with street smarts to write his youth movie Innocent Sorcerers, and he co-wrote the script for Knife in the Water too.

If he's not as well known as his sometime collaborators, he has certainly made films that equal theirs, most especially Deep End, a hallucinatory study of desire set in a run-down swimming pool in suburban London (not an obvious setting for a surrealist masterpiece but there you are).

Moonlighting was born of despair, when martial law was imposed on Poland. Then working in London, Skolimowski conceived this story of Polish builders working illegally in Britain, worried about what was happening to their homeland and equally scared of being caught by the British authorities. Produced at great speed—it was shown at Cannes about five months after Skolimowski began work—it remains a vital document of a terrible time, even if Jeremy Irons' Polish accent is a bit dodgy.

 

DEKALOG

(The Decalogue/ The Ten Commandments)


Image via scmp.com

Another cheat, but of a different sort: rest assured there's no second helpings of Jeremy Irons' accent. Rather, this isn't actually a film—it was made for Polish television, although it was screened at cinemas overseas and even spawned a couple of theatrical off-shoots.

This pioneering work of multi-media was directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski and is a series of ten short films, each inspired by one of the ten commandments, re-interpreted into a secular setting (or at least then-contemporary Poland) and used as a way of musing on morality. If you don't fancy sitting through the whole thing, the director produced extended versions of two commandments—they became A Short Film About Killing (Thou Shall Not Kill) and A Short Film About Love (and don't commit adultery either).


A Short Film About Killing. Image via doubleexposurejournal.com 

But in this age of binge-watching, perhaps the whole thing won't seem as daunting. After all, the episodes are not long, although Kieślowski packed more ideas—and emotion—into the slight running time of each episode than many filmmakers manage in their entire career.

 

IDA

(er...Ida, 2013)

Paweł Pawlikowski actually started his feature filmmaking career in the UK—Last Resort was one of his, so too My Summer of Love (still the best thing Emily Blunt has done)—but personal circumstances brought about a return to the land of his birth. British film's loss is very much Poland's gain, though, and Ida showed a real advance.

It’s a short film—not even an hour and a half—but like Kieślowski (one of his influences), Pawlikowski manages to cram an awful lot into his running time. Set in the 1960s, its title character is a trainee nun; she leaves the convent to visit her only surviving relative, a communist with a dim view of religion. But this isn't (just) a film about belief – it confronts the occupation, the Holocaust and Soviet rule too.

It met with acclaim all around the world and picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, which is pretty good going. It's not really typical of most Polish films, which lean towards more commercial fare (they're very fond of their rom-coms, apparently). It's very much to be hoped, though, that it inspires more artistically adventurous work but until then, it’s a worthy addition to an illustrious tradition.