I was a sceptic; I thought it could not be done. I did not believe that London could host such an important global event, let alone pull it off with such grandiose confidence. But now the Olympics are over and to be honest, I don’t want it to end. Particularly considering my last images may be that of Jessie J ruining Queen, or Liam Gallagher proving he needs Noel. But with Britain standing 3rd in the medal rankings, we can be proud of our athletes’ efforts. Whether it was handball, hockey or dressage, my eyes were opened to the magic of the Olympics and I’m sad to see them go. So why not cling on for a little bit longer and join me as I attempt to blur the realms of Film and the Summer Olympics.
Poland – 261 Medals
Just one medal in front of Canada, Poland has a rich history of cinema, which is constantly applauded on the international stage. With a strong silent film era, Poland also had a prominent role in the history of stop motion cinema, with director Władysław Starewicz utilising insects, to help pioneer the art in Europe. After the First World War, in which Poland had finally gained independence, its cinema began to reflect this, with a focus on very nationalistic cinema, based on a vast array of literary resources. Domestically, this was the case until the Second World War, which as we all know, caused much mutilation to the country. The only option for Poland after the war, was to rebuild from the ground up. A national film school was formed in Łódź, shortly after the war (and still exists today) and has had many a glittering alumni, such as Krzysztof Kieślowski.
However, Poland would have to scrap against oppression to gain a true cinematic identity, due to the influence of Stalin on the country. Many great directors subsequently left Poland for pastures new in the west; luckily, a lot of them left their mark on Polish cinema before bowing out due to Stalin’s state censorship. In 1989, communist rule ended in Poland and the arts, although liberated, obviously suffered. Censorship had receded, but audience numbers fell and state financial aid had all but stopped. Obviously, this meant that cinema had to become focused on making films which would guarantee audiences, and with this requirement, its previously artistic forays began to dwindle. Nowadays, Polish cinema seems to be seeking a new voice. With many of its best directors still yet to return to Polish cinema after their self-imposed exile, its cinema lacks direction. Previously its direction had come from the cinema of moral concern from the late 1970s, focusing upon morality in modern polish life and history. That voice has now subsided and needs a more modern replacement. With an ever growing diaspora across Europe and beyond, perhaps this voice will manifest in a completely new form, reminiscent of modern Turkish cinema.
Bronze – Knife in the water (Roman Polanski, 1962)
And so we come to the accused, Roman Polanski. For a director who has made so many great films, it is such a shame that his reputation will always be tarnished by that French Vogue magazine shoot. However, I don’t wish to draw on that or his glittering Hollywood career, instead I want to focus on Polanski and Poland. Having been born in Paris, Polanski grew up in Poland and it is here that he made his first feature film; Knife in the Water. A film formed around a rivalry woven with eroticism, it follows a couple, Andrzej and Krystyna, as they plan to go sailing. Driving to their boat they almost hit a young student and Adrzej feeling guilty, decides to invite him to go sailing with them. On board the boat however, tensions begin to rise as the student seems to be vying for the attention of Krystyna.
When a fight breaks out between the two, tragedy strikes when the student falls overboard. Unsure of what to do next, the couple panics, however, all is not as it seems. A debut to be proud of, Knife in the Water is a tour de force in creating tension with the two characters at loggerheads, manifested in a strained battle of masculinity. With simplicity, Polanski taps his three leads and the surrounding arena of water for every ounce of drama and tension. For some, having only three characters may seem quite restraining, but Polanski brings great emotional power to the saying ‘three’s a crowd’. Many, including myself, believe this to be Polanski’s best film. Obviously people will go on the Chinatown offensive, but it is the intimacy within this films trifecta, which gives justification that this tight and simplistic film, should at the very least, be in the debate.
Silver – Night Train (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1959)
Often acknowledged as a very Hitchcockian film in style and theme, Night Train, is a classic thriller taking place in the confinement of a trains’ carriage. Embracing its claustrophobic setting, the film is a taut examination of ordinary people placed in a perturbing situation. Two strangers, Jerzy, a shadowy man and Marta, a secretive blonde woman, both have to share a compartment on board a train, when they discover they have mistakenly been given the same ticket. At the same time, the train has become the focus for a manhunt of a man who murdered his wife. With Jerzy’ secretive and mysterious nature, he becomes a suspect, but Marta soon also raises distrust with her strange relationship to her ex-boyfriend, who is also on board.
As the story evolves, we learn more and more about our characters and what brought them on board, whilst the murder mystery continues to increase suspicions. Placing our protagonists in a location which cedes privacy, we learn a lot about our characters and yet the other characters can only speculate as to why they act the way they do. The speculation works in stripping away the individuality of a character, using it against them to make their assumptions a reality, it boils it down to a simplistic guilty or not guilty equation. Night Train, is a superb character examination and the comparison with Hitchcock hits the nail on the head, maximizing anxiety and fear, with the theme of a fugitive on the run. However, it would be wrong to focus too much on the comparison, because without it Night Train still thoroughly deserves its medal and an audience.
Gold – Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958)
Andrzej Wajda, is one of the few filmmakers who decided not to exile himself from Poland. Wajda is without doubt the most important director of its cinematic history and for me Ashes and Diamonds remains his best. The final installment in his war film trilogy, it concerns itself with the last day of the second World War and the imminent change Poland was about to undertake. Two assassins are assigned to kill a Polish communist leader during a victory celebration in a small town, however, their first attempt fails and they’re ordered to stay in the town and complete the assassination. Maciek however, falls for a young blonde barmaid who is withdrawn from the world due to the horrific nature of the war. This makes Maciek question his job, debating the morals and futility in all the killing, when he has, as a consequence, missed out on simpler things; such as the love of a woman.
Maciek is an allegorical character, the type of character that Wajda had come to be defined by. In this case, his struggle with the job he has been given is indicative of a conflict in ideologies. The war in Poland is coming to an end and change is imminent, but nobody quite knows what the change will bring, Maciek wants to quit his brutal job, yet does not know what lies beyond it. In the case of Poland, it led to a Soviet controlled state and through Maciek, Wajda makes his anti-soviet stance clear. The performance of Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek, will ensure that the film is never forgotten. He is often cited as the James Dean of Polish cinema, but for me, he has a different, more varied skill-set, which allows Cybulski to tackle the complex nature of his character with conviction. A beautifully shot film in terms of its cinematography, Ashes and Diamonds is distinct and stylish, with many memorable moments which resonate powerfully in Poland’s cinematic history.
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