DEAD CAMERAS ROLLING – The zombiefication of Polish Cinema

Kinoteka Film Festival, 2010, triple film review

Let’s start this piece of vicious writing on a positive note. Nothing screened this year could be anywhere near as dire as Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 “Katyn”. I saw it in London last year, rooted to my cinema seat by the sheer awfulness of what I was witnessing – the dead-icon imagery, the sub-soap opera dialogue, the giant waste of the best acting talent Poland has to offer, the paper thin characters, the plot schisms, the editing mess… a few said it was good for Polish school kids to go see some of the history which communists had hidden for several generations, but school kids want their history strong and vital, not dumbed down and deathly dull.

It’s interesting to note none of the delighted reviews in the Guardian or Times or other high-brow publications actually talked about the film – they all focused on Wajda’s losing his own father in Katyn and about the moving theme of the story. Think I’m being insensitive and wickedly arrogant? Be honest, which is more important to you: what’s on at your local cinema today or what battles are being fought in the name of freedom, even as we speak? I sympathise with Wajda’s loss (both of my grandfathers had spent time in Nazi camps, though both survived), but films must be judged on merit and not personal feelings – if you are going to tackle big themes in your work, especially if it is reaching millions of impressionable hearts and minds, serve them well.

Katyn The Movie betrayed the memory of those who suffered in the name of European liberty, being one-dimensional, disengaging and well below Wajda’s previous cinematic par.


Wajda has a lot to answer for this year too. His film school keeps churning out “talent” and annual showcases like Kinoteka let us judge for ourselves whether 2009 really was a vintage year for Polish cinema, as many friends have said, though we may be a thousand miles from Lodz.
Last Sunday saw a double bill at the Riverside Studios, followed by a director/audience q&a. Riverside is where I first saw Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy, in a single sitting, and one has to love their year in, year out perseverance with Polish film making, regardless of whether it produces anything worth importing or not.


SCRATCH was up first, dubbed in its own press release as the Polish “The Lives of Others”. Oh dear. Alarm bells ringing even before house lights go down. “TLoO” was a huge critical and commercial hit, and very necessary for Germany to deal with a certain Eastern aspect of its past. Does Poland need a similar dissection, or is lustration something doomed to fail in its cinematic, as well as its political, arena? Casting one of Poland’s long lost actresses from the 70’s, Scratch has Jadwiga Jankowa-Cieslak play the central role of a woman who finds out her husband may or may not have been a political police spy, in her own home, for at least part of their 40 year marriage. I won’t spoil the plot by revealing what happens, not because I don’t want to, but because nothing does. Joanna, the central character, withdraws into herself once the revelation hits, and stays there for the rest of the film. We watch a series of beautifully lit and shot scenes, mostly of her silent suffering, listen to some very smart and sharp dialogue which unfortunately shines for nothing in terms of plot, and leave the screening wondering why we seemed to feel more for the perpetrators of historical crimes in the film than for their victims. Joanna is meant to be a multi-dimensional character, called cruel by her own adult daughter, but this complexity is never developed. Her husband is sweet, even in the depths of his own guilt-fuelled despair, Krzysztof Stroinski bestowing him with far more dignity than Jankowa-Cieslak affords Joanna. Still, actors cannot take the blame for acting “wrong”, the director directs and takes home the spoils or the shitty reviews. This time Michal Rosa goes home smelling somewhat.


Still, SCRTACH is a minor masterpiece compared with what is screened straight after. CASE UNKNOWN, by the old-school Feliks Falk, really does take Katyn on in dire count stakes. The central premise of a psychiatrist taking his work so seriously as to drag it into his family home, in the shape of silent but seriously unhinged patient Pawel, is silly. But it is just one dud device in a whole series of failings – the camera and sound work are way below the typically high Lodz School standards, the central performance from Borys Szyc’s wig atrocious, the moments of drama laugh out loud funny and the funny bits just cringe-worthy. In trying to deal with recent Polish history (the Awakenigs-by-numbers patient has a secret related to our political past, wouldn’t you know it!), Falk, one of the main proponents of the “cinema of moral anxiety” movement of the 70’s and 80’s, just ties us up in a flimsy net of cheap dramatics and even cheaper cinematography. Things going well for our protagonists? It’s springtime and the day is sunny! The film reaching its dark dénouement? Let’s have it shot at night, with a heavy storm overhead (Szyc’s wig almost washed off in the deluge). If the whole film is trite and contrived, the ending at least doesn’t disappoint, as insulting to the audiences’ intelligence as everything which came before.

Still, the director isn’t done hurting us with celluloid, coming up on the stage afterwards to waste more of our time. Falk looks the part of the auteur scriptwriter/director, all shabby suit, silver hair, horn-rimmed glasses. But he talks nonsense, not because he can’t grasp the questions put to him in English, but because he seems to care only about his own muddled opinions. Rather than engage us in dialogue, or tell an anecdote or two (Zanussi is best at this post-screening entertainment, his English fantastic, even if his recent films are almost as bad as Falk’s), Falk mumbles on and on and on some more about his vision, his struggles and his brilliant film, received, as he claims, so generously by Polish critics.

I left the q&a long before its star run out of steam. Exiting the auditorium, I heard him say that there were a few subjects Polish cinema should be dealing with instead of ancient histories – its corrupt church, for example, or abortion or drugs or the current political mess, but when asked if he was the man for the job, he just shrugged his distinguished shoulders and handed the mic back to the gushing compère. 


Pity, because the next night we see it is possible to tackle many of these taboos, maybe all, in a film made in the Poland of today. SNOW WHITE AND RUSSIAN RED, screened on Monday night at the Empire Leicester Square, is a fresh adaptation of a novel by the mercurial Dorota Maslowska, written and published when she was in her teens, creating a huge star of this tiny and painfully shy young woman. Still, she has enough balls and brains to appear in the film of her own work, as an omnipotent character, floating in and out of the narrative, feeding lines to Yobbo (the poorly translated Silny/Strong of the original), the main character once again played by Borys Szyc. For this role, Szyc abandons hairpieces for the skinhead look, which helps unleash his acting talent. The film is far from perfect, skirting over some of the socio-political complexities of the source material and not giving us anything new or necessary, but Szyc’s performance is mesmerising, humble yet driven and more than good enough to carry the movie. Not that he has to carry it far. I’m sure budgetary constraints got in the way, but the action seems stilted to a few interior and exterior locations and lacks the visual and cerebral panache of Trainspotting, the film SWaRR is most often compared with. No, for seasoned film-goers, it offers nothing original, yet it does tackle drug use, gangsterism, the female in Polish mythology and various other taboos with some aplomb. There is violence, nudity, cracking dialogue and a cheeky twist at the end, but too many scenes go nowhere for the whole to amount to a film deserving of general release (which it will not have in the UK).

Maria Strzelecka and Xawery Zulawski in post-screening q&a

Still, there is hope for the future. Recent Polish films such as “Squint your eyes” or “Day of the wacko” show Polish directors can do simple or wild, past and present, with the kind of gusto Poles say has been missing from their cinemas since Kieslowski died. Xawery Zulawski, the director of SWaRR, hints at future greatness in the q&a which follows the screening of his film. Ruggedly cute, fluent enough in English to crack joke after well-timed joke, self-depreciatingly smart and entertainingly anecdotal, he was a pleasure to listen to.

At the end of the night, we’re still not sure if Yobbo/Strong is alive or dead, whether we are watching the drug-induced nightmare of the living or the purgatory visions of the semi-dead. Polish cinema too seems peopled with zombies right now – dinosaur directors with nothing more to say, resting on their long-withered laurels, making films which are an insult to history, not just of Poland, but of her cinema too. Zombie protagonists (Joanna, Pawel, Yobbo/Strong) wander across our screens, turning us off the past yet hungering for a future in which fresh blood starts powering Polish cameras.

Marek Kazmierski, fotos/words, March 2010