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Polish Filmmakers Adjust to Times

July 7, 1999

LODZ, Poland (AP) _ A sprawling complex of decayed, concrete buildings in this sleepy town in central Poland hardly looks like the cradle of what was one of Soviet-dominated Europe’s most vibrant film industries.

The Lodz (pronounced Woodge) Film Studio, nicknamed HollyLodz, produced classics of the intellectual genre that defined Polish cinema in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Some of the biggest names, including Roman Polanski (``Chinatown,″ ``Rosemary’s Baby″) and Krzysztof Kieslowski (``The Double Life of Veronique″), made early films there.

Today, much of the studio has been sold to keep it solvent, and an industry that used to turn out as many as 40 films a year on the state’s bankroll makes about half that number, with the government covering 30 percent of the costs.

Like the rest of the nation, Polish filmmakers have been forced to adjust to political, economic and social changes since the end of communist rule in 1989. Artistic freedom that used to be expressed in hidden themes too elusive for government censors now depends on commercial viability.

The lesson seems to be learned.

Almost 7 million people in the nation of 39 million have seen ``With Fire and Sword,″ an epic by director Jerzy Hoffman based on a beloved Polish novel set during the 17th-century war between Poland and the Ukraine. The film paid off its $5.14 million cost within weeks of opening in February and easily topped ``Kiler,″ a 1997 action comedy by Juliusz Machulski that drew 2.5 million viewers and attracted attention in Hollywood.

Hoffman’s success was attributed to an unprecedented publicity campaign and the source material by Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel prize for literature. Hoffman previously made two other honored and popular films from Sienkiewicz writings _ ``Pan Michael″ and ``The Deluge.″

``There is such large pressure of Western style and values ... that maybe this is a good time for Poles to immerse in their own culture and their own history,″ said Andrzej Wajda, whose ``Man of Iron,″ on the birth of the Solidarity labor movement, won the main prize at Cannes in 1981.

Wajda has his own historical project _ ``Mr. Tadeusz,″ based on a Romantic verse novel by 19th-century poet Adam Mickiewicz _ opening in September. He believes the success of Hoffman’s film shows Poles will choose something with a personal link or more intellectual matter, like the political films they remember from the past, over the standard fare available at home on television.

``The point is in attracting them to the cinema,″ he said.

That attitude differs from the old days, when commercial appeal hardly mattered. State-owned Lodz studio produced artistic fare that fetched international awards.

Wajda’s 1974 ``Land of Promise″ won the main prize in Chicago in 1975 and the 1976 Academy Award nomination for best foreign film, while Polanski’s debut, ``Knife in the Water,″ was made in Lodz in 1961. It was an Academy Award nominee for best foreign film in 1962 and took the critics award at Cannes. ``The Deluge″ by Hoffman was nominated for best foreign film at the 1975 Academy Awards.

Kieslowski and Agnieszka Holland, who both gained international fame for films made abroad in later years, began their careers at Lodz.

Like Hollywood, the Lodz studio also attracted people simply wanting to be near the most prominent center of creative artistry in the repressive communist society. Jerzy Rezakiewicz, 64, told how he responded to an ad in 1962 offering jobs at the studio’s stucco workshop.

``I didn’t know what stucco was, but I wanted so much to work at the studio that I applied and got the job,″ smiled Rezakiewicz, now manager of the props warehouse.

When communism ended a decade ago, Wajda and other directors lost some of their main themes, such as ridiculing the socialist system. They also lost most of their financing as the government reformed state enterprises in the transition to a market economy.

Young directors churned out cheap imitations of Western-style action films, while prominent ones sought backing abroad. Kieslowski got money from French producer Marin Karmitz to make his globally successful three-color trilogy _ ``Blue,″ ``White″ and ``Red,″ the latter earning him an Academy Award nomination in 1995 for best director.

The trilogy _ with themes on defining the meaning of liberation, justice and equality _ helped restore the luster to modern Polish cinema.

But the Lodz studio failed to adapt to the changing times, keeping its crew of 1,200 mostly administrative employees and high prices for its services. Debts mounted as filmmakers used smaller and cheaper private studios emerging under the economic reforms.

Tadeusz Scibor-Rylski, head of the state Cinematography Committee that sponsors the film industry, called the Lodz facility an ``ill-managed, overgrown mammoth not fit for the new market reality.″ He ordered the recent sale of four of the complex’s five studios to television and publicity companies that had been leasing them.

Film director Wojciech Wojcik praised the move, which he said saved the local film production industry to give ``financially weaker companies″ access to good equipment and expertise at lower costs than producing projects abroad.

The technical excellence of Poland’s industry has been recognized countless times, such as the Oscar wonon Stephen Spielberg’s ``Schindler’s List,″ which was filmed in Poland and which won seven Oscars altogether including best picture.

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