If you've ever been to Poland, are currently living here, plan to visit, or simply have a fascination with its culture, you will be delighted to know that the Polish art scene is as strong as ever. Although the county's literary credentials sit quite high (there are plenty of fantastic Polish books to read), it's Polish cinema that is particularly well regarded internationally - just ask Martin Scorsese and David Lynch. Łódź is a bit of a cinematography Mecca, being dubbed 'Hollyłódź', to give it its Polish Tinseltown credentials. The Łódź Film School has produced directors like Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polański and Krzysztof Kieślowski (to name a few) who have made an undeniable impact on world cinema. Such top class has not only sealed Poland's cinematography credentials, but inspired many more Polish directors to continue making brilliant films known for their emotional and visual depth.
And we'll prove it. We've compiled a list which, in our opinion, shows some of the best of Polish cinema. Where possible, we've included films that are available to buy/watch with English subtitles. And thanks to the power of the interwebs, we've also included trailers and even full films which can be watched immediately. Happy quarantine!
IdaA powerful movie, filmed entirely in black and white, 2013's Ida, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski went on to become the first Polish film to ever win the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards (2015). The protagonist, Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), is a young woman about to take her vows to become a Catholic nun in 1960s Poland. She was orphaned as a child during World War 2, but is informed that she has one remaining living relative, an aunt (Agata Kulesza-Figurska) who she must meet. She learns that her family was Jewish, and what follows for the pair is an eerie and sombre road trip to discover the fate of their family, and an identity crisis for Ida. Although the holocaust and the German occupation of Poland are never mentioned outright, they hang overhead like a dark cloud throughout the film.
Cold War (Zimna Wojna)Hot on the heels of his own Oscar success with Ida, director Paweł Pawlikowski's next offering was 2018's Cold War, a frustrating love story focusing on a mismatched pair who meet in the ruins of post-war Poland. The film is set during the Cold War era (the name's a bit of a giveaway), initially in the 1950s, and shows the ups and downs the couple face in their relationship, the twists of fate they encounter, and the struggles that the politics of the time impose on their lives. At the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Pawlikowski won the Best Director Award for Cold War, which also earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film. At times this is as frustrating a viewing as the toxic relationship of the protagonists; it is, however, essential viewing. It'd be wise to follow Pawlikowski's career going forward, considering the acclaim his last two films have received.
Day of the Whacko (Dzień Świra)In our humble opinion, Polish comedy's heyday was during the Communist-era, though that's not to say there haven't been the odd gems made since then. Top of the list for us has to be Day of the Whacko (2002), directed by Marek Koterski and starring Marek Kondrat as divorcee Adaś Miauczyński, a frustrated Polish language teacher suffering from OCD. The film shows a typical day in the life of Adaś as he tries struggles as a writer and with his own compulsions, everyday routines, and everyone around him, i.e. the Polish public - all of which enrage him to the point of mental exhaustion. Although not intended as a comedy, the film's portrayal of everyday Polish life and national characteristics was an immediate success in Poland. For anyone new to living in the country, the film serves almost like a documentary to some of the more bizarre behaviours experienced and observed by expats in Poland. Douze points!
Andrzej Wajda's War Films TrilogySome of Andrzej Wajda's earliest works are considered to be some of his best, not just for their visual and storytelling elements, but for setting a tone that addressed the toughest issue his generation had to face head on - how to begin processing Poland’s resistance during World War II and the scope of the tragedy that ensued. His trilogy of war films all deal with different aspects of the underground Polish resistance and how they coped with the world crumbling around them. He put a human face on unspeakable events and told the stories of those who no longer could. A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954) was the first of the trilogy, introducing Zbigniew Cybulski (the 'Polish James Dean') and Roman Polański (he started out as an actor) as they join the Polish Underground Army and aid the fighters of the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
The 2nd film, Canal (Kanał, 1956) plays out during the very end of the Warsaw Uprising (the 56th day out of 63, to be exact) and follows a company of resistance fighters as they try to escape from the Nazis who are circling in around them. Their commander orders them to take to the sewers below the city and the film quickly devolves into a twisted vision of hell on earth.
The third film in the trilogy is often described as Wajda’s masterpiece and is certainly the most accessible of the three. Ashes and Diamonds (Popioł i Diament, 1958) featured a breakout performance by Zbigniew Cybulski who plays a tormented resistance fighter faced with moral and personal dilemmas in the very last days of the war. Cybulski’s “Maciek” is an almost nihilistic character and the opposite of what the propagandised depiction of a resistance fighter was supposed to look like. Once again the Communist sensors wanted to block the film from being distributed but allegedly a reel of the film was smuggled to the 1959 Venice Film Festival where it was immediately acclaimed and it won the FIPRESCI Prize.
Krzysztof Kieślowski did just that with the Three Colours Trilogy, being named in order (left to right) of the French flag - Three Colours: Blue (1993, in French, set in Paris), Three Colours: White (1994, in Polish, set in Paris and Warsaw) and Three Colours: Red (1994, in French, set in Geneva) - all based around the three political ideals of the French Republic: Liberté, égalité, fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). They sound like some idealist and patriotic films, right? Well, the films' true focus around these values has been described as ambiguous at best, ironic even, although overall the films can be interpreted as an anti-tragedy, anti-comedy and anti-romance. All three films follow different characters, making up a star-studded French cast including Juliette Binoche, Benoît Régent, Julie Delpy, Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Polish actor Zbigniew Zamachowski, all of whom only meet up in the final scene of Three Colours: Red. Fun fact: Kieślowski once stated in an interview that the reason for the French Tricolore concept was partly down to the funding for the films coming from France, and had the funding come from anywhere else, the film's themes would have remained the same but been adapted to the colours of that nation's flag. Had the funding come from South Africa, it could easily have been the 12 Colours Series...