Red on White (in Reverse) ______________

by Michał Oleszczyk

Polish Cinema has been infatuated with history and political truth-seeking ever since the celebrated Polish Film School made its arrival by late 1950s, in the wake of the grisly Stalinist era. Small wonder, then, that the last ten years have been dominated by Polish filmmakers’ various attempts to recreate, as well as re-imagine, some of the most traumatic periods and episodes of Poland’s half-century-long (if hardly voluntary) involvement with a failed communist utopia.

The filmmaker most fiercely interested in the baroque deterioration of Polish social life, as well as in the grotesque death of interpersonal civility, is Wojciech Smarzowski. His unlikable, morbidly hilarious and brilliantly accomplished police procedural, The Dark House (2009), conjured up a singular vision of Polish 1980s stuck in a mid-Winter deep-freeze that is impossible to shake off or wish away. Smarzowski’s approach to recent history is at once devastatingly cruel and passionately confrontational. With the possible exception of Xawery Żuławski, whose Snow White and Russian Red (2009) applied a drugged-funhouse sensibility to modern Poland’s identity crisis, there was no other filmmaker in the past decade who would create such an acute vision of a fractured society as Smarzowski did.

At the other end of the spectrum lies Borys Lankosz’s black-and-white exercise in deadpan humor (if not historical exorcism), namely The Reverse (2009). Set smack in the middle of the bleakest, terror-ridden night of Polish Stalinist period (which the film manages to lovingly recreate even as it makes the viewer abhor it), the story features a déclassé all-female family of Polish pre-war intelligentsia, trying to cope in the freshly proclaimed “worker’s paradise”. The wallflower daughter of the family (Agata Buzek, as frail as she’s resilient) falls head over heels with a Communist Party hard-liner and an incorrigible hick, who at some point has to be gotten rid of in a literal as well as metaphorical sense. The film serves as a handy metaphor of the entire nation’s infatuation with ideology, and includes one of the most hopeful codas new Polish cinema has yet offered: that of its aged heroine awaiting the arrival of her gay son and his lover in present-day Warsaw that seems at last welcoming to all and purged of historical ghosts.

All of which doesn’t mean Polish cinema has no homework left: historical re-enactments of legendary acts of defiance such as Black Thursday (2011) aside, there’s also a need for uncompromising investigative documentaries of the Three Buddies (2008) variety. My biggest hope is that Polish cinema’s habit of gnawing at history’s painful episodes will yield even more works of truth and (often terrifying) beauty than those driven by petty resentment or unduly jingoistic grandstanding – which were also on display in the past ten years, but are hardly worthy of mentioning here.

Michał Oleszczyk is a film critic, translator and scholar based in Kraków, Poland. He%27s a regular contributor to "Kino", the Polish film monthly, as well as to Fandor website ( He wrote the first Polish monograph of Terence Davies, co-authored a volume of interviews with Guy Maddin, as well as published a Polish translation of J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum%27s Midnight Movies. Currently he works as a programmer for the Off Plus Camera Film Festival. He runs a blog at