Polish Cinema Now! (Book + 2xDVD) Review
Polish Cinema Now! is a book and double-DVD combination with the aim of charting, from a UK perspective, previously unmapped territory. As the title no doubt hints, the focus is on Polish cinema, specifically that produced after 1989, the year in which the country broke away from communist rule and held its first semi-democratic elections. It does so in two ways: firstly, over eleven chapters written by ten Polish critics and one English contributor; secondly, courtesy of a selection of twenty-one films which cherry-picks highlights from the wide array of shorts produced during this period (though one, at 78 minutes in length, deserves to be classed as a feature). The intent, as the brief introduction states, is to aid our discovery of these twenty-plus years; whilst the filmmakers may no longer be burdened with state censorship and thus allowed to speak in their voices, the films made prior to the 4th of June 1989 remain somewhat better known. Outside of the work of key auteurs such as Krzysztof Kieslowski and Andrzej Wajda very little contemporary Polish cinema has made it to these shores and as such this fruitful period - which saw the production of over 500 features, not to mention thousands of shorts and documentaries - is ripe for a comprehensive overview.
Yet whilst such production figures may suggest an overwhelmingly positive picture, the real story of post-’89 Polish cinema is considerably more complex. The opening two chapters plot the basic contours of this ‘narrative’, as it were, which is then taken up and extended upon throughout the rest of the book. Essentially there are three factors playing a key role here. Firstly, the collapse of communist rule created a situation whereby both state censorship and state funding also disappeared. Secondly, capitalism and the market forces that came with it began to take hold. And thirdly, new technologies (from digital cameras and editing to CG animation) allowed filmmakers an easier, cheaper and more efficient means of production. As Mateusz Werner (also Polish Cinema Now!’s editor) makes clear in his opening chapter, this resulted initially in an influx of imports - primarily from Hollywood - and a reduction in homemade product as the previously stable means of production, distribution and exhibition ceased to exist. Moreover, in order to counteract the effects of this, Polish filmmakers attempted their own variations on these American genre flicks. Thus the success stories during the first decade of post-communist rule were for the most part gangster movies, dubbed ‘bandit cinema’, and romantic comedies; in other words a complete remove from the predominantly arthouse and auteur driven cinema that had come before. Yet slowly things began to stabilise and various acts and funds put into place culminated in the creation of the Polish Film Institute in 2005. This combined with the new technologies and their democratising powers creating more routes for prospective filmmakers has since allowed for greater increase in the number of productions and more optimistic outlook. Indeed, the current situation is arguably more positive than at any point over those past twenty years with more festival screenings and initiatives such as the UK’s distribution initiative the Polish Connection (which has seen a number of features receive theatrical showings and DVD releases).
Of course, the above paragraph only touches on the key points and one of the strengths of Polish Cinema Now! is the manner in which it is able to truly get to grips with this narrative. Particularly handy is the chapter written by (occasional Digital Fix contributor) Michael Brooke. Here he notes how the fluctuating film culture of post-’89 Poland was aped throughout the other Eastern bloc countries once they escaped communist rule, whether it be the reunified Germany or Romania. More importantly, and arguably an effect of his being the only non-Polish writer, he does so through reference to films and filmmakers that should be familiar to the average cineaste. Thus Polish cinema is represented by the “big four” of Kieslowski, Wajda, Agnieszka Holland and Krzysztof Zanussi, with their fortunes of the past twenty-plus years compared and contrasted with those of key filmmakers from other Eastern European countries, whether it be Czechoslovakia’s Jan Svankmajer and Jiri Menzel or Hungary’s Miklos Jancso and Bela Tarr. Similarly such international success stories as Good Bye Lenin!, The Lives of Others or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are related to Polish films operating under a similar mindset or political outlook. The effect, in combination with Werner’s opening chapter, is to familiarise the overall picture of Polish cinema without recourse to unfamiliar or unknown works. As a result, subsequent chapters - which delve into particular genres or modes of practice - are far easier to approach despite their focus on a wealth of titles and directors to whom the reader may be completely new.
What’s particularly striking about these ensuing considerations of animation, say, or documentary is the manner in which the overall narrative stays the same, with only slight differences setting them apart. To use these two practices as examples, we note how both faltered during the nineties as a result of neither providing much in way of commercial interests, how both relied primarily on television in order to secure their production, and how both eventually overcame such difficulties as newer technologies made it easier to get films off the ground and the film industry as a whole stabilised thus making funding much easier. Indeed, the chapters on animation and documentary both end on an optimistic note - one that is reflected in pretty much every one of the individual pieces, whether it be on independent cinema or the representation of women and homosexuality. Even if there are current misgivings - as in the latter example, where it is noted that Poland has yet to produce an equivalent of Agnes Varda, say, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder - there is still the very realistic hope that a breakthrough is imminent.
However, whilst this may suggest that each chapter effectively regurgitates the same overall story - a fall and rise, if you will - there are plenty of additional angles to offset any feelings of increasing over familiarity. Polish Cinema Now! doesn’t simply chart the progress of animation, documentary, independent filmmaking, et al, it also finds the time to discuss the recurring themes, to pinpoint the key auteurs, and so on. Moreover, it is in noting the similarities between, for example, the subject matter of a historical costume drama and a strand of documentaries that we are able to maintain the bigger picture of post-’89 Polish cinema as a whole. We see how the “blank spaces” of history, previously excised through state censorship, were finally given their cinematic due, whether it be the Katyn Forest massacre or Polish-Jewish relationships. And yet, equally important are those aspects which are so divergent, as in the chapter noting various box office successes and allowing the reader to see how the romantic comedies loosely mimicking the likes of Sex and the City or a Richard Curtis screenplay served as a complete opposite to these more politically charged work. Understandably charting twenty years of a country’s cinematic output over 272 pages is going to be a difficult, and yet (with the acknowledgement that so much material was completely new to me, and so I’m hardly in a position to correctly adjudge its comprehensiveness) Polish Cinema Now! would appear to do a pretty good job of it. The fact that it engages intelligently with the mainstream, the commercial, the seemingly low-brow, and the more consciously ‘arthouse’ productions undoubtedly makes for a fulfilling read.
Ultimately, this satisfaction lies in a number of areas. First and foremost is this success in mapping out twenty years’ worth largely unknown cinematic history from all angles. As an offshoot of this there is also the enjoyment to be had from the wealth of trivia this examination throws up, whether its from an economic perspective or a piece of information comparatively less significant. Two quick examples: firstly, there’s the revelation that once cinemas were handing over the local governments and away from the state their numbers practically halved in the space of two years as it was easier and more profitable for them to be converted into supermarkets; secondly, there’s the bizarre period in Grzegorz Lipiec’s early filmmaking career (prior to his socially conscious fictions of the 2000s) during which he made appropriations of successful Hollywood imports in a Be Kind Rewind-fashion, becoming something of a local sensation.
However, there is another aspect to Polish Cinema Now!’s success, and arguably it may be its most lasting. Effectively, the book compiles a massive viewing list for the reader as it highlights the key filmmakers and titles made since 1989, and understandably that list is considerably larger than the handful of films which have received theatrical or DVD releases in the UK to date. Indeed, even one of Polish cinema’s biggest hits of the past twenty years, and one by an internationally renowned filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda’s Pan Tadeusz remains almost completely unknown outside of its home country. Of course, this means diving into Polish etail sites to see what is available, and English-friendly at that (though I’m informed that there is a very healthy selection to choose from, particularly in relation to films made after 2000), but in the meantime there are the two enclosed discs with book to consider…
The first thing to be said about the enclosed films is that they really do offer up a diverse cross-section of Polish cinema. Dating between 1989 and 2009, each of those 21 years is represented by a single film. There are, therefore, no criticisms to be made about certain periods or stretches of time being given undue attention (or lack thereof) and, moreover, the sheer mix of animation, live-action, fiction and documentary means that there can also be no complaints that enough areas are not covered. We find, for example, an Oscar-nominated CG animated piece of science fiction rubbing shoulders with a superb short from the highly regarded documentarian Marcel Lozinski. Or there’s a stark portrait of a Russian psychiatric prison which is preceded a little earlier by a piece inspired by one of Pedro Almodovar’s creations. Indeed, the mix is really quite satisfying and, more importantly, the standouts far outweigh the weaker efforts (of which, I would argue, there are only one or two).
Just as important is the fact that these shorts haven’t been assembled in a general fashion, but rather relate to specific chapters or specific mentions. The discussion on animation, for example, encompasses Marek Serafinski’s politically engaged works, Piotr Dumala’s “psychological documentaries” (his own words) and the “Bresson of Polish animation” Jerzy Kucia; all three get inclusions over the two discs, as do other animators who earn a mention. Similarly, two documentaries highly praised in their chapter, Such a Nice Boy I Gave Birth To and Where the Sun Doesn’t Rush, are there for the reader to watch immediately after closing the page. In some cases the link may be less immediate, although the final chapter on film schools and the Andrzej Wajda Master School of Film Directing ties in with a significant amount.
Owing to the sheer number of films included a complete discussion of each would make this review a little too long. However, certain titles do warrant a special mention, whilst the rest will be left for those who purchase Polish Cinema Now! to discover for themselves. (Plus some of the films are so short that spoilers would be unavoidable.) To begin with the animation here we find a diverse array of techniques and outlooks. 1994’s Dim. blends stop-motion animation with live-action to create a moving portrait, seemingly, of death. Two waxen figurines, all worn and damaged, sit alone in a terrifically detailed room, their only outlet being a bird which arrives at their window each day. The detail blends with the simplicity of the tale to impressive results. In contrast, Franz Kafka from 1991 opts for plaster as its medium (prompting comparisons with Caroline Leaf’s films) creating some wonderful textures and sense of depth. The film is a biopic in a manner of speaking, having been drawn from Kafka’s own diaries. Yet it also incorporates dream states and elements of his fiction thereby making such a description a little vague and hardly indicative of its overall effect. Interestingly, the film prompted MTV to come calling, resulting in director Piotr Dumala producing brief ‘spots’ for them a few years later (as would Jerzy Kucia).
Hairdresser, made in 1996, combines the loneliness found in Dim. with the bleak character portrait of Franz Kafka. Its director, Robert Sowa, is arguably the Polish Adam Elliot, a maker of Plasticine stop-motion studies focussing on a single individual who happens to be something of an outsider. Here the titular hairdresser escapes into his own fantasy highlighting his loneliness as we view his actions from the outside. The fact that it was shot in black and white only serves to emphasise such undercurrents. In contrast, Cathedral goes for full colour and CG animation, stark contrast to lo-fi techniques of Sowa (though both he and Cathedral’s director Tomasz Baginski effectively made their works single-handedly). Indeed, the film earned itself an Oscar-nomination and was screened as a supporting feature across Poland’s multiplexes. The story may be slight - a wordless piece of science fiction with a clever twist - but visually the film succeeds. More importantly, it looks just as good as its Hollywood ‘competitors’. (Incidentally, Cathedral was the only film contained on the two discs that I’d previously seen, which may serve as some indicator of how Polish Cinema Now! delves into the post-’89 period and - from a UK standpoint - pulls out some genuinely hidden gems.)
The quality of the documentary selections is just as high and, needless to say, just as diverse. There’s room for a touching portrait of a doctor who cares for terminally ill children, an autobiographical piece that plays out as a kind of anti-Italianamerican (Martin Scorsese’s 1975 doc) and a fascinating observational bit of vérité captured at a Brest train station. To take each individually, the first of these is 2006’s Taking Care. Shot digitally and barely 13 minutes in length, here we follow the doctor as a he treats a couple of patients and, briefly, capture him on his own. The strength of the film is that it avoids sensationalism and is completely respectful to the children caught in its gaze. This shows itself most prominently when the camera opts to record what is going on out of a window whilst a child with severe burns is bathed; there is no need to document what is clearly a very unpleasant experience for those involved, and to do so would only come across as exploitative.
The ‘anti-Italianamerican’ is Marcin Koszalka’s wonderful Such a Beautiful Boy I Have Given Birth To. In the Scorsese film the director captured his parents in a loving manner, full of warmth and good spirit. For Koszalka, the home situation appears to be complete opposite. His film effectively presents a compilation of edited lowlights, if you will, a record of the sheer amount of abuse his father and, particularly, his mother throw at him. She calls him a bum, a drunkard, discusses his debts and casual girlfriends, insinuates that he goes with prostitutes and comes up with some stunning insults: “You are a shit not a cameraman”; “I won’t have the strength to take the shit from beneath you when you’re a cripple in a wheelchair” - this latter remark seemingly born out of a mugging fantasy she wishes upon her son. For his part, Koszalka remains silent and simply points the camera. The end result is both funny and shocking; this latter element shared by both the mother in the film’s coda (where we see her reaction having viewed the assemblage) and, seemingly, Poland as a whole. Such a Beautiful Boy was screened in a primetime slot on national television and attracted immediate controversy for attacking such a sacred cow; mothers are there to be respected, not insulted.
The third of Polish Cinema Now!’s documentary highpoints is Marcel Lozinski’s 89mm from Europe. The title refers to the difference in the width of railway tracks between Russia and the rest of Europe. Lozinski illustrates this by documenting the process whereby the wheels on carriages are extended at a station in Brest. The train in question is travelling from Paris to Moscow, yet must stop off here in order for this shift to be made. The camera operates in a vérité fashion, capturing both the men at work and the bemusement of the passengers as they poke their heads out of windows in the hope of grasping what is happening. Of course, such bemusement is shared by the viewer as this bizarre piece of cultural difference is played out. Moreover, the political subtexts are plain to see: Russia comes across as another land, out of touch with the rest of the world.
The fictional pieces on Polish Cinema Now!’s DVDs arguably lack genuine standouts when placed alongside the best of the animation and documentary, but they do provide interest nonetheless. The longest inclusion, 1990’s 78-minute The Abnormal is an intriguing blend of documentary and drama. It begins firmly in the non-fiction mode as it captures the children at a centre for mentally handicapped children, observing their interactions amongst themselves and the staff. Yet slowly it emerges that they are effectively playing themselves and a narrative comes into view. A new music teacher arrives at the centre, a plot device that triggers subsequent events. However, writer-director Jakub Blawut maintains the documentary veneer, creating a situation where The Abnormal works as both a piece of storytelling and as a record of these children’s lives. The fact that it recalls elements of Nicolas Philibert’s Every Little Thing only serves to emphasise this latter aspect.
Elsewhere, the presence of youth remains. Missy (1995), Jacob (1998), A Man Thing (2001) and Melodrama (2005) all operate within the same areas. The milieu is that of poverty stricken families (parents are either unseen or abusive), these problems extending to difficulties at school and within the community, and the overall outlook is bleak. In each of these slender narratives there appears to be no sign of escape or optimism, their endings being at best ambiguous, at worst without hope. The fact that Mariusz Jakus appears as an authority figure in two of them (Jacob and A Man Thing) cements such similarities. Yet each film also has its own distinctive qualities whether it be Jacob’s excellent handling of the child actors or A Man Thing’s ability to distil many of the qualities of Ken Loach’s Kes into less than half an hour of running time.
Given the comparative scarcity of many of the films included across Polish Cinema Now!’s two discs, it would be unduly harsh to concentrate too much on their respective presentation qualities. And, indeed, those qualities are somewhat variable. However, original aspect ratios are maintained throughout and the English subtitles (where applicable, as a number of the shorts are wordless) are uniformly optional. Picture quality, in broad terms, improves as the years progress, with some of the later films looking far superior to some of the earlier ones. Whereas, 1996’s Hairdresser, for example, looks as though it has been sourced from video and is presented non-anamorphically, 2009’s Where the Sun Doesn’t Rush comes from a pristine print and is anamorphically enhanced. (Of course, questions of anamorphic and non-anamorphic do not play a part in a number of shorts thanks to OARs of 1.33:1.) The important thing is that these have been available and, moreover, as supplements to a book that could easily have been published without recourse to offering such a rich and diverse sampling of Polish cinema. Ultimately, I would rather have the opportunity to see some of these early nineties in an acceptable condition than not at all; the fact that a number do also look excellent (Cathedral, say, or The Calf) is simply a welcome bonus. One final note to be made is a discrepancy between the list of films given in the book and those which appear on the disc: whilst the 2007 selection is listed as Wojciech Kasperski’s Seeds (Nasiona), the disc instead features Vera Zelakeviciute’s Beyond the Wall.
The ratings in the left-hand sidebar relate solely to the two discs. Extras are therefore not applicable, though of course the films themselves serve as an 'extra' to the book, or vice versa depending on your standpoint.
Race / Wysig (1989, d. Marek Serafinski, 6 mins)
The Abnormal / Nienormalni (1990, d, Jacek Blawut, 78 mins)
Franz Kafka (1991, d. Piotr Dumala, 16 mins)
Dim. (1992, d. Marek Skrobecki, 10 mins)
89mm from Europe / 89mm od Europy (1993, d. Marcel Lozinski, 12 mins)
Stench / Smród (1994, d. Artur Urbanski, 16 mins)
Missy / Pancia (1995, d. Iwona Siekierzynska, 14 mins)
Hairdresser / Fryzjer (1996, d. Robert Sowa, 5 mins)
Silence / Cisza (1997, d. Malgorzata Szurnowska, 12 mins)
Jacob / Jakub (1998, d. Adam Guzinski, 16 mins)
Such a Beautiful Boy I Gave Birth To / Takiego Pieknego Syna Urodzilam (1999, d. Marcin Koszalka, 25 mins)
Tuning the Instruments / Strojenie Instrumentow (2000, d. Jerzy Kucia, 15 mins)
A Man Thing / Meska Sprawa (2001, d. Slawomir Fabicki, 25 mins)
The Cathedral / Katedra (2002, d. Tomasz Baginski, 7 mins)
A Bar at Victoria Station / Bar na Viktorii (2003, d. Leszek Dawid, 55 mins)
Telefono (2004, d. Marcin Wrona, 2 mins)
Melodrama / Melodramat (2005, d. Filip Marczewski, 19 mins)
Taking Care / Pod Opieka (2006, d. Jan Wagner, 13 mins)
Beyond the Wall / Po Tamtej Stronie (2007, d. Vita Zelakeviciute, 20 mins)
The Calf / Cielak (2008, d. Marek Marlikowski, 4 mins)
Where the Sun Doesn’t Rush / Tam Gdzie Slonce Sie Nie Speiszy (2009, Matej Bobrik, 18 mins)