for TRIBUNE magazine: report from the 11th New Horizons Film Festival, Wrocław


This September it’ll be exactly half a century since Polish director Andrzej Munk was killed in a car-crash aged just 40 – thus robbing the resurgent Polish cinema of a major talent, and cruelly cutting short what might well have turned out to be a great career. Though today still better known within his homeland than outside, Munk’s influence lingers on – he taught such future eminences as Jerzy Skolimowski, Krzysztof Zanussi and Roman Polanski during his four-year stint as lecturer at the National Film School in Łódź, while the precocious Polanski was his assistant on Bad Luck (1960), one of only three features Munk completed before his death.

Munk’s entire big-screen output – which also includes a couple of mid-length documentaries, the unfinished Auschwitz-set feature Passenger(reconstructed by colleagues and released in 1963), and various shorts – was one of the major attractions of the 11th New Horizons Film Festival (NHFF), held in the south-western Polish city of Wrocław from July 21st to 31st.

Among the most successful events of its type in Europe, with over 100,000 tickets sold – and the majority of screenings quickly filled (sometimes within minutes, in the case of especially prominent titles) – NHFF started in 2001 and moved to Wrocław in 2006, since when its international reputation has grown year-on-year.

With a reputation for emphasising non-mainstream, experimental and adventurous work, NHFF is now well-established as a significant draw for international critics, festival-programmers and film-makers, as well as being a massive element in the city’s burgeoning artistic calendar – indeed, only a few weeks ago Wrocław was named, along with Spain’s San Sebastian (home of another noted film-festival), as European Capital of Culture for 2016.

Next year Wrocław will be one of the host cities of football’s European Championship – shared between Poland neighbouring Ukraine – while its ultra-modern concert-hall, the National Forum of Music is scheduled to open its doors around the same time (fingers crossed – the €70m project is still little more than a vast hole in the ground.)

A bustling, go-ahead metropolis of 600,000 or so – and therefore Poland’s fourth-biggest city behind Warsaw, Krakow and Lodz – Wrocław ‘s most famous son is WWI ace ‘Red Baron’ Manfred Von Richthofen (born during the pre-1945 days when it was the German city Breslau). Though in cinematic terms he’s edged out by cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, who shot Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

In terms of its own big-screen appearances, however, Wrocław’s finest hour remains Munk’s 1957 masterpiece The Man on the Track, much of which was shot in and around its railway depot. Cinema history has no shortage of Great Train Movies, but Man on the Trackdeserves a very lofty place in that pantheon alongside the better-known likes of Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail (1936)Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (1966), Buster Keaton’s The General (1927), Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1946).

Having worked during World War II at a railway construction company, Munk in 1953 made the documentary A Railwayman’s World – and, while it’s a fictional story, he brings a rare tang of verisimilitude to The Man on the Track, which includes several thrilling sequences evidently shot aboard real steam-trains rattling along at high speeds.

An engrossingly believable account of workplace pleasures and strifes, it’s also a tantalising mystery revolving around the death of veteran engineer Orzechowski (a truly magnificent performance from Kazimierz Opalinski), who in the opening sequence is knocked down and killed by a speeding engine driven by a former protégé with whom he’s since fallen out.

After some slow, somewhat talky early stretches the pace steadily gathers to a truly stunning denouement – Munk and his scriptwriter Jerzy Stefan Stawinski painstakingly craft one of the most astonishing, moving and shattering endings in the whole of cinema – a sequence which, like the rest of the movie, is greatly boosted by the use of atmospheric train-noises rather than a musical score.

Even by the renowned standards of Polish cinematography, meanwhile, the visuals by Jerzy Wojcik (who later shot Andrzej Wajda’s seminalAshes and Diamonds [1958]) and Romuald Kropat are a consistent wonder – achieving bold chiaroscuro effects via the inky, grimy, greasy intensity of the black machinery and coal-fuel, starkly contrasted with the brightly firelit faces of the workers, and thus intriguingly foreshadowing Freddie Francis’s evocation of Victorian engineering in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.

More than five decades later, Munk’s name lives on via Studio Munka: a production-company dedicated to supporting directorial debuts, and responsible for the one of the best-reviewed Polish features of this year, Oscar-nominated documentarian Bartosz Konopka’s Fear of Falling(a contender in NHFF’s competition section dedicated to national productions.)

Among Studio Munka’s handful of NHFF-selected shorts, among the most pleasing was Dominika Montean’s For A Hatful of Pears, a comic/poignant look at three long-retired ice-hockey stars now passing on their skills to a team of eight-year-old juniors – and a film whose crusty, unashamedly old-school, technique-oriented protagonists can be seen as distant cousins to The Man on the Track‘s Orzechowski.

As well as providing a showcase of current Polish cinema, NHFF’s dauntingly vast programme also serves as national launchpad for numerous eagerly-anticipated upcoming arthouse releases – many of them having world-premiered earlier in the year at the red-carpet jamborees of Cannes and Berlin. This year the “biggies” included the latest from Lars Von Trier and Aki Kaurismäki – both gentlemen bouncing back to form after slightly below-part efforts last time out.

Von Trier’s cosmic-apocalyptic family-drama Melancholia opens here on September 30th, while Kaurismäki’s delightful urban fable of égalitéand fraternité, Le Havre, will presumably appear soon after a likely UK premiere at October’s London Film Festival. Both will be reviewed on these pages in their week of release, ditto Pedro Almodovar’s much-ballyhooed (but oddly flat) sci-fi/horror/romance The Skin I Live In (Aug 26) and Bela Tarr’s uncompromisingly gloomy The Turin Horse (date TBC), runner-up to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation at the Berlin Film Festival back in February.

Obliquely inspired by an incident in the life of Friedrich Nietzsche, The Turin Horse has been publically described by its lugubrious Hungarian magus as not only his last film, but the last film full stop – that latter comment perhaps only partly made with tongue in cheek, given the increasing (and regrettable) digitisation of the cinema experience – an onslaught which has made celluloid-friendly, 35mm-championing events like NHFF all the more necessary and precious.

Neil Young
2nd August, 2011
…………. (Jigsaw Lounge’s full NH 2011 screening-diary)
written for Tribune magazine