Foreign Film

Polish Cinema: A Hard Sell in Germany

ida action press
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • By ignoring Polish cinema, German audiences are missing out on some of the most exciting movies being made in Europe today. The Polish film “Body” cannot even find a distributor in Germany, despite winning a Berlinale prize this year.
  • Facts


    • “Ida,” a film by Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, won the Academy Award for best foreign film this year.
    • It has been seen by fewer than 20,000 Germans compared to a half-million in both France and the U.S.
    • Relatively liberal policies when Poland was Communist-controlled allowed its movie industry to flourish and produce critically acclaimed, world-class movies. 
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“Ida,” the celebrated film from Paweł Pawlikowski and winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film this year, has already been seen by over half a million people both in France and the U.S.

In Germany, it has been seen by fewer than 20,000 moviegoers.

“Body,” a film by Malgorzata Szumowska that won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale film festival, has not been able to find a distributor for Germany.

It would appear that Germans haven’t yet realized that some of the most exciting movies around at the moment are from its neighbor Poland.

Poland has a strong movie-making heritage. In the early 1960s, its films were considered the equal of Western productions. Roman Polanski’s “Knife in the Water” is regarded as the epitome of Polish filmmaking.

Liberal Communist leader Wladislaw Gomulka detested "Knife in Water," but it still made it its way into theaters.

Despite facing a host of problems during shooting, including the director being hospitalized after a car crash, the black-and-white film was nominated for an Oscar. When filming was complete, the soundtrack proved to be unusable and had to be synchronized. Yet the movie turned out to be the country’s greatest international hit of the Socialist era.

The plot is relatively simple: A wealthy, married couple invites a young hitchhiker along for a one-day sailing trip and sexual tension over the woman develops, symbolized by a knife the men play around with. The relaxed jazz track of Krzysztof Komeda contrasts with the claustrophobia and pent-up lust, which was considered quite racy at the time.

A reporter visiting the set accused the film crew of living a life of debauchery, which didn’t sit well with the Communist officials. Yet it was possible to film a completely unsocialistic film in the East Bloc, one that picked up on the symbolism of Ingmar Bergman, that played ironically with French New Wave cinema themes and put the emphasis on form rather that political message. All these aspects allowed “Knife in the Water” to compete with independent Western films of the time, especially those in the “auteur” genre, which pushed the director’s personal vision.

knife in the water action press
Knife in the Water. Source: action press

The Communists practiced a comparatively liberal cultural policy in Poland. As a rule, the apparatchiks didn’t interfere in a film’s creative process and the censor board was dealt with only after filming. Liberal Communist leader Wladislaw Gomulka detested “Knife in Water,” but it still made it its way into theaters, although it was years before it was screened in East Germany.

The party’s restraint helped the careers of directors like Mr. Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Andrzej Wajda. Most Polish directors attended the National Film School in Łódź, which is still considered excellent today.

Mr. Wajda’s “Katyń,” was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar in 2007. The film is about Katyn, an area near Russia’s Smolensk region, where in 1940 Stalin ordered the massacre of about 22,000 Polish army officers, professionals and civil servants. The Soviet Union blamed the crime on the Nazis, finally acknowledging responsibility in the 1980s.

In Germany, Ms. Szumowska’s most entertaining films are seen as sociopolitical. German audiences seem determined to miss out of the lightness in her work.

This year’s foreign-language Oscar winner “Ida” is set in 1962, the same year “Knife in Water” was released, and has a lot in common with Mr. Polanski’s seminal work.

The story is about a young nun, sent to visit her aunt before she can take her vows. The aunt, a jaded judge with a Stalinist background, consumes alcohol, cigarettes and men. She tells her niece that she has a Jewish background, and their road trip through the Polish countryside becomes a journey into the nightmarish past of Nazis and collaborators. The two women stop at a provincial hotel, where Western decadence and temptations are everywhere and a dangerous threesome threatens the fragile peace. A band plays John Coltrane’s Naima; it’s not unlike Mr. Komeda’s jazz scores for Mr. Polanski.

As with Mr. Polanski’s work, “Ida” captivates with a flood of striking images and depth of focus. Seldom does anything become blurred in the background, which imbues the scenes with something slightly surreal and abstract.

Mr. Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” as well as films by the 42-year old Małgorzata Szumowska are far from art house clichés. Viewers will not find self-serving, endless landscape shots nor pseudo-intellectual dialogue. They are witty too.


Video: “Ida” movie trailer.

Yet, in Germany Ms. Szumowska’s most entertaining films are as a rule seen as sociopolitical. German audiences seem determined to miss out of the lightness in her work.

One good example is her film,”In The Name Of,” a dramatic and funny story about a gay priest. In Germany, it is taken as a bitterly serious movie about coming to terms with Polish homophobia. Major Polish cities, by the way, are about as homophobic as the famously gay-friendly cities of Cologne or Berlin.

“Body” is a lightweight yet magnificently crazy film about an anorexic girl mourning the loss of her mother. But because a woman therapist sees visions, it was assumed in Germany that the movie was a nasty critique of Polish Catholicism.

Naturally, there are echoes of social criticism in the latest Polish films, particularly in the 2014 coming-out story, “Floating Skyscrapers” by the young director Tomasz Wasilewski, about a young performance swimmer discovering his homosexuality.

But none of all the social upheavals reflected in Polish films show a break from the restraints of socialism and Catholicism to become more like the progressive West. The reason the latest Polish films so effortlessly achieve such a high degree of sophistication is because independent cinema didn’t have to be reinvented after the collapse of Socialism. The West was always present in the East.

Today, it is obvious that Polish directors are not shackled by how to make their films more suitable for television or more appealing to some film subsidy fund. They are filmmakers and proud of their heritage.


This article first appeared in Die Zeit newspaper. To contact the author:

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