The Polish Cinema is Changing – But How? By Jan Olszewski

in 22nd Warsaw International Film Festival

by Jan Olszewski

During the first years of its activity, the Warsaw film Festival seldom included Polish films in the program. The general idea was to present the best films from all over the world, just like the Munich Film Festival did; but mostly those which had problems with reaching the audience in Poland. Polish films had no problems of that kind. Shot in Polish state-owned studios, automatically accepted by the state-owned distributor, actually the only one that existed — they won immediate access to state-owned cinemas. The only exception were titles which had problems with censorship. But the Festival could hardly ever show them either.

The situation changed after the collapse of communism. Private distributors had a free choice, they gave the Polish films no special treatment, so the Festival became slowly the place where Polish films could be shown and discussed. Apart from financial problems, there was an additional reason for such discussions. Polish cinema started to lose its traditional identity. Perhaps the definition of this identity should not be oversimplified here; still, let’s say that the Polish films of the fifties, sixties and seventies generally presented people fighting each other because of different political ideas, attitudes or positions. In other words, politics was the main factor defining the characters, the way they thought and acted. The stories told in those films often expressed criticism of the regime; but since radical statements could be harmful, the films in most cases limited themselves to half-truths. After the big change of 1989, some cinemagoers hoped this kind of cinema would be continued, and the half-truths completed. These great expectations proved to be wrong. Politics almost entirely disappeared from Polish films, and a search for new formulas set in. Since politics lost its leading position in the society presented on screen, new creative forces must have been found, or invented. And so they were, but with not quite convincing results.

The selection of Polish films presented during the Warsaw Festival 06, although rather tiny, gave a good idea about what is going on. One of the solutions, still used by filmmakers, is to imitate Hollywood, of course in a scale Polish cinema is capable of. In those films, people behave according to rules followed in popular genres, e.g. thrillers or westerns; no other motivation is expected or needed. The only condition is, it should be made convincingly. Unfortunately, it did not work in Summer Love, a western shot in Poland by Piotr Uklanski, with Polish actors and additionally with Val Kilmer showing himself in one very short take. All possible clichés were used here in a way that would make Sergio Leone blush for shame. If it is true that making a straightforward western might be regarded as a kind of test for young filmmakers, the director of Summer Love failed completely. The protagonists follow and kill each other for no apparent reason, which means that the simple rules governing the world of westerns never make themselves significant.

Another Polish film, Retrieval (Zodzysku), although dependant upon Hollywood patterns as well, is much more serious. The action is set in a small provincial town and tells a story about several young men who just finished school and are looking for a job. The main character, Wojtek, works in a factory and is almost killed in an accident. Afraid of going back there, he tries to find something else — and soon finds out that his choice is rather limited: he might work either on a pig farm or in a discothéque as a bouncer. Actually, the second place is a pigsty as well, only in a figurative sense. The owner of the dance-hall is a gangster, lending money on usurious terms. In case the creditors are not able to pay interests, the owner sends his boys to retrieve the money, using all kinds of violence. Wojtek hesitates for a pretty long time, switching from one possiblity to another and back again, apparently trying to realize which job is more satisfying to him: small money and small risk — or rather the other way round? Eventually picking the enforcer job, he wants to avoid the most gloomy cases, but is involved in a situation which ends with a suicide of one of the victims. He then tries to back out and is finally beaten up by one of his former colleagues.

The point of the film is quite clearly made: in many cases, brute force is the decisive factor in contemporary Poland. Because of this, Retrieval, by director Slawomir Fabicki, reminds us of American film noir, mostly of Jules Dassin’s Night and the City and Thieves Highway. But this is exactly why Retrieval raises some doubts. The film is like a dramatic spectacle the French use to call pièce-a-thése. The events shown here, the meaning of them are always more important than the truth about the people involved. In other words, the general idea is settled from the start, the characters have to submit to it, no individualistic behaviour is tolerated. Totally dependant on social conditions, they see no other attitudes or values around them. They seem to be satisfied with the pragmatic choice they are given: between small (but safe) and big (but unsafe) money. They seem completely unaware that there might be other choices, e.g. between good and evil. Simply speaking, no kind of morals exists here. This is probably the thesis of the film. But it has not been proved. It has been preconceived.

Actually, the lack of any reflection on moral problems is a serious weakness of Polish cinema. But several films made during the last two or three years might be a sign that an important change is approaching. There were two films shown this year where moral problems were treated quite seriously. One of them is South By North (Poludnie-polnoc) by Lukasz Karwowski. It is a story of a very young and very sick monk, having only several months to live. He leaves the monastery and sets out northwards, on a kind of pilgrimage in fact, hoping to reach the sea he has never laid eyes on. During his trip he meets a very young woman, a prostitute from Warsaw, HIV-positive, thinking about comitting suicide, completely desperate and cynical. They walk together, talk, fight each other. The monk tries to convince his partner there are values worth living for, even if the time is running out.

There might be some naivety in the story. The forces of evil never show themselves directly, so this is hardly a morality play, perhaps rather a kind of fairy tale. And yet, the fundamental question is there, easy to be discovered: isn’t it our duty to save someone’s life or soul, even at the cost of something very important to us? The monk gives up his celibacy and dies immediately afterwards; a punishment perhaps. But in the last take of the film we see the young woman at the seashore, together with a very young girl. The former prostitute seems to be drunken with joy now. Is it possible that she got pregnant, gave birth to the child — and found out it is not infected? The full truth is not quite fixed — and probably never will be.

There is no sign of naivety in the other Polish film, The Boy On a Galloping Horse (Chlopiec na galopujacym koniu) by Adam Guzinski. Instead, there is a lot of subtlety, understatements and a slight hint towards mysticism. A writer lives with his wife somewhere in the countryside. They have a son, seven years old. The boy is sick, nobody knows how seriously. The local doctor advices the parents to visit a specialist in the big town; it is possible that surgical intervention would be necessary. The day before the trip the wife informs her husband she does not want to go: “Do it by yourself!”. There is some hatred in her voice. What happened? We hardly are able to find out, we can only observe the slow, elaborate and somehow clumsy efforts of the husband. His trip to the town is like a journey to the ends of the night to him.

The mystery, or perhaps several mysteries, are eventually revealed. The writer suffers from a creative slump. His first novel was probably a success, his second never came. No new book meant no money. The wife, responsible for housekeeping, trying to help, looked for additional work. He took all this for granted. However, the message about the sickness is a heavy blow to her, she suddenly refuses to be part of the whole arrangement. This is probably what happened, we never know for sure. A strange idea arises at the end of the story: is it possible the boy got sick just to save the marriage of his parents? The strange vision of the world presented here makes this mystical question sound almost reasonable. The film is shot in black and white (or rather grey and white), with editing used only in the negative sense. The camera stays in most situations close to the faces of the protagonists, perhaps hoping they will betray their feelings. But it never happens, the faces remain blank, tightly locked up. The mystery of a human being is never given away. How much more complicated it is — compared with the mysteries of a social structure.

The Polish film lost its identity and is looking for a new one. Will it ever find it? Let’s wait and see.