Poles Share Their Souls With the World

The anticipation surrounding Jonathan Glazer’s Holocaust drama “The Zone of Interest” was building long before it was tapped to compete at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Details about the Auschwitz-set film, which is loosely based on the novel by Martin Amis, have been kept under wraps, although no less a Cannes personage than festival director Thierry Fremaux described it as “quite a challenging film.” Glazer’s first movie since 2013 sci-fi fantasy “Under the Skin” is sure to be among the more talked-about films bowing on the Croisette.

Filmed entirely in Poland and lensed by two-time Oscar nominee Łukasz Żal (“Ida,” “Cold War”), “Zone of Interest” is also a triumph for the Polish film industry. “The character, the genes of the film, they were here in Poland,” says Academy Award-winning producer Ewa Puszczyńska (“Ida,” “Cold War”), whose shingle Extreme Emotions shares producing credits with British producer James Wilson’s JW Films. “There is a lot of Polish soul…in this film.”

In recent years, Cannes has been a welcome launching pad for Polish filmmakers. One year ago, legendary auteur Jerzy Skolimowski competed for the Palme d’Or with his festival standout “EO,” a moving story about the life of a donkey that would go on to receive an Academy Award nomination for best international feature film. Fast-rising talent Agnieszka Smoczyńska, meanwhile, won plaudits for her Un Certain Regard entry “The Silent Twins,” a based-on-real-life story starring Letitia Wright about a pair of British sisters with an enigmatic bond.

“Zone of Interest” is the latest example of an industry opening its arms to the world. The U.K.-Poland co-production, which is distributed by A24, highlights the robust infrastructure Poland has set up to host international productions, thanks to world-class below-the-line talent, a 30% cash rebate and costs that are substantially lower than in Western Europe.

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 — are increasingly setting their sights on the Eastern European nation. Meanwhile, Polish filmmakers are finding co-production partners in a range of unexpected and far-flung places, with recent years witnessing a wave of collaborations with countries as diverse as Singapore, Chile, New Zealand and Taiwan.

Credit the Polish Film Institute, which has not only spearheaded efforts to lure foreign films to Poland, but has put its support behind both majority and minority co-productions. The PFI also launched an initiative to support Ukrainian production in the wake of the Russian invasion, leading to Poland-Ukraine co-productions such as Maciek Hamela’s war documentary “In the Rearview,” selected for Cannes’ ACID sidebar, and the forthcoming drama “Two Sisters,” from Łukasz Karwowski, which will be presented in the Tallinn Black Nights Goes to Cannes pix-in-post showcase.

Production is booming, but that hasn’t come without a cost, as soaring crew rates and competition for scarce talent threaten to stunt the industry’s rapid growth. Add to that rising inflation and the lingering global economic malaise and “producing a film is significantly more expensive than a couple of years ago,” according to Marta Lewandowska of Warsaw-based Friends With Benefits Studio, who’s currently in development with “Symmetry of the Island,” from Polish director Anna Kazejak (“Fucking Bornholm”). “We did ‘Fucking Bornholm’ [in 2021] for €1 million ($1.1 million). Right now, it would be impossible.”

While Poland’s theatrical market grew to become Europe’s sixth largest before the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020, audiences have been slow to return to cinemas. Total box office in 2022 was up nearly 150% from the previous year, approaching $128 million according to Box Office Mojo, but that was a far cry from the record-shattering $272 million haul in 2018.

“People are coming back to cinemas. If it’s something big, if it’s something for kids, if it’s Marvel, if it’s ‘Dune,’” says Aurum Film producer Aneta Hickenbotham, whose credits include Jan Komasa’s Oscar-nominated “Corpus Christi.” “When you’re talking about the Polish films that were doing quite well in the past, not any longer.”

Nonetheless, a slew of hotly anticipated titles are on the way from directors including Oscar winner Paweł Pawlikowski (“Ida,” “Cold War”), currently shooting “The Island” with Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara; Oscar nominee Jan Komasa (“Corpus Christi”), with a pair of projects in development; Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert, set to follow their Naomi Watts starrer “Infinite Storm” with the trans love story “Let Me Out”; “Silent Twins” director Smoczyńska, now at work on the genre-bending dystopian drama “Hot Spot”; and Magnus von Horn, who’s prepping a yet-to-be-titled follow-up to his Cannes 2020 selection “Sweat.”

Also anticipating a festival premiere this year is the animated feature “The Peasants,” from the acclaimed team behind Oscar nominee “Loving Vincent,” which grossed more than $50 million at the global box office.

Weronika Czołnowska, head of industry at Poland’s influential New Horizons Film Festival, sees promise in how many emerging directors also have debut features in the pipeline — and in how more and more Polish filmmakers are moving beyond conventional dramas. “There are projects like sci-fi or period thrillers or horror movies,” she says. “Family and kids’ films are also doing really well in the market, and there are more and more coming in development.”

Most importantly, Polish cinema has become a fixture on the global stage, with splashy premieres guaranteed from the Croisette to the Lido. “We are visible in the market. We are visible in A-class festivals,” says producer Krzysztof Rak, who’s targeting a fall festival berth for Jan P. Matuszyński’s “Minghun,” the follow-up to 2021 Venice competition selection “Leave No Traces.” “It’s not an accident that we have five Oscar nominations in the past [decade].”

Hopes are riding high that Glazer’s Palme d’Or contender will add to the industry’s awards haul.

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