A glimpse into Polish history through its cinema

Tuesday, 24 December 2013 - 12:47pm IST | Agency: DNA
Poland has been through much in its long and rich history, and stories of its past are told through some extraordinary films by equally extraordinary directors. Meena Karnik recounts her experience at IFFI

Poland is a small European country with a history disproportionate to its size. Its past is littered with rebellions, civil strife, wars and foreign domination.

Between 1795 and 1864, uprisings in Poland were frequent as it tried to free itself from the oppressive rule of Tsarist Russia. It was in the thick of things during both world wars as well. After World War I, Poland gained independence and existed in the form of the Second Polish Republic from 1918 to 1939. But the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany triggered World War II, and the Polish were conquered and partitioned once again. The Polish people, especially the Jews, were prey to Nazi tyranny until the end of the war.

Poland has suffered much in its long history, and memories of the past haven’t faded. Polish cinema explores much of this tumultuous history through truly extraordinary films, some of which were screened at this year’s International Film Festival (IFFI) at Panaji, Goa.

In Hiding, directed by Jan Kidawa-Blonski, is set during the Second World War, but is not about the war at all. The war is merely a backdrop to make the audience understand the fear the Polish people had to live with during Nazi occupation.

The film tells the story of Janina, a young Polish woman who is apprehensive when she learns that her father has given shelter to a young Jewish girl, Ester, in their basement. Over time, she gets to know the new resident. Gradually, this interaction transforms into fascination and then infatuation, so much so that even when the war ends, Janina does not tell Ester, and keeps her confined to the basement so that she does not leave her. The situation reaches its zenith when Janina commits murder. Throughout this time, Ester stays captive in the basement, unaware the war has ended and she is free again.

Finally Janina realises the quixotic nature of her obsession and surrenders to the police. Ester, who aspires to become a dancer, steps outside the house for the first time in years. She walks into a restaurant still wearing the Star of David, an identifying sign all Jews had to wear under Nazi rule. It is only when an aged waiter informs her she does not need to wear it any longer that she realises she is truly free.

In Hiding begins with a train rapidly emerging from a tunnel, travelling from darkness to light. It ends with the same visual, acquiring a completely different and epiphanic meaning. The director stresses on the despair accompanying war, restrained freedom, and tensions in relationships, and succeeds in keeping the audience on their toes. For her spectacular performance as Janina, Boczarska Magdalena won the award for the Best Actress at IFFI.

At the end of World War II, the Nazis were defeated and ousted from occupied Poland by Russian forces. But the bliss of freedom did not last long. Post war, Poland became the communist People’s Republic of Poland, a satellite state of Russia. The oppressors had merely been replaced. The country remained under Soviet communist domination for many years.

In the late 1980s, Poland found inspiration in Lech Walesa, a trade union leader who ousted the communist regime by his Solidarity movement to establish parliamentary democracy and became the president of Poland.

Andrejz Wajda’s film Walesa. Man of Hope, portraying the inspiring journey of Poland’s most popular leader, was screened at IFFI and left the audience overwhelmed. This film is Poland’s official entry for the 2014 Oscars.

Wajda, one of the masters of this craft, is 90 years old. Through globally acclaimed films like The Promised Land, Man of Iron and Katyn, he has depicted Poland’s social, political, cultural and financial situations. He is such an immense figure that at least 10 of his 40 odd films can be classed as masterpieces.

Wajda’s focus in Walesa. Man of Hope is clear. He intends to present Walesa’s political career, and not his life. So issues like Walesa’s love for his wife or his opposition to family planning have not been given much importance. Instead, his story unfolds on the screen through an interview with Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist known for her straightforward interviews with several prominent world leaders (including Walesa.)

Wajda has used old footage in film, which fits in seamlessly. During the Solidarity movement, Walesa was constantly under surveillance. Every time the police arrived to arrest him, he took off his ring and gave it to his wife, advising her to sell it off if he did not return. Wajda has highlighted various facets of Walesa: the man who went out on the streets to lead his people, the one who rebuked intellectuals for taking too long to arrive at a conclusion, who was mistaken for a communist spy and labelled a traitor, and the man who asked his wife to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on his behalf as he feared he might be expatriated. Wajda compels one to fall in love with Poland’s most famous leader all over again, and takes us on a journey through the 1980s, which is relatively a recent history. (I have often wondered why we refrain from using cinema as a medium to teach history in schools.)

Another outstanding film is Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s Aftermath, whose producers are Polish, Dutch, Russian and Slovak. After 20 long years in America, Franciszek Kalina returns to his village in Poland because his younger brother Jozef finds himself in an intimidating conflict with his neighbours. While trying to understand and deal with the conflict, the brothers learn about a bestial and demoralising secret from their past.

During the Second World War, German soldiers, with the help of other villagers, had forced Jews into Franciszek’s ancestral house and set it on fire. Franciszek and Josef are shocked when they realise their father was involved in this pogrom too. When they find skeletons in their old house, the proof is undeniable and they are left with no option other than repenting for their ancestors’ sins.

History, circumstances and social sensitivity has made Poland a sort of hub for quality directors, including Krzysztof Kieslowski, Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Zanussi, Agnieszka Holland (who was honoured at the festival with a retrospective) and, of course, Andrzej Wajda.

And it can be safely said young Krzysztof Lukaszewicz has carried the legacy of these veteran directors forward. His film Viva Belarus is the product of his talent. The film is based on a true story and is about a young man, Miron, who stands up against the dictatorship in Poland’s neighbouring country Belarus.

The director, who was present at IFFI, interacted with the audience and explained his reasons for making this film. “We have been through a lot and tried to come out of it as well. So when our neighbouring country finds itself in a similar quagmire, I believe it is our duty to stand by them and that is what I intend to do through my films”, he said.

This socially aware and sensitive director presented a supreme work of art. What impressed me the most was his courage to take a stand against the establishment. The film is not at all preachy, but hits the nail in the head. Viva Belarus confirmed my belief that the standard of Polish films is always above a certain level.

Poland’s history, geography and its culture are so well represented in its cinema that the films successfully manage to introduce and showcase their country for us. I am sure that if I ever visit this historically rich country, I will already be acquainted with it.


Meena Karnik is a freelance journalist, publisher, and a film critic. She has translated the award-winning book Bitter Chocolate, and is author of Gautam — the biography of ace glamour photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha.

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