Polish Cinema

John Morrish

Cinema in Poland started early. Two Poles, a chemist called Piotr Lebiedziński and an inventor, Kazimierz Prószyńsk, created a simple movie camera, the pleograph, in 1893. This was at least a year before the Lumière Brothers’ famous screenings in Paris.

In the first years of the next century, Prószyński went on to create short documentary films about Warsaw life. The first Polish film studio was called Pleograf, after his device.

Poland’s film industry began in earnest with a first feature completed in October 1908. During World War 1, Polish films were shipped to Germany and given German title-cards. After the war, the newly-independent country supported more than 150 film studios, producing 30 features annually, and creating its own stars. Chief of these was Pola Negri, a ballet dancer who became a European movie sensation before building a brief but notable Hollywood career.

Between the wars, Poland was particularly a centre for films in Yiddish, being one of the world’s great centres of Jewish culture. Later anti-semitism in the wider society would become so intense that many Polish artists and industry figures fled for America. Polish jews set up both MGM and Warner Bros.

After the war, Poland enjoyed a brief period as a nominally independent socialist state. During that hopeful period, in 1948, the Łódź Film School was established. It taught advanced techniques and preached artistic freedom. Among its alumni were Andrzej Wajda, Kryzsztof Kieślowski, Roman Polański, Andrzej Munk and many others.

By 1953, though, Stalinists loyal to the Soviet Union had stamped out Poland’s independence of thought and action. Film-makers were now required to adhere to the Eastern Bloc’s artistic orthodoxy: Socialist Realism. This baffling doctrine led to dull and formulaic films, and many of the Łódź school’s graduates preferred to stick to making documentaries.

After Stalin’s death came the Krushchev Thaw, with a modicum of artistic freedom permitted. In Poland, from around 1956, a new spirit arose, subsequently called the Polish Film School. One of its principal concerns was the Second World War. The films became more nuanced in their patriotism, addressed faith, and permitted a modicum of national self-examination. Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, from 1958, is one of the classics of this period, as is Munk’s Eroica (1957), boldly showing a drunkard becoming a resistance hero by accident.

After the successes of the Polish Film School came a new breed of director and writer. They took an interest in more personal concerns: morality, opportunism, maturity. This “third Polish school”, included Jerzy Skolimowski, who wrote Roman Polański’s ground-breaking Knife In The Water and made a number of important films before falling foul of the authorities and leaving the country. Wojciech Jerzy Has created pictures that were poetic, labyrinthine and surreal. Jerzy Kawalerowicz won the Silver Palm at Cannes in 1961 for Mother Joan of the Angels. Jerzy Hoffman specialised in large-scale costume dramas.

In the 1970s, as popular discontent grew, filmmakers turned to stories of corruption and nepotism in the workers’ state, in the so-called “cinema of moral anxiety”. The high point of these films was perhaps Wajda’s Man of Marble (1976), about a film student trying to make a movie about a record-breaking brick-layer of the 1950s, only to discover painful truths. He followed that up with Man of Iron, a feature built around the Solidarity free trade union movement of 1980.

Among others coming through at that time were Krzysztof Zanussi, director of The Constant Factor, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1980, as well as the aforementioned Kieślowski and Polański. With Poland under martial law, all three did much of their best work in the West. Kieślowski created A Short Film About Killing, A Short Film About Love, The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours Trilogy, working mainly in France. Polański, slightly older, pursued an agenda of alienation and horror, including such films as Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. In 2003, permanently exiled from Hollywood after fleeing a sex-crime trial, he nonetheless received the Academy Award for Best Director for The Pianist.

Since 1990, Poland has escaped the Soviet bloc and entered the institutions of Western Europe. Its film-makers have taken full advantage of the new freedoms although at the same time they have had to learn about raising money. Among the names to emerge are such varied talents as Wojciech Smarzowski, Andrzej Jakimowski, Jan Jakub Kolski, Krzysztof Krause, Dorota Kędzierzawska, and the British-trained Paweł Pawlikowski, who achieved great success with Ida and Cold War. At the Cheltenham International Film Festival, we are showing three films by the current generation of Polish directors. Małgorzata Szumowska’s Mug is an extraordinary comedy about a man who undergoes radical facial surgery. It won the Silver Bear at Berlin. Suicide Room (2001) is Jan Komasa’s prescient film about social media and teenage despair. And A Coach’s Daughter, directed by Łukasz Grzegorzek, is a thoughtful road movie about a teenage professional tennis player and her father on tour. Komasa and Grzegorzek will both be present at the festival to answer questions about their films. We are also joined for a master-class by Piotr Sobocinski Jr, the third in a line of great Polish cinematographers. His grandfather, Witold Sobocinski, worked with Wajda and Polański. His father, Piotr Sobocinski, was DP on Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Red.

©  |  Cheltenham International Film Festival  |  2023