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.
Its success emboldened the young Wajda, and his next film deviated completely from the Socialist Realist model. Also set during the war, Kanal (1957) portrayed the last hours of a doomed set of Resistance fighters as they try to escape through the Warsaw sewer system while the city's uprising is subdued (Kanal translates as "sewer" in English, but for some reason, the Polish film's title is never translated). Controversially, Wajda chose to focus on the Home Army, the politically suspect group with ties to the West and little or no time for Moscow. For official consumption, he shows their battle as inevitably doomed, rendering them historically useless, and leaves out key facts (such as the Russian tanks waiting across the river, refusing to intervene to save the Home Army's uprising). However, in introducing this fatalism, he elevates the narrative to the level of Greek tragedy and the futility of their actions makes them all the more noble.
Wajda's third film, Ashes and Diamonds, lumped together with the previous two as a trilogy after the fact, is his most famous. Set on the last day of the war, it again has Home Army characters at its center. The main protagonist, Maciek, is an assassin trying to kill a communist leader in order to prevent the Moscow-loving resistance from taking over the country. If that wasn't controversial enough, Wajda's killer oozes hipness, with his dark glasses, jeans and a "Juliette Gréco-style" sweater. Actor Zbigniew Cybulski would become known as "the Polish James Dean" for this simmering performance of unsettled youth, the country's leading actor and sex symbol (itself a rather subversive notion in a communist country).
Again, any efforts on Wajda's part to show the Home Army as being on the wrong side of history against the inexorable rise of communism (what the regime would have been hoping for in the film) are totally overshadowed by Cybulski's brooding performance in what again has overtones of Greek tragedy.
Ashes and Diamonds
Ashes and Diamonds has become a key work of Polish cinema - and indeed world cinema - and Wajda would consciously recreate one of its key scenes in two of his later films. Moreover, the film would prompt a number of responses from other Polish directors, presenting "anti-Wajda" views of heroism and sometimes rather cheekily casting Cybulski to underline the comparison. Andrzej Munk, Wojciech Has and Jerzy Kawalerowicz are all directors that have made direct and ironic responses to Wajda in some shape or form at some point in their careers.
Wajda would continue to make films about the Second World War and its aftermath, including Lotna (1959), Samson (1961), his episode for the portmanteau film Love at Thirty (L'Amour a vingt ans, 1962), Landscape After Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, 1970), A Love in Germany (Eine Liebe in Deutschland, 1983), Chronicle of Amorous Incidents (Kronika wypadków milosnych, 1986), Korczak (1990), The Ring with the Crowned Eagle (Pierscionek z orlem w koronie, 1992) and Holy Week (Wielki tydzien, 1995). Many of these films also try to capture the Jewish experience of the war. None, though, would match his "trilogy" in terms of impact.
Although Ashes and Diamonds was a successful collaboration with Zbigniew Cybulski, it did not lead to a consistent string of fruitful pairings between the actor and director. Cybulski would star in Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje, 1960) and Wajda's episode for Love at Thirty, but relations between the two were not close and Cybulski became quite bitter about the fact that Wajda would no longer choose him for lead roles.
Legend has it that Cybulski once said, "One day he'll yearn for me" (quoted in Paul Coate's The Red and the White: Exploring the Cinema of People's Poland). And perhaps it would be a remark with some prescience. Cybulski died under the wheels of a departing train in 1967; it may have been suicide. Whatever it was, a guilt-ridden Wajda explored his troubled relationship with the actor in Everything for Sale (Wszystko na sprzedaz, 1968). A frank a self-excoriating piece of filmmaking on the part of the director, Everything for Sale includes ironic portraits of many of the leading figures in Polish cinema, some playing themselves.
Everything for Sale also symbolically marks out Daniel Olbrychski as the new leading Polish actor, a role he arguably still holds. Olbrychski would go on to act in a number of Wajda films, including The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, 1974), often considered another of Wajda's finest. The film takes place during the industrial revolution in Poland and charts three friends, one Polish, one German and one Jewish, as they try to make their fortunes. The DVD currently available is a new version of the film re-edited by Wajda and is possibly the only "director's cut" that is actually shorter than the original. The film used to have something of a reputation as "the Polish Last Tango in Paris" for its carnal explicitness, but most of the sex scenes have been removed by the director, as Paul Coates has noted.
Having introduced Cybulski and Olbrchski, Wajda would make two more remarkable introductions in the same film, Man of Marble (Czlowiek z marmaru, 1977): it was the big break for actress Krystyna Janda and it was also, along with Zanussi's Camouflage (Barwy ochronne, 1977), the work that formally started a movement known as the "cinema of moral concern" ("kino moralnego niepokoju"). The movement's aim was to undertake, in Frank Turaj's words, a "moral examination of modern Polish life and modern Polish history."
Man of Marble itself was a re-examination of the Stalinist cult of the shockworker. Using a narrative similar to Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), Man of Marble was told through a the eyes of Agnieszka (Janda), a young filmmaker researching a documentary on one of the idolized workers who mysteriously vanished. As well as investigating the uncomfortable truths of the 1950s, it also showed how they were still being covered up.
Janda would go on to star in a number of key films from the period, including Wajda's Without Anaesthetic (Bez znieczulenia, 1978), The Director (Dyrygent, 1980) and Man of Iron (Czlowiek z zeleza, 1981), the sequel to Man of Marble and the closing curtain on cinema of moral concern.
Man of Iron
When the dissident trade union movement Solidarity forced the government's hand with a series of strikes in 1980, there was a short liberal interlude early in the decade. Wajda, recognizing that it couldn't last, had to move quickly and Man of Iron was produced at Stakhanovite speed to capture the rise of Solidarity and, uncannily, predict its fall. Made so quickly, the film suffers aesthetically, but it nevertheless captures an important moment in history, with key players such as Solidarity leader and future president of the country Lech Walesa playing themselves. The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and when it opened in Poland it quickly became, according to Turaj, the most popular Polish film of all time.
But within four months, it was off Polish cinema screens. Frightened of the liberal direction the country was taking and with Russia's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 still worryingly fresh in memory, General Jarulzelski declared martial law in Poland and began rounding up Solidarity sympathizers. Public life was essentially halted and amongst the restrictions all cinemas were closed and all film production halted. A number of films were banned.
Wajda spent most of the rest of the 1980s working abroad, making films such as his French production Danton (1983), set in the aftermath of the French revolution but commonly seen as an allegory of the imposition of martial law in his home country.
In the 1990s, with communism gone, his films started to seem less and less relevant and critics had almost written him off when he made a comeback with Pan Tadeusz (1999), his adaptation of the classic lyric poem by Adam Mickiewicz. Once again, Polish audiences queued round the block to see a Wajda film that attempted to analyze Poland's perception of itself. Obviously pleased with this success, Wajda has since adapted another historic poem with his film Revenge (Zemsta, 2002).
No other Polish director has been as loved and respected by international audiences as Kieslowski. His profoundly metaphysical and spiritual works from the late 1980s onwards have resonated throughout Europe and the world. All the more tragic, then, that the director should have died in 1996 at the age of 55 within a few years of achieving his widespread fame (although he had already announced his retirement from filmmaking). The Katowice Film School in his native Poland has since been named after him.
Even though many have seen his final, ambitious work, the Three Colors trilogy, as the crowning glory of his career, some critics (and especially Polish ones) see it as vapid and prefer his grittier early work that focuses on the lives of ordinary people.
After making some narrative shorts as part of his film school studies, Kieslowski started working in documentary in the late 1960s, moving on to make his own works in the field the following decade. He soon attracted attention for his ability to paint "a common portrait of our [Poland's] mental condition" (quoted in Marek Haltof's Krzysztof Kieslowski): small-scale corruption, bureaucracy and the weariness of everyday Poles as they try to battle life's problems and the system. In themselves, these were small films that looked at small themes in specific places. But they were also allegories of larger problems that affected the entire country.
Given this interest in allegory, perhaps it is understandable that Kieslowski should want to move to the broader canvas of narrative feature film. The transition was gradual, with enacted sequences first appearing in documentaries before moving on to narrative films that contained documentary elements. His first narrative feature was Personnel (Personel, 1975), a behind-the-scenes story of a naïve young apprentice working behind the scenes at an opera house who unexpectedly has to confront the ugliness of reality. But the film certainly didn't close Kieslowski's career in documentary and, although they came less and less regularly, he continued making documentaries until 1988.
Personnel would mark out Kieslowski's direction for the next few years in features such as The Scar (Blizna, 1976), The Calm (Spokój, 1976), Camera Buff (Amator, 1978) and Blind Chance (Przypadek, 1981). The director would say of The Calm that it is "...the story of a man who had a minimum program for his life, and was not allowed to realize even this small aim..." (quoted in Haltof). In fact, this quote could be applied to all his early features.
Although these films may seem dissident to modern audiences (a view backed up by the fact that several of them were banned), Kieslowski sought to understand his middle management protagonists, who were simultaneously victims of the system and part of it. Compared to other films of the period that dramatically divided people into oppressors and oppressed, this was a more subtle position and one that was criticized from both sides.
In fact, his requiem to the crushed oppositional Solidarity trade union movement, No End (Bez konca, 1984), as Paul Coates has pointed out, was attacked from three sides, annoying dissidents with its pessimism regarding the possibility of resistance against and refusal to damn the system; infuriating the Party with its bleak portrayal of contemporary Poland; and angering the Church with its sex scenes and narrative resolution with another, darker sin. But No End is a pivotal work, and today remains one of the most gripping and complex of Kieslowski's films. Extending Blind Chance's experiment with narrative structure as a device for exploring philosophical issues, No End combines the genres of courtroom drama, supernatural yarn and tragic love story, and is the first film to move away from the social sphere and documentary and into the realm of metaphysics.
The Decalogue (Dekalog, 1988) was planned as a low-budget ten-part television series, with two features produced to help claw back some money from the project, A Short Film about Love (Krótki film o milosci, 1988) and A Short Film about Killing (Krótki film o zabijaniu, 1988). The international reception was rapturous, and although Kieslowski had been known in film circles abroad before, The Decalogue made him a star of world cinema.
Ostensibly, the film is based on the Ten Commandments, although in fact the ten parts do not have a one-to-one correlation with each of the Commandments (although titles based on the Commandments were tacked on later). Furthermore, Kieslowski has declared himself to be an agnostic. The film takes place on one of Warsaw's dreary housing estates, and follows a group of professionals who grapple with the moral dilemmas life places on them. Just as the episodes of the film have no concrete relationship to each of the commandments, the characters turn up in each other's stories, creating a myriad of connections of chance and destiny between them. Although it continued the metaphysical path started by No End, Polish critics treated it far more favorably.
Vast in its scope, it is a veritable directory of Polish film, having employed nine cinematographers and just about every single Polish actor of any merit. It was also the launching pad for several new acting careers, including that of Olaf Lubaszenko, now himself a director.
In the 1990s, Kieslowski worked abroad on international co-productions. Nestled between the The Decalogue and his other great project, the Three Colors trilogy, is the lesser-known but no less valuable The Double Life of Veronica (La Double vie de Véronique, 1991), the story of two young women who live parallel lives, one in Poland and the other in France. It extends Kieslowski's interest in the enigma of fate and presages the forthcoming trilogy in its focus on glamorous well-heeled women rather than geeky professionals struggling to get by. With higher budgets for these films he made abroad, Kieslowski was able to transform the cinematography into a sumptuous symbolic palette, made explicit in the Three Colors trilogy.
The middle section of the trilogy, White, would return to Poland to explore post-communist reality (although even admirers of the trilogy admit this part is slightly weaker than the others in the set). Red is rightly recognised as the strongest of the three and viewing the previous two installments is not a prerequisite to understanding it.
Although Red was Kieslowski's film as a director, he left behind a number of scripts and collaborations that would come to fruition after his death. In particular, one of his long-time collaborators, actor Jerzy Stuhr, would try to take up Kieslowski's directing mantle. Kieslowski helped Stuhr with his first two scripts (uncredited) and Stuhr dedicated his second film, Love Stories (Historie milosnie, 1997), to the late great master. As if that weren't enough, Stuhr went on to shoot one of Kieslowski's unrealized scripts for The Big Animal (Duze zwierze, 2000). Stuhr's films all star himself in the leading role, and Love Stories allows him to show off his acting virtuosity by having him act out four different characters in four inter-linked tales.
Kieslowski also wrote the screenplay (with longtime collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz) for another trilogy - Heaven, Hell and Purgatory - expressly with the idea that these films would be directed by younger filmmakers. (In fact, this was his original idea for The Decalogue, but he got attached to the material and decided to shoot it himself.) Of the three, only Heaven has been made, in a 2002 version by Tom Tykwer. Far more abstract and less observational than any of Kieslowski's own films, Heaven received mixed reviews.
Continue reading: Part Two.