Browsing: Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema ConstantFactor6

There are many things on display in Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1980 film The Constant Factor. It covers as much ground as confronting greed and corruption in the Polish workforce to youthful idealism to coping with the death of parents and the slow erosion of hope in the face of hopelessness.

The story centers on Witold (Tadeusz Bradecki), a 22 year old man who skips university after his military service in favor of working for a company as an electrician to save up money for university and for an expedition to the Himalayas. His father was a mountain climber who died there when Witold was only twelve and he wants to make the ascent himself either as a tribute to his father or to show that he can do what his father could not. He makes decent money and even gets to travel abroad to India and one other country (it isn’t said where, just ‘in the west’). He has a flair and love of mathematics and keeps promising his mother that he is thinking of going to university to pursue it, though he seems unwilling to take that step.

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema kfoz

*Warning* Of necessity, this review contains spoilers about the plot of A Short Film About Killing. Since the film is less about the what and the who than the how and the why, I don’t feel that revealing the particulars will in any sense rob the reader of the enjoyment the film provides. *

What does it take to murder someone - to take a life in one’s hands and end it? Death at the movies is commonplace, de rigeur, yet mostly it occurs in passing, a plot point to be checked off and then discarded. Few films stop and consider the very human cost of killing, much less center around it. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing undertakes this task, telling in a focused way the story of one murder, from planning to execution to aftermath. The film’s casual title belies the intensity of focus and purpose that pulses through this taut, thought provoking exercise

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema ashes and diamonds_1-1

In constructing elaborate sets of ceilings and deep space, Wajda’s masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds (1958) blends the acclaimed techniques of Orson Welles and Jean Renoir. Through deep focus cinematography, long takes, black and white photography, and key lighting, Wajda essentially fuses the formal designs of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936). Taking note but not direction from these two inspirational filmmakers, Wajda constructs a truly new and generative image, forging a personal imprint—and auteur status—of his own. As a man of political conscience, he grapples with social and ethical dilemmas while at once dancing with artistry and narrative structure. While religion—Catholicism to be specific—plays a key role in the film’s backdrop, Ashes and Diamonds reaches far beyond the superficial discourse of religion and politics that often accompany a war drama. A film of spiritual integrity, it pleads to locate the human condition within an inhumane environment. Through evidentiary editing, Wajda’s formal rhetoric displays the aptitude of a great documentarian, and yet his sensitivity to human emotion lends itself to expressions of the metaphysical. A film worthy of praise for a number of different aspects, Ashes and Diamonds deserves its place in the highest echelons of classic filmmaking.

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema jump_2-1

“The Man Who Fled to Earth” might be a suitable secondary title for Jump, Tadeusz Konwicki’s sophomore film in the directorial seat, a film far more conventional in the realm of screen storytelling than his poetically-pitched debut The Last Day of Summer (1958). Though that shouldn’t be taken to suggest that this is by any means a straightforward effort; Konwicki is a master of melding dream and reality, fusing fact and fantasy within the framework of his own fictionality in a manner that’s nothing if not self-reflexively mindful of its own meaning. That, much more patently than in the earlier film, is the war, a recurring concern of Konwicki that finds fascinating, if intermittently frustrating, examination here.

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema pharaoh_2-1

Based on the novel by Boleslaw Prus, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1966 film Pharaoh (Faraon) is a sweeping epic that highlights the internal machinations of the Egyptian political structure. It is an intricately constructed and infinitely nuanced film that rivals anything produced in the Hollywood studio system. The cinematography is lavish and beautifully subdued, highlighting a minimalist approach to the colour scheme and production design. Only golden hues and neutral toned colours are dominant, with the notable exception being the river boat scene where tropical flowers can be seen lining the edge of the river. The score is sweeping and engaging. The pacing is near perfect in this theatrical cut. The original version of the film was to be over three hours long, however it was cut down for theatrical exhibition. This version runs just under two and half hours.

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema the_last_day_of_summer_1958_2

We forget, sometimes, the considerable crossover capabilities of the arts. Where modes of expression might seem, if not exactly mutually exclusive, at least inconducive to cooperation, there are intangible aspects of each that enliven and enlighten the others. What a sublime example The Last Day of Summer makes; the first film directed by then-celebrated Polish writer Tadeusz Konwicki, it plays like a pristine synthesis of his earliest poetic efforts with his later success as a novelist and screenwriter. There is a lyrical quality to this film that is as distinct and refreshing as the scent of an old book, as inviting as the idea of lounging on a beach and living in its pages. It is the unmistakeable allure of extraordinary art.

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema man-of-iron_1-1

Winner of the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) at Cannes, Wajda’s Man of Iron (1981) documents Polish solidarity during the 1980 workers strike at the Gdansk shipyards. Sequel to Wajda’s critically acclaimed Man of Marble (1977), Man of Iron continues the story of Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) by following the experiences of his son, Maciej Tomczyk, also played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz. A ‘Man of Iron’ is a man forged by experience, making him strong and resilient. Maciej’s dedication to the worker’s movement, illustrated in well-executed flashbacks, reveals qualities of him that were otherwise suppressed. He becomes his father’s son and becomes instrumental in the flourishing of the Polish Solidarity movement. Crossing barriers between a documentary and fictional mode, Wajda’s Man of Iron is an invaluable historical artifact which seeks to express simultaneously the plight of the workers as well as the human condition of the modern man.

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema eroica1

The title of Andrzej Munk’s second feature, Eroica, translates as “heroism,” a universal human theme that’s typically treated in historical narratives with nationalistic reverence. A depiction of life under Poland’s occupation by the Germans during World War II and in the aftermath of the failed Warsaw Uprising of 1944 might be an opportunity for such hagiography, but the dual segments directed by Munk and written by Jerzy Stefan Stawinski revel in turning the expected on its head. Rather than celebrating a rugged individual ready to die for his country, the film’s first half features a craven but clever opportunist unwillingly dragged into a logistically-strained alliance with the Hungarian army; in the film’s second half, the romanticized image of a lone hero escapee from a POW camp is revealed as a convenient fiction perpetuated to boost and maintain morale. Eroica proves its worthiness to be included in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s program “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema,” curated by Martin Scorsese, by treating its nation’s recent history and starkly one-sided international relations with poignant irreverence.

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema camouflage 11-1-1

Zanussi’s Camouflage (1977) serves as an exemplar of Polish social-realism of the 1970s. A period of great achievement in the pursuit of documenting the political state and the radical changes of Poland’s social system during the decline of Communism, Polish films of the 1970s was once declared by filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski as the most important films of its time. With a nuanced visual rhetoric, strong performances, and stirring intellectual debates, Zanussi’s film prompts a redefining of values; human concepts such as justice must be exercised to become realized.

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema the_illumination_1973_2

“The purity of the heart is more important than the action of the mind,” says Professor Doctor Władysław Tatarkiewicz, one of several real-life philosophers interviewed in the course of The Illumination, in the film’s opening moments. One of the great coups of this early film from prolific Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi is in setting the stage for such sweeping statements before pulling the rug out and leaving us to wonder whether they hold any water at all. For as much as Zanussi may have no answers to offer for the many grand questions he asks—how, after all, could he?—his movie abounds with a sort of playful inquisitiveness that at least allows for us to perhaps approach formulating our own.