Ask most people what they know about Polish cinema and you are likely to hear only one name: Roman Polanski. Yet, Polish film has a rich heritage and two directors in particular are well worth exploring.
Andrzej Wajda burst onto the scene and broke the dour socialist realism mould in 1954 with Generation, a gritty story of an apathetic young man who came to join the resistance in wartime Poland. Wajda pushed the limits of censorship, and as he matured as a filmmaker, his work moved further from socrealism to challenge taboo subjects in society – in particular the role of the Home Army, which was viewed by the Communist leadership in both Poland and the USSR as a hostile and reactionary force. Indeed, when in 1958 Wajda made Ashes and Diamonds, honouring the role of Home Army leaders, whilst the purging of Home Army leaders was still ongoing.
In the late 1970s, Wajda, along with Krzysztof Kieslowski and Agnieszka Holland developed a loose movement dealing with moral concerns in contemporary Polish life. In particular, Man of Marble attacks Stalinism and its remnants. Man of Iron, which was a sequel of sorts and was made during the 1980 Solidarity thaw of reduced censorship, examines the role of the growing opposition and included real-life footage from the 1980 Gda?sk shipyard strikes.
There was one subject, which Wajda could not tackle until after Communism: Katy?. Wajda is the son of a murdered officer from the massacre and explores both the massacre and the USSR’s post-war denial. Wajda directly challenged Russia, who were retreating back into denial on the subject.
Kieslowski first came to prominence in the cinema of moral concern movement and his work around this time was highly political, often incurring the wrath of the censors. Towards the end of communism, Kieslowski made his Decalogue series: ten one hour movies each based on one of the ten commandments. His later, more international work, moves away from politics to engage with human emotion in two works in particular: The Double Life of Véronique and The Three Colours Trilogy.
So next time you’re casually browsing the Polish section in the DVD shop, give The Pianist a miss for the time being and take a chance on Kieslowski, Wajda and Holland.