The Polish Film Festival in America (PFFA), the country's longest-running event devoted to exhibiting contemporary Polish cinema, recently concluded its 22nd edition. It was a typically judicious assembly of recent Polish cinema, from Jacek Borcuch's superb All That I Love, the country's submission for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award, to Jerzy Skowlimowski's harrowing and brilliant political parable, Essential Killing.
The festival, invariably, provides an interesting political and cultural perspective. The features, shorts and documentaries provide a very spontaneous, up to the moment sense of the currents and tones of the country. During the first great American exposure to Polish cinema in the nineteen-sixties, the early works of Skowlimowski and Roman Polanski to the masters that emerged a decade or two later, I'm thinking specifically of Agnieszka Holland and Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Those Polish artists of the sixties, like the Czechs and Hungarians, worked in metaphor and abstraction in order to circumvent the political mandates of the state sponsored filmmaking apparatus. Holland and Kieslowski worked in between, starting during one era and then enjoying the political relaxation and the demise of the Soviet political order to receive international financing, especially from the French and the Germans.
Politically, with its Solidarity movement, Poland was the first Eastern bloc country to openly defy Soviet totalitarianism. It was also the first country that experimented with a hybrid production model, open market funding with state sponsorship. I'll never forget Kieslowski, during one of his final trips to the West, lamenting: "It used to be we had money and no freedom. Now, we have freedom and no money."
Polish cinema is naturally invested in the past, several films, like Jan Jacob Kolski's Venice, set during the Second World War. That strain of historically minded work is also intertwined with a lot of new works that really explore the sometimes conflicting and exasperating aspects of Polish life (many films, obliquely and otherwise, deal with the aftermath of the Soviet conscripted practices on new lives, the moral consequences of being under surveillance or watched by the state.)
All That I Love, for instance, is very canny and revealing in how it combines a number of received ideas, the coming of age story, rock and roll, sex, anti-authoritarianism with a very Polish context, the banning of Solidarity and the imposition of martial law.
Several other titles, like Pawel Borowski's Zero and Jan Kidawa-Blonski's Little Rose (and Marcin Wrona's The Christening, a title not shown here but which I caught up with in Toronto) examine the collision of the old world Poland now opened up and accelerated by political, social and sexual transformations of the last two decades.If one artist came to typify the various strains and movements occurring in Polish cinema, that clearly was the gifted actor Robert Więckiewicz.
This year's PFAA became a showcase for the gifted actor, who appears in an astounding six films shown at the festival. They were, in order of appearance: Tadeusz Krol's Recruited Love; Juliusz Machulski's Lullaby; Jan Hryniak's Trick; Little Rose; the aforementioned Zero; and Filip Bajon's War of Love. His prolific range and versatility are qualities to be reckoned with (he made six films this year alone).
I had a chance to talk with him in the downtime of one of the screenings. The 43-year-old actor was born in Nowa Ruda. "It's very interesting that you point it out," he said, speaking in Polish. "When the [new open market] transition began in late 1989, the financing for cinematography and moviemaking pretty much collapsed. After all, the communist system, ironically enough, did provide enough in production tools to continue in production. Once we sort of entered the open market, everything collapsed. With recent years, it started to change significantly, and now it's getting better and better.
"The Polish Film Institute was established about five years or so ago. It gets money from private broadcasting companies in the form of tax, and this is the main way for the Institute to get money. The money started to grow and it's being spread to the various productions, increasing work chances. For my own perspective, it's much better, of course. The more movies being produced, the more work for actors."
Every actor has his own origins, or creation, story. He had never imagined himself acting. Having done five-years at a Polish technical training school, he thought he'd become an architect or designer. "I was thinking about entirely different things, like architecture, and I really thought of myself one day to be a football [soccer] player. But then one day suddenly something flipped. I had a bad injury, a spine injury, playing soccer and this is how I became an actor. Once you say A, you need to say B. I started to get interested in acting. At the same time, people started to get more interested in me as an actor."
He worked his way up doing theater and television, which eventually landed him some small parts in films. His breakthrough was in Jerzy Hoffman's With Fire and Sword (1999), a reverential Polish text; he has hardly slowed down since.The easy answer, of course, is that he likes to work. "If you make ten films, it's probably two or so at the most that will be good. If you make fifty films, maybe ten of them will end up being good quality films. In my case, at least I'd consider myself lucky because I've been receiving the best roles that are available."
Borowski's Zero, for instance, is an interesting example of the cross pollinating of styles and forms in current Polish cinema. Like Paul Haggis's Crash or Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, it's a social panoramic meant that in telling the crisscrossing fates and stories of some forty characters who pirouette and dance around each other during the course of a single day. It is another film that explicitly draws on the dark past (in the scenes involving two surveillance experts) that is freely intermixed with a darkly absurdist comic tone about what the lure of easy money does to people.
Więckiewicz plays a powerful, wealthy though tormented business executive whose suspicions about his wife's fidelity sets the plot in motion. The social portrait makes for some riveting filmmaking, but damning all the same. "Yes, it does reflect, even though I perceive it to be a rather dark story, it's not really unpleasant. It seems to me it wasn't quite a fully or traditional Polish film. It does tell a story about Polish reality.
"However the filmmakers decided against using obvious Polish names or locations in order to give it a sense of a universal story. At the same time, through a variety of characters, we can tell on one side, the transition period has ended and for some it is still in progress."
He personifies the actor's great appeal; arguably no other discipline allows for such examples of "otherness," that is the chance to be somebody completely unlike yourself and explore multiple parts of identity, existence, moral inquiry, through personality and characterization. Each film is different; each part a river of possibility.
"This is what this whole game is about. By actually becoming someone else, it actually helps me to stay entirely the way I am in my personal life. As myself, I don't need to pretend for anything; the writer said the irony of acting is the actor needs to act in order to be somebody else by staying exactly who he is.
"This concept is what I like the most. Acting various characters it forces me or makes me find within myself emotions that I wouldn't ever discover without the process of acting."
He has shot three films that are in postproduction. The most prestigious of these titles is Hidden, the new film by Agnieszka Holland, about a sewer worker named Leopold Soha who intercedes to protect the lives of a number of Jews seeking sanctuary in the Nazi-occupied city of Lvov. Więckiewicz plays the historically drawn Soha."
It's a story of a Pole who once lived in the former Ukraine; prior to the Second World War, it belonged to Poland. The main character is a sewer worker. In the beginning of the story you might say that he's an anti-Semite. "It's based on a true story and all the events actually happened. When the Jewish ghetto was liquidated, part of the Jewish community tried to find a safe place in the sewers. This is how the character I'm playing comes across the Jewish groups living in the sewers. In the beginning he would promise to help them for money.
"As the story progresses the character's moral balance shifts and there's a total transformation in his thinking process and his perception of human beings."
Since completing production on Holland's film, he has shot two other films, including the new work by Greg Glinski, a Polish-born, Swiss-based filmmaker who studied at the Lodz Film school.
Suddenly shifting to English, he says, "I need a break."
He has earned it.