Małgorzata Szumowska on American movies and communist Krakow

Continuing our celebration of cinemas, Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska recalls the magic of the big screen during Covid, via her memories of cinema-going under communism.

Updated: 9 May 2022

By Malgorzata Szumowska

Sight and Sound
Cinema Kiev, Krakow
Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

I was born and grew up in Krakow in the 1970s and 80s; when I was a teenager Poland was still communist. We didn’t have any multiplexes, so old, characterful little cinemas were very popular, and the architecture of those places was fantastic.

Cinema Kiev, Krakow, 2016
Zygmunt Put

The biggest cinema in Krakow is called Cinema Kiev. It’s a beautiful building, with solid Russian socialist architecture, and it still exists. It’s very geometric, very simple, very beautiful.

Many of the smaller regional cinemas are discount supermarkets now. After communism, the 90s had a kind of wild neoliberal capitalism, and nobody in the government was taking care of how cities should look. It’s disgusting that they destroyed those cinemas.

One of the most famous was Kino Wanda. When I was a teenager there was an amazing premiere of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Red (1994). I remember the conversation with Kieslowski after. People were drinking wine that probably wasn’t very good, of course people were smoking – but, come on, it was magical.

The exterior of the Kino Wanda in 1933

I was influenced by watching Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman in Kino Wanda and Cinema Kiev. In the 80s cinemas presented films by ambitious artists.

Then in the 90s everything changed. American films attacked these beautiful cinemas. I can’t even mention the titles because to me they were disgusting.

My friends who are ten years younger, they remember them. For them it was [in an American accent]: “Oh my God, America, capitalism, I’m so happy!” I’ve never watched those huge, famous films. I’ve never watched E.T. [1982] – I have something against it.

I grew up on Russian animations. I was always going to the Kiev with my parents to see things like Nu, pogodi! [Well, Just You Wait!, a Russian animated series]. I loved them. We weren’t allowed to watch Disney animations.

The interior of the Kino Wanda in 1936

Around the corner from the cinema was the Hotel Krakowia, which is a similar, modernist building. It had the most famous cake shop. It was connected: you went to the cinema to see a piece of art and you bought a cake before or after. The hotel also had a bar with capitalist alcohol, like whisky, and with a lot of prostitutes, very luxurious prostitutes. The combination was interesting.

When I was in high school, around the end of the communist era, I went to Cinema Kiev with a friend to watch The Bodyguard [1992]. I remember he was so annoyed by how kitschy the film was, and I was crying, totally in the moment. I would like to write a melodrama one day. If you ever watch a melodrama made by Malgorzata Szumowska, it’s because of the Kiev and The Bodyguard.

When I was in Venice [at this year’s film festival] screening Never Gonna Snow Again, I was almost crying because the experience of cinema hit me all of a sudden.

Half a year of streaming was terrible for me. In the beginning it was OK, I thought: “Everything’s going to be streaming anyway, that’s the future.” Now I’ve totally changed attitude. You’re pausing, you’re making a coffee, you’re not focusing. You don’t have an experience. There’s nothing to do with the power of art. It’s only entertainment.

Małgorzata Szumowska was talking to Thomas Flew.

Originally published: 11 November 2020