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 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.
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.
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.
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