In retrospect, cinema under Euro-Communism turned out to have a significant upside—artists were restricted and potentially censured, but they were also funded by the state. Taking a random core sample of Poland’s native film production since the 1989 collapse, the new Walter Reade series reveals a movie-scape at once floundering for ideas and scrounging for cash. Freedom, as any survivor of Sundance can tell you, is just another word for dilettante filmmakers with nothing much to lose, but here it also connotes a premature desire to play in the global-multiplex big leagues. Natalia Koryncka-Gruz’s Amok (1998), for instance, a moralistic post-PZPR retread of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, has a fresh-faced reporter follow a hotdogging investment manager (A Short Film About Killing‘s Miroslaw Baka) through the Warsaw Stock Exchange’s mini-boom, and become corrupted by greed in the process. More than merely sanctimonious (and, implicitly, nostalgic for the ancien régime), Koryncka-Gruz’s hamhock is risibly naive (the financial banter is fit for sixth-graders) and visually cheap (the Exchange is seen only as a crowded doorway, etc.).
Similar in its empty ambitions, Dorota Kedzierzawska’s Nothing (1998) chronicles the torment of an abused wife who cannot stand to tell her loutish husband that she’s pregnant for the fourth time. A fugue of moody close-ups and iconic snippets, the film is too dependent on caricature to resonate (the title apparently refers to the heroine’s measure of self-esteem), but it is an achievement for DP Arthur Reinhart, whose amber-spyglass visuals have already brought him West.
Impressionistic as well, Marek Bukowski’s Success (2002) and Jacek Filipiak’s Torn (2003) are braver pieces. Filipiak’s erratic portrait of a rebellious orphan (Krzysztof Ciupa) as he is bounced from foster homes to a cultish reform school often has the nightmarish oddness of a dystopian scenario—the trauma is palpable, but Ciupa never lets the bruises show. Bukowski’s movie is a gentler, more self-indulgent ride, an introspective odyssey in which a fumbling mensch (Krzysztof Banaszyk) struggles for love and righteousness in a nation clumsily shifting from one set of priorities to another. Bukowski employs a kitchen-sink aesthetic (including animation) to mesh his hero’s strivings with Polish history, and the outcome is rather lovely.
While over a third of the directors represented here are women, their track record is sketchy at best—Urszula Urbaniak’s The Junction (1999), for another example, is a lackluster young-reader-novel anti-romance about finding a husband and withstanding sexual mistreatment in the rural provinces. Still, it’s a hopeful dynamic, even in the face of dependable old-schoolers Andrzej Wajda (2002’s period farce The Revenge, also available on DVD under its Polish title, Zemsta) and Andrzej Kondratiuk, a master idiosyncrat whose long legacy of shape-shifting quasi-autobio-documentaries manifests here with The Spinning Wheel of Time (1995), in which he and his wife, Iga, confront menopausal tensions within their forest cabin.
But the series’ best films belong to Jan Jakub Kolski, a disarmingly primitivist, Grimm-esque voice who made his first film, The Burial of the Potato (1990), immediately after the Communists’ fall but whose bewitching vocabulary harkens back to the Mitteleuropa heyday of fairy-tale absurdism. Six Kolskis are on view, including the new, Gombrowicz-based Pornography (2003) and A Miraculous Place (1994), which excoriates religious impulse as it posits a pagan worldview where miracles are as natural as sun, rain, and snow. (Kolski shoots morning light as I see it, and haven’t seen it in movies for over 25 years.) That gutter-funk animism blooms in Playing From Plates (1995), called here The Man Who Read Music From Plates, an irrepressible folk ballad that envelops the reluctant-to-negotiate Angel of Death, a well-dwelling two-faced mutant hero, suicidal dwarf maidens who grow in proportion to their feelings of love, and more. Unpretentious and arresting, the film’s an old-fashioned wonder.