Anxious art

Striking 'Masterpieces of Polish Cinema' at the PFA -- with a strange Jerry Garcia(!) twist

I>Ashes and Diamonds

FILM Poland had not been a major hub of film production in the early decades of the medium, and its industry stabilized without getting very interesting in the years after World War II, when a Soviet-backed Stalinist regime founded state-controlled Film Polski. This shotgun wedding of art and bureaucracy wasn't ideally conducive to creative expression, however. By the mid-1950s younger filmmakers, many graduates from the recently founded National Film School in Lodz, agitated for more independence — which, surprisingly, they won.

The resulting United Groups of Film Production almost immediately began producing work that won international attention and came to be known as the "Polish Film School" of cinema. Then in the 1970s a second wave of distinctive talents arrived, their troubled and ambivalent movies coming to be known as the Cinema of Moral Anxiety movement. Presented by Martin Scorsese, the touring "Masterpieces of Polish Cinema" retrospective playing Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive offers 13 features spanning three decades.

The series kicks off this weekend with perhaps the most famous films by two polar (ahem) opposites of the school's first wave: fantasist Wojciech Has and sober, socially conscious realist Andrzej Wajda. The latter sounded a new Polish cinema's opening salvo with 1955's A Generation, and is still at it 60 years later. Last year he continued his never-ending project of dramatizing 20th century Polish history with the biographical Walesa: Man of Hope (as yet unreleased in the US), and might yet be active when he hits 90 in 2016.

An honorary Oscar winner, Wajda has been the most imposing presence in Polish cinema for nearly his entire career, even if he's not the nation's most fabled cinematic son — that would be Roman Polanski, a sensibility as slippery as Wajda is solid (and sometimes stolid), as well as a director who fled to the West at his first opportunity. (Polanski made a rare return after the fall of Communism, acting the lead in Wajda's atypical period comedy Zemsta in 2002.) The four features representing Wajda in the PFA series see his development from an edgy young voice to the master artisan of large-canvas, often polemical works on subjects of official import.

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) introduced the striking screen presence of Zbigniew Cybulski — one consciously modeled on the magnetic malcontents of James Dean, and Marlon Brando in 1953's The Wild One — as one of two resistance fighters tasked with assassinating a Communist official just days after the end of World War II. While his partner copes with this now-pointless mission by going on an epic drunk, Cybulski's Maciek expresses his ambivalence in distracted pursuit of a barmaid (Ewa Krzyzewska). His iconic death scene would influence many others, notably those in Godard's Breathless and Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (both 1960). The actor coped with his subsequent international stardom by doing everything to excess; there was grief but not much surprise among those who knew him when he died in a drunken fall at a train station in 1967, not yet 40 but looking much older.

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