10 great Polish films of the 1960s

As Jerzy Skolimowski’s early feature Identification Marks: None arrives on Blu-ray, we celebrate a fertile decade in Polish cinema, which saw the debuts of some of Poland’s most renowned directors.

Identification Marks: None (1965)

The late 1950s is widely and accurately acknowledged to be one of the golden ages not just of Polish cinema but of Polish culture as a whole: the October 1956 abolition of Stalinist socialist realism as a compulsory ideological doctrine led to a creative explosion across multiple artforms.  

In cinema, this was when such major artists as Walerian Borowczyk, Wojciech Has, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Kazimierz Kutz, Jan Lenica, Andrzej Munk and Andrzej Wajda first properly spread their wings, and even a young film student by the name of Roman Polanski made a disproportionate international splash pre-graduation with the short Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958).

But as the 50s turned into the 60s, dominant cultural policies became more conservative. Although Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) was the first Polish feature to be nominated for an Oscar, the authorities didn’t bother to hide their disdain for both it and him, and he duly became one of several Polish filmmakers who would spend the bulk of their careers working abroad.  

That said, there was plenty of major work produced throughout the decade, mainly by the filmmakers mentioned above (in many cases taking advantage of more generous budgets earned by their growing international profiles) but also by thrilling new talent like Jerzy Skolimowski, who was swiftly compared with Jean-Luc Godard and dubbed “a one-man Polish New Wave”. He too would eventually fall foul of the authorities (and would similarly go into exile), but not before producing some extraordinary films back home.

I do not know how to render the Slice type temporary-announcement

Bad Luck (1960)

Director: Andrzej Munk

Bad Luck (1960)

Andrzej Munk’s death in a car crash in 1961 at the age of just 39 robbed Polish cinema of one of its brightest talents, and his last self-completed film (Passenger was left unfinished as a mark of respect) suggests what was lost. This deeply sardonic comedy, whose title more accurately translates as “Cockeyed Luck”, traces the picaresque life of Jan Piszczyk (Bogumił Kobiela) through the first half of the 20th century as he constantly tries to adapt to changing circumstances (including Nazi invasion and postwar Stalinism). But he always ends up undermining himself as a direct result of his own copious failings, not least his self-destructive blend of opportunism and cowardice.

Munk is revered in Poland to this day, not least because he was one of the first major artists to delve beneath the granite monuments to Polish wartime heroism and find something rather less appealing underneath.

Mother Joan of the Angels (1961)

Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz

Mother Joan of the Angels (1961)

Poland’s equivalent of The Devils (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) was made a decade earlier, and indeed takes place immediately after the actual 17th-century events that inspired Ken Russell’s film, albeit relocated from the French town of Loudun to the near-homonymous Ludyn in Poland (now Ukraine). If it superficially seems more visually sedate than its English-language counterparts, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s starkly minimalist drama is at least as disturbing, thanks to its palpable seriousness. When Father Suryn (Mieczysław Voit) is charged with investigating an alleged outbreak of demonic possession in the local convent, he finds that the formidable Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka) is more than a match for him both philosophically and erotically, gleefully exploiting his inexperience with women at every turn. 

Unsurprisingly, it was condemned by the Catholic Church, but this proved no obstacle – indeed, Kawalerowicz cheerfully informed the Communist authorities upfront that he intended to make an explicitly anti-clerical film.

Knife in the Water (1962)

Director: Roman Polanski

Knife in the Water (1962)

Co-scripted by Jerzy Skolimowski, Roman Polanski’s brilliantly incisive feature debut charts a triangular collision course as a successful middle-aged man (Leon Niemczyk) and his much younger trophy wife (Jolanta Umecka) pick up a young hitch-hiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) and impulsively invite him to accompany them on a yachting holiday. The older man is seemingly fully aware of the potential downside, but blithely confident that he’ll remain the group’s alpha male.

Knife in the Water was quite unlike anything that Polish cinema had produced up to this point, with seemingly nothing constructive to say about life in contemporary Poland (the authorities’ major bugbear) but a great deal to say about more primal psychological matters. Such matters are exacerbated here by the simplicity of the setting, and the fact that there’s nowhere to hide when things threaten to turn nasty; the equivalent trio in the surprisingly similar Jaws (1975) aren’t the only ones who could do with a bigger boat.

Silence (1963)

Director: Kazimierz Kutz

Silence (1963)

Kazimierz Kutz isn’t as fêted internationally as other filmmakers cited here, but this powerful slow-burner suggests that it’s our loss. When teenage orphan Stach (Mirosław Kobierzycki) is blinded after messing about with an unexploded shell, malicious rumours spread that he was trying to toss a grenade at the local priest (Kazimierz Fabisiak), with whom he’d previously had a run-in. The priest knows that this is untrue but decides not to get involved, even in the face of increasingly manifest injustices being meted out to Stach. After all, if the locals regard his blindness as a punishment from God, who’s to say that they’re wrong? 

Set in a small, remote town in the dead of winter, Kutz conjures an appropriately bleak landscape, abetted by Wojciech Kilar’s chillingly percussive score, and Zbigniew Cybulski pops up in the notably unsympathetic role of the boyfriend of the one person who believes Stach’s version of events.

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

Director: Wojciech Has

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

A Napoleonic costume drama?  A rollicking swashbuckler crammed with swordplay? A supernatural fairytale? A philosophical clash between exponents of science and Cabbalism?  Championed by such unlikely bedfellows as Luis Buñuel, Neil Gaiman and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Wojciech Has’s best-known film is all those and considerably more. It’s every bit as complex as Count Jan Potocki’s celebrated 1815 source novel, its many stories intertwining so intricately that it’s hard to determine where one ends and another begins, not least thanks to flashbacks within flashbacks. 

A starry cast (at least locally) is headed by Zbigniew Cybulski as the understandably bewildered Walloon officer Alfons Van Worden, trying to reach Madrid via a route that’s as much phantasmagorical as geographical. Has initially built his reputation on the back of scrupulously realistic chamber pieces (The Noose, 1958; How to Be Loved, 1963), but proved just as comfortable in more fantastical realms.

Barrier (1966)

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

Barrier (1966)

If Jerzy Skolimowski’s third feature had been distributed as widely as Michelangelo Antonioni’s La notte (1961), Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965), it would be just as renowned: in every way it’s their equal for philosophical depth, visual brio and quick-witted invention. 

While the central narrative hook – a young man (Jan Nowicki) tries to achieve a balance between personal ambition and necessary conformity – is scarcely novel, Skolimowski undermines expectations from the very first shot of a man having his hands tied behind his back, something that turns out to be more symbolic than sinister. Successive set-pieces are similarly peppered with trompe l’oeil moments: as with Godard, Skolimowski can’t resist being playful even when his film is at its most ostensibly serious, never more so than when he contrives to have Nowicki wrapping a poster around his head that’s emblazoned with his director’s own face.

Westerplatte (1967)

Director: Stanisław Różewicz

Westerplatte (1967)

The Second World War continued to cast a long shadow over Polish cinema, with treatments ranging from the serious to the farcical, although Tadeusz Chmielewski’s riotous How I Unleashed World War II (1970) was released just too late to qualify for this survey. Three years earlier, Stanisław Różewicz made this altogether more sombre reconstruction of the September 1939 Battle of Westerplatte, the war’s first armed conflict, in which Poles were significantly outnumbered by Germans. Despite this, they held them off for a full week, several days longer than German expectations. But Polish audiences would have known the ending well in advance, and acts of individual heroism are performed by people who already suspect that their sacrifices may be in vain.

Różewicz’s commitment to both realism and respect extended to him eschewing familiar local stars in favour of character actors with a marked physical resemblance to the real-life historical figures that they were portraying. 

Everything for Sale (1969)

Director: Andrzej Wajda

Everything For Sale (1969)

Their dazzling collaboration in Ashes and Diamonds (1958) seemed to herald many more collaborations between Andrzej Wajda and Zbigniew Cybulski, but while they certainly talked about it, the only subsequent entry in their joint filmography is a short film made for the 1962 portmanteau film Love at Twenty. So when Cybulski fell under a train in 1967, a profoundly shocked Wajda turned his reaction into the subject of his next film, perhaps the most personal that he ever made. He even considered playing the protagonist himself, before deciding that his acting chops weren’t up to it. 

Not that Cybulski is depicted or even named, but few Polish viewers of the time would have been unaware of just how long a shadow he cast over this story of a film director trying to get his latest film made against a backdrop of bickering, superficial actors, the most important of whom has mysteriously disappeared. 

Colonel Wołodyowski (1969)

Director: Jerzy Hoffman

Colonel Wołodyowski (1969)

The 1960s saw the rise of the Polish superprodukcja, a word that needs no translation. Typically a large-scale widescreen colour epic based on a long-acknowledged Polish literary classic, earlier examples include Aleksander Ford’s Knights of the Teutonic Order (1960), Andrzej Wajda’s The Ashes (1965) and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Pharaoh (1966), but 1969’s Colonel Wołodyjowski inaugurated Jerzy Hoffman’s four-decade reign as the leading exponent of the form, and if this doesn’t quite match the sweep of, say, 1974’s Oscar-nominated The Deluge, it clearly signposted his considerable ambition.

Based on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel, it’s set in the late 17th century, when Poland bordered the Ottoman Empire. In the face of threatened invasion by Tatars and Turks, Colonel Michał Wołodyjowski (Tadeusz Łomnicki) is brought out of retirement and charged with defending Poland, which he proceeds to do with dashing élan. Any suggestion that the Ottomans might be viewed as surrogates for the Soviets is, of course, thoroughly mischievous.

The Structure of Crystals (1969)

Director: Krzysztof Zanussi

The Structure of Crystals (1969)

The late 1960s heralded the emergence of several major Polish directors, and if Andrzej Żuławski and Krzysztof Kieślowski had to wait until the 1970s for their debut features, Krzysztof Zanussi just slipped under the wire with The Structure of Crystals, a suitably cerebral title for a film reflecting Zanussi’s background as a trained physicist at least as much as his already evident skill as a dramatist. 

His protagonists, Jan (Jan Mysłowicz) and Marek (Andrzej Żarnecki), are themselves physicists, but while Marek has climbed the greasy pole of academia to the point of attaining a professorship, Jan packed it in and relocated to a small town to work as a meteorologist, a calling that he argues is more immediately useful, and which also grants him much more time for a fulfilling family life. Like Zanussi’s later films, his debut asks pointedly provocative questions about how we choose to live our lives.

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