Though little-known in the US except for the work of expatriates ending up in Hollywood like silent-film siren Pola Negri and directors Roman Polanski and Agnieszka Holland, Polish cinema has a history as long and deep as the art of cinema itself. In fact, possibly the earliest-ever movie camera, called the Pleograf, was patented in 1894 by a Polish inventor named Kazimierz Prószynski – right around the same time that the more influential Cinématographe was being developed in France by Léon Bouly and the Lumière brothers.
The first movie theater in Poland opened in 1899, in Lodz, and by 1902 Prószynski was creating both short narrative films and documentaries; one of the latter, whose title translates as Skating Rink in the Royal Baths, is still in existence. The earliest surviving feature film, Anton for the First Time in Warsaw, was made in 1908 by Antoni Fertner. The first-ever stop-motion animated film, Beautiful Lukanida (1912), was made by a Polish filmmaker, Władysław Starewicz, using insect puppets.
The upheavals of the Russian Revolution and two World Wars forced many filmmakers from the area that was sometimes Poland, sometimes Lithuania, sometimes Russia to head west and find more amenable working conditions in other countries. There was a spurt of nationalistic epics made in between the wars, when Poland achieved nationhood; but the industry didn’t really start to regain its early momentum until the postwar period. Under the Soviet regime, filmmaking was nationalized as Film Polski under the Stalinist Aleksander Ford, who later went on to teach at the National Film School in Lodz. But out of Ford’s shop emerged some of the greatest talents in late-20th-century European cinema, including Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski and the great Andrzej Wajda.
Two of Wajda’s best-known classics, Ashes and Diamonds (1958) and Man of Iron (1981), along with his less-familiar Innocent Sorcerers (1960), are included in a traveling series of “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” curated by Martin Scorsese, 11 of which will be hosted by Upstate Films beginning this Sunday and running through early October. Set on the last day of World War II and the first day of peace under a new communist regime, Ashes and Diamonds is told from the point of view of a young Polish resistance soldier who has to decide whether or not to lay down his arms. Scorsese has written that the film “affected me so deeply that I paid small homage by giving Charlie a pair of similar sunglasses in Mean Streets.”
Ashes and Diamonds will be screened at 1:45 p.m. on Sunday, August 10 at Upstate Films’s flagship cinema in Rhinebeck and again on Sunday, August 17 in its Woodstock location, at a time yet to be announced. Man of Iron, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a fictionalized version of the rise of the Solidarity movement amongst the shipyard workers in Gdansk. It will screen in Rhinebeck only on Wednesday, September 10. Innocent Sorcerers, a love story, will show on Wednesday, August 27 in Rhinebeck and on Saturday, August 30 in Woodstock.
Another star of the postwar Polish Film School was Jerzy Kawalerowicz, represented by three titles in the “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” series: Night Train (1959), scheduled for Sunday, August 31 in Rhinebeck; Mother Joan of the Angels (1960), to be shown on Sunday, September 14 in Rhinebeck and again on Saturday, September 27 in Woodstock; and the recently restored costume epic Pharaoh (1965), screening on Sunday, September 21 in Rhinebeck and Saturday, October 4 in Woodstock.
Beginning in the 1970s, an aesthetic movement arose in Poland known as the “cinema of moral anxiety,” whose leading light, Krzysztof Kieslowski, later gained international fame through his Dekalog series of ten one-hour TV films based on the Ten Commandments and with his Three Colors trilogy filmed in France. Kieslowski’s highly acclaimed A Short Film about Killing (1988), a psychological and ethical study of murder, will be screened on Sunday, September 7 in Rhinebeck. Another gem by the same director, Blind Chance (1981) – a sort of Rashomon-style tale with three different possible outcomes of a man running for a train and either catching or missing it – will be shown in Woodstock only on Saturday, September 13.
Also included in the series are Andrzej Munk’s 1957 romantic/realist masterpiece Eroica, screening on Saturday, August 16 in Rhinebeck and Sunday, August 24 in Woodstock, and Camouflage, Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1976 comedy about conformity in academia, showing on Wednesday, October 1 in Rhinebeck. Wojciech J. Has’s fantastical/allegorical tale The Saragossa Manuscript (1964), which nudged Luís Buñuel toward Surrealism and was reputedly the favorite film ever of Jerry Garcia, wraps up the series in Rhinebeck on October 8.
So now’s your chance to educate yourself on the rich legacy of Polish cinema, or rediscover classics that are not often seen on these shores. Tickets to most screenings at either Upstate Films venue typically cost $10 general admission, $6 for members. For more information including start times, call 876-2515 or visit the website at https://upstatefilms.org/film-series/martin-scorsese-presents-masterpieces-of-polish-cinema.
Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, Sunday, August 10, 1:45 p.m., Upstate Films, 6415 Montgomery Street/Route 9, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-2515, https://upstatefilms.org.