Almost 70 years after the last Nazi-run concentration camp closed in Poland, the Polish public still grapples with how to think about the Holocaust and occupation of their homeland—and so does Polish cinema. Two new Polish films that screened recently in New York illuminate the complexities of that era.
At a Polish film festival in New York this fall, whispers passed between audience members in the filled, downtown theater at a screening of Vera Gran, a 2012 Polish documentary on the Holocaust. The film was part of a series called “New Voices, Ancient Echoes: Polish Women in Film.” On the screen, a chilling smile warped Vera Gran’s face as she remembered her neighbor’s excitement on a day in April of 1943 as the Warsaw ghetto burned. “It’s a marvelous day,” the neighbor exclaimed, urging Gran to go to the window for a look. “The Yids are burning.” Gran had escaped the ghetto months before. Her mother and sisters were not so lucky.
The New York audience gave the film a standing ovation, and several people stayed after to congratulate director Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz, who contrasted the reception here with her experience in Poland.
“The audience’s reaction in New York made my effort feel justified,” Zmarz-Koczanowicz said after the New York screening. “I was criticized heavily in Poland,” she said.
Just getting a proposal off the ground took several years, though ultimately the film won funding from Polish state institutions. It also received critical praise there, winning an award at Lodz’s Man in Danger media festival, though Zmarz-Koczanowicz said some audience members in Poland questioned her portrayal of Vera Gran, a controversial figure who was rumored to have been a Nazi collaborator (a jury found Gran not guilty of collaboration in 1949).
But whether Vera Gran can find a significant audience outside Poland is uncertain. “There’s an old saying among filmmakers: think globally, act locally,” said Andrzej Krakowski, a professor at City College who teaches screenwriting, directing, and producing. In Polish cinema, he said, “for many years, we were thinking locally and acting locally. And those films couldn’t jump the ocean.”
Krakowski said many films require cultural and historical knowledge that make them inaccessible to Western audiences. Funding also complicates the issue. Finding support for Polish films is not easy, he said.
Still, said Agata Drogowska, founder of Polish Filmmakers NYC, it was difficult to predict how successful the event would be, and which films would strike a chord with viewers in the U.S.—among both immigrants and Americans. “We choose the films before their premiers in Poland. We speak much earlier with the producers. This is a conversation in the dark. We don’t necessarily know that the film will be successful,” she said.
Another Holocaust film, director Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida, shown at a Columbia University screening as part of a new collaboration between Columbia and Polish Filmmakers NYC, may have more potential to break through to Western audiences. Ida tells the story of a young nun in post-war Poland who learns of her Jewish heritage. The film drew a larger—and notably, more American—audience than Vera Gran.
“Ida opens issues that films like Schindler’s List and others do not touch,” said Stuart Liebman, who teaches history and theory of cinema at City University of New York. The film takes place after World War II, in the years between 1945 and 1961. In Polish, the period is known to some by the pejorative, “zydokomuna,” the “Jewish commune,” when Jews like Ida’s aunt Anna, a main character in the film, filled top positions in Poland’s communist government. The period still draws negative reactions, and resentment, from many Poles.
Anna’s character encapsulates that tension. She abuses the power she holds in the post-war years, though her life ultimately ends with drama and remorse. The film shows the wrongs of both Poles and Jews in the post-war era, and “opens up issues,” said Liebman. “It doesn’t clamp down on them. There’s nothing definitive about it. And that’s why I think the film is so engaging, ultimately.”
Ida’s ability to engage a broader audience, beyond Poland, remains to be seen. But that seems a possibility as year-end speculation about the Academy Awards begins, with Ida among the foreign films considered strong contenders for an Oscar.
This story has been modified to include additional context about Poland and the Holocaust, about the organization that brought the Vera Gran film to New York, and about the film’s funding and reception in Poland.