September 13–18, 2004
Define Polish films? Angst-ridden pictures of a dark world in which any colour other than grey is out of place. Judging from these films, Poles are a morbid people, whose life is a constant and hopeless struggle. For some variety, it may, of course, depict lives in a state of complete and utter misery. Laughter in Poland is illegal and nothing ever ends well. Sometimes impressively masterful, sometimes disturbingly insightful, Polish films are hardly ever an inspiring viewing for the most eager of the fans of subtitled cinema.
Not any more. The first 15 years of post-communist transitions changed the shape of Polish films and its film industry. After the initial chaos of collapsing film production houses and the rampant yet awkward Americanisation of filmmaking patterns, there came a period of stabilisation, which is now giving rise to a new generation of filmmakers in Poland. The tradition of social responsibility, which in communism was the filmmakers’ raison d’être, is slowly fading away together with the fatalistic visions of the world that powered it. Although this tradition’s resilience should not be underestimated, the 29th annual Polish Feature Festival attests to the recent thematic and atmospheric shift, even if still incomplete, in Polish filmmaking.
There were 20 feature films screened in the main competition of the 2004 Festival, which took place in Gdynia, the home of Lech Walesa’s shipyard, the cradle of the post-1989 transitions. 20 is also the average number of films produced in Poland every year since 1989, although 2004 proved to be slightly lower on the number of feature productions, which prompted the Festival organisers to include in the main competition three films that are – technically speaking – television rather than cinematic features.
In the spirit of renewal, the grand prize of the Festival went to The Welts (Pregi) (2004), the Polish nomination for the foreign film Oscar and an impressive debut by a female director, Magdalena Piekorz. Piekorz is also now one of two female directors (the other being Agnieszka Holland) in the history of the Festival to have received the grand prize. The Welts opens with a monologue by 30 year-old writer Wojciech (Michal Zebrowski) that frames the rest of the film. Wojciech’s childhood is told in black and white flashbacks to the time when he lived with his single father (Jan Frycz) who expressed his fatherly love and care by beating his son frequently and severely. Terrorised by the constant threat of physical abuse, Wojciech runs away from home and continues to run away from his father, only to realise that the escape is impossible; his father lives within him. Wojciech recognised his father in his own facial expressions and his bad temper. Wojciech’s father is present when Wojciech beckons pigeons with bird seeds to his window-sill. He has stuck it with sharp nails high enough for the pigeons not to be able to peck on the seeds without hurting themselves. Just like his father, Wojciech’s way of showing affection has a price. Giving love means giving pain. Until the arrival of Tania (Agnieszka Grochowska).
At first, The Welts seems to be following the well-trodden path of the Polish cinematic gloom. An unhappy man tries to escape the unescapable. If a film like this were to be made 20 years ago, or by an older director, it is likely that this is where the story of Wojciech would start and end. Piekorz, however, liberates Wojciech. She brings to him an almost unrealistically perfect woman, who manages to break the trance of his impossible escape. She deems the conflict realised in the constant escape irrelevant in face of the safety offered by the strong, independent and caring – not to mention beautiful – woman. The whole film is punctuated with mirrors, and in the last scene it is in the mirror that Wojciech discovers himself to be a father-to-be, an uplifting moment, which carries to a crescendo the resolution of the vicious cycle of paternal violence. The beautifully rich cinematography by Marcin Koszalka, justly awarded for his efforts in Gdynia, and austere mise en scène make the subjective reality of the film particularly potent. Based on Agnieszka Holland’s precedence, and if given a chance, Piekorz may be expected to deliver films that should put Poland back on the cinematic map of the world.
Przemyslaw Wojcieszek is another young director who has started to rewrite the peculiar international reputation of Polish cinema. His Down a Colourful Hill (W dól kolorowym wzgórzem) (2004), which was awarded the prize for best directing, is a well-delivered story of Rysiek (Dariusz Majchrzak), who comes back home from prison to find out that his girlfriend has left him for his brother. At the same time, the brother is selling their father’s house against Rysiek’s wishes, while Rysiek’s past haunts him, culminating in delirious night scenes in which two brothers unite to fend off intruders attempting to pull Rysiek back into his pre-prison criminal life. The plot put in this way does not reflect the complexity and nuances that Wojcieszek worked into his film. Every small tension finds a comical or at least unexpected resolution. Again, the final fraternal unification is unlikely to have been acceptable to a filmmaker working in the old tradition of Polish cinema. In his third feature Wojcieszek consistently re-creates his own authorial style filled with mature symbolism and powerful silences but also youthful freshness and playfulness. His work has already been lauded by Andrzej Wajda and Polish film scholars and critics for taking on the socially responsible role of a filmmaker, but doing it with a lightness and positivism rare in Polish films of that kind.
A debut that received no awards and mixed reviews in Poland, but comes from the same generation of 30-something filmmakers and deserves more attention is the mysterious and optimistic The Third One (Trzeci) (2004), directed by Jan Hryniak. The film quotes Roman Polanski’s debut of 1962, Knife in the Water and to some extent it is based on a similar narrative structure. Ewa (Magdalena Cielecka) and Pawel (Jacek Poniedzialek) are a young yuppie couple, whose brief sailing holiday is unexpectedly shortened by an emergency at Pawel’s work. In a moment of inattention they sail into a boat with Stary (Marek Kondrat), an Anthony Hopkins-like third character of the film. They give Stary (also known as Trzeci) a lift, during which he decides to deliver them from the regiments of the life they lead. And he does so by at times intriguing them, and at times shocking them, into re-examining the significance of their lives and of life in general. Cinematographically well put together with almost every frame carefully composed, and with a mysteriously happy ending, The Third One portrays a conflict between Stary’s joie de vivre and the inability of the young Pawel to experience it. The opening sex scene might have raised a few hairs on the Polish critics’ backs, since graphic sex (or happy sex for that matter) is not customarily expected in Polish cinema. Maybe Hryniak’s filmic optimism has arrived too early into the liberalising transition of sorts to be appreciated by Polish critics whose radars are still tuned into the darker shades of filmic existence. In any case, The Third One is a touching film symptomatic of the period in which the ethos of business success, which was at first embraced in Poland unquestionably, loses its impetus and opens up to questioning.
An intriguing biopic, one of the two in the Festival, came from the winner of the 1999 grand prize, Krzysztof Krauze. In the 2004 Festival he represented the “middle generation” of Polish filmmakers who debuted before the collapse of communism, but missed the highest point of the socio-politically engaged Cinema of Moral Concern of 1976–1981. Krauze’s My Nikifor (Mój Nikifor) (2004) is a charming account of three months in 1960 in the life of Epifan Drowniak aka Nikifor Krynicki (Krystyna Feldman), a self-taught genius of primitivism, told from the point of view of Marian Wlosinski (Roman Garncarczyk). Wlosinski sacrifices his own artistic career and family life to care for Nikifor and delivers him to the world. His choice on the matter is, however, limited. Nikifor, who suffers from speech impairment, tuberculosis and practically lives in the street, appears one day in Wlosinski’s workshop and announces “I will paint here!” He moves into Wlosinski’s life; he claims it; he refuses to leave.
One of the few prizes that went to My Nikifor is for the lead female acting. Krystyna Feldman, cast in the role of Nikifor, mesmerises. Small-framed, with hair sticking out of his/her ears, broken glasses and mumbling to him/herself incomprehensibly, Feldman’s Nikifor is a masterpiece of transgender acting. Nikifor moves between the winter streets of Krynica, a Polish mountain resort, and its claustrophobic interiors, in which he paints and indulges himself in many idiosyncrasies, including listening to a few radio stations at the same time. Set against the early post-Stalinist backdrop, My Nikifor is a rare example of Polish filmmaking in that it does not criticise the communist past, and treats it as a temporality like any other. Its focus oscillates between the maverick-painter whose artwork is now valued at thousands of dollars, and exhibited and sold in galleries around the world, and his caretaker, who – a painter himself – produced a handful of forgotten pieces. Cinematographically enchanting, it is a film that can travel well across borders, as long as its producers are able to pay for its ticket.
Other films screened in the Festival included two feature-length animations, three films made by émigrés, a handful of drama productions of varied levels of filmic success, and three comedies. Comedy is one genre that traditionally has not been a favourite of Polish critics. International interest in Polish comedy is also non-existent, partially due to its humour’s limiting appeal, but in some cases predominantly due to the Polish film industry’s unwillingness or inability to promote it beyond Polish borders. In this context, an award for the script of Vinci (2004) by Juliusz Machulski, a veteran of Polish comedy, is significant. The film’s story evolves around the forgery and robbery of a pride and joy of a Cracow museum, A Lady with A Weasel, painted by da Vinci. Vinci is not Machulski’s best work. It is far removed from his astounding and little known internationally Déjà vu (1989), which is a masterly pastiche that quotes ad lib from American and Soviet cinemas and fluidly moves between the gangster worlds of Chicago and Odessa in 1925. Verbatim recreation of the Odessa stairs scene from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) is one of the many breathtaking surprises that Déjà vu has to offer. Vinci, on the other hand, does not come with the dexterity of Déjà vu or some other of Machulski’s comedies, yet it is still a skilfully executed and possibly universally entertaining piece.
Of the dramas shown in Gdynia, The Wedding (Wesele) (2004), directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, is one of the most awarded ones. It is steeped in the social commentary tradition of Polish filmmaking. The Wedding is, again, an allegory of the moral corruption brought on by the ethos of financial success at all cost, which is a theme that resonates in Polish cinema since the late 1990s. Progressively grotesque, it may be largely impenetrable to a viewer unfamiliar with the Polish social and cultural transitions and traditions. More approachable is a film by the already internationally awarded Malgorzata Szumowska, another representative of the new 30-something generation of Polish filmmakers. Szumowska’s Stranger (2004), also known as It (and Ono in Polish), is a piece of filmic poetry, in which a musical score by Pawel Mykietyn reigns supreme, and which centres on pregnant Ewa (Malgorzata Bela), who explains the world to her unborn child. Love and hatred, joy and sorrow, hurt and forgiveness all have equal rights in the world translated to her child by Ewa.
In general, the greatest problem with Polish cinema, and which renders it practically invisible on the international circuit, is the limited access to funds, which – especially for younger directors – are rarely enough to cover the cost of, however miniscule, promotional activities. For 15 years now, the Polish film industry has been waiting for film legislation that would aid its further development. In 2000, the government funding for all feature films to be produced in Poland amounted to 13 million zloty (about AUD4.5 million), which was also a price-tag for Andrzej Wajda’s one film released in 1999 (Pan Tadeusz). In the European context, for a state inhabited by 40 million people, that amount is disproportionally low. While older Polish filmmakers’ esteem affords them the trust needed from international investors for co-productions, younger ones do not have that luxury. At the 29th Festival of Polish Feature Films in Gdynia, Magdalena Piekorz’s The Welts, Przemyslaw Wojcieszek’s Down A Colourful Hill, Jan Hryniak The Third One, Krzysztof Krauze’s My Nikifor, Malgorzata Szumowska’s Stranger and possibly even Juliusz Machulski’s Vinci, are films that should bring cinematic pleasure to viewers world-wide. Whether that rejuvenated face of Polish cinema will show itself to the world does depend on financial consideration, yet it is very much a face deserving a closer look.