We are only a few weeks away from the 94th Academy Awards ceremony, which will take place on March 27th – a great moment to present a list of 10 most outstanding Polish film directors, to talk about the rich heritage of Polish cinematography and to gently remind that over 100 years ago a newcomer from Poland, Abraham Tuschinski opened several cinemas in the Netherlands, the Tuschinski Cinema in Amsterdam being one of them (1921). In appreciation of its unusual, eclectic architecture, the British weekly TIME OUT proclaimed it the most beautiful cinema in the world. Worth mentioning here that the first cinema in Poland opened in 1899 in Łódź, the city very near Tuschinski’s birthplace, and where in 1948 the world-famous National Film School was established. No wonder Łódź is often referred to as the Polish Hollywood.
The choice of names on our list is obviously subjective and one can argue about who should be on it and in what order. We warmly invite you to read and possibly discuss. Here is the list:
ANDRZEJ WAJDA (1926-2016) is in the world’s first league of film directors. In 2000 he was honoured with an Oscar for lifetime achievement. His films, from the earliest ones made in the 1950s, commented on the recent history of Poland, posing questions about national identity, and seeking answers in the context of universal human problems. It is impossible to point to his most important film. They are all important – SEWER, ASHES AND DIAMOND, THE PROMISSED LAND, THE MAN OF MARBLE and finally KATYŃ and his last film POWIDOKI. He managed to achieve the impossible by first bringing to the screen the theatre drama THE WEDDING (1973), and in 1999 the poetic epic PAN TADEUSZ.
ROMAN POLAŃSKI (1933) a graduate of the legendary Łódź Film School, made his spectacular debut in 1962 with the film KNIFE IN THE WATER, which was nominated for an Oscar for best non-English language film. Soon after, he left Poland to work for many years in Hollywood, where his films such as REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY, MACBETH and CHINATOWN were made. His films are characterized by psychological depth and meticulous character analysis. In 1977 he left America and settled in France. Polaski is a controversial figure, but despite considerable image problems, his excellent filmmaking skills ensured him worldwide recognition, and his subsequent films – TESS, FRANTIC, BITTER MOON, and above all THE PIANIST confirmed his outstanding talent.
KRZYSZTOF KIEŚLOWSKI (1941-96) in 2002 the British Film Institute included his name in the second place of the list of ten most outstanding contemporary directors. They were right, Kieslowski created his own style of filmmaking. His vision of the world was based on the belief that reality has many dimensions, and beyond what can be seen with the naked eye there is a sphere of emotions, intuition, and dreams. He became world-famous thanks to the DECALOG series, the feature film THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE and the trilogy THREE COLORS, which, evoking the colours of the French flag, searches for the place of the ideals of the French revolution in the contemporary world. His films, while telling very simple stories deal at the same time with fundamental dilemmas of human existence.
KRZYSZTOF ZANUSSI (1939) Before becoming a film director, he studied physics and philosophy. Perhaps that is why his films are characterized by a focus on detail and describing situations from several different, often not obvious, perspectives. Zanussi’s work defies simple categorization, but he was certainly strongly associated with the cinema of moral unrest, which speaks of what is most important – truth, love, death, the choice between good and evil, happiness, and self-awareness. Being an unconventional filmmaker, he often encouraged his actors to improvise in front of the camera. The most important films in his filmography are THE STRUCTURE OF CRYSTAL, CAMOUFLAGE, CONSTANS and LIFE AS A FATAL SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASE. He currently teaches film history at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.
AGNIESZKA HOLLAND (1948) She started her film career as an assistant of first Zanussi and then Wajda, thus learning from the very best. She directs for the cinema and television, writes scripts, and her films are always politically engaged and expressive. She became famous in 1990 after the premiere of her film EUROPA EUROPA, based on a true story of a Jewish boy who pretended to be a young Nazi to save himself from the Holocaust. IN DARKNESS is another film set during World War II and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Non-English Language Film in 2012. Her films have starred some of the world’s top actors, including Leonardo di Caprio in THE TOTAL ECLIPSE. She has directed several episodes of such popular series as THE WIRE and THE HOUSE OF CARDS. Her film SPOOR based on the book by Polish Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, was awarded the Silver Bear at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival.
JULIUSZ MACHULSKI (1955) director and film producer, writes both screenplays, and theatre plays. He debuted in 1981 with the film VABANK, a great retro pastiche of gangster stories. It was soon followed by excellent comedies, which made the whole Poland laugh to tears such as SEXMISSION or KINGSIZE, with a clear political message, critical of the communist government in the 1980s. After 1989 he made, among others, V.I.P, GIRL GUIDE and KILLER which were equally witty comments on the new Polish reality after the transformation. Without Machulski’s films, Poland would be much sadder, and the sayings extracted from the dialogs have been permanently incorporated into the common Polish language.
PAWEŁ PAWLIKOWSKI (1957) is another Polish director, after Wajda, who has been honoured with an Oscar. He received the award in 2013 for his film IDA. This black and white picture describes the journey of a girl who in 1950s Poland, following her vocation, decides to become a nun, finding out in the process about her Jewish roots. Black and white was also Pawlikowski’s choice for his other film, THE COLD WAR (2018), bravely telling the love story of a couple of artists whose lives are tragically complicated by the political situation in post-war Europe. Some believe that it is THE COLD WAR that should win the Oscar – you need to judge yourselves. Beautiful camera work, great music and a perfectly told story were appreciated by the jury of the 72nd BAFTA film festival and Cannes Film Festival.
WOJCIECH SMARZOWSKI (1963) began his film career as a cameraman, today he directs and writes scripts for the big and small screen. His television productions include the series THE LONDONERS, depicting the experience of Poles who start work and a new life in the British capital. However, he became most famous for his cinema films, ROSE, THE MIGHTY ANGEL, and most notably the war drama with painful and complicated Polish-Ukrainian relations in the background – VOLHYNIA (2016) and THE CLERGY (2018). The latter was inspired by scandals in the Catholic Church related to hiding paedophilia, breaking celibacy, alcoholism. The film caused numerous controversies, which translated into huge viewing numbers. Only in the first weekend after the premiere it was watched by 3.5 million people (almost 10% of the country’s population), which was a box office record in the history of Polish cinematography. THE CLERGY was also screened in the Netherlands and is available on Netflix.
JAN KOMASA (1981) One of the youngest on this list, but his successes so far do not allow his name to be passed over in silence. He was only 21 when he directed the short film NICE TO SEE YOU, which won third prize in its category at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Fame and recognition came with the films SUICIDE ROOM (2011) and WARSAW 44 (2014). The latter shockingly realistically depicts the Warsaw Uprising, or 2019’s CORPUS CRISTI, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Non-English Language Film. His latest film HATER was scheduled to premiere on March 6, 2020, but the Covid19 pandemic got in the way. HATER was awarded Best Screenplay at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, and with the film unable to be shown in cinemas, it was acquired by the Netflix platform.
MAŁGORZATA SZUMOWSKA (1973) director, screenwriter, and producer. Graduate of the famous Łódź Film School. Her latest film NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN, which she directed together with Michał Englert, was nominated for an Oscar in 2020. The breakthrough film in her career was 33 SCENES FROM LIFE (2008). A year later she worked alongside Lars von Trier as co-producer of ANTICHIST, starring Charlotte Gainsborough. In 2020, her first English-language film, THE OTHER LAMB, premiered on Netflix. She is a member of the European Film Academy and is often invited to the jury of prestigious film festivals such as the Berlin International Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival.
In eleventh place, we present the profile of a Polish artist whose work is inextricably linked with the Netherlands and who draws inspiration from her personal experience of emigration, change and adaptation in the unknown.
URSZULA ANTONIAK (1968) studied directing first at Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film school in Katowice and then at the Dutch Film Academy in Amsterdam. She lives and works in the Netherlands. Her romantic comedy BIJLMER ODYSSEY (2004) was one of the most successful Dutch television productions and has been acclaimed in many countries in Europe and beyond. Until recently, Antoniak’s best known film was her debut feature NOTHING PERSONAL (2009). Other important titles in her filmography include CODE BLUE, NUDE AREA, MAGIC MOUNTAIN. Her 2018 film BEYOND WORDS, which addresses the issues of emigration, not only as one’s experience, but also as a state of mind and a chance for a new beginning. Emigration, integration in a new environment, encounter with otherness is also the main theme of her comedy DUTCH FOR THE BEGINNERS. According to critics, the director presents a very distinct, individual style of film storytelling, brilliantly combining poetic images with a touch of irony, and is not afraid of artistic experimentation.