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With totemic names like Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Andrzej Wajda, the school of Polish cinema is one that instantly commands respect and attention. Since the birth of the moving image, it’s given us countless masterpieces of film, ranging from brooding existential exposés of the human mind, to undying political commentaries of the Soviet state. Here’s a look at ten of the Polish movies you simply can’t afford to miss.
Communist Poland’s answer to the black comedy of today follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a tenacious sports club manager, Miś (or Teddy Bear in English), who’s forced to conspire against the constraints of the Iron Curtain to prevent his conniving ex-wife from disappearing with all the money they saved together in an English bank account in years gone by. The plot oscillates between farcical highs and curiously funny melancholic lows and takes the audience on a journey through the ridiculous bureaucracy of Poland under the Soviet Union.
Arguably the finest ‘state of Poland’ narrative to emerge from the uncertain days of the 1970s, Man of Marble is a gutsy consideration of simple humanity surrounded by the complexities and machinations of the Soviet morass. It follows an outspoken and individualistic young film student, Agnieszka, who decides to document the life of a former proletariat hero, Mateusz Birkut, whose Stakhanovite successes during the period of high Stalinism made him a poster boy for the Reds. However, all is not as simple as it seems and Agnieszka soon uncovers a plethora of truths surrounding Birkut’s real life and his connections to the then burgeoning Solidarity movement.
Who would expect anything less of Roman Polanski’s feature film debut than this highly-strung character piece, which pits young against old and is all wrapped up in the vices of infidelity, jealousy and animalistic pride? Hailing from the tense days of 1962, Knife in the Water is about power struggles and politics at every turn, boasting meticulous camera work which does well to produce a passive aggressive physicality between the two male characters on screen. The simple plot acts as a neat catalyst for the tension that ensues, seeing a married couple pick up a hitchhiker on their way to a sailing trip, only to watch as their own precarious relationship unravels right before their eyes.
Translating to Sexmission in English, this Polish cult comedy from 1983 tells the story of two dedicated scientists who submit themselves to a sort of hibernation project. While they slumber, political catastrophes erupt on earth and the men are all but forgotten about until finally being awoken more than 50 years after they expected to, in 2044. They discover a world that’s controlled entirely by women, and—naturally—hilarity ensues as the two masculine characters try to find their way. Between the slapstick, Seksmisja also plays on the totalitarian nature of the Soviet machine and develops a powerful social commentary by aligning the hard-core feminist leaders of the future, with the communist controllers of 1980s Poland.
Strewn out over ten separate, one-hour-long episodes, the Decalogue by Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz paints a visceral and raw image of the human condition, using personal and intimate webs of storyline to evoke a consideration of man’s psyche and his relationship with god, morality, the Christian church, the contemporary Polish state and the constraints of contemporary Polish society. It’s all set in the gloomy and oppressive surrounds of a post-Soviet tenement bloc in southern Warsaw, where the mundanities of life, the lingering spectres of Russian state control and the dialectic between modern rationality and the religious zeal that helped to keep the Polish identity alive throughout the tumult of the 20th century, all conspire to create a labyrinth of choices and consequences that’s almost impossible to escape.
An excellent and heart-thumping thriller of Gorky Park overtures, The Debt tells the story of two young businessmen from Warsaw who look to a seemingly respectable money-lender for start-up cash in a new venture. The decision proves fatal and soon the two protagonists are entwined with the Russian mob, slowly being pushed to the limit by the Machiavellian debt collectors on their heels. In essence, the film is an examination of morality put to the test and voices the dialectic between the new Polish capitalism and the old, Communist ways. There is certainly also an extra level of immersion that emanates from the film’s resonance with a real life case in 1994.
A compelling tale of love, loss and human sacrifice, Wojciech Smarzowski’s Rose of 2011 tells the story of two hugely different characters living in post-war Poland. The action centres on the former Prussian region of Masuria, which is where Tadeusz Mazur meets the eponymous Rose, the widow of a Nazi soldier who’s suffered greatly at the hands of the mob now controlling this far-flung region in the east. Soon, Rose and Mazur become entwined in a tale of mutual respect and love that’s hindered by the arrival of the Soviets and the prejudices of the overzealous Polish nationalists all around.
This thoughtful, compelling, dark and often brooding piece of cinema by the acclaimed director Paweł Pawlikowski leads its viewers into the very depths of Polish 20th century society. There, they discover the disturbing realities of a forgotten past, which is brought to the table by the film’s protagonist and namesake, Ida (played excellently by Agata Trzebuchowska). Oozing innocence and youthful naivety, the novice nun Ida embarks on a journey with her aunt, Wanda Gruz, and, slowly, the shadowy recesses of the post-war political morass unwind on-screen, in a grand clash of cultures, personalities, epochs and ages.
Eulogised by the likes of Coppola and Scorsese (who hailed The Saragossa Manuscript as a ‘masterpiece of Polish cinema’ in 2001), this epic tale by Wojciech Has transports its viewers to the Spanish town of Saragossa in the early 1800s, where the Napoleonic Wars rage on. The plot follows the elaborate and mystical turns of the original novel by the Polish enlightenment writer, Count Jan Potocki, whose epic sees his protagonist encounter Moorish princesses and cabalist shamans in the hills of the Sierra Morena. It’s all very One Thousand and One Nights, but makes for a truly enthralling storyline from start to finish.
Arguably the finest example of a contemporary Polish war epic comes from Andrzej Wajda of Man of Marble fame, who managed to accrue countless nominations and accolades for this piece – not least of all a Best Foreign Language Film category place at the Oscars. The subject is well-known and documented – the mass murder of more than 22,000 Polish military officers and POWs by the Soviets in 1940. It remains one of political contention to this day, as the banning orders on Katyń’s distribution in China and the visceral reaction of the Russian media on release do well to show.