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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
News
i100
Travel
Suite dreams: the JW Marriott in Venice
travelChic new hotels in 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015