Martin Scorsese: my passion for the humour and panic of Polish cinema

Martin Scorsese, The Guardian 04/16/2015

As for many other people, my introduction to Polish cinema came with Andrzej Wajda’s trilogy: Ashes and Diamonds, Kanal and A Generation – actually, they were released out of order here in the US, and we saw Kanal first, followed quickly by Ashes, both in 1961, and then we got to see A Generation later. Among the three, it was Ashes and Diamonds that had the greatest impact on me. It announced the arrival of a master film-maker. It was one of the last pictures that gave us a real testament of the impact of the war, on Wajda and on his nation. It introduced us to a whole school of film-making, related to what was coming out of the Soviet Union but quite distinct. And it gave us Zbigniew Cybulski, a great actor and a new generational icon.

But all Wajda’s films made an impression on me. Whenever I had the opportunity to see one I was impressed by his mastery. I also loved Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s films: Night Train, Mother Joan of the Angels and in particular Pharaoh, which had a fresh approach to the historical picture. Wojciec Has’s films, The Hourglass Sanatorium and later The Saragossa Manuscript, really astonished me. Andrzej Munk I caught up with a little later, plus, of course,Jerzy Skolimowski and Roman Polanski’s early pictures. The 50s and 60s were a great time in Polish cinema. A great time in cinema, period.


With Polish cinema, what I especially respond to is the mixture of passion, meticulous craftsmanship, dynamic deep focal-length compositions, moral dilemmas and religious conflicts, often done with a very sharp sense of humour. Humour and tragedy are very close in Polish cinema.

Plus, the struggle against official censorship and government clampdowns gives Polish cinema that was made during the communist era a heightened urgency. You can feel it in the rhythm, the intensity, even in pictures that have no obvious political subject matter. Or, in pictures that take the then-contemporary political situation and transpose it to an earlier period. For instance, Danton by Wajda, which he made in France during the Solidarity period in the early 1980s. There’s a restlessness, an unease, a desperation, an existential panic.

Many Polish film-makers spent some time in exile. Polanski left very early. Skolimowski has gone back and forth during the years. They adapted very well to the circumstances, wherever they went. But such a condition goes way beyond Polish cinema. What would the history of American cinema have been without the flood of directors from Europe in the 1920s through the 40s? Fritz LangErich von StroheimFW MurnauErnst LubitschRobert Siodmak,Michael CurtizJacques FeyderEdgar G UlmerFred ZinnemannJulien DuvivierMax ReinhardtWilliam DieterleAlfred HitchcockMax OphülsJean Renoir, and on and on and on. Obviously, exile creates a very different perspective on the country in which you end up making films. Take Polanski’sChinatown. It’s impossible to imagine an American-born director making that picture. You can imagine a version of it, but not the finished film we know as Chinatown.


This unique perspective stretches even to the movie posters. I own quite a few myself. They can seem odd to non-Polish viewers. Sometimes you look at them and wonder: what bearing does this image have on this picture? And then you see that there’s a rare place for cinema in the culture itself, because the relationship between the films and their posters is so unique. Most often, they capture the concept of the film itself.

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinemaruns at BFI Southbank and Edinburgh Filmhouse until the end of May as part of the Kinoteka Polish film festival and then tours UK venues

The Guardian

The Guardian

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