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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Based on fellow Pole Jan Potocki’s immense novel ‘The Manuscript Found In Saragossa’ published posthumously in the 19th century, Wojciech Has’ film is a bold, epic tale of intertwining stories and fantastical notions. Set during The Napoleonic Wars two rival officers discover a book in an abandoned house which relates the story of one of the men’s grandfather, a captain in the Walloon Guard.
Having himself been a part of the Polish solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa—G’dansk dockworker and proletariat turned Nobel prize holding President—Andrez Wajda proves to be the most qualified filmmaker to depict his biopic. A taciturn yet strong willed person, Walesa (Robert Wieckiewicz) is portrayed as a nationalist family man whose articulate speech and obstinate unwillingness to submit to the oppressive Polish regime obligated him to become the leader of the movement. Continually sought after for his leadership skills, Lech Walesa stepped up to the position as head of the movement when nobody else would. If it wasn’t for him, nobody else would have gotten the job done. This, at least, is the illustration that Wajda puts forward, and the filmmaking, narrativistic, and artistic appeals support this illustration.
The horrors perpetrated during the Holocaust cast a pall over the decades hence that has yet to dissipate, and probably never will. Film was in its infancy when World War II broke out, and the medium has been used countless times to depict the period from virtually every angle imaginable. Aftermath finds a way to examine the darkness at the heart of humanity that lead to genocide, persecution, and destruction without feeling like yet another somber period piece.
Ari Folman’s mind-bending Congress, loosely based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, is nothing if not a downright challenge to watch. Attempting to follow and comprehend its sporadic and ever changing narrative is the film’s largest flaw and greatest merit; although it is a palpably demanding script, it’s never once boring. The Congress is an utterly immersive and captivating cinematic experience that keeps the audience on their toes consistently, thanks to its boldly daring nature; the film is a daring undertaking, make no mistake. Its subtleties will not be immediately appreciated, perhaps not at all by some, but either way; it’s a film that stays with you.