Archive for the 'Poland' Category

Wojciech J. Has on DVD

As the Barbican Centre in London gears up for a long overdue part retrospective of the career of the man I recently described in Sight & Sound as Polish cinema’s only authentic surrealist, I thought I’d post another DVD overview for the benefit of those who can’t get there - or indeed those who can, and who’d like to explore further. The good news is that virtually all of Has’s features are available somewhere, but the downside is that many are currently restricted to Polish-language French-subtitled editions. But there are rumours that those masters will be released on Polish DVDs in due course, and if precedent is any guide they should have English subtitles.

The main labels responsible are Malavida Films (France), Mr Bongo Films (UK), Best Film Co and TVP (Poland). Image Entertainment’s The Saragossa Manuscript is now out of print, but copies are still floating around eBay, Amazon and elsewhere.

In chronological order, including shorts:

1947 - Brzozowa Street (Ulica Brzozowa, IMDB)

  • Included in TVP’s The Noose (Pętla), Region 0 PAL. No subtitles, though my review should fill in a few gaps.

1947 - Harmony (Harmonia, IMDB)

  • Included in TVP’s One-Room Tenants (Wspólny pokój), Region 0 PAL. No subtitles, but no spoken content.

1950 - My City (Moje miasto, IMDB)

  • Included in TVP’s The Noose (Pętla), Region 0 PAL. No subtitles.

1957 - The Noose (Pętla, IMDB)

  • TVP, Region 0 PAL. Optional English subtitles on main feature. Extras include unsubtitled shorts Brzozowa Street and My Town (see above).
  • Included in the fourth volume of Best Film Co’s 50 Years of the Polish Film School (50-lecie Polskiej Szkoły Filmowej, Region 0 PAL. Optional English, French, German, Russian and Polish HOH subtitles on main feature, though not brief accompanying featurette. Extensive, fully bilingual booklet in Polish and English.
  • Le Noeud coulant, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1958 - Farewells (Pożegnania, IMDB)

  • Les Adieux, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1959 - One-Room Tenants (Wspólny pokój, IMDB)

  • TVP, Region 0 PAL. Optional English subtitles on main feature. Extras include the dialogue-free short Harmony (see above).
  • Chambre commune, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1960 - Goodbye to the Past (Rozstanie, IMDB)

  • Adieu jeunesse, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1961 - Gold Dreams (Złoto, IMDB)

  • L’or de mes rêves, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1962 - How To Be Loved (Jak być kochaną, IMDB)

  • Included in the fourth volume of Best Film Co’s 50 Years of the Polish Film School (50-lecie Polskiej Szkoły Filmowej, Region 0 PAL. Optional English, French, German, Russian and Polish HOH subtitles on main feature, though not brief accompanying featurette. Extensive, fully bilingual booklet in Polish and English.
  • L’art d’être aimée, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1965 - The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, IMDB)

  • Mr Bongo Films, Region 0 PAL. English subtitles.
  • Image Entertainment, Region 0 NTSC. English subtitles.
  • Le manuscrit trouvé a saragosse, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1966 - The Codes (Szyfry, IMDB)

  • Les codes, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1968 - The Doll (Lalka, IMDB)

  • La poupée, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1973 - The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod klepsydrą, IMDB)

  • Mr Bongo Films, Region 0 PAL. English subtitles.
  • La Clepsydre, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1983 - An Uneventful Story (Nieciekawa historia, IMDB)

  • Une Histoire banale, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1985 - Write and Fight (Pismak, IMDB)

  • L’Écrivain, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1986 - The Memoirs of a Sinner (Osobisty pamiętnik grzesznika przez niego samego spisany , IMDB)

  • Journal intime d’un pêcheur , Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

1988 - The Tribulations of Balthazar Kober (Niezwykła podróż Baltazara Kobera, IMDB)

  • Les Tribulations de Balthazar Kober, Malavida, Region 0 PAL. French subtitles only.

As ever, additions and corrections are most appreciated.

Posted on 28th September 2009
Under: Poland, DVD Surveys, Wojciech Jerzy Has | 1 Comment »

The Surrealist Visions of Wojciech Has

Now this is more like it!

From October 1-25, London’s Barbican Cinema is mounting an ambitious retrospective of the work of Wojciech Jerzy Has (1925-2000) - or rather a partial retrospective, since it only features five films. But I shouldn’t complain, since it’s an excellent selection that comprises his feature debut Noose (Pętla, 1958), his two early studies of post-WWII emotional fallout, Farewells (Pożegnania, 1958), How To Be Loved (Jak być kochaną, 1963) and his two best-known films The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1965) and The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium Pod Klepsydrą, 1973). The latter is based on the Bruno Schulz story of the same name, which the Quay Brothers are currently developing as their third feature - and the Barbican has also commissioned a Has-related installation from the Quays which will be unveiled at the start of the season.

Of Poland’s undisputed cinema masters, Has has always been somewhat marginalised (certainly in Britain, where he’s mainly been regarded as a one-work man; less so in France), possibly because his florid and fantastical visions didn’t chime especially well with much Polish fiction cinema. His closest rival in the Polish film surrealism stakes, Walerian Borowczyk, decamped to France at a very early stage of his career, but Has remained loyal to Poland - even spending several years as the Dean of the renowned Łódź Film School. From the very start of his career, he showed a striking individuality - Noose was initially mischaracterised as a familiar study of an alcoholic in decline, and critically dismissed as a result, but in fact it’s a far more complex portrait of a psychologically tormented individual whose dependence on alcohol is merely one of a whole raft of issues that conspires to push him over the edge - and the first of many Has protagonists who would find themselves struggling to cope in a world that’s at least as much dreamscape as reality.

The best news is that the season apparently features newly-struck 35mm prints, courtesy of the Filmoteka Narodowa (Poland’s national film archive), which will later go on tour - and the season itself was organised by the Polish Cultural Institute with the support of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the ambitious Polska! Year project.

Posted on 28th September 2009
Under: Poland, Wojciech Jerzy Has, Retrospectives | 3 Comments »

Sweet Rush

Poland, 2009, colour, 85 mins

  • Director: Andrzej Wajda
  • Screenplay: Andrzej Wajda (and, uncredited, Krystyna Janda), based on the story by Jarosław Iwaskiewicz
  • Photography: Paweł Edelman
  • Production Design: Magdalena Dipont
  • Costume Design: Magdalena Biedrzycka
  • Music: Paweł Mykietyn
  • Sound: Jacek Hamela
  • Editing: Milenia Fiedler
  • Producer: Michał Kwieciński
  • Cast: Krystyna Janda (Marta, herself), Paweł Szajda (Boguś), Jan Englert (doctor, Marta’s husband), Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak (Marta’s friend), Julia Pietrucha (Halinka), Roma Gąsiorowska (maid), Krzysztof Skonieczny (Stasiek), Paweł Tomaszewski, Mateusz Kościukiewicz, Marcin Łuczak (bridge players), Andrzej Wajda (himself), Michał Kasprzak, Krystian Kopański, Marcin Korcz, Karol Kosik, Maciej Kowalik, Arkadiusz Lewicki, Tomasz Łukaszewski, Magdalena Michel, Jarosław Panter, Agnieszka Sowa, Maciej Świtajski, Zbigniew Sznitko
  • Production Company: Akson Studio

Unlike the long-gestating, big-budget Katyń (2007), Andrzej Wajda’s new film was shot relatively quickly with a small cast and on a comparatively low budget, and premiered less than eighteen months after its predecessor at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, where it shared the Alfred Bauer prize. But despite several significant differences in scale and ambition, Katyń and Sweet Rush share one crucial element: both films were inspired by the real-life death of a loved one, respectively Wajda’s father Jakub (a presumed Katyń victim), and the cinematographer Edward Kłosiński, who lost his battle with lung cancer on 5 January 2008. Not only had Kłosiński worked with Wajda on several films, but he was also lead actress Krystyna Janda’s husband.

Janda had already been cast in her first Wajda film in nearly three decades (she’d previously headlined Man of Marble/Człowiek z marmuru in 1976, The Conductor/Dyrygent in 1980 and Man of Iron/Człowiek z żelaza in 1981), and by all accounts it was originally planned as a straightforward adaptation of a short story by Jarosław Iwaskiewicz, one of Wajda’s favourite writers - other Wajda-Iwaskiewicz adaptations include The Birch Wood (Brzezina, 1970) and The Young Ladies of Wilko (Panny z Wilka, 1979), on both of which Kłosiński also worked. Set shortly after World War II, it’s a drama about a middle-aged woman who is diagnosed with, but not informed about, a terminal lung condition, and who embarks on a fleeting romance with a young man in his early twenties. Apparently Wajda was a little concerned that this might be too thin for a full-length feature, but the project went into pre-production with Janda in the lead - and then delayed because Kłosiński’s condition worsened and Janda made it clear that he was her main priority. Unwilling to cast anyone else (understandably, in view of the finished film), Wajda was happy to wait - but Kłosiński’s death led to a radical rethink of the overall shape.

Now, instead of being a linear period drama, it interweaves three separate elements. One is the original Iwaskiewicz material, the second depicts Wajda and Janda themselves working on the film (and consequently having to deal with material that opens up raw real-life wounds to do with terminal illness and sudden death), while the third is a lengthy three-part monologue delivered by Janda in an anonymous hotel room about Kłosiński’s diagnosis, decline and death. Wajda said that he and cinematographer Paweł Edelman were inspired by the American painter Edward Hopper when lighting these sequences, and it’s also worth noting that Janda delivers most of her monologue either facing away from the camera or with her head in shadow. Only the undoubted fact that Janda asked for the camera to be present (and the words are hers too) prevents the overall effect from being uncomfortably voyeuristic, though we’re not so much eavesdropping on deeply private grief as sharing a genuine emotional catharsis.

These moments are so powerful that they threaten to unbalance the rest of the film, which I suspect is why Wajda and Janda introduced a third narrative strand, in which they’re shown working on the film adaptation in the wake of Kłosiński’s death, with Janda clearly overcome by the experience - so much so that she runs off the set during a particularly traumatic scene, to be picked up by a surprised motorist in the rain. For me, this was the least successful part of the film: although Wajda is at considerable pains to minimise any potential lurch into melodrama, it felt like an unnecessary pendant to what is already a strongly autobiographical piece.

But the Iwaskiewicz-sourced material works very well indeed, the early diagnosis of the protagonist Marta’s terminal illness emphasised by a memorably surreal shot of her upper body, her chest framed by a 1940s X-ray machine, her face and clearly visible (and breathing) lungs in the same image. Her not-quite-romance with the twentysomething student Boguś also rings true, the effect enhanced by actor Paweł Szajda’s passing resemblance to Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, Janda’s co-star in Man of Marble and Man of Iron, although with a far bigger age gap between him and Janda. Like Wajda’s other Iwaskiewicz films, the overall effect is tranquil and contemplative, only occasionally broken by moments of high drama, though here it’s effectively contrasted with Janda’s monologue.

The title ‘Sweet Rush’ is a literal translation of the original ‘Tatarak’, though it’s potentially confusing to those who read the second word as a verb. Actually, Iwaskiewicz is referring to a type of lakeside reed, his description delivered verbatim on screen: “When crushed between your fingers its green ribbon, creased in places, will emit a scent, a mild fragrance of ‘water shaded by trees’, with a subtle touch of oriental balms. But when you sniff deep into a furrow, padded with something which resembles cotton wool, apart from the incense-like fragrance you can smell muddy loam, rotting fish scales or just mud. The smell of death.” Edelman enhances the impression by strongly favouring the colour green throughout - not the pallid, desaturated greens he used in Katyń but something much more vibrant and visibly alive. (One review of the Berlin premiere suggested that the on-set footage was in black and white, but this wasn’t true of the print that I saw in Wrocław).

In its quiet, low-key contrast to its immediate predecessors, Sweet Rush occupies a position in Wajda’s output very similar to some of Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman’s late works: these are films by people who have nothing more to prove, and their tranquil, almost understated modesty is somehow immensely winning. I suspect it isn’t for everyone, and I know that it’s had some negative press - how much you respond to it seems to me to depend on how much you admire Janda in general, and how familiar you are with her and Wajda’s previous work (prior knowledge of the timing of Kłosiński’s death helps too, though you can probably glean what you need from the monologue), as well as your tolerance for the less successful elements. But for me it was Wajda’s most satisfying film since Korczak nearly twenty years ago.


Posted on 16th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Poland, Andrzej Wajda | No Comments »

Era New Horizons: New Polish Films 4

Snow White and Russian Red (Wojna polsko-ruska, d. Xawery Żuławski, 2009).

It was clear well before the screening that this was attracting the competition’s greatest buzz, and it was obvious why from the first few minutes. Xawery Żuławski is clearly the only man on the planet who thinks his father Andrzej’s films aren’t insane enough, and is determined to show him how to do it properly. But buried under his turbocharged fusion of violent sex, prodigious drug consumption, projectile vomiting, pissing on budgies, Matrix-style CGI-assisted kung fu battles and postmodern interludes incorporating cameos from Dorota Masłowska (author of the source novel) is a wincingly convincing study of a rudderless post-Communist Poland. This is embodied in the persona of Andrzej (cruelly but accurately nicknamed ‘Yobbo’ in the subtitles and brilliantly played by Borys Szyc), whose shaven head and swaggering gait hide none too well concealed insecurities, cruelly highlighted through his encounters with assorted women. The print under review had the poorest English subtitles of any in the competition, and it ideally needed footnotes too, but there’s no doubting its verve and energy - for me, it came far closer to the anarchic spirit of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting than did Danny Boyle’s softened-up film version. It was a hard-fought jury battle, but I’m delighted that we awarded Żuławski the top prize, and even happier that the announcement attracted a handful of boos as well as wild cheers from the audience, not to mention visible surprise on the director’s part. For a film this confrontational, anything less would have been the dampest of squibs.

Splinters (Drzazgi, d. Maciej Pieprzyca, 2008)

An irritatingly tricksy narrative structure pilfered wholesale from Pulp Fiction (and it’s not even the first Polish film to do this: Tomasz Konecki and Andrzej Saramonowicz’ The Body/Ciało came out in 2003) fatally mars appreciation of these slices of contemporary Polish life, despite several bright spots. There are three intertwining narratives - ‘Match’, ‘Veil’ and ‘Mirage’, each with their own youthful protagonist: thuggish lout Robert (Antoni Pawlicki), kooky bride Marta (Karolina Piechota, the standout performance) and imminent graduate Bartek (Marcin Hycnar), all living in the same dreary Silesian industrial town, and all stuck in dead-end relationships: Robert is romancing a supermarket check-out girl who’s already married to a suspicious husband, and whiles away the time with petty theft, vandalism and racial assault, Marta is engaged to the dull-witted Sebastian in what is quickly revealed as a union intended to cement their fathers’ business partnership (Marta’s dad having framed not only the contract that started it up but also the ballpoint pen that signed it), while in the film’s funniest scene Bartek tries to appal his fiancé’s father into forbidding the marriage by hinting at a shockingly dissolute lifestyle, only to discover that his future in-law is unnervingly well informed on the properties and availability of cannabis and angel dust. Another incidental treat is ‘Love Me Tender’ sung by a Polish Elvis impersonator, driving by in an iconic pink Cadillac, an incongruously garish splash of colour in an otherwise calculatedly drab environment.

33 Scenes From Life (33 sceny z życia, d. Małgorzata Szumowska, 2008)

I’d already seen Małgorzata Szumowska’s autobiographical family saga last March when it opened the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in London, but it stood up well to repeated viewing. But I found that while I recalled the first half vividly, the second was a hazy blur, largely because once a prominent character dies of cancer, the film is left with little to do: another death is treated almost perfunctorily, as is the discovery of an affair, and while this may well be a reflection of how it happened in real life, this doesn’t necessarily make for wholly satisfying drama. That said, there’s more than enough here to rank this as one of the better films in the competition: Szumowska has a real eye for quirky but telling detail, and a gift for drawing out heartfelt performances (apparently there was much on-set improvisation), and the film’s many incidental pleasures included Paweł Mykietyn’s surprisingly dense, modernist score - ostensibly the creation of Maciej Stuhr’s character, a successful composer, and given several prominent airings during the film’s many slow fades to several seconds of black. Performances are generally excellent, with Julia Jentsch and Peter Ganzler deserving particular praise for convincingly playing members of a large, close Polish family (they learned their lines phonetically and were dubbed by native speakers). Incidentally, the title may now be misleading - there were originally 33 scenes in the script, but Szumowska couldn’t recall whether they’d all survived the editing, and presumably felt superstitious about counting.

Unmoved Mover (Nieruchomy poruszyciel, d. Łukasz Barczyk, 2008)

Łukasz Barczyk’s second feature had one of the strongest openings of any film in the competition, in which a child voices scepticism about fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith, conclusions that he reached independently of his parents. It seemed to set the scene for something genuinely provocative, which is why it’s a shame that the rest of the film was, at least for a viewer well versed in the later work of David Lynch, a familiar psychosexual melodrama about a factory worker, Tereza, who becomes her male boss’s sex slave (he’s known only as the General) - or is this merely an imaginative projection of his darkest fantasies? Or hers? The endless parade of weirded-out set-pieces eventually became numbing rather than stimulating, though it would be churlish not to acknowledge several genuinely striking moments: the recurring motif of a detachable doorknob as an indicator of sexual power, the General expressing atonement by kneeling in front of Tereza’s house for hours on end, a climactic murder involving a gas mask, a car exhaust and a big plume of smoke over an otherwise tranquil forest. Barczyk clearly has talent to burn (the film was shot on a minuscule budget, though it’s as technically polished as any mainstream release), and I’d be curious to see what else he does - or indeed has done, as his first feature Changes (Przemiany, 2003) is out on DVD with English subtitles.

Posted on 15th August 2009
Under: Uncategorized, Poland, Xawery Żuławski, Łukasz Barczyk, Maciej Pieprzyca, Małgorzata Szumowska | No Comments »

Era New Horizons: New Polish Films 3

My Flesh, My Blood (Moja krew, d. Marcin Wrona, 2009).

Director Marcin Wrona announced that the version of his debut film screened at Wrocław wasn’t necessarily the final one, and that he’d welcome suggestions for improvement. Sadly, “reshoot it from scratch with a better script” probably wasn’t a realistic option, which is a shame as that’s by far the film’s biggest problem. Eryk Lubos gave another of the competition’s standout performances as Igor, a once-promising boxer whose career has come to an abrupt halt following diagnosis of a brain tumour. Desperate to achieve something before his probably premature death, he teams up with illegal Vietnamese immigrant Yen Ha (newcomer Luu De Ly) with a proposal: they marry, she gets a work and residence permit, but has to bear Igor’s child in return. To say they’re a mismatched couple is an understatement: he’s a hulking shaven-headed brute while she’s a delicate slip of a girl (a fellow juror commented, I think rightly, that the film would have been far more interesting if she’d been plain and approaching middle age). Individual scenes are very well staged, performances are often excellent (former kickboxing champion Marek Piotrowski is particularly effective as Igor’s trainer, his own slurred speech graphically illustrating the drawbacks of his chosen profession), and the film offers rare glimpses of life in Warsaw’s immigrant ghettoes, a road usually untravelled by Polish filmmakers. But every time the film threatens to spread its wings, the contrived and melodramatic script (whose final act is particularly implausible) pulls it back to earth with a dull thud.

Rebound (Hel, d. Kinga Dębska, 2009)

As with rather too many of the films in the New Polish Cinema competition, this portrait of a respected psychiatrist whose previous drug issues return to haunt him suffered from an insufficiently developed script, whose Screenwriting 101 three-act structure was so upfront that I looked at my watch after what was clearly meant to be the end of act two and found that the film was almost exactly two-thirds gone. It’s a shame, because like My Flesh My Blood and The Miracle Seller there was a lot to admire, not least Paweł Królikowski’s central performance as Piotr. Initially shown as a somewhat rumpled but nonetheless assured professional, an unexpected encounter with his long-lost son Kamil (Lesław Żurek) and difficulties with his Prague-born filmmaker wife Hanka (Anna Geislerová) cause him to fall off the wagon and return to what he sees as the psychological comfort blanket of his crack-addict past, hanging out with old contacts and spending the night in a sleazy dive. The scenes in the hospitals (shot on location) are particularly effective, the characterisation of Piotr’s various patients uncomfortably plausible (especially Monika Kwiatkowska-Dejczer’s erotomaniac Ewa), and the emphasis on drab realism doesn’t completely preclude the occasional injection of gallows humour, such as the straightfaced announcement that hospital goldfish are for admiring rather than eating. But the central relationship between Piotr and Hanka never rang true for me: surely someone as sensitive as she professes herself to be wouldn’t simply dump him with little warning after what is clearly such a profound mid-life crisis?

The Scratch (Rysa, d. Michał Rosa, 2008)

Probably the best example of a traditionally well-crafted drama in the competition, this arrived in Wrocław sporting a mantlepiece’s worth of prizes, and it’s easy to see why. Joanna and Jan have been married for over forty years, seemingly blissfully, until a mysterious videotape appears nestling amongst birthday presents. It contains a television interview that hints that Jan was a secret police agent who inveigled himself into her life in the 1960s in order to spy on her father, a prominent politician. This is never proved, but once the seeds of doubt are sown, she can’t stop them germinating into a gigantic thicket of suspicion and fear, no matter how many rational arguments are presented in his favour (notably from their daughter - a terrific cameo from Kinga Preis - who forcefully argues that he was much the more conscientious parent). The situation recalls that in Michael Haneke’s Hidden (Caché, 2005), but Michał Rosa’s treatment is quite different: we’re shown the world from Joanna’s viewpoint, and compelled to stand in the same quicksand. Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak gives an appropriately tormented performance as the distinguished entomologist who proves far less adept when it comes to studying the behaviour of her own species, but I thought Krzysztof Stroiński was even more impressive as her husband, articulating Jan’s bewilderment through a series of pained silences that were only occasionally broken by explosions of understandable frustration. It’s a powerful, often moving exploration of the way that communism’s legacy couldn’t simply end in 1989, when too many secrets still remained buried.

Posted on 7th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Poland, Marcin Wrona, Kinga Dębska, Michał Rosa | No Comments »

Era New Horizons: New Polish Films 2

Happy Aphonia (Afonia i pszczoły, d. Jan Jakub Kolski, 2009).

With films like Pornography (Pornografia, 2003) and Jasminum (2006), Jan Jakub Kolski established himself as one of modern Polish cinema’s more striking individualists, attracting comparisons with Federico Fellini and Emir Kusturica. These are still valid for Happy Aphonia (also known as Aphonia and Bees, a literal translation of the Polish title), but this time as a reminder that Fellini and Kusturica were also prone to wilful self-indulgence at the expense of much discernible point. It’s set after Stalin’s death in 1953 (protagonist Aphonia still wakes to a Stalin-faced alarm clock) but before the Khrushchev thaw of 1956, when Poland was still recovering from World War II and deeply uncertain about the intentions of its Soviet neighbour. The primary location is a converted railway station that Aphonia (the director’s wife Grażyna Błęcka-Kolska) shares with her paraplegic husband Ralph (Mariusz Saniternik), a former wrestler turned Leonardo-like visionary following a rooftop fall. This seems to work well, until their seclusion is invaded by an unnamed Russian soldier (also a former wrestler, natch, and there are more to come) who sweeps Aphonia off her feet and into a state of histrionic but unconvincing amour fou that culminates in attempted suicide and a climactic scene of self-mutilation that’s both viscerally unpleasant and wildly implausible. But this is long after the film has been reduced to a succession of contrived magical-realist set-pieces and much self-conscious symbolism (particularly involving a trapped bee that Aphonia gives the Russian), intermittently striking but collectively incoherent.

Mall Girls (Galerianki, d. Katerzyna Rosłaniec, 2009)

Expanded from a film-school short that Katarzyna Rosłaniec made in 2006 (which can be watched on YouTube, albeit only in unsubtitled Polish), this was one of the competition’s most pleasant surprises, and the jury’s unanimous and near-instant choice for Best Debut. Low expectations were engendered by overly familiar material - the agonies of adolescence, the travails of school, the pressing social need to maintain a carefully-nurtured image through clothing, make-up and branded accessories - but Rosłaniec turns out to have a genuinely fresh eye (aided by the veteran Witold Stok’s colourful Scope cinematography) and a real gift for extracting heartfelt performances out of an inexperienced teenage cast. The most outstanding is Anna Kaczmarczyk as Ala, convincingly negotiating the journey from shy swot to sultry sexpot while never losing sight of her character’s emotional fragility. An eleventh-hour lurch into melodrama when a central character commits suicide is a tad contrived, but Rosłaniec generally takes considerable and commendable pains to avoid the obvious: stereotyping and finger-wagging moralising are kept to a minimum, even when dealing with subjects like drugs, fumbling adolescent sexuality, teenage pregnancy and even casual prostitution. Minor characters are deftly sketched in seconds: we don’t see much of Ala’s family, but enough to make it clear that its outward normality hides a core as dysfunctional as that of the far more obviously broken homes that spawned her friends. Marx once preached the abolition of the family as one of communism’s goals, but Rosłaniec makes it clear that consumer capitalism is more than capable of wreaking just as much destruction.

The Miracle Seller (Handlarz cudów, d. Bolesław Pawica/Jarosław Szoda, 2009)

This joint feature debut from former music video directors Bolesław Pawica and cinematographer Jarosław Szoda is essentially a fairly standard-issue road movie (Stefan, a former alcoholic turned born-again Lourdes pilgrim, finds to his initial discomfiture that he’s being unwittingly accompanied by two child refugees from Dagestan in search of their France-based father) but it’s boosted by good performances and strong individual sequences, notably a nocturnal border crossing via a river with the aid of empty plastic fuel cans to aid buoyancy. The film also does a rather better job than rival competition entry My Flesh, My Blood in highlighting the problems of being part of a persecuted minority in contemporary Poland: the gut-instinct prejudice or worse that Urika (Sonia Mietielica) and Hasim (Roman Gonczuk) routinely encounter from everyone from shopkeepers to taxi drivers almost justifies their usually antisocial (sometimes actively criminal) response, and they contemptuously refer to Stefan as ‘the Pole’ despite becoming increasingly dependent on his goodwill. But when they reach their destination it becomes cruelly apparent that far from living an instinctively lawless existence, they’re actually bound by ancient codes that dictate the arc of their lives almost from birth. Polish cinema’s man of the moment Borys Szyc is unrecognisable from his snarling turn in in Xawery Żuławski’s Snow White and Russian Red/Wojna polsko-ruska - here, his Stefan is a world-weary sad-sack, his receding hairline capped with a prominent widow’s peak, while the two children prove to be naturals.

Posted on 6th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Poland, Jan Jakub Kolski, Katerzyna Rosłaniec, Jarosław Szoda, Bolesław Pawica | No Comments »

Era New Horizons: New Polish Films 1

I spent much of the end of July attending the 9th Era New Horizons film festival in Wrocław, Poland, where I was simultaneously covering it for Sight & Sound and sitting on the five-strong jury for the New Polish Films competition. There were thirteen entries (all feature-length Polish fiction films released after 31 July 2008) and two prizes - the Wrocław Film Prize for the best film, and the Best New Director Prize for the best debutant(e). That occupied much of my time in Wrocław, but I also caught up with a handful of other titles, notably the new Andrzej Wajda, Sweet Rush (Tatarak) and Igor Mayboroda’s documentary Rerberg and Tarkovsky: The Reverse Side of ‘Stalker’ (Рерберг и Тарковский. Обратная сторона ‘Сталкера’) - though the bulk of my spare time was spent gorging myself on a mouthwatering programme of classic Hungarian films from the 1960s and 1970s, many of which I’d never had the chance to see before in any medium, let alone the big screen. I’ll be writing about those in more detail over the next few days, but first here’s a quick four-part roundup of the New Polish Films competition.

Before Twilight (Jeszcze nie wieczór, d. Jacek Bławut, 2008).

This is nominally the fiction feature debut of veteran documentarist and cinematographer Jacek Bławut, but it turned out to have a fair bit in common with his earlier work, especially The Abnormals (Nienormalny, 1990), a documentary study of a home for mentally disadvantaged children preparing for an end-of-term concert. Before Twilight has a similar premise, albeit at the other end of man’s seven-age scale, being set and filmed in the Veteran Actors’ Home in Skolimowo - most of whose onscreen inhabitants are played by actual former Polish stage and screen stars. The script was augmented by much improvisation, and Bławut subsequently admitted that many of the best moments were contributed by happenstance (especially the relationship between lead actor Jan Nowicki and a large black poodle called Mefi - short for Mephistopheles - which provides many of the comedy highlights). The narrative sees Nowicki’s character Jerzy arriving at the home and galvanising its residents, regardless of frailty, into performing an ambitious version of Goethe’s ‘Faust’ in the local prison (also genuine). While this occasionally topples into melodrama, with reluctant actors having to be goaded into making one last appearance before life’s final curtain, and one of them inevitably dropping dead onstage immediately after his climactic speech, this is offset by a stream of beautifully-observed caught-on-the-wing moments. Like Bławut’s other films, chiefly those made after he replaced self-consciously stylised cinematography for fly-on-the-wall unobtrusiveness, it’s scrappy but heartfelt, and certainly one of the competition’s most straightforwardly enjoyable films.

The Forest (Las, d. Piotr Dumała, 2009)

There were few films in the competition that I wanted to like more than the live-action feature debut of Piotr Dumała, one of the most distinctive animation talents to have emerged in Poland in the last three decades, which is saying something (Łagodna, his crepuscular adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s ‘A Gentle Spirit’, is arguably superior to Une Femme douce, Robert Bresson’s better-known 1969 version). Certainly, if the Era New Horizons festival had a cinematography prize, Adam Sikora would have won it hands down. Almost any random frame of The Forest could be enlarged and displayed as a fine-art photographic masterpiece: the forest exteriors are imbued with the same mysterious potency as a Tarkovsky dream sequence, while the spartan interiors show the same meticulous attention to composition, lighting and set decoration, a chamber pot is lit with the same loving care as the human face. But unsympathetic performances from both leads (Stanisław Brudny as the elderly, bed-ridden father, Mariusz Bonaszewski as his son, whose fractious relationship drives the film) ended up precluding what I assume was the intended emotional involvement - although dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum, it might have been more effective with none at all. But Dumała remains a major talent (an animated prologue supplies a handy reminder of where his reputation springs from), and I’ll be first in the queue to see whatever he comes up with next.

Four Nights with Anna (Cztery noce z Anną, d. Jerzy Skolimowski, 2008)

After a 17-year absence from the cinema (and a rather longer break from Polish cinema, its exact length depending on whether you date it from the 1967 or 1981 version of Hands Up!/Ręce do góry), the veteran master Jerzy Skolimowski returned with one of the competition’s strongest films. Leon (Artur Steranko) is a classic Skolimowski protagonist in the vein of Mike in Deep End (1970) or Nowak in Moonlighting (1982): a painfully introverted middle-aged man who finds solace in brain-numbing routine (he works in a hospital crematorium), whose chance encounter with rape victim Anna (Kinga Preis) many years earlier turned his life upside down. Wrongly convicted of the crime, his warped but strangely understandable idea of atonement is to break into Anna’s bedroom (having previously drugged her evening drink) on four consecutive nights. The reasons for this are initially unclear thanks to the film’s disorientating flashback structure, but gradually coalesce into one of the most powerful depictions of a love that dare not speak its name that anyone has attempted in cinema in recent years: superficial comparisons with Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Love (Krótki film o miłości, 1988) largely miss the point. Steranko’s astonishing performance is augmented by Skolimowski’s subtle, precise film language, showing little sign of rust after the long layoff. In particular, spoken dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum - Skolimowski apparently wanted even less, but conceded that the interrogation and trial scenes could hardly be conducted in mime.

Posted on 5th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Poland, Jerzy Skolimowski, Piotr Dumała, Jacek Bławut | 1 Comment »

Polish Paths to Freedom: Sparks of Hope (screening times)

Further to my post last week about the Imperial War Museum’s ambitious, very welcome and entirely free series of screenings of Polish films illuminating the country’s post-1970s history, they’ve now confirmed dates and screening times. You can download a PDF document here, but I’m sure they won’t mind me reproducing the details for easier Googling:

Monday June 1/Tuesday June 2

10.30am: Poznań 56 (d. Filip Bajon, 1996, 106 mins)

This film examines the events surrounding the workers’ protests in Poznań in June 1956 from the perspective of two boys of 10–12 years old. In reconstructing the strike and demonstrations; tanks and shootouts in the streets; the film’s director Filip Bajon recalls his own memories when as a 10 year old he was a witness to the riots in Poznań.

2.00pm: Krzysztof Kieślowski Programme: A Short Working Day (Krótki dzień pracy, 1981, 73 mins); The Office (Urząd, 1966, 6 mins); The Factory (Fabryka, 1970, 17 mins); The Hospital (Szpital, 1976, 20 mins); The Railway Station (Dworzec, 1980, 14 mins)

A Short Working Day tells the story of the workers’ protests in Radom in June 1976 from the point of view of a local Communist dignitary. The protests were sparked by a speech by the Prime Minister the day before, in which a 69% increase in meat prices was announced. The film combines archival material with a dramatized reconstruction of the events.

The Office: filmed with a hidden camera in the offices of the Social Insurance Agency, this documentary film satirises the bureaucracy and the heartlessness of the petty clerks who work there.

The Factory: filmed Production Council meetings at the Ursus tractor factory are contrasted with the realities of the work conditions there, in order to present a true portrait of how such an enterprise functioned in the realities of a Socialist economy (a picture quite different from that of the official propaganda of success).

The Hospital: the movie camera follows a team of doctors in Trauma Ward One of the hospital on Barska Street in Warsaw. As a result, we watch the extraordinary account of a 31 hour shift, depicting the realities of a hospital in Socialist Poland in the 1970s.

The Railway Station: the Central Railway Station in Warsaw – a flagship investment of the 1970s – as seen through the wry eye of the documentary filmmaker. The modern closed-circuit television system monitoring the platforms and corridors of the station brings to mind methods of social control typical of a totalitarian political system.

Thursday June 4

10.30am: Krzysztof Kieślowski Programme

2.00pm: Poznań 56

Friday June 5

10.30am: Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, d. Andrzej Wajda, 1976, 153 mins)

The year is 1976. Agnieszka, a young and ambitious director, decides to make a film about a Stalin-era ‘hero of socialist labour’, the mason Mateusz Birkut, who laid 30,000 bricks with his five man crew during a single shift in 1952. During her search through archival and documentary material, Agnieszka uncovers the human drama hidden behind the facade of official propaganda. It emerges that Birkut went from being a favourite of the authorities to becoming a critic of them, falling out of favour and ending up in prison…

2.00pm: Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza , d. Andrzej Wajda, 1981, 147 mins)

The story is a continuation of the saga of the Birkut family. Maciek Tomczyk, the son of Mateusz Birkut, is a worker at the Gdansk Shipyards. He is also an active member of the strike committee. A radio journalist named Winkel receives orders to produce a radio feature to discredit Tomczyk. In order to get into the shipyards, Winkel visits the family of a union activist, Wiesława Hulewicz. He learns of the marriage between Agnieszka (who made the film about Birkut in 1976) and Maciek Tomczyk. Agnieszka is currently under arrest for supporting the strike. Thanks to his connections inside the police, Winkel arranges to see her. The young woman tells the journalist the story of how she met and later married Birkut.

Sunday June 7

10.30am: Man of Marble

2.00pm: Krzysztof Kieślowski Programme

Monday June 8

10.30am: Workers 1980 (Robotnicy ’80, 94 mins)

A documentary film produced during the strikes at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk (in August 1980) by a group of filmmakers from the Documentary Film Studio in Warsaw. Workers 1980 follows events during the strike and the negotiations of the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee with representatives of the Governmental Commission. The Communist authorities prevented the film’s release.

2.30pm: Man of Iron

Wednesday June 10/Thursday June 11

10.30am: Workers 1980

2.00pm: Man of Iron

Friday June 12

2.00pm: Strajk Die Heldin von Danzig (d. Volker Schlöndorff, 2006, 104 mins)

A historical panorama of the milieu of workers at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk from the 1950s to the ‘Solidarity’ era. The story is told via the biography of a female worker from Gdańsk – a welder and crane operator with a defiant nature and the charisma of a leader, who is never able to remain silent when she sees someone suffering injustice.

Monday June 15/Tuesday June 16/Thursday June 18

2.00pm: Death as a Slice of Bread (Śmierć jak kromka chleba, d. Kazimierz Kutz, 1994, 116 mins)

A film record of the pacification of the Wujek mine – the most tragic episode during martial law – when a strike by miners against the imposition of martial law and the arrest of labour leaders was brutally broken up by the army and police.

Friday June 19

2.00pm: To Kill A Priest (d. Agnieszka Holland, 1988, 115 mins)

This drama – about the efforts of an officer in the Security Service to discredit and eventually eliminate a young priest known for his anti-communist sermons – was inspired by the real life murder of some dozen priests during martial law, notably that of Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko in 1984. This was the only case in which those directly responsible (who were functionaries of the Security Service) were found and tried.

Saturday June 20

10.30am: Workers 1980

2.00pm: Strajk Die Heldin von Danzig

Sunday June 21

10.30am: To Kill A Priest

2.00pm: Strajk Die Heldin von Danzig

Monday June 22

2.00pm: Man of Iron

Tuesday June 23/Wednesday June 24

2.00pm: The Last School Bell (Ostatni dzwonek, d. Magdalena Łazarkiewicz, 1989, 107 mins)

In a provincial high school in the 1980s, a new student named Krysztof – who has been thrown out of a school in Gdańsk for distributing anti-Communist leaflets – begins his senior year. At first he is treated by his schoolmates with distrust, but he soon becomes the leader of a class that carries on an unequal fight with the authoritarian school directorship. The students have a quiet ally in one young teacher, Meluzyna, who infects them with her love for theatre. In defiance of the school directors the students decide to put on an amateur
play that contains politically incorrect messages.

Thursday June 25

2.00pm: Calls Controlled (Rozmowy kontrolowane, d. Sylwester Chęciński, 1991, 93 mins)

A comedy set in the dark early days of martial law. Winter, bitter cold, tanks on the streets, omnipresent propaganda and constant surveillance. But people have to somehow carry on their lives … Everyone does what they must to get by. Some fight against Communism, others engage in small-time side interests.

Friday June 26

2.00pm: To Kill A Priest

Saturday June 27/Sunday June 28

10.30am: Calls Controlled

2.00pm: Escape from the Liberty Cinema (Ucieczka z kina ‘Wolność’, d. Wojciech Marczewski, 1990, 87 mins)

A portrait of a character typifying the late 1980s. A run-down man, who is a seemingly dangerous Communist functionary, is in reality fearful, lonely and fully aware of the approaching death of Communism – and thus the senselessness of his work.

Monday June 29

2.00pm: Street Games (Gry uliczne, d. Krzysztof Krauze, 1996, 100 mins)

Two young journalists receive information that a certain well-known politician, Senator Makowski, was an undercover agent for the Security Service in 1977 and was responsible for the death of their friend. The friend in question, Stanisław Pyjas, was a student and opposition activist, murdered most likely on orders from the secret police. For both reporters, Pyjas’ death is an event from the distant past, but Makowski’s arrogance spurs them to take action. They set out on a journalistic investigation.

Tuesday June 30

2.00pm: Three Buddies (Trzech kumpli, d. Ewa Stankiewicz/Anna Ferens, 2008, 111 mins)

A documentary tale of three friends from the university in Kraków in the 1970s. One of them is murdered, the second turns out to be a traitor, and the third fights on the side of truth years later.

For further information, address, directions etc., please see the Imperial War Museum’s own website.

Posted on 27th May 2009
Under: Poland, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Krzysztof Krauze, Wojciech Marczewski, Retrospectives | 1 Comment »

100 Years of Polish Cinema

My friend Kamila has just told me about this extraordinary site, inspired by the Polish Film Institute’s commemoration of Polish cinema’s centenary (the first truly Polish film is believed to date from 1908).

I’ve only skimmed it so far, but it looks like a fascinating and valuable resource, consisting as it does of individual pages devoted to 130 separate films (presented chronologically from George Meyer’s 1908 Anton in Warsaw for the First Time/Antoś pierwszy raz w Warszawie to Waldemar Krzystek’s 2008 Little Moscow/Mała Moskwa), many with attachments including stills galleries, posters and video - the latter unsubtitled, unsurprisingly, but you get the general idea, and the text is at least bilingual in English and Polish. The films are also indexed by director, and three short essays by Rafał Marszałek supply historical context for the pre-war, post-war and post-1989 periods.

Posted on 25th May 2009
Under: Poland, Retrospectives | No Comments »

Polish Paths to Freedom: Sparks of Hope

Just over a year ago I posted details about the second instalment of the Imperial War Museum’s enterprising Polish Paths to Freedom season - a series of films illustrating aspects of twentieth-century Polish history from various perspectives, fiction and non-fiction, contemporary and historical, you name it.

They’ve just announced the line-up for part three, ‘Sparks of Hope’, which covers the period from the rise of Solidarity to the present day. A complete list of titles is here - they include rare big-screen showings of Krzysztof Kieślowski documentaries, including 1981’s drama-documentary A Short Working Day (Krótki dzień pracy), which as far as I’m aware is one of the few Kieślowski films that has yet to be released on DVD.

Other screenings include Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977) and Man of Iron (Człowieka z żelaza, 1981) and Wojciech Marszewski’s Escape From The ‘Liberty’ Cinema (Ucieczka z kina Wolność, 1990), which I reviewed here - plus lots of other rarities.

The season runs from June 1st to July 15th - and the best news of all is that admission is free.

Posted on 22nd May 2009
Under: Poland, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Wojciech Marczewski, Retrospectives | 1 Comment »

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