The Klassiki Companion: Poland in the eighties, from Wajda to Kieślowski

The Klassiki Companion is our beginners’ guide to the key filmmakers, movements, and concepts in the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In this edition, we explore Polish film during the last decade of communist rule: a period marked by the brutality of martial law, but also the emergence of critical new voices and masterpieces from figures such as Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieślowski.

Shivers (dir. Wojciech Marczewski, 1981)

For the nation’s filmmakers, the final years of communist rule in Poland proved a period of both brutality and opportunity: a decade that opened with the imposition of martial law and ended with the apotheosis of the Solidarity trade union movement and the collapse of the regime. Emigration and repatriation, both enforced and voluntary, brought directors in and out of the fold; new voices emerged as established auteurs adapted to rapidly shifting times. The potential for political critique opened up and was shut down again; films now recognised as canonical were shelved for years at a time.

In this environment, artistic and political pressures were intertwined. The second half of the 1970s had seen the rise of a loose grouping of critical voices later dubbed the “cinema of moral anxiety” – a staging ground for the early works of major figures including Agnieszka Holland, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Krzysztof Zanussi. These films had explored discontent in a minor key, using provincial settings and unremarkable protagonists as a means to dig under the skin of communist society. The economic decline that helped to fuel this melancholic worldview only worsened into the eighties, with rationing, shortages, and power outages prompting ever greater disillusionment with the authorities – most famously in the August 1980 strike at the Gdańsk shipyards that announced the birth of Solidarity. Facing growing discontent, newly installed First Secretary Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law on 13 December 1981; although it was officially lifted in the summer of 1983, the battle lines had been drawn for the decade to come.

Man of Iron (dir. Andrzej Wajda, 1981)

Martial law

Among the many repressive measures introduced with martial law – from paramilitary patrols and a national curfew to widespread wiretapping and mass imprisonment without trial – was a tightening of cultural censorship. As a result, some of the most symbolically significant films of the early eighties received little to no domestic exposure until the end of the decade. Perhaps the most emblematic such case was Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron (1981). In 1977, Wajda had made his own contribution to the cinema of moral anxiety with Man of Marble, a dissection of the propaganda myths of the Stalinist 1950s. Four years later, he followed up with an ad hoc sequel that was not just a historical drama, but a historical artefact in its own right.

In August 1980, Wajda – a cultural celebrity in Poland, a living link to the radical days of the Polish Film School – had visited Gdańsk’s Lenin Shipyards to capture strikes that would give rise to Solidarity. A labourer escorting him around the shipyard suggested that he make a sequel to Man of Marble about the strikes, and even proposed a title: Man of Iron. Realising that the window to release such a film might be shut at any moment, Wajda hurried into action, recruiting screenwriter Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski, shooting and editing at breakneck pace in order to premiere at Cannes in May 1981. In the words of Jonathan Bousfield, “Wajda was extremely aware that social protest was a public spectacle of short duration, and that by making a film of the Gdańsk events he was helping to ensure that they would resonate for a long time.” The film scooped the Palme d’Or, sparking excitement back in Poland. “Never before has a film been awaited with such interest and anticipation,” the Polish magazine Przekrój declared on 23 August ahead of its nominal domestic release. But the imposition by the authorities of martial law in December cut this enthusiasm short.

some of the most symbolically significant films of the early eighties received little to no domestic exposure until the end of the decade

The same fate – lauded at a major European festival but pulled from Polish screens a few weeks after release – also befell Wojciech Marczewski’s Shivers (1981). At the dawn of the 1980s, Marczewski was one of the most promising young directors in the country, his early features Nightmares (1978) and Steward (1979) marking him out as a stylist of unusual force with a keen sense for period atmospheres and psychological intensity. Solidarity’s challenge to the prevailing order reminded Marczewski of the “thaw” of the late fifties, when he was a child, and he attempted in Shivers to re-examine the Stalinist era with a withering perspective that had simply not been feasible for filmmakers up to that point. Again, a few weeks after the film premiered to positive reviews, martial law was imposed; the film was pulled from cinemas, and Marczewski refused to work for state studios for the remainder of the communist era. Shivers would later win a Silver Bear at the 1982 Berlinale. The impulse to draw parallels between the strictures of the 1980s and the Stalinist period was widely felt. Ryszard Bugajski’s Interrogation (1982), about the forced confession of an innocent woman in the 1950s, was another feature to be banned under martial law, only released in 1989. The same year, Janusz Zaorski’s The Mother of Kings, about a loyal Party member who falls foul of the post-war purges of the forties, suffered the same fate.

The cinematic aftershocks of martial law were not confined to Poland itself. By the eighties, there was a rich tradition of Polish filmmakers travelling in and out of the country as political pressure and artistic intent demanded – although the tightening of the border after 1981 meant that emigration at that point usually indicated (semi-)permanent exile. This was the case with the great Jerzy Skolimowski, who had come up with Wajda et al in the Polish Film School in the early ‘60s, worked abroad for most of the ‘70s, and returned to his homeland for the 1981 feature Hands Up!, an anti-Stalinist autobiographical tale that saw him finally forced out of the country until the fall of communism. Setting up shop in the UK, Skolimowski responded in typically droll fashion with his 1982 comedy Moonlighting, which stars Jeremy Irons as Nowak, the head of a Polish building crew working illegally in London who decides to conceal the truth about martial law and the crisis back home from his team.

Dekalog (dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1989)

In the aftermath of moral anxiety

The cinema of moral anxiety was not a monolithic grouping (nor was Polish cinema of the 1970s by any means uniformly critical, as critic Ela Bittencourt has noted). Accounts of the period do agree, though, that martial law marked a definitive end point to the nascent tendency. The leading voices of the moral anxiety moment each responded to the historical moment in their own way.

Agnieszka Holland, who had studied in Prague under the influence of the Czech New Wave and learned her trade as an assistant first to Zanussi and later Wajda on Man of Marble, had only made her feature debut in 1979 with Provincial Actors (starring director Tomasz Zygadło, another moral anxiety figurehead). Her next two features, Fever (1980) and A Lonely Woman (1981), both incurred the anger of the authorities – the former for its depiction of the Russian forces that occupied Poland in the 1900s, the latter for the social critique embedded into its feminist exploration of daily struggle in suburban Wrocław. Holland left Poland for France on the eve of martial law, unable to speak to her daughter for almost a year.

Krzysztof Zanussi, who had already made a name for himself at the end of the 1960s with his The Structure of Crystal (1969), began the eighties on a high note when his typically acute psychological drama The Constant Factor won the Jury Prize at the 1980 Cannes festival. Aware of the artistic consequences of martial law, Zanussi travelled for work throughout the eighties, to Germany, Italy, and Canada. Unlike Holland, however, he was welcomed back to Poland several times – including to direct A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984), a Venice-awarded war drama about the romance between a Polish woman and an American soldier starring Scott Wilson that proved that some degree of international collaboration remained viable in the period.

Kieślowski’s Dekalog probes the ethical dilemmas of late socialism, locating both the local and the universal relevance of the scripture. The result is one of the pillars of Polish film history, a melancholy triumph at the end of a dispiriting decade

In 1979, Zanussi had appeared as himself in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Camera Buff. For many, it was Kieślowski who had set the terms for the moral anxiety movement, in films such as The Scar (1976) The Calm (1980), to say nothing of his ground-breaking and controversial documentary work earlier in the seventies. And it was Kieślowski who carried that ethos of humanist critique into the hard times of the 1980s. His friendship with Holland and his uncertain political loyalties meant that he did not avoid censure: his 1981 sliding doors drama Blind Chance was only released in 1987, and then in a heavily recut version; No End (1985), his daring legal drama about the trials that followed the imposition of martial law, came in for heavy criticism from the authorities (including the Catholic Church).

It was while researching No End that Kieślowski met the lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, together with whom he would embark on his grandest project. Made for Polish television funded by West German investors and conceived in the atmosphere of (strictly comparative) licentiousness in the late eighties, Dekalog is Kieślowski’s contemporary spin on the Ten Commandments. Consisting of ten hour-long episodes, each of which is set in the same dilapidated Warsaw tower block with an overlapping ensemble cast, Dekalog probes the ethical dilemmas of late socialism, locating both the local and the universal relevance of the scripture. The result is one of the pillars of Polish film history, a melancholy triumph at the end of a dispiriting decade. It was also the last of Kieślowski’s ‘purely’ Polish features: his final projects, The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and the Three Colours trilogy (1993-4) were produced in France.

On the Silver Globe (dir. Andrzej Żuławski, 1988)

On Żuławski’s silver globe

While Kieślowski was toiling away at Dekalog, one of the most bizarre and strangely symbolic production sagas in Polish film history drew to a close. At the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, Andrzej Żuławski’s On the Silver Globe finally saw the light of day, 12 years after it was initially conceived. Żuławski, who had lived in France since his sophomore feature The Devil (1972) came under fire from the Polish authorities, was invited back to his home country in 1975 and given an effective carte blanche to direct a project of his choosing. The director plumped for an adaptation of the epic, messianic science fiction novel written by his great uncle Jerzy in 1900. For a year, between 1976 and 1977, filming took place across Poland (including in Krakow’s underground salt mines), and as far afield as the Caucasus mountains and the deserts of Mongolia. As the budget bloomed, production was halted – first temporarily, then permanently. The footage, ordered to be destroyed, was salvaged by the crew.

Nearly a decade later, Żuławski was allowed to return to the film, cobbling together new and old footage, redubbing actors now abroad. The rescue effort was, somehow, successful. The sprawling, three-hour panorama of human frailty and ambition that Żuławski left us with is a fitting testament to the perseverance of Polish cinema during one of its most challenging eras.

Explore our full collection of Polish titles here.