Borowczyk started making films in a fruitful collaboration with Jan Lenica in the 1950s. These early works were animations and show the influence of artist Max Ernst while looking forward to the animations of Terry Gilliam for Monty Python. Are any of these Polish works available on DVD? You've got to kidding!
After Borowczyk moved to France, his work became more and more steeped in eroticism, with productions such as Immoral Tales (Contes immoraux, 1974) and The Beast (La Bîte, 1975). His later career slumped, though, and he was reduced to directing films such as Emmanuelle 5, although rumor has it that he never set foot on the set and got the assistant director to shoot the entire thing.
Would it really surprise you if I said none of Zulawski's Polish works are available on DVD? Probably not.
Nevertheless the director, who has a small but dedicated cult following, had an interesting start in Polish film, and his second feature, The Devil (Diabel, 1971), was one of the only films made in a communist country to be banned for moral reasons rather than political ones. This film shows many of Zulawski's trademark features: hysteria, sexuality and complex and ambiguous narratives.
Unusually for a director who dabbles in horror and is interested in eroticism, Zulawski is noted for the fine acting he is able to draw out from his female characters; Isabelle Adjani won a Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance in his Possession (1981). For this reason, Zulawski has been called "the George Cukor of dementia."
Possession, the only film of his currently available on DVD in the US and the director's only English-language film, is a subjectively told descent into madness following the collapse of a marriage. Free "barf bags" were given to audiences viewing the film as a promotional device in America, while in England, it was banned as a "video nasty" for its octopus sex scenes (with the creature created by Carlo Rambaldi, who did the special effects for Spielberg's E.T.).
It's right to credit Wajda and Kieslowski as the central figures of Polish cinema... to a point. Some might argue that the DVD catalog, particularly the part covering the communist era, is unfairly skewed towards the duo. The absence of works by other directors betrays the fact that a range of filmmakers produced compelling work that plays a pivotal role in world cinema history.
The best non-Wajda/Kieslowski DVDs available at present are the above-mentioned Knife in the Water and Wojciech Has's cult classic The Saragossa Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1965), a more than worthy addition to the DVD canon of world cinema classics. The film is based on the eccentric 19th century novel of the same name by Count Jan Potocki, a Polish aristocrat living in France. Set in 17th century Spain, the story is an alchemic mix of cabbalism, the occult, philosophy, the Inquisition and a narrative structure that seems a century ahead of its time. Despite the novel's impossibly intricate web of stories within stories, the film is a notable adaptation, supported by an experimental score by Krzysztof Penderecki (whose music has been used by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch) and a lead performance by Zbigniew Cybulski.
The Saragossa Manuscript
The film was a favorite of Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia and director Martin Scorsese, both of whom paid for the film's restoration.
Also represented on DVD is Krzysztof Zanussi's Year of the Quiet Sun (Rok spokojnego slonca, 1984), presumably because it is half in English. The film is set immediately after the war and charts the story of an American UN war crimes investigator and a Polish war widow who seek solace from the inhumanity around them in an impractical relationship. Sensitive and humane, the film is accomplished, but even so, pales besides Zanussi's other works, which have been more influential. Indeed, his Camouflage (Barwy ochronne, 1977), just one of many wonderful films he made in the 1970s, is sometimes considered the first film of the cinema of moral concern.
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