20 Essential Films For An Introduction To Polish Cinema

7. Camera Buff – Krzysztof Kieslowski (1979)

Camera Buff (1979)

Philip (Jerzy Stuhr) works in the stock of a factory somewhere on the outskirts of Krakow. On the occasion of the birth of his first child, he buys an expensive 8 mm amateur film camera Krasnogorsk-3 to document the developmental stages of his daughter.

By chance, he is given a proposal by his supervisor to make a video for the twenty-five year existence of the company in which he works. When his first cinematic attempts succeed and he begins to film his private life and the events in his district, he has the opportunity to present his works at a film festival. With increased professional success, Philipp’s family happiness begins to totter.

“Camera Buff” is a Polish feature film production from the 1979, the second collaboration between director Krzysztof Kieslowski and the actor Jerzy Stuhr. This film is a significant pioneer of the “moral anxiety” cinema spread at the time. A film about the consequences of participation in public life. Among other things, the film was subject to severe censorship at the time of its release in communist Poland.

Reason for that were the general suppression of individual development and of acting out of anti-communist motives. According to the communist policies, Philip’s character represented a major threat, because a man’s life that discovered the creative possibilities of filmmaking was shown, even to that extent that the earlier life is not held desirable, and it even feels boring, old, and limited.


6. Our Folks – Sylwester Checinski (1967)

Our Folks

The film tells the story of two feuding families. Shortly after the end of World War II, both families are forced to leave the eastern border areas and have to adjourn to the recovered areas. The warring disputes originate before the war. There, bone of contention was the land. The only harmony between the families is the forbidden love of son and daughter, Witii Kargul and Jadźki.

Sami Swoi is the first part of a cult Polish trilogy. The film, which had originally been produced in black and white, was remastered and colored afterwards in the year 2000 on behalf of the television station Polsat. As locations for most of the scenes served the Breslauer environment, among other Dobrzykowicach, all other scenes were filmed in Lubomierz. In the latter, a museum has been erected with the names of the main characters “Kargul and Pawlak” in honor of this cult film series.


5. Salto – Tadeusz Konwicki (1965)


In a small provincial town somewhere in Poland, one day appears a mysterious man, who introduces himself as Kowalski and also with the name Malinowski (Zbigniew Cybulski). His previous residence is unknown, he wanders through the streets of the city, involved in conversations with residents, claiming that he himself has been once inhabitant of the city.

In every conversation, the interlocutors believe to recognize him and invent new variations of his biography. Some say that he had fought in the war, whereas others that he is on the run and searching for a hiding place due to his dangerous position. Only when the people want to chase him out of town, the truth comes to light, a truth that Kowalski / Malinowski himself does not hold to be true.

In the course of the film, there is the impression that the boundaries between dreams and surreal fantasies are intentionally removed from the reality. Two years earlier, Tadeusz Konwicki’s novel “Modern Dream Book” was published, which served as a literary model for the filming and the author Konwicki himself also wrote the screenplay.

With the role of Kowalski / Malinowski he personifies a whole generation of war returnees, who following their traumatic experiences are in a kind of limbo between dreams/nightmares and reality. Returnees who return to their former homes and indeed recognize these from the past, however sorrow and unhappiness have spread to their memory.


4. Giuseppe in Warsaw – Stanisław Lenartowicz (1964)

Guiseppe in Warsaw

Giuseppe Santucci (Antonio Cifariello), an Italian soldier from the Eastern Front, is on holiday in Poland. During a train journey he is attacked by guerrillas and flees into the forest. The next day he gets to know the confident Maria (Elżbieta Czyżewska) in a passenger train. Already during the train ride, he notices that his submachine gun Beretta, which has a unique identification number, was stolen.

For fear of military punishment and the resulting difficulties for departure to Italy, he follows Maria’s invitation to her apartment. There he meets her brother Staszka (Zbigniew Cybulski), who does not believe in the political underground activities of his sister. Giuseppe makes himself comfortable at their place and learns more about life in occupied Warsaw and its resistance.

“Guiseppe in Warsaw” is a classic tragic-comedy, purposefully placed between the serious history of German-occupied Poland, biting and ironic allusions and humor. The Italian Guiseppe with all his trials and tribulations collides with the Polish culture, which proves to be very passionate and persuasive. The film was produced in 1964 under the direction of Stanislaus Lenartowicza.


3. Knife in the Water – Roman Polanski (1962)

Knife in the Water (1963)

The sports writer Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) embarks with his wife Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) on a sailboat ride. Along the way they encounter a hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) and invite him on the boat. Already during the day arise time and again verbal power struggles between the two men. The down-to-earth Andrzej and the rebellious young stranger fight simultaneously for the favor of Krystyna, where the boy’s knife plays a central role. When things on the boat come to a head, the situation escalates.

The narrative pace of the main story is very slow. Dramaturgical minimalism, a reduction to three characters, a fixed venue, sparse dialogues and the time frame of exactly 24 hours are being applied.

Worth mentioning is the fact that “Knife in the Water” is the first work of the legendary director Roman Polanski. Polanski emphasizes scenes with high depth of field and puts his actors in scene so that usually all three are seen in the image at once and the viewer cannot miss any reaction and gesture. Basically, this film is considered the decisive point for turning international attention to Polish cinema.


2. Night Train – Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1959)


Marta (Lucyna Winnick) buys a train ticket on short notice from a male train passenger and meets Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk) in the men’s sleeping compartment of the train from Lodz to Hel.

Both need a break from unpleasant experiences that are awaiting them at home. Marta, the petite blonde breaks up with her boyfriend Staszek (Zbigniew Cybulski) before departure. After an initial antipathy between Jerzy and Marta, they gradually approach each other. Unexpectedly, the train must stop at a small station where the police gets on.

The policemen are looking for a wanted murderer. A terrible misunderstanding occurs. When the police reaches Martha’s bedroom and Martha had ignorantly accepted the ticket of the murderer, the police believes that Jerzy is the killer. Driven by fear, the other passengers begin a manhunt against the suspects.

The film is based on an authentic, personal experience of the director, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, which he has made during a train ride from Warsaw to Szczecin. Due to an error, he ended up in the same compartment with a female passenger. During the ride, the passenger Kawalerowicz told him about her heartbreak and problems.

“Night Train” is a terrific example of a Polish auteur film under his own production. In 1955, the director Jerzy Kawalerowicz founded the renowned film studio “Studio Filmowe Kadr” and has released numerous masterpieces in the independent film business.

Often, the film has been compared with Hitchchock´s “Strangers on a train”. This comparison is pretty accurate since all the action takes place during a train journey and no loss is made in the narrative tension. The viewer does not know until just before the end, whether he can trust the main protagonist Jerzy.


1. Ashes and Diamonds – Andrej Wajda (1958)


Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) are soldiers of the Polish Home Army. After fighting the German occupiers, they now fight against the Communists, who seize power in Poland. They are assigned to the dangerous mission to kill the communist party secretary Szczuka, however they both fail in completing this daring task. Instead Szczuka, two innocent civilians end up being killed.

During another attempt in a hotel, Maciek gets to know the barmaid Krystyna. Later, during a night walk, they visit a bombed-out church, where Krystyna discovers a poem written by Norwid. Ultimately, Maciek meets Szczuka and shoots him. As Szczuka falls dead to the ground, fireworks begin to honor the end of the war.

Based on Jerzy Andrzejewski’s novel, filmed by Andrzej Wajda, this 1958 black-and-white film deals with the most important date of Polish history, the .8th of. May 1945, the day when Poland was liberated after the Second World War, however the struggle among the Polish people continued.

Wajda’s film enabled the actor Zbigniew Cybulski to have a glorious breakthrough in the international film business. To date, he is called the Polish “James Dean”. His unforgettable character recognition: the dark sunglasses. The lives of these two cinema legends have both ended up in a tragic way. On a cold January day in 1967, Cybulski dies in a failed attempt to jump on a moving train at the Wrocław Main Railway Station.

Author Bio: Natalie Wach (born 1987) is an independent film producer, script writer and director from Cologne, Germany. In 2011 she founded a video and film production called “United Rebels Production”, which stands for unconventional designs using newest technology.