Since the changes in 1989, Polish cinema has altered its way of working: today it is organised similarly to the majority of medium-sized Western European cinema. Polish cinema proved its abilities as an industry at the beginning of the Nineties, when it co-produced Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), filmed in Poland, and as many as three Polish collaborators on the film, camera operator Janusz Kamiński, art director Allan Starski and set decorator Ewa Braun, were awarded Oscars.
Although such cinema is crafted in the new democratic system, its artistic tradition dates back to the times of the People's Democratic Republic. Especially during the years 1956-1981, once the Communist regime had softened its ideological rigour, the Polish film industry succeeded in avoiding, for the most part, the propaganda demands of the authorities and standing on the side of the people. It was during this period that the two most important artistic currents in the history of Polish cinema developed - the "Polish School" of 1956-1961 and the "cinema of moral anxiety" of 1975-1981.
In particular, the tradition of the first stream - harking back to Romantic literature - is still alive in Polish film. It must be said that the greatest rationalist and critic within the "Polish School", Andrzej Munk (1921-1961), the creator of “Bad Luck” (1959) and “Passenger” (1961, prem. 1963), has been dead for over 40 years, and Wojciech Has (1925-2000) recently passed away. His “The Saragossa Manuscript” (1964), set in Napoleonic times, was bought by Martin Scorsese himself in order to restore it. The Master of Polish cinema, Andrzej Wajda, (1926), author of, among others, “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), “Promised Land” (1974) and “The Man of Marble” (1976), was given a Lifetime Achievement award at the Oscars in 2000. His recent screen version of Adam Mickiewicz's national poem “Pan Tadeusz” (1999) reminded Poles of how far their collective dream of their country is from today's reality. During the Berlin Film Festival in 1999, the American Cinema Foundation awarded Wajda the first Freedom Award for the Most Creatively Brave Film Personality in Central and Eastern Europe. Since then, the award has borne the name of Andrzej Wajda and every year he awards the prize personally. In 2000, the award was won by the Ukrainian director Kira Muratowa, in 2001 by the Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer, and in 2002 by the young German director Andreas Dresen.
Alongside Wajda, among the artists of the "Polish School", is Kazimierz Kutz (1929), the creator of beautiful films illustrating life in Upper Silesia. His “Death as a Slice of Bread” (1994), with Wojciech Kilar's wonderful music, recalls the myths of "Solidarity" through the reconstruction of a tragic event - the army's quelling of the striking miners at the Silesian "Wujek" pit after the introduction of martial law in 1981. Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1922), the author of aesthetic costume morality plays like “Mother Joan of the Angels” (1960) or “Pharaoh” (1966), has recently made the monumental “Quo Vadis?” (2001) based on the Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz's classic novel. Unfortunately, the writer and director Tadeusz Konwicki (1926), a forerunner of author cinema (“The Last Day of Summer”, 1958), has not made a new film for years. His original visionary works - the autobiographical “How far it is, How near” (1972) or “Issa's Valley” (1982), following the novel by another Polish Nobel prize-winner, Czesław Miłosz - evoke the multicultural nature of a Polish society in which Poles, Jews, Russians, Lithuanians and Germans lived alongside each other for centuries.
It is worth adding that, during the Thirties, Poland had the largest number of artistically valid Jewish Yiddish films. Today, these films, such as Michał Waszyński's The Dybbuk (1937) or Józef Green's and Jan Nowina-Przybylski's Jidl's Violin (1936) - have been given a new lease of life after being screened as restored copies. In the last-named film, the protagonist was played by a guest arrival from the USA, Molly Picon. Generally, however, the characters were played by excellent Jewish actors and actresses living in Poland, such as Ida Kamińska who, many years after the War, played the main role in the Oscar-winning Czech film “The Shop on Main Street” (1965).
The most recent allusion to the achievements of the "Polish School" might be Roman Polański's work, “The Pianist”, winner of the Golden Palm at the Cannes film festival in 2002 as well as three Oscars.
Poland was only co-producer of this film, but it was filmed in Poland and tells the story of a Polish Jewish artist. Roman Polański, today a renowned actor, director, and screenwriter, played his first important film role in Wajda's “Generation” (1954), which began the "Polish School", and was Munk's assistant during “Bad Luck”, while his diploma film at the Łódź Film School, “When Angels Fall” (1959) was a parody of the "Polish School's" achievements. During his many years of work in the West, Polański has remained loyal to his Polish collaborators, e.g. Krzysztof Komeda, who composed the music to Polański's most entertaining British film, “Dance of the Vampires” (1967), and the best of his American ones, “Rosemary's Baby” (1968). The music to “The Pianist” was created by Polish composer, Wojciech Kilar, and the cameraman was Paweł Edelman.
The second classic stream of Polish cinema developed differently; the "cinema of moral anxiety", which, based on reality, criticised the degeneracy of the Communist system in Poland. Its two greatest exponents, going beyond direct criticism, were Agnieszka Holland (1948) and Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941-1996), the creator of the style's masterpiece “Camera Buff” (1979).
At the turn of the Nineties, Kieślowski gained renown as a leading European director. His ten film cycle, “The Decalogue” (1988-89) provided the template of how to shift from pure observation of reality to the fundamental questions, important to every individual. Further steps along this road were his later co-productions, “The Double Life of Veronica” (1991) and the “Three Colours” trilogy (1993/94), all accompanied by Zbigniew Preisner's unforgettable music. Roles in these films allowed the young French actresses Juliette Binoche and Irene Jacob to link up with the best traditions of European film acting.
The "cinema of moral anxiety" stands as a still productive creative model. Among its proponents, the most active is Krzysztof Zanussi (1939), whose film “Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease” (2000) shows how it is possible to observe contemporary society, while simultaneously talking about fundamental questions. The leading representatives of later generations use a similar model. Krzysztof Krauze (1953), in the film “The Debt” (1999), recreating a real criminal case from the beginning of the Nineties, asked questions about the legal limitations on self-defence, but also political and moral questions - about the price of regime change and about the mental preparation required for freedom. In his film “Hi, Tereska” (2001), Robert Gliński (1952) showed, through a harsh portrayal of the fate of two adolescent girls, how the present collapse in faith and values translates into helplessness on the part of care institutions. The actresses playing the protagonists, Aleksandra Gietner and Karolina Sobczak, received the Young Artist Award at the festival in Denver.
The most optimistic of such pieces appears to be the recent debut by Piotr Trzaskalski (1967) – “Edi” (2002), suggesting in a series of convincing scenes that even life as a homeless outsider does not make internal harmony and happiness unreachable. The director links the perspectives of an objective observer of the world's misery with shots worthy of a Zen master (Krzysztof Ptak's marvellous photography) with incredible sensitivity.
Characteristic of the current phase in the development of Polish cinema are a group of author individualists, conversing with their viewers through the medium of stories about their inner life. One of the most consistent auteurs in this group is Andrzej Kondratiuk (1936). For years, and with some success - in films like “Spinning Wheel of Time” (1995) or “The Sundial” (1997) - he has created a private autobiographical cinema, taking on all possible functions: scriptwriter, set designer, producer and star. Polish cinema's current leading critic, demonstrating in his heroes the bitter fate of the frustrated intellectual, is Marek Koterski (1942), the author of “The Day of the Madman” (2002) with a marvellous role for Marek Kondrat, one of the leading Polish actors. The most famous young gun of the Nineties, Jan Jakub Kolski (1956), in works such as “Johnny Aquarius” (1993) and “A History of the Cinema in Popielawy” (1998) has created a separate world far from civilisation in the remote countryside, where elemental ethical questions sound most natural. Finally, we should note the fruitful directorial entrance of a one-time actor in the "cinema of moral anxiety", Jerzy Stuhr (1947), who, as the creator of “Love Stories” (1997) and “The Big Animal” (2000), has successfully joined the club.
Among the varieties of commercial cinema, the greatest popularity is enjoyed by comedy. Cult status has been achieved by those creators of comedies from Communist times who were able to show the absurdity of the everyday functioning of the system in their films - Stanisław Bareja (1929-1987), the creator of “Teddy Bear” (1980), and Marek Piwowski (1935), the author of “Cruise” (1970), a film which has delighted new generations of fans. Today's specialist in this field is Juliusz Machulski (1955), the creator of “Sexmission” (1983), a hit during the Eighties, an amusing pastiche of science-fiction, with a role played by the aforementioned Jerzy Stuhr. In the course of the last decade, his film “Killer” (1997) was similarly successful. This tale of a naive cab-driver mistaken for a hit-man was not just a chance to look satirically at the spiritual state of his countrymen, but also told so well that Hollywood producers have bought the rights to an American remake.
An important chapter in the tradition of Polish film is that of the "artistic" documentary. At the Łódź Film School, one of the classics of Polish documentary filmmaking still lectures - Kazimierz Karabasz (1930), the author of the famous 10-minute “Musicians” (1960), which Krzysztof Kieślowski, his student, on the 100th anniversary of the birth of cinema, placed in his list of the world's 10 best films. The Polish school of documentary making was based on a particular view of reality that creates a generalisation, a metaphor of destiny. Excellent documentaries (“First Love”, “Hospital”) were created by Krzysztof Kieślowski. The current master of such film -making is Marcel Łoziński (1940), who, during Communist times, made documentaries unmasking the hypocrisy in the system (“Recipe for Life”, 1977), and currently, in films like “89mm from Europe” (1994) or “Anything Can Happen” (1995), seeks situations which best mirror the spiritual condition of contemporary humankind. One of the most talented documentary-makers of the younger generation is his son, Paweł Łoziński (1965), the creator of an original, private documentary formula, by portraying his neighbours in the same tenement with a VHS camera (“The Way It Is”, 1999). Among other filmmakers, documentary-maker and traveller Andrzej Fidyk (1953) stands out. His “The Parade” (1989), a programme reporting on the 40th anniversary of the Korean People's Democratic Republic, is a fascinating metaphor for a totalitarian system. The film “Mobile Cinema of Dreams” (1998), a kind of tribute to Indian cinematography and India, the country with the greatest number of films produced annually, won the Grand Prix at the Banff Television Festival. One of his most recent works, “Reed Dance” (2001), is a colourful, though pessimistic, tale of everyday life and problems in Swaziland, a small country in southern Africa. According to a UN report from June 2000, during the next few years over half the teenagers in Swaziland will die of AIDS. Fidyk's film won a World Media Festival prize in Hamburg in the "society" category, and during the Television Fair in Cologne it was counted among the world's top ten television productions of 2001.
Polish animation has been a fruitful terrain for artistic experiments, at the same time conveying literary and philosophical content. Masters of this art form include the recently deceased Jan Lenica (1928-2001), who worked in the West for years and the author of animations like “Labyrinth” (1963) or “King Ubu” (1979), and also Walerian Borowczyk (1923), the creator of grotesques like “The Concert of Mr and Mrs Kabal” (1962). Current leading animators are Jerzy Kucia (1942) from Cracow, an eternal experimenter, known as the "Bresson of world animation", and in Warsaw Piotr Dumała (1956), the creator of original animated adaptations of the world's literary masterpieces (“Gentle Spirit” (1985), “Crime and Punishment” (2001)). A separate place in this group is occupied by Zbigniew Rybczyński (1949), the first Polish Oscar winner for the film “Tango” (1982), known as "the Pope of video". In works such as “Steps” (1987), “Orchestra” (1990) or Kafka (1991), he searches for hitherto undiscovered artistic and learning opportunities offered by new technologies such as the High Definition System.
In Poland, there are two state-run film schools. The older and more famous is the more than 50-year-old State Academy of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź, which has educated many marvellous directors, camera operators, actors and production managers, with Wajda, Polański and Kieślowski at the head. The second is the Radio and Television Department at the Silesian University in Katowice. Both institutions also accept students from abroad. It assists graduates with a start in Polish television, enabling the creation of fictional debuts as part of the "Generation 2000" cycle. The most interesting of these young filmmakers, like Małgorzata Szumowska (“Happy Man”, 2000), Łukasz Barczyk (“I Am Looking At You, Molly”, 2000) or Marek Lechki (“My City”, 2002) enrich home-grown cinema with the new authorial perspectives of people educated within a democratic Poland, free from the prejudices and complexes of their parents.
Among the many film festivals organised in Poland, there are three considered most influential. For domestic cinematography, the most important is the Polish Festival of Fictional Films in Gdynia (previously, in Gdańsk), founded in 1974, where all of the country's domestic productions are shown every September - the Grand Prix are known as "Golden Lions". The richest tradition is possessed by the Cracow Film Festival, in existence since 1960, which runs two parallel competitions, Polish and International, in which Golden Hobby Horse and Golden Dragons are awarded to the best documentaries and the best short films. The youngest festival is the International Festival of Film Camera Operators "Camerimage", organised at the beginning of December every year since 1993, which awards Golden Frogs to the world's best camera operators.
Film Studies is also developing in Poland and may be studied at all universities in the country. Separate Film Studies courses are available at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and at Łódź University. Among the many magazines about film, the most important are: the academic "Film Quarterly" and two monthlies, the ambitious "Kino" (similar to "Cahiers du cinéma") and the popular "Film" (similar to "Premiére").
The Most Important Awards
- 2002 Golden Palm at Cannes - Roman Polański's The Pianist
- 1998 Golden Lion at Venice - Andrzej Wajda for Lifetime Achievement
- 1995 Silver Bear at Berlin - Krzysztof Kieślowki's Three Colours: White
- 1993 Golden Lion at Venice - Roman Polański for Lifetime Achievement
- 1993 Golden Lion at Venice - Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colours: Blue
- 1990 Golden Palm at Cannes for a Female Role - Krystyna Janda in Ryszard Bugajski's The Interrogation
- 1985 Golden Shell at San Sebastian - Radosław Piwowarski's Yesterday
- 1984 Golden Lion at Venice - Krzysztof Zanussi's The Year of the Quiet Sun
- 1982 Golden Palm at Cannes for a Female Role - Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak in Karoly Makk's Hungarian film Another Way
- 1981 Golden Palm at Cannes - Andrzej Wajda's The Iron Man
- 1980 Silver Bear at Berlin for Best Actor - Andrzej Seweryn in Andrzej Wajda's The Orchestra Conductor
- 1973 Silver Shell at San Sebastian - Andrzej Wajda's The Wedding
- 1966 Golden Bear at Berlin - Roman Polański's Cul-de-sac
Selected Oscar Nominations
- 2001 Sławomir Idziak for Cinematography in Black Hawk Down, dir. R. Scott
- 1995 Krzysztof Kieślowski Three Colours: Red - Best Foreign Film
- 1991 Agnieszka Holland Europa, Europa- Best Original Screenplay
- 1985 Agnieszka Holland Angry Harvest - Best Foreign Film
- 1976 Andrzej Wajda Promised Land - Best Foreign Film
- 1974 Roman Polański Chinatown - Best Film, Best Director
- 1968 Roman Polański Rosemary's Baby - Best Adapted Screenplay
- 1966 Jerzy Kawalerowicz Pharaoh - Best Foreign Film
- 1961 Roman Polański A Knife in the Water- Best Foreign Film
Poland's Most Respected Camera Operators
Andrzej Bartkowiak - Stranger among Us (1992), dir. S. Lumet; Prizzi's Honour (1985), dir. J. Huston; Terms of Endearment (1983), dir. J.L. Brooks.
Sławomir Idziak - Black Hawk Down (2001), dir. R. Scott (Oscar nomination for Cinematography); Proof of Life (2000), dir. T. Hackford; Three Colours: Blue (1993), The Double Life of Veronica (1991), dir. K. Kieślowski.
Janusz Kamiński - Schindler's List (1994), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Minority Report (2002), dir. S. Spielberg; Jerry Maguire (1996), dir. C. Crowe
Andrzej Sekuła - Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), dir. Q. Tarantino
Piotr Sobociński (1958-2001) - Three Colours: Red (1994), dir. K. Kieślowski; Marvin's Room (1996), dir. J. Zaks; Twilight (1998), dir. R. Benton.