10 great Polish films

It would be foolish to try to encapsulate the films of Poland in just 10 titles, but for those looking for points of entry into one of modern cinema’s most vital filmmaking nations, here are some of the very best.

2 April 2015

By Michael Brooke

Illumination (1973)

Although Poland’s first film dates back to 1908, the wholesale destruction of its industry and much of its talent (who either died or emigrated) during the Second World War meant that 1945 was practically Year Zero, and Polish cinema’s postwar resurrection was considerably hindered by an edict that all films made between 1949 and 1956 cleave to the strictures of Stalinist ‘socialist realism’.

But following October 1956’s cultural thaw, Polish cinema rapidly emerged as one of the freshest and most exciting forces in Europe, several years before equivalent French, British, Czech and Hungarian ‘new waves’, with filmmakers such as Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Andrzej Munk, Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda established as world-class talents. Two decades later, at the turn of the 1980s, it seemed even more relevant, with Wajda and his younger successors Agnieszka Holland, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Wojciech Marczewski and Krzysztof Zanussi offering searching studies of Polish psychology and politics against a backdrop of real-life historical upheavals that accompanied the 1978 election of a Polish pope and the 1980 Solidarity protests that exposed the cracks in the Iron Curtain long before it finally came crashing down.

More recently, the last decade has seen a full-scale renaissance of Polish cinema that culminated this year in its first ever best foreign-language film Oscar (for Ida, although Katyn and In Darkness were also recent nominations). If the likes of Leszek Dawid, Jan Komasa, Krzysztof Skonieczny, Wojciech Smarzowski and Tomasz Wasilewski aren’t as fêted as their predecessors (at least outside Poland), that’s more due to the conservatism of international distributors than any lack of cinematic adventurousness on their part.

Summing up an entire national cinema in just 10 titles is a fool’s errand, of course, and this list is not definitive – not least because, for the sake of convenience, all these films are available on English-friendly DVD releases on UK labels. But there’s much more out there to explore: in addition to the ever-expanding annual Kinoteka Polish Film Festival and enterprising UK-based distributors such as Project London (which has been playing new Polish films on the Cineworld circuit), there’s the handy fact that DVDs on Polish labels are more likely to have English subtitles than otherwise.

Eroica (1957)

Director: Andrzej Munk

Eroica (1958)

Given that Poland bore the brunt of Europe’s physical and human destruction during World War II, it’s surprising that one of the earliest black comedy treatments (predating Catch-22, or at least its publication, by several years) emerged there, although perhaps less so when one considers the typically sarcastic and fatalistic Polish sense of humour.

Andrzej Munk died young, a tragic cultural loss since his films were every bit as impressive as those by more fêted contemporaries, and more daring in his willingness to slaughter sacred cows. While Andrzej Wajda paid tribute to the Home Army in the same year’s Kanal, Munk depicted a drunken layabout accidentally becoming a Resistance hero by sheer happenstance. The equally near-the-knuckle second half is set in a PoW camp, and its audacious punchline pokes fun at the kind of knee-jerk Polish patriotism that only just over a decade earlier was considered essential for the nation’s very survival.

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Director: Andrzej Wajda

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Ashes and Diamonds was one of Poland’s first big international hits – ostensibly surprising given that its complex study of conflicting loyalties on the last day of WWII was primarily aimed at Poles who’d only recently lived through the era themselves.

But Wajda’s trump card was casting the unknown Zbigniew Cybulski as would-be assassin Maciej Chełmicki, and restructuring Jerzy Andrzejewski’s original novel to bring this comparatively minor character centre stage. Indeed, the famous image of Cybulski sporting dark glasses and machine gun almost rivals the much later portrait of Che Guevara as an icon of revolutionary cool. Typically for Wajda, nothing is as it seems: a wartime Pole in dark glasses may have suffered eye damage fighting in the Warsaw sewers, while Chełmicki’s revolutionary credentials are hamstrung by his lack of a coherent ideology. The film could have been titled Rebel without a Cause, had Nicholas Ray not co-opted that title three years earlier, and Cybulski was dubbed “the Polish James Dean” long before his own early death in a tragic accident.

Knife in the Water (1962)

Director: Roman Polanski

Knife in the Water (1962)

Already a minor celebrity in film-buff circles for his award-winning short Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958), Roman Polanski made a stunningly confident feature debut four years later, its Oscar nomination (Poland’s first) being the launchpad for a brilliant international career. In fact, until The Pianist (2004), this was his last Polish feature and remains his only one in his native language.

The ingredients could hardly be simpler: a middle-aged man, his much younger wife, and the hitchhiker that they pick up en route to a yachting cruise on one of Poland’s vast lakes. But the level of psychological detail (future director Jerzy Skolimowski was co-writer) enables Polanski to ratchet up the tension right from the start: all is clearly not well with the marriage even before the hitchhiker appears, and the couple’s motives for picking him up are decidedly questionable. Krzysztof Komeda’s jazz score, complete with wordless female vocals, is simultaneously inexpressibly haunting and quietly menacing.

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

Director: Wojciech Jerzy Has

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

Wojciech Has has always stood apart from his contemporaries, being far more interested in dreams, fantasy and full-blown gothic extravagance than psychological realism – and unlike fellow fabulists Walerian Borowczyk and Andrzej Żuławski, he stayed at home. 

Based on Jan Potocki’s celebrated Chinese-box novel, The Saragossa Manuscript is set during the Napoleonic era, but any hints at a conventional widescreen historical epic are swiftly banished when the central narrative about the discovery of a mysterious manuscript opens up an intricate lattice of stories within stories within stories (this invaluable deconstruction identifies no fewer than seven layers), whose elements become weirder and weirder as Cabbalism, gypsies and Spain’s Islamic past are stirred into an already heady mix. Entirely understandably, Zbigniew Cybulski looks as bewildered as a first-time viewer. Luis Buñuel loved it so much that he watched it three times, and it’s easy to see why.

Illumination (1973)

Director: Krzysztof Zanussi

Illumination (1973)

Krzysztof Zanussi emerged as a major new talent in Polish cinema with his third feature, a multifaceted psychological study of brilliant young physicist Franciszek, who emerges from university with the full intention of defining the entire fabric of the universe. But Zanussi (a former physicist himself) meticulously demonstrates how the constant appliance of science, however logical this might seem to a certain mindset, can only illuminate one aspect of a human life – something that Franciszek tacitly acknowledges when he switches to studying biology.  But even that cannot adequately explain the mysteries of the human heart, something that Franciszek’s life experiences outside his studies can’t help but illuminate.

It’s a dauntingly ambitious subject, but Zanussi manages to make it both intensely cerebral and brilliantly cinematic, with a memorably complex use of associative editing. “Greenaway-esque” might be a good adjective to describe it now, but Peter Greenaway had only made a few amateur shorts at the time.

Man of Marble (1977)

Director: Andrzej Wajda

Man of Marble (1977)

Wajda first planned to shoot this study of the lasting after-effects of Stalinist propaganda in 1963, but the project was considered too close to the bone even a decade after Stalin’s death. Sixteen years later, finally greenlit by a nervous Ministry of Culture, it became a major cultural phenomenon, with word-of-mouth recommendations swamping all attempts at restricting its release.

What were the authorities scared of? Although the film is notionally about the 1950s, Wajda used the rise and fall of a socialist icon – Stakhanovite bricklayer Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) – to implicitly ask whether socialism was working in Poland at all, thus breaking a significant political taboo that helped usher in Polish cinema’s ‘moral anxiety’ movement. He was helped by the whirlwind ferocity of Krystyna Janda’s performance as the dogged young documentary filmmaker determined to tell Birkut’s story as truthfully as possible, even if it means uncovering secrets that many would rather stay buried.

Interrogation (1982)

Director: Ryszard Bugajski

Interrogation (1989)

This pulverisingly powerful study of an official interrogation in early 1950s Poland is lucky to exist at all. Completed mere days before martial law was declared in December 1981, production would undoubtedly have been scrapped immediately had it still been ongoing, and the first authorised screening wasn’t until 1990, although it was unsurprisingly one of the hottest items on Poland’s underground VHS bootleg circuit.

It’s easy enough to see what the problem was: whereas most of his contemporaries preferred a symbol-laden ‘Aesopian’ approach to tricky political subjects, Ryszard Bugajski lunges straight for the jugular. Krystyna Janda gives what she herself considers to be her greatest (and bravest) performance as the nightclub singer whose unfortunate choice of lover causes her to be banged up in jail and interrogated relentlessly by people prepared to use any form of physical or psychological torture to secure confessions that usually weren’t worth the paper they were scrawled on.

A Short Film about Love (1988)

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

A Short Film about Love (1988)

Many directors tackling this topic would reach for the soft-focus filter. Krzysztof Kieślowski prefers a scalpel. This riveting anatomisation of two very different people (he’s a teenage virgin played by newcomer Olaf Lubaszenko, she’s a world-weary thirtysomething played by major star Grazyna Szapolowska) and their equally divergent ideas of what constitutes ‘love’ (distantly idealised for him, crudely physical for her) is sometimes almost too painful to watch. 

By any yardstick, Tomek’s behaviour towards Magda constitutes stalking (spying on her, Rear Window style, through binoculars, phoning her anonymously, even intercepting her post), but Lubaszenko makes him so desperately vulnerable and palpably lonely that one almost sympathises. And as Kieślowski similarly delves beneath Magda’s worldly façade, he shows that they have more in common than we could ever have expected from the start. The ineffably haunting final shot may be the most masterly achievement in Kieslowski’s entire filmography, and that’s saying something. 

Escape from the Liberty Cinema (1990)

Director: Wojciech Marczewski

Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema (1990)

Polish cinema (or at least that portion that plays internationally) isn’t renowned for its comedies, but Wojciech Marczewski’s delicious take on film censorship is an exception.  Taking inspiration from Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (directly quoted at one point), it concerns an onscreen rebellion by the actors in a bland romantic melodrama. Though the kids in the audience are delighted by the unexpected outbreak of swearing, what would happen if other films started challenging the status quo, or if the disease spread to television?

Like all good satirists, Marczewski takes his subject seriously: he’d directly experienced the sharp end of Polish film censorship when his brilliant Stalinist holiday-camp film, Shivers (1981), was banned. He’s helped by a marvellously hangdog performance from Janusz Gajos as the film censor, no crude caricature but a former creative artist himself who was too eager to give in to the authorities’ demands.

Ida (2013)

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

Ida (2013)

Six decades after the first nomination, Polish cinema finally bagged a best foreign film Oscar courtesy of Pawel Pawlikowski’s triumphant return to his native country after decades working in the UK and France.

Although it’s understandably been canonised as the new Polish cinema’s standard-bearer, it’s actually very atypical indeed. For starters, it’s shot in black-and-white Academy ratio, a once universal format that now looks decidedly off-kilter. The effect is exacerbated by the way that Pawlikowski and cinematographer Łukasz Zal often place their human characters (the would-be novice Anna, real name Ida, and her far more worldly aunt Wanda, a notoriously ruthless state prosecutor) in the lower portion of the frame so that they appear dwarfed by everything else: not just by the rest of the image but also the weight of history. Crucial to the latter is the film’s willingness to grasp what are still some decidedly contentious nettles: notably the mistreatment of Jews in postwar Poland. 

Your suggestions

Mother Joan of the Angels (1961)

To our list above, you voted to add these great Polish films…

  1. Mother Joan of the Angels (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961)
  2. The Hourglass Sanatorium (Wojciech J. Has, 1973)
  3. A Short Film about Killing (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1988)
  4. The Three Colours trilogy (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993-94)
  5. Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, 1957)
  6. Rose (Wojciech Smarzowski, 2011)
  7. The Double Life of Véronique (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1991)
  8. The Promised Land (Andrzej Wajda, 1975)
  9. Passenger (Andrzej Munk, 1963)
  10. Night Train (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1959)

Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s stark and haunting Mother Joan of the Angels was voted into the top spot this week, as the film many of you thought deserved inclusion in our Polish cinema top 10. Loosely based on the same historic tale of a possessed convent that later inspired Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), it narrowly beat out competition from Wojciech J. Has’s hallucinatory The Hourglass Sanatorium as well as a number of popular films by Krzysztof Kieślowski.

Our author was restricted to titles readily available in the UK, but many of you quite rightly showed support too for the early films of Jerzy Skolimowski and more modern directors such as Wojciech Smarzowski. We can only hope that some of these will see home viewing editions before long.

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