History of Polish cinema is a perfect reflection of Polish culture in the last 80 years. Although Poland’s movies date back to 1908, Second World War practically destroyed its industry. The year 1945 became a “year zero” and started postwar resurrection of Polish film. Since then, such iconic filmmakers such as Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Roman Polanski, launched their careers which today are considered as world-class cinematography. In following decades, Polish cinema proved to be a not only vital and exciting artistic force but also a socio-political mirror of Polish history of the second half of the XX century. This is not another “the best of” list because it’s almost impossible to summarize an entire national cinema in just 10 titles. It’s a listing of ten most essential Polish movies, which might help every foreigner to understand the history of Poland and how it was changing. Let’s start!
Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół I Diament)
Ashes and Diamonds are considered to be Poland’s first international hit. It’s a complex study of conflicting loyalties on the last day of the Second World War. But from the very beginning, iconic director Andrzej Wajda liked to make a wild decision. Firstly he restructured Jerzy Andrzejewski’s original novel, as well as casting the unknown back then Zbigniew Cybulski as failed assassin Maciej Chełmicki. James Deen-looking Cybulski with dark glasses and machine gun became a symbolic portrait of revolutionary attitude (just like Che Guevara a decade later). Wajda proved his talent by making bold statements for the time being, by showing the complexity of wartime in Poland. Even in the last day of the most significant conflict in history, nothing is black-and-white clear, starting from main protagonist revolutionary credentials and ending at coherent ideology.
Teddy bear (Miś)
Communist Poland’s most famous black comedy and one of the most incomprehensible movie for everyone who’s not familiar with the everyday absurdity of socialism period. The plot oscillates between farcical highs and melancholic lows of a tenacious sports club manager called Miś. He’s forced to conspire against his conniving ex-wife from disappearing with all the money they saved together in an English bank account. Writer and director, Stanisław Bareja takes the audience on a journey through the ridiculous bureaucracy and misfortunes of Poland under the Soviet Union. For everyone non-Polish it may seem like senseless sketches, but in fact, this is Polish communism in a nutshell.
Knife in the Water (Nóż w wodzie)
Knife in the Water is a juxtaposition of contrasts and is all wrapped up in the vices of pride and vicious jealousy. This film touches on the issues about power struggles and politics at every turn. A seemingly simple plot allows you to get a better look at the characters. A middle-aged man, with his younger wife, picks up a hitchhiker on their way to a sailing trip. Level of psychological detail enables Polanski to ratchet up the tension right from the beginning. Real innovation is boasting camera movement which does well mimics a passive-aggressive physicality between two leading male characters. Also, Krzysztof Komeda’s jazz score, together with female vocals, is simultaneously inexpressibly haunting and beautiful. Polish critics were thrilled with young Polanski and have announced the appearance of a fresh, new voice in Polish cinema. He’s ended up with Poland’s first-ever Oscar nomination witch launched a brilliant international career.
The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie)
This epic tale directed by Wojciech Has transports viewers to the XIX century Spanish town of Saragossa. The Napoleonic Wars rage on but any hints at a conventional widescreen historical epic are neglected. The main plot follows the discovery of a mysterious manuscript opens up a multiple-layer story. Coming elements become more and more intriguing, such as Cabbalism, gipsies and Spain’s Islamic past. As elaborate and mystical as the original novel by the Polish enlightenment writer, Count Jan Potocki. “Manuscript” is one of the most enigmatic movies in Polish cinema. Fun fact: both Coppola and Scorsese hailed The Saragossa Manuscript as a ‘masterpiece of Polish cinema’.
Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru)
Andrzej Wajda quickly became an expert of human stories entangled in a great story in the background. Man of Marble is arguably the finest’ state of Poland’ narrative of the 70s. Simple humanity surrounded by the complexities and machinations of the Soviet mentality. The plot follows Agnieszka, young, outspoken and individualistic film student. She decides to make the document about the life of a former proletariat hero, Mateusz Birkut, who once arrived on a propaganda poster. Soon Agnieszka discovers a plethora of lies surrounding Birkut’s real life. Wajda’s main goal was to ask whether socialism was working in Poland at all implicitly. Because of that, he broke a significant political taboo that helped usher in Polish cinema’s ‘moral anxiety’ movement. Wajda planned to shoot this study of the Stalinist propaganda in 1963, but the project was grounded. Once it came out sixteen years later, it became a significant cultural phenomenon.
The story of Canal starts on 25th September 1944 – the fifty-sixth day of the Warsaw Uprising. The last moments of the uprising, a unit of “Armia Krajowa” soldiers tries to get through the sewers to the city centre where the fighting is still going on. The group moves through the dark, winding underground system which is half-filled with water and excrement, while the Germans stand guard at manholes ready to throw grenades. Initially criticized for his anti-heroic performance of the insurgents, Canal won the Silver Palm at the 1957 Cannes Festival, which influenced its later perception. Kanał turned out to be a breakthrough film for Polish cinematography. His “bitter reflection on the past” is associated with the birth of the “Polish film school”, which drew the attention of international audiences to films produced behind the Iron Curtain.
Blind Chance (Przypadek)
Blind Chance is one of Kieslowski’s most nonlinear story structures in his filmography. It’s a play on the destiny of the main protagonist, Witek, a Polish med school student. The plot is divided into three different storylines that have significantly different consequences on the events of his life. Kieślowski was searching for a new film language, suitable for the simultaneous telling of political events and human existential dilemmas. That’s why he created a film in which no path of choice is made by Witek. From joining the Polish United Workers’ Party, participating in the Solidarity movement or not telling the truth on either side. In the end Przypadek became one of the most essential films in Kieślowski’s career.
The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana)
Promised Land is a Polish historical epic, directed and written by Andrzej Wajda. It’s based on Władysław Reymont’s novel under the same title. The film takes place in industrial Łódź at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Three partners – a Polish landowner, a German industrialist and a Jewish trader – try to raise funds to build their own factory to gain interest in the textile industry. Wajda has made significant changes to the literary original. The director has preserved the demonic portrait of industrial Łódź from the novel. Also he has softened the anti-Semitic pronunciation of the literary prototype. Later analyses of the film, however, proved destructive power of money as a stimulus for capitalist transformations on Polish soil. The Promised Land was nominated for an Oscar, was recognized by some critics as a film masterpiece.
Movie Rose is a compelling tale of love, loss and human sacrifice. “Freshly” communist and post-Pomeranian interiors and moods are replaced by the landscape of Poland after World War II. Although the yoke of Nazi occupation was thrown off the back, the burden of Stalinist Russia appears on the shoulders of Poles. Wojciech Smarzowski’s Rose tells the story of two hugely different characters living in shortly post-war Poland. When Tadeusz meets the eponymous Rose, the widow of a Nazi soldier who’s significantly suffered at the hands of the mob now controlling this far-flung region in the east. Soon, Rose and Mazur become hindered by the arrival of the Soviets and the prejudices Polish nationalists all around. Rose has not been showered with awards from all over the world. Although critics and historians alike consider this film one of the most critical and beautiful films of the 21st century.
The “youngest” movie in that list is Ida – a film by Paweł Pawlikowski, which tells the story of two women. Anna is an orphan brought up in a female order. Soon she is to take her own vows and become a nun. But from her only living relative, a former Stalinist prosecutor Wanda learns that she is a Holocaust survivor and her real name is Ida Lebenstein. Together with her aunt, she sets off on a journey to discover her past. In 2016, Ida was classified at the 55th place of the most outstanding films of the 21st century according to the BBC critics’ poll. In the United States, the film was widely praised for its acting and visual style. Six decades after the first nomination, Pawlikowski’s work received an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film as the first feature-length Polish film in history.