Martin Scorsese celebrates masterpieces of Polish cinema from Ashes and Diamonds to Black Cross

The Godfather of American film reveals the little-known Eastern European inspiration behind some of his greatest hits in a new season of Polish classic cinema

Geoffrey Macnab@TheIndyFilm
Thursday 16 April 2015 18:19
Martin Scorsese has been influenced by Polish cinema
Martin Scorsese has been influenced by Polish cinema

It’s the sunglasses that are the clue. If you want to understand the influence of Polish cinema on American director Martin Scorsese, look at Zbigniew Cybulski, “the Polish James Dean”. In Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Cybulski plays Maciek, a young patriot fighting against the communists in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War who is seldom seen without his pair of shades.

“I was overwhelmed by the film: the masterful direction, the powerful story, the striking visual imagery, and the shocking performance by Zbigniew Cybulski,” Scorsese recalled. “I was so struck by the film, it affected me so deeply, that I paid small homage by giving Charlie (Harvey Keitel) a pair of similar sunglasses in Mean Streets.”

Fifty years after Scorsese first saw Ashes and Diamonds as a young student at New York University, he has curated a programme of Masterpieces of Polish Cinema which is now touring the UK, with Ashes and Diamonds and other Cybulski movies prominent.

Somehow, it comes as a surprise to learn that the sunglasses worn in Scorsese’s early masterpiece by Keitel, the quintessential American method actor, were modelled on those of a character in a communist-era Polish movie. Cybulski’s sunglasses aren’t affectation. As he tells the girl he lures to his hotel room, they’re a “souvenir” of his unrequited love for the homeland. “During the (Warsaw) uprising, I walked too much in the sewers.”

Zbigniew Cybulski in ‘Ashes and Diamonds’

The Polish actor comes from a very different background to that of Dean or Marlon Brando, but his appeal is similar. As the doomed hero, he has the same mix of swagger and vulnerability as well as the tousled hair. It adds to his mystique that, like Dean, he died young, aged 39.

“We didn’t know James Dean at that time, but we had a feeling that this was a new protagonist, a new character. We didn’t have similar characters in the past,” the 75-year-old Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi, who helped Scorsese curate the season, recalls of Cybulski.

“He brought with him some aura of defeat. He was beaten as a figure. He was resisting the pressure. He was not a traditional hero – that is, a winner. He was a loser; and we as a nation, we felt we were losers. After World War Two, we were theoretically in the camp of Allies as winners, but we had been sent to be a satellite country of the Soviet Union.”

In the year in which a Polish movie – Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida – won an Oscar, it’s a fitting moment to revisit these classics of Polish cinema, handpicked by Scorsese. The movies are very different from one another. They include historical epics (Aleksander Ford’s Black Cross), films railing against capital punishment (Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing), absurdist comedies (Krzysztof Zanussi’s Camouflage), ironic celebrations of wartime heroism (Andrzej Munk’s Eroica) and surrealistic fantasies (Wojciech J. Has’s The Hourglass Sanatorium).

A scene from The Hourglass Sanatorium

There are also political satires (Wajda’s Man of Iron), stories of demonic possession (Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels), films celebrating rebellious youth culture (Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers, also starring Cybulski alongside a youthful Roman Polanski) and even a New Wave boxing movie (Jerzy Skolimowski’s Walkover.)

What they all share is craftsmanship, lyricism, and an oblique approach to their subject matter. Sometimes that approach was dictated by censorship. These are movies made by stealth when Poland was under Soviet control. Their film-makers faced often absurd strictures.

In a recent interview, Wajda reminisced about how upset the authorities were over a scene in Innocent Sorcerers in which a character turned off a tape recorder with his toe. Such a scene was considered a grievous affront both to Polish technology and to the dignity of the Polish worker.

“It was a regular game and we felt somehow frustrated when censorship did not interfere,” recalls Zanussi (whose film Camouflage, screening in the Scorsese programme, was very heavily censored) of the games of cat-and-mouse the film-makers played with the authorities. “It was a good sign when something was cut. It meant ‘alright, I went to the limit.’”

A scenes from ‘Mother Joan of the Angels’

The films also often have an air of fatalism. Characters expect the worst and often embrace their own demise. Yet at the same time, the films have an extraordinary vitality and inventiveness. Their directors were almost all taught at the celebrated Lodz Film School, founded in 1948, and a model for the film programme at New York University, where Scorsese himself eventually studied.

“The biggest secret was that we had successful film-makers as our teachers,” Zanussi suggests of the school where Polanski, Kieślowski and many others learned their craft. “All over the world, in most cases, people who teach are people who did not succeed in (their) profession. There is some hidden bitterness behind it. For very simple economic reasons, as our salaries were very low, even for very successful film-makers, teaching was some kind of a must.”

Scorsese quotes Wajda in describing what makes the films (all digitally restored) so special. They embody what Wajda called “the ‘impertinent freedom of creativity in the cinema.’” Scorsese describes them as films “that have great emotional and visual power – they’re ‘serious’ films that, with their depth, stand up to repeated viewings. The subtext of great conflict and cultural identity is universal; even if you don’t know the history of Poland, the themes in these films will resonate, as they did profoundly for me.”

Since the end of the communist era, it has often appeared to outsiders that Polish cinema has lost its way. There is no longer a repressive state system with an army of pettifogging censors to rebel against, to mock – or even to ignore. Krzysztof Kieslowski responded successfully to changing political circumstances by looking at liberty, equality and fraternity in an intimate, poetic way in his Three Colours trilogy.

Other film-makers have often seemed to flounder, even as new opportunities appeared to open up to them. The Polish film-maker whose work is most widely seen in the West today is Agnieszka Holland, whose debut feature, Provincial Actors (1978) is in Scorsese’s programme. Holland has become one of the stalwarts of US TV drama, directing episodes of The Wire, The Killing, Treme and House of Cards (as well as making Burning Bush for HBO in the Czech Republic).

No new figures have emerged in recent years who rank with Wajda, Polanski or Zanussi. When I put this point to Zanussi himself, he disagrees strongly. “That is one of those expectations that critics have. They want to see that oppression makes art fruitful. It is like believing that when dogs are hungry they make good guards. I have eight dogs so I strongly deny this idea. Well-fed dogs defend you better. It is not true to say that we need oppression in order to have something to say.”

A scene from ‘Black Cross’

Even so, it surely isn’t a coincidence that Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida is set in the early Sixties, shot in black-and-white, and self-consciously evokes the golden era in Polish film-making. The films in the Scorsese-curated tour are almost all from that era.

As Scorsese puts it: “There are many revelations in the season and whether you’re familiar with some of these films or not, it’s an incredible opportunity to discover for yourself the great power of Polish cinema, on the big screen.” Then there’s the added bonus of Cybulski, the effortlessly charismatic and moody star in the dark glasses who puts even James Dean in the shade.

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, in partnership with the KINOTEKA Polish Film Festival and Filmhouse Edinburgh, BFI Southbank, London, to 17 June (020 7928 3232; 0131 228 2688)

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