5 Films That Will Help You Better Understand Poland
Every nation and people have their historical "scars" known as "collective traumas" - an essential component in shaping community identity. While the purely ideological exploration of collective traumas often involves either victimizing the past or glorifying it, art, particularly cinema, aims to avoid mentor-like tones and demonstrates a broader approach in seeking to understand the essence of social catastrophes. Presented below are five Polish films that not only "speak" about various historical traumas within their narratives but also to some extent represent the multifaceted nature of the Polish nation's mentality.
"Ashes and Diamonds" ("Popiół i diament"), directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1958
This renowned film, awarded the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1959 Venice Film Festival, explores the story of "rejected soldiers" from the Home Army (Armia Krajova). It delves into a narrative that challenges conventional understandings of Poland's past within socialist context and vividly illustrates that a strategy solely based on a binary lens of condemnation and compassion is not the only way to "remember." For the film's protagonist, Maciek Chelmicki (portrayed by Zbigniew Cybulski, a superstar of Polish cinema), the end of World War II does not mean liberation for Poland; it merely replaces German occupation with Soviet rule. In his American field jacket and sunglasses with darkened lenses (as a tribute to his unrequited love for his homeland), this romantic, introspective assassin continues to fight against the new regime, knowing full well that his struggle is doomed to fail and all his dreams of the future will go up in smoke, like spirits consumed in a memorial pyre. Years later, the agonizing, long chase with a bullet in his back would be echoed by other "rejected and doomed" characters such as Michel Poiccard in Godard's "Breathless" and Oida in Hideo Gosha's noir film "Phone Call to the Hell."
"The Third Part of the Night" ("Trzecia część nocy"), directed by Andrzej Żuławski, 1971
In his directorial debut, Żuławski, better known for his French period films such as "Possession" and "My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days," demonstrates that the past is not just a field for ideological battles over understanding the present or material for inventing types of memorial management. It can also serve as an opportunity to transform a national tragedy like the Nazi occupation of Poland into a complex existential metaphor, similar to how Wim Wenders endowed the Berlin Wall with multilayered symbolism in "Wings of Desire." The central object around which the film's narrative revolves, and the cause of the unfolding discourse about historical trauma, is the Lviv Institute of Virology, where the famous doctor Rudolf Weigl developed a vaccine for typhus and employed representatives of the intelligentsia as "feeders" for lice, thus saving them from a death by hunger and concentration camps. It is within the context of this object that the story of the film's protagonist, whose entire family is killed before his eyes, unfolds. He manages to escape death (although it is difficult to assert this unequivocally) thanks to the confusion with his doppelgängers – Żuławski's somber world teems with doubles and ghosts, rivaling the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet and David Lynch in this regard.
"The Deluge" ("Potop"), directed by Jerzy Hoffman, 1974
Among the numerous historical traumas experienced by many nations, the theme of the "traitor and hero" is considered the most painful. In Poland, which once endured three partitions by other countries, losing not only its statehood but also its language and culture (thus dividing society into "patriots" and "collaborators"), this ambivalent theme has always remained relevant. One of the most famous works of Polish literature, the epic novel "The Deluge" by Henryk Sienkiewicz, revolves around this theme. The film adaptation by director Jerzy Hoffman is regarded as one that must be seen to truly "understand who the Poles are." Andrzej Kmicic, the main character of "The Deluge" (brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Olbrychski), is a young, ambitious nobleman who possesses nobility but is also cruel and corrupted by indulgence. By becoming involved in political intrigues and joining Hetman Janusz Radziwiłł, who seeks to gain royal power over Poland with the help of Swedish occupiers, Kmicic becomes a traitor in the eyes of patriots. He must undertake numerous actions not only to redeem himself and justify his deeds but also to become an embodiment of the "Polish character."
"Dogs" ("Psy"), directed by Władysław Pasikowski, 1992
In a way, this film enters into a discussion with Wajda's "Ashes and Diamonds" from its very first frames. On a garbage dump reminiscent of the one where Maciek Chelmicki painfully met his demise, new "rejected soldiers," former employees of the PRL state security, burn stacks of documents, destroying their "ill-fated past." Pasikowski keenly sensed the social changes that occurred in Poland after 1989, when the socialist regime collapsed, and the "executioners" once again swapped places with the "victims." One of the "new rejects" is Franz Maurer, a former officer of the Security Service (SB) and a life-worn "cynic with a tender heart" portrayed by the unparalleled Bogusław Linda. After being reassigned and demoted within the newly established police force of the Third Republic, many of his former colleagues, unwilling to languish in poverty, become gangsters and find themselves on the wrong side of the barricade. Pasikowski, while telling Maurer's story, skillfully captures the fears of that time and portrays a traumatized and traumatizing reality in which old values have lost their significance while new ones have yet to emerge. "Psy" became the highest-grossing film of the 1990s and continues to hold cult status in Poland. Andrzej Wajda, after watching "Psy," stated that Pasikowski knows something about the Polish audience that remains a mystery to him. The aviator leather jacket à la "Top Gun" worn by Franz Maurer in the film even sparked a fashion trend (in 2020, this famous jacket was sold at auction for over one hundred thousand zlotys), much like Maciek Chelmicki's M65 jacket did in its time.
"Grain of Truth" ("Ziarno prawdy"), directed by Borys Lankosz, 2015
There have been quite a few films made about anti-Semitism and the indirect involvement of Poles in the Holocaust (such as the Academy Award-winning "Ida" by Paweł Pawlikowski, "In Darkness" by Agnieszka Holland, or "Aftermath" by Władysław Pasikowski), which sparked intense discussions and accusations of anti-Polish narratives and defamation of the entire nation. However, unlike the aforementioned films, Lankosz's work does not aim to raise further questions about what and how Polish society should remember. The director addresses the viewer in the language of a detective film ("Grain of Truth" is an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, a popular author of crime stories), intertwining a collective historical trauma with a captivating investigation into mysterious murders in the provincial town of Sandomeż, connected to a medieval local legend of bloody sacrifices of Jews. But, as they say, there is a grain of truth in every legend (which is the accurate translation of the film's title). The prosecutor Theodore Szacki, who investigates these crimes, is no less brutal than Franz Maurer. His rather harsh remarks about church officials, press workers, nationalists, and the average middle-class citizen have long been turned into memes. However, the director faced criticism from zealous defenders of the "historical immaculacy of the nation" for Szacki's statement that, besides bile, there is no room left for anything else in the collective body of the Polish people.