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Director Roman Polanski on film set of raided European street.

From Poland to the World: 6 Brilliant Film Directors


Polish cinema, complex and fascinating, stands out for its high technical level and its intellectual depth.

Springing from the pain caused from the wounds of the Second World War and the bitter Nazi occupation, Poland has sought its most intimate essence through cinematographic expression. And in this process it has developed truly revolutionary methods of narrative that have significantly influenced world cinema.

And what better than to immerse ourselves in Polish cinema via its greatest exponents, six directors who have created a school and, without a doubt, enriched the fascinating legacy of cinema as one of the most complete languages in human history.

Andrzej Wajda (1926)

After collaborating in the Polish resistance during World War II, Wajda studied painting and formed part of one of the first generations of the famous Lodz film school. He later gave his outstanding war trilogy, comprising A Generation (1954), Kanal (1957), and Ashes and Diamonds (1958), with a very characteristic style and which would define what became known as “new Polish cinema.”

The school is one that injects poetry into the details, both in form (with their framing) and in the subject matter (with the contrasts reflected within the commitment to social context). Wadja’s style used integrated camera movements with a high level of difficulty in the narration, a quality that would later internationally distinguish Polish cinematographers.

After making endearing literary adaptations – The Birch Wood (1970) and The Maids of Wilko (1979) – demonstrating that he was a wonderful director of actors and that human emotions are also political, Wadja returned to the cinema of political criticism, with films such as Man of Marble (1977) and El Man of Iron (1981), and even participated actively in trade unions.

In the latter stage of his career, Wajda continued to question forms of government, abuses of power and sought the nature of constructive humanity. His brilliant career, his consistency of thought and the quality of his work, with films committed to his time, won him an honorary Oscar in 2000 from the hands of Steven Spielberg.


Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996)

After studying at Lodz he began his career in the state-owned film production company making documentaries from a workers’ points of view. His first fiction shorts gained him a reputation in international festivals and which quickly allowed him to film features that maintained a critical stance toward the Polish state with social themes of practical and philosophical relevance.

His TV series, The Decalogue (1989-90), is based on each of the Ten Commandments (in the same number of episodes) inspired by dilemmas that the characters experience in Polish life. This era signaled the start of his collaboration with two artists who would remain involved in all of his work, the musician Zbigniew Preisner and scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz.

After reflecting on the connection between social function, morals and the sacred, with films such as The Double Life of Veronique (1991), Kieslowski would take his concerns to a more accessible cinema with the Blue, White and Red trilogy (1993-94), almost entirely shot in France and which presents characters that are the extension of patriotic values that developed during the French Revolution.

Tragically, Kieslowski died young and it is hard not to think that the evolution of his cinematographic language would have gone much farther, complementing his already vigorous output


Roman Polanski (1933)

Born in France within a Polish Jewish family, Polanski lost both his parents in a Nazi extermination camp and lived a tormented childhood until he studied cinema in Lodz.

Polanski stands apart from his contemporaries due to his lack of interest in social issues and his focus on human psychology. From his beginnings with surreal shorts, the director demonstrated a wounding style with no space for subtlety. Since then his work has oscillated between faithful realism (Tess, Death and the Maiden, The Pianist) and delirious fantasy (The Tenant).

Directing Knife in the Water (1962), a tension-filled drama and a phony thriller in which nothing happens, Polanski demonstrated a mastery of montage in its purest form, emerging as a great disciple of Alfred Hitchcock. He then entered the psychological horror genre with Repulsion (1965) in England and continued with delirious and convoluted dramas, nightmares with a sense of humor, such as Cul de Sac (1966) and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), to finally become a darling of Hollywood with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), one of the greatest films in the history of cinema.

Then his life was tinged with tragedy and controversy as the result of the murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Charles Manson sect and the accusation against him of having had sex with a minor. This led to Polanski’s fall from grace without having become acknowledged as one of the all-time greats.


Jerzy Skolimowski (1938)

We could start with the fact that his father was executed by the Nazis while a member of the resistance. A highly expressive filmmaker who, after studying in Lodz, began his career by helping out with the scripts of Wajda and Polanski while also active as a boxer, a sport he made a documentary about. He then filmed low-budget features until, in 1967 in Belgium, he filmed the icon of the French nouvelle vague, Jean Pierre Léaud, in The Departure. Acknowledged from a young age as an international filmmaker, he continued with several films shot outside Poland, among which is Deep End (1970).

Skolimowski said in an interview that he made films to please himself. His stories are characterized by the use of ambiguity to spring surprises in the audience’s perception, saturating them with unexpected questions. The confusing actions of his characters bring a dreamlike quality to his work.

In 1978 he caused a surprise with transcendental movie The Shout, an adaptation of a story by Robert Graves. He then traveled to Hollywood to film his most ambitious movie, Moonlighting (1982), which narrates the journey of the protagonist, accompanied by Polish workers, to London to offer themselves as cheap labor. It would appear the film was a kind of self-prophecy, as since then Skolimowski has remained in Hollywood, playing roles as an actor in films such as Mars Attacks!, Before Night Falls and The Avengers.


Andrzej Zulawski (1940)

With a body of work that is particularly difficult to classify, Zulawski builds powerful images, outside of the norm, that form sequences on the border between dreams, nightmares and reality. Born in Ukraine, he is the creator of a cinema that technically questions our relationship with the silver screen in temporal terms. What is it that we really see projected there?

Zulawski studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris (he applies it in all his films) and then studied cinema at the prestigious IDHEC. In the 1960s he assisted Wajda in several films and then in 1970 caused a surprise directing his debut, The Third Part of the Night, shot in Poland, which, containing elements of risqué science fiction, is a precursor of filmmakers such as Cronenberg and his bacteriological terror. He shook up polish censorship for the first time with this film and inaugurated a trend of criticizing the excesses of the state through fantastical cinema.

Two years later he filmed The Devil (1972), which took years to be shown due to censorship. It is at first glance an adventure film, full of violent scenes on the edge of absurd unreality and whose exacerbated tone led Zulawski to be labeled a “hysterical director,” a term that profoundly offended him, according to his own statements.

In 1977 Zulawski was attacked by the government during the filming of his latest movie, a grandiloquent film of smooth, post-apocalyptic science fiction, filmed in Poland. On the Silver Globe (1977) remained unfinished although a marvelous version exists that was put together from multiple rolls of film salvaged from being burned. After that incident it is said that he travelled to New York, depressed and with suicidal thoughts, and that Andy Warhol cheered him up a little, encouraging him to write what would become his masterpiece, Possession (1981), filmed in Berlin with Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill.

Zulawski continues to make fabulous films in which he continues to passionately take risks with each shot against common and run-of-the-mill cinema.


Agnieszka Holland (1948)

The only female director on the list, Holland is one of the world’s greatest living talents in cinema. Of all the directors mentioned she is perhaps the one who has most easily integrated into Hollywood, with graceful movies such as The Secret Garden (1983), an adaptation of the novel of the same name and with a soundtrack by Preisner; and Total Eclipse (1995), the biopic of Arthur Rimbaud, in which DiCaprio became a respected actor. She has also directed episodes of The Wire and, more recently, of House of Cards.

Holland also has serious concerns and which have to do with her country of origin, and she has stood out in the art cinema genre with dramas regarding the Nazi persecution of the Jews, such as Angry Harvest (1985), Europa, Europa (1990) and In Darkness (2011). She has also been acclaimed for her elegant and subtle historical dramas, and which were box office hits, such as Washington Square, (1997) an adaptation of Henry James, and The Third Miracle (1999), with top-notch actors, and Copying Beethoven (2006).

A clear, effective and genuinely emotional director, Holland has achieved what Polish cinema rarely has, to communicate with a mass audience, connecting at a simple level and without any philosophical pretensions.


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