Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) movie poster

director  Andrzej Wajda
viewed: 01/22/2018

Ashes and Diamonds has been on my personal watchlist for a long, long time. But weirdly, after finally watching it, I was struck that I had indeed seen it before, probably when I was living in England in the mid-90’s, on a tiny little telly. It was when I was first getting introduced to the broader reaches and general canon of World Cinema.

Still, it strikes me as odd that I’d totally forgotten that I’d seen a film considered one of the greats of Polish cinema.

It was a couple of scenes, late in the film, dramatic shots of the hotel lobby, streaming with light from an open door, the climactic explosion of the fireworks at the moment of murder, and the final sequence of death and dancing.

Like a dream memory, long forgotten and re-awoken. Weird.

The Silent Star (1960)

The Silent Star (1960) movie poster

director  Kurt Maetzig
viewed: 02/06/2017

The Silent Star is mid-century a mainstream science fiction film through an alternate lens: not dramatically different, yet significantly so. It’s an East German/Polish production, one of only an handful of scifi genre films to come from those countries in that era. It’s a remarkable production, with some really interesting aesthetics and designs and some interesting differences from other films of the time.

The Silent Star is indeed about the first manned space travel to Venus. It’s inspired by the finding of an odd damaged piece of technology that turns out to be a message from Venusians of some time in the past.

What’s interesting is how multicultural the crew is, considering this is pre-Gene Roddenberry and also behind the “Iron Curtain”. And it’s not tokenism as is common today in a multicultural cast, but the world depicted is one inhabited by many people of different races, co-mingling in a common united culture. It’s not quite as progressive regarding feminism, but ah well.

Cold War nuclear fear strikes a different tone here. Nuclear weapons are acknowledged as deadly to all life and the bombing or Hiroshima is significantly cited. The Nazis are cited too, but only once in reference to the then present day fears.

Once Venus is actually reached, what is left is a petrified forest of destruction left by nuclear explosions. Were the Venusians intending a warning for Earth, or were they destroyed in their planned nuclear destruction of our planet?

The story is adapted from Polish writer Stanisław Lem, whose work was the basis for the Andrei Tarkovsky Solaris (1972). Lem was apparently unhappy with the adaptation, but it’s a very interesting artifact of an earlier era in science fiction from a culture on a different side of the Cold War fence from most of us.

Knife in the Water (1962)

Knife in the Water (1962) movie poster

director Roman Polanski
viewed: 05/03/2016

“Knife…in the waterrrr…” (hum to the tune of Deep Purple)

Roman Polanski’s first feature film and only technically “Polish” feature film is 1960’s European avant-garde first class and also a sign of the angst, tension, and turmoil that would mark his best films of his burgeoning career.

Three people on a little boat on a large, calm lake, as if no other people exist anywhere else in the world, save the radio, and nobody can just get along. Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) are cruising an isolated country road when they pick up a somewhat dodgy young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) and decide to take him along for their day-long boat excursion. But Andrzej can’t help but intimidate the young man and the young man is full of an unsettled energy, either a battle for the charms of Krystyna, or perhaps something more unstated between the two men.

It’s a study in simplicity and concision in many ways. Shot in black-and-white, it’s an unnerving sample of the dark worlds Polanski would later uncover again and again as he took the world stage as director (and before he became pariah in the US).

Ida (2013)

Ida (2013) movie poster

director Paweł Pawlikowski
viewed: 12/04/2014

If you haven’t heard about Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, don’t worry, you probably will soon.  It just won Best Foreign-Language Film at the LA Film Critics Awards and it’s making a lot of short-lists of best movies of 2014.  I’m sure it’s not done yet.

Luckily, if you’re interested, it’s available on Netflix streaming at the moment.  That’s where I caught it.

Set in the 1960’s, a still Stalinist era Poland, a young girl  (Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to become a nun when she learns that she has an aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza),…and that she’s actually Jewish.  Encouraged by her superior to visit her aunt and learn what she can about her family, she packs up to meet her hard-drinking lost relative and uncovers a history of which she had no knowledge.  This journey to knowledge is one for both women in th(e end, an uncovering of lost, repressed, hidden knowledge in an era of perhaps alternate repressions.

I won’t ruin it for you by telling you what ultimately is not so surprising, but how is more telling is what they discoveries and knowledge effects the two and plays out.

Shot in black-and-white, perhaps in reference to Polish films of the 1960’s, the film is a study of its time and place.  Wanda had been a judge for the Stalinists post-War and had developed a brutal reputation in persecuting Socialists, and so she is tough and fierce and knows how to get to information, information she could doubtlessly have uncovered on her own before meeting Ida, but significantly, at this point, she is a bit more of a drunk, ruminating over the past, unhappy in the present.

Ida, on the other hand, is a devout, almost brainwashed girl, utterly unaware of her own history, the true facts of her life, and her almost implacable face doesn’t belie her real considerations of this experience with her aunt, her venture into the world.

Ida is definitely a good movie.  I liked it.  It’s short, concise, and well-made.  But I don’t know if I would rank it one of the best films of the year.  A lot of critics make top 10 lists and most critics restrict themselves to movies released within the calendar year.  So with those two parameters set, maybe I would place it in a top 10 list.  My annual lists are not restricted by numbers or released dates, so I doubt Ida will be on mine.  It’s not to criticize it, just to be clear about how I feel about it.

Essential Killing (2010)

Essential Killing (2010) movie poster

director Jerzy Skolimowski
viewed: 09/24/2012

Essential Killing, a Polish “political thriller”, isn’t a film for those who like their narratives and character definitions clearly delineated.  It’s a film in which the main character never speaks a word, so outside of some impressionistic flashbacks, his story, while given some subjectivity, is hardly spelled out and isn’t entirely knowable.

The film opens with a couple of Americans in some unspecified desert location, scoping about with one American soldier and being tracked by a military helicopter.  What they are doing, looking for something, isn’t really clear, but what they find, a bearded, barefoot, apparently Islamic man, panicking in a crevasse, who winds up ambushing them and blowing them away.  He’s then bombed from above and captured by the Americans.

Deafened by the bombing, he doesn’t respond to interrogation or torture and is shipped off to a wintry Polish countryside where the Americans have a prison.  When his transfer vehicle crashes, he escapes into the wild, but not before killing a couple more soldiers, stealing their clothes and vehicle.  The rest of the film, he’s on the run from the American troops, like some contemporary Jack London figure, eating bark off trees, killing, eating, surviving.

That this fighter is played by American Vincent Gallo and that he never speaks, we don’t really know who he is or why he does what he does.  Is he a trained killer?  Is he a native to the unnamed Islamic country?  Is he a fighter or just frightened and surviving like an animal?  Is he potentially like John Walker Lindh, the “Marin Taliban”, a transplant?  He manages to not be overly daunted by the snow and seems to have some survival skills.

The levels of sympathy that he could evoke vary with his killings.  It’s never clear if he’s acting entirely out of fear or if he has some sense of what he’s doing.  His palpable terror could go either way.  And the ending is equally open-ended.

For me, open-endedness is not an decisive problem.  It does make it hard to empathize, to know where to invest one’s emotional connection, which is such inherent characteristic of narrative cinema.  The film, as adventure and drama, is effective but not enthralling.  How much of this is intentional, I don’t know.  In those “man versus nature” types of thrillers, generally the audience is called upon to root for the human, particularly in a case where he is hunted by an army.

It’s interesting.  Perhaps more theoretically than really.  We don’t know how “essential” his killing really is.  I don’t know how essential this film is.  It’s not bad.

Night Train (1959)

Night Train (1959) movie poster

director Jerzy Kawalerowicz
viewed: 06/11/2012

After reading an article on The Guardian‘s website by Alexei Sayle about Polish cinema releases, I queued up Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1959 film Night Train to fill a gap in my cinema experience.  Outside of a handful of films by Krzysztof Kieślowski, I don’t know if I’d ever seen any other Polish films, though I was aware that there were some great films from this period.

Night Train is pretty awesome. Shot largely in the claustrophobia confines of a train, characters squeeze past one another, bump around, are thrown together in a noirish universe.  There is a murderer onboard, a man who has just killed his wife (but no one really knows who it is) or that he’s even onboard until the police stop the train in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere and try to subdue him.  It’s not a suspense film in the Hitchcockian sense, though one could easily imagine Hitchcock truly enjoying this film.  The story and characterization are such that it’s not really clear who anyone is, as everyone seems to be harboring secrets and a desire for escape.

The main characters are Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk) and Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), strangers who wind up sharing a sleeping compartment despite their desires to be alone.  Marta is trying to escape from a smitten stalker who is also on the train but in a cheaper carriage.   Jerzy is mysterious about his desire to be alone (could he be the killer?)

When the police pursue the killer from the train (with most of the other passengers on his heels), they chase him to a dark cemetery where they savage him.  It’s an eerie sequence with tombstones stark against the sky amid the darkness of the open nighttime landscape.

The film has such visual verve and as it’s so full of existential loneliness, these many passengers, so pressed together upon one another, strangers upon strangers, still all are very alone.  Very cool film.  Very cool indeed.