Reviews of Polish Movies on DVD 1950-1959 by Richard J. Brzostek

Ulica Graniczna

Border Street (Ulica Graniczna) (1950)

Director: Aleksander Ford;

"Border Street," a film about the Second World War, was produced in 1949 just a few years after the war finished. With the war being so current, it wasn't surprising to me that the movie avoided portraying anything controversial, such as the Russian takeover after the war. It stuck to some safe ideas, such as the Germans being the invaders, the Jews persecution, and the Poles sometimes helping the Jews, but not always being nice to them as well. "Border Street" (or "Ulica Graniczna" in Polish) shows the lives of several people from just before the war to the failed Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

One feature that distinguished this film from others about the war was that it gives attention to the viewpoint of children. In fact, the story revolves around the lives of several children, with some attention given to their parents. Both Polish and Jewish children are the heroes of the movie. They all grow mature and learn together with the fast instructor of hardship and war.

All in all, one underlining image throughout the film was that the Jews were persecuted, brave, and had a sense of duty to be with their own people, even if it meant their own doom. Although the film may be on the side of male dominance, such as when the father goes to war he tells his young son that he is now the man of the house and has to provide for the family, it was progressive in its view of females. One of the Jewish children is a spunky girl, who gave a black eye to the kid with the German roots before the start of the war.

Aleksander Ford, who is best known for his 1960 film "Krzyzacy" and is credited for helping establish Poland's international cinema reputation, directed "Border Street." The movie shows us some of the hard times the people of Poland went through and this film itself may even be a part of its healing process. Sit back and get read for an old war movie that may be sad at times, but also offers us some moments of hope.


Mlodosc Chopina

Youth of Chopin (Mlodosc Chopina) (1952)

Director: Aleksander Ford;

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Piatka z Ulicy Barskiej

Five from Barska Street (Piatka z Ulicy Barskiej) (1954)

Director: Aleksander Ford;

Five from Barska Street (Piatka z Ulicy Barskiej) is a story about post-war Poland set in 1947. It begins with five young guys going to court and being put on probation for robbery, but they are really involved with much more. They belong to a partisan group that is against the Russian occupation of Poland. They are torn between being loyal to pre-war Poland and moving on in the new government. Their probation officer helps them get jobs and turn their lives around. The underlining metaphor in this film is the people are rebuilding their lives just like the country is rebuilding from the war.

Aleksandra Slaska plays the roll of Hanka, the young woman one of the guys falls for. Her character is the most memorable for me and her acting is outstanding. She also is in a number of excellent movies such as Ostatni etap (1948), Petla (1958), Pasazerka (1963), and even the TV series Krolowa Bona (1981). Her acting is intense and seeing her in these films has made me a fan in her work. I wouldn't be surprised the more one sees of her work, the more one likes her artistic ability.

One of the assistant directors of Five from Barska Street is Andrzej Wajda. A year later Wajda released his first feature film, Pokolenie (1955). Of course, Andrzej Wajda is one of the most known Polish directors and has outshined Aleksander Ford's work.

Aleksander Ford is best known for Krzyzacy (1960), which is an icon in Polish cinema. Ford was a veteran member of the communist party and his political views are reflected in Five from Barska Street in the form of sympathy to communists and their philosophy. Of course, those who oppose communists are portrayed as the bad guys. No doubt, Ford's political views helped him in post-war Poland as his party was now at the top. It probably also helped him make Five from Barska Street a color film as it was not too common for Polish movies to be in color in 1954.


Celuloza

Cellulose (Celuloza) (1954)

Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz;

"Cellulose" is a film about hard times and the effect they have on a young man. The movie starts out with a young man named Szczesny meeting a woman on a park bench in the middle of the night. They strike up a conversation and he tells her the story of the last five years of his life.

His story starts when he was growing up in the country. His family was very poor and he went blind from malnutrition. Making a living was exceedingly difficult for them but they do not want to leave their land. Very reluctantly, Szczesny and his father leave for America because they hear how jobs are plentiful there.

Hilariously, "America" turns out to be a city in Poland. I wasn't sure if they were just a little na? and honestly thought it was "America" or if they used this term to mean a place where one could build one's fortune. At any rate, in the city they eventually get jobs removing bark from logs. Szczesny and his father end up forming a union, which ends up creating conflict with the other established unions.

We also get to see Szczesny work in a carpentry shop, his short stint in the army and his time working as a health official. A good amount of time is spent on each of these time periods and we really get to see how they slowly shape him. Not too surprisingly, communists are portrayed very positively in this movie, which is common in Polish films made in the years after World War II.

The story in "Cellulose" (Celuloza) is continued in its sequel "Under the Phrygian Star" (Pod Gwiazda Frygijska). I thought the story itself has a solid conclusion in "Cellulose" so there are no major questions left hanging about our hero Szczesny. His adventures are interesting and there are occasionally funny moments.

"Cellulose" is Jerzy Kawalerowicz's first solo effort as a director (he co-directed one movie before this one). Unquestionably, Kawalerowicz has influenced Polish cinema for nearly fifty years since his debut in 1954. His most recent hit was the 2001 big-budget production "Quo Vadis?" Although he may not be the most renowned Polish director, Kawalerowicz's work is exceptional.


Pod Gwiazda Frygijska

Under the Phrygian Star (Pod Gwiazda Frygijska) (1954)

Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz;

Jerzy Kawalerowicz's "Under the Phrygian Star" (Pod Gwiazda Frygijska) is the sequel to "Celuloza." It continues the story of Szczesny (Jozef Nowak) who we watched slowly become interested in communism in the first part. Now, we see Szczesny become deeply involved with the Communist Party, as well as meet a woman named Madzia and become romantically involved with her. "Under the Phrygian Star" continues the epic story based on Igor Newerly's novel with several twists in plot, a lot of political drama and even a few moments of unforgettable humor.

Many Polish films after World War II had at least a trace of communist sympathy which probably had less to do with the director's political feeling and more to do with pleasing the censor and fitting in. For example, Andrzej Wajda's films are often thought of as having pushed the acceptable limits of the censors as some of them exposed communism in a negative light; but even Wajda had traces of pro-communism thrown in his early work "Samson." Jerzy Kawalerowicz's "Under the Phrygian Star" takes the pro-communist stance much further and makes it one of the central themes of the film. It is quite possible that other directors put on a show and bowed to communism while Kawalerowicz genuinely supported them.

"Under the Phrygian Star" takes place before World War II and portrays the government of the time as one that persecutes communists. Communists meet in secret, work as a group for their cause and get imprisoned when they are caught. It portrays the communists as believing the group consensus is above the individual's ideas and the group is stronger than a person.

I found a few parts of the movie ironic. There is a memorable scene where Szczesny and Madzia are on a hillside and startled by children that crawl on the ground with just their arms because they were infected with a plague. Szczesny then goes into a philosophical rant in which he mentions people should build sewers to prevent such illness and be less concerned about collecting money for missionaries helping others half way around the world. At the end of the film, ironically, the workers go on strike while building a sewer due to wage issues. Strikes over wages and a powerful government that stop them are also ironic because the same events happened with the Communist government in Poland some years later after this movie was made.


Shadow (Cien) (1956)

Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz;

Shadows can be a bit mysterious - so can be trying to figure out what is making them. "Shadow" (Cien) is a suspenseful mystery film that has three sub-stories. The main story consists of a couple witnessing a man jump from a train to his death. The police try to figure out his identity and why he jumped. The three stories chase the shadow of the man; they take place in 1943 (during WWII), 1946 (just after WWII) and contemporary Poland (the movie was made in 1956).

Although the three sub-stories are seemingly different, they have a few similarities. They all are about unraveling mysteries and unraveling the mystery of the man who jumped from the train. When one sees a shadow and doesn't know what it is, one's perceptions can be influenced. Point of view plays a roll in the time periods and even who is the hero or villain all depends on viewpoint. This film is a multifaceted gem and watching it over makes one appreciate its complexity.

I give a lot of credit to a movie when it lives up to its purpose. By this I mean a comedy is supposed to be funny, a horror is supposed to be scary, and a drama is supposed to be dramatic. When a movie doesn't quite live up to its purpose it has failed us to some degree. With that said, I have to say "Shadow" is exceptional in creating a lot of suspense, as a great mystery should. Kawalerowicz employees his great skill at bringing the story alive and captivates us in the process. The music, sounds and silence really draw one in. I think the many chase scenes, omniscient feeling of being watched, and even gunfights only increase the suspenseful nature of this movie.


Man on the Tracks (Czlowiek na Torze) (1956)

Director: Andrzej Munk;

"Czlowiek na Torze" (Man on the Tracks) is a film about a mysterious death of a railroad worker killed by a train. The suspense of the movie revolves around the events that lead up to the death of the old conductor. We are left wondering if it was a suicide or murder as the investigators try to unravel the mystery.

Several stories and viewpoints are presented as they paint a picture of the man who was once in charge of the train that ran him over. On the one hand, the old conductor was not the most pleasant of fellows, being bossy and demanding; and on the other hand, his young crew saw him as an obstacle in their promotion. We get to sift though the details of their stories to find out what really happened.

To some degree, we are left with no one to clearly root for, as there is no clear hero or villain. But this should not be entirely surprising as we get to see several points of view, which obviously do not present any one person consistently favorable. Overall, "Czlowiek na Torze" is an interesting murder/mystery type of film worth watching.




Real End of the Great War (Prawdziwy koniec wielkiej wojny) (1957)

Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz;

Real End of the Great War (Prawdziwy koniec wielkiej wojny) is a drama about the mental scars people carried with them after World War II. Most of what my relatives in Poland lived through during WWII was considered too painful to retell and I can only guess at what it was they lived through. This film is, without a doubt, one of those stories about such painful experiences. Even Juliusz, the man the story is about, keeps his experiences from his family.

Since Juliusz returned home, he doesn't say a word, not ever, to anyone. His wife Roza struggles with interacting with him. He isn't the man she married before the war and while he was missing, she met someone else. Her heart is torn between loyalty to the man she married and her new life. She sneaks off at night to spend time with her lover, while her husband, a broken man, stays home. He knows what is going on, but putting an end to it would be a great challenge to any man.

We slowly learn what happened to Juliusz when he does his spinning dance, which others consider to be a fit or mental breakdown. When he spins, he is brought back in time to when he was at a concentration camp. The flashbacks he has are haunting and memorable. I found these flashbacks to be the most dramatic part of the movie.

It is difficult to be disappointed by any of Jerzy Kawalerowicz's films. In my opinion, he ranks among the best Polish directors of all time and all his films are worth watching. Younger audiences may best remember him by his last movie, Quo Vadis?, which was an epic big-budget production. Real End of the Great War is a drama that gives me chills; although it is tragic, it is a beautiful film.


Eroica

Eroica (1958)

Director: Andrzej Munk;

Andrzej Munk's films hold an important place in Polish cinema and are classics. Munk's Eroica is a story in two parts. Although the stories are very different they have a few things in common. The stories both take place during World War II and are about heroism.

The first story is about a man who fights in the underground against the Germans. He is a reluctant hero; he doesn't want to do marching drills with the others and takes off for his home. There, he finds his unfaithful wife entertaining a Hungarian officer. The Hungarian offers him a cache of weapons for the underground but he must get official acceptance from the head of the resistance. He comes and goes from Warsaw (no easy task) with his craftiness, albeit complaining and cursing the whole way, which adds a lot of humor to the film. His wise-guy nature and bumbling in and out of a war zone are quite funny. A great example of this would be when a German soldier orders him to carry a bag for an older woman. Because the bag's contents are very heavy, he offers her money to leave behind some of the junk he is forced to carry.

The second story has a much different feeling and was my favorite of the two. The story takes us to a prison camp inside Germany. The Polish prisoners have a new officer join their group and we see how he learns the ways of the camp, including some of their odd mannerisms. The support each other, they disagree with each other, and often talk of the guy who got out. The guy who escaped is their hero and gives them hope. The new officer quickly learns the secret of the getaway.

Although Eroica is probably not of interest to everyone, if you enjoy old black and white war films or classics of Polish cinema, the two stories presented in "Eroica" may interest you. Both parts take on different issues -- from the dangerous war torn countryside to the safety of a prisoner of war camp, but both explore heroism.


Petla

The Noose (Petla) (1958)

Director: Wojciech Has;

Wojciech Has's debut feature film, Petla (The Noose), is a drama about an alcoholic. The story begins with a man named Kuba (Gustaw Holoubek) in his apartment. He has a woman named Krystyna visit him, and she tells him that she will return in the evening. He plans on going with her then to get treatment for his alcoholism. We absorb a lot of details in the beginning of the film trying to figure things out; it edges on the surreal and is undoubtedly has an artistic side also.

Kuba's greatest challenge is that he vacillates in his resolve. Just after deciding that staying in his apartment until night is the best way to make it until Krystyna arrives, he heads out. His reputation is well known and he is hesitant in meeting someone who will lead him back to drinking. Those who want to help him as well as those that want to push him off the cliff surround Kuba. His time out is nearly like a whirlwind and by no means an easy time for Kuba as he struggles with his alcoholism.

The entire story takes place within 24 hours and in that time we see not only what his life is like now but also what it was like for a long time. The emotions within Kuba collide; he struggles with himself as he wants to stop drinking and start a new life but he is also pulled back to his old ways. The acting is amazing and the story is unforgettable.

Petla is truly suspenseful because we don't have any idea where it will go next. The movie also has a creepy feeling to it that is suspenseful in itself, keeping the viewer slightly unnerved. Just as Kuba is haunted by ghosts of his past, watching Petla will haunt our memories as well.


Lotna

Lotna (1959)

Director: Andrzej Wajda;

"Lotna" is Andrzej Wajda's 1959 film about a cavalry squadron facing the crushing blitzkrieg campaign the Germans unleashed on Poland in 1939. The men in the film make a valiant effort to defend their country, creating a quixotic image of their struggle. As the day progresses into night, you can practically feel the impending doom they face.

The movie draws you in with its presentation. The storyline and music are compelling and artistic. There is symbolism and deeper meaning throughout the film. From Lotna, the white horse, which may symbolize defiance and death to the bride who catches her veil on a coffin on her way out of church, that shows death is nearby, the film is teeming with symbolism.

An example of the courage and futility facing the squadron is when they charge several German tanks with sabers swinging and lances in hand. One of the cavalrymen strikes his saber against the nozzle of the tank, which does little damage. The Germans actually produced propaganda during World War II that had staged footage of a Polish cavalry charging German tanks, beginning the myth that this was the method Poles used to fight the Germans. "Lotna" helped cement this myth into legend with the scene described above. In reality, the Polish cavalry's arsenal of weapons included anti-tank rifles that could pierce armor.

As you may expect from Wajda, "Lotna" offers more than a typical film. It paints a picture of the lives of a few soldiers in the Polish cavalry as they make the most of a difficult situation. If you enjoy old war movies or enjoyed Wajda's other films, "Lotna" is one not to miss.


Baza Ludzi Umarlych

The Depot of the Dead (Baza Ludzi Umarlych) (1959)

Director: Czeslaw Petelski;

Some jobs are tough and some jobs are hell jobs. "The Depot of the Dead" (Baza Ludzi Umarlych) is a film about just such a dangerous profession. Stefan Zabawa is sent on a mission by his superiors to go to the depot in the mountains, known for being the place of the dead, to supervise the men there. At the depot live the truck drivers that bring in the much-needed timber. These men are known for being a rough bunch of bandits.

There are two elements to the suspense in this movie. The first part has to do with the nature of their job; the harsh winter conditions and driving rickety old trucks on snow-covered mountain roads makes their job a struggle to survive. The other part of the suspense has to do with the new guy sent there to watch them. Zabawa adds a lot of conflict to the group because he tries to control them. The clash between the truck drivers is only intensified because the Zabawa brought his wife with him. She is only interested in leaving the desolate base and slyly coaxes the men with her charms to take her out of there. Her advances on the men add tension and conflict between them.

The seriousness of the movie is lessened from time to time with a few funny dialogues. Part of this humor is based on the fact that these guys are not too shy to swear or be rough with each other. However, their bad reputation is not entirely deserved, as there is a lot of good in them.

As the title suggests, one facet of the film is death. I thought "The Depot of the Dead" is hard to predict. We are kept in anticipation because we are not sure where the story will go and who will die. Get ready for some action and suspense with "The Depot of the Dead."


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