by Clare Dean
This year, the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary in style with an eclectic line-up covering film, music and visual art across nine venues in London, Edinburgh and Belfast. Over the course of a fortnight, 19 features screened along with a selection of short films, an exhibition of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue film posters and a closing concert with Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. While previews of new films dominated, two strands focused on the classics and reminded me just how great Polish cinema can be.
First up, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1959 film Night Train, a Hitchcockian mystery shot in black-and-white and set almost entirely on a train, screened as part of the Polish Cinema Classics strand to coincide with the release of a DVD box set from Second Run DVD. When newspapers report a murderer on the run, suspicion falls on Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk), a harried stranger hiding behind dark glasses and desperate to leave town. He insists on a train compartment to himself, but after boarding he finds it occupied by tearful Marta (Lucyna Winnicka) and she refuses to leave. Gossipy passengers constantly squeeze past each other in the narrow train corridor outside, and there’s a strong sense of claustrophobia and uneasy confinement. The photography is stunning and includes some great aerial shots. A very entertaining and taut thriller, and worth seeking out if you haven’t seen it already. It’s worth noting that the box set also includes Innocent Sorcerers, Eroica and Goodbye, See You Tomorrow along with lots of special features. It’s also the first in a series of Polish Cinema Classics from Second Run.
The second retrospective strand came together after the festival approached renowned British and Polish filmmakers and asked them to choose their favourite Polish film. 10x10x10 (10 years, 10 directors, 10 films) featured a very strong selection. Some I’ve seen and some I haven’t, but I’m willing to bet that they are all worth going out of your way to watch. It turns out that I’m a Nicolas Roeg kind of person (that pleases me, I think?). Like him, one of my favourite Polish films is Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski’s 1962 Oscar-nominated debut. This is who picked what:
Miroslaw Balka — Kanal by Andrzej Wajda
Mike Leigh — A short Film About Killing by Krysztof Kieslowski
Ken Loach — Ashes and Diamonds by Andrzej Wajda
Michael Nyman — Nothing by Dorota Kedzierzawska
Quay brothers — Chips by Jerzy Kucia
Pawel Pawlikowski — The Salt of Black Earth by Kazimierz Kutz
Nicolas Roeg — Knife in the Water by Roman Polanski
Jerzy Skolimowski — Olympics by Bogdan Dziworski
Andrzej Wajda — Article Zero by Wlodzimierz Borowik
Andrzej Zulawski — Suicide Room by Jan Komasa
Screening as part of the ‘Arts’ strand, The Mill and the Cross is one of the more unusual films I’ve seen recently, and it’s a hard one to describe. The screening took place, appropriately, at The National Gallery, and tells the story of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary. The painting portrays religious persecution in 16th century Flanders, but with the crucifixion at the centre almost hidden by over 100 other characters. It is based on Michael Francis Gibson’s book of the same name, which is essentially an art essay, so perhaps it’s not the most exciting idea for a film, and yet after the opening scene there was an audible gasp from the audience (a sold out screening and an interesting mix of art enthusiasts and Polish film fans).
Starring Rutger Hauer, Michael York and Charlotte Rampling, the film begins with Hauer as the painter Bruegel, discussing the progress of his new work with friend Nicolaes Jonghelinck (York). Their discussion takes place within the painting and as the camera pulls back the entire picture is revealed, meticulously recreated with a mix of live action and digital effects. Some characters appear frozen in time, while children play in one corner and a horse distractingly swishes its tail in another. In the background, the mill is seen perched on an impossibly precarious hill and real and animated scenery overlap throughout.
A great deal of care and attention has gone into the making of the film. In order to match the colours to those in the painting, costumers experimented with dye from vegetables such as red onion. Local seamstresses made the costumes by hand. Traditional practices feature, such as the placing of bread on the belly in order to keep warm, or the constant scrubbing of the house steps (I had the benefit of a lengthy introduction and explanation from director, Lech Majewski). While the images are stunning, there is little in the way of plot, although in one fascinating scene Hauer as Bruegel compares the painting to a spider’s web, pointing out diagonal and opposing features, and at once the ideas behind it became clear. But overall, the mix of old and new methods creates something so different it most definitely becomes a must-see, preferably on a very big screen.
Without wanting to be accused of age discrimination, I deliberately decided to watch the films by the two youngest directors in the New Polish Cinema strand as I wanted to get an idea of the new blood. What I saw, while not mind-blowing, was certainly interesting.
First, Fear of Falling (Lek wysokosci) from director Bartosz Konopka is a somber drama about an estranged father and son whose relationship is placed under further strain by mental illness. Tomek (Marcin Dorocinski) walks hurriedly though an underground passage, mumbling to himself and flinching at the squeaking wheels of a passing trolley. He enters a dark, disheveled apartment, and starts angrily sorting through papers. Gradually we learn that it’s his father who has been diagnosed with mental illness; Tomeck is merely suffering from the emotional effects of caring for him. As the father’s condition worsens, the strain on all involved begins to take its toll and eventually Tomeck’s mental health is questioned by both his wife and his employer.
Nicely shot in washed-out colours, with flashbacks to happier times filmed in sunny super-8 home videos, the film deals with schizophrenia sensitively and avoids the misrepresentation sometimes seen in screen portrayals, although the plot struggles to find momentum with repetitive trips to the asylum. It’s a thoughtful exploration of the effects of mental health issues on family members and the father/son reconciliation storyline is touching.
Finally, the New Polish Cinema strand presented Suicide Room (Sala samobójców) from director Jan Komasa. Dominik (Jakub Gierszal) is a privileged and spoiled teenager, trapped by his wealthy parents’ mannered and cold lifestyle. Clutching a copy of Hamlet, he skulks though the school corridors in a hoodie; an attractive emo waif in black eyeliner. At the school prom, Dominik takes part in a dare and his drunken gay kiss with a friend is caught on camera. The video quickly appears on social networking sites and he becomes ‘cool’ overnight, but after an embarrassing accident in judo class, the comments become increasingly homophobic. Humiliated, he starts to avoid school altogether and discovers a macabre online chatroom called The Suicide Room and its mysterious ‘queen’, Sylwia. While his real friends and family ridicule or dismiss him, his virtual friends are much more supportive, despite their unhealthy fascination with death.
Here, the storyline about cyber bullying and sexual confusion is left behind and replaced by Dominik’s spiraling depression and Sylwia’s suicide obsession, which is a shame, as the original plotline was stronger and much more interesting. The aggressive Facebook comments left for Dominik are largely forgotten, and yet they feel very relevant to modern school life. However, while the story slides into predictable territory, the visuals certainly offer something different. When Dominik enters his virtual world the film begins to look like an animated cross between World of Warcraft and Second Life. Characters look and act like cyberpunk superheroes, and the soundtrack is an appropriately trendy mix of electronic dance and experimental music . Although I felt the first half worked much better than the second, this promising piece was not at all what I expected and it held my attention to the end.
And so to the closing night of the festival. It was an unusual choice to finish with a concert, but it turned out to be a very memorable event. Krzysztof Penderecki is Poland’s “Godfather of avant-garde classical music.” Although he doesn’t always compose specifically for film, his music has been used in The Exorcist, The Shining, Children of Men, Inland Empire, Shutter Island, Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn and many more. After attending a concert in 1995, Jonny Greenwood became a fan and they have since collaborated on soundtracks and recently released an album, while Greenwood has composed music for several high profile films, including There Will Be Blood, Norwegian Wood, We Need to Talk About Kevin and Paul Thomas Anderson’s forthcoming The Master.
Four pieces were performed, alternating with Penderecki avant-garde compositions Threnody of the Victims of Hiroshima and Polymorphia, which both inspired the Greenwood pieces, Popcorn Superhet Receiver and 48 Responses to Polymorphia. I know nothing about classical music, as you will soon see, but I can only describe what I heard: the sound of a whirlwind or twister, the low hum of a swarm of bumble bees, yelping dogs, a stampede of spiders tapping their legs on a tin roof. I had no idea that strings could make noises like that. Later, some parts sounded more like horror movie music, bringing a feeling of dread and foreboding. Afterwards, I tried to explain to a friend that it sounded “like something bad was about to happen.” Later, I read the concert notes and saw “His use of microtonal clusters and glissandi, aleatoric or chance passages, and moments of fierce dissonance, make it sound like the harbinger of some terrible catastrophe”. Yes, that’s what I meant.
Also from the notes, Penderecki is quoted as saying that “The problem for all composers, not only for me, is that we have to use instruments which were built 300 years ago. It became really the problem in the second half of the twentieth century, that there is not much progress because of the lack of instruments”. And so, the orchestra strum, tap, slap and hit their instruments, and then drop things on to the strings. It’s quite a physical performance from all. Both Penderecki and Greenwood have also experimented with electronic methods to create new sounds – Penderecki using graphic notation from brain scans for Polymorphia, and Greenwood using shortwave radio hiss for Popcorn Superhet Receiver. In the background, images were projected on to the giant screen. I seem to remember some kind of giant tree-like space ship, but I admit, a lot of the time I didn’t look as the music was distracting enough.
At the end, Penderecki and Greenwood appeared on stage to a rapturous standing ovation. Penderecki looked like he did this kind of thing every day before breakfast, while Greenwood stood shyly near the wings, desperate to get off stage and looking for a hole in the ground to open up and swallow him, but he needn’t have worried. The applause was very genuine and took a long time to die down, and to me, at least, this was very unique. A new sound has been given to an old-fashioned string orchestra , and the collaboration has brought 78 year-old Penderecki’s music to a new audience. I wonder if Radiohead have picked up a few new fans in the process?