Gdynia Film Festival: The Past Flickers Faintly on Polish Screens

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: Personal stories and real-life tragedy shook up the 40th annual event.

Like many cities in countries that fell under the sway of the former Soviet Union, the adjacent towns of Gdynia and Gdansk, on Poland’s beautiful Baltic coast, each have two faces. One is energetically modern, avid for tourism, its bustling center dotted with swank hotels and Western chain stores frequented by well-heeled shoppers. Not far away, but invisible to the stylish crowds flocking to this year’s 40th annual Gdynia Film Festival, lie architecturally brutal high-rises and bare-bones cafeterias, the grim remains of pre-capitalist Poland.

The extraordinary story of how this forward-looking country got here from there was made available to visiting film journalists on a guided tour of the Gdansk shipyards early on in the festival. There sits an impressive museum and memorial to the Polish workers who, in the early 1980s, joined forces with students and the Catholic Church to throw off Moscow’s yoke.

Poland has changed hands many times. Its dramatic history, ready-made for movies, is writ large in the work of its world-renowned filmmakers in the years after World War II. Among others, Krzsyztof Kieslowski (“The Decalogue”) and Agnieszka Holland (“Burning Bush”) were featured in an award-studded look back at the festival’s opening night gala, with veteran auteurs Andrzej Wajda and Jerzy Skolimowski in attendance.

Yet the mass revolt in Gdansk, which paved the way for the fall of communism throughout the Eastern bloc in 1989, has largely faded into official history and beyond for recent generations. The engaging young man in his early 20s who drove me to the airport at the end of my stay in Gdynia told me that the Solidarity movement was “mentioned” in high school, he thought. And Wajda’s “Walesa: Man of Hope” (2013), a biopic of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and Poland’s foreign-language Oscar entry that year, achieved only moderate local box office success. On the other hand, when Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” won the Oscar for foreign-language film last year, it was a huge shot in the arm for Poland’s film industry, though perhaps more for the international recognition than for its grim post-Holocaust themes.

Polish films were well represented at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, and the industry has achieved cash flow though co-production with other European countries and even the Middle East. To judge from the films I saw in Gdynia, younger filmmakers and their audiences tend, perhaps inevitably, to be more preoccupied with the personal and the domestic than with politics or the past. They’re also more inclined to displays of formal gymnastics picked up from early careers in television.

One of the few all-Polish productions playing in competition was the Berlin-feted “Body” (pictured above), a black comedy about the fraught dynamic between a widowed prosecutor (veteran actor Janusz Gajos, who on the evidence of an extended standing ovation at opening night, is adored by more seasoned Polish moviegoers) and his bulimic daughter. Director Malgorzata Szumowska, a feminist innovator, is already known in Western Europe for “Elles” (with Juliette Binoche), which resurrects the dubious proposition that prostitution is a form of sexual liberation. Szumowska has an invigorating feel for antic black comedy and a strong eye for the telling visual — in one indelible sequence, the scarily thin daughter does a strange crablike walk to the kitchen to attract her zoned-out father’s attention. But the director’s sardonic skewering of New Age follies feels both familiar and arch, rendering facetious a genuinely moving story of grief for a much-missed mother.

In Kinga Debska’s jaunty domestic caper “These Daughters of Mine,” Agata Kulesza, who won international plaudits as the suicidal aunt in “Ida” (and wowed the Gdynia crowd on opening night when she swept onstage in a floor-length emerald gown) flexes comic muscles as one of two feuding sisters barely coping with their parents’ impending mortality. “Chemo” is a likable tale of love between a photogenic couple, each bent on suicide for different reasons, both in desperate need of adult commitments that will awaken the adult within. Directed by Bartosz Prokopowicz from a script by Katarzyna Sarnowska, the film’s frisky visuals mask a conventionally inspirational cancer parable. Perhaps reflecting the ethnic homogeneity of the region (outside the festival, I’m not sure I saw a non-white face on the Gdynia streets), the home-grown movies I saw suggested an overwhelmingly Caucasian world that — finally — begins to feels strange to moviegoers in the West.

As in “Ida,” other movies at the festival reflected a continuing effort to come to grips with Poland’s mixed record toward its Jewish population under the Nazis. I missed “Summer Solstice,” a drama about a young German driver stationed in Poland in 1943, who witnesses the stolen possessions of Jews being shipped off to concentration camps. “Walpurgis Night” is a stylized two-hander in black-and-white based on a stage play about a confrontation between a Jewish opera diva who (barely) survived the Holocaust and a young journalist of uncertain identity. Their encounter is compelling, if unduly influenced by Liliana Cavani’s “The Night Porter” in its claims for the psychosexual symbiosis of master and slave in the Third Reich.

On my last full day at the festival, I went in search of screen danger, and found it at both ends of the age and fame spectrum. “Baby Bump,” written and directed by Kuba Czebaj (whose assembled cast and crew looked to be no older than 20 apiece) is a black comedy, or a brown one, if you take into account its obsession with human bodily functions. An overwhelmingly young audience spilled into the aisles of the Gdynia multiplex for this gleefully Oedipal tale of a small boy trying to pry himself loose from the suffocating attentions of his avid young mother. Some left, others roared, I stayed as long as I could stand this glibly “provocative” assault. There were walkouts, and some raucous laughter, but one young woman told me it was the best movie she’d seen in a festival lineup she otherwise considered tame.

I pointed her in the direction of Skolimowski’s “11 Minutes,” which, even after numerous other screenings drew a standing-room-only crowd that surged into the cavernous Musical Theater hall for the latest work by one of Poland’s masters. The maverick director’s 1982 “Moonlighting,” starring Jeremy Irons as a Polish builder working illegally in London, was one of the few films that touched on the Solidarity uprising. Skolimowski has worked on and off in Hollywood, but he disappeared for years, only to resurface with “Essential Killing” (2010), made in the West with Vincent Gallo as a Taliban insurgent.

“11 Minutes,”a Polish-Irish co-production, is a dark, kinetic 81-minute romp tracking a few breathless moments in the intertwined lives of an ensemble of characters practicing every form of venality and corruption known to postmodern man. Visceral and dyspeptic, the movie boasts jealous husbands and pneumatic ambitious starlets, American directors dangling juicy roles in return for casting couch privileges, junkie orgies. In a final, apocalyptic comeuppance (an act of God, or the end of civilization, or something), Skolimowski pronounces a pox on all their houses. Perhaps, at 77, he has earned that right, but from what I saw, Poland’s youth of today seem pretty pleased with their brave new world.

On the last day of the festival just before leaving for the airport, I tried to catch a final screening of “The Here After,” a drama by Magnus von Horn about a juvenile delinquent trying to put his life back together — only to discover that it and all other screenings had been canceled. The movie’s title proved tragically prescient when it was announced that another Polish filmmaker, Marcin Wrona, had been found dead in his room at the waterfront hotel where I was staying. Initially reported as the result of a heart attack, his death was later revealed as a suicide. Wrona already had an international reputation, and his new horror film, “Demon,” an Israeli-Polish co-production inspired by the Dybbuk legend, had already received positive notices at Toronto. It played well at Gdynia, too. He was 42 and had recently married Olga Szymanska, his producer, but, it was widely reported, had suffered from long-term depression. His passing, which, said artistic director Michał Oleszczyk, forced a necessary scaling back of the closing-night festivities, was a sobering coda to an otherwise lively festival.

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