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Polish Cinema

Continued from Part One.


Roman Polanski

Some of Poland's best directors have made names for themselves working abroad after starting their careers in their native country. In doing so, they are following in the footsteps of some of the country's most cherished heroes, such as the writer Adam Mickiewicz and the scientist Marie Curie (known to Poles by her full name, Sklodowska-Curie), both of whom became Nobel laureates.

The Pianist

The most famous of these is Roman Polanski, a Polish Jew born in Paris as Raimund Liebling. Polanski is almost as well-known for his traumatic and tragic personal life as his films are for their psychological suspense.

Polanski, born in 1933, moved back to Poland at the age of three. His mother died in Auschwitz, but he was able to escape and was hidden by a Catholic family until the end of the war. After the war, he started to act (and worked with Wajda), but was soon drawn to filmmaking. His student shorts, particularly the absurdist parable of man's inhumanity to man, "Two Men and a Wardrobe" ("Dwaj ludzie z szafa," 1958), immediately attracted attention. But it was his debut feature, Knife in the Water (Noz w wodzie, 1962) that catapulted him to stardom and the cover of Time magazine. Largely set in the claustrophobic confines of a small boat, the film's story is about a couple whose relationship is tested when they decide to take a hitch-hiker they've picked up sailing. It was to be the first of many Polanski films that explored the sexual tension that an outsider inflicts on a fragile marriage. Other notable themes would be isolation and betrayal, often laced with a black sense of humor.

The film did not go down well in Poland, though, and Polanski left to make films in England first, then the US, and then, France. On the way, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Charles Manson gang and he was later indicted for statutory rape, something that prevents him from returning to America to this day. Throughout this period, he remained touchy about discussing his central European background, although in The Tenant (Le Locataire, 1976) he played a Pole trying desperately to integrate into France. (Note: if you watch this wonderfully macabre and highly recommended film, view the French version with English subtitles - the dubbing is truly awful.)

His roots seemingly expunged from his cinematic vocabulary, it was something of a surprise when the director announced that he was going to adapt Wladyslaw Szpilman's novel The Pianist, particularly because the Holocaust is such a painfully personal subject for Polanski. The Pianist (2002), with its dispassionate view of the horrors of the Second World War, was quickly recognized as one of the best Holocaust films, and Polanski was awarded the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Director.

Agnieszka Holland

Holland is one of the few female directors to hail from Poland, and is by far the most successful one. She started as an actor, and appeared in early films by Zanussi and Kieslowski. The first films she directed, dating from the late 1970s, are considered key works in the cinema of moral concern, and in the same period she worked as a scriptwriter for some of Wajda's most important works, including Without Anaesthetic (Bez znieczulenia, 1978). Women suffered particularly under communism, usually under the double burden of having to work a full-time job and fulfill all the duties of a housewife, and Holland's presentation of the problems that women faced under communism was particularly pertinent to the cinema of moral concern. Her key films from this time are Provincial Actors (Aktorzy prowincjonalni, 1978), Fever (Goraczka, 1980) and A Woman Alone (Kobieta samotna, 1981).

Inexplicably, none of her purely Polish productions from this period are available on DVD. Aside from films whose screenplays she wrote, the first film of hers that can be seen is her French-German coproduction Europa, Europa (1990), based on the true story of a German Jew who survives the Second World War by joining the Hitler Youth.

Holland then moved to America to start a not particularly glittering career. She has since moved back to work in Europe.

Jerzy Skolimowski

Few directors have plunged into obscurity from such promising and talented beginnings as Skolimowski. Although still active in cinema, he has made little of significance since his first film made in exile, Deep End (1970), his vision of 1960s London than makes it look more scary than swinging.

His early career, though, hides some truly astonishing works, remarkable for both their bold film language, audacity and cynicism. His masterpiece is Hands Up! (Rece do góry, 1967). Yet his Polish works are rarely screened, and none of them have been released on DVD. His talent can best be observed by admiring his script for Polanski's Knife in the Water.

Walerian Borowczyk

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.

Andrzej Zulawski

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.).

Other Directors

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.

Curiously well-represented on DVD is Jerzy Hoffman, with three films from the communist period. Two of these are adaptations of historical novels by Henryk Sienkiewicz, and are discussed in the following section alongside the third part in this trilogy. The other communist-era film is a smaller scale melodramatic love story Leper (Tredowata, 1976).

Also available is one of the 1980s comedies that provided the blueprint for much of the cinema of the following decade, Janusz Majewski's H.M. Deserters (C.K. dezerterzy, 1986), while another cult classic, Juliusz Machulski's Sexmission (Sexmisja, 1983) has yet to appear on DVD. Working in established genres (war adventure and science fiction, respectively) and touching on the issues of sex and gender, these films tried to connect with new, younger audiences for Polish films.

But the omissions are shocking. Aside from Zanussi, whose under-representation on DVD has already been discussed, missing directors include Andrzej Munk and Jerzy Kawalerowicz.

Munk is a particularly painful omission, giving the world two key films: Man on the Tracks (Czlowiek na torze, 1956), which explores multiple perspectives of reality (a decidedly anti-Stalinist concept in its time) much as Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) does, and The Passenger (Pasazerka, 1963), one of the most compelling films from the "New Discourse" style that seeks to probe the motives and mental processes of the Holocaust's perpetrators. Indeed, most of the Polish films about the Holocaust have not been released on DVD, including Wanda Jakubowska's The Last Stage (Ostatni etap, 1948), which was based on her own experiences in Auschwitz and is one of the world's earliest Holocaust films.

Kawalerowicz also made important films about the Jewish experience in Poland, such as Austeria (1983), but his masterpiece is Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od Aniolow, 1961), the tale of a priest sent to investigate a group of nuns who become possessed and a film that has been favorably compared to Ken Russell's The Devils (1971).

Polish Film after 1989

Polish cinema has had its ups and downs since the fall of communism, and the industry has undergone a major reorganization. The major producer has been Telewizja Polska, the Polish state television company. However, a law banning advertising of alcoholic beverages on TV meant that a major source of revenue for broadcasters was slashed, and film financing was cut back as a result. With little private money available for funding, it has been difficult for producers to raise money, and Polish films have often been plagued by low budgets and half-baked scripts and have failed to have the international profile of, for example, its neighbor, the Czech Republic. (Some directors, particularly older ones such as Kieslowski, have circumvented this by working with foreign production companies.)

Yet Polish film has also had a few notable domestic hits that have bypassed the international festival circuit. In comedy, for example, Juliusz Machulski and Marek Koterski have both led the way, with the latter's Day of the Wacko (Dzien swira, 2002) being the best of what's available on DVD. In the action genre, Wladyslaw Pasikowski has been the leader with his bold but misogynist thrillers, all staring Boguslaw Linda, who effortlessly makes the cross-over from art-house cinema to mindless violence. Linda has since also starred in other action thrillers, including the successful Sara (1997) by Maciej Slesicki.

In fact, crime films generally have done very well, with the theme popping up in comedies and art-house dramas as well as in Pasikowski's action thrillers. Machulski's Killer (Kiler, 1997), for example, is a comedy of errors about a taxi driver who gets mistaken for a contract killer. Among the art-house films, Krzysztof Krauze's The Debt (Dlug, 1999) is acknowledged as one of the most accomplished treatments of the theme.

Titles at the end of Kiler mockingly tell the audience that the hero gives the millions in loot he gains in his exploits to the Polish film industry, and then regrets it, just one of a number of instances in which the industry - and particularly the dire straits it is in - has become a subject in itself for filmmakers. Other examples include Koterski's Nothing Funny (Nic smiesznego, 1995), Machulski's Superproduction (Superprodukcja, 2002), Mariusz Pujszo's Polish Kitsch Project (Polisz kicz projekt, 2002) and the one that started it all off, Wojciech Marczewski's seminal Escape from the Liberty Cinema (Ucieczka z kina "Wolnosc", 1990).

With Fire and Sword

The most successful of all genres, though, has been the historical drama. The veritable explosion in the production in the genre was sparked off by the huge success of Jerzy Hoffman's With Fire and Sword (Ogniem i mieczem, 1999), an epic literary adaption of Nobel Laureate Henryk Sienkowicz's novel of the same name. Hofman had been waiting since the 1960s to tackle this politically sensitive production, having also filmed the two other novels in Sienkowicz's trilogy, Colonel Wolodjowski (Pan Wolodjowski, 1960s) and The Deluge (Potop, 1974), and With Fire and Sword itself took ten years to make. With a huge budget (for Poland), computer-generated effects, an all-star cast and a promotional campaign of as epic proportions as the three-hour film itself, With Fire and Sword became a domestic smash, beating James Cameron's seemingly invincible weepy, Titanic (1997) when it was released in Poland.

With Fire and Sword did something few Polish films can aspire to do - it was profitable. And, as a result, it set off a gold rush with a string of other historical dramas based on literary classics coming out in the following years, including Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz (1999), Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Quo Vadis (2001) and Gavin Hood's In the Desert and the Wilderness (W pustyni i w puszczy, 2001). A spin-off from the trend was the fantasy production The Hexer (Wiedzmin, 2002), based on the stories of Andrzej Sapkowski.

Few new auteurs have emerged since 1989. Apart from Stuhr, who is discussed in the section on Kieslowski, new talent in the art-house field has emerged in the form of Jan Jakub Kolski and Dorota Kedzierzawska.

Andrew James Horton is the Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye, an invaluable film journal that originated as a column for the Central Europe Review.

GreenCine Recommends...


Ashes and Diamonds

  • Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water (1962). Few feature debuts have been as celebrated. The perpetually innovative camera placement, given little more than a sailboat and three characters, is enthralling throughout.

  • Wojciech Has's The Saragossa Manuscript (1965). "It's the only surreal epic that I can think of," writes jaimetout. "Watch for the sudden shift in tone and mood about halfway through, in which the film's atmosphere takes on qualities of certain films by Lynch and Kubrick... Not to be missed at any price if you consider yourself to be a film buff."

  • Krzysztof Kieslowski's No End (1984). Marks the beginning of Kieslowski's transition from pure realism to the realm of metaphysics.

Further Reading (and Sources)


  • Paul Coates, The Red and the White: Exploring the Cinema of People's Poland.
  • Marek Haltof, The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski: Variations on Chance and Destiny.
  • Frank Turaj, "Poland: The Cinema of Moral Concern" in Daniel J. Goulding (ed.), Post New Wave Cinema in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
  • Peter Hames (ed.), The Cinema of Central Europe.
  • Dina Iordanova, Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film.


Click to go back to Part One.

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