10 essential Polish film directors

Michael Brooke’s guide to some of the very best filmmakers to come from Poland.

Michael Brooke
Updated:

Walerian Borowczyk

Blanche (1971)

Blanche (1971)

Essential films

Les Jeux des anges (1964), Blanche (1971), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

What’s special about him?

Walerian Borowczyk has had the most bizarre career of any Polish filmmaker, beginning as an award-winning visual artist, moving into experimental animation, and continuing his career in France from 1959. Shorts like Les Jeux des anges drew comparisons with Bacon and Goya, while his first live-action features Goto Isle of Love (1969) and Blanche saw him tipped as a successor to Robert Bresson and Luis Buñuel. But from Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975) onwards he became “that arty pornographer”.

Which isn’t entirely fair: although most late Borowczyk features could be (and often were) marketed as sexploitation, there’s much continuity with his earlier work, particularly his ever-acute eye for bizarre eroticism in unlikely places. The newly-restored Dr Jekyll is the best example of his late style, a mesmerisingly twisted fusion of old-dark-house atmospherics and Victorian erotica that’s strangely faithful to the spirit (if not the letter) of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella.

Wojciech Jerzy Has

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

Essential films

How to Be Loved (1962), The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973)

What’s special about him?

Many Communist-era Polish filmmakers who favoured the fantastical (Walerian Borowczyk, Roman Polanski and Andrzej Żuławski, for instance) also tended to leave the country as soon as they could, leaving Wojciech Jerzy Has to plough one of Polish cinema’s more distinctive furrows.

He first made a domestic splash with The Noose (1958) and Goodbye to the Past (1961), while How to Be Loved was his first masterpiece, with a memorably (and bravely) unsympathetic performance by Zbigniew Cybulski. But it was the intricate Chinese-box narrative of The Saragossa Manuscript (adapted from Jan Potocki’s equally labyrinthine novel) that established Has as Polish cinema’s great fabulist, reinforced by Dolls (1968) and The Hourglass Sanatorium – almost every shot in the latter being as baroque and extravagant as anything by Orson Welles or Terry Gilliam. Few of his later films made much impact, although his swansong, The Tribulations of Balthazar Kober (1988), was a partial return to previous form.

Agnieszka Holland

In Darkness (2011)

In Darkness (2011)

Essential films

A Woman Alone (1981), Europa Europa (1990), In Darkness (2011)

What’s special about her?

A former assistant to Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi, Agnieszka Holland is the most commercially successful Polish-born filmmaker since Roman Polanski. Her solo debut, Provincial Actors (1979), about a theatre troupe wrestling with an unconventional interpretation of a classic play, was followed by Fever (1981), about turn-of-the-century Polish revolutionaries, and the stark A Woman Alone, whose despairing portrait of life on society’s margins caused it to be banned. 

She then emigrated, working as Wajda’s screenwriter while building her own career, her breakthrough being international arthouse hit Europa Europa, a true story about a Jewish teenager who convinces his Nazi captors that he’s German. This led to a successful Hollywood career, although she returned home to make Janosik (2009), about central Europe’s real-life Robin Hood, and the true WWII story In Darkness (2012), whose initially English-language script she insisted be performed with linguistic authenticity, to prevent its Jews, Poles and Ukrainians becoming homogeneous “victims”.

Jerzy Kawalerowicz

Mother Joan of the Angels (1961)

Mother Joan of the Angels (1961)

Essential films

Night Train (1959), Mother Joan of the Angels (1961), Pharaoh (1965)

What’s special about him?

A key figure in establishing Polish cinema as a world-class proposition in the late 1950s, both as director and producer (he founded the important Kadr Film Unit), Jerzy Kawalerowicz began in the Socialist Realist era, although his diptych Cellulose (1954) and Under the Phrygian Star (1954) showed more psychological acuity than the Stalinist-mandated norm. Night Train was a technically dazzling study of the inhabitants of an overnight express train (one of whom may be a murderer), while Mother Joan of the Angels was inspired by the same historical events as Ken Russell’s later The Devils. Pharoah, a widescreen ‘superprodukcja’ set in ancient Egypt, blended spectacle and subtlety with unusual deftness. 

After losing his way with ill-advised co-productions, Kawalerowicz slowly regained critical favour. The long-gestating Austeria (1982) was his most personal project, an astute if controversial analysis of the essential passivity of Poland’s Jewish population (from which he hailed) in the early 20th century.

Krzysztof Kieślowski

The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

Essential films 

Blind Chance (1981), Dekalog (1988), The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

What’s special about him?

The most internationally renowned Polish director of the 1980s and 1990s, Krzysztof Kieślowski trained as a documentary-maker, believing this to be the noblest filmmaking calling (Poland’s documentary tradition is at least as strong as Britain’s) and only gradually moved into fiction, making the shift permanent after the rushes of his film Railway Station (1980) were compulsorily scrutinised for evidence of a crime. 

The satirical Camera Buff (1979) first brought him to international attention, while Blind Chance and No End (1984) were parables about the impossibility of living without being touched by politics. He then turned towards more moral concerns, his magnificent 10-part TV series Dekalog exploring the Ten Commandments’ contemporary ramifications (two feature-length spin-offs were the Short Films about Killing and Love). His last four films, The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours trilogy (1993-4) moved in a fascinating new quasi-metaphysical direction that was curtailed by his untimely death.

Wojciech Marczewski

Shivers (1981)

Shivers (1981)

Essential films

Nightmares (1978), Shivers (1981), Escape from the Liberty Cinema (1990)

What’s special about him?

In 1981, out of all comparative Polish feature-film newcomers, Wojciech Marczewski seemed the one most destined for greatness. None of his contemporaries (including Agnieszka Holland and Krzysztof Kieślowski) began with a double whammy as powerful as Nightmares and Shivers, two of the most unflinchingly blunt studies of traumatised adolescence ever filmed. Nightmares is set in a boarding school, Shivers a Stalinist ‘training camp’ to nurture good communists, and both were partly autobiographical, Shivers directly so.

But Shivers was banned after martial law was declared, and Marczewski vowed not to do anything that could be seen as co-operating with the regime. A decade later, Escape from the Liberty Cinema, a satire on film censorship inspired by Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), showed that he’d lost none of his edge, but since then his creative output has remained sparse and comparatively disappointing, as he’s devoted most of his energies to film education.

Andrzej Munk

Passenger (1963)

Passenger (1963)

Essential films 

Eroica (1958), Bad Luck (1959), Passenger (1963).

What’s special about him?

At home, Andrzej Munk is regarded as one of the absolute giants of Polish cinema, and a profound influence on many, including his former assistant Roman Polanski. His earliest films were made at a time of government-mandated socialist realism, but his approach was more inventive than many, culminating in Man on the Tracks (1957), a Rashomon-like study of an apparent act of railway sabotage from multiple viewpoints. 

After the post-1956 thaw, he was one of the first filmmakers to really spread his creative wings, producing the brilliant black comedies Eroica and Bad Luck, both of which involved hapless ne’er-do-wells caught up in the sweeping historical events of the mid-20th century.  The psychologically probing concentration-camp drama Passenger should have pushed Munk’s reputation onto the same international plane as that enjoyed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Andrzej Wajda, but his death in a car crash during production left it a fascinating but unfinished torso.

Jerzy Skolimowski

Moonlighting (1982)

Moonlighting (1982)

Essential films

Barrier (1966), Deep End (1970), Moonlighting (1982)

What’s special about him?

Yes, Roman Polanski should be on this list too, but everyone knows him, whereas his friend Jerzy Skolimowski is still more marginal than he deserves. After co-writing Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (1960) and Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), this prodigiously gifted writer, actor and occasional boxer made his first feature Identification Marks: None (1964) by pre-planning film-school exercises so that they’d form a coherent whole when joined together. This flair for expediency would fuel his whole career.

This one-man Polish New Wave then made Walkover (1965) and the masterly Barrier, but the banning of Hands Up! (1967) forced him abroad. Three of his finest films – Deep End, The Shout (1978) and Moonlighting – were British, the latter a poignant study of exiled Poles.  After a 17-year filmmaking silence (he preferred painting and acting), Four Nights with Anna (2008) and Essential Killing (2011) showed that he’d lost none of his creative vim or his instinctive sympathy with the underdog.

Wojciech Smarzowski

Rose (2011)

Rose (2011)

Essential films 

The Wedding (2004), The Dark House (2009), Rose (2011)

What’s special about him?

Of all the Polish filmmakers to make their cinema debut post-2000, Wojciech Smarzowski has been the most confrontational, and the most willing to delve into parts of Poland’s history and society that many compatriots would rather see buried.

He initially cast a caustic eye on post-communist nouveaux riches in The Wedding (not to be confused with the Andrzej Wajda film), and on a martial-law era murder investigation in The Dark House, both wickedly (and sometimes sickeningly) funny black comedies. The sombre, sobering Rose is his most mature work to date, in which innocent German inhabitants of now-Polish territory post-WWII are brutalised by Poles and Russians alike. Traffic Department (2013) and The Mighty Angel (2014) were less impressive, but their portraits of, respectively, official corruption and alcoholism are as unsparingly blunt as ever. In a film provisionally titled Hatred, he’s currently reconstructing a notorious WWII massacre of Poles by Ukrainians, which doesn’t exactly suggest middle-aged mellowing.

Andrzej Wajda

The Promised Land (1974)

The Promised Land (1974)

Essential films 

Ashes and Diamonds (1958), The Promised Land (1974), Man of Marble (1977)

What’s special about him?

For six full decades, Andrzej Wajda embodied Polish cinema. In its first great creative explosion he made Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds, and in the 1970s he turned out masterpiece after masterpiece, brilliantly anatomising Polish history and contemporary society (and indeed both in Man of Marble). In Man of Iron (1981) he filmed history as it unfolded, staging a fictional story in front of the real-life backdrop of the strikes in the Gdansk shipyards.

The French-made Danton (1983) was widely (if not always fairly) interpreted as an allegory for what was happening in Poland between Lech Wałęsa (Danton) and General Jaruzelski (Robespierre). Korczak (1990) was the film that inspired Steven Spielberg to make Schindler’s List (using Wajda’s crew), and Katyn (2007) restaged one of the most notorious of all WWII massacres, whose victims included Wajda’s own father. Will the surprisingly sprightly biopic Wałęsa: Man of Hope (2013) be his last film? Don’t bet on it.

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