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New Generation of Filmmakers in Poland Are Grabbing Artistic Reins

October saw the death of Andrzej Wajda, a filmmaker whom Berlinale chief Dieter Kosslick described as “a great artist who consistently renewed the cinematic arts.” But who are the next wave of Polish directors to take the place of Wajda and his peers?

Agnieszka Holland, whose “Spoor” plays in Berlin’s competition, lauds Malgorzata Szumowska, who won a Berlin Silver Bear in 2013 with “Body,” and Tomasz Wasilewski, who snared the Silver Bear in 2016 with “United States of Love.”

Among the newcomers she singles out Agnieszka Smoczynska, whose “The Lure” won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance last year; Jan P. Matuszynski, whose “The Last Family” competed at Locarno in 2016; and Kuba Czekaj, whose “The Erlprince” plays in Berlin’s Generation section this year.

Holland says this younger generation is not political in the way the older filmmakers were, but “stylistically and in terms of modern expression they are much more powerful.” They are less traditional in their subject approach and storytelling, she says. “They are looking for a new approach to reality, experimenting with the language, form and subject-matter.”

Pawel Pawlikowski, who won a foreign-language Oscar with 2013’s “Ida,” says, “Each time I see a Polish film I am surprised by how good it is compared with eight or 10 years ago. [They are] films with something to say.”

The Polish Film Institute has worked very creatively with the filmmaking community, he says, and as a result “a certain confidence has emerged over the last two to three years.”

“It is a compact community where people rival each other in a good way. There is a feeling that it is a good moment, and the success of each film gives confidence to the other filmmakers.

“There is a strong hunger for Polish films [among local cinemagoers], and there is a feeling among filmmakers that they are speaking to someone. That is encouraging.”

Lenny Abrahamson, the Oscar-nominated director of “Room,” was on the jury of Gdynia, Poland’s top festival for local movies, last year, and was impressed by the world-class cinema he saw.

Besides Matuszynski, whose film won the top prize at the fest, and Wasilewski, who won for directing, Abrahamson cites Maciej Pieprzyca, whose “I’m a Killer” is “an interesting hybrid of a superior Hollywood and [David] Fincher-influenced serial- killer movie and a European existential character study.”

He notes: “What stands out for me in Polish cinema is the level of control of the medium across such a large number of young filmmakers as well as an appetite for serious work.”

Michal Oleszczyk, Gdynia’s artistic director, says: “Polish cinema right now is extraordinarily ripe for yielding talents that in the long run will match Andrzej Wajda in stature and achievement.

“This is a generation incredibly aware of film language in all its variety. They have absorbed large chunks of both arthouse and mainstream world cinema. No earlier generation of Polish filmmakers has had this wide an access to cinema, no other was so Westernized in its approach and communication skills, and no other had such complex and searching approach to Polish history, identity and class tensions.”

Oleszczyk underscores the very different environment that the new Polish wave is operating in, compared with the era that Wajda lived through. “These young artists are being forced by free-market global capitalism to be much more shape-shifting, alert, and constantly open to new forms, creative collaborations and multi- national projects,” he says. “It’s a restless, immensely active group that has to constantly reinvent itself in order to stay visible and creative in the contemporary arthouse universe.”

Film critic Malgorzata Sadowska says while the older generation was wedded to social realism, young Polish cinema is “more surreal, more sensual, more diverse, and more focused on visual than narrative [elements].”

These directors have escaped from political, social, and historical issues to focus inward on the personal and intimate aspects of life. “Most of the films focus on longing for love, the sense of loneliness, and disturbing family life, and coming-to-age stories,” she says.

She adds the directors are “fluent in European arthouse cinema language,” with the influence of such foreign auteurs as Ulrich Seidl being evident in Bartosz M. Kowalski’s “Playground,” for example.

Jan Naszewski, CEO of Poland’s New Europe Film Sales, underscores the point. “The new generation of Polish directors consider themselves to be European filmmakers,” he says. “It is fascinating for me to see that Polish directors in their 30s, like Wasilewski or Matuszynski, are very well respected by my favorite contemporary Romanian, Greek, or Scandinavian directors.”

He says the young Poles are part of “a global new wave of like-minded auteurs rather than a local phenomenon.”

Nikolaj Nikitin, the Berlinale delegate for Central and Eastern Europe, and founder of film business training agency SOFA, points to the number of Polish co-productions in the festival, emphasizing the interconnected nature of the international industry in which Polish filmmakers operate. The Polish Film Institute funded 22 co-productions last year, including 16 minority co-productions.

Pawlikowski feels that internationally, Polish cinema isn’t given the recognition it deserves. “When I watched films like ‘The Last Family’ or ‘I’m a Killer,’ I thought that if they were in English or French they would really make a stir internationally. The language and frame of reference limits the commercial potential,” he says. “Seeing what was in Cannes and the Oscar and BAFTA contenders, I honestly thought that Polish films are among the most interesting films of the past year.”

A look at some emerging Polish talent :
Kuba Czekaj
The director’s “Baby Bump” played at the Venice Film Festival last year, and his latest film, “The Erlprince,” screens in the Berlinale’s Generation section this year.

Jakub Gierszal
The actor, one of Variety’s 10 Europeans to Watch this year, appears in Agnieszka Holland’s Berlin player “Spoor.” Upcoming films include Urszula Antoniak’s “Beyond Words” and Lukasz Palkowski’s “Double Ironman.”

Zofia Kowalewska 
Director’s documentary short “Close Tie,” about her grandparents repairing their broken relationship, was shortlisted for this year’s Oscars, and played at the Sundance Film Festival. She attends Lodz Film School.

Bartosz M. Kowalski 
The director’s child-abduction drama “Playground” screened in the main competition at the San Sebastian film festival last year, and won the debut director prize at the Gdynia Film Festival.

Michalina Olszanska 
The actress starred in “I, Olga Hepnarova,” which played in the Berlinale’s Panorama section, and also appeared in Sundance entry “The Lure.” Recent roles include Robert Wichrowski’s “The Son of Snow Queen,” and Aleksey Uchitel’s upcoming period drama “Matilda.”

Klaudia Smieja 
Smieja, selected as a Producer on the Move in Cannes, is producing Agnieszka Holland’s “Gareth Jones.” Past credits include Grimur Hakonarson’s “Rams” and Anne Fontaine’s “The Innocents.”

Agnieszka Smoczynska 
The director’s horror musical “The Lure” won a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Next up is “The Fugue,” about a woman who reinvents herself after losing her memory.

Zofia Wichlacz 
The actress, who broke through with Jan Komasa’s “Warsaw ‘44,” is one of the European Film Promotion’s Shooting Stars. She toplines Andrzej Wajda’s “Afterimage” and Agnieszka Holland’s “Spoor”; other recent roles include Katarzyna Adamik’s “Amok” and Maciej Sobieszczański’s “Zgoda.” — Leo Barraclough

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