These are the films that haunt Martin Scorsese.
“[The images] have stayed in my head for so many years, since the late ’50s,” the Oscar-winning director says in a recent interview with National Public Radio. He’s talking not about his own movies but about Polish cinema, which rebounded from its unimaginable losses from World War II and endured the despotism of a communist regime to produce some of the world’s greatest films. Scorsese has chosen 19 of the best-made offerings between 1957 and 1988 and included them in the retrospective “Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema,” which plays at the Brattle Theatre March 14-23. Here are five you must see.
Of all the films in this series Andrzej Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958) sticks with Scorsese the most. In a list of his 10 favorite films he ranked it at number five. It will stick with you, too. Its tragic irony and stunning visuals illuminate the themes that persisted in Polish films ever after: the meaning of life and the nature of heroism — in particular, heroism in the face of life’s meaninglessness.
It takes place in the chaos just as World War II was ending and the new Communist regime was about to begin. But some patriotic partisans who had fought the Nazis don’t want to see their country taken over by another totalitarian regime. Among the diehards is Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski), first seen in a Byronesque pose, lounging by a roadside. Moments later he empties a submachine gun into a man’s back in one of cinema’s more coldblooded killings. He and his comrades had been assigned to liquidate the new commissar just appointed mayor of a local town. But they got the wrong man; the real commissar has yet to arrive.
Maciek stays in town to finish the job. In the course of the next few hours a quintessential Polish tragedy unfolds, involving doomed love, futile sacrifice, self-defeating loyalty, treachery, compassion, and death. Images in the film, many of them resonant Polish icons, shimmer with transcendence as shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Jerzy Wójcik: Maciek’s Gethsemane moment beneath an inverted crucifix; the ceremony of burning vodka shots commemorating the fallen; the ghostly appearance of a white horse; bed sheets hanging on a line, one with an expanding blood stain. It isn’t necessary to know the specific Polish meaning of these icons for them to elicit awe and achieve sublimity.
The actor Zbigniew Cybulski was himself a kind of Polish icon; a combination of Marlon Brando and James Dean, he died in 1967 at the age of 39, run over by a train. In Tadeusz Konwicki’s playful and opaque “Jump” (1965), Cybulski plays an apparent parody of his character in “Ashes and Diamonds.” He appears mysteriously in a small town claiming to be different people. He tells strange stories, made even stranger by Konwicki’s elliptical, oneiric style. The locals sometimes remember him and sometimes don’t, and then someone suggests that perhaps everyone in the town is, in fact, dead. Not for the aesthetically faint-hearted, “Jump” evokes elements of “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “The Spider’s Stratagem,” “Satantango,” and, most of all, “Alice in Wonderland”
But “Jump” is straightforward compared to the next film Cybulski starred in, Wojciech Has’s mind-boggling, blackly comic, 182-minute “The Saragossa Manuscript” (1965). Here any notion of heroism is lost in a spiraling labyrinth of stories within stories, beginning with the plight of a Napoleonic officer, his company routed, taking refuge in a battered Spanish inn. There he comes across the title manuscript, and passes the time reading it until an enemy soldier enters. He also peruses the manuscript, and claims that the book is about his father, Captain Alphonse van Worden of the Walloon Guards (Cybulski).
Then the bottom falls out of the movie, and it pursues the first of many stories within stories as van Worden runs into, among others, seductive Muslim sisters, a hermit, and, when you least expect it, the Spanish Inquisition. Most of these characters have their own stories to tell, usually involving meetings with other characters with stories, and each tale ends, for some reason, with van Worden waking up next to the same pair of decomposing corpses.
Wajda brings us back to earth again with “Man of Iron” (1981), a sequel to his 1977 film “Man of Marble” (not in the series), both about the rising Solidarity movement that would ultimately prevail over communist tyranny. Like Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” and Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” Wajda shoots his story documentary style in the midst of the historical events as they happened.
Here the title iron man, son of the hero of the previous film, has joined Lech Walesa (who appears in the film) and the Gdansk strikers in their bid for freedom and justice. But a government hireling posing as journalist seeks to discredit the new hero; in this case, when the legend becomes truth, print the lie.
But Wajda’s film put the truth on the screen for the world to see. Made just before the imposition of martial law, “Man of Iron” slipped past the censors to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and elicit world support for Solidarity.
This series ends, chronologically, with another film that helped change history, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “A Short Film About Killing” (1988), an extended version of one of the episodes of his Polish TV miniseries, “The Decalogue.” This stark, “In Cold Blood”-like story, in which a lawyer tries to save a pathetic murderer from being executed, brought Kieslowski his first international recognition.
It also had an impact on Polish history; though the lawyer in the film failed, the film itself succeeded, stimulating debate that resulted in the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. Like Wajda and “Man of Iron,” Kieslowski became in real life the hero his movie demanded.