On Polish Screens, the Past Stays in the Picture

The Austin Polish Film Festival


The ninth annual Austin Polish Film Festival promises to be yet another terrific and enlightening cinematic buffet, including four of the 21 digitally remastered films from the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema collection, spanning the period 1957-1987. The contemporary program of features, shorts, and animation will include Walesa: Man of Hope, the latest work of the 88-year-old Polish icon, Andrzej Wajda, whose earlier influential films are well-represented in Scorsese's picks and who is perhaps best known here for his Oscar-nominated Katyn (2007).

The Scorsese Collection Films

Two of the Scorsese films, Tadeusz Konwicki's The Last Day of Summer (1958) and Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Night Train (1959), hail from the so-called Polish School era. This was a vibrant period for Polish cinema, during dark political times, when young filmmakers coming out of the ód´z Film School were pushing back against postwar, Communist-era constraints with films that were ideologically and stylistically edgy, as well as entertaining. Zbigniew Banas from Chicago's Loyola University, who will introduce these films, describes The Last Day of Summer – about two people alone together on a beach, yet unable to connect – as "an experimental auteur film, influenced by the French New Wave, bold and formally new when it was made." Night Train is a thriller – shades of Hitchcock – "with lots of interesting characters representing a microcosm of Polish society."

Janusz Morgenstern's To Kill This Love (1972) was made at a time when filmmakers were venturing beyond the country's oppressive political issues and into the realm of the personal and psychological. Banas describes Morgenstern's film as "a love story, a psychological drama, and a veiled social and political commentary on life in Poland in the early Seventies, all in one."

Krzysztof Zanussi's Camouflage (1977), Banas explains, is considered to be one of the most important films of the turbulent mid- to late Seventies' so-called Cinema of Moral Concern/Anxiety era, when directors aimed to reveal how the political establishment of the Communist elite was morally corrupt and very much at odds with the lives of the average Polish citizen.The film's ostensible storyline conceals the film's real meaning which, due to censorship, is hidden between the lines.

When the Chronicle asked for his thoughts about changes over the decades in the role film has played in Poland's public discourse, director Zanussi waxed downbeat, observing that though the basic problems of human existence are unchanged, with wealth, security, and thus more frivolity, society became less concerned with them: "Cinema used to be taken seriously, not as entertainment, but as a source of inspiration for reflection about lives, basic values, about [a] history that was not generous with us in the last two centuries. Film may be an entertainment, but not exclusively. Life is a serious issue."

On Polish Screens, the Past Stays in the Picture

Wasa: Man of Hope (2013)

Wajda's latest film, the last in a political trilogy, is a biopic about Lech Walesa, the Solidarity founder, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and former president of Poland.

Austin Chronicle: Why a biopic about Walesa?

Andrzej Wajda: Walesa is attacked for mistakes he made during his time as president, and is overlooked as being among those who gave us a free Poland. There is no politician for all times, especially if we talk of a leader elected by the masses, like Walesa. ... It was my duty to show this truth on the screen, as I was also, at that time, his partner in the activities of the Solidarity trade union.

There had been many documentaries made years before on the subject. Only a feature film could attract an audience. Everyone had seen Walesa in official situations – no one knew him privately.

AC: Did Walesa play any part in the making of the film?

AW: No. He did not read the script, he was not present on the set during the shoot, he did not see the dailies. I did not want him to be accused of having influenced me in this or that cause. This is my film, and I take full responsibility for what is shown on the screen.

AC: What was his reaction?

AW: He said to me: "You know, I have already watched the movie for the fourth time ... and I am beginning to like it more and more."

AC: How do you view the role of the filmmaker in the context of his times?

AW: I lived in an enslaved country, where history was written by Soviet ideology. The audience wanted the truth and our task was to make films that – fighting the censors – would allow us to, at least in part, tell the truth that the audience knew from their personal experience.

AC: How has Polish cinema changed since 1989?

AW: It changed from political into psychological cinema. ... And the Polish audience treats cinema as entertainment, only sometimes they go back to the cinema to see films about the past, which, due to censorship, could not have been made before, during the Communist regime.

The [film] themes are entirely different, modern. Because politics has moved to television, to the radio and the press – from morning to night they are dealing with such topics, in whatever interpretation you like it, from the right-wing, the Church, the centrist ones. No one will go to see it at the movies.

AC: Were there films that you were unable to make during the Communist regime?

AW: Yes. Certainly Holy Week [1995] – about the relationship between Poles and Jews during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; Katyn; and Walesa.

AC: Do you have a favorite of your six decades of films?

AW: Yes! The one that I am going to make, but for now it's a secret.

On Polish Screens, the Past Stays in the Picture

Papusza (2013)

Papusza, by Krzysztof Krauze and Joanna Kos-Krauze, is a biopic about Bronisawa Wajs, aka Papusza, (1908-1987), a Polish-Romani poet. Dr. Ian F. Hancock, the director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at UT, will introduce the film.

Austin Chronicle: Who was Papusza?

Ian Hancock: She was a woman who loved poetry and music and who had a love for Romanipen, the Romani culture and worldview. She was not unique. Papusza belonged to the Polska endaj (sub-group), which moved into Lithuania and western parts of Poland in the 1500s to escape the ongoing attacks on Roma in German-speaking Europe. She was discovered by a Polish poet/ethnographer named Fickowski who "cultivated" her, much in the way American ethnographers have cultivated rural African-American blues singers in the past. This had a two-sided effect: It brought attention to the talent existing in the Romani people, but was devastating for Bronisawa because she opened up aspects of Romanipen to the outside world.

AC: How would you describe the attitude, historically, of the Poles to the Roma living in Poland?

IH: Love your music, hate you – compare similar anti-black attitudes in the U.S.A. Explaining that would take volumes, but briefly: fear of the stranger, and the medieval association of Roma with Islam and the threat to the Christian world. Also, no country, economy, government [or] militia ... and a culture that keeps outsiders outside, thus creating suspicion.

AC: Have these attitudes changed over the years?

IH: Not at all. Since 1989 it has become significantly worse.

AC: You've described the film as "very much in the Eastern European mode – stark, black and white for a purpose, lots of symbolism, lingering shots of the landscape and nature, much of it is in Romani." Does the film follow Papusza's life as it actually happened or were there fictional embellishments?

IH: A great deal of license was taken with Romani culture in the film: much stereotypical representation. Scriptwriters and producers have to get stealing chickens, telling fortunes, and singing and dancing in there somehow. But quite a lot rings true also.  

The Austin Polish Film Festival takes place Oct. 16-19 at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre. Single tickets and festival passes are available at the door and online at www.austinpolishfilm.com, where you can also view the complete schedule.

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