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Leading Pole helmer Munk’s career is cut tragically short

Fest prepping retrospective on director

HOLLYWOOD — As it did with so many young filmmakers, the Venice Intl. Film Festival was early to acknowledge the art of Polish director Andrzej Munk, whose “Men of Blue Cross” won best first film in 1955, followed by the short film prize in 1958 for “A Walk in the Old City of Warsaw.”

On the 80th anniversary of his birth and the 40th anniversary of his tragic death in 1961, Venice is prepping an exhaustive retrospective of restored prints of Munk’s six features, made in the last seven years of his life, and 15 of his 20 shorts, filmed between 1946 and 1958.

Born in Krakow, Poland’s traditional center of artistic ferment, Munk graduated high school just before the Nazi invasion and occupation. He joined the underground resistance, and resumed his education after World War II.

Opting out of law, economics and architecture studies, Munk made his first short in 1946 after enrolling in the first classes of the Lodz Film School. Fellow student Andrzej Wajda recalled that as a student at Lodz, “Munk could not make a film about a consumptive hero (I was to play that hero because I was terribly thin) … because to show a victim of consumption was considered just too pessimistic.”

This foreshadowed a long period in which Munk, Wajda, Jerzy Kawalerowicz and others took their state-sponsored training and made films that cleverly critiqued that very state. Such early shorts — 10 alone were made between ’46 and ’52 — as “Art of Youth,” “Science Closer to Life” and “Direction: Nova Huta” experimented with extensive use of natural sound as an alternative to traditional film music.

His war experience proved fruitful ground for his ironic feature films, including “Eroica” (1957), which pairs an absurdist telling of the Warsaw uprising with a fatalistic tale of an escape from a German prison, and “Bad Luck” (1959), about the unfortunate odyssey of an Everyman through the Poland of 1930-1950.

By 1960, it appeared that Munk was on the verge of achieving, with Wajda, worldwide acclaim for an impressive, growing oeuvre when he set out to film “The Passenger.” With a plot hook worthy of Hitchcock, the film depicts the happenstance meeting on a ship of a woman who had been an Auschwitz prison guard and one of her surviving prisoners.

During filming, Munk died in a car crash, and colleagues attempted to round out the uncompleted feature with stills, a kind of completion that predated a recent restoration with stills of Erich Von Stroheim’s “Greed.”

“The Passenger” was finally screened in Venice in 1964, where it won the Italian Critics Award, though another six years passed until it gained a U.S. release.

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