Given the inadequate distribution of Polish cinema in the UK these days, the annual Kinoteka Festival is always to be welcomed. Now in its 20th edition, the festival showcases a selection of contemporary and classic Polish films, alongside special screenings and other events, taking place in London and Edinburgh, as well as online. Once again, the varied programme attests to the diversity of a strong national cinema that doesn’t generally receive the wider global attention it merits.
The films selected for this year’s New Polish Cinema strand reveal a number of recurrent preoccupations. In particular, several are notable for their retrospective gaze on the 1980s, a fraught, transformative decade in Polish history that contemporary filmmakers evidently feel freshly compelled to examine. Jan P. Matuszyński, the director of Leave No Traces, has described this period as one “full of untold stories,” and it’s this rich seam that writers and directors are mining in both political and personal ways, as they approach the era with attitudes ranging from wry nostalgia to fierce critique.
Matuszyński’s film (which was Poland’s Oscar entry for this year) falls firmly into the latter camp. Leave No Traces is an absorbing multi-stranded dramatisation of the case of Grzegorz Przemyk, a graduate who was arrested in Warsaw in 1983 after refusing to show his ID. With friend Jurek he’s taken into custody and viciously assaulted by police officers, subsequently dying in hospital of his injuries.
The wide-ranging government cover-up that seeks to discredit Jurek as the only witness is the central focus of the film, which constructs a detailed, incisive portrait of communist corruption with influences ranging from Andrzej Wajda’s cinema to Michael Mann’s epic crime dramas.
Other films featured in the programme take radically different approaches to their portrayals of ’80s realities. Kinga Dębska’s loveable Back Then presents People’s Republic privations in the context of a warm but tart comedy drama about a Solidarity-active matriarch (Kinga Preis) and her brood that’s often laugh-out-loud funny.
A similar savouring of domestic detail and attention to coveted objects (from Lego to VCRs) is evident in Konrad Aksinowicz’s Return to Those Days, which, like Back Then, is based on its writer-director’s personal history. Maciej Stuhr stars here as an apparently charming dad returning to his wife and teenage son with shiny western goodies after a period in the US. Joyous to start, the film takes a surprising swerve into darker territory as it progresses.
Venturing further back, Tomasz Wolski’s doc 1970 mixes archive photos, audio materials and animation to create a boldly innovative portrait of early 70s political upheaval. Meanwhile, the temperature of Poland’s complicated contemporary condition is taken in Jakub Michalczuk’s social divide marital comedy The In-Laws, and in Aleksandra Terpińska’s Other People, adapted from Dorota Masłowska’s controversial text. Other People unites Poland’s haves and have-nots via the relationship between an aspiring musician and his wealthy older lover. The film translates Masłowska’s language to the screen in the form of a frenetic rap musical, complete with narrating Jesus and sung-through sex scenes. Cosier musical fare is offered in Bartosz Blaschke crowd-pleasing Sonata, which focuses on a deaf teen’s ambition to forge a career as a pianist.
Other featured co-productions place Polish cinema in international contexts, including Rafał Kapelinski’s atmospheric, unnerving A Woman at Night, about a Chinese immigrant to London working as a decidedly unusual estate agent, and the opening gala film, Aga Woszczyńska’s Silent Land, in which an encounter with a migrant worker dramatically complicates a privileged Polish couple’s Italian vacation. In Ryszard Brylski’s The Death of Zygielbojm, meanwhile, a British journalist (Jack Roth) investigates the protest suicide of the title character in WWII London.
BFI Player again hosts the festival’s Classic Cinema strand, which features an impressively diverse array of 10 titles (several seldom seen in the UK), showcasing both Polish cinema’s social commitment and its idiosyncratic creativity: Wojciech Jerzy Has’s How to Be Loved (1963), Jerzy Skolimowski’s Identification Marks: None (1965), Wajda’s The Young Girls of Wilko (1979), Barbara Sass’s Without Love (1980), Kazimierz Kutz’s The Beads of One Rosary (1980), Agnieszka Holland’s Fever (1981), Piotr Szulkin’s The War of the Worlds: Next Century (1981), Juliusz Machulski’s Sexmission (1984), Andrzej Zuwałski’s On the Silver Globe (1988), and Wladysław Pasikowski’s Pigs (1992).
At the ICA, Weronika Lewandowska and Sandra Frydrysiak’s immersive VR installation NIGHTSSS will be presented, while the closing night gala at BFI Southbank is a special screening of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1924 silent Forbidden Paradise, starring Pola Negri. Lubitsch’s film will be screened with live musical accompaniment by Marcin Pukaluk and in its most complete version for 100 years. With a major biopic of Negri currently in development, the opportunity to see one of the most iconic Polish stars in full power on the big screen is not to be missed.
The 20th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival runs 9 March to 3 April 2022.