By Martin Smith
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Poland’s subversive cinema

This article is over 14 years, 3 months old
A popular joke in Soviet era Poland went something like this: "One day a pre-school teacher told her class, 'In Poland all kids are happy. They have lots of beautiful toys and live in great apartments...' Suddenly one child starts to cry and screams, 'I want to live in Poland!'"
Issue 341

Humour was one of the few ways of criticising the Stalinist regime. Another, much more powerful way was cinema.

This issue of Socialist Review looks at the political movements that brought down the Berlin Wall and state capitalist regimes across Eastern Europe. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s cinema played an important role in Polish society. Its impact was visual, direct and full of underlying messages designed to elude the state censors, subtly exposing life in a one-party state.

At the heart of this cinematic movement was a group of young film directors who came out of the Lodz Film School – Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and the infamous Roman Polanski. One year after Stalin’s death Wajda began work on a trilogy of films about the Second World War, A Generation (1954), Kanal (1956) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958). These were artistic breakthroughs.

Previously, films made during the Stalinist era adhered to so-called “Socialist Realism”, where the “good guys” were always communists and the “bad guys” – well, it shouldn’t be hard to guess who they were. On the whole the characters were one dimensional and the scripts devoid of tension and complexity. Wajda’s trilogy broke the mould. Admittedly, A Generation sailed close to the old Socialist Realism formula but the characters are vivid, the plots are complex and the narratives are like Greek tragedies.

There is one other important element to these films: although working within the parameters of the state censors, they were subversive. The lead character in Ashes and Diamonds, Maciek, is a brooding James Dean-like figure who belongs to the Home Army (a resistance group with ties to the West which was opposed to the Polish Communist partisan fighters). If that wasn’t enough to send the censors mad, Maciek is an assassin out to kill a leading Communist official.

A cinematic code evolved over the next three decades, which Polish audiences understood only too well. Cinema became a form of social consciousness for many people, depicting a way of life denied by the authorities.

The Polish state owned the film industry and divided it up into eight self-governing zespoly (production houses). Often the films and documentaries coming out of these zespoly dealt with small themes or local problems, but most were allegories of larger political issues.

The late 1960s through to the 1980s was a period of mass political unrest in Poland – food prices rocketed and hundreds of workers were jailed or dismissed from work because of their political activity against the state. Film director Zanussi wrote, “Because basic goods were in short supply, people turned to immaterial goods – film, art, religion and human solidarity.”

This spirit and frustration can be found in Zanussi’s 1984 film, the spellbinding and moving A Year of the Quiet Sun. Set at the end of the Second World War it is a depiction of a devastated and fearful country. Likewise Kieslowski’s 1988 masterpiece The Dekalog is a bleak and complex portrayal of Polish life. Shot on a drab housing estate, the ten short films pull apart the contradictions of Polish society.

This period also saw resistance. The dam broke in 1970, as workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk went on strike against a 30 percent price rise in basic foodstuffs. The workers marched on the Communist Party headquarters, and the police opened fire. Other shipyards struck, but the army was called in and hundreds of workers were killed. Kieslowski made a brilliant documentary, Workers 71, about this period of upheaval.

The biggest wave of resistance began in August 1980 when Lech Walesa, an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard, declared a strike – and the mass movement Solidarity was born. Again Wajda portrays these events powerfully in his 1981 film Man of Iron. Man of Iron uses real footage of the events alongside acted scenes. Lech Walesa even plays himself.

Polish directors, actors and film crews worked under difficult conditions but, amazingly, they were still able to make some of the greatest films of the 20th century.

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