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Jerzy Kawalerowicz: Director of stark, haunting films

Jerzy Kawalerowicz was one of the directors who rebuilt the Polish film industry in the years after the Second World War, transforming its international profile in the 1950s and 1960s, although he faded from prominence in later years.

Descended from non-practising Armenian Church members originally called Kavalerian, he was born in 1922 in Gwozdziec, a Polish town that later became part of Ukraine. After studying art and film in Kraków, Kawalerowicz was assistant director on films including Wanda Jakubowska's progressive Auschwitz drama Ostatni etap ("The Last Stage", 1948).

But his own début, Gromada ("The Community", 1952), was a conservative portrayal of rich and poor peasants. It was overshadowed in 1954 by his two-part adaptation of Pamiatka z celulozy (A Night of Remembrance), Igor Newerly's novel about strikes in the 1930s. Despite the epic scale and conventional setting, the subtle characterisation of Celuloza (Cellulose) and Pod gwiazda frygijska ("Under the Phrygian Star") marked a further blow to simplistic socialist realist film-making.

In 1955 Kawalerowicz became head of the Kadr Film Unit and directed Cien ("The Shadow"). Prawdziwy koniec wielkiej wojny ("The Real End of the Great War", 1957), an early meditation on the Holocaust, gave his wife, Lucynna Winnicka, her first starring role.

His greatest success came with Matka Joanna od aniolow (Mother Joan of the Angels, 1961), which won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes. It has recently been released on DVD. The possession of the nuns of Loudon had inspired Aldous Huxley and, notoriously, Ken Russell's 1971 film The Devils. But Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz moved the action of his novel to Poland.

His screenplay puts the shocking climactic act of violence, a perversely religious act of "love", off-screen, and there is a long debate between a confused priest and a dogmatic rabbi, ironically played by the same actor. Kawalerowicz's images are hauntingly stark, making one of cinema's great evocations of history, while the many shots from the priest's point of view draw us into his moral dilemma. A condemnation of all dogma, whether religious or political, it was at first banned by the Catholic Church.

Kawalerowicz's dislike of dogma extended to his own art and he saw eclecticism as a virtue: "I have no artistic creed . . . I do not think it possible to find in my work the influence of any school or director. Rather I am anarchical in my art."

In 1964 Kawalerowicz embarked on another epic, though perversely he avoided many of the genre's traditional elements. Faraon (The Pharaoh) pitted Rameses XIII against the clergy. Finally appearing in 1966, it took the Palme d'Or and sheer scale propelled it to an Oscar nomination, but the glacial pace and lack of exciting spectacle played against it.

Next came the smaller-scale marital drama Gra (The Game, 1969) and Magdalena (1971), about a priest's love for a woman, both failed and Kawalerowicz's output slowed. Smierc prezydenta ("The Death of a President", 1978) depicts the 1922 assassination of Gabriel Narutowicz, first president of Poland, with almost documentary precision.

From the mid 1950s onwards, Kawalerowicz was involved with Polish film-industry politics, holding several important posts, but in 1983, in an unaccountable volte-face, he condemned pro-Solidarity directors, leaving himself ostracised. But it was not simply political hostility that meant that his remaining films were largely unsuccessful.

That year's autobiographical Austeria (The Inn), though set during the First World War, is a sort of memorial to the people from his village who died in the Holocaust. But Kawalerowicz's resistance to dogma led him to conclude that Judaism made many Jews give up easily, believing that it was their destiny to be killed, and the film divided audiences. He returned to the theme of Judaism and the Holocaust with the revenge-drama Bronstein's Kinder ("Bronstein's Children", 1990).

Kawalerowicz's last work, Quo Vadis (2001) is a more intelligent and faithful adaptation of the Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel than the 1951 version, but met with little success.

John Riley

Jerzy Kawalerowicz, film director: born Gwozdziec, Poland 19 January 1922; married Lucynna Winnicka (one son, one daughter); died Warsaw 27 December 2007.