Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Oscar-nominated Pharaoh is one of 21 films touring in Scorsese's film festival. It follows a young pharaoh as he tries to modernize Egypt.
Courtesy of Milestone Film
Martin Scorsese fell in love with Polish movies when he was in college. "The
images have stayed in my head for so many years, since the late '50s,"
he says. "I close my eyes, I see them, especially from Ashes And Diamonds, from The Saragossa Manuscript. They're very vivid, expressive, immediate."
tradition of filmmaking in Poland is as long as the history of
filmmaking itself. In fact, a Polish inventor patented a camera before
the famed, pioneering Lumiere brothers in France. It's a tradition that
includes the names Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski
and Agnieszka Holland. But unless you spent a lot of time in art house
theaters in the '60s, '70s and '80s, you probably haven't seen many
Polish movies. Now, a of 21 films handpicked by Scorsese is beginning a tour of 30 American cities.
The hero of Andrzej Wajda's Ashes And Diamonds is torn between fighting Poland's post-World War II communist regime and returning to a normal, peaceful life.
Courtesy of Milestone Film
Tragedy, Resilience, Comedy Scorsese vividly recalls director Andrzej Wajda's 1957 film Ashes And Diamonds.
Considered one of the masterpieces of Polish cinema, it takes place on
the last day of World War II, after the Nazis have gone and as the
Soviets are moving in. In one scene, a young man talks to a young woman
in a ruined church.
"Their beautiful dialogue is played out
over an image of an upside down crucifix, which is in the foreground,"
Scorsese says, "but that's introduced through a sound on the soundtrack,
a squeaking sound as the crucifix swings slowly. And as they speak, an
emaciated white horse, which they tell me represented Poland in a way,
just walks calmly right through the scene." Scorsese saw a restored print of Ashes And Diamonds,
along with a number of other classic Polish films, when he received an
honorary degree from the film school in Lodz two years ago. He saw in
the films a powerful sense of contradiction.
"There is, I
think, such a thing as a national or cultural voice," he says. "I don't
think it's something that's manufactured, it's just there. I mean, it
speaks through the pictures that they create, the words and the music.
So there's a strong tragic sense in Polish cinema, but it seems to be in
balance with very, very strong strains of a spiritual resilience and
also a dark comedy."
The Polish Artist's Responsibility Scorsese
decided to organize the travelling series for the United States through
his nonprofit foundation and the independent distributor Milestone
Films. It includes two films by Krzysztof Kieslowski, four by Andrzej
Waida and three by Krzysztof Zanussi who made his first short films in
the late 1950s. Zanussi says the series spans a crucial period in Polish
"We're a country that was challenged and was menaced, and we lost
our statehood for over one century," he says. "So the position of an
artist is very different in Poland than in many normal countries. It is
not just my private business, what I am telling to the public; I have to
assume some responsibility for the future of the country, for the
actual state of the country. And this responsibility is something very
natural. We feel it spontaneously that all the expression we bring to
the public is part of our defense. So our concern about the survival of
our identity, of our culture, of our statehood is something very
particular. And I think most of the films selected for this festival,
they try to deliver something to our viewers that will make them
stronger and make them understand better who they are and what their
aspirations could be."
All of the films in the series were made
during the Communist era in Poland, but Zanussi says that by the time
he was making feature-length movies in the 1970s, restrictions on
artists had eased somewhat. In his 1980 film The Constant Factor,
a young man pays a heavy price for resisting the standard corruptions
of daily life. Zanussi says he avoided the censor's ax by questioning
his countrymen's ethics rather than their politics. "I was
worried that life in my country becomes really unbearable because
corruption is everywhere and wherever I look all these institutions act
in a dishonest way," he says. "You know, I think ethical issues are
prior to any political issues because politics is something more
day-to-day level and ethics is something general. But this is a
permanent problem, that [by] making a film about corruption I am also
involving some sort of corruption because ... some concessions are
inevitable in filmmaking if you want to see your film done."
A Shared Vision Of Polish Life Zanussi says Polish films are very much about Poland, and Scorsese emphasizes that they're important to the world becausethey're unique to that country.
important that we look at all national cinemas outside our own," he
says. "To look at a national cinema, it gives you a sense of visions of
life [coming] from no one person, but they're shared, interpreted. And
Polish cinema taken together tells a story of a remarkable cinema which
... flourished amazingly artistically under the toughest constraints,
and really gave us some of the greatest works of art in cinema, and
tells a story that's different from the one told by Chinese cinema or,
you know, Japanese cinema. And both in turn, they tell stories that are
different than the ones told by Italian and French and German cinemas.
And you know, I just think knowing other cinematic cultures gives you a
new sense, or renewed sense, of the cinematic culture in your own
country. And you see it in a new light. It enriches it."