The Return of Polish Cinema

LOS ANGELES/WARSAW–It really is a small world after all. I had contacted Polish film director Borys Lankosz—currently living in LA working on a few film projects—to see if we could do an interview when I was on vacation there in March. I had half-hoped he’d suggest some place like the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel to get that real Hollywood industry power-lunch thing but he suggested his place instead. When my friend Oleg and I arrived at the flat—on a palm tree-lined street in west Los Angeles—his film critic/journalist wife, Magda Michalska answered the door. She took one look at Oleg and said, “I know you from somewhere.” Oleg said that yes, she too looked familiar and they quickly figured out that they had studied in the same faculty at Warsaw University. As small world moments tend to do, it put everything more at ease.

I wanted to talk with the 38 year-old Lankosz because he is part of a new crop of young Polish filmmakers who are helping to revitalize the Polish film industry –both within the country and also internationally. Two years ago, Lankosz’s film “Rewers” –a movie about a naïve woman coming to terms with a sinister romance set against the backdrop of 1950s Stalinist Poland—not only won 12 Polish Eagle awards (the equivalent of the British BAFTAs and the French Cesars) but also received critical acclaim and awards at the several international festivals and screenings where it was shown. That success has led him not only to quickly become regarded as one of Poland’s new up-and-coming directors but also an interesting new talent on the global film industry scene. While Poland has an incredibly rich and well-regarded history in film—thanks to the success of directors like Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Agnieszka Holland—after 1989, Polish film seemed take a back seat compared to its CEE neighbors like the Czech Republic, Serbia, Bosnia and, more recently, Romania. I wanted to find out why.

REWERS31-1024x727As Mateusz Werner writes in his essay for the book “Polish Cinema Now” not only were Polish (and other CEE) films during the Cold War great pieces of art (made under ideological and economic pressure) but they were also able to play an integral role in expanding the field of freedom, criticizing the Communist regimes and undermining the political systems in which filmmakers had to function. However during the fledgling first years of Poland transforming into a democratic and capitalist society, there was no longer the need for these types of films since ideological issues could now be openly discussed. Poles had other more pressing and immediate concerns yet filmmakers were slow to catch up to the prevailing changes in —and mood of— the country. “After 1989 films started to be made from a different, non-political-point of view, but in a sense it was still the same point of view—of martyrdom, of pathos that was full of this Romantic tradition,” says Lankosz, who studied at the legendary National Film School in Lodz that counts directors like Wajda, Polanski and Academy Award-nominated cinematographers like Pawel Edelman and Slawomir Idziak among its alums.  “At the beginning of the 1990s, maybe it was right, like when winter [ends] people start to recognize themselves again. But pretty soon this kind of [reflection] starts to get boring and leads nowhere.”

In a sense the 1990s were the wilderness years for Polish cinema. It was all about making money, which was thrown either at big-budget cloyingly historical films or cheesy romantic comedies, neither of which had much resonance outside of Poland. For filmmakers that meant either participating in this orgy of commercial mediocrity or doing something different like, as Lankosz did, working in documentary films. “I think people like Borys, who were in film school in the 1990s, did not have the alternative to go into artistic cinema,” Michalska tells me as we sit at their dining room table, a limited-edition poster of “Rewers” hanging on the wall nearby. “Everything was pretty awful— all this commercialism— so many filmmakers [switched] to working on advertisements or TV series.”

Luckily, however, things began to change at the turn of the 21st century. As Werner writes, a new tone in art cinema began to appear, “as ambitious filmmaking was beginning to regain its vigor and self-confidence.” Films like Dorota Kedzierzawska’s  “Nothing”  (1999) and Przemyslaw Wojcieszek’s “Louder Than Bombs” (2001) made  noise internationally, highlighting social problems in the country and in 2005, under a new cinema law, the Polish Film Institute (PFI) was established. With a budget of € 20 million—which comes from a 1.5% tax that must be paid by television, film, cable and cinema owners— the PFI works on the development, promotion and distribution of Polish films on a national and international scale. “Our goal,” says PFI’s Izabela Kiszka “is to get people more familiar with Polish films and productions.” Filmmaker Lech Majewski, the Polish born Venice-based filmmaker and artist whose latest film “The Mill and the Cross”—starring Michael York and Charlotte Rampling— debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, says that if it were not for PFI, films like his would struggle to get produced and promoted.  “I would say the establishment of the PFI was the one most important recent event that has happened in the Polish film landscape,” he tells me. “For a [filmmaker] like me who does art films, I felt alienated.  But the appearance of the PFI put wind in my sails.”

That wind has also been reaching young producers and directors who have learned how to balance market forces with quality productions. “It took some years for [filmmakers] to change the way they thought and to learn how things were done on the outside,” says Anna Wydra, the Academy Award-nominated producer of the 2010 documentary short “Rabbit a la Berlin”, who is also the founder of Warsaw’s Otter Films.  “We also have more and more producers who are open to cooperate with international partners.” One good example of a successful co-production was “Peter and the Wolf”, a British-Polish-Norwegian film made in Lodz’s Se-ma-for studios, that won the 2008 Academy Award for best animated short film. “Switez”, a new animated short about a medieval Polish village that comes under attack, is being heavily promoted at international film festivals by PFI (they hope to enter it into the Animated Short category at the Oscars) while Jan Komasa’s “Suicide Room”—a Kadr Films-produced feature movie that focuses on the popularity of internet 2nd lives—has, since its debut at the Berlin Film Festival this spring, been nominated for a prize at the Gdynia Film Festival (running from 6-11 June). “I think Polish film is going in the right direction, slowly,” says Lankosz, leaning back in his chair. “I am meeting these young people who are producing things like documentary shorts but in the next few years, they will be making their own feature films and they know exactly what to do. That is a great hope. A new generation comes and it could change the way we think about Polish cinema.”

“Suicide Room”  photo courtesy of Kadr Films

“Rewers”  photo courtesy of Syrena Films

3 replies
  1. Emily Vencat
    Emily Vencat says:

    How great that this leading light in Polish film is here in Hollywood! I’ll be following your website for the next big thing in Eastern European film here in LA…

  2. Marina Calland
    Marina Calland says:

    At last intelligent magazine about Eastern Europe. Can’t wait for more! Love Polish cinema!

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