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the 03.07.2011 at 12:00 AM - Updated on 24.10.2013 at 5:10 PM

In France, when we think of Polish cinema, a few names spring to mind: Polanski, Wajda, Kieslowski, Zulawski, Skolimowski, and maybe also Munk, Kawalerowicz and Has. A slightly older generation or the most eager film enthusiasts may also know of Krzysztof Zanussi and Agnieszka Holland. But who has heard of the veterans, Wanda Jakubowska and Stanislaw Rozewicz, or of the filmmakers Jan Jakub Kolski, Krzysztof Krauze, Philip Bajon and Piotr Szulkin who emerged from the 1980s onwards, or of Malgorzata Szumowska who represents the new generation?


Roman Polanski Andrzej Wajda Krzysztof Kieslowski Andrzej Zulawski
Andrzej Munk Jerzy Skolimowski Jerzy Kawalerowicz Wojciech Has

Krzysztof Zanussi Agnieszka Holland

The international reputation of Polish cinema has faded: new films are released only occasionally (one or two films annually over the past fifteen years or more), and there is a lack of both reference works (the last was published back in 1992) and regular articles devoted to the country’s film industry. The same is true on the political stage: further to the years of the “Solidarity” trade union movement and then Poland’s entry into the European Union in 2004, the country seems to have slipped back to a previous state: back to December 1896 when Alfred Jarry, referring to his work, Ubu roi (“Ubu King”), declared, “the action takes place in Poland, that is to say, nowhere”. And this was around the same time that Boleslaw Matuszewski published his, “A New Source of History” while two inventors were putting the finishing touches to their Pleograph!

  The National Film School in Łódź

The Polish film industry prospered for four decades between 1955 and 1995 following the release of the first few films directed by Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Wojciech Has, all of whom formed the so-called Polish Film School. Polish cinema flourished out of the ruins left by the Second World War. Following the example of the USSR, Poland’s film industry was nationalised. The state-owned company, “Film Polski” operated in all of the different sectors of the film industry including production, distribution, cinemas and training. The socio-economic situation from 1945 onwards had the effect of giving filmmakers a very special status, similar to that accorded to writers, poets and painters. This happened well before the emergence of the notion of “auteur theory” that was championed by the founders of the New Wave in France.

After an impressive start marked by Polish directors winning awards from the greatest film festivals, subsequent generations of filmmakers picked up from where their predecessors had left off over the decades that followed: “The New Wave of the 1960s” (Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski); the “Cinema of Moral Anxiety” movement (Kieslowski, Krzysztof Zanussi, and others); the Polish documentary school (Marcel Lozinski and others); animated films (Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk); and short films.

Jerzy Toeplitz   Wanda Jakubowska  

Less well-known is the fact that these developments could have taken place twenty years earlier: a number of young filmmakers came together to create the START group: however, a harsh socio-economic climate combined with the imminence of war prevented them from bringing their projects to fruition. The group was formed in 1930 in Warsaw and included Jerzy Toeplitz, who would go on to become an influential film historian, and the director, Wanda Jakubowska. Its members created a film society to promote ambitious “artistic” films through the organisation of screenings, script readings and film reviews. They also tried their hand at directing their own films.

The emergence of the Polish Film School also depended on specific circumstances unique to Poland: in 1955, further to a suggestion put forward by the filmmakers themselves, semi-autonomous production entities were created to replace state-led film production managed directly by the government. This idea dated back to the interwar period when the Polish avant-garde movement wanted to create this type of organization in order to shake off commercial pressures. However, the aim this time was more to shake off the yoke of government and place the business of filmmaking into directors’ hands. Stalin’s direction of the USSR ended in 1953, bringing about a degree of liberalisation, particularly in the satellite states with the Polish October of 1956. Nonetheless, the State maintained the right to monitor films to a certain extent: both upon approval of the script and upon delivery of the completed film, at which point the State became the film’s distributor. This system remained in place until 1989. It is clear now that this censorship did not always serve to actually censor: certain films were given the go ahead while others were authorised subject to undergoing certain changes. Despite the prevailing circumstances, Polish censorship managed to continue functioning effectively, for example, in 1968 when purges were ordered to force Jews out of the film industry or following 13th December 1981. "The War was deadly for us because it took away our audiences. When I returned to Poland after an extended absence, I found that the audiences who used to go and see Polish films, and so stimulate their creation, had ceased to exist.” Agnieszka Holland once lamented bitterly.




“Ah, Andrzej Wajda! Czlowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble), was my first surprise film in 1978 (I had just started). Tony Molière, the film’s distributor, smuggled in the reels of film inside some rusty old cans. I made him swear not to tell anyone about it. “What shall I put on the customs label?” Tony asked me. – Make up any old title…  I spit on your graves. That way I’ll remember it…” Next thing, at the height of the Festival, my sons and I went down to the flat that Tony was renting at Cannes to see the famous reels of film that were waiting on his landing. The kids were really young at the time and this kind of adventure really fired their imagination, so our driver, who was the spitting image of Eddie Constantine, drove like he was a sports car racer and the screeching of the tyres as we went round the bends made them scream with excitement. Anyway, the screening of Man of Marble made it into the New York Times and, for the first time for a film, was focused on in an editorial in the politics section.”


Gilles Jacob in La Vie passera comme un rêve (Life Goes By In a Dream), published by Laffont, 2009


Man of Marble, Andrzej Wajda, 1977



Poland was the first country in Central and Eastern Europe to shake off the Soviet yoke in June 1989 when elections brought members of the “Solidarity” party to power. The fall of the Berlin wall followed five months later. Poland, and consequently Polish cinema, would go on to experience the liberal system and the market economy. But it wasn’t until 2005 that, after years of debate involving governments, Parliament and Polish artists, Poland finally adopted a new film law inspired in part by the French law. In accordance with this law, the Polish Film Institute (PISF) was established to support production, distribution, the promotion of films abroad, and the study of Polish film. This entity led to a significant increase in the number of films produced as well as in the size of film budgets insofar as the value of grants rose compared to before.

Poland can today claim to have the necessary organisations, a film industry worthy of the name, major studios, film schools and a clear policy relating to film. Nevertheless, since Kieslowski exited from the scene, Polish cinema no longer ranks among the world’s greatest.  Despite the death of major figures from the Polish Film School, Wajda has continued to shoot films. He made a film about the Katyn massacre, followed by one about the union organizer, Lech Walesa, which met with success in Poland although it was less well-received in France. He is the godfather of Polish cinema. New generations of directors have emerged since, but their films have come up against the same difficulties experienced by all other filmmakers. It is difficult to say what place Polish cinema will occupy in the years to come. The country still offers conditions conducive to the emergence of a new movement or of charismatic personalities. The individuals in question may end up coming from the ranks of the so-called “Polish Bastards”, a group of young filmmakers of Polish origin who were brought up abroad and now work in Poland. One of them is Rafael Lewandowski who will present his first fiction feature film, Kret (The Father), in Poland this year.







Polish cinema is perhaps the world cinema with the closest and most umbilical link to the Festival de Cannes! And this for the most extraordinary of reasons: the first edition of the Festival de Cannes was to be held from 1st to 10th September 1939. On the very first day, the invasion of Poland by Adolf Hitler led to the event’s cancellation and postponement. Few countries can boast of such an influence…

Following this historic episode, the first Polish film to be honoured by the festival was Kanal, the second film by a young Polish director called Andrzej Wajda. Winner of the Special Jury Prize in 1957, the film marked the birth of the Polish Film School and international recognition of Polish cinema. But Kanal was by no means the first Polish feature film to be selected at the Festival de Cannes. As early as 1951, with Polish studios producing no more than 4 films a year, Jerzy Zarzycki’s Robinson Warszawski had been screened — a free adaptation of a screenplay by the great novelist, Milosz.

Kanal, Andrzej Wajda, 1957  


In 1961, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, another product of the Polish Film School, was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Matka Joanna od aniolów (Mother Joan of the Angels). The same year saw the death in a car crash of another director from the Polish Film School, Andrzej Munk, who was completing work on Pasazerka (Passenger).  The Festival paid tribute to him in 1964 while his assistant, who went on to complete the film, won the International Critics’ Prize at Cannes.
At the 1968 edition, Poland was doubly represented with Roman Polanski as a Jury Member and the very distinctive Zywot Mateusza (Matthew´s Days) presented In Competition by the young director Witold Lesczysnki. If the Festival had not been cut short, who knows what this film’s fate would have been?
Another decade would go by before the fourth great director of the Polish Film School, Wojciech Jerzy Has, would in turn achieve recognition by winning the 1973 Jury Prize for Sanatorium pod klepsydra (The Hour-Glass Sanatorium).

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium, Wojciech Jerzy Has, 1973

The new generation was equally well represented, particularly by Krzysztof Zanussi whose films appeared In Competition three times that decade: Zycie rodzinne (Family Life, 1971), Spirala (1978) and Constans (The Constant Factor, Jury Prize in 1980). The generation also achieved crowning glory in the shape of Jerzy Skolimowski with his 1978 film produced in England, The Shout (Special Jury Grand Prix).

The Shout, Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978


Over the course of the following decade, Andrzej Wajda won the Palme d'or with Czlowiek z zelaza (Man of Iron), a film which got through at the last minute and whose progress was subject to a whole slew of random events. While unquestionably the most honoured Polish film director at Cannes, Wajda has never accepted the role of President of the Jury, refusing to judge his colleagues.
In the 1980s and 90s, Polish cinema achieved further glory through the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Honoured in 1988 for Krótki film o zabijaniu (A Short Film about Killing) and again in 1991 for La double vie de Veronique (The Double Life of Véronique, FIPRESCI Prize), the director submitted the Trois Couleurs (Three Colours) trilogy: Rouge (Red) in Competition in Cannes in 1994, having presented Bleu (Blue) in Venice and Bialy (White) in Berlin.

The Double Life of Veronique, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991







Three Colours: Red, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994


  Krystyna Janda in Interrogation, 1990




1990 was an exceptional year with Poland represented by four films, including three by young directors; Krystyna Janda won a Best Actress Award for her magnificent performance in a film which had long been banned in Poland, Ryszard Bugajski’s Przesluchanie (Interrogation). The following year, Roman Polanski made a highly unorthodox President of the Jury. A decade later, he won the highest honour of all for one of his most beautiful films yet, The Pianist, which scooped the Palme d’or in 2002.



The Pianist, Roman Polanski, 2002


Poland has since been almost absent from the Official Selection apart from in 2006, when Slamowir Fabicki won a Special Mention Prize of the Ecumenical Jury for Z odzysku (Retrieval, Un Certain Regard) and when Adam Guzinski’s first film, Chlopiec na galopujacym koniu (The Boy on the Galloping Horse), was presented Out of Competition.
But it is safe to say that with such a record and given the talents which Polish cinema has brought us in the past, a return to centre stage is a very realistic prospect.


Retrieval, Slamowir Fabicki, 2006 Adam Guziński, The Boy on the Galloping Horse, 2006




BY CHRISTIAN SZAFRANIAK, film historian specialist in Polish cinema.

The Festival de Cannes would like to thank all of the authors for contributing to the official website for free.

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