Polish cinema has a long history of challenging the status quo. Throughout the 20th century, Polish cultural icons such as Andrzej Munk and Andrzej Wajda made thought-provoking films that questioned and criticised official narratives. Today, faced with Poland’s resurgent far-right politics, contemporary filmmakers are standing on their shoulders, creating subversive cinema that imagines an alternative way of living.
As part of This is our Poland, we’ve chosen 10 era-defining Polish films from the 50s to the present day that offer an uncensored take on the ideas, values, and rifts that characterised Poland in the past and today.
Set during the Second World War, Munk’s 1958 film uses two wartime sketches to take a sardonic look at newly socialist Poland and subtly criticise the ideals of labour and good citizenship of the time. The first part, Scherzo Alla Pollacca (“A Joke, Polish Style”), follows Dzidziuś, a bon vivant who joins the resistance during the Warsaw Uprising against Nazi occupation. But when he finds out that his wife is having an affair with a Hungarian officer, he abandons his patriotism and becomes a spy for the Hungarians instead. The second part, Ostinato Lugubre, is an equally tragicomic story about a prisoner of war who becomes a living legend for other inmates who believe he’s escaped the camp — until they find out that he’s merely been hiding in the barracks. Eroica is a wonderfully critical portrait of the attitudes of Poles during the Second World War, and a timeless demystification of the hero archetype.
A contemporary Polish classic, Man of Marble is an unconventionally brilliant historical masterpiece. A film within a film, Andrzej Wajda’s work chronicles the fall from grace of a fictional Polish bricklayer, Mateusz Birkut, and a student filmmaker called Agnieszka who wants to make her graduation project on his Stalin-era triumphs. Statues have been erected to Birkut across Poland, celebrating the Stakhanovite worker as a symbol of hard work and socialist spirit. But by the time Agnieszka decides to start filming, Birkut’s whereabouts have been unknown for 20 years. As she tries to unearth his story, authorities warn her to stop “digging too deep into the past” and uncovering his true fate. Just like Agnieszka, officials continuously tried to stop Wajda from making Man of Marble, and the film was banned as soon as it was released. Man of Marble offers a critical look at Polish history through the eyes of what was soon going to become a revolutionary generation, and today is described by some as an anticipation of Poland’s solidarity movement.
Although not set in Poland, no Polish film listicle would be complete without Kieślowski masterpiece trilogy from the 1990s. Named after the colours of the French flag — Blue, White, and Red — the films are a conceptually interlocked series, each loosely based on one of the three political ideas which make up the Republic’s motto: liberty, equality, and fraternity. The trilogy opens with Blue, and stars Juliette Binoche as a woman whose husband and child are killed in a car accident. In White, Julie Delpy is Dominique, a French woman who divorces her Polish husband, leaving him helpless in Paris. Finally, Red follows the trials and tribulations of university student Irène Jacob, her friendships and her love affairs. Completed just before the director’s sudden death in 1996, the trilogy remains a marker for high arthouse cinema. Although overly-contrived and slow at times, the films remain an intense watch, and an icon of modern Polish cinema. But they also provide an unfiltered take on ideas of freedom, equality, and friendship. A little-known fact: the films were co-written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a screenwriter-cum-parliamentarian and conservative figure in Poland today.
Papusza is the story of the homonymous Polish-Romani poet, whose real name was Bronisława Wajs. Shot almost solely in the Romani language, it follows the protagonist from her childhood in a family of musicians as they survive the Second World War, before focusing on her beginnings as a published poet and her relationship with her publisher, Polish writer Jerzy Ficowski. But her poetry is not celebrated by all, and Papusza is eventually excluded from the Roma community as a traitor for sharing Romani rites with the wider world. Although Papusza had previously starred in several documentaries, this feature film about her life is a glimpse at a Poland that is far more multi-ethnic and multicultural than nationalists would have you believe.
Shot in black and white, with gorgeous landscape tableaux, the film is a non-chronological, poetic biopic that is a tribute to the poet’s life.
Ida, the winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2015, was director Pawel Pawlikowski’s first feature filmed in his home country. Set in the 1960s, Ida follows the story of a mysterious yet candidly beautiful 17-year-old novice nun who learns that her parents were Jewish and murdered by the family that concealed them from the Nazis during the Second World War. Digging deep into the heart of the Catholicism and anti-Semitism of Poland’s church and state, Ida stirred up controversy at its release, after the Polish Anti-Defamation League (RDI) slammed the film as being “anti-Polish”. The organisation, which describes itself as devoted to “defending Poland’s reputation”, argued that the film failed to acknowledge that many Poles worked to save Jews during the Nazi occupation. Yet that didn’t stop Pawlikowski from exploring the landscape of his childhood. Ida, shot in black and white, also has touches of the classic Polish film school. The result is a sparse, haunting road film that continues to reach audiences worldwide .
Warsaw is changing. Christopher and Michał, two art school students on the brink of coming of age, restlessly roam the city at night. The storyline is simple: the film follows them over a year or two in their lives, as they navigate the nightlife scene filled with parties, drugs, and odd characters — Polish in context, but universal in essence. The conversations hover between the deep and the meaningless, touching on theories about existence, cigarettes, and multiple girlfriends. Michal Marczak’s docudrama probes the boundaries between reality and scripted fiction, and constantly pushes its audience to reexamine the world around them. A film that undoubtedly lives up to the dreaminess of the title, All These Sleepless Nights captured exactly the feeling of a wakeful euphoria at sunrise, after a night out.
Premiered at the Berlinale in 2017, Spoor is a psychological crime drama based on Man Booker International Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. The film is directed by Poland’s “matriarch of cinema”, Agnieszka Holland, who began her career as an assistant to Polish directors Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrej Wajda in the 80s after they were exiled to France. Today, she continues to make timely films that criticise and reflect on Polish society. Spoor tells the story of a world in which humans arrogantly grant themselves primacy over animals. It tells the story of retired engineer and unorthodox thinker Janina, who stumbles across a poacher’s dead body one snowy night. When she is framed as the police’s main suspect, she decides to launch her own investigation. While choosing just one revolutionary title from Holland’s extensive filmography is no easy feat, Spoor sees the outspoken director take on the timely topic of animal rights abuse, displaying her mastery to act as a voice for sociopolitical change in present-day Poland.
Gorgeous, passionate, and heartbreaking, Cold War sees Pawel Pawlikowski return to Poland to make a melancholic portrait of an ardent romance doomed by cruel circumstances. A love letter to an entire generation of Poles, Paweł Pawlikowski’s film, which won him Best Director in Cannes, spans more than a decade. Following the love story of Wiktor and Irena from its dawn until their last dance, Cold War is a journey back and forth across a physically and emotionally impenetrable Iron Curtain. Ultimately, the black-and-white drama is a tribute to those whose emotional lives were squandered under harsh socio-political forces, and ends with a dedication to his parents.
The human body is a recurrent concern in the films of Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska, and Mug is no exception. In a scabrous, comical take on the topic, heavy metal enthusiast and church-goer Jacek is injured while working on a small-town construction site building the world’s tallest statue of Christ. (The film was in fact inspired by a slightly less ambitious statue of Christ built in the town of Świebodzin in western Poland in 2010.) After the accident, Jacek undergoes the country’s first face transplant, but falls into a deep identity crisis. All the while, his family, girlfriend, and local priest have to decide how much they want to chip in for Jacek’s continuing medical bills, and argue about what seems to be Jacek’s new identity. Mug is unsettling, strange, and engaging, and brilliantly acted and directed. Halfway between reality and fantasy, ultimately the film questions the metaphor of the face we show to the world versus our true identity — and includes questions on the identity of religion, Poland, and individuals like Jacek.
Corpus Christi, a 2020 Oscar contender, tells the story of a 20-year-old convict who wants to become a priest: an impossible dream due to his criminal record. He is sent to a small village to work as a carpenter but, thanks to an unexpected turn of events, takes over the parish. The young man’s arrival serves as an opportunity to heal the wounds of the community generated by a tragic series of deaths. Made by prolific film duo formed by director Jan Komasa and scriptwriter Mateusz Pacewicz, Corpus Christi fictionalised the many cases of fraud in Poland’s priesthood, and, shot in a grim, colourless palette, ironically questions Poland’s Catholic faith. At the end of the film, as his congregation is divided on how to move on from their painful past, the young priest teaches the ultimate Christian lesson: “to forgive means to love someone despite their guilt.”