The fall festival circuit features a powerhouse lineup of Polish cinema that showcases an industry in full stride, with hard-hitting topical dramas, award-season hopefuls and potential box-office breakouts highlighting the strength and diversity of filmmaking in a country with a storied cinematic history.
Among the hotly anticipated premieres at this week’s Toronto Film Festival is “The Peasants,” a lavish, hand-painted animated feature from the filmmaking team behind Oscar nominee and box-office sensation “Loving Vincent.” Meanwhile, three-time Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland will be on hand for the North American premiere of “Green Border,” her searing portrayal of Europe’s refugee crisis that just bowed in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
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Also on the Lido, two-time Berlin Silver Bear winner Małgorzata Szumowska (“Body,” “Mug”) and Michał Englert are vying for the Golden Lion with “Woman Of,” their decades-spanning portrait of a transgender Polish woman on a journey of self-discovery.
Producer Klaudia Śmieja-Rostworowska, in Venice with “Woman Of” and Goran Stolevski’s Horizons selection “Housekeeping for Beginners,” described the Szumowska-Holland double-bill as a “huge statement” from the Italian fest for accepting “two such important films from Poland.” She adds, “It’s a good moment for Polish cinema.”
Other Polish titles hitting Toronto include Jonathan Glazer’s Holocaust drama “The Zone of Interest,” a U.K.-Poland co-production that dazzled audiences in Cannes and is an early Oscar frontrunner, and Louise Archambault’s world premiere “Irena’s Vow,” a Canadian-Polish co-production based on the true story of Polish nurse Irene Gut Opdyke, who saved Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. Also playing is Maciek Hamela’s Ukraine war documentary “In the Rearview,” which has racked up a number of international awards since its premiere in the Cannes Film Festival’s ACID sidebar.
Śmieja-Rostworowska credits the Polish Film Institute (PFI) not only for its robust financial backing, providing nearly $27 million to support more than two dozen movies and series this year, but for its willingness to take risks on films such as “Housekeeping,” which follows a gay woman who suddenly finds herself responsible for her partner’s two young daughters. “They are investing in our instincts, that we have great talents,” says the producer, pointing to the “high level of trust” between the industry and the funding body. “I feel really privileged that the films we are doing are receiving grants…and being able to do the films we really love.”
Among the current crop of festival titles to receive support from the PFI are “The Zone of Interest,” “The Peasants,” “Woman Of,” “In the Rearview,” “Irena’s Vow” and “Pianoforte,” a documentary from Jakub Piątek that premiered at Sundance. Meanwhile, an efficient 30% cash rebate, coupled with a widening pool of below-the-line talent and comparably low costs, is luring big-budget international projects — among them “Hunger Games” prequel “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” and Paul W.S. Anderson’s “In the Lost Lands,” starring Milla Jovovich and Dave Bautista.
Martin Moszkowicz, CEO of Constantin Film, the German production powerhouse behind the “Resident Evil” blockbuster movie franchise that is among the producers of “Lost Lands,” credits the rebate for giving a boost to the Polish biz.
“The Polish tax credit is not the most aggressive one on the market — there are others that are way more aggressive — but it is a very reliable one,” he says. “What’s more important than getting $500,000 more on the tax credit is that you actually get it when you’re shooting.”
Meanwhile, productions like “Lost Lands” showcase the growing capacity of the Polish industry to take on bigger and more ambitious projects. Moszkowicz describes the film as “a world-creation story set in another time and another space.” Filming mostly took place at Alvernia Studios in Krakow, whose giant green screens were the backdrop for a cutting-edge production that utilized Unreal Engine gaming software for the first time on a live-action feature film.
“I think there has been a shift…with respect to bigger movies and international movies,” he says. “Obviously, each show that takes place in Poland helps to improve the skill level of the crews [as] more people understand how an international show is put together, what are the issues there, the scheduling with the actors, what do international directors look for,” he continues. “The more shows that venture into Poland, the more know-how is going to stay in the country.”
Last year, Constantin also teamed up with “Resident Evil” partner Jeremy Bolt on an adaptation of Claudia Tan’s hit novel “Perfect Addiction,” a “Rocky”-style underdog story directed by Castille Landon set in the world of boxing in Detroit. To recreate the American Midwest, the producers found a variety of locations in Krakow and its surrounding environs.
In recent years, the Polish market has enjoyed a production boom spurred by competition from global and regional streaming services. But in the wake of the great Netflix correction and similar strategic re-thinks from other streamers, business this year has dramatically slowed, says producer Krzysztof Solek (“Legacy of Lies”). He estimates that roughly two dozen projects slated to go into production this year were cancelled, primarily driven by the shake-up at the global streaming platforms. “The budgets were made three years ago…but the prices, because of the war in Ukraine, because of inflation, went up,” he says.
Solek nevertheless sees a “big opportunity” for European broadcasters to reposition themselves in the market. “They are coming back quite strongly,” he says. “Most of the projects I’m seeing now are mostly [financed by] broadcasters.” Through his production shingle Film Poland, Solek already has a handful of commissions for European networks lined up for 2024, saying, “Next year, it seems that there’s really a huge amount of work.”
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