Martin Scorsese got his first exposure to Polish cinema at film school. Its heady stew of Italian neo-realism, French New Wave, and German Expressionism was a quintessential mix of European styles, but with a distinctive rhythm, humour and pessimism all its own. To say these films had a huge impact on Scorsese’s own development as a filmmaker would be, like, duh. Luckily we can say more than that, as TIFF is presenting the fantastic full traveling program of Martin Scorese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema throughout the month of June. Join me after the jump for a look at Kino Polska!
Curated by Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, the program of 21 films launched at the Film Society of Lincoln Centre in New York earlier this year. Each one has been digitally restored, and the series includes some standout little-seen films.
Superb directors Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi, and Krzysztof Kieslowski are just a few of the talents included. Wajda in particular is a remarkable filmmaker, and his Ashes and Diamonds (1958) is one of Scorsese’s favourites. The concluding chapter of Wajda’s War Trilogy, the film captures an unsettling Poland at the end of WWII. The Germans all but vanquished, the Communists are taking over, and a weary resistance trips over itself in the about-face of an unwanted new conflict. Having bungled the assassination of an incoming Communist official, the charismatic Zbigniew Cybulski plays Maciek, a freedom fighter torn between wanting a new life and his duty to finish the job he botched. Just like his battered nation, the pull into conflict is unfortunate and inevitable. Still, there’s a wry gallows humour at play, as the bars fill with smoke and denial, sycophants drunkenly self-sabotage before their newly minted bosses, and Maciek can’t focus between assassination and the pursuit of a sultry blonde barkeep. Beautifully shot with some unforgettable tableaux, Wajda captures a country exhausted by war, in disbelief as it’s about to be put under the boot again.
Less wrenching is Wajda’s shifty pas de deux Innocent Sorcerors (1960), a beatnik will-they-or-won’t-they romance drifting on the shuffling pulse of a jazz score. Tadeusz Lomnicki is Andrzej, a young doctor working with the city’s boxing team. Clever and aloof, the good doctor moonlights as a drummer in a jazz-band, toying with the women who approach him with enviable regularity. Truth is, Andrzej’s a bit of a jerk, but he meets his match when he encounters an equally oblique pretty club denizen who calls herself Pelagia (Krystyna Stypulkowska). Passing on the advances of his impetuous pal Ed (Zbigniew Cybulski rearing his immaculately coiffed head again), Pelagia instead finds Andrzej intriguing, though more malleable than he’d consciously admit. The two wander the city, eventually arriving back at Andrzej’s apartment, where the fencing begins in earnest. It’s sort of a Before Sunrise Polish-style, but whether it’s the timelessness of the battle of the sexes, or the striking similarities of the early sixties and twenty-teens hipster, it feels fresh and contemporary despite the gulf of over fifty years.
Commenting on the spell these films hold on him, Scorsese says, “This is a cinema of personal vision, social commitment and poetic responsibility from which we’ve all learned and which sets a high standard that, as a filmmaker, I strive to achieve with every film, every time out.” Especially considering the oppressiveness of the regime these films were made under, their modern candour and distinctiveness make for fascinating viewing.
Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema runs from Thursday, June 5th, to Tuesday, July 1st, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. For details on the full schedule and tickets, see here. For a full list of the places the series will be playing throughout the coming year, including Seattle, Huntington, Philadelphia and Austin, see here. As well, director Krystztof Zanussi will be offering a special free talk on the current conflict in the Ukraine and its relation to European film and literature on Friday, June 13th at 12pm. Tickets (the free kind) for the talk will be available from the TIFF box-office two hours beforehand, day of, first-come, first-served – details here.