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Directors in Focus - Wry Smiles, Suspicious Glances: The Films of Andrzej Munk 

Andrzej Munk’s tragic death at age thirty-nine might have formed the plot for one of his own darkly sardonic works: a Polish Jew and an active resistance worker during the war, he was returning home from shooting his film Passenger at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1961 when an oncoming truck struck his car. He left behind only four feature films, but his influence was prodigious. As one of the key figures of the postwar “Polish School” of filmmaking, along with Andrzej Wajda and Jerzy Kawalerowicz, he helped to shape a vision that broke with the official social realist optimism of Eastern-bloc dogma and cast a skeptical eye on official notions of heroism, nationalism, and life in the Stalinist-occupied state. Teacher and mentor to such cinematic heirs as Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski, his influence can be felt even in the films of a later generation of Polish filmmakers—directors like Zanussi and Kieslowski.

Munk’s cinema—often compared to the literature of his compatriot Witold Gombrowicz—showcases the ways in which ordinary people go about making sense of extraordinary times; and if sense can not be found, his films imply, then absurdity and satire should take its place. Though he died young, Andrzej Munk brought a fully realized and radically nonconformist vision to a culture caught between the ravages of wartime and the exigencies of a numbing new conformity. It is a body of work that bears re-viewing.

This retrospective of the work of Andrzej Munk was organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the help of Film Polski and the Polish State Committee on Cinematography. HFA wishes also to thank the Pacific Film Archive and Cinematheque Ontario for assistance with this program.


September 13 (Friday) 7 pm
September 14 (Saturday) 7 pm
September 19 (Thursday) 7 pm

Passenger (Pasazerka)

Directed by Andrzej Munk
Poland 1961–63, 35mm, b/w, 60 min. 
With Aleksandra Slaska, Anna Ciepielewska 
Polish with English subtitles

Andrezj Munk’s tragic and untimely death during the making of Passenger has not diminished the film’s reputation as a masterful realization of the director’s vision. A team of colleagues led by Witold Lesiewicz assembled the posthumous work, using the footage that had been completed, the director’s still photographs, and voiceover commentary. On an ocean liner, a German emigré—a former Nazi prison guard—notices a woman who may once have been her charge at Auschwitz. The encounter triggers painful memories that become desperate attempts at self-justification. One of the most audacious fictions ever made about the Holocaust, Passenger investigates memory’s function as protector of the self as it bridges the chasm of past and present.

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Screens with Passenger (see above) 

The Last Pictures (Ostatnie Zdiecia)

Directed by Andrzej Brzozowski
Poland 2001, video, b/w and color, 50 min. 
Polish with English subtitles

Forty years after Munk’s death, Andrzej Brzozowski reconstructs the events that took place during the course of shooting Passenger, on which he served as an assistant. Weaving together archival footage, excerpts from the film, letters from Munk to his wife, and interviews with some of the director’s collaborators, Brzozowski creates a haunting tribute to the director as he conveys a sense of the unease that haunted the production. 

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September 15 (Sunday) 2 pm
September 16 (Monday) 7 pm

The Men of the Blue Cross (Blekitny Krzyz)

Directed by Andrzej Munk
Poland 1955, 35mm, b/w, 60 min.
With Wojciech Siemion, Stanislaw Byrcyzn-Gasienica 
Polish with English subtitles

In 1945 a group of Polish mountaineers called the Blue Cross accomplished the impossible: snaking back and forth across the snow-blocked Tatra Mountains, they ferried wounded Czech partisans through German lines and into a safe haven in Poland. A decade later, at the end of the Stalinist era in Poland, director Andrzej Munk took on this heroic national story—endowing it, however, with an extraordinary visual vitality. Employing a verisimilitude that went far beyond the usual demands of socialist realism, he filmed with his crew in the same harsh, snowbound locations and cast several of the members of the original Blue Cross in their real-life roles. The beauty and ferocity of the Tatra Mountains and the faces of these rugged individuals become the central motif of the film.


Screens with The Men of the Blue Cross (see above)

Eroica

Directed by Andrzej Munk
Poland 1958, 35mm, b/w, 88 min.
With Edward Dziewonski, Barbara Polomska 
Polish with English subtitles

Munk garnered international recognition with this breakthrough film, a poignant satire on the vagaries of heroism in wartime and “the bitter irony of Polish fate.” The work is presented in two parts. The first, set during the Warsaw Uprising, follows Dzidzius, a small-time con-artist and black marketeer who finds himself on the accidental edges of heroism—delivering messages across enemy lines and accessing insurgent strongholds after he cuts a deal with the Hungarian officer with whom his wife is having an affair. The second section takes place in a prisoner-of-war camp that holds officers of the Uprising. United in morale by the example of a lieutenant who has escaped, the group eventually falls victim to petty squabblings as some become aware that their hero has merely taken to the rafters. 

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September 17 (Tuesday) 7 pm
September 18 (Wednesday) 9:15 pm

A Visit to the Old City (Spacerek Staromiejski)

Directed by Andrzej Munk
Poland 1958, 35mm, b/w, 19 min. 

In this impressionistic tour of Warsaw’s Old Town in the company of a young girl, Munk listens in on the cacophony of city sounds and transforms them into a spontaneous outdoor symphony. 

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Screens with A Visit to the Old City (see above)

Man on the Track (Czlowiek Na Torze)

Directed by Andrzej Munk
Poland 1956, 35mm, b/w, 89 min.
With Kazimierz Opalinski, Zygmunt Maciejewski 
Polish with English subtitles 

Munk merges the conventions of social realism with the dark paranoia of film noir in this Rashomon-like tale of the search for the perfect socialist hero. When an elderly railway engineer is killed by a speeding train, the authorities investigate to determine his identity. Each witness, however, has a different vision of how he lived his life—and ended it—in their new socialist world: he was by turns proud and contemptuous, bitter and spiteful, or compassionate and heroic. This complex character study is enhanced by brilliant black-and-white nighttime photography by Romuald Kropat, and especially by the striking images of behemoth trains speeding through the night as characters cling to their sides.

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September 18 (Wednesday) 7 pm
September 19 (Thursday) 9:15 pm

Bad Luck (Zezowate Szczescie)

Directed by Andrzej Munk
Poland 1960, 35mm, b/w, 120 min.
With Bogumil Kobiela, Edward Dziewonski 
Polish with English subtitles

Munk creates a kind of contemporary Candide in this hilarious tale of Jan Piszczyk, a Polish Everyman who tries to keep up with the changing zeitgeist but just can’t help being in the wrong place at the wrong time.We follow his attempts to become a model Boy Scout in the 1930s, his checkered military career in the 1940s, and his stint as a member of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the postwar era—all as he variously runs afoul of anti-Jewish groups, pro-Jewish groups, anti-state radicals, pro-state policemen, Nazis, resistance fighters, and bureaucrats. Munk races through genres as quickly as Jan embraces lifestyles, starting with a frenetic silent-film tribute and upping the comedic energy from there. Declared “cynical” by the unamused Polish authorities, the film was nevertheless a great hit with audiences. 

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