The Gdynia Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Rahul Hamid

The Polish City of Gdynia is located on the Baltic Sea and along with Gdansk and Sopot make up the tricity region in the Pomeranian province. It has played host to one of the longest-running festivals of Polish cinema in the country.

Even this tranquil, green, seaside town with its tall ships bobbing in the harbor is not immune from the turbulent right-wing political currents sweeping Europe and the United States. The forty-first edition of the festival started with a controversy surrounding the film Smolensk, directed by Antoni Krauze. The film depicts the 2010 plane crash that killed then Polish president Lech Kaczyński, his wife, his senior staff, high-ranking Polish military officials, and a number of members of Parliament. Kaczyński, along with his twin brother, Jaroslaw, founded the conservative Law and Justice Party to which current President Andrzej Duda belongs. The film depicts as fact a conspiracy theory supported by Jaroslaw and others in his party that the plane was secretly blown up by Russia as punishment for Kaczyński’s support of Georgia, when it tried to break away from the Russian Commonwealth in 2008. The film has been screened at Gdynia as a special screening, followed by a heated discussion. Even before the festival started, its artistic director, a talented film critic and scholar Michał Oleszczyk, announced his resignation over another controversy, when Polish Ministry of Culture issued official criticism of the Festival for not having included Jerzy Zalewski’s patriotic epic, The Story of the Swarm (Historia Roja), in the main slate. Oleszczyk’s resignation would be a loss for the festival, and at the time of this writing he is in the process of negotiation with the festival committee, trying to argue for a change of festival regulations that would empower the artistic director to make programming choices free of political and institutional pressure.

By the time the festival began, both the Smoleńsk and The Story of the Swarm controversy had died down and the focus returned to the films in competition. The festival offered a rich selection of new Polish features, revivals, a children's film program, as well as works by young filmmakers.

Krzysztof and his son in Decalogue One.

2016 marked the twentieth anniversary of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s death and the festival featured a retrospective of his work, including newly remastered prints of his ten-part masterpiece based on the Ten Commandments, Decalogue, screened outdoors. Though I was able to see only the first episode, it was a pleasure to revisit the film with an enthusiastic audience of Kieslowski’s countrymen. In each episode of the Decalogue, Kieslowski pits abstract principles against human frailty and seeming randomness of life. In Decalogue One, a widowed father—dedicated to science and rationality—uses a computer that mysteriously turns on and off to measure the thickness of ice on a lake. Relying upon the god of technology before God, he assures his son that it is safe to skate. When his son inexplicably breaks through the ice and drowns, he returns to the church bereft. Kieslowski does not, however, leave the story as a simple condemnation of technology. Video cameras at school have recently captured the image of the boy and these pictures—the movies—allow him immortality and give his father a modicum of relief. Decalogue has also been read as a critique of the waning Polish socialist regime, proclaiming high-minded principles but failing its people in both body and soul. Kieslowski’s legacy of moral seriousness, phenomenal technical precision, and social critique through indirect means was very much in evidence in the main slate of contemporary Polish films shown at Gdynia.

Iza, Marzena, and Agata in United States of Love.

United States of Love directed by Tomasz Wasilewski, seemed to be directly influenced by Decalogue. Set in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it focuses on the lives of four women, all of whom live in the same apartment complex. In each story the women, like their country, are stuck in a rut of one kind or another. Each is then confronted with new possibilities, both exciting and dangerous. Renata is an older teacher, living alone, who becomes fascinated with Marzena, her new beautiful neighbor who is unsuccessfully trying to start a modeling career. Iza, the tightly professional principal at Renata’s school, slowly becomes unhinged as after the affair she has been carrying on with a father at the school abruptly ends. Agata, a housewife who becomes increasingly lonely and sexually frustrated because her husband, who makes a living abroad, falls into an impossible love with her priest. Filmed in a washed-out, almost acidic palette, Wasilewski’s vision of freedom is ironic and tragic. Though they are thrown into a new marketplace of possibilities, they find new ways to suffer frustration and disappointment. In the postsocialist world they seem more alone and vulnerable. Though some of the plotlines work better than others and Wasilewski’s cynicism becomes a bit overbearing, United States of Love provides a fascinating affective history of the end of Soviet bloc and insight into the ambiguities of embracing the West and its values.

Pawel in The Red Spider

Two of the films in the main slate explore real life socialist-era serial killers. Marcin Koszalka’s The Red Spider tells the story of Karol, a strangely affectless young diving champ who visits a carnival and watches a death-defying motorcycle stunt rider with morbid fascination. The thrill of this experience activates something in Karol, who later discovers the body of a child at the fair. He is able to figure out who the killer is, but rather than go the police he becomes obsessed with “The Red Spider,” as the police have dubbed him and begins to follow him around, later even taking credit for his crimes. Koszalka uses long takes to allow the audience time to observe Karol’s actions closely, though it is difficult to actually understand his underlying motivations. Throughout the film he remains an empty vessel, restlessly searching for sensation.

Maciej Pieprzyca’s I’m a Killer examines the police investigation of the famed “Vampire” killer in the 1970s that lead to the execution of an innocent man. The film focuses on an ambitious young policeman, Janusz Jasinski, who pioneers new methods to crack the case. In one of the funnier sequences in the film, Jasinski convinces the higher-ups to offer a reward for information on the killer. This had never been done in Soviet-era Poland because ideologically it is profit-oriented and from a state-control point of view it indicates that police—the state—needs help. Although these objections are pointed out, the officials relent and offer a generous reward. Predictably, the police are inundated with thousands of tips and false leads, as everyone in the country just wants a chance at the money. While this sequence is staged in a comedic fashion, the film paints a dark picture of people’s venality, borne out of the chronic want in socialist Poland. Once Jasinski settles on a suspect, his reward is a new house and a color TV; he even takes a mistress. The rewards and approbation become such a narcotic that he begins to ignore increasing evidence that the suspect he caught is not the killer. The film ends many years later with a ceremony to honor Jasinski, the legendary detective who caught the Vampire. Pieprzyca leaves us with a sense of guilt at the atrocities of the past and a deep skepticism about human nature, which remains the same regardless of the state’s ideological leaning.

Janusz Jasinski in I'm a Killer.

Krzysztof and Michal in All These Sleepless Nights.

Many of the films I saw examined Poland’s recent past, while fewer seemed to deal with the present. This may be because the political situation in the country does not allow for the same kind of critique of the present or because filmmakers unconsciously adhere to a kind of unspoken national style, bolstered by a familiarity with the great Polish filmmakers that preceded them. One film that broke this mold was Michal Marczak’s beautifully shot All These Sleepless Nights. It is an impressionistic, sensual portrait of Polish Millennials in Warsaw. The film loosely follows a love triangle between three art students—Krzysztof, Michal, and Eva. The film is not so much about intense romantic entanglements as it is about capturing their sense of uncertainty as they begin to live as young adults. Marczak’s camera follows them as they drift in and out of parties, underground concerts, and art exhibitions. He captures moments of great intimacy as well as bigger moments that evoke the feeling of being engulfed in a crowd of people all your own age. The film’s free-spiritedness and lightness was a contrast with much else that I saw.

Andrzej Zulawski's The Devil

Finally, it was a great pleasure to revisit a very different kind of anarchic vision at Gdynia through their revival of Andrzej Zulawski. I first saw his film, The Devil, in a very pink 16mm student print in college. Even in this degraded state, it left a strong impression. I saw a pristine new print of this controversial banned film and was enthralled once again. The film is set during the Prussian War at the end of the eighteenth century, but is meant to allude to an incident in the 1960s, when the Polish government incited a student protest in order to harshly and violently crack down on young dissidents. The film follows Jakub, who is saved from a prison by a mysterious black-clad man. During their journey back home, Zulawski fills the frame with all manner of perversions and violence. Jakub’s family has come to ruin and the moral universe is turned on its head. Both political allegory and cult horror film, Zulawski’s exuberant and dense style leaves a lasting impact on the viewer. My visit to Gdynia was a great chance to better understand Polish film culture, beyond that vision of the anointed directors who are able to make it to the broader international festival circuit. Gdynia offers up the rich tradition of Polish cinema and offers a glimpse into its future as well.

Rahul Hamid, a Cineaste editor, teaches film at New York University.

For further information on the Gdynia Film Festival, click here.

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Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1