10 decades of Polish film making

The domination of the Polish Film School lasted no longer than four and a half years – from the Cannes Festival triumph of Andrzej Wajda’s Kanał in May, 1957 to the conference in Spała, Poland in October, 1960, at which Polish filmmakers were informed about the theses comprised in the secret resolution of the Secretariat of the Central Committee concerning filmmaking, which closed the period of creative freedom,” says Tadeusz Lubelski.

In the case of such historical publications, the chronology is usually a matter of interpretation. There exists a sufficient number of good reasons to date the history of Polish film making back to 1895 – as it is usually done in Europe (though in the United States this date sometimes changes). It was Małgorzata Hendrykowska who decided about it in her book The Chronicle of Polish Filmaking; this very date I included in the second extended edition of my History of the Polish Cinema. Although at that time our state had not yet regained independence, our native filmmaking pioneers and the first fans of moving pictures commenced their activities, just like in other countries. As early as in 1895, Piotr Lebiedziński shot his first film scenes, and at the end of this year Władysław Umiński published the first article about the Lumiére brothers’ invention. However, if we take into consideration that the first cinema première of the first Polish feature film – Anthony’s First Visit to Warsaw – took place 13 years later, which means that from that moment on the Polish audience began consciously going to the cinema (in Galicia it was still called “kinoteatr”, which can be translated as movie theatre, while in Congress Poland it was known under the name “iluzjon”) to see Polish films, then it can be justified to consider 1908 as the beginning of the Polish film making, which still means that it has existed for more than 100 years. Taking into account that the six years of the Second World War constituted a tragic break in the Polish film making history, it can be divided into ten decades. Not always is this division into decades completely accurate and precise (for example, the Marshall Law which was introduced in Poland in 1981 became too significant a caesura to bypass it), yet we can assume the chronology of the Polish film making looks as follows:


The „iluzjon” decade – 1908-1918

Although Poland was still absent from the maps, Polish films not only began to be made, but they demonstrated their own national character. They were characterised by the struggle for the Polish identity, which constituted the essence of the first Polish feature film Prussian Culture (which was made earlier then the comedy Anthony’s First Visit to Warsaw, but due to the censorship, it was not shown in the cinemas at that time), and of some of some box office hits which were made after Russians had left Warsaw such as Tsardom and its servants (1917), and by strong ties with the Polish national literature, which was noticeable in the first great adaptations from 1911: The Wages of Sin from 1911, based on Stefan Żeromski’s novel, and Meir Ezofovitch, based on the book by Eliza Orzeszkowa. At the same time, Aleksander Hertz, the first fully professional film producer, established (in 1911) the Warsaw film making studio Sfinks, ensured that the popular melodramas with the first Polish film star, Pols Negri, followed European film conventions. However, some other film producers appeared in the centres outside Warsaw, such as the owner of the Edison Circus in Cracow or the establisher of the Kinofilm in Lvov. They recorded everyday life and cultural achievements in their cities.


The silent movie decade – 1919-1929

After regaining independence in 1918, the patriotic function of the national film making increased. The première of The Miracle at the Vistula by Ryszard Bolesłewski in March 1921 – only seven years after the actual event – confirmed that the cinema can contribute to creating the national identity of the audience. The costly Ryszard Ordyński’s Star-Film productions such as The Grave of the Unknown Soldier (1927), based on Andzej Strug’s novel, and especially Sir Thaddeus based on Adam Mickievicz’s narrative poem, made for the tenth anniversary of regaining independence by Poland, reinforced the audience’s attachment to native themes. The “Sfinks’s golden series”created in this decade, which included such productions as Ivonne (1925) and The Leper (1926), which thanks to a new film star, Jadwiga Smosarska, popularized (and simultaneously trivialised) the national mythology, and especially he success of The Strong Man (1929), directed by Henryk Szaro, proved that our national cinema can match world standards.


Classical cinema decade – 1930-1939

The period of the cinema’s peak popularity, based on the stability of conventions worked out in Hollywood, had its Polish counterpart, supported by the identification of the audience with their favourite actors and actresses, who were repeatedly cast in the roles similar in type which was ascribed to them. The first part of this decade was dominated by the historical and patriotic cinema, whose model representative was To Siberia (1930, a partly talking movie directed by Henryk Szaro and featuring Jadwiga Smosarska and AdamBrodzisz. In the middle of this period, comedies achieved the greatest popularity. Adolf Dymsza was its king, featuring in a series of roles – from the one in Everyone May Love (1933) to the one in A Sportsman Against His Will (1939) – in which he perfected the character of smart, noble and eccentric Dodek, whom he created in the Qui Pro Quo Cabaret. At the end of this decade, melodramas triumphed. Kazimierz Junosza-Stępowski, who played in Michał Waszyński’s The Healer (1937), based on the novel by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, was their main star. Józef Lejtes, who created Young Wood (1934) and The Border (1938), based on the book by Zofia Nałkowska, appeared to be the greatest individuality among the directors. The left-wing group START (1930-1935) formed an opposition to the mainstream film making. Their activities were later continued by the Cooperative of Film Authors (SAF) (among others Fears by Eugeniusz Cękalski and Karol Szołowski). A rapid increase of the number of the Jewish films produced in Warsaw particularly characterised the last part of this period and this phenomenon was tragically finished by the outbreak of the Second World War. These films were in Yiddish and Michał Waszyński’s Dybuk from 1937 became the most appreciated work of this type.


The Stalinist decade – 1945-1954

The rebuilding of the Polish film industry after the Second World War was connected with a dramatic change of its status, which was forced by the new political system. The creation of films was monopolised by the state production company (Przedsiębiorstwo Państwowe Film Polski, established at the end of 1945), which facilitated film production, but at the same time imposed ideological limitations on filmmakers. In the second half of the 1940s, they still managed to create some films of considerable value. These were the first depictions of the war-time martyrdom – Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (1946) and Aleksander Ford’s Border Street (1949) – as well as Leon Buczkowski’s films – Forbidden Songs (1946) and Treasure (1948) – continuing the pre-war tradition of lighter movies. However, declaring social realism (at the congress in Wisła in 1949) as the only valid creative method put a stop to artistic freedom for a few years, and at the same time cut off moviegoers from the Western cinema.


The Polish School decade – 1955-1965

In reality, the period of the domination of the Polish Film School lasted much shorter, no longer than four and a half years – from the Cannes Festival triumph of Andrzej Wajda’s Kanał in May, 1957 to the conference in Spała, Poland in October, 1960, at which Polish filmmakers were informed about the theses comprised in the earlier (from July of the same year) secret resolution of the Secretariat of the Central Committee concerning filmmaking, closing the period of creative freedom which had made it possible to create the School’s works. Yet in practice this period was longer and it can be placed between the two premières: Andrzej Wajda’s Generation (his début film made in January 1955; it was during the discussion on that film that the name of the Polish Film School was used for the first time) and Tadeusz Konwicki’s Salto (June, 1965), which was one of the capstone’s of this period. This film movement, which was called in this way due to the therapeutic impact of the works by Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Wojciech Has, Stanisław Lenartowicz, Kazimierz Kutz, Tadeusz Konwicki and Stanisław Różewicz on Polish moviegoers, preserved its long-lasting appeal. These films were made during the creative peak linked with the October events in 1956 and their aftermath, and used the plots connected with the Polish contemporary history (with the Second World War in its centre) and with current issues of that time. Its most significant moment was the audience’s response to Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (the première in October, 1958), when for some time the whole of Poland wore dark sunglasses, identifying themselves with Zbigniew Cybulski, who, as the main character in the film, expressed the tragedy of the collective lot.


The New Cinema and the Heritage Cinema decade – 1965-1975

The additional effect of finishing the activities of the Polish Film School movement was an aesthetic shift backward of the whole Polish film making industry. Thus at the time of the New Wave revolution, our Polish cinema was stuck in provincialism; although on the other hand some genres were strengthened, Stanisław Bareja’s comedy talent emerged and a few television series which are popularly watched even now were made. However, the echoes of the word cinema modernisation finally reached us, albeit with delay. Jerzy Skolimowski’s tetralogy (his Identification Marks: None, shown in the cinemas in 1965, was probably the most important début of the decade) meant that Polish filmmakers joined the European New Cinema. The series of significant achievements by the directors who earlier belonged to the Polish Film School movement – from Andrzej Wajda’s Everything for Sale (1968), through Kazimierz Kutz’s Salt of the Black Earth (1969) and Tadeusz Konwicki’s How Far Away, How Near (1971) to Wojciech Has’s The Hour-glass Sanatorium (1973) – confirmed the new, original treatment of cinema. The beginnings of the post-March generation, whose main work was Kszysztof Zanussi’s The Structure of Crystals (1969), strengthened the social aspirations of film making. At the end of this period, the great epic movies were made: Jerzy Hoffman’s Deluge (1974), Andrzej Wajda’s Promised Land (1974) and Jerzy Antczak’s Nights and Days (1975), all of which were nominated for the Oscars and became the proofs of the professionalism of this period.


Half a decade of Moral Unrest – 1976-1981

All these professional film makers and their productions – from the TV cycles produced in TOR and X Groups, through Bareja’s comedies to Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s historical drama The Death of the President (1977) – united in the protest against the “stale” ending of Edvard Gierek’s rule. The signal was given by Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (1976) with the script by Aleksander Scibor-Rylski, which toppled the taboo of the Stalinist era. The period was closed by the second part of the cycle: Man of Iron (1981), which tells the story of the Gdańsk shipyard workers’ strike which took place a year before. The name of this movement stemmed from the series of contemporary films which expressed the rebellion against the system. They dealt with current problems of that period of time, so we rarely return to them, yet the most important of them – Krzysztof Zanussi’s Camouflage (1976), Feliks Falk’s Top Dog (1977), Agnieszka Holland’s Provincial Actors (1978) and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff (1979) – preserved their timeless value.


The decade of decline – 1982-1989

The martial law introduced in 1981 weakened the impetus of the Polish film making, hampered its development, delayed the premières of many important films whose production had begun at the end of the previous period, i.e. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blind Chance (1981-1987), which developed the Moral Unrest themes, Janusz Zaorski’s The Mother of Kings (1982-1987),  which delved into the theme of the Stalinist times, and Ryszard Bugajski’s Interrogation (1982-1989). The audience found comfort in laughter, that is why the comedies such as Juliusz Machulski’s Sexmission (1983) and Janusz Majewski’s Imperial-Royal Deserters (1985), became box-office hits. However, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s morality TV cycle The Dezalogue (1988-1989) was the greatest achievement of this decade. The cinema versions of the two best episodes of the cycle – A Short Film about Killing (1988) and A Short Film about Love (1988) – commenced a short period of the huge international popularity of their author.


One and a half decade of tegained freedom – 1990-2004

The film making industry – again private and without any limitations (but also assistance) from any state producer – sought a successful way of functioning in a new political system for a long time. Gradually, it made up for earlier thematic omissions by painting the picture of the Holocaust in Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak (1990) and in Roman Polański’s The Pianist (2002), which was awarded Palme d’Or in Cannes, and of the Russian occupation in Robert Gliński’s All That Really Matters (1992), and by critically reviewing the times of the communist Poland: dirctly in Kazimierz Kutz’s Death as a Slice of Bread (1994), and metaphorically in Wojciech Marczewski’s Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema (1990) and Jan Jakub Kolski’s Johnnie Aquarius (1993), and finally by portraying the pains of the contemporary times in Marcin Łoziński’s documentary Everything Can Happen (1995), and Krzysztof Krauze’s Debt (1999) and Marek Koterski’s The Day of the Nutter (2002). However, the old link between the filmmakers and the intelligentsia vanished, and Władysław Pasikowski’s Dogs (1992), imitating the principles of the American pop culture movies and aimed at the new audience, became a box-office hit.


The decade of the return to Europe – 2005-2015

It can also be called “the decade of the Polish Institute of Film Art”, because in 2005 the modern act on film making – modelled on similar Western European acts – was enacted and it established the Polish Institute of Film Art, which prepares the programme and gathers financial resources for supporting the Polish film industry. The establishment of this institution closed the period of creating the organisational basis for film making adjusted to the new system. This new institution fulfils its dutie to a large extent: Polish films again attract mass audience and achieve international successes. The last ones were associated with Andrzej Wajda’s Sweet Rush (2009), Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing (2010), Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross (2010), and especially Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), the first Polish Oscar winner in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Not only do the new Polish films introduce back the facts and people previously pushed out of the collective awareness –  like in Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń (2007), Ryszard Bugajski’s General Nil (2009) and Władysław Pasikowski’s Jack Strong (2014) – but also deal with the modern history in an interesting way, to which testify such film as Borys Lankosz’s Reverse (2009), Wojciech Smarzowski’s The Dark House (2009) and Rose (2011), Jan Komasa’a Warsaw 44 (2014) or Łukasz Pałkowski’s Gods (2014). Moreover, Xawery Żuławski’s Polish-Russian War (2009) and Małgorzata Szumowska’s Body/Ciało (2015) interestingly describe the changing modern times. All these films bode well for the future.

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