The Bruce Willis of Poland

Working at Facets Multi-Media has introduced me to foreign films most movie-goers don’t even know exist—from Krik Krak, the long-forgotten experimental documentary from Haiti, to Yesterday Girl, Alexander Kluge’s debut feature that introduced the New German Cinema. My friend Lew from Rentals exposed me to Lady Terminator and the wonders of 1980s Indonesian horror, while Charles, our intrepid cinematheque programmer, started my year off with a good laugh via Four Lions, an English comedy about terrorism.

Among my favorite films released on the Facets DVD label are many from Poland, particularly those from the post-communist film industry. To many film scholars, Polish cinema means the work of Andrzej Wajda and the so-called “cinema of morality” of the 1970s or even the “Polish School” of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Directors like Wajda, Jerzy Hoffman, and Krzysztof Zanussi were renowned for the formal characteristics of their styles and for the subtexts of their films, which were often veiled criticisms of communism. Wajda and his peers attracted an arthouse crowd to their films and the devotion of educated audiences and intellectuals in Poland and around the world. But, Polish cinema to me brings to mind directors like Juliusz Machulski and stars like Boguslaw Linda. While I admire the work of the great directors of the communist era, who smartly weaved social commentary and criticism as subtexts in their narratives, I am amused by the often uneven but always entertaining movies of the post-communist era.

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The Madcap Mind of Juliusz Machulski

For aficionados of foreign film, great Polish cinema generally brings to mind such names as Wajda, Kieslowski, and Zanussi. Those are the directors who inspire retrospectives at film festivals and whose careers are studied in film schools. But, these type of directors no longer typify Polish cinema, which has managed to survive the many changes and struggles of the post-communist era with commercial fare often patterned after Hollywood genres.  The director considered the most commercially successful in all of Polish film history has dominated the Polish box office since the early 1980s, bridging the late communist era and the contemporary commercial industry. His name is Juliusz Machulski, and his string of oddball satires and genre flicks have such a madcap craziness about them that they are immediately recognizable as his.

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            The son of popular Polish actor Jan Machulski, Juliusz graduated from the famous film school in Lodz in 1978. In 1981, he made his first feature film, Vabank, a caper film in the spirit of Rififi or The Sting. Vabank starred Juliusz’s father, Jan, and it introduced the Polish audience to what would become the Machulski style—broad comedy, slick production values, a Polish twist on a familiar genre, a manic energy, and a preference for oddly imaginative production design.  

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