The Polish film Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, was the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 87th Academy Awards last month. Originally released in Poland in the latter part of 2013, the Academy Award was the latest instance of widespread recognition for the film at award ceremonies and film festivals during the previous year, including Best Film at both the Polish Film Awards and the European Film Awards, as well as Best Film Not in the English Language at the BAFTAs in early February. Described by one critic as ‘a spare, haunting piece of minimalism’,[i] this strikingly shot black and white film follows the story of a young novice nun in 1960s Poland who is sent to explore her family’s past before taking her vows.
When it was issued on DVD in late 2014, the Taylor Institution Library acquired the film for its collection of European and world cinema, and Ida became one of the most recent additions to the Library’s holdings in Polish film. The Taylor’s collection of Polish cinema comprises nearly 150 feature films, plus several collections of shorts, with films ranging in date from the early 1930s – by such filmmakers as Juliusz Gardan, Józef Lejtes, and Henryk Szaro – up to the present, with works from the 2000s, including, for example, films from the ongoing careers of the directors Jerzy Skolimowski, Jerzy Hoffman, and Agnieszka Holland. With multiple works by approximately fifty Polish directors included in the Taylor Library, the collection provides a thorough introduction to the country’s national cinema.
In an interview for Cineaste given while promoting Ida, when asked about which Polish film directors have influenced his work, Pawlikowski remarked that he ‘loved the late Fifties Polish films by Munk and Wajda like Eroica and Ashes and Diamonds’.[ii] These two films, both released in 1958, are key works from an exciting period of filmmaking known as the Polish School. This productive period of Polish cinema is generally regarded as beginning in 1956, when the political changes after the Polish October created a climate for new forms of creative expression, allowing a move away from the socialist realist cinema which had previously dominated the country’s filmmaking.[iii] A younger generation of filmmakers emerged, many of whom trained at the recently-founded Łódź Film School, often (although not exclusively) exploring in their work issues and themes raised by recent Polish history, in particular World War II and the occupation of Poland, and often influenced by Italian neorealism and favouring ‘a personal, auteurist approach’.[iv]
Andrzej Munk’s Heroism / Eroica – described as ‘a bitter satire on Polish heroism’[v] – is a two-part film, the first part about a soldier in the Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising, and the second set in a prisoner-of-war camp; while Ashes and Diamonds / Popiół i diament – the final work in Andrzej Wajda’s war trilogy (following on from A Generation / Pokolenie (1955) & Canal / Kanał (1957)) – is based on Jerzy Andrzejewski’s 1948 novel, and explores the conflict between Home Army and communist factions in a small Polish town as the war ends. As well as including these two milestone films, the Taylor Library’s film collection covers the breadth of the careers of these two important directors. Wajda’s work is represented through the 1970s and 1980s right up to his most recent film, Walesa. Man of Hope / Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei, a bio-pic of the former Polish president, released in 2013, while holdings of Munk’s work are near-comprehensive, from documentary shorts of the early 1950s up to his final film Passenger / Pasazerka (1963).
As well as Wajda and Munk, the works of other key directors from the Polish School period – such as Wojciech J. Has, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Kazimierz Kutz, and Stanisław Lenartowicz – are included in the Taylor’s film collection. From Munk’s Man on the Track / Człowiek na torze (1957), with its various differing viewpoints on the death of a railway worker on the track, to Kutz’s Cross of Valour / Kryź Walecznych (1959), based on three novellas by the Polish writer Józef Hen; from Kawalerowicz’s internationally-recognised Mother Joan of the Angels / Matka Joanna od Aniołów (1961), a film about demonic possession in an eighteenth-century convent, which won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, to Roman Polanski’s The Knife in the Water / Nóz w wodzie (1962) – Polanski’s only feature film made in Poland, before he moved to France, and the first Polish film to be nominated for an Academy Award – the Taylor Library film collection provides a rich opportunity to explore what Pawlikowski referred to as the ‘tradition of original cinema’ in Poland during the late 1950s and 1960s.[vi]
But the Taylor Library collection also moves well beyond this period to encompass Polish cinema up to the present day. The ‘Third Polish Cinema’ period of the later 1960s is represented in the collection by films such Krysztof Zanussi’s first full-length feature The Structure of Crystal / Struktura kyyształu (1969), an ‘almost philosophical story’[vii] which explores the contrasting approaches to life of two physicists, one actively ambitious and the other content with a more low-key but peaceful lifestyle, and Skolimowski’s Hands Up / Reçe do Góry (1967, 1985), banned until the 1980s because of its depiction of Stalinism (prompting Skolimowski to leave the country); while the Library’s examples from the late 1970s and early 1980s – the period of Poland’s ‘Cinema of Moral Concern’, also described as the ‘Cinema of Distrust’[viii] – include Agnieszka Holland’s early films, such as Provincial Actors / Aktorzy prowincjonalni (1979), and A Woman Alone / Kobieta samotna (1988), about the fate of a single mother living in difficult circumstances, and described as ‘one of the darkest and most brutally honest films ever made’.[ix] Library holdings naturally also include the much-acclaimed and influential works of Krzysztof Kieślowski – there are examples in the collection of his early works such as The Scar / Blizna (1976) and Camera Buff / Amator (1979), about a man who becomes increasingly immersed in making films, with significant consequences – as well as his major works of the late 1980s and 1990s (Dekalog (1989-1990), the Trois Coleurs trilogy (1993-1994)). The Taylor collection is then brought up to contemporary times with recent releases by both well-established directors and those who have emerged since 2000, such as Andrzej Jakimowski and Małgorzata Szumowska (who recently won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival).
Pawlikowski does not make direct comparisons between Ida and previous Polish filmmaking, but he has described the film as having ‘the confidence Polish cinema once had to go its own way’;[x] the various ways taken by generations of Polish filmmakers may be explored via the Taylor’s film collection.
Helen Scott, Film Studies Librarian
The Taylor Institution Library film collection can be used by members of the university; films may be used for the purposes of teaching, study and research only.
All of the Library’s films are catalogued on SOLO; to browse Polish films, search in SOLO for PN.P7*, limiting your search to ‘in the shelfmark’.
[i] Catherine Wheatley, review in Sight & Sound, vol. 4 issue 10, October 2014, p. 72.
[ii] Interview in Cineaste XXXIX:3 (Summer 2014), pp. 40-44.
[iii] Marek Haltof, Historical Dictionary of Polish Cinema (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2007), p. 148.
[iv] Marek Haltof, Polish National Cinema (Oxford : Berghahn Books, 2002), p. 80.
[v] Haltof, Historical Dictionary, p. 48.
[vi] Violet Lucca, ‘Interview: Pavel Pawlikowski’, Film Comment, 29 April 2014 http:filmcomment.com/entry/interview-pawel-pawlikowski.
[vii] Charles Ford and Robert Hammond, Polish Film: a twentieth century history (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2005), p. 154.
[viii] Haltof, Historical Dictionary, p. 29.
[ix] Haltof, Polish National Cinema, p. 158.
[x] Violet Lucca, ‘Interview: Pavel Pawlikowski’.