Polish filmmakers are impressing Martin Scorsese

The Constant Factor directed by Krzysztof Zanussi. Picture: Contributed
The Constant Factor directed by Krzysztof Zanussi. Picture: Contributed
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IT’S surprising that Poland has only just won its first Oscar when it has produced filmmakers to impress even Scorsese, says Alistair Harkness

When Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida won the Academy Award for best foreign language film recently, one of the biggest surprises was the realisation that it marked the first Oscar win for Poland in the history of the awards. For a small country with minimal resources, Poland has, after all, produced some of the giants of world cinema, from Andrzej Wajda to Roman Polanski to Krzysztof Kieslowski. What’s more, its national cinema in the post-war era is considered by no less an authority than Martin Scorsese to be as important as Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave to both his own film education and to the creation of what he considers a “golden age in international cinema” – a time when directors were pushing the boundaries and redefining the language of film in response to chaotic and rapidly changing social orders.

But while the aforementioned French and Italian movements have been burned into the retinas of any self-respecting cinefile, limited availability has made an appreciation of the diversity and artistry of Poland’s cinematic milestones trickier – until now. The Scorsese-curated Masterpieces of Polish Cinema season, newly opened at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, is seeking to redress that balance somewhat with screenings of 24 digitally restored films, ranging from established classics, such as Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) and Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1987), to key works by the likes of Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds, Innocent Sorcerers, Man of Iron), Jerzy Skolimowski (Walkover) and Krzysztof Zanussi, whose masterful Camouflage (1976) opened the season last night and can be seen again (along with two of his other films: 1972’s The Illumination and 1980’s Cannes-winning The Constant Factor) in coming weeks.

“I think there was a golden age, in the late 1960s and 1970s,” says Zanussi, over the phone from his home in Warsaw. “It was a time when every year the average level of audience acceptance was growing, which is not really the case today.”

It certainly seems significant that the films included cover the breadth of Poland’s turbulent history under Communist rule. Which isn’t to say that Polish cinema immediately flourished in the aftermath of the Second World War. It took the death of Stalin in 1953, and the subsequent – albeit temporary – thawing of oppressive Soviet restrictions under the Polish United Workers’ Party’s new leader, Władysław Gomułka, to enable the country’s filmmakers to begin responding to the devastation they’d witnessed. What emerged became known as the Polish School, with films such as Andrzej Munk’s subversive 1958 black comedy Eroica and Wajda’s astonishing Ashes and Diamonds (about a resistance fighter turned anti-Communist assassin – also 1958) reflecting the confusion of a country that had emerged from the turmoil of an occupation, only to have another oppressive regime forced upon it.

Those two films in particular galvanised the industry, though not for long: just four years later, Polanksi’s debut feature, Knife in the Water, which became Poland’s first Oscar nominee (it lost to Fellini’s ), incurred the wrath of the party leaders. Largely set and shot on a small sailing boat, its claustrophobic framing and westernised jazz score can, in hindsight, be viewed symbolically as the work of an artist instinctively pushing against the repressiveness of the state, which deemed the finished film too bourgeois. “It didn’t discourage us,” says Zanussi, “but it did make it more difficult for us to make similar films and that was an immediate reason why Polanski decided to try his best in the West.”

When Polanski decamped to the UK, then Hollywood, the initial vibrancy of Polish cinema seemed to go with him – until a series of workers’ strikes brought Gomułka’s rule to an end in 1970. Under his successor Edward Gierek, Poland’s relative prosperity in the first half of the decade resulted in a slight liberalisation of the system, which was met with an increased enthusiasm for criticising it.

It was during this period that Zanussi emerged as one of the leading lights of the Cinema of Moral Anxiety, a movement characterised by directors devoting themselves to finding subversive ways to sneak critiques of the state into their work. “I think most of our intelligentsia, most of our nation, was against the system,” Zanussi says. “The system was imposed by the Soviet army, so we were always calculating what kind of opposition was realistic. We did not want to be Don Quixote; we wanted to improve our lives and I think film played an important role in that process.”

Zanussi’s breakthrough came with his third feature, The Illumination, but it was his 1976 film, the satirical, university campus-set Camouflage, in which he really set out to test the limits of the political system’s intolerance for external criticism. Though the film itself wasn’t explicitly censored, the reviews were: the government banned all positive notices and tore down posters for the film before it opened, which only fuelled interest. “In Poland it is the most successful of all my films,” says Zanussi, cheerfully. “I think there was a feeling that there was no role for decent people in society, that if you behave differently you will be eliminated.”

In 1980 The Constant Factor continued in this vein, exploring the petty corruption that anyone trying to preserve their moral integrity had to confront on a daily basis. These themes pervaded much of the work that emerged from the Communist era, and became even bleaker as that system started falling apart, something reflected in the sickly colour palette of Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1987).

But as important as the political situation was in fuelling artistic expression, also key was the training Polish filmmakers received at the Łódz Film Academy. Established in 1948 and counting among its many alumni Wajda, Polanski, Skolimowski, Zanussi and Kieslowski, it was, says Zanussi, unusual in that the country’s most successful filmmakers lectured there while they were still making films. “The enthusiasm, the high professionalism and the example of the successful artist was the biggest incentive we had,” says Zanussi, who counted among his own teachers Andrzej Munk and Andrzej Wajda. “I think that was enough for us to feel we were close to the mainstream.” One of the legacies of this, says Zanussi, has been the elimination of the generation gap. “The new filmmakers know old cinema. They’re continuing something that started many years ago. That’s a healthy development.”

And the proof is plain to see in Pawlikowski’s Ida, which not only pays tribute to the Polish films of its early 1960s setting with it stark black-and-white compositions, but similarly grapples with the country’s war-ravaged psyche. “It has great aesthetical beauty and deep wisdom,” says Zanussi.

As for Poland’s belated Oscar win, he just laughs. “I was surprised that it came so late. But better late than never.”

• Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema runs at The Filmhouse, Edinburgh, until 17 June. For tickets and information visit www.filmhousecinema.com. A small selection of the films is also screening at the Belmont Filmhouse, Aberdeen, from 19-30 April, www.belmontfilmhouse.com