The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Archive for the ‘Polish Cinema’ Category

New posts on The Global Film Book Blog

Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 March 2014

This is just to remind you that some of our new posts are now appearing on The Global Film Book Blog. Recent posts include Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008), Boomerang Family (South Korea 2013) and Jack Strong (Poland 2014).

Posted in Korean Cinema, Polish Cinema, Taiwan Film | Leave a Comment »

Walesa: Man of Hope (Poland 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 8 November 2013

We watched this film a fortnight ago and it seems a little strange that I haven’t thought much about it since. I’m hoping that Keith will have some comments to add.

I’ve always been a fan of Andrzej Wajda and I looked forward to this biopic of Lech Walesa very much. It’s the final part of a loose trilogy of films stretching back to Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981). In the first of these films Wajda adopted an approach not dissimilar to contemporary films from other countries. He mixed fictional and archive material in a film that tells the ‘real’ story of a model worker in the 1950s. This story is uncovered by a young TV director making a documentary. The second film then explores what happened to the son of the bricklayer from the first film. It focuses on the Gdańsk shipyard in the late 1970s with an appearance by the real Lech Walesa. Man of Hope focuses directly on Walesa himself but again utilises an investigatory narrative structure so that the early part of Walesa’s story (i.e. from his first brush with the authorities on the night his first child is born during the food protests in Gdańsk in 1970) is told via the device of an interview conducted by a visiting Italian journalist in 1983. The film ends with the downfall of the Polish government in 1989 and Walesa clearly an important and charismatic leader of a workers’ movement –but with some doubts about exactly what he did and how it affected the eventual outcome.

Wajda has been making films since the early 1950s and Man of Hope is of course very well executed with good performances by the two leads, Robert Wieckiewicz and Agnieszka Grochowska as Lech and Danuta Walesa. Many critics have pointed out that only Wajda is capable of so expertly melding the fictional and archive footage to recreate specific events from the 1980s. However, the enterprise is fraught with dangers. There are several different audiences for the film, each with different views on Walesa and the history of Poland during the post-war period and up to the present. Walesa himself has gone through periods of popularity culminating in his election as the second President of the New Poland in 1990. Since 1995, when he narrowly failed to be re-elected, he has lost support at home whilst still being lauded in international circles.

Wajda is said to have seen this production as a personal goal, although it followed his earlier film about the Polish officers killed by the Russians at Katyn. That really was ‘personal’ and concerned his memories of his father. I’m not sure how he feels about Walesa. He promised a film about Walesa that would not be hagiographic and Man of Hope does cast some doubts on the legend, including references to Walesa being forced to act as a stooge for the Polish secret police in his early days – something he at first naïvely accepted. Did he then repudiate the links later?

Danuta Walesa at home in the family's tiny flat with the Walesa children.

Danuta Walesa at home in the family’s tiny flat with the Walesa children.

I don’t know enough about Polish political and social history to make any kind of reasoned comment on how the ‘real’ Walesa is represented. I’ve never taken to him as a public character. He was not a trade union leader in the conventional sense or a socialist. His social views seem highly conservative. In fact I confess that the collapse of Eastern European communism has always seemed to me a mixed blessing – out of the frying pan of Soviet state capitalism and into the fire of privatisation, the (not) free market etc. The story about the rise of Solidarity has the capacity for great drama, but without the depth of historical knowledge needed to analyse events I turn to the more personal stories. In Man of Hope I found Danuta to be more interesting as a character – left to cope with the children and humiliated by the Polish authorities when she returned from Oslo with her husband’s Nobel Peace Prize. (I noted in my review of Katyn that Wajda had represented the women at home in order to show the effects of the Russian invasion in 1939.)

Wajda’s film is in the end perhaps too polished. Wajda himself has argued that Polish films were artistically stronger when making films was a struggle against censorship. Now films with serious themes struggle to find audiences unless they become more conventional (and perhaps shorter – this one at 125 minutes is much shorter than its two predecessors). At least in the UK it has got a release from the Polish independent distributor ‘Project London’. In its first weekend it was in 44 cinemas but managed only a £1,497 screen average. But in Poland the film topped the box office with the best opening of the year and attracted 150,000 cinemagoers over the first weekend. Fandor rounds up some of the American reactions (to screenings at festival, I don’t think it’s out in the US yet) and I noted that Marilyn Ferdinand praises the “energetic mise en scène of the Gdańsk shipyards and Wałęsa’s crowded home filled with children and union activists”. I do agree that this was one of the positives of the film and it is simply good to see images of a mass of workers in an industrial dispute. The workers’ tactics sometimes struck me as naïve – presumably this is due to the years of repression of free trade unions. The lack of proper union leadership was perhaps why an opportunity arose for a charismatic outsider like Walesa?

 

Posted in Biopic, Polish Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Woman in the Fifth (La femme du Vème, France/UK/Poland 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 June 2013

Ethan Hawke as Tom Ricks. This is representative of compositions in the film which show the character often 'penned in' by his environment.

Ethan Hawke as Tom Ricks. This is representative of compositions in the film which show the character often ‘penned in’ by his environment.

There are many interesting ways into The Woman in the Fifth. It’s another French film in which Kristin Scott Thomas plays a role which requires her character to adopt a background to explain the fact that she speaks English and French and up to five other languages. It is also  an entry into the relatively small world of films by Polish-born directors working out of the UK and travelling to Paris (Polanski ‘s films have a slightly different combination of the same factors). It’s a film in which Ethan Hawke plays an American in Paris who doesn’t end up spending the night with Julie Delpy and finally it follows another adaptation of a Douglas Kennedy novel, The Big Picture (France 2010) with Romain Duris.

Put those four ‘ways in’ together and you’d expect there to be a fair amount of interest generated by the film, but it seemed to do poorly in UK cinemas and I was lucky to catch it on Film 4 – where non-anglophone films now seem to be becoming more marginalised. It isn’t hard to see why the usual audience for Scott-Thomas or for Hawke’s Paris romances wouldn’t be attracted. Hawke’s character is a man seemingly ‘on the run’ and the narrative offers little about what has happened earlier except that he is a lecturer and a writer visiting Paris where he has a 6-year-old daughter and an estranged partner who has taken out a restraining order to prevent him seeing the child. Tom Ricks (Hawke) soon finds himself effectively ‘down and out’, having had his suitcase and money stolen. Chance lands him in a dingy room above a café in a working-class district of the city with a dubious job offer that will allow him to pay the rent. What happens after that demands quite a lot from any audience expecting a mainstream thriller.

Kristin Scott Thomas, "elegantly erotic".

Kristin Scott Thomas, “elegantly erotic”.

Director and adapter Pawel Pawlikowski came to the UK as a teenager and was first a documentary filmmaker before directing two of the best British films of the last twenty years Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004). These two films appeared to combine elements of British and East European  filmic realisms, the first bleak and satirical in its depiction of a seaside town used to hold asylum seekers, the second more lyrical, but also slightly disturbing in its representation of adolescent passions in a beautifully rendered West Yorkshire summer. The Woman in the Fifth offers a similar mix of elements reminiscent of both British and Polish cinema, but also French cinema that probes into the world outside the Paris tourist traps and aspects of film noir.

The film’s website offers statements by both Pawlikowski and Hawke. Whether you want to visit it before or after the watching the film is an important decision to make. I read the comments afterwards and that was the best decision for me. I ‘ll try not to spoil the narrative. This is a film where casting and all the key aspects of film language from costume through cinematography, set dressing/choice of locations, costume and music combine to create a very distinctive ‘feel’ to the narrative. Pawlikowski’s previous collaborators, Polish cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski and British music composer Max de Wardener,  contribute a great deal. Visually the film inhabits a Parisian world which I recognise from the films of Claire Denis and Jacques Audiard with interiors which remind me of Polanski’s The Tenant and one or two non-Parisian locations. Pawlikowski and Lenczewski spent a long time looking for unusual locations and then for ways of shooting them to create an expressionist world in which Tom Ricks seems forever to be hemmed in or made vulnerable i some way. The music is sparse and again unsettling. As the director’s comments suggest in the ‘Production Notes’, the music doesn’t conjure up the horror film but instead is quietly seductive but just a little ‘off’ or atonal – and therefore disturbing.

The script requires that Ethan Hawke be dishevelled and weighed down by his heavy black spectacles but that he interacts with three women. Delphine Chuillot as Nathalie, his wife, has a relatively small role, mainly in long shot, but Kristin Scott Thomas as an elegant and eroticised femme fatale figure is as good as you would expect. As the Polish waitress, Jania, Joanna Kulig is equally good and very sexy in a completely different way to Scott Thomas.

Ethan Hawke sans specs for once with Joanna Kulig.

Ethan Hawke sans specs for once with Joanna Kulig.

I don’t really want to say much more about the narrative. I thought at first that it was going to be like Dirty Pretty Things and that Tom would uncover some shady goings-on, but though the milieu is simar, it is a very different kind of film. Pawlikowski suggests that his Paris and the story he has moulded belong to an imaginary world, presented as they are via an American story with American, French and Polish characters. Perhaps this is why I was also reminded of Orson Welles’ version of Kafka’s The Trial with Anthony Perkins as poor K stumbling about a city he doesn’t know.

The more  think about the film, the more interesting I find it. Approach it with an open mind and don’t worry too much if you really don’t understand what is going on – you can think about it afterwards! The ‘Fifth’ in the title by the way refers to the Fifth Arrondissement in Paris, one of the oldest parts of the city on the Left Bank and in the ‘Latin Quarter’ – and a long way from the district where Tom finds himself.

Posted in British Cinema, French Cinema, Polish Cinema | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

BIFF 2013 #4 To Kill a Beaver (Zabić bobra, Poland 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 April 2013

Eryk Lubos and Agnieszka Pawełkiewicz in 'To Kill a Beaver'

Eryk Lubos and Agnieszka Pawełkiewicz in ‘To Kill a Beaver’

BIFF19logoGiven the number of national governments who agreed to join the ‘coalition of the willing’ and to send military personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan, there must be a whole sub-genre of ‘returning vet’ films being produced across many film cultures. To Kill a Beaver is a Polish entry. It’s a thriller with sex and violence but also quite a lot of talk and some very interesting ways of representing the trauma of action.

On the face of it, Eryk (Eryk Lubos) is now some kind of freelance killer working on a contract who has returned to his home region, perhaps even his own abandoned farmhouse (this isn’t a film in which you can be very sure of anything). He begins to set up surveillance but he’s interrupted/disturbed by two ‘intruders’. One is a teenage girl who seems to have set up a bolt-hole in the house and the other is a pair of beavers who have damned the local stream. Eryk seems determined to kill the beavers and they are clearly symbolic of something, possibly as a metaphor for invaders or refugees (who have every right to be there). Eryk’s talents are many, including the ability to speak Russian – not always a sensible thing to do in Poland I’m told. How did he acquire this facility? Where has he been a soldier and what has he done? I won’t say any more in the hope that you can get to see the film – though as the still indicates, man and girl do get together.

This film was a hit at Karlovy Vary, the most important festival for showcasing Central European films, last year. Eryk Lubos won the Best Actor prize. But just as films about the impact of war on soldiers struggle to win audiences in the US, so it seems do they similarly fail in Poland. No one wants to know about post traumatic stress or what Poland’s ‘special forces’ (GROM) get up to as this report from Karlovy Vary by the Polish Film Institute suggests. There is a lot going on in the film which ought to mean much more in Poland than it does to international festival audiences. Director Jan Jakub Kolski argues that he makes auteur films – i.e. for himself first. I think that if picked up for wider distribution this film could do well in many countries and perhaps then it would get the recognition it deserves at home. It’s the most striking film I’ve seen at Bradford so far.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Polish Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

In Darkness (W ciemności, Poland-Germany-Canada, 2011)

Posted by nicklacey on 10 April 2013

Out of the light

Out of the light

A producer may have pitched this as a high concept film where Kanal (Poland, 1953) meets Schindler’s List (US, 1993) without the latter’s saccharine. It’s the true tale of a Polish sewage worker who was paid to look after Jewish refugees from the Warsaw Ghetto. Robert Wieckiewicz plays Leopold Socha whose motivation, at least initially, is wholly pecuniary. It is a strength of the film that the protagonist is represented as a ‘warts and all’ human being and it doesn’t stint upon the Nazi’s atrocities. Both the lead characters are played by charismatic actors new to me, Wieckiewicz plays Lech Walesa in this year’s biopic of the Solidarity union leader; Benno Fürmann plays a German-Jew who doesn’t trust Socha.

The film’s portrayal, based on Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov, of people living in extreme conditions is psychologically acute. For example, the characters’ need for sex is emphasised despite them being ensconced in confined spaces with many others, including children. Jewish racism against the ‘Polacks’ is also shown. The set design, both above and below ground, is immaculate.

The pitch I imagined at the start of the article was, of course, jokey. The film took 22 years to bring to the screen – see this excellent article. The film not only takes us into the darkness of the sewers but also into the darkness of fascism (have you seen the film Mr Di Canio?); this is one of the key functions of  cinema: to take us to places we don’t want to go. In doing so it not only helps us appreciate what we have got but also, viscerally (I was blubbing by the end), helps us to feel the history. It is very difficult, for example, for young people to understand the misery that Thatcherism inflicted (and continues to inflict) upon many people; as a historical figure, the first female British PM, she can seem laudable.

I realise that this is the first film I seen directed by Agnieszka Holland so I have some catching up to do. Her use of the roving steadicam in the sewers conveys the stinking claustrophobia brilliantly and although there a few longuers, in a 145 minute film, they are necessary for the portrayal of human resilience in the face of human evil.

Posted in Canadian Cinema, Polish Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

You Are God (Jesteś Bogiem, Poland 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 26 September 2012

Marcin Kowalczyk as ‘Magik’ in ‘You Are God’

I went to this screening by accident and it was only afterwards that I learned that this was the most anticipated Polish release of the year. It opened in Poland and in the UK and Ireland on 21 September and you still have the chance to see it at selected Cineworld multiplexes. The title refers (I think) to one of the songs by Hip Hop trio Paktofonika who were active between 1998 and 2000. The film is a music biopic of sorts covering the short career of the trio from Silesia in industrialised Southern Poland.

It’s always fun to watch a film with absolutely no pre-conceptions. I don’t know a great deal about Hip Hop and I had no knowledge of the band. Because of this I relied on what I knew of youth pictures and social realist dramas. In some ways the film reminded me of Flying Pigs (Poland 2010) the football-based drama shown at this year’s Bradford Film Festival.

Since I didn’t know this was a true story, I did wonder at one point if this would become a social realist drama rather than a music film. I compared it to Ken Loach or Shane Meadows, the Dardennes Brothers and other realist filmmakers. It is presented in a CinemaScope frame and there is heavy use of shallow focus, especially against the grim housing estates of Katowice. Also, the palette seems to have been reduced to greens, blues and browns to emphasise the drabness. It seemed both stylised and observational in its aesthetic approach and I was interested to learn that the director Leszek Dawid  trained at the famous Lódź film school, specialising in documentaries. He won a prize at the Gdynia Polish Film Festival for this film and prizes also went to Marcin Kowalczyk as ‘Magik’ and Dawid Ogrodnik and Tomasz Schuchardt, the two supporting actors playing ‘Focus’ and ‘Rahim’. My feeling certainly was that these three young actors – and the other performers playing friends or family  – were some of the strongest elements in the film. There are some similarities to the UK film Control (about Joy Division) and I was quite impressed by the music, even if I don’t know much about it. The weakest part of the film seemed to be the script (remember I didn’t know it was based on a true story) and I didn’t really understand why it ended as it did. I was relieved to see that the festival reviewer felt the same way.

Find out more about the true story and the coverage of the film in the Polish media on Culture.pl and the Polish Cultural Institute. The surprising feature of the Culture.pl coverage is the reference to the importance of the film in critiquing ‘degenerate Polish capitalism of the post-transformation era’ and the attack on consumerism (i.e. the band’s ‘art’ against the consumerist society). The festival review also refers to the film’s script as being claimed as a “post-1989 Man of Marble” (the famous film by Andrzej Wajda), but then finding its statements about consumerism naïve. I guess we are so used to these kinds of narratives in Anglo-American films that the anti-consumerism didn’t really register with me – it just seemed like a conventional element in a music film about ‘rebel’ musicians. Another lesson about watching films more carefully and more objectively perhaps?

Here’s the trailer with English subs (beware that the comments below give away the ending if you don’t want to know it – but if you know about the band, you’ll know the ending anyway):

Posted in Polish Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2012 #6: Flying Pigs (Skrzydlate świnie, Poland 2010)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 April 2012

Oskar and Basia conduct the ultras of the Flying Pigs team

In her introduction Anna Draniewicz, the festival’s Polish consultant, told us that the leading man in this film, Pawel Małaszynski, was the Brad Pitt of Polish Cinema. This suggested that the film might be ‘popular’ rather than ‘arthouse’ for me and so it proved. Grodzisk is a small town in Western Poland and its football team ‘Czarni’ has just been relegated despite the dedicated support of its ‘ultras’ whose task is to focus on chanting and flag-waving rather than actually watching the game. The ultras are in turn protected from opposing fans by the ‘hools’ – who also attack the opposing fans and attempt to steal their colours. Anyone who prefers to actually watch the game is a ‘picnic’ and sits in the family enclosure.

We are told all of this at the beginning of what is a conventional genre narrative. And it isn’t really a genre about football – or really about sport at all. The relegated team now face the prospect of a local derby against an old enemy, a team that have been bought by a major business – a manufacturer of parts for the international aerospace industry. The company’s logo is a wild boar with wings – hence the film’s title. Our hero Oskar is the leader of the hools of Czarni Grodzisk – but he is also suddenly without an income after he crashes his van. If that isn’t enough he’s now the father of a son born to his girlfriend when he was fighting the police after the last match. He needs money now and the only option is to accept an invitation to work for the Flying Pigs as ‘manager’ of their newly-created ultras. Inevitably, he will face his own brother Piotr and all his ex-mates in the first derby game of the new season. He is also joined by his brother’s girlfriend Basia who loses her job as the (‘live-in’) organist at the local church when the priest tells her that being a hool is not acceptable for someone associated with the church.

The only real surprise is that the film becomes more a mix of family melodrama and dark romantic comedy than a violence-filled narrative about football hools (which the opening section seems to promise). New director Anna Kazejak-Dawid has created a very enjoyable mainstream crowd-pleaser which is handsomely-mounted in ‘Scope and boasts a good soundtrack. The central characters are all attractive young stars and what this demonstrates for me is the relative strength of Polish popular cinema. The festival brochure suggests that the film is like a Polish Green Street (UK/US 2005). I haven’t seen that film, but it sounds unlikely and Keith confirmed that the melodrama element means that the comparison doesn’t really work. I think the tone and the feel of the film is more akin to a widescreen version of a Shane Meadows film like This is England (UK 2006) or even earlier UK social comedies such as the Full Monty (UK 1997). I felt that the film was rooted in its small town sensibility and issues about local ownership and ‘community’ – similar in fact to the themes of Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric (UK 2009).

I don’t think that the film gives any pointers towards fan behaviour at the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine this summer. Except that Polish fans seem to have things in common with Italian ultras. I enjoyed this film and it would seem a good choice for a limited release in the UK if a distributor is so inclined.

Posted in Comedies, Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, Melodrama, Polish Cinema, Romance | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Ashes and Diamonds (Popiól i diament, Poland, 1958)

Posted by nicklacey on 1 March 2012

Extraordinary cinema

 Jonathan Rosenbaum makes the point that while this film is about the forties, it’s set on the day of the Nazi surrender, it’s overlayed by a fifties’ sensibility. This is evident through the James Dean-like Zbigniew Cybulski (though Rosenbaum cites Brando) but also in the European Art cinema style in which its shot. The ‘heavy’ symbolism of the still above is a good example. Add to that the melodrama of the young man, who’s fighting against the Communists and wrestling with his conscience whilst falling in love with the beautiful, and melancholic, barmaid, you have cinema made for me.

This blu-ray edition looks terrific and so emphasises the wonderful cinematography with stunning Expressionist lighting. Director Andrezj Wadja was clearly influenced by Bergman, I love the horse that simply walks into the mise en scene, but also Welles, particularly his use of deep focus.

The film brilliantly dissects a moment in history when everything for Poland was going to change (except in a way it didn’t as they, once again, became dominated by a foreign power). The possiblities of the time, those grabbing power, the splintering of families due to the war, are all portrayed in an affecting human story. Cybulski plays Maciek who’s been sent to assassinate a Communist Party official; he fails but has the night to fulfill his task except that’s when he meets the barmaid.

The official’s son is part of the reactionary forces that are opposing the Russian takeover, however the bourgeoisie’s grab for power is in full swing anyway, shown by the small town major’s celebration at being appointed a minister. The climax of the party, where they are all drunkenly dancing to a bastardised version of a Polish national song, is truly surreal. As is the denouement for Maciek, in a setting worthy of Bunuel.

I’m not sure if Wadja’s in or out of fashion at the moment, very few of his recent films have been distributed in UK; he’s still making them and is 86 next Tuesday. Ashes and Diamonds forms the third in his ‘War Trilogy’,  A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955) and Kanal (1957); there are all must-see films. The first two, the narratives are unconnected, have a pronounced debt to neo-realism; Ashes and Diamonds is a triumph of expressionist cinema.

Posted in Polish Cinema | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

 
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