For international audiences, contemporary Polish cinema might seem to begin and end with Ida (2013) (Poland’s first Foreign Film Oscar-winner) and Cold War (2018) (just announced as Poland’s Oscar candidate for next year), the two retro art-house miniatures that Paweł Pawlikowski has produced since his return to Poland, which have received widespread acclaim. Apart from the occasional breakout cult hit such as Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s one-of-a-kind musical mermaid horror extravaganza Córki Dancingu (The Lure) (2015) (recipient of a Criterion Collection edition, no less), and Małgorzata Szumowska’s repeated success at Berlinale, Polish films have tended to be under-represented at major international festivals recently, leading some critics of my acquaintance to assume that the country’s cinematic production is not going through its strongest moment.
Now in its 43rd year, Polish Film Festival in Gdynia, Poland’s primary showcase for its national cinema, tells a very different story, though, testifying to the continued range and diversity of Polish film in a volatile political climate. I count some of the works presented at Gdynia in recent years as among the best that contemporary cinema has offered, from Jerzy Skolimowski’s sensational city symphony 11 Minutes through Kuba Czekaj’s candy-coloured puberty portrait Baby Bump to Kinga Dębska’s warm and tart comedy drama These Daughters of Mine (Moja Córki Crowy) and Jan P. Matuszyński’s indelible intimate portrait of the Bekcińskis, The Last Family (Ostatnia Rodzina).
Though somewhat marred by the inclusion of risible fare such as Ether, the latest offering from the once-revered Krzysztof Zanussi, the line-up of this year’s edition of Polish Film Festival again offered some exciting surprises and discoveries, if few masterpieces. Of the 16 films presented in the Main Competition, the biggest controversy inevitably revolved around Kler (Clergy), Wojciech Smarzowski’s muckraking take on Catholic Church corruption that won the Audience Award and a special prize for a film on a “socially important” topic. Those wins did generate some heat, with Radio Gdańsk pulling out of awarding the “Golden Clapper” prize to the film, and a mildly sarcastic comment directed by Smarzowski at the government getting censored from the awards telecast.
Wojciech Smarzowski’s Kler (Clergy)
Still, the fact that such a boldly anti-clerical work as Kler has been produced in Poland at the present moment will be a surprise to many, and, unlike Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015), say, the film is distinguished by being presented from the priests’ perspective. The focus is on a decidedly unholy trinity of clerics dealing with various problems. Robert Więckiewicz’s village parson Trybus has impregnated his lover (Cold War’s Joanna Kulig, in a direct and affecting performance) and is encouraging her to abort their child; Jacek Braciak’s Lisowski is involved in underhand financial dealings and surveillance as he eyes a position at the Vatican; while Arkadiusz Jakubik’s Kukuła is accused of molesting a minor. Presiding over their troubles is the figure of Mordowicz (a ripe Janusz Gajos), an utterly corrupt Archbishop who’s more than willing to indulge in cover-ups and pay-offs to protect his own position and save the Church from scandal.
Smarzowski is a blunt director often drawn to grotesque or Gothic elements, and while he reins in those tendencies a tad here – at least until the film’s luridly powerful final moments, seemingly borrowed directly from the climax of the similarly-themed Romans ( Ludwig and Paul Shammasian, 2017) – Kler couldn’t be described as a subtle exploration of its themes. The film starts out broadly and comically, as a potential pilot for a satirical sitcom titled “Priests Behaving Badly”. (“You masturbate? Don’t worry about it,” Trybus advises a young transgressor at confession.) There are gestures towards evenhandedness as the story progresses: a reminder of priests’ persecution during the Communist years; the platitude that victims of abuse become perpetrators; an evocation of the mob mentality that can result from an (unsubstantiated) accusation of pedophilia. Yet the film’s attempts at comprehensiveness risk turning it into a flipbook of “issues”.
Still, I find Kler to be one of Smarzowski’s strongest films to date; its mere existence in the culture is significant, and the acting is top-notch. The film will provoke discussion, as it should, even if the discourse has become so polarised that viewers sympathetic to Smarzowski’s general perspective may be too willing to overlook some questionable elements, such as the latent homophobia in the presentation of Braciak’s sneaky opportunist, and a brief but nonetheless disgraceful moment of racist caricaturing that gives a black character a couple of seconds of screen time merely to raise a laugh by demonstrating his gormlessness. It’s far from a flawless film, then, but Kler nonetheless remains one of the most important Polish productions of the year.
Kinga Debska’s Zabawa, zabawa (Fun, fun)
Also tackling a “socially relevant” topic via a trio of characters is Kinga Dębska’s Zabawa, zabawa (meaning “Fun, fun”, the film has been rechristened, horribly, as Playing Hard in English) which intertwines the stories of three professional women (Agata Kulesza’s prosecutor, Dorota Kolak’s paediatrician and Maria Dębska’s student/office worker) dealing with alcohol problems. Reminiscent, structurally, of Tomasz Wasilewski’s United States of Love (which also starred Kolak in a memorable role) the movie replaces that film’s metallic, chilly tone with the emotional accessibility and empathy for women’s experience for which Dębska is known. A scene with Jowita Budnik capturing the distress of a woman realising that her child is about to be operated on by a drunk doctor is particularly memorable.
Still, Zabawa, Zabawa never quite comes together, and it’s possible to detect a moralising undertone in the film’s portrait of alcoholic women ending up isolated, assaulted or professionally compromised. A concluding scene that tries to bring some levity is so fumbled that it’s hard to know how to respond. Despite these shortcomings, the film benefits considerably from the vivid, resourceful performances of the three actresses, who bring wit and truth to the less developed areas of the drama.
Janusz Kondratiuk’s Jak pies z kotem (A Cat With a Dog)
Closer in spirit to the sharp and warm tone of Dębska’s best film to date, These Daughters of Mine, is Janusz Kondratiuk’s Jak pies z kotem (A Cat With a Dog), a friendly and relatable family comedy-drama based on the director’s experience of caring for his ailing brother (fellow filmmaker Andrzej). Rather weak on the protagonists’ professional pasts, the film is much stronger in its sensitive depiction of day-to-day caring. With little stylistic excitement to the film, the primary pleasure here is again in performance, and it was good to see Olgierd Łukaszewicz and Aleksandra Konieczna deservedly picking up the Best Supporting Actor and Actresses prizes, he as the by turns vulnerable and irascible invalid, and she for bringing an amusingly plaintive, dazed quality to her role as his actress wife.
Filip Bajon’s Kamerdyner (The Butler)
Historical subjects yielded some of the most memorable films in the festival, offering a more textured counter to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War‘s posed minimalism. Sometimes suggesting a Polish Downton Abbey of sorts, Filip Bajon’s Kamerdyner (The Butler) condenses four decades (1900-1945) of Prussian, Kashub, and Polish interaction into an accessible 150 minutes that’s part soapy family saga and part noble historical epic. While Bajon’s previous film, the excellent Panie Dulskie (2015), approached its historical sweep more subtly, Kamerdyner telegraphs “epicness” from the get-go, with sweeping camera movements and a swooning score.
Still, the film’s placing of the often overlooked history of Kashubians at the centre makes it an admirable and politically important work, and Bajon holds the large cast of characters in balance pretty successfully, with Janusz Gajos turning up again in a contrast to his Kler role as the sympathetic Kashubian patriot, Miotke.
Jan Jakub Kolski’s Ułaskawienie (Pardon)
More distilled but equally absorbing is Pardon (Ułaskawienie), Jan Jakub Kolski’s film, which follows the As I Lay Dying-esque quest of a couple travelling through the landscape of post WWII Poland to bury their son. Saddled with an unnecessary subjective framing structure that befuddles rather than orientates the viewer, the film’s main section, documenting the journey itself, is as absorbing as can be, and Grażyna Błęcka-Kolska is a deserving winner of the Best Actress prize for her nuanced performance as the determined mother.
Adrian Panek’s Wilkołak (Werewolf)
Winner of the Best Director and Best Music awards, Adrian Panek follows up his distinctive debut Daas (2011) with the cannily-titled Wilkołak (Werewolf). The film approaches historical subject matter through the horror genre as a group of young Gross-Rosen camp survivors find themselves hunted by Alsatian dogs released from the camp and now wandering the forest. Grindingly monotonous to begin with, as a kind of White Dog (1982) meets Son of Saul (2015), the film gets better as it goes along, exploring power plays within the group and attempting to establish an equivalence between the youths and the animals, both traumatised by their war experience. Still, as gripping and well made as the film undoubtedly is, the use of children’s Holocaust trauma to soup up a horror picture gives a taint of exploitativeness to the enterprise.
Aleksander Pietrzak’s Juliusz
It was pleasing to find some quirky, crowd-pleasing comedic fare also featuring in the Main Competition. Aleksander Pietrzak’s Juliusz seemed to split viewers on gender lines (I didn’t meet any women who enjoyed it), in its presentation of a hapless teacher (Wojciech Mecwaldowski)’s relationship with his randy elderly father (Jan Peszek) and his own stumble into a new romance. The film’s mix of tasteless humour and tender feelings doesn’t feel too calculated, and anyone who’s faced down a group of disinterested students will cheer one particular scene in which the hero belatedly asserts himself. The film benefits from deluxe casting, with Krystyna Janda, Maciej Stuhr (as an unlucky bungee jump fan), Andrzej Chyra (as a passive aggressive head teacher) and Jerzy Skolimowski (as the father’s nemesis) all joining in the fun.
Marek Koterski’s 7 Uczuć (7 Emotions)
A big hit with the Polish audience and winner of a special prize for presenting an “original vision of the world”, Marek Koterski’s 7 Uczuć (7 Emotions) offers laughs with a more philosophical undertone, tipping its hat to Witold Gombrowicz and Dennis Potter in the casting of adult actors as children. There’s very little in the way of plot (though the film is a continuation of the story of the recurring character Adaś Miauczyński from Koterski’s other films) and the film’s linguistic playfulness means that some of the humour may be lost to foreign audiences. Nonetheless, the spectacle of some of Poland’s most prestigious actors playing kids makes for amusing scenes. (Watch for Kulig, again, turning up briefly as Katarzyna Figura’s mother!) The film is moderately enjoyable. I laughed the hardest at Gabriela Muskała as a teacher’s pet whose life depends upon outshining her fellow students by getting the answers right first in class.
Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s Fuga (Fugue)
The terrific Muskała is startlingly different in her starring role in Fuga (Fugue) (for which she also wrote the script) and the film itself is a contrast to its director Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s debut, the aforementioned Córki Dancingu. It’s a brooding drama in which a woman returns to her family after an absence of two years, unable to remember anything about her previous life or identity.
As Muskała’s character – Kinga or Alicja? – attempts (or mostly resists) integration back into the family fold, Fugue develops into a very subversive take on the disjunction between personal identity and family ties, one that is beautifully controlled in its combination of the domestic and the ethereal.
The plot revelations, when they finally come, are not completely convincing but the film compensates, throughout, in arresting images that haunt the viewer: these include Muskała’s opening trek along train-tracks and up on to a station platform; a stunning later sequence in which she appears to emerge from the earth itself; a brain scan’s floral blossoming; and a ghostly boogie to Michelle Gurevich’s “Lovers are Strangers” with its on-the-nose lyrics about “expressing your uncertainties / Through years of anniversaries…”
Despite its superficial difference to Córki Dancingu, the film shares that film’s bold body consciousness, as evidenced in a sequence in which Muskała wanders the rooms of the family home wearing but a skimpy bomber jacket and in two highly expressive sex scenes that chart the progress of her reacquaintance with her spouse (Łukasz Simlat). Special mention should also go to little Iwo Rajski, totally natural and convincing as their young son. Previously featured in Cannes’ Critics’ Week strand, Fugue was the finest film in Gdynia’s Main Competition this year, and won the talented Smoczyńska her second “Best Debut” prize (also allowed for a sophomore film, apparently).
Agniezska Piotrowska’s and Joe Njagu’s Escape
Indeed, themes of identity, family and belonging characterised many films at Gdynia this year. Screening in the Polonica strand, which showcases co-productions or films dealing with Polish characters in a global context, Agniezska Piotrowska’s and Joe Njagu’s Escape charts the experiences of a young mixed race man, Charles (Jose Marques), in Zimbabwe where he travels from the UK to track down his unknown father. A self-described “film noir fairytale”, the film makes a fascinating companion piece to the enchanting Cape Verde-set Djon Africa (2018), which has a very similar plot. Here the fairytale aspects are linked to African oral traditions and combined with European fairytales, reflecting the dual heritage with which the protagonist is challenged to come to terms, while the “noir” connotations shows up in the mystery elements of the plot and Charles’ interactions with two women.
If the film’s genre mix isn’t seamless, it is consistently interesting and the picture is notable for the expressionistic way in which it works to put us in Charles’s head-space through dreams, flashbacks, and fantasies. Along with its loving presentation of Zimbabwe, the film’s main asset is the very fresh and charming performance of the singer Selmor Mtukudzi here playing Anna, a professional woman who helps Charles out and whose role redefines female “goodness” in terms of spiritual, sexual and financial independence. Mtukudzi’s music, featured on the soundtrack, also adds vibrancy to the picture.
Mateusz Dymek’s and Ewa Banaszkiewicz’s Moja Polska Dziewczyna (My Friend the Polish Girl)
Finally, two films presented in the Festival’s “Visions Apart” sidebar — the section inaugurated by former artistic director Michał Oleszczyk to showcase more innovative or experimental work — were among the most memorable of this year’s edition. (Sadly, I missed the winning film, Nina.) To call Mateusz Dymek’s and Ewa Banaszkiewicz’s Moja Polska Dziewczyna (My Friend the Polish Girl) a “mockumentary” seems reductive: focusing on an American filmmaker’s creation of a documentary about a Polish immigrant in London, the film offers a very smart reflection on the complex, slippery dynamic between documentary-maker and subject that is witty, disturbing, playful and formally fresh, and that constantly surprises the viewer.
Jagoda Szelc’s Monument
In the stunning Monument, meanwhile, writer-director Jagoda Szelc proves that hell is the hospitality industry, as she presents a group of young people undertaking an internship at an isolated hotel, overseen by an extremely exacting Manager (played by an exquisitely-styled Dorota Łukasiewicz-Kwietniewska as a lesbian icon in-the-making). Starting in an absorbing naturalistic mode, as it shows the group adjusting to their work and forming cliques and friendships, the film gradually seduces the viewer into strangeness, finally becoming a deeply unsettling experience yet one that always rewards patience and attentive engagement.
Making good on the great promise of Szelc’s debut feature, Tower. A Bright Day (2017), Monument is even more remarkable for being the “Diploma Film” of the acting students at Łódź’s famed Film School. The confidence of the framing and editing, the placement of the actors, the hypnotic dissolves and immersive sound design, and the general attention to atmosphere, would distinguish a veteran filmmaker. Situated on the border of the quotidian and the cosmic, the film goes to some dark, disturbing places yet it’s not, finally, a depressing experience. Rather, the outburst of collective energy with which it concludes is exhilarating, a final title turning the piece into a wonderfully mordant, meta reflection on the creative process and the end of studies to which the film itself is the monument.
The ensemble cast – including Zuzanna Lit, Anna Biernacik, Paulina Lasota, Karolina Bruchnicka, Anna Bolewska, Weronika Asińska, Anna Bieżyńska, Marta Wiśniewska, Oskar Borkowski, and Paulina Walendziak (already a heroine of Łódź theatre following her startling performances in Mariusz Grzegorzek’s productions of The Crucible and The Nether – are exceptional, each creating a distinctive presence and enhancing the film’s eerie, uncanny texture. Along with Fugue, Monument was the most exciting and revelatory of the films featured at Polish Film Festival 2018, and it’s the one that I personally most look forward to revisiting. “Expressing uncertainties” and taking challenging risks with tone, form and narrative, these radical female-directed works place Poland in the vanguard of contemporary art film. Despite the political challenges that the country currently faces, these films make one feel optimistic about the hope expressed by Jerzy Skolimowski as he collected his career achievement award at the closing ceremony: “Long live freedom in Polish cinema.”