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Gunther Grass in Gdynia as Festival officially opens

German author, Nobel Prize laureate Gunther Grass, is a high profile visitor here in connection with the screening of a new Polish film based on one of his novels, "The Call of the Toad".
Grass was actually born in Dansk in 1927 when it was a German city known as Danzig, so this amounts to a kind of home-town visitation. His novel, "The Tin Drum" also had a WW II Danzig setting and was made into a highly acclaimed film by Volker Schloendorff in Germany (1979) which featured the Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski. Grass was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1999.
The current film under the Polish title "Wro¿ba Kumaka" is directed by middle generation director Robert Glinski (b.1952) whose "Hi, Tereza" took the Golden Lion for Best Film here in Gdynia in 2001 as well as the journalists and audience awards. Film top liners are German actor Matthias Habich and aging Polish superstar, Krystyna Janda. Janda made a sensational debut in Wajda's "Man of Marble" (1977), won a best actress prize in Cannes, 1990, and has generally been big box-office in Poland for the last 25 years. In this film she is a mature Polish woman from Vilnius, now living in Gdansk, who in her youth was a member of the ZMP (Communist Youth Movement), and now, in 1989 meets a German (Habich), originally from Gdansk (Danzig), but exiled after the war, and a one time member of the Hitler Youth. This unlikely coupling turns into a love story as both exiles (she was also exiled from Lithuania) are anxious to bring about reconciliation between the one-time enemy countries. To this end they establish the Polish-German Cemetery in order to give the dead the right to symbolically return to their homelands. Janda
at 53 is still a striking figure of a woman and a powerful actress. In a press conference at the special Gdansk pre-festival screening of "Call of the Toad" Mr. Grass said he was quite satisfied with director Glinnski's rendering of his novel and characters, his only reservation being that he thought the period decor was somewhat less than authentic.

The opening ceremony of the festival proper in the seaside Gdynia Music Center was a gala event with everybody who is anybody in the Polish film world in attendance and an electric charge in the air as ubiquitous TV camera crews nailed celebrities in the crowd for instant interviews.
Moreover, after the usual opening speeches attesting to the importance of this thirtieth gathering of the Polish film clans, not one, not two -- but three special films were screened in the spacious festival hall. The first, before a bulging at the seams SRO crowd, was a compilation historical documentary of scenes from all of the 29 festivals which have come before, during the height of Communist oppression and in the years since "The Changes". To fully appreciate this festival special one would, of course, need to be very familiar with the films, personalities and well-known events succeeding each another in a dreamlike flood of images on screen, but I for one, found myself swept up into the magic of the show, and thought it was
technically as good or better than any such historical compilation film I have ever seen before.

Next was a very special screening of Marek Piwowski's breathlessly awaited new film "Oskar". This is a film about two kids, Oskar, aged ten, and Niebieska, seven. What is unusual about them is that they are both cancer victims in a children's hospital ward. The story centers on Oskar the boy, who is less and less willing to accept the verbal bromides and empty assurances offered by the hospital staff ... except for Roza, a hospital volunteer assistant who gives the children something real to hope for -- a miracle! Piwowski, a handsome white-haired man of 69 (and looks 20 years younger) is a kind of wild card of Polish cinema. His 1970 directorial debut, "Rejs"(The Cruise) is considered to be the funniest comedy in the history of Polish cinema and hardly any Pole of a certain age would not be able to quote three or four one line gags from this most cultish of Polish cult films. Yet, since then Piwowski has had a hard time raising money and had been forced to work mostly in TV or as an actor in other people's films.
His only other feature was "The Kidnapping of Agata", a rip-roaring political satire which was very well received at Gdynia in 1993. "Oskar", which is only 55 minutes long because it was made for TV, received a warm and lengthy ovation with special enthusiasm for young Maciej Matulka (Oskar) who, standing there on stage with co-stars Ola Czarnecka (the girl) and Agnieszka Mandat (Roza), seemed to be both puzzled and amused by all the attention coming his way from the surging crowd. Post screening, Piwowski stated that the reason this story had to be made as a TV film is simply that Hollywood already holds the rights to the original French novel by Eric E. Schmitt on which the film is based -- and that, moreover, Whoopie Goldberg is set to do the American feature film version!

The finale event of the triple bill which opened the festival was another special compilation or omnibus opus involving thirteen distinguished directors each offering their personal view of the SOLIDARNOή (Solidarity) movement on the occasion of the twenty fifth anniversary of the events which shook the foundations of the Communist system and basically led to the end of the cold war in 1989. One could write an entire opus on this film alone, so much being said in so many different ways during the slightly over one hour combined running time. The basic question addressed by this very diverse collection of short films by recognized filmmakers is: "What does Solidarity mean to me today?", and viewers are left at the end with the lingering question as to whether the feeling of Solidarity still exists in today's Poland. For the record, without going into detail, the most interesting segments were as follows:

(1) "Sushi", by comic director Jan Machulski. Marek, a film director gets an offer to make a short film about "Solidarity". A team of advertising specialisats is engaged and what they come up weiyth is a giant dish of the famous Japanese raw fish delicacy. The key to the in joke here is that Lech Walêsa, president of Poland, at one point claimed he would turn Poland into the "Japan of Europe" (yeh-yeh).

(2) Robert Glinski shows the abandoned Gdansk shipyard as it is today. A Japanese-speaking Polish tour guide leads a group of camera clicking Japanese tourists through the overgrown grounds but there are no sub-titles for the message is obvious. However, what the guide keeps saying is "goran no tori, mo nanimo nai" -- As you can respectfully see, there isn't anything left here to see, and "Ashimoto-ni ki-o tsukete" = "Watch your step" -- (lots of junk still laying around) –

(3) Krzysztof Zanussi basically shows footage of himself filmning the arrival of Russian tanks in Krakow, a kind of "advertisement for myself" segment, but, perhaps the most gripping episode –

(4) truly a film in its own right, is the Wajda segment which is a meeting with former President and Solidarity leader Lech Walêsa, Wajda himself, and film stars Krystyna Janda and Jerzy Radziwiloweicz recorded on video in a screening room where these people look at segments of the film "Man of Steel", 1980, filmed during the strike where the dynamic young Shipyard electrician, Walêsa appears as himself and in which Janda and Jerzy were the stars, and Wajda the director. This is amazing half reality, half fiction film, which took the Golden Palm at Cannes that year to the eminent consternation of the then Communist Polish establishment. There is also a rousing, foot-stomping musical section in which a middle-aged Polish rock star (Grzegorz Markowski) with long grey hair and a ragged raincoat does an amazing rap monologue accompanied by two young Polish rappers to a succession of MTV-like background images which is just mind-boggling. This last was directed by Ryszard Bugajski, who, while based in Canada, is known for very hard hitting anti-Communist films such as "Interrogation" which brought Janda her best actress prize in Cannes. Oddly enough, it was only a rather sparse audience which stayed on to watch the "Solidarity" super-medley, partially because it was getting on to party time and partly, no doubt, because the Poles have seen this all so many times before it's old hat to them. To the outside world however, this film could be a revelation if properly handled for the foreign market.

Alex Deleon, Gdynia




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