From Łódź With Love
Previewing the Austin Polish Film Festival
Poland has been dealt a lot of bad existential cards over the centuries. No surprise that its tortured past and ever-changing borders – sandwiched, as it had the geographical bad luck to be, between Germany and Russia – have left an indelible mark on both the national psyche and the sensibilities of the country's filmmakers. Today, Polish cinema – much of it since 1948 made by alums of the highly regarded National Higher School of Film, Television, and Theatre in Łódź is alive and well, but it hasn't been a straight shot since 1918 when Poland qua Poland reappeared on the map after more than a century's disappearance. Before the Second World War, some of the more interesting Polish films came from the country's huge Jewish population, which produced Yiddish classics like The Dybbuk (1937). Film production obviously ceased during the war that resulted in 6 million Polish deaths, including the
3 million Polish Jews exterminated by the Nazis. As far as films made during the early postwar Communist years, well, that was just what one might expect of films produced during postwar Communist years: state-sanctioned and underwritten social realism.
Things started to change, however, in the mid-Fifties, with the films of one of the most influential Polish directors, Andrzej Wadja. Pushing the social realism envelope early on, Wadja's films evolved over the decades. In the Seventies, he and Krzysztof Zanussi, and later Feliks Falk, would be credited with the movement dubbed the "cinema of moral anxiety," which turned a critical eye on the moral ambiguities of modern Polish life and history. Others in the growing pantheon of Polish filmmakers, who often left the country to make their films (some never to return), included Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kie´slowski, and Agnieszka Holland.
The dip in film production that followed the end of the Communist era in 1989 when state support of film production was no more has been somewhat offset by groups like the Polish Filmmakers Association and the Polish Film Institute, which assist filmmakers and help promote Polish film festivals worldwide, including the Austin Polish Film Festival, now in its sixth year. This year's festival director, Joanna Gutt-Lehr, explains that after years of gathering informally at one another's homes to watch Polish films, members of the Austin Polish Society decided the time was ripe for a festival. Gutt-Lehr now shops every year at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia for films that will appeal to American audiences, coordinating with festivals in Houston; Rochester, N.Y.; and Toronto.
"Polish films," she says, "are often more blunt, more explicit, and tend to leave a viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. They're sometimes dark, sometimes painfully explicit, and sometimes exquisitely funny. They're almost always beautifully filmed. You are guaranteed to be thinking about them for a long time afterward," says Gutt-Lehr, a Warsaw native and math professor who moved to the U.S. in 1985. Recalling the Warsaw filmgoing scene during the Communist years, Gutt-Lehr explains: "For many of us in the audience, films were much more than entertainment. They were a way of public exchange of thoughts, where filmmakers could smuggle in the public sentiment in implicit ways so the censors would not notice."
There was no commercial advertising of films during the Communist era and a lively art of film posters evolved, poster art being something for which Poland has always been well-known. "People talked about the posters sometimes as much as about the events they advertised and, accordingly, every Austin Polish Film Festival has incorporated a poster exhibit in its program," says Gutt-Lehr. "This year, we are hosting a prominent artist, Rafal Olbinski, who will present a workshop about his creative process and about Polish poster art." Olbinski, who designed the poster for this year's festival, teaches in New York and is well-known and well-decorated for his surrealist, Magritte-like artwork, much of which features the unclothed female body.
This year's festival offers a mix of narratives, shorts, animations, children's programs, and documentaries, including Krzysztof Kopczy´nski's 2007 film Stone Silence about a 29-year-old Afghan woman who was stoned to death by her village in 2005 for allegedly committing adultery (the film screens with the director in attendance), and a 1980 short doc by the late, great Krzysztof Kie´slowski called "Talking Heads." Below we highlight a few films from the festival.
Feliks Falk, a graduate of the ód´z film school, writes and directs for the big screen, television, and the theatre. His films, Top Dog, Hero of the Year, and the post-Communist-era The Collector are considered emblematic of the "cinema of moral anxiety." Falk will attend the festival for screenings of two of his recent films: Joanna and Case Unknown. Both films were inspired in part by actual events. The award-winning Joanna is a drama set during the Nazi occupation about the injustice that fate metes out to a lonely, brave Polish woman who riskily assumes responsibility for the safety of a young Jewish girl whose mother was seized by the Nazis. Case Unknown (co-written with Agnieszka Holland) is a political thriller set in 1997 about a young psychiatrist's unconventional efforts to treat and uncover the identity of a longtime catatonic psychiatric patient. He later succeeds – but for good or ill? Variety described Case Unknown as "part What About Bob? part Frankenstein."
Austin Chronicle: As one of the creators of the "cinema of moral anxiety," can you explain what that means to you?
Feliks Falk: The cinema of moral anxiety was an important current in the Seventies which tried to depict the immorality of the Socialist society – corruption, careerism, and lack of loyalty. But these features are still up-to-date, so we could say that moral anxiety is still alive.
Andrzej Chyra is an actor whose credits include the lead in Falk's The Collector and a role in Jacek Borcuch's All That I Love, an autobiographical coming-of-age story set during the looming 1981 showdown between the Communist party and the Solidarity movement. The latter will be shown at APFF with Chyra in attendance.
Austin Chronicle: Are there recurring themes in Polish films?
Andrzej Chyra: We still see many dealing with our recent history, but the period of Soviet domination seems to be dropping in popularity, especially for today's young people who do not remember those times and for whom they're no longer so important or relevant. I think that political themes are more often being replaced by existential ones. We are seeing more historical costume films. Cinema of specific genres, which was not always respected by the critics, is becoming more common and of better quality. It seems to me that Polish cinema is becoming more universal. I believe that we condemned ourselves to some degree of isolation by telling stories that were not transparent to others. But this is changing. I can see that more and more Polish films are presented at the international festivals; there are more co-productions – these are the signs that our presence in the world is growing.
Ludek Drizhal is a musician, composer, and former Austinite who now teaches at the University of Southern California. He has composed award-winning film scores for directors from Austin's Tim McCanlies to Jacek Bromski, including the latter's most recent film, the crime thriller Entanglement, which will screen at the festival with Drizhal in attendance.
Austin Chronicle: Is there something unique about the music in Polish films?
Ludek Drizhal: After giving it some thought, I don't know that I would say that there is an actual difference between working on European films vs. American films. ... In the case of Jacek Bromski, he likes for his music to be tuneful/melodic and strongly based in thematic elements that will, in the end, glue all aspects of the film together. I am not sure that that is an exclusively Polish phenomenon. I think that that is more the traditional approach of scoring. Bromski likes to be able to hum a tune or two when he hears it. ... For Entanglement, we crafted the score around the bugle call from the tower of the St. Mary's Church in Kraków, a melody that every Pole knows. It was something that Jacek felt very strongly about and wanted to make that musical connection since the film was placed in Kraków. Jacek then told me that if I do a good job using the theme, the Poles will love me for it. But if I screw up, I won't be allowed into Poland ever again and most likely they'll put out a hit on me. Well ... I'm still alive.
The sixth annual Austin Polish Film Festival & Poster Exhibit runs Nov. 3-12. See www.austinpolishfilm.com for lineup, showtimes, and ticket info. For an additional interview with Oscar-nominated writer/director Agnieszka Holland, see austinchronicle.com/pip.