Fast Five: Martin Scorsese and the Masters of Polish Cinema

Ashes and Diamonds
Ashes and Diamonds

You don’t really have to be a hardcore film nerd to know who Martin Scorsese is. As far as auteurist directors go, he’s as close to a household name as you can get. To understand him in an interview or to actually sit down and talk to him about films, that’s another story.

Not only is Scorsese a filmmaker with many imitators and few close contemporaries, but he has always been a lifelong studier and aficionado of world cinema. The number of restorations he has had a hand in over the past several decades is staggering. The number of films he has saved from abject obscurity and outright neglect is almost equal. To say that he takes his inspiration from literally everything he sees might be low-balling it.

So it’s a huge treat that shortly after its premiere run at the Lincoln Centre Film Society, the TIFF Bell Lightbox gets a chance to showcase an entire retrospective of Polish cinema curated by Scorsese. Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, kicks off on Thursday with a screening of Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1972 fictional essay film Illumination (6:30pm), followed by Zanussi’s equally didactic and scholarly satire Camouflage (8:45pm). While Illumination is a minor masterpiece, neither is exactly a good way to dive headlong into Poland’s stellar post-World War II reconstruction era cinema. Those are more grad school level entries in the series, but Illumination is worth it. (I’m admittedly not too sold on Camouflage, but it serves as an admittedly obvious pairing.)

But behind those two headier films are 19 other selections that will be screened throughout the month of June. With such a varying list of features and directors that most people have probably never heard of to choose from, here are five that absolutely shouldn’t be missed.

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Ashes and Diamonds/Man of Iron/The Promised Land

(Sunday, June 8th, 4:00pm/Tuesday, June 10th, 6:30pm/Tuesday, June 17th, 6:45pm, respectively)

So I might be cheating right off the bat with this one, but no single filmmaker is better represented through their work in this retrospective than Andrzej Wajda. With five exemplary films in the line up (the other two being The Wedding, on June 8th at 6:30pm, and Innocent Sorcerers, on June 7th at 1:45pm), it’s hard not to want to see a retrospective of his works alone after this tasting menu of his overall output.

Scorsese’s admitted favourite of the entire retrospective is Ashes and Diamonds, and it’s hard not to side with him since it’s an unequivocal masterpiece and probably the best example of Post-World War II Polish cinema.  The conclusion of his “war trilogy” following the not included A Generation and Kanal (although neither are required viewing here), Ashes and Diamonds takes place, as many of the best war films do, in the wanning days of the fighting and around the time of German’s capitulation of Polish territory. A pair of local soldiers and underground fighters are tasked with assassinating their small town’s new Communist leadership. It’s intense, deeply conflicted, and stunningly brave given how in 1958 when the film was made it was still hard to talk about post-Nazi occupation and the continuing push and pull between independence and Russian rule. Based on a stage play and set in a single location, it’s an incredibly claustrophobic, but globally minded experience.

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Man of Iron

Similarly, 1981’s Man of Iron is a sequel to another one of Wajda’s works (this time the 1977 film Man of Marble, which isn’t included, but is essentially the Polish equivalent of Citizen Kane), and also one of his most acclaimed and most controversial works. Threatened with state censorship for blending modern news footage and dramatic recreations of post-Stalinist malaise, it’s a pointed jab at his country’s labour movement in the late 70s that earned Wajda the Palme d’Or at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination. His only Oscar win would be an honorary one in 2000, but he’s still making films to this day even in his late 80s.

The Promised Land (Ziemia Obiecana)

But lest one think that Wajda was solely concerned with veiled political polemics, he was also a masterful adaptor of modern literature. Anyone who adored Scorsese’s underrated adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence or in the smarter aspects of his Gangs of New York should find a lot to like and note of in Wajda’s 1974 adaptation of The Promised Land, a tale of early capitalism from the late 1800s by Wladyslaw Reymont. A tale of three friends trying to start a textile factory amid growing corruption and unfair business practices, the film might have obviously (and probably rightfully) interpreted as Wajda underlining just how far his country has failed to come since the start of the century, but it’s also one of the best period pieces produced by any country in the 1970s, a decade when no one was really making period pieces anymore.

 The Constant Factor

The Constant Factor

Friday, June 13th, 8:45pm

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Winner of a Jury Prize at Cannes in 1980, Zanussi’s heart wrenching tale of a young idealist mathematician (played by a revelatory Tadeusz Bradecki) trying to live a simple life amid chaos in his daily life should be required viewing for anyone who thinks their life is too stressful. They might just find out that much like this film’s main character, most of the draining and taxing stuff is really coming from without than within. A cynically minded, but ultimately big hearted and painfully empathetic, The Constant Factor is also the only film in this line up to feature the director in attendance. The movie is worth it on its own, but Zanussi’s appearance adds a little extra something to the screening.

Mother Joan of Angels

Mother Joan of the Angels

Saturday, June 21st, 7:15pm

One of the greatest religious films to ever come out of Europe is Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1961 look at a case of demonic possession inside a convent. Played out like a precursor to both Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist on a more macrocosmic level, Kawalerowicz looks at how the demons created by man and the demons created by the heavens might very well be one in the same, or from a believer’s perspective how one might inform the other. It’s unnerving, well acted, and alternates wildly between the elaborate and the austere to great effect. It always keeps the viewer off balance, which is the perfect dramatic gambit for such an ethereally minded story.

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The Saragossa Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie)

The Saragossa Manuscript

Friday, June 27th, 6:00pm

If you consider yourself a cult film aficionado or you’re a fan of counter-culture cinema and you haven’t seen The Saragossa Manuscript, you should strip yourself of either title immediately and rectify this problem. A film that’s further out there than almost anything attempted by Dali or Jodorowsky, Wojciech Has’ three hour head trip about a Don Quixote-type in Spain who can drift in and out of different planes of existence (I think) flat out defies categorization. Even better, it’s almost inarguably the most unapologetically entertaining film in the series. If you were to drive a dump truck full of hundred dollar bills to my house and ask for an explanation as to what even happens in this film, I would have to respectfully decline the delivery. Some things you just need to see for yourself.

A Short Film About Killing

A Short Film About Killing

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Tuesday, July 1st, 6:30pm

I am going to assume if you have made it this far into this piece you have a genuine interest in the subject matter (which is awesome), but I’m also going to assume that if you have hung in this long that you know who Krzysztof Kieslowski is. If you don’t you probably know that he’s the man who made one of the best trilogies in the history of cinema (Three Colors: Blue, White, and Red) and The Double Life of Veronique. Despite leaving us far too soon in 1996 at only 54, his filmography remains near perfect, and a shining example of his earliest work is this sadly unspoken about effort from 1988 that’s actually an extended version of the fifth episode of his made for TV miniseries retelling of The Decalogue. A gritty and nightmarish look at a violent act that brings together the lives of a cabbie, a lawyer, and a drifter, this might be the only film that actually owes a bit to North American cinema while still acknowledging its Polish political and social roots. There are definitely notes of early Michael Mann and William Friedkin here, but also a healthy dose of Scorsese himself, making the selection of this entry a no brainer.

For a full list of films and showtimes, check out the TIFF website.

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