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Poland in 21 Pictures according to Martin Scorsese

When Martin Scorsese appeared at the Leon Schiller National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre on Targowa Street in Łódź on December 11th 2011 to receive an honorary doctorate from Robert Gliński, the school’s rector, the joy of the university’s staff and students as well as that of both the national and municipal authorities and the whole world of Polish cinema was great. Nobody then predicted that this was only the beginning of the American director’s romance with Polish Film.

March 12, 2014 - Ryszard Jabłoński - Articles and Commentary

256px-Martin Scorsese Berlin Film Festival 2008

Photo: Siebbi (cc) commons.wikimedia.org

For some time it was said unofficially that something big is in the works, but only in February of this year was there published an official notice that “Martin Scorsese will present digitally remastered masterpieces of Polish cinema in New York”.

A retrospective titled “Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” began on February 5th at the New York Film Society of Lincoln Center.

“This type of retrospective organised on such a scale and with such a scrupulously prepared set of films sparks interest. Scorsese chose 21 films and, in a certain sense, he is endorsing them. He is indicating that people worldwide interested in film should watch them. They will come to nearly 50 cities in the United States and to several in Canada, and the process will last 18 months. We can thus speak of an absolute record, or something that is sensational,” Poland’s Minister of Culture and National Heritage Bogdan Zdrojewski, who participated in the inauguration of the event, said.

Well-educated with a serious theoretical framework gained at New York University, where he studied from 1960 to 1965, Scorsese became a lecturer at the film school of his alma mater.

Martin Scorsese became an unquestioned authority in the world of American film. He studied and tried to get to know foreign films as well, which then were not widely available in the United States as American distributors always strongly defended their interests and stubbornly protected the internal market against foreign film productions.

This was a time of the blossoming and development of European film. Italian neo-realism. The French New Wave. Excellent Czechoslovak cinema. Swedish movies. There was also the wonderful Polish School, which came to conquer the world’s screens.

Martin Scorsese passionately watched and laboriously studied the films of European artists that developed overseas.

Also then, for the first time, Scorsese had the opportunity to watch the early films of Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Taduesz Konwicki. These pictures made a great impression on the then-young American artist.

Poland interested him, as did the films of Polish directors. He tried to get to know and understand the people living in this distant, foreign land. As an artist he knew that the place of one’s birth has an enormous influence on the life, sensitivities and, oftentimes, destiny of each individual person. Scorsese was interested in the Poles and met Polish immigrants in the United States. They – the inhabitants of Chicago, New York and many other American cities – brought closer to him and tried to enlighten him about the complicated history of Poland.

He noticed differences in what is produced in the United States and the works of Europeans artists. He was greatly impressed by European cinema, society, thinking and filming style.

In 1970, he left for Hollywood and began to work as a film editor. He wrote the screenplays and dialogues for many different films. He undertook small acting parts. He learned. Scorsese quickly gained the trust of the people who decided about the fate of film stills, and that was the beginning of his great cinematic adventure.

People say that Scorsese is the most talented filmmaker in recent years, a veritable virtuoso of style. An artist full of passion and civilisational obsessions. A controversial director whose pictures often spark fierce opposition. They attack almost realistically with their cruelty, sadistic subtexts and soulless, mindless, drug-fuelled violence resulting from a lack of emotional bonds.

Fads and dominant currents do not determine Martin Scorsese’s films. Often, there are religious motifs and allusions in his work, which cause his pictures to inflame great emotions among critics, filmmakers and also the film-going public.

Martin Scorsese’s films do, however, ask us an important question: how can one be a good, honest person while at the same time accept what the contemporary world – based on hard rules of the struggle for survival and which promotes strong, egocentric and relentless rules – carries with it?

Among the American people of film it is often said that Martin Scorsese has seen almost all the films that had developed on our globe but, despite this although perhaps for this reason, he studies with great interest new film productions in the process of being realised.

Martin Scorsese is an unquestioned giant of American cinema with 12 Oscar nominations. He received two gold statues in 2006 for his The Departed, for Best Picture and Best Director. He has also received four Gold Globes and an impressive eight nominations for them. He won a Palm d’Or at Cannes for Taxi Driver in 1976. Naturally, he has received many distinctions and prestigious awards at all the significant film festivals worldwide for his films, screenplays and directing.

Scorsese’s serious filmography counts 28 titles, from his 1967 debut Who’s Knocking at My Door to 1970’s Woodstock and such excellent pictures as Taxi Driver (1976), which featured the excellent roles of Robert De Niro and a teenage Jodie Foster, who thanks to this role quickly became one of the most important American actresses. I must also mention Raging Bull (1980), for which Robert De Niro received an Oscar. Shot in black-and-white, this film became the precursor of a revival of the format.

Next, there was the highly controversial Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which was not distributed in many countries. This was followed by the moving Goodfellas (1990). Not only I think highly of this film, with its excellent acting and wonderful editing. Later, 1995’s Casino was somewhat in the vein of Goodfellas.

Meanwhile, Aviator (2004) began a serious fascination and collaboration with Leonardo Di Caprio.

And there is also the newest work of the master, 2013’s Oscar-nominated (although film-goers and critics are divided on it) Wolf of Wall Street.

The great director found the time or, as I would prefer to say, had the need to present to the wide American public 21 works of Polish cinema. This event, as Minister Zdrojewski said, was excellently prepared. He selected works whose titles and directors must now be named:

Aleksander Ford – Black Cross (1960)

Wojciech Jerzy Has – The Saragossa Manuscript (1964), The Hour-glass Sanatorium (1973)

Jerzy Kawalerowicz – Night Train (1959), Mother Joan of the Angels (1960), Pharaoh (1965), Austeria (1982)

Krzysztof Kieślowski – Blind Chance (1981), A Short Film about Killing (1982)

Tadeusz Konwicki – The Last Day of Summer (1958), Jump (1965)

Janusz Morgenstern – To Kill This Love (1972)

Andrzej Munk – Eroica 1957

Andrzej Wajda – Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Innocent Sorcerers (1960), The Wedding (1972), The Promised Land (1974), Man of Iron (1981)

Krzysztof Zanussi – The Illumination (1972) Camouflage (1976), The Constant Factor 1980

These are the choices that Scorsese has made.

Probably an important criterion determining whether or not a film made this list was digital reconstruction. If that is the case, I want a quick digital remastering of the following films:

Tadeusz Chmielewski – Ewa Wants to Sleep (1957)

Roman Polański – Knife in the Water (1961)

Witold Leszczyński – Matthew’s Days (1967)

Henryk Kluba – The Sun Rises Once a Day (1967)

Andrzej Wajda – The Birch Wood (1970)

Bohdan Poręba – Hubal (1973)

Jerzy Domaradzki – Peace Run (1981)

Ryszard Bugajski – Interrogation (1982)

Janusz Zaorski – The Mother of Kings (1982)

Radosław Piwowarski – My Mother’s Lovers (1985)

Maciej Dejczer – 300 Miles to Heaven (1989)

Władysław Pasikowski – Kroll (1991)

I am greatly surprised by the lack of Kazimierz Kutz’s presence among the 21 titles, in particular his Salt of the Black Earth (1969) and Pearl in the Crown (1972).

This list could be somewhat longer because I, like Martin Scorsese, love Polish cinema. Of the 21 films, I would delete some because, in my opinion, they have not stood the test of time, but at the same time I would bring them back because I have a sentimental feeling towards them and their directors. The years 1957-1981 were a good time for Polish cinema. This time was politically nasty but, fortunately, this is now history. That was then and it has become immortalised in film stills.

This is a great event. Jacek Bromski worked hard as the chair of the Association of Polish Filmmakers with Scorsese and the whole topic. He deserves praise for that.

One can, of course, always criticise something in this whole project, but I won’t. And I want to praise Scorsese and Minister Zdrojewski. Long live the Łódź Film School!

I thank you and I ask for more.

Translated by Filip Mazurczak

Ryszard Jabłoński is an experienced film and theatre actor and screenwriter educated at the National Film School in Łódź, Poland, the alma mater of such legendary filmmakers as Roman Polański, Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieślowski. He currently lectures at several universities in Warsaw and is preparing two books for publication.

To learn more about Scorsese’s retrospective of Polish film, please visit its official website. You can also watch Scorsese discuss his love for the cinema of Poland here.



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