20 Essential Films For An Introduction To Polish Cinema

14. Man of Iron – Andrzej Wajda (1981)

Man of Iron

Tells the story of Radio editor Winkel (Marian Opania), given the task by the most suüerior authority to gather evidence against the Solidarność-member Maciek Tomczyk (Jerzy Radziwilowicz). Winkel’s goal is to reach the striking Lenin shipyard in Gdansk. During the research, Winkel gets to know Maciej Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda).

The chronological retrospective begins with the Polish March riots in 1968. Maciej is a student leader at this time and tries to persuade his father to convince the shipyard workers, to march together with the students. Maciej’s father is shot during the unrest by the citizen militia ZOMO.

When handing out leaflets, he is apprehended and detained for three months in jail. The other shipyard workers begin to build a protest movement, erupting in the fall of 1980. As Winkel learns the details of the story, he changes sides.

“Man of Iron” goes hand in hand with the real political unrest at the time of the release. The film is a meaningful statement for human rights, democracy and trust in one’s own willpower.

Moreover, “Man of Iron”, the sequel to the film “Man of Marble”. Wajda’s work was also gratefully acknowledged by the international audience. At the International Film Festival of Cannes in 1981, he won the Palme d’Or. In 1982, he was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.


13. The Saragossa Manuscript – Wojciech Has (1964)

The Saragossa Manuscript

During the Napoleonic wars in Spain, two enemy officers discover an ancient manuscript and while reading the pictorial manuscript in a remote cabin forget the raging war and the fighting soldiers.

The film also tells the story of handsome Walloon officer Alfons van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), who rides through the wild and inaccessible Sierra Morena in 1739. He meets two Moorish princesses who pretend to be his relatives. After a wild night, he wakes up under a gallows in front of two hanged persons. From now on, he repeatedly wakes up under the gallows or in dungeons of the Inquisition, the story takes an increasingly delusional traits.

The Polish costume film applies many surrealist and expressionist design elements and a creative non-linear narrative structure. For many renowned directors, inter alia Martin Scorsese, Luis Buñuel, Lars von Trier, Francis Ford Coppola, this film still represents a milestone in Polish film history.


12. The Pianist – Roman Polanski (2002)

Adrian Brody The Pianist

Poland in 1939. Through the German occupation, the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) and his family are banished into the Warsaw Ghetto. Only Wladyslaw’s brother Henryk (Ed Stoppard) suspects that this stay would have a tragic ending. For the 360,000 Jewish inhabitants comes down to 20 survivors of the extermination camps, no possibility of escape.

Wladyslaw is separated from his family by a Jewish overseer he knows and escapes the transport to certain death. With the help of a Polish friend and her husband, he finds a hideout in an empty apartment. A time of excruciating loneliness becomes his companion.

“The Pianist” is one of the most personal and authentic works of director Roman Polanski. After about 50 years, he finally felt ready to process his own trauma in the original locations. In his childhood, he himself has lost his grandmother, his pregnant mother and half-sister in the extermination camp of Auschwitz.

Polanski remembers very well how he witnessed indiscriminate killings in the Krakow ghetto. While filming in Krakow, Polanski met a man who helped him and his family to survive the Second World War.


11.Three Color Trilogy – Krzysztof Kieslowski (1993/94)

Three Color Trilogy Red

The Three Colours Trilogy is a series of films created by the Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski in 1993 and 1994. As in his films before, Kieślowski uses again thematic umbrella terms, which he enforces persistently and interprets atypically.

In the three colors, he deliberately used the three colors of the French national flag (tricolor) as a title to refer to the three elements of the French slogan – liberty, equality and fraternity. All three films have been shot almost simultaneously (France, Poland, Switzerland) and also point to common interfaces.

The protagonists also intersect in some scenes, but in different films. E.g. a scene occurs in blue in a courthouse. Julie (Juliette Binoche) accidentally enters a courtroom in which a hearing in white is held, you can have a look into the courtroom and see the main characters from White and hear the phrase “Where is the equality?”. In white this scene is shown from the perspective of the courtroom, however seen from this perspective, the “foreign” person is looking in the courtroom through the door opening.

The viewer wonders until the end of the film series, which higher causal connection is in common for all three films. That is shown in the end of the third part, that all of them are actually survivors of a ferry accident. Sadly, this trilogy was the last work of the master director Kieslowski, since he died too early in 1996 due to complications during a heart surgery.


10. Eroica – Andrzej Munk (1957)


“Eroica” is a black and white war film from 1958. The whole film epic is divided into two parts, “Scherzo alla polacca” and “Ostinato – lugubre”, each consisting of 40-scurrilous, irrelevant stories.

The first part tells of the activities of Górkiewicz (Edward Dziewoński), a bon vivant, a drunkard and a coward during the Warsaw Uprising. He is the binding element in the exchange between Polish and Hungarian troops, which are in Warsaw. The second story shows Polish officers in a German prisoner-of-war camp who want to cultivate the myth of the legendary refugee camp. Zawistowski (Tadeusz Łomnicki), one of the soldiers, decides to make an attempt to escape from the camp.

“Eroica” is a leading mainstream film. It refers to the question how far the national myths have been exaggeratedly shown as heroic.


9. A Short Film About Killing – Krzysztof Kieslowski (1987)

A Short Film About Killing (1988)

The film is divided into three distinct, parallel sections. The viewer follows the stories of three main characters, a taxi driver (Piotr Balicki), a newly minted lawyer (Waldemar Rekowski) and a young man (Mirosław Baka), who drifts aimlessly through the streets of a city. They move in a rather drab, gray world between concrete buildings in Warsaw’s Old Town.

The taxi driver is characterized by rudeness and quiet sadism towards his fellow people, the young man does not behave much better, so he deliberately throws a stone from a bridge onto a passing car. Only the lawyer spreads some confidence because he wants to fight for changes in the legal system.

Their paths cross in a cafe, where the lawyer is celebrating his successfully passed exam and the young man is drinking his coffee. When the young vagabond then subsequently gets in the cab of the misanthropic taxi driver, he has himself driven to a remote area, a deserted dirt road. When both have reached their destination, the viewer becomes a witness to a murder scene that has been probably the longest one in film history.

From the first moment on, the theme of the film is comprehensible. Images of death are shown in their full cruelty. Even the opening credits are framed by the brutal image of a suspended cat. “A Short Film About Killing” is the fifth part of the television Decalogue of 10 films. The fifth part refers to the fifth of the Ten Commandments of the Bible, “Thou shalt not kill”. As design refinement, a green filter is used in almost the entire film.

Kieslowski’s films mostly aware remove themselves from the usual social views on moral issues. This is also seen clearly in this film. The doomed young man is also taken his own life, as he previously took the life of his victim, and again undignified killing occurs and only defense of the convicted.

Murder as a state ceremony is justified to punish murder in the civilian context. When the film was broadcasted in 1988, the death penalty in Poland was still actively practiced. In 1997 the death penalty was then abolished.


8. Sexmission – Juliusz Machulski (1984)


The two scientists Maks (Jerzy Stuhr) and Albert (Olgierd Lukaszewicz) place themselves at the disposal for a revolutionary experiment as living test persons. They should be put into a cold sleep for three years and then be waken up. However the experiment fails, the Third World War breaks out and erases a major part of life on Earth.

When they wake up, already 50 years have passed, instead of the planned three years. In addition, they will soon realize that they are in a controlled underground society of women and they are the only two surviving men. The self-styled Casanova Maks recognizes a paradise on earth.

To escape a possible punishment by the women who have the power in the underground, they flee to the surface with the help of the beautiful Lamia (Bozena Stryjkówna). All three recognize that they were victims of a great tall tale.

Undeniably, “Sexmission” is one of the largest commercial, Polish successes that reached a wide international audience. Certainly, promiscuity and irony have proved to be an indispensable recipe for success. The film deals with the battle of the sexes and nevertheless spotlights the criticism of totalitarian systems and their prudery.

Exaggerated feminism brags on egocentric machismo. Both extremes, however, are skillfully twitted. In many points, “Sex Mission” reminds of the Italian equivalent by Federico Fellini “City of Women”, which had been released four years before.