Poland has had a productive film industry for decades, but a troubled one. Many early films were destroyed during the Nazi occupation. Afterward, during the Communist era, many films were made, but it was rare to see them outside of Poland.
"Poland was closed. ... If a film was invited to Cannes or Venice there was still a struggle to get permissions, visas, passports," said Polish film restorer Jdrzej Sabliski. "It was difficult to show these films around the world. It blocked many actors' careers."
In addition, government officials didn't care about film preservation. "It was not a priority to store films in a proper way. The authorities didn't listen to Kodak, Fuji, Agfa about the best conditions to store the materials," Sabli¿ski said. "Many of the films are in poor condition ... scratches, fungus, perforations."
Communism in Poland fell in 1989, and attitudes have changed. A well-financed Polish film restoration project has been going on for years. In 2011, it got the attention of Martin Scorsese. Scorsese, with Milestone Film distributors, is sending several restored Polish cinema classics made between 1957 and 1987 around the country to 30 cities.
Sixteen of these "Masterpieces of Polish Cinema" will be presented from Aug. 15 to 28 at Cinestudio, at Trinity College in Hartford.
The series will kick off on Aug. 15 with "The Saragossa Manuscript," which tells the surreal, hallucinatory story of two soldiers who find an ancient manuscript, which tells of a soldier on a bizarre journey. The movie was restored in the '90s by Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, but now has been restored again to digital format.
Marek Haltof, a professor in the English department at Northern Michigan University and the author of several books about Polish cinema, said "Saragossa" was seen on many American college campuses in the '60s, and was popular at those venues because of the film's trippy vibe. "It's like a Chinese box," he said.
"Saragossa" stars Zbigniew Cybulski, one of the hottest stars in the history of Polish cinema, often compared to James Dean. Cybulski never became a star in other countries due to Communist control of film industry and because he died in 1967 at age 39. (He was on a train saying goodbye to his friend Marlene Dietrich, then jumped off the moving train and fell under its wheels.)
Two other films starring the dynamic leading man are part of the "Masterpieces" series, "Salto" and "Ashes and Diamonds." "Salto" follows a drifter as he wanders about a small town telling stories that may or may not be true, and the townsfolk's reactions to him. "Ashes and Diamonds" tells the story of two Resistance soldiers in the final days of World War II, who are hired to kill a mid-level Communist functionary, and the aftermath of their act of violence. Scorsese calls "Ashes and Diamonds" "one of the greatest films ever made, Polish or otherwise."
Another standout in the series is legendary director Andrzej Wajda, one of the most internationally acclaimed of all Polish filmmakers. He made "Ashes and Diamonds, as well as "Promised Land," "The Wedding" and "Man of Iron." "Promised Land" is about a trio of industrialists in turn-of-the-century Poland, who are so focused on profit that they ignore the human misery their factory conditions cause.
"The Wedding" begins at the wedding of a poet to a peasant, and proceeds to the reception, where the groom is visited by ghosts from the country's past. The extraordinary "Man of Iron" dramatizes the Polish Solidarity movement and features labor leader Lech Walesa portraying himself.
Krzysztof Kie¿lowski — who became internationally famous in the post-Communist era for his "Three Colors" trilogy, "Decalogue" and "The Double Life of Veronique" — is represented in the festival by "Blind Chance" and "A Short Film About Killing." "Blind Chance" tells three stories, all about a man chasing a train, with three different outcomes, depending on whether he catches the train. "A Short Film About Killing" is about a senseless murder and the trial of the killer.
Another director, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, has two films in the festival. "Mother Joan of the Angels" tells the story of an 18th century convent where all of the nuns seem to be possessed by demons. "Austeria" takes place during the opening days of World War I, where Hasidic Jews fleeing Cossacks congregate at a village inn.
Although "Austeria" is about World War I, Haltof said the film is often discussed in the context of the Holocaust. "It's about a community disappearing from the map of Europe," he said. He added that the movie, released in 1982, was used by the Polish government to legitimize the contemporary state of martial law. "It was shown outside Poland ... to show that they were open and they didn't have to ban films showing Polish history," he said.
"The Hourglass Sanatorium" is another hallucinatory, surreal adventure by Wojciech Has, who made "The Saragossa Manuscript." "Hourglass" is about a man who visits a eerie hospital where time proceeds differently than in the outside world.
Three films by Krzysztof Zanussi will be shown, "The Illumination," about a student of physics, "Camouflage," about a student and an evil professor, and "The Constant Factor," the story of a man who wants to climb the Himalayas. Haltof said "The Illumination" stood out from other Polish films. "It was devoid of politics, which was a fixture and an obsession of Polish cinema," he said. "It focuses on philosophical and religious issues. That's why some critics look for parallels between Zanussi and Bergman."
Andrzej Munk's "Eroica," a two-part study of the concept of heroism, and "To Kill This Love," a romance about two people prevented from going to college by the Communist government, round out the lineup.
MASTERPIECES OF POLISH CINEMA will be at Cinestudio, 300 Summit St., on the campus of Trinity College in Hartford, every night from Aug. 15 to 28. Showtime is at 7:30 p.m. nightly, with 2:30 p.m. matinees on weekends. Admission is $9, $7 students. Details: cinestudio.org.