Films Shine Light On Jewish-Polish Relationship

Films Shine Light On Jewish-Polish Relationship

Best of the movies in two series touch on the tangled ties.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

By an amusing coincidence, Polish seems to be the movie flavor of the month in February. With Lincoln Center hosting a program of “Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” and BAMCinematek offering “Kino Polska: New Polish Cinema” anyone with even an interest in one of the most important national cinemas of the last 75 years should be satisfied.

Of course, for Jewish filmgoers, the relationship to Polish film is fraught with historical tragedies, and the best of the films on display in these two series are rife with the tangled relationship between Jews and Poles.

It is hardly necessary to remind readers of this newspaper of the blood-soaked history of the Jews in Poland, victims of countless pogroms, culminating in the Shoah and punctuated by more pogroms in the post-war period. However, there is among Jews a tendency, I think, to underestimate how brutal and tragic the history of the Polish people has been. Poland has been overrun by countless ruthless dictators, partitioned repeatedly, its people murdered and tormented.

Nowhere is this message brought home more forcefully than in the works of the four major filmmakers who emerged in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation of Poland in the late 1940s: Andrzej Wajda, Tadeusz Konwicki, Andrzej Munk and Jerzy Kawalerowicz. All four are represented in the Lincoln Center series, which includes five films by Wajda, four by Kawalerowicz, two by Konwicki and one by Munk. In addition, the BAM series includes Wajda latest film, his valedictory biographical work “Walesa: Man of Hope,” as well as “Ida,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s magnificent meditation on the long-term aftermath of the Shoah in Poland.

It is impossible to separate post-WWII Polish cinema from the events of the war. The wholesale slaughter of Poles, both Jewish and not, by the German occupiers inevitably is reflected in almost all of the movies on display in both these series. This is nowhere more apparent than in the films of Kawelerowicz, who is surely among the most totally philo-Semitic artists in the history of Polish culture, a filmmaker whose work includes highly sympathetic, nuanced and affectionate portrayals of Jewish characters in almost every one of his films.

Kawalerowicz has said that he grew up in a small town in Ukraine, Gwozdziec, where “60 percent of the people were Jewish, 30 percent were Ukrainian and 10 percent Polish. It was a typical Galician town, which was totally destroyed by the Holocaust. But because I lived with many people who died in the Holocaust, I remember everything about them.”

It is a world he portrays with great warmth in his 1983 film “Austeria/The Inn,” based on a novel by Julian Stryjkowksi (born Pesach Stern, and another fascinating figure in his own right). “Austeria” was a life-long dream project for Kawalerowicz, a tragic recounting of the first day of World War I as experienced by people trapped in a Jewish-run inn on the edge of the Polish-Russian border. He immediately and deftly sets up a contrast between the verdant, seemingly peaceful countryside and the almost unending thunder of artillery shells in the distance. Kawalerowicz’s vision of the countryside, however, is anything but idyllic. In “Austeria,” it is a quietly chaotic and empty place, reflective of a Hobbesian world in which the forces of destruction are seldom far away. As one of the Jews says, “I’ve fled before … to escape a pogrom.”

At the same time, the different elements of the Jewish community — chasids, maskilim, a troupe of itinerant actors, local farmers — are depicted with wry, warm humor. Kawalerowicz, who describes himself as an Armenian with no attachment to the Armenian Orthodox Church, takes particular delight in the chasids, fleeing with their all-but-mute tzaddik, bursting into powerful song and dance at the drop of a suggestion of deliverance. They are endowed with a spirituality that most of Kawalerowicz’s protagonists are denied.

Perhaps the most surprisingly unspiritual of these is the priest-exorcist at the center of his best-known film, “Mother Joan of the Angels” (1961). Retelling a true incident of alleged demonic possession in a convent, the story was the inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudon” and Ken Russell’s “The Devils.” An austere, almost forbidding film, “Mother Joan” anticipates the work of Andrei Tarkovsky but, unlike Tarkovsky, Kawalerowicz seems to deny his tormented anti-hero grace and transcendence. Here, there is only self-abnegation and self-destruction. The priest’s alter ego, a rabbi (both of them played by the extraordinary Mieczslaw Voit) warns him that he hovers at the lip of the abyss, but the alarm goes unheeded.

Tadeusz Konwicki spent his war in the forests. Only 13 when World War II broke out, he would eventually join the Polish partisans, fighting first against the Nazis and then against the Russians as his homeland, at once both Lithuanian and Polish, was occupied by its bullying neighbors in rapid succession. How could he not have been marked by that experience?

With books like “A Minor Apocalypse” and “The Polish Complex” to his credit, Konwicki is a true rara avis, a novelist who is also a distinguished and distinctive filmmaker. Not surprisingly, Konwicki’s writing and films are haunted by his time in the underground army.

You can see it in the opening lines of his very first film, the cryptic, haunting “Last Day of Summer” (1958). While the camera pans across a starkly beautiful seemingly deserted beach, we hear a female voice say, “I flinch from a human gesture, when someone raises their hand to touch me.” When we finally meet the speaker, she is a handsome young woman of about 30 and it is inevitable that we wonder what she was doing as a teenager between 1939 and 1945. Significantly, the first object we see in the film is a length of stone and plaster wall, pockmarked with bullet holes.

By contrast, “Jump” (1965), the other Konwicki film in the progam, is a disconnected, elliptical and very funny farrago in which a mysterious stranger (Zbigniew Cybulski at his most mercurial) returns to a nearly deserted town where everyone seems to have a secret, a girlfriend or both. One of the central figures is an equally mysterious townsman (Wlodzimierz Borunski) who may be the deceased Jewish actor Blumenfeld or merely a reminder of the disappearance of the town’s Jews during the war. The film is a bit of a mess, but it’s worth seeing for the extended musical number towards the end, a goofy anticipation of Bela Tarr.

Wojciech Has would best be characterized as an amiable journeyman, were it not for two films. “The Saragossa Manuscript” (1965) is his masterpiece, a deft and delirious adaptation of the Jan Potocki classic, a veritable Chinese-box puzzle of a movie, with Cybulski swept from one fantastic encounter to another during the Napoleonic Wars. Eight years later, Has returned to the cunningly fragmented structure of that film for an adaptation of “The Hourglass Sanatorium,” from the hypnotically strange stories of the great Jewish-Polish writer Bruno Schulz.

“Sanatorium” ostensibly recounts what befalls Josef (Jan Nowicki) when he goes to the eponymous establishment to see his dying father. However, like “Manuscript,” the film is really a series of mysteriously interconnecting anecdotes taking place on a strange plane where farce and hysterical fear intersect and there is little discernible difference between a wildly energetic dance and a frenzied seizure. In the midst of a world of decay and an Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Kafka logic, the only source of human feeling is the interaction of Josef and his father with the Jewish community to which they belong.

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” will be presented by Milestone Films and the Film Society of Lincoln Center Feb. 5-16 at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.). For information, call (212) 875-5601or go to

“Kino Polska: New Polish Cinema,” presented by the Polish Film Institute and the Polish Cultural Institute New York, will play at BAMCinematek Feb. 19-23 at the BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn). For information, call (718) 636-4100 or go to

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