As stated in the description of the new book ‘Polish Cinema Now!’, published to coincide with the 9th annual edition of the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, Polish cinema of the past twenty years, made without state control of production after the fall of communism, is paradoxically much less well known than their cinema of the earlier post war era. This year’s Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, which runs between 24 March and 23 April at various London venues as well as venues in Belfast, Edinburgh, Exeter and Glasgow, seeks to rectify this lack of exposure by presenting an eclectic selection of the best of contemporary Polish cinema, while also showcasing obscure cult and archival films from the past.
The festival kicks off on the 24th with Jerzy Skolimowski’s excellent Essential Killing, the writer/director’s second feature in three years after a 17 year absence from cinemas. Along with Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski, Skolimowski was instrumental in gaining a place in international consciousness for Polish cinema in the era when it was rigorously controlled by the communist authorities. Essential Killing is clear evidence that despite his long silence the old master has lost none of his powers, as this lean chase thriller starring Vincent Gallo ranks alongside his best work including Moonlighting (1982) and Deep End (1970) (soon to have a re-release via the BFI). Gallo plays a guerilla (his affiliation with the Taliban is never explicitly stated) who is captured and interrogated after killing three Americans in Afghanistan, before escaping after the vehicle he is being transported in to a secret ‘black’ (as in black ops) prison crashes. The movie then becomes an entirely apolitical story of survival, as Mohammed attempts to elude his pursuers while trying to survive in a frozen (unnamed) European wilderness. For those of us who have often been dubious about Gallo in the past, his performance here is a revelation. His performance is entirely wordless, and the only sounds he emits are howls of pain, fear, or anguish; his always present feral quality is brought to the fore as he is reduced to an animalistic state in order to survive. The allegorical nature of the story is very much in keeping with the methods employed by Polish and other eastern European filmmakers in the Soviet Union era, when criticism of life under communism could only be made obliquely, often by setting stories in the pre-communist past or in the domestic realm seemingly removed from anything resembling social or political critique. Essential Killing opens across the UK on April 1st.
One doesn’t expect much in the way of light hearted fare from eastern Europe, and the other films I have watched from this year’s Kinoteka programme did not confound my expectations. Mother Teresa of the Cats is a grim story of matricide, based on a true story, in which two brothers murder their mother, the tragic outcome of the older brother’s delusional state; it’s a sobering portrait of a family destroyed by mental illness. Two childhood friends are reunited in Warsaw in The Christening, one a seemingly mature and successful businessman with a family, the other an immature soldier who is drawn back into the orbit of a crime boss he previously worked for. The film feels heavily influenced by Scorsese’s early classic Mean Streets, and while it drags somewhat in the middle section, it’s an engaging drama about friendship and the inability to escape the consequences of one’s past.
Dark House is a vodka-soaked blackly comic murder mystery which could have been titled ‘Power, Corruption, & Lies.’ Zootechnician Edward Srodon, while making his way to his new posting, finds sanctuary from a downpour in an isolated farmhouse, and after a night of heavy drinking with the farmer, tragedy ensues; some years later, the police reconstruct events, based on the recollections of Srodon, by way of filmed recreations at the burned out scene of the crime. The film moves back and forth between events on the night and the inept attempts of the drunken police (People’s Militia) and public officials to solve the crime while simultaneously trying to uncover or hide evidence of massive corruption. The film pays homage to Fargo (there is even a heavily pregnant cop in winter gear including a hat with ear flaps, a la Frances McDormand), but presents an even darker view of humanity than the Coens do.
Made in Poland is a variation on Alan Clarke’s still potent Made in Britain, with a destructive skinhead protagonist named Bogus who rails impotently against all and sundry and the decay of the new Polish society. Director Przemyslaw Wojciseszek mixes black & white photography with ’80s style computer graphics and classic punk to create a howl of pissed off anguish, which is engrossing but never quite achieves the chilling heights that Clarke’s film does. Janusz Chabior (also seen in Mother Teresa of the Cats) almost steals the film as an alcoholic, misanthropic poet who is the closest Bogus has to an actual friend.
Nothing Personal is probably the least Polish film in the festival, as it’s an English language Dutch/Irish production (directed by a Pole) set mostly in rural Ireland. Stephen Rea plays a widower living in solitude who encounters a young Dutch girl (Lotte Verbeeek) traveling alone and relishing her own company after abandoning her life in Amsterdam. It’s a quietly moving tale of two loners who form an unlikely bond that pulls them out of their isolation, and the film won Best First Feature and Best Actress awards at the Locarno Film Festival in 2009.
Roman Polanski first received attention outside of Poland for a number of intriguing, surreal short films he made, and contemporary Polish shorts are well represented at Kinoteka. I was only sent one example of this year’s new shorts, a spooky animated film about a homicidal girl that’s like a marriage of Edward Gorey and Nick Cave (who wrote the murder ballad that is the basis of the narrative) called Millhaven.
The festival’s director’s retrospective focuses on two brothers whose work I was unfamiliar with, Andrzej and Janusz Kondratiuk. The brothers have largely worked in the realm of shorts and TV movies, and they specialise in a gentle brand of Polish satirical humour. I watched two of their 45 minute television films, How to Gain Money, Women and Fame (1969) and Marriageable Girls (1972); the first is a loosely interconnected triptych that pokes at the foibles of greed, lust and ego, and the second is a sweet story of three country girls who travel into Warsaw on a Saturday night in the hopes of meeting eligible professional men with good prospects. These films mainly seem quaint today, and I am curious to see how Janusz has adapted his style for contemporary sensibilities in his new feature Million Dollars, also playing at the festival.
There are many other films, including a documentary programme, playing in the festival, as well as related musical events and an exhibition of the work of renowned Polish film poster designer Franciszek Starowieyski. For further information about the festival including full listings of screening dates and times in various cities, go to www.kinoteka.org.uk.