A Modest Primer on Polish Film

AshesThe following text was adapted from the “Poland In Depth” section of “Frommer’s Best of Poland,” a guidebook I wrote in 2010. You can find a link to purchase the book from Amazon here.

Film is a great (if arguably insufficient) gateway to understanding a culture. While I’m not an expert on Polish film (and please take everything I write here with a grain of salt), I’ve been a big fan of Polish movies ever since I saw classics like ‘Man of Marble’ and ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ at graduate school in the 1980s.

At that time, Poland was mired deep within the Eastern bloc and Polish filmmakers were considered the most daring among the Eastern European countries at exposing the underlying contradictions within communism. Given the historical context, the films struck me as arty and daring.

Too Moralistic?

I have to confess these days, though, that much of Polish film leaves me cold. The strong moral (and even nationalist) tone that pervades films like ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ and gives them their force doesn’t work as well with Poland being free, democratic and a member of the European Union. The times call for lighter and wittier films and all too often Polish films still give us that traditional stark choice between right and wrong that seems more appropriate to a previous era.

For example, at the Febiofest film festival in Prague earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see the modern, award-winning Polish film ‘Manhunt‘ (Obława) (2012) by an emerging director, Marcin Krzyształowicz. It’s a WWII thriller about Polish partisans and their fight against the Nazis and homegrown Polish collaborators, but the film is hurt by the cardboard characterization of the main character, a fighter in the Polish Home Army (who it turns out in the end is too noble to kill turncoat women or children). Great for Polish mythmaking, but too cornball for good cinema.

That said, there is a lot to like about the country’s film legacy. No fewer than three of the world’s great postwar directors are Polish: Roman Polański, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Andrzej Wajda.

Best Known Is Probably Polanski

Of the three, Polański is probably the best-known abroad (though Kieslowski rates a close second), both for his films and his tragic and stormy personal life, including living through the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969 by members of the Charles Manson gang and by a conviction in the U.S. in 1977 for allegedly having sexual relations with a 13-year-old girl.

Polański’s films typically have a dark and sinister feel that appeals to me. His breakout film was 1962’s ‘Knife in the Water,’ concerning a murderous ménage-a-trois. It was received coolly by Poland’s Communist authorities but was a big international hit, securing him a filmmaking future in Great Britain and later the United States.

In Britain, Polański collaborated with French actress Catherine Deneuve to make the thriller ‘Repulsion.’ Once in the U.S. in the late 1960s he scored a series of blockbusters, including ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ with Mia Farrow (1968) and ‘Chinatown’ (1974), with Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson. Later hits included ‘Frantic’ (1987), starring Harrison Ford, and 2002’s critically acclaimed ‘The Pianist,’ with Adrien Brody in the lead role of Warsaw Jewish ghetto survivor Władysław Szpilman. That movie earned Polański an Oscar for Best Director.

Three Colors Mon Amour

Krzysztof Kieslowski is best known abroad for his amazing ‘Three Colors’ movies: ‘Blue’ (1993), ‘White’ (1994) and ‘Red’ (1994). Kieslowski made the films—based on the French virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity—after he had moved to France. If you’ve never had the chance to watch them, you’re truly missing out. Everyone has a favorite. Mine happens to be ‘Blue’ and its unforgettable score, but all are worth the effort. Before the Three Colors films, Kieslowski had already earned a formidable reputation in Poland for his ironic Socialist Realist movies of the 1970s and ’80s, the best of which is probably ‘Man With a Camera’ (1979). He’s also the director of the critically acclaimed ‘Decalogue’ (1988) series (10 movies based on the 10 commandments), and the art-house favorite ‘The Double Life of Veronique’ (1991).

Andrzej Wajda may be less well known to those outside Poland, but within the country he’s widely considered the most important director to emerge after World War II. He earned his reputation in the 1950s, with unsparing movies about the war, including ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ (1957). Two films depicting life in Soviet-dominated Poland—1976’s ‘Man of Marble’ and 1981’s ‘Man of Iron’—won Wajda international critical acclaim. He’s continued to make movies in modern times and the 2007 premiere of ‘Katyń,’ which focuses on the mass execution of Polish officers in the Katyń forest by the Soviets in 1940, was Poland’s biggest film event in years. I finally got a chance to see Katyń in 2011 and it moved me to tears.

Here’s a slideshow of 12 Polish films (or films about Poland) that I can highly recommend:

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