Jerzy Kawalerowicz has always gone his own way. Although this most cosmopolitan of Polish directors began about the same time as compatriots Wajda and Munk, his major works do not belong to the “Polish school.” As a rule, he’s more interested in the fate of individuals than the fate of the nation. Attracted by existential problems, Kawalerowicz has never been faithful to one genre; what some of his films do have in common is his preoccupation with the extent to which fanaticism, whether political or religious, can influence events.
He made an unpromising solo directorial debut in 1954 with Celuloza/A Night of Remembrance. The director came into his own with Night Train (1959), which takes place almost entirely on an overnight express from Warsaw bound for a Baltic seaside resort. A nervous married doctor and a young woman in crisis are obliged to share a sleeping compartment. The large supporting cast forms a benign Greek chorus, chattering away about the activities of the other passengers, until these happy campers turn into a nasty lynch mob in pursuit of a suspected murderer who has fled the train.
Kawalerowicz’s masterpiece Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) transposes the celebrated episode involving the nuns of Loudun, France, to a remote convent on the barren eastern plains of 17th-century Poland, where a young priest has been sent to help exorcize a group of supposedly possessed Ursuline sisters. At his meeting with the beautiful head of the convent, her blasphemies appall and excite him. Kawalerowicz stages the drama in long takes, translating inner turmoil into austere images reminiscent of Dreyer. His most recent film, an adaptation of Quo Vadis (2001), was not available for preview. The 82-year-old director will be present at the February 1 showing of this inspirational epic, said to be the biggest production in Polish film history.