Night Train (1959)

Night Trains, Cruises, and Camouflage – Kinoteka 2015 – The 13th Polish Film Festival, London

Polish films old and new, lectures, concerts and exhibitions make up a varied programme of events at Kinoteka 2015.

Now in its 13th year, London’s Polish Film Festival, Kinoteka, returns to the capital at a moment when international interest in Polish cinema is particularly high, thanks mainly to the critical and commercial success of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, which was honoured first at Gdynia Film Festival back in 2013, then at TIFF and elsewhere, before its recent wins at this year’s BAFTA and Academy Award ceremonies.

At one point a while ago, Kinoteka’s future looked rather uncertain; this was due primarily to the loss of one of the festival’s main venues, Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, which is currently undergoing redevelopment. It’s pleasing to report, therefore, that the festival has actually returned in stronger shape than ever this year, partnering with Edinburgh Filmhouse and BFI Southbank for an extended, near-two month edition, one that supplements screenings of films old and new with a wide range of exhibitions, talks, workshops and concerts at various venues across the city and beyond.

Jump (Salto) (1965)

The centrepiece of this year’s festival is the UK tour of “Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema”: a selection of 24 features chosen by the director and being screened in delectable new digital restorations. The chosen films range from the late ’50s to the late ’80s, and while one might quibble with some major absences (Kanal and Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema, to name but two), the season nonetheless offers a solid selection of works both well- and lesser-known outside of Poland. I was especially pleased to have the opportunity to see Tadeusz Konwicki’s sublime Salto (Jump) on the big screen for the first time, and also to join large and enthusiastic audiences for screenings of Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s sleek and gripping Night Train, Andrzej Wajda’s still-searing Ashes and Diamonds and Wojciech Has’s ineffable trip The Saragossa Manuscript.

The festival’s selection of contemporary Polish cinema is meagre this year by comparison, with only a handful of new films screened. These were Krzysztof Zanussi’s Foreign Body, Krzysztof Skonieczny’s Hardkor Disko, Wojciech Smarzowski’s The Mighty Angel and Jerzy Stuhr’s Citizen (the latter two reviewed at last year’s Gdynia Film Festival). In addition, there was also the chance to catch this year’s two Oscar-nominated (and correspondingly humane and illness-themed) short films: Anna Kopacz’s excellent Joanna and Tomasz Śliwiński’s Our Curse.

The absence of Jan Komasa’s visceral and highly divisive Warsaw 44 and of Grzegorz Jankowski’s gleefully scuzzy rock band comedy Polish Shit was disappointing, especially since neither movie looks likely to receive UK distribution any time soon. (Or probably ever.) But the opportunity to catch Foreign Body was appreciated, even if the movie turned out to be an initially intriguing but ultimately risible musing on Catholicism, corporatism and the spectre of past Communist crimes in “progress-oriented” contemporary Poland, featuring the crudest caricature of female corporate evil seen in many a year; it can’t be said to find its director at the peak of his abilities. (A seductive score by Zanussi’s regular collaborator, the late Wojciech Kilar, turns out to be the movie’s major asset.)

More rewarding by far was the chance to rediscover Zanussi’s earlier output, including Illumination and The Constant Factor, via the Scorsese strand. And it’s telling that the festival chose to screen the director’s 1977 Camouflage, rather than Foreign Body, as its Opening Night Gala, with the director in attendance for an informative and good-humoured Q&A chaired by Michael Brooke.

Camouflage (1977)

Camouflage, which is about to be released as part of Second Run’s latest Polish Cinema Classics DVD boxset, feels a whole lot fresher than Zanussi’s latest in its witty pitting of an idealistic young academic against a cynical and manipulative older colleague at a summer camp linguistics competition, an event that might just constitute (no surprises here) a synecdoche of sorts for wider Polish political power struggles and tensions, ’70s-style. A key work in the so-called “Cinema of Moral Concern”, Camouflage is at once highly cerebral (there’s a lot of talk) and slyly sexy (the characters keep stripping off for their “extra-curricular” activities), and its primal underpinnings are drolly announced by a terrific animal imagery-heavy credit sequence. However, an audience member’s positing of a homoerotic reading of the central relationship was (no surprises here, either) wryly quashed by the director.

The Cruise (1970)

With such an abundance of events to chose from (including rare screenings of Pawlikowski docs and Wojciech Wiszniewski shorts, poster exhibitions, and an upcoming river boat excursion to accompany the Closing Night screening of Marek Piwowski’s 1970 The Cruise), a good way for both the neophyte and the knowledgeable to get their bearings was via critic/curator Kuba Mikurda’s illustrated lecture “Discovering the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema”, which took place at BFI Southbank on 14th April. Over 90 minutes, Mikurda sketched a highly entertaining and lucid, if necessarily partial narrative of Polish cinema, from the Film School period to the present, opening his presentation with trailers for four recent productions — Malgorzata Szumowska’s Body, Lukasz Barczyk’s Hiszpanka (Spanish Flu), and the aforementioned Ida and Warsaw 44 — before doubling back to suggest how each of those films evokes, alludes to or contests particular earlier works.

Enriched by a superb selection of clips and newsreels, Mikurda’s talk then focused in on particular movements, trends, directors and stars (footage of crowds massing to mourn the death of “Poland’s James Dean” Zbigniew Cybulski in 1967 was particularly startling), as well as showing how Polish cinema engaged with historical and contemporary traumas in the face of censors who were good at spotting dissenting dialogue but often less adept at decoding ambiguous, subversive images. Mikurda’s lecture was complemented by the “Exploring Polish Cinema” course dedicated to specific filmmakers, including Michael Goddard’s presentation on Has, Konwicki and Andrzej Munk, César Ballester on Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Michał Oleszczyk’s incisive appraisal of Kawalerowicz, which preceded a screening of the director’s Oscar-nominated 1966 Egyptian epic Pharoah.

One would hope for the inclusion of a wider range of new films in next year’s festival and, in particular, of a greater number of works by female filmmakers. (Kopacz’s Joanna and Agnieszka Holland’s 1978 Provincial Actors are, shockingly, the only two films by women to feature in the entire festival this year.) But Kinoteka 2015 has been more about looking back than looking forward, testifying to the richness and diversity of Polish film production over the last 60 years, and highlighting just how much remains for British audiences to engage with and explore.

The festival continues in London until 29th May, while the “Martin Scorsese Present Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” strand is touring nationwide.