First, a faith in the possibility of unknown quantities is a necessity when approaching Anthology Film Archives’ selection of Polish films in “Polish New Wave: A History of the Phenomenon That Never Existed.” The featured fare here screens with Brigadoon frequency, and is inaccessible even in the videotékas of deepest Greenpoint. I’ve had only a partial glimpse at the contents of the canisters en route to Anthology from Polska; nothing has been uninteresting.
There’s not a Roman Polanski film in sight. The stars here are the lesser-known but still prize pupils of the Lodz Film School—germination grounds for Polish cinema. The featured filmmaker with the highest international profile is probably Jerzy Skolimowski, director and star of the series’ earliest work, 1964’s Ryopsis, the first of his semi-autobiographical Andrzej Leszczyc films, which counts down the flunked-out hero’s final civilian hours before he enters the military. Nearly everything else here dates from the ’70s, after Skolimowski had emigrated and as state censorship slackened. Another study in twentysomething disillusionment comes from another festival perennial of yesteryear, Krzysztof Zanussi, whose 1972 Illumination follows an incoming student in the University of Warsaw’s physics program, from which Zanussi had recently matriculated. On the wayward journey to a diploma, pinch-mouthed would-be genius Franciszek (Stanislaw Latallo) endures the buffets of youth, interpolating the quotidian—sexual rejection, early marriage—with his cosmic curriculum. This protagonist aspires to a grand synthesis of knowledge, and Zanussi’s questing-student memoir isn’t far behind him in ambition (counterbalanced scenes which examine the same death from an emotional and biological perspective are unlike anything I’ve seen).
Anthology’s also brought in a well-stocked program of shorts. Zbigniew Rybczynski’s beguiling stunt New Book partitions the screen into nine segments, each framing a section of a couple of city blocks, then keeps continuous action rolling between all of them with Rube Goldberg timing. Rybczynski also has a co-director credit on Inhale-Exhale, a beguiling half-hour paradocumentary for TVP public access, compiling scenes of a Krynica spa’s chartered recreations, including Eastern Bloc trivia and graphically foleyed eating contests. As in Marek Piwowski’s The Fly Killer, which takes in the apparently ambient stumblings of a watering hole’s well-sozzled clientele, the sense of social disintegration is strong. According to the press notes, Fly Killer‘s tavern is “a metaphor for Poland,” though it’s relatively innocuous compared to Inhale-Exhale‘s pungent grotesquerie.
The lighter side: An enduring cult item with the Polish public (it’s the namesake of a Warsaw club), Andrzej Kondratiuk’s 1970 Hydrozagadka is a handmade send-up of super- hero fare in which unitard-trussed Ace (Józef Nowak) foils a scheme to abscond with his countrymen’s drinkable water. There’s a freewheeling spirit at work throughout here. Ace’s “Up, up and away” takeoffs, which consist of a caped double somersaulting in and out of frame seconds before Nowak pops up in the foreground, are plenty of fun, though the movie seemed more amused with itself than I was with it—maybe the satire’s diluted in translation? Accordingly, the series’ curators will be on hand to provide context.