The Klassiki Companion: The Polish Film School

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 introduce the Polish Film School, an influential post-war movement that reinvigorated its nation’s cinema in the wake of the trauma of occupation.

Eroica (dir. Andrzej Munk, 1958)

What makes any given grouping of directors and films a “movement”? Who gets to apply the label? More often than not, the decision is out of the hands of the filmmakers themselves. Sometimes it’s the result of coalescing critical consensus; sometimes a spate of festival wins creates the phenomenon in the eyes of the cinephile public, as happened with Romania’s 21st-century New Wave. The constituent parts of a movement might be disparate, even antagonistic, but it can be hard to shake off a label once it’s been applied.

Sometimes, though, the boot does fit, and the Polish Film School is a case in point. For one, its evolution can be tied back to an actual school – the storied National Film School in Łódź – from which a tight-knit band of filmmaking brothers emerged in the mid-to-late 1950s. Often working in close collaboration with one another, this cohort produced a set of cross-pollinating, epochal films between 1956 and (roughly) 1963. These titles were linked stylistically by common influences and responded to concrete historical and political events. In the span of a few years, the likes of Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, and Wojciech Has had established Poland as one of the most influential centres of filmmaking in Eastern Europe. As for the name “Polish Film School”, it was actually coined before any of the films came into being, back in 1954, by a Polish critic hoping to encourage a cinema “worthy of the great tradition of our art”. His prayers were answered.

While its place in film history has long been assured, the Polish School is no museum piece. It would profoundly influence the next generation of Polish auteurs to emerge, the “cinema of moral anxiety” of Krzysztof Kieślowski, Agnieszka Holland, and co; Wajda would go on to redefine Polish film yet again in the ‘70s and ‘80s, his style evolving with the times; and some of its leading lights are still going strong today – see the praise for Jerzy Skolimowski’s recent Eo, which has been accompanied by celebratory retrospectives of the nonagenarian veteran in both New York and London.

Jolanta Umecka and Zygmunt Malanowicz in Knife in the Water (dir. Roman Polański, 1962)

The Polish Thaw

The emergence of the School followed a series of shockwaves that rippled across the socialist bloc in the mid-1950s. First came Stalin’s death in 1953. Then, three years later, his successor Nikita Khrushchev denounced the dictator’s regime during a Party Congress in Moscow; shortly afterwards, Poland’s own post-war Stalinist leader, Bolesław Bierut, died of a heart attack. As protests in Poznań rocked the Polish authorities, and Hungarians took to the streets in Budapest, a reformist wing led by Władysław Gomułka came to power in Warsaw in October 1956. Social and cultural liberalisation followed, mirroring the “Thaw” underway in Soviet society – a process with a profound cinematic legacy in both countries.

One instrumental change was a new openness to international culture. In both the USSR and Poland, films from the West became available to students and industry professionals – including a group of graduates in Łódź, who gathered to devour the fruits of contemporary American and Italian filmmaking, metabolising these new styles in their own works in an attempt to make sense of post-war Polish society. The influence of the Italian Neorealists and the American genre masters is abundantly clear in the Film School’s attention to lowly protagonists, its humanistic depictions of a nation in the process of reconstruction, its love of youth culture, jazz, and flirtations with doomed romanticism and social satire. The School’s fixation on the question of national identity and its abrupt rejection of the strictures of socialist realism represented a thrilling departure from Stalinist cinema. There were limitations to its radicalism, however: as much as filmmakers began to explore controversial aspects of Poland’s recent history, contemporary society remained largely out of bounds.

The Polish School’s fixation on the question of national identity and its abrupt rejection of the strictures of socialist realism represented a thrilling departure from Stalinist cinema

Shadows of the war

Inevitably, that recent history largely meant the Second World War. Few countries suffered so profoundly during the war as Poland: its position as victim of invasion, occupation, and tragic resistance, and as site for many of the most infamous crimes of the Holocaust, left open wounds not easily tended to by peacetime filmmakers given the ideological demands of communist-era commemoration. The war’s impact was both universal, and deeply personal: Wajda’s father was killed by the Red Army, Skolimowski’s by the Nazis, Polański’s mother perished at Auschwitz; a generation of traumatised men and women were faced with the task of reconstructing the physical and emotional infrastructure of their country. Wajda has described the emergence of the Film School in this context as “a natural birth… directors couldn’t help but make films about their sole experience – the war.”

In his telling, the conflict also helped to define the stylistic boundaries of the School. “The facts were so terrible that to fictionalise them was difficult. However, since our artistic and literary traditions are romantic, the documentary element appearing in our films soon was blended with fiction. The baroque images, the bitter ironies, the romanticism of my films were all created by the Polish School.” Wajda’s “War Trilogy” is a towering achievement, its titles often cited as the foundation stones of the Film School. A Generation (1955) charts the gradual involvement in the communist resistance of two young Warsaw layabouts; Canal (1957) was the first film about the Warsaw Uprising and depicts a group of Home Army resistance fighters escaping Nazi encirclement in the city’s sewers; and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) is (fittingly) the jewel in the crown. Zbigniew Cybulski, “Poland’s James Dean”, gives an indelible performance as Maciek Chełmicki, a member of the post-war anti-communist underground caught in the trap of his own cynicism.

Zbigniew Cybulski and Ewa Krzyżewska in Ashes and Diamonds (dir. Andrzej Wajda, 1958)

It’s often said that the Polish Film School was split between those, like Wajda, who were concerned with exploring “heroism”, and those committed to an ironic deconstruction of the comforting myths of national history and character. The tragic poster boy for the latter faction was Andrzej Munk, who completed only three features before his death in a car accident in 1961. The knowingly titled Eroica (1958) is his acerbic comment on the false pieties of national pride, and juxtaposes two stories from the war: in the first, attempts by the self-serving Dzidziuś (Edward Dziewoński) to escape the violence of the Warsaw Uprising (in which Munk himself fought) go comically awry, leading him to be hailed as a military hero; the second depicts life for Polish officers in a German internment camp, where officious pretence still holds sway despite the desperate circumstances.

In these early post-war years, it proved difficult for filmmakers to confront the horrors of the Holocaust directly, given both the perils of censorship and the deep personal trauma of a number of leading directors – none more so than Polański, who experienced the liquidation of the Kraków Ghetto and the deportation of both his parents to death camps, and who survived the war only by concealing his Jewish heritage for several years. When the camps feature in Polish Film School works, this is often indirectly and always offscreen. Wojciech Has’s Farewells (1958) documents a doomed affair interrupted by the war, during which the male lead, Pawel (Tadeusz Janczar) is interred and irrevocably scarred at Auschwitz. In Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s The Real End of the Great War (1957), the young wife of a deportee struggles to rebuild her life in the shadow cast by his absence. Kawalerowicz here captures with brutal clarity the sense that the war is an ongoing nightmare from which the characters cannot escape, a dead weight dragging down any sense of an optimistic future. This is the sombre theme explored by Tadeusz Konwicki in a diptych of films about abortive relationships hindered by the ghosts of the conflict, The Last Day of Summer (1958) and All Souls’ Day (1961).

these films capture with brutal clarity the sense that the war is an ongoing nightmare from which the characters cannot escape, a dead weight dragging down any sense of an optimistic future

Brave new world

The Polish Film School was not entirely bound by the war – it also turned its attention to the social pressures and archetypes that emerged in its aftermath as Poland was transformed into a one-party communist state. The cautious liberalisation of the post-56 years can be seen in a number of films that explore questions of sexual politics with a surprisingly subversive eye. Polański’s only Polish film, co-written with Skolimowski, was Knife in the Water (1962) – a new breed of psychological thriller about the conflict between a jealous husband and a virile young hitchhiker that showcased the then-fledgling director’s nascent concern with masculine sexual neuroses. Polański’s lead, Leon Niemczyk, mined similar material alongside the iconic Zbigniew Cybulski in Kawalerowicz’s Night Train (1959), an exercise in Hitchcockian suspense set aboard the titular sleeping carriage. Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerors (1960) adopts a more allegorical approach in its depiction of a night in the life of a womaniser who locks horns with a mysterious seductress.

In the same vein, Kawalerowicz produced one of the most singular Film School titles in 1961’s Mother Joan of the Angels, which he wrote with Konwicki. This tale of demonic possession and sapphic connivance in a 17th-century convent is a more refined precursor to the schlocky thrills of the nunsploitation film, as well as to religious satires from Zoltán Fábri’s Ant’s Nest to Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta (2021) and reflects the antagonism between the newly-atheist Polish state and the still-potent social force of the Catholic Church.

Mother Joan of the Angels (dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961)


As film movements go, the School was vital but short-lived. Unable to submit the communist present tense to the same revisionist treatment that it had brought to the war, the momentum behind the nominal grouping dissipated. In Wajda’s telling, “the Polish School came to an end, because it never found a new subject through which it could evolve and transform itself further. The next subject for Polish cinema [should have been] Stalinism.” By this point, Munk was already dead; Polański and Skolimowski emigrated in short order; Kawalerowicz dedicated much of his energy to his position as head of the Kadr production unit; Konwicki evolved into a renowned novelist. Wajda and Wojciech Has would go on to have fine careers within Poland, the former ultimately winning the Palme d’Or for his 1981 take on the rise of Solidarity, Man of Iron, the latter carving out a niche for himself as a master of the surreal and the literary in films such as The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) and The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (1973).

The abiding influence of the School was abundantly clear, however, when a new generation of Polish auteurs coalesced in the late 1970s and early ‘80s under the cheery label of the “cinema of moral anxiety”. The likes of Krzysztof Kieślowski, Krzysztof Zanussi, and Agnieszka Holland (who had cut her teeth as an assistant to Wajda) analysed the rot at the heart of communist Poland in films that deployed dreary provincial settings and desperate characters as part of a world-weary social critique that would later be taken up by Béla Tarr in Hungary. Curtailed by the imposition of martial law in 1981 and the accompanying cultural crackdown – Holland fled the country after the banning of her great feminist parable A Woman Alone in that year – the cinema of moral anxiety ultimately shared with its Polish Film School antecedent the sadly common lot of creativity abruptly abridged.

Watch Andrzej Munk’s Eroica and Wojciech Has’s Farewells on Klassiki now, and explore our wide collection of war films here.