Polish Cinema Classics Review

Second Run further increases its status as one of the finest of DVD labels with this box set release entitled Polish Cinema Classics. The four-disc collection marks the first time the label has issued a boxed set of films not otherwise available in its DVD line. (An earlier František Vláčil release is the only place to find the disc for Sentiment, a pseudo-documentary/tribute film to the director, but it also repackages other, previously available Second Run Vláčil films, as do the Hungarian Masters Collection and Miklós Jancsó box sets.) The four films included here - Night Train, Eroica, Innocent Sorcerers, and Goodbye, See You Tomorrow - all come in separate keepcases with individual spine numbers and unique barcodes but can currently only be purchased as part of this set.

Newcomers to the box might, with good reason, wonder exactly where to start. It's hardly a big deal but the minor conundrum is perhaps clouded even further by Second Run's decision to not package the set either chronologically or by order of spine number. My own recommendation would be to start with the wonderful Night Train (Pociąg), from 1959 and directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. It's entirely accessible and a good way to become acclimated to much of what the set has to offer. There are no smothering references to the Polish political situation. The film instead does offer the potential for interpreting what are likely to be allusions and such to more politically charged matters. But that's ancillary. The more dominant appreciation comes from the film's brilliant pacing and consistently fascinating compositions. There's a deep, almost old-fashioned but perhaps just timeless quality to Night Train.

It concerns the passengers on a train moving from Łódź to the resort town of Hel during a holiday. A pretty blonde (Lucyna Winnicka) purchased a ticket for a sleeper from a stranger, not knowing it was for a males-only section of the train. The understanding female conductor lets her slide, and the woman, Marta, is joined in the 15/16 compartment by a shadowy man seen in dark sunglasses (Leon Niemczyk). Their neighbors vary from a nosy woman and her lawyer husband to a priest, the Buchenwald camp survivor who can't sleep, and several other characters representing an array of society. A younger man, played by Zbigniew Cybulski, has sneaked on without a ticket and begs the attention of Marta, who sees the couple of weeks they spent together as nothing but a fling which has now ended.

The journey by train moves along nicely, with the passengers interacting enough to give the viewer a good idea of who's who, until a group of policemen board at an unscheduled stop. They're looking for a man who's murdered his wife, a crime which had been referenced due to its newspaper coverage earlier in the picture. Not surprisingly, the 15/16 compartment is their target. What follows carries the film into a more overtly suspenseful realm. Whereas previously Night Train was content to offer up bits of underexplained yet intriguing dialogues and interactions, Kawalerowicz now takes full advantage of the intrigue available with movies set in such confined and self-contained spaces. A quick manhunt ensues! Is that mistaken identity? An innocent accused? The whole thing plays out with beautiful precision. The attempted escape that comes next allows the picture to achieve a sense of visual poetry that earlier wouldn't have been an option. This new layer, somehow giving the film its essence in an unlikely place, is a major achievement. Suddenly what had been a nice little train drama feels larger and more complex.

It's worth noting that, even from the very beginning, Night Train had quietly announced itself as probably extending beyond any transportation-related limitations. There's a moody, jazz-infused score that dominates much of the soundtrack and opens the picture next to methodical, nearly hypnotic images of the train pulling into the station. The musical pieces came from a six-piece jazz band's interpretations of "Moon Ray," by Artie Shaw. We hear selections from this at various points in the film, but the mood is established already with that opening. The film goes on to adopt that intangible feel which complements the music. It's dark without being gloomy and sad without being mournful. Kawalerowicz knows exactly how much to spin his film in every direction, doing so absent any prolonged lessons or tricks. This is magnificent filmmaking on every level.

Perhaps equally celebrated is Andrzej Munk's Eroica, a film split in two entirely separate stories but both concerning the Second World War. The underlying topic is heroism and, indeed, the word "eroica" is Italian for "heroic" or "heroism" and the titles of both parts are also in that language. Munk's "heroic symphony" begins with Scherzo alla pollacca, the tale of a coward, Dzidzius, given the opportunity to potentially be a hero. He accepts, in theory, before basically coasting through the whole ordeal. In a moment of danger, the man abandons his military duty to return to his wife and home only to find a Hungarian officer filling in for him. Essentially cuckolded, Dzidzius nonetheless winds up agreeing to play a role in the resistance alongside the Hungarian military. They've truly found the wrong man for this task. He more or less ticks the boxes of heroism, though with minimal impact. The tone established in this section approaches semi-comedic with dashes still of tragedy.

Of course, the idea here is that the man stumbles into the situation without any real intent of wanting to help the cause. His primary concern is in looking out for himself and he's pretty lazy on top of that. The occasional crowning of him as a hero is, to the audience who can form a greater picture of the man, fairly absurd. And that's surely the idea. Heroism and valor can be assigned for some of the least deserving reasons imaginable. Heroes seem to be something we, the non-heroes, need for their idealization as models more than their activities, perceived or otherwise. It's reminiscent of that old idea (often credited to Voltaire) that even if God didn't exist, man would have had to invent Him.

This comes into play even stronger in the film's second part, entitled Ostinato lugubre. Here a Polish officer enters a POW camp and quickly hears about the mighty Zawistowski who was the only person to escape. It's impossible to escape, he's told, and no one could do it, except Zawistowski. The truth of Zawistowski's circumstances is revealed to be quite a bit more complicated. The very notion of heroism again is called into question by Munk and we now wonder if perception greatly outweighs reality. It's a powerful segment, if more obviously showy in its desired emotion than anything else in these films. The romanticization of honor that is so heavily criticized might be intended as a message for the film's Polish audience, but, fifty-five years on, it seems universal and clearly still relevant.

In considering the films in this set, Eroica is easily the one that is the least like the others. For one thing, it's the only picture directly about the war. Those unfamiliar with the contents of a Polish Cinema Classics collection but in possession of a general awareness of the country's film output might expect more in this same vein. That they'd be proven entirely wrong is the beauty of this release. The diversity of the included movies is such a nice surprise. The various themes might be able to be tied together, and it's certainly an added layer to consider the combined portrait painted of the country by the four films, but each carries its own distinct energy and appeal. Most alive of the choices is Innocent Sorcerers, directed by Andrzej Wajda from a script co-credited to Jerzy Skolimowski (who also makes a couple of bookending appearances as a boxer).

This was a distinct change of pace for Wajda, who even declares in an included interview on the disc that he really has no idea why he made the film. Previously, the director had been limited to the sorts of war-related and (discretely) politically-charged films that still come to mind when thinking of Polish cinema of this era. His War Trilogy, comprised of A Generation, Kanal, and Ashes and Diamonds, probably put the so-called Polish Film School on the map internationally. Innocent Sorcerers, by comparison, is about a younger generation who never experienced the war in the same way as its predecessors and it's also a very moody, conversation-driven piece. The film eschews action, big ideas and bold messages. It feels more like the work of a first-time director with something to prove than one already with Wajda's previous successes.

The film comes from a novella by Jerzy Andrzejewski, who was also the author of the source material for Ashes and Diamonds. Arm presumably twisted just a little, Wajda agreed to expand beyond his established comfort zone for the Andrzejewski story. When the two men, neither of whom came from the modern climate depicted, realized they didn't want to be embarrassed by inauthentic dialogue, Jerzy Skolimowksi agreed to come onboard and thus began his illustrious film career. The exact extent of Skolimowski's involvement, from adding dialogue to having retooled the entire script, seems to vary with whoever is recounting the details. The result, however, remains an obvious success and, even with considerable distance now, a strong element of believability remains. It's a raw triumph of youth in cinema.

Though several supporting players dot the film, including a quick turn by Roman Polanski and Zbigniew Cybulski as the protagonist's close friend, there are just two main characters with whom we spend the majority of time. Played by Tadeusz Lomnicki, Andrzej (aka "Bazyli") is a bleached blonde doctor whose medical practice takes the apparent form of examining boxers. He fancies himself a ladies man and drums in a jazz band under the moniker "Medicine Man" at a Warsaw club. Out one night with his pal, Andrzej eyes a pretty girl (Krystyna Stypulkowska) at the bar. As she leaves with her date, he instructs the friend to set into motion a scheme they've apparently done before: thinking it's a taxi, the date gets in a car driven by Andrzej's buddy, who then speeds off to leave Andrzej alone with the girl.

She later identifies herself as "Pelagia" and her attitude and reaction to Andrzej is immediately striking for its playfulness. It's this open yet still rather innocent approach that makes Pelagia so endearing as a character. We see her sort of tease her new companion prior to ultimately ending up in his small, modest apartment. They jointly create a fantasy encounter, including a list of things to do. It's deeply flirtatious but also built as a means of gaining and establishing power. This is the point of fascination. Every action and piece of dialogue between the two serves as a power struggle involving a presumably smart, experienced doctor and a wide-eyed, youthful member of the fairer sex. The exercise could hardly be more fun or thrilling.

This all comes to a head when the two engage in a game involving flipping a box of matches, with the stakes extended to the removal of clothes. The scene is likely the most memorable in the film. It offers sex and intrigue, two of the linchpins of cinema. Wajda doesn't film it like a romantic comedy stunt even though one could, painfully, imagine such a scene in lighter fare. The upper hand sways and shifts until finally we're left with Andrzej/Bazyli asking Pelagia if she wants her eggs fried or scrambled. It's quaint and cute and kind of perfect. We don't even have to find these two particularly endearing to enjoy their interactions. Innocent Sorcerers is that rare film to show romantic longing and coupling without overdoing it. By the picture's ending, a concession to the censors made by Wajda, the ultimate result has lost a great deal of its importance. The viewer can instead appreciate fully the two leads' interactions during the time they've already had together. That's our own snapshot and it's really all we're going to know about the two anyway.

Another romantic drama built around the interactions of two young adults, Goodbye, See You Tomorrow catches a different feeling on a similar experience and is also simply built differently than the Wajda film. It stars Zbigniew Cybulski, often called the "Polish James Dean" for reasons that seem mystifying; he was a good actor with a strong, charismatic presence but, beyond appealing to youth and dying relatively young, never brings to mind Dean at all. When compared with his role as a cold and confident assassin in Ashes and Diamonds, Cybulski really shows his range here. He's sensitive, unsure, and kind of desperate. The character he plays is  a member of a theatre group who makes a chance encounter with the gorgeous Marguerite (Teresa Tuszynska), daughter of a French diplomat. The real scope of Cybulski's talent is revealed with the knowledge that he also co-wrote the film.

The character Cybulski plays enters into an unlikely rendezvous with Tuszynska's Marguerite. Their unofficial first date is a round of tennis, which Cybulski's Jacek (called "Jacques" by Marguerite) has never before played despite letting on to her like he was an old pro. It goes disastrously enough but the two do seem to have made an impression on one another, of possibly different degrees. He's completely, irreversibly smitten, and who could blame him. While clearly interested, she's perhaps less enamored and more content to tote around another, safer fellow as need be. What potentially gnaws away at the viewer is just how uncaring Marguerite can be. This is not a romance we actively would bother to root for or even care about very strongly. Only through the one-sided entry point provided from Cybulski do we empathize. This is not unrequited love but it is probably ill-advised. From the outside looking in, the whole thing appears doomed.

Goodbye, See You Tomorrow was the debut feature film by director Jansuz Morgenstern. It definitely feels like a nice companion piece to Innocent Sorcerers, and Michael Brooke's booklet essay with this film connects the two rather tightly. The reason that Morgernstern's film, which was released prior to Innocent Sorcerers, seems somewhat less affecting in comparison mainly comes down to, in my opinion, the portrayal of the female lead. Marguerite here is eighteen and lacking any real sense of gravity in her interactions with Jacek. At one point he proposes that they go and get married right then and there. Without hesitation she agrees, only to be distracted out of the church by a dog. It's a fairly preposterous setup which nonetheless coalesces into something that screams trouble for Jacek. Maybe the appearance and reputation of Cybulski is enough to carry the film beyond these seeming limitations. There's little reason to quibble as it's clearly a film of note and one demanding of an audience, but maybe it depends a little too much on Cybulski's presence. A scene late in the film makes the viewer think he's with a female, probably Marguerite, while smoking a cigarette in the dark of what seems to be an alley. The reveal spins it much differently. If it's not the key moment in the entirety of the picture, it's at least the one that hit me the strongest, providing a rare insight into the character of Jacek and those like him.

Viewing these four films in close succession reveals some remarkable consistencies. One is the presence of actor Zbigniew Cybulski, a rare breakout star of Polish cinema who appears in three of the pictures. His two supporting turns allow for some nice recognition from the viewer, and he's especially impressive in Goodbye, See You Tomorrow. Just having him appear again and again becomes a sort of connective tissue for the set. Another recurring impression was just how well these films were shot. They tend to display highly interesting compositions, lighting choices and the like, and it made for a really unexpected strength across the pictures. Finally, and probably the most striking of any of these, is the frequent use of jazz on the soundtrack. Noted composer Krzysztof Komeda, who'd go on to work with Roman Polanski on Rosemary's Baby before dying far too young in 1969, scored two of the films, and Andrzej Trzaskowski did Night Train. It's almost inconceivable to think about now, but jazz had actually been banned in Poland, outlawed by the Stalinists as music of the enemy, until 1954. In a meaningful way, jazz here represents a kind of recently acquired freedom and it's used, without overpowering any of the films, to great effect.


The Discs

Second Run's Polish Cinema Classics set consists of four individual keepcases housed in a cardboard box. Each of these includes its own sleeve in the signature Second Run style and a 16-page booklet joining the disc inside the case. The discs are all dual-layered, PAL, and indicated as region-free.

Each progressive transfer is sourced from an HD master. All of the films recently underwent restorations, and the credits for such are tacked onto the end of the movies. Both Night Train and Innocent Sorcerers are in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio while Goodbye, See You Tomorrow is 1.66:1 and Eroica is presented in the unusual aspect ratio of 1.56:1. Though this aspect ratio is occasionally used, it's primarily a television conceit - 14x9 - that basically splits the difference between 1.78:1 and 1.33:1. A film wouldn't actually be shot in this aspect ratio. It also seems a little curious that Goodbye, See You Tomorrow would be 1.66:1 while Innocent Sorcerers, made afterward, is in 1.33:1. I know that Second Run generally must make do with the masters it receives, and nothing here is so concerning as to cause the potential consumer to hesitate, but it's the responsibility of a review such as this to note any potential question marks.

These progressive transfers all do look plenty good and acceptable. They are free from damage. Contrast is mostly up to reasonable standards. Goodbye, See You Tomorrow carries a very noticeable bluish tint which stands out, particularly in comparison to the other films. Eroica is slightly weaker in its black levels and available detail. Innocent Sorcerers is clearly the most bright of the four, though it doesn't appear unnaturally boosted. While less sharp, Night Train might achieve the strongest balance and also offers nice, deep blacks. These are the two strongest of the transfers, but the whole lot is superb.

Audio for each comes in Polish mono tracks. Goodbye, See You Tomorrow also has spoken French (which is subtitled) and some English (which isn't). It seems to have been partially dubbed, as well. Dialogue and those wonderful musical scores register clearly. Again, Eroica is probably the weakest, sounding less full in the dispersal. Both Night Train and Innocent Sorcerers are quite crisp and impressive. Goodbye, See You Tomorrow is perhaps a notch just below them. Optional English subtitles are available for all of the films.

Supplements are not vast, but, as usual with Second Run releases, do show some generous effort. Night Train includes an excerpt from a documentary on the film's director Jerzy Kawalerowicz My 17 Lives, entitled "About Night Train" (6:48). An incredibly charming short film by Andrzej Munk, called "A Walk in the Old Town of Warsaw" (18:04), can be found on the Eroica disc. A recent interview (20:01) with Andrzej Wajda, done just for Second Run, appears on Innocent Sorcerers.

Characteristically smart and educational booklets have been included for all four films. Inside are essays by Michael Brooke (who covers both Night Train and Goodbye, See You Tomorrow, and adds biographical notes on Jerzy Kawalerowicz on the former), Michal Oleszczyk (writing on Innocent Sorcerers), and Dr. Cesar Ballester (for Eroica). All are very good pieces but I think the standout is probably Brooke's well-researched article about Goodbye, See You Tomorrow, which adds quite a bit to what's available on the screen.


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