by Andrew James Horton
Few countries have a history quite as tortured as Poland's. Once a huge and mighty multicultural state, Poland has seen its borders jump about, in the process losing some of its most treasured cities and, for a couple of hundred years, the country disappeared from the map altogether. This tragic history culminated in the Second World War in which six million Poles died, half of them Jewish, while huge numbers of Jews were transported from other European countries to Polish territory to face the Third Reich's Final Solution.
Knife in the Water
Polish cinema, then, tackles some serious and weighty themes and the country can boast some of Europe's finest cinematic moralists, including Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi. Indeed, the country's most famous film movement is the "cinema of moral concern." Moreover, Zanussi has been strongly influenced by the teachings of the Catholic Church, and no other country in Europe is more Catholic. The first non-Italian pope since 1522, after all, is John Paul II, who was born in Wadowice, Poland.
The Second World War and the nature of heroism have been important themes for Polish directors, and even today, with interest in the war and definitions of heroism receding, the nature of masculinity is still a hot topic. Historical films are also a mainstay of the Polish film scene and have undergone a recent revival.
With Poland off the map for so many years and under repressive regimes for many more, there is a strong tradition of Polish artists working in exile (traditionally in France). This has extended to film directors, and many of Poland's finest have left to live and work abroad, including Roman Polanski, Agnieszka Holland and Jerzy Skolimowski, while many other major figures have chosen just to work there briefly, including Kieslowski, Wajda and Zanussi.
Early Polish Film
Despite some early successes, early Polish cinema suffered from poor technical quality, as the country grappled with its internal economic problems. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Poland was quick to recognise the artistic potential of cinema, and philosopher and avant garde novelist Karol Irzykowski turned to criticism of the new medium, publishing an important theoretical work, The Tenth Muse, in 1922.
The most famous films from the inter-war period are the Yiddish films, such as Joseph Green's Yidl mitn Fidl (1937) and Michal Waszynski's Der Dibuk (The Dybbuk, 1937), which capture with great vivacity pre-Holocaust life for Europe's Jews. Undoubtedly, these films would not have survived had it not been for the fact that they were successful internationally and Green took the negatives back to his native America just before the war started.
The war ruined Polish cinema - quite literally - by destroying all production facilities and many valuable prints and negatives. When it was rebuilt after the Second World War, it would be as a nationalized industry.
From his debut in 1954 right up to the present, Andrzej Wajda has been the giant of Polish film. In successive ages, he has succeeded in re-inventing his art and putting himself at the forefront of Polish cinema, and the films of other directors can frequently be seen as being responses to or dialogues with major Wajda works. The respect he won for his sometimes dissenting interpretation of modern Polish history enabled him to become a senator following the fall of communism. Still active in filmmaking, he has also founded a film school and, in 2000, won an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement.
Wajda's early films are most remarkable when compared to what came before them. Film in the Stalinist era was filled with Socialist Realism, a melodramatic genre with firm "good guys" and "bad guys," the former usually starting off on the wrong side of the political tracks (i.e., not being communists) but, as the film progresses, they come to see the light. With characters based on ideological prototypes, the scripts were devoid of observation, predictable and lacked that essential edginess of that comes from fallible characters with ambiguous motives and psychological complexity. It didn't take Party officials long to realize that things weren't working out with Socialist Realism, and it took filmmakers even less time.
One year after Stalin's death, Wajda made his debut, A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954), the story of a politically apathetic young man who comes to join the Resistance to the Germany's WWII occupation of Poland. Although running perilously close to the Socialist Realism formula and including a now comical scene in which the virtues of Marx are expounded, A Generation broke the mold with its vivid characters, taut plot and uncanny ability to capture the period.
Bookmark/Search this post with: