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Andrzej Wajda (#110 of 5)

Behind the Poster at Polish Filmmakers NYC

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<em>Behind the Poster</em> at Polish Filmmakers NYC
<em>Behind the Poster</em> at Polish Filmmakers NYC

One doesn’t have to be a visual arts fan to appreciate the easy charm of Marcin Latałło’s Behind the Poster, a documentary about the evolution of the poster art in Poland as it reached its apogee when the country was still behind the iron curtain. Latałło traces the formation of Polish design to the first poster exhibition in 1898 in Kraków. But it wasn’t until the late 1940s that one could speak of the Polish Poster School, which ran, not accidentally, parallel to the thriving Polish Film School. The art that sprung up as a creative response to the severe limitations of socialist realism would eventually spread to other parts of Europe, most notably to France, where a new crop of illustrators who received education in the East blended their passion for design with political activism.

Latałło keeps the feel of the documentary mostly conversational, interviewing directly or providing archival footage of the interviews with a handful of renowned designers, such as Henryk Tomaszewski, Wojciech Fangor, who designed the poster for Andrzej Wajda’s iconic Ashes and Diamonds, and Jan Lenica, who in turn designed the original poster for Wajda’s earlier masterpiece, Kanal. Museum directors and filmmakers, including Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi, and Agnieszka Holland, chime in on what made the Polish poster art so vital.

Agnieszka Holland’s A Woman Alone

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Agnieszka Holland’s <em>A Woman Alone</em>
Agnieszka Holland’s <em>A Woman Alone</em>

Agnieszka Holland’s early film, A Woman Alone, portrays a society on the brink of a catastrophe. The film was shot in 1981, when many of Holland’s colleagues, such as Andrzej Wajda, with whom she collaborated on 1977’s Man of Marble, felt optimistic about the rise of Poland’s independent unions. Its story centers on the life of Irena (Maria Chwalibóg), a single mother whose position in society is so marginal it becomes painfully oppressive. Belonging to neither the Communist Party nor Solidarity, Irena finds herself unable to count on anyone, except for her own meager resources. Living with her young son in squalid conditions on the outskirts of Lodz, she endures the lack of running water, heat, and electricity, not to mention her colleagues’ unshakable antipathy. Engaged in a stark battle for survival, she fights her neighbors and co-workers eager to take over her home and her job at a post office. In the midst of all this drudgery, Irena starts a romance with a disabled coalmine worker, Jacek (Bogusław Linda), and glimpses a chance of escape. The lovers’ wild plot to flee to the West comes to naught, however, after Irena steals money from pensioners to buy a used car and the two suffer a road accident.

Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: Pavoncello, The Song of the Triumphant Love, The Devil, The Public Woman, Mad Love, and The Shaman

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Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: Pavoncello, The Song of the Triumphant Love, The Devil, The Public Woman, Mad Love, and The Shaman
Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: Pavoncello, The Song of the Triumphant Love, The Devil, The Public Woman, Mad Love, and The Shaman

A pair of TV-produced half-hour shorts from 1967, Pavoncello and The Song of the Triumphant Love, often shown in black and white but originally shot in color (and present in this form at the BAMcinématek), represent the first independent directing work of Andrzej Zulawski’s career after serving as Andrzej Wajda’s assistant on Samson, The Ashes, and the omnibus Love at Twenty’s segment. Eerie, unabashedly romantic, ripe with masterful camera movements that still make film students take notes to this day, these two miniatures remain surprisingly fresh. Both are adapted from great writers’ minor short stories (by Stefan Żeromski and Ivan Turgenev, respectively), and both focus on disruptive love, while prominently featuring trance-like states of being. Last but not least, each film seems obsessed with fragility of sexless marriages crumbling under siege from illicit passion. In that respect, The Song of Triumphant Love particularly plays like an uncannily precocious version of Zulawski’s Possession, even while sporting the added flavor of being something akin to a Roger Corman AIP Edgar Allen Poe quickie, only shot on the other side of the iron curtain.

Off Plus Camera 2011

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Off Plus Camera 2011
Off Plus Camera 2011

The International Festival of Independent Cinema in Krakow, Poland—enigmatically named Off Plus Camera—is one of the youngest European festivals with probably the youngest festival director, 29-year-old Szymon Miszczak. This accounts for the energetic and enthusiastic atmosphere of the festival, now in its fourth year, and the adventurous choice of films.

There were sections on new Irish, German, and Asian cinema, the cream of this year’s Sundance (the two festivals enjoy a warm collaboration), and more new American indies in a section called From the Gut (“unique films that take bold risks with style and story”). These included Alistair Banks Griffin’s Bressonian Two Gates of Sleep, Mike Ott’s bittersweet Little Rock, and Cam Archer’s wild Shit Year.

Eleven first and second features were up for the main prize and the international critics’ award (Fipresci). The winner of the former was The Journals of Musan, a Korean film directed by Park Jung-bum, which had already won the Golden Tiger at Rotterdam. A touching story of a North Korean immigrant’s travails in South Korea, it seemed to me too reminiscent of the films of Lee Chang-dong, for whom Park was assistant director on Poetry.

New York Film Festival 2010: Silent Souls

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Silent Souls</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Silent Souls</em>

When a national cinema produces a great director, it isn’t always a good thing. The country’s film industry can get typecast in the minds of American audiences, who have few reference points. Foreign film distribution in the United States is such that countries end up relying on one filmmaker (Andrzej Wajda for Poland) or on one film (City of God for Brazil) to represent them. While watching the Chinese film Perfect Life earlier this year, I found myself thinking repeatedly about the work of the great filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke; and though the film has many similarities to Jia’s work, and though Jia indeed served as an executive producer, I also kept mentally referring to him because he’s the only current Chinese filmmaker with whom I’m especially familiar.

The problem’s at least 30 years old for Russian filmmakers, many of whom struggle to escape Andrei Tarkovsky’s shadow (ironic, considering that Tarkovsky made his last two films in exile). The director’s films like Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Stalker cast a meditative spell over the theater by pulling you into quiet moments of astounding beauty. They remain so ingrained for Western cinephiles that even the best subsequent Soviet directors, like Aleksandr Sokurov (The Sun), can’t avoid the comparison.