Founded in 1974 and now in its 39th year (two were lost to the imposition of martial law in the early ’80s) the Gdynia Film Festival (15-20 September 2014) is the oldest and most prestigious event in the Polish film calendar, and one of the primary showcases for national cinema. (Recent winners include Agnieska Holland’s In Darkness  and, last year, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida.)
The range of movies, events, exhibitions and workshops that the festival offers clearly plays a large part in that reputation, while its blissful location in the gorgeous Gdynia (the northern seaside locale that’s part of the so-called “Tri-City”, or “Trójmiasto”, alongside Gdansk and Sopot) doesn’t hurt, either. As a first-time attendee, I’ve been struck over the last couple of days by the festival’s excellent organisation and welcoming atmosphere, and by the richness of its programming which offers a sometimes overwhelming choice of things to do and see.
This year, the festival boasts a new artistic director, Michał Oleszczyk who, along with his team, has fashioned a programme that includes not only the most significant new Polish films in the Main Competition, but also a range of other enticing strands: Pure Classics; Pre-War Cinema Treasures; HBO Film Nights (including screenings of The Normal Heart  and Behind the Candelabra ); a Young Cinema Competition; and the freshly-inaugurated Visions Apart, a similar proposition to Cannes’s Un Certain Regard section which aims to showcase films of particular originality or stylistic freshness.
The festival opened on Monday night with the premiere of Deluge Redivivus (Potop Redivivus), Jerzy Hoffman’s Oscar-nominated 1974 epic, which has been restored and reconstructed under Hoffman’s supervision in order to give new life to the film and to help introduce it to a younger audience. (The original cut ran at five hours; the new one runs at just over three.)
Based on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1886 novel, the film takes place during the 17thC Swedish invasion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and focuses on the exploits of a nobleman soldier, Andrzej Kmicic (played by Daniel Olbrychski in a star turn of swoonsome romantic glamour and sly humour), and his experiences in love and war.
Far from the worthy, dry experience that such a synopsis might suggest, Hoffman’s film is, in fact, a rousing spectacle that’s full of action and plentiful (often goofy and cartoonish) humour. If the cuts made in the new version result in some weird narrative leaps and blips (especially in the second half, where the indefatigable Kmicic now seemingly jumps from one near-death and miraculous resurrection to another in a matter of minutes), narrative incoherence is partially compensated for by the movie’s beautiful restoration.
The images — whether of costumes, actors’ skin tones, or landscapes after battle — have a wonderful vividness that seduces the viewer, while seeing the movie with such an enthusiastic Polish crowd (many of whom greeted individual lines and sequences with heartily affectionate applause) also added to the experience on Monday night. Hoffman, introducing the premiere, paid a touching tribute to the actors featured in the film who are now deceased but who, for tonight, are “living among us again, on the screen”.
Polskie Gówno (2014)
The other film I saw on the first day was one of those featured in the Visions Apart section. Grzegorz Jankowski’s evocatively titled Polish Shit (Polskie Gówno) is an irreverent, cheerfully scuzzy satirical musical comedy that follows the fortunes of a rock band, The Transistors, as they battle drink, drugs, financial woes and an inept Manager (played with considerable relish by the corpulent Grzegorz Halama).
As scattershot as its subjects, the film is sometimes clumsy in its construction, but it’s good fun and, even after a gag misfires, it’s not long before you hear yourself laughing out loud again. As such Polish Shit (the title gains in English, irresistibly bringing to mind the “you can’t polish a turd” analogy) takes its place as Poland’s answer to the likes of Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap (1984) and Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys films.
The movie’s script is the work of Tymon Tymanski, the popular musician who takes the lead role as the band’s singer Jerzy. Tymanski also wrote the songs, which include ditties about paedophile priests and a breathtakingly filthy and funny lament for lost years of Polish promiscuity. Best of the bunch is the ballad “Brothel for Dogs”: surprisingly plangent, it sounds ripe for a Nick Cave cover.
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Above: Still from Deluge Redivivus (1974)