Archive for the 'Jerzy Skolimowski' Category

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 »

Skolimowski returns

Of all the important European filmmakers, Jerzy Skolimowski has been one of the most shabbily treated by distributors, with many of his films still nearly impossible to see - but the situation has improved dramatically with the release of a four-disc box set of his four major Polish films - apparently with English subtitles. Hopefully, I’ll be getting my hands on a copy next week, and will report back then.

In the meantime, here’s Edward Champion’s lengthy and guardedly positive review of Skolimowski’s new film Four Nights With Anna (Cztery noce z Anna), his first in nearly two decades, which has just played at the New York Film Festival. Plus much more upbeat takes on it from Andrew O’Hehir (Salon) and Erene Stergiopoulos (

Posted on 25th September 2008
Under: Poland, Jerzy Skolimowski | 3 Comments »

Skolimowski in New York

I was talking to a colleague only yesterday about how scandalously difficult it was to see films by Jerzy Skolimowski - and with immaculate timing the blog J.B.Spins has drawn my attention to a retrospective at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, running until this Saturday. I can’t go, but if anyone else can take advantage, do - most of these screenings are very rare indeed, and Deep End (1970) is a little masterpiece that badly needs a proper DVD release at the very least.

For those stranded on my side of the Atlantic, Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978) recently popped up on a surprisingly good (and very cheap) British DVD, with a commentary and huge PDF section containing original marketing materials and a massive press book. Mike Sutton reviewed it for DVD Times here, and I’m very happy to endorse his comments.

Posted on 4th December 2007
Under: Poland, Jerzy Skolimowski | 2 Comments »

Innocent Sorcerers

As part of my ongoing research into the extensive back catalogue of Andrzej Wajda, the grand old man of Polish cinema, I watched the Facets/Polart DVD of his 1960 film Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje) last night.

It made for a fascinating contrast with his usual work. It was his fifth feature, but his first set in the (then) present, and the lack of period trappings makes for a much looser, more relaxed style - in fact, if I’d missed the director credit and had to guess, I’d have said it had far more in common with the work of Jerzy Skolimowski (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ashes and Diamonds author Jerzy Andrzejewski and plays a minor role, as the boxer whose career is threatened by an unwelcome medical diagnosis seconds before a key fight commences) or even Roman Polanski (who also appears).

Coincidentally, I’d rewatched Eric Rohmer’s My Night With Maud (Ma Nuit chez Maud) and Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love relatively recently, and all three films would make a great triple bill, as they all revolve around sensually-charged but nonetheless ultimately platonic relationships, prevented from further development by the various ideological hang-ups of one or other party.

In this case, the protagonist is Bazyli (or Basil in the subtitles), played by Tadeusz Łomnicki, a young doctor-cum-amateur jazz musician with a distinctly jaded attitude towards the fairer sex - or at least with the fact that he’s never found seduction particularly difficult. But when he meets Pelagia (Krystyna Stypułkowska), and is lured back to her flat for a series of oddly ritualised conversations and games (including a variant on strip poker performed with the aid of a matchbox, the film’s most famous set-piece), he becomes tantalised by the prospect of a relationship moving to a higher level - only to find that she disappears the next day, leaving him bewildered and, for possibly the first time in his life, emotionally self-aware.

Here’s a link to the relevant page in Wadja’s own website (in English), and a detailed review of the DVD by DVD Savant. Note that I had exactly the same technical problems with the disc that he describes - mainly, some of the worst juddering I’ve ever encountered on a PAL-to-NTSC conversion - even though I was watching the final commercial release. Unusually for a Facets release, though, the subtitles were fine - a few typos here and there and the odd bit of misformatting, but they were at least in sync, white and optional. As ever with this label, it’s swings and roundabouts.

Posted on 5th June 2007
Under: Directors, Countries, Poland, Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polański, Jerzy Skolimowski | No Comments »

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