Poland has long been type-cast, mainly attracting World War II thrillers and Holocaust-related dramas. Granted, this has given birth to some of the greatest movies ever shot in the country, from Schindler’s List to The Pianist. But it also hindered its chances of appealing to a wider range of movie genres. Although this is slowly changing, Poland is still struggling to compete with neighbouring Hungary and Czech Republic, both of which have become important ports of entry for foreign production crews.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg, Schindler’s List is hailed as one of the best movies of the 90’s, if not of all time. Based on real-life events, it tells the story of German businessman Oskar Schindler’s scheme to save Jews by employing them in his factories in Nazi-occupied Poland. Led by the incredible acting performances of Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, supported by a musical score by John Williams and skilful cinematography by Janusz Kamiński, it won no less than six Academy Awards and received worldwide critical praise.
Shot on location in Krakow, the movie is now an integral part of the city’s booming tourism. Quite interestingly, Spielberg had originally asked Roman Polanski to direct the movie. The French-born Polish director, who escaped from the Krakow ghetto while still a child, considered it too personal and turned down the offer. The most expensive black-and-white film in history, it’s not something to watch if you’re looking for a quick laugh. Steven Spielberg later admitted that, in order to cheer himself up, he had to watch Seinfeld episodes after every day of shooting. But it is one of the greatest filmmaking experiences of the last thirty years.
Inland Empire (2006)
Written and directed by David Lynch, Inland Empire might be his strangest, most surreal and baffling film to date. For all those of you who were puzzled by Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway, be advised: it’s nothing compared to this “cinematic experiment”, shot without a pre-written script. Laura Dern and Justin Theroux, the two main actors who were handed freshly written pages of script every morning, admitted they had no idea what the movie was about.
All we can say is that it *seems* to be about an actress’ nightmarish struggle as she begins to merge with the persona she impersonates in a film. Shot over the course of three years, many scenes were filmed in Łódź and in Warsaw. The musical score also includes several pieces composed by Polish musicians.
The Pianist (2002)
Directed by French-born Polish director Roman Polanski, The Pianist is one of the most poignant movies about the Holocaust, seen through the eyes of a Polish-Jewish musician struggling to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. Winner of the Palmes d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, it also received three Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay as well as Best Actor in a Leading role for Adrien Brody, who thus became, at the age of 29, the youngest actor to receive such a distinction.
Based on the auto-biographical book of Holocaust survivor and composer Władysław Szpilman, this movie’s success might be due to how personal it was for Polanski, sent in the Krakow ghetto at a young age before escaping. Both his parents, however, were sent to concentration camps, and only his father survived. This is the first movie Polanski shot in Poland since 1962 and Knife in the Water.
The Innocents (2016)
Also known as Agnus Dei, The Innocents is a French-Polish co-production directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovery) and starring Lou de Laage, Agata Kulesza and Agata Buzek. Based on the diaries of French Red Cross doctor Madeleine Pauliac, it’s an incredibly powerful and gripping story about a French humanitarian doctor coming to Poland in 1945 to treat survivors of German camps, before being called to a Polish convent where she faces the consequences of one of the most tragic yet-unspoken realities of war-time: mass rapes.
Director Anne Fontaine herself lived in different nunneries to prepare for the shooting, which took place in an abandoned convent in the Polish countryside. As she herself confided, this isolation was the perfect setting to foster the sense of female solidarity she wanted to convey onscreen.
Granted, this is a Polish production, but we had to include it in our list. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and starring Agata Trzebuchowska as the protagonist, Ida is a moving, slow-paced and yet deeply upsetting drama about a young, orphaned novitiate in 1960’s Poland. On the verge of taking her vows, she discovers a dark family secret dating back to German occupation. Shot on location in several places in Poland, including the city of Łódź, it’s the first Polish movie to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. An absolute must-see.
The Night of the Generals (1967)
Directed by Anatole Litvak (The Snake Pit, Goodbye Again), The Night of the Generals is a classic war thriller, starring Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif (a few years after their collaboration on Lawrence of Arabia), as well as Donald Pleasence, Tom Courtenay and Juliette Gréco. Set in Warsaw at the height of World War II, it follows the investigation into the murder of a Polish prostitute. Partly shot in France and Germany, the production team also flew over the Iron curtain and filmed several scenes on location in Warsaw.
The Chronicles of Narnia
A little-known fact about the famous fantasy saga is how much of the filming actually took place in Poland. Based on novels by C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia is (for the time being) a trilogy of movies about the Pevensie siblings’ adventures in the world of Narnia.
Although the last one, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), was almost entirely shot in Australia, the previous ones feature many iconic Polish sights and landscapes: both The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) and Prince Caspian (2008) had scenes shot in the Stolowe Mountains and the Bledne Skaly labyrinth. Shooting also took place in the Dunajec River Valley, Siemianowka Lake, the Table Mountains, the Tatra Mountains and the Kamienczyk Falls. Nature lovers: Narnia awaits you.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and written by Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization of the manhunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Despite drawing controversy, accused of accessing classified information or of promoting the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, the movie received critical acclaim and was nominated for five Academy awards. Jessica Chastain’s performance has been particularly praised. Although mostly shot in the U.K., Jordan and India, a short part was filmed in the Polish city of Gdansk. The fact that the city was used as the site for a C.I.A. black ops facility sparked outrage among local residents: “The name Gdansk is synonymous with freedom and solidarity”, the city’s mayor said at the time, “we are simply offended”.
Did you know that the original script was written before Osama bin Laden’s death? Needless to say that quite a big amount of re-writing had to be done…
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by the Coen brothers and Matt Charman, Bridge of Spies is an espionage thriller based on a true story: the negotiation to free and exchange U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in the 1960’s, for an arrested K.G.B. spy. With Tom Hanks in the lead role as the lawyer tasked to defend the Russian spy in court and negotiate Powers’ release, it received critical acclaim, multiple nominations and won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Mark Rylance).
Shot in Germany and the United States, several scenes were also filmed in the Silesian city of Wroclaw, which doubles as the German capital. For the movie, set designers actually built parts of the Berlin Wall in Wroclaw’s streets.
We couldn’t end the list without including a Bollywood movie. For the last several years, Poland, and especially Krakow, has become an important port-of-entry for Indian movies and commercials. One of the first cases was the 2006 love-story Fanaa, directed by Kunal Kohli and starring Bollywood stars Aamir Khan and Kajol. Who said Poland couldn’t be used as a substitute for Kashmir, right? The craze for Poland’s former capital city only picked up a couple of years later, and its appeal to India’s film and entertainment industry has been growing by the year ever since.