Polish Cinema Classics Volume II Review

Following up its very highly recommended Polish Cinema Classics release, Second Run has now issued a second volume. The boxed set collects a trio of rather disparate films which primarily share a nation of origin and differ significantly from the somewhat more easily bundled features found in the first one. Here we have an Oscar-nominated epic made by one of the country's most celebrated filmmakers, an experimental burst that blends narrative and essay, and a distinctive take on Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo involving a government censor. Lack of variety is certainly not a problem. In all, these three editions (which are boxed together but receive individual cases and may see separate releases down the road) offer a sublime contrast to the previous set's contents while still serving to help shade in the overall cinematic portrait of a country not necessarily well-represented on disc in the English-speaking world.

What little idea we do have of Polish cinema almost inescapably includes director Andrzej Wajda near the forefront. The Criterion Collection release of Wajda's war trilogy (consisting of A Generation, Kanal, and Ashes and Diamonds) was something of an introduction for many in the DVD era. Subsequent titles made available include Danton (also given the Criterion treatment) and Innocent Sorcerers, a change of pace that previously came out via Second Run. Now the exposure extends to Wajda's 1974 epic Oscar nominee The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana), which never saw a general release in cinemas in either the UK or the United States. At its heart, the film touches on greed amid capitalism and burgeoning industry in late 19th-century Łódź. It looks exquisite, never lags despite running well over two and a half hours, and quietly simmers with a political undercurrent that plays as objective and passive but ultimately may challenge many such notions for open-minded viewers.

Three protagonists are introduced early on - all male and one Polish, one German and one Jewish. They are acquaintances, friends, rivals, and potential business partners. Each is motivated by his own ambition for power and money. Working from the 1897 novel written by Wladyslaw Reymont, Wajda seems steadfast in presenting these men as unapologetic in their individual and collective pursuits. It's not so much that the film is celebrating or in trying to defend such actions, but it isn't necessarily (at least openly) critical of them either. That's part of what makes the picture so fascinating. We're viewing these men through years of social and political hindsight but Wajda is intent on stripping much of that away and instead focusing on their immediate actions and reactions. There's not a streak of sentimentalism anywhere in sight. At times, the viewer is unsure whether to feel sorrow or disgust for the industrial barbarism witnessed.

Excitement can be infectious even when it pertains to the harsh reality of the Łódź textile industry. The Polish Karol carries the burden of being the story's main protagonist while stepping back and forth between hinting at charisma and making us feel deep unease about his character traits. He's unfaithful with an already married, less beautiful woman. He exhibits no sympathy when a factory machine mauls a worker. Yet, it's easy enough to develop an attachment to him. Without at least establishing some kind of interest in Karol and his friends Moryc and Max the film wouldn't work. The very fact that Wajda makes them young and human becomes a key to the picture's success. Nothing stings quite so much as the truth and, in this instance, the disintegration of basic kindness and frailty rears its ugly head almost on cue.

The epic nature of The Promised Land nearly requires a measure of awe and respect but it's actually far more attuned to the comparatively streamlined interests of a much less obviously ambitious movie. There's the same concern for societal safeguards amid massive change that we might see in a picture half its length. Also present is the wicked insensitivity more characteristic of comedies than films approaching three hours. Few epics, particularly those steeped in greed and deceit, with a splash of paranoia, so ably approach the nature of humanity absent any real heavy-handedness. Indeed, the relative light touch exhibited by Wajda here is at least partially responsible for the overall ease the viewer has in acclimating to what could have been an almost unrelatable setting and situation.

Director Krzysztof Zanussi manages a similar tightrope walk in his philosophical essay film Illumination (Iluminacja). The young scientist at the center is faced with trying to balance his ambitions against his own self-discovery. In the course of the feature, we can recognize our own struggles, regardless of how similar the specifics are to the main character's, because Zanussi has drawn it as a story with parallels as unending as modern angst. For all of the intellectual thrills to be found in Illumination, the more simple human element of navigating the hows and wheres of young adult experiences, including failure and how one reacts to it, may be the easier sell. What could seem banal on paper, aided by the inventive narrative tics here, instead lands with resonant meaning. It takes a little work on the viewer's part but it's easily worth the extra attention.

The would-be physicist is played by Stanislaw Latałło, a non-actor whose tragic death not long after production ended made this his only film performance. Armed with unflattering glasses and curly hair that almost bring to mind Godard, he lacks the expressiveness of a more seasoned performer but that isn't necessarily a concern.. The entire role is set up to be witnessed, and in small spurts, more than understood or digested. He is nondescript, unfeeling, and symbolic. Never do we recognize particular emotion. That would be a short cut on this particular road. But he's also not an everyman in any discernible way. He exhibits arrogance without the charisma needed to make it all seem okay. He comes across as real and he's also clearly a fictional construct at the same time. But, in his own way, the character begins to gradually show his flaws and, combined with the failures he experiences, gains a level of authenticity that becomes endearing.

Of course, all of this tends to play out in a very unusual way, and one which confounds nearly as much as it impresses. Part of the fascination comes in the way Illumination unfolds. At every hint of a narrative turn, Zanussi surprises to degrees rarely seen. The film spans several years in the young life of its protagonist but is unafraid to jump and carom ahead minus little warning. Bits more expected from an academic lecture, including quotes and quick analysis from the scientific community, provide unusual segues. The effect may border on disorientation for some viewers but it's never done in an overly precious or alienating style. What this rather unique exploration of life actually does is inspire one to look forward to future re-viewings since it seems nearly impossible to gather everything as it's first being unspooled.

The concept of film moving through the projector is at the heart of Wojciech Marczewski's Escape from the "Liberty" Cinema (Ucieczka z kina "Wolnosc"). Here a Polish government censor, who had once been a theatre critic before joining the bureucracy, is caught in a scandal of sorts involving film performers breaking character on a particular cinema's screen. The seemingly impossible problem is chalked up to the rebellion of matter. The censor and his assistant decide that since the Communist nation's people will no longer rebel it must have transferred over to matter rebelling - in this instance, a film being projected in a movie theater. The concept, as director Marczewski even acknowledges via an excerpt in the film, clearly originates with Woody Allen's 1985 picture The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which Mia Farrow is spoken to directly by serial performer Jeff Daniels before he exits the screen completely to be with her. Allen's picture is sweet and romantic while the Polish iteration is far more dark, cynical and sharp.

The film has various moments of effective humor but, on the whole, it doesn't necessarily resemble a traditional comedy. It's primarily interested in both the torment of a censor whose career has been clearly compromised to the point of his being worn down and the overall place art can have amid the political upheavals of a nation. Because there was a massive shift in Polish politics between the production and release of this film, its message may have seemed a tad blunted at the time but now everything tends to coalesce and settle nicely. Even with parallels that can add to the overall richness of the picture, we can consider the whole without being influenced by contemporary concerns. The political notions still may be a barrier for some, particularly those unfamiliar with Polish history during this time, but the story itself is strong enough to make the film stand well enough on its own, absent any understanding of the then-current realities.

One particularly striking incident finds the censor, after the cinema involved has had a week's worth of screenings purchased so that regular patrons can't witness the odd revolt occurring on the screen, being spoken to directly by an actress in the film. She tells him how much of an impact his role in awarding her a jury prize had on her career. His reaction, and given the circumstances it's not an altogether unfounded one, is something between disbelief and unease. The censor seems to realize how much in conflict his current position is to his background and, probably, the aspirations and thoughts he once had. Marczewski's film transcends its political ideas through the censor character and his very guarded personal struggles which come to light because of the "rebellion" at the cinema. As with the other films in this set, I found the human element to be the most persuasive here, and an easy entry point into a picture which has universal elements but very specific particulars owing to its Polish origins.


The Discs

This region-free PAL set consists of three DVDs which are given individual keepcases (with booklets) and housed in a slipbox. All discs are dual-layered and contain newly filmed interviews with the respective directors. It's a welcome continuation of Second Run DVD's first Polish Cinema Classics release.

Each film was recently given a sparkling restoration in its native Poland and, as such, looks exceptionally good here. These progressive transfers are more or less spotless, exhibiting no glaring damage to speak of, and little about which to quibble. Maybe there's a slight thickness at times to The Promised Land or a somewhat grainy quality to Illumination or an overall dark, drabness to Escape from the "Liberty" Cinema, but all of this seems generally faithful to the source material and appropriate. Illumination probably appears the brightest and also varies the most in quality. The Promised Land has a generally reserved color palette but does come to life a bit when the warmer reds pop up on screen. For its part, Escape looks sufficiently natural in the greys and browns which dominate. The Promised Land and Illumination are in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio while Escape is presented in 1.85:1. All are enhanced for widescreen televisions.

Audio is maybe a bit less noticeably impressive but is nonetheless free from unwanted interference on each track. The Polish mono on both Illumination and Escape is emitted evenly and without incident. Dialogue and musical cues emerge cleanly. The music particularly in Illumination is very sharp and crisp when necessary. Though The Promised Land is listed as containing a 2.0 stereo mix, its audio is also a fairly modest affair that doesn't exactly test one's sound system. The overall smoothness and clarity of the listen does translate into a rather seamless technical presentation on the whole. There are optional English subtitles provided for each film. These are white in color.

Special features are consistent across the set, with each film containing both a newly filmed and exclusive interview with the picture's director and a booklet offering up a thoughtful, informative essay. Andrzej Wajda sits down for a wide-ranging chat (24:26) about The Promised Land. He mentions the origins of the project as well as sharing some of his views on the film's content and its reception. In the piece (19:47) for Illumination, a well-dressed Krzysztof Zanussi talks about his career leading up to the film and then goes on to shed some light on its production. There's also a short film called "A Trace" (26:01) made by Marcin Latałło about his father, Illumination lead Stanislaw Latałło, on that disc. The 1996 film is in Polish with non-removable English subtitles. Wojciech Marczewski continues the unofficial theme of politics and censorship in his interview (24:46) for the Escape from the "Liberty" Cinema DVD.

The booklets vary in length but each contains a helpful writing from a knowledgeable contributor. David Thompson writes on The Promised Land (16 pages) with help from remembrances by Andrzej Zulawski, a former assistant to Wajda who also introduced him to the source novel. Thompson's piece is filled with information and helps to better paint the history of the film. The 12-page Illumination booklet contains an essay by Michal Oleszczyk that analyzes aspects of the movie while providing some much-appreciated background for its director. Regular Second Run contributor Michael Brooke has booklet (20 pages' worth) duties on Escape, and also gives a thorough biography of director Marczewski.

Final Thoughts

The only downside I can see with either this set or Second Run's first volume of Polish Cinema Classics is a newfound awareness of filmmakers whose work is frustratingly difficult to further explore due to a lack of availability. We can only hope that some of those films being mentioned in the booklet essays will one day receive similar treatment and that more of the output from these Polish directors receives wider release.


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