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Martin Scorsese Takes Poland's Communist-Era Art Films On The Road

Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Oscar-nominated <em>Pharaoh</em> 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
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.

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."

The 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 new series of 21 films handpicked by Scorsese is beginning a tour of 30 American cities.

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 history.

"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 because they're unique to that country.

"It's 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."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howie Movshovitz