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Cinema lacking Polish?


I know you've all got more important things on your mind, but lately I've been thinking - whatever happened to Polish cinema? It was once the cinema powerhouse of Eastern Europe with directors like Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski. Lately there just have been the occasional entry, like Wajda's "Katyn"  and Skolimowski's upcoming "Four Nights of Anna."

What brings this to mind is the release a couple of weeks ago on DVD of Wojciech Has's visionary shaggy dog story "The Saragossa Manuscript" (Facets, $29.95). This 1965 three hour three ring surreal circus has found its way on the best movie list of such people as Luis Buñuel, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and David Lynch. Gerry Garcia also liked the movie so much that he had friends track in down in order to get it re-released. It took them two years until they finally did so on August 8, 1995. Garcia died the next day.

He's not the only one who's life took a fatal turn after their encounter with this story. The star of the film, Zbigniew Cybulski, got hit by a train in 1967, a couple of years after it was released. And the author of the 1814 Polish novel from which it was adapted killed himself shortly after he completed it. So, a word to the wise.

At any rate here's my review written when it was released in these parts in 1999:

Polish director Wojciech Has's 1965 film... might be the last word in organic storytelling. It's the recombinant DNA of narrative, with tale chasing tale to no seeming end other than its own proliferation.

In Saragossa Spain a Napoleonic officer, his command routed, takes refuge in a battered inn. There he becomes engrossed in an old tome with tarot-like illustrations


and is joined in this perusal by an enemy officer about to capture him, who claims the book is about his father, Captain Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski, the so-called "Polish James Dean," here looking more like the Polish Vincent D'Onofrio) of the Walloon Guards.

A cut is made to the first of many stories within stories as Alphonse journeys to a baroquely bleak Spanish village where he meets, among others, a pair of seductive Muslim sisters,


a bearded hermit, a demonically possessed lunatic, a Caballist, a rationalist philosopher, and a Gypsy, and, when you least suspect it, the Spanish Inquisition. Most have their own stories to tell, usually involving meetings with other characters with stories as well, and so on, with each ending more or less with Alphonse waking up rubbing his head next to the mouldering remains of the unfortunate Zota brothers (You can see why Luis Buñuel was a big fan, as this nightmarish motif is reminiscent of "The Exterminating Angel" and "The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeosie.")

At a fully restored three hours this can get exhausting, though the black-comic tone, near-surreal black-and-white scope cinematography, and spooky, rollicking score by Krzysztof Penderecki keep the narrative wheels spinning merrily. What does it all mean? Recurring themes include paternal tyranny and, of course, the uncertainty of a universe in which you can at any moment wake up next to a gibbet or a half-eaten banquet with a vague sense of transgression. Mostly, though, it's about the sheer exuberance of a good yarn - and the void it distracts us from.

  • Michael Brooke said:

    There have been plenty of good recent Polish films - it's just that distributors in English-speaking countries have been too risk-averse to consider taking any on unless they're directed by a distinguished veteran with a name, as Poland isn't currently as fashionable as Spain or Romania.  Even Katyn took nearly two years between its world premiere in September 2007 and its eventual US/UK release this year.

    Names worth looking out for include Kasia Adamik (daughter of Agnieszka Holland), Lukasz Barczyk, Jan Jakub Kolski, Krzysztof Krauze, Marcel Lozinski, Lech Majewski, Magdalena Piekorz, Michal Rosa, Piotr Szulkin, Malgoska Szumowska, Piotr Trzaskalski and Xawery Zulawski (son of Andrzej, and possibly even more insane) - I think all of these have made more than one worthwhile film over the last decade or so.  

    Thankfully, English subtitles on Polish DVDs seem to be the rule rather than the exception, provided you can handle PAL video format (and occasionally Region 2 coding, though most Polish DVDs are region-free).

    August 8, 2009 5:20 AM
  • Peter Keough said:

    Thanks for the information; I sort of suspected that Poland still makes good movies and they're just not reaching the United States. I also find your website a valuable resource.

    August 12, 2009 5:26 PM

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