Film '
Anita Piotrowska
Reading time: approx. 7 minutes

Kraków’s cinematic life

Kraków is often described as a perfect film setting. Over the centuries, the city has withstood the ravages of war, occupation and social experiments, none of which have come close to destroying its unique architecture or enchanting atmosphere. All this makes Kraków hugely popular with visitors, including filmmakers. And it was the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre which hosted Poland’s first ever screening using the brothers’ Lumière cinematograph. It all started right here, in Kraków!

As you wander around the city, you can view it through a camera lens by recalling scenes and protagonists from favourite films, spotting sites representing past eras or finding traces of filmmakers who once lived and made their films here.

Following filmmakers

Let’s start at the Main Market Square in the very heart of the city. It was the setting for the key, almost metaphysical scene from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “The Double Life of Veronique” (1991). The Cracovian choir singer, portrayed by Irène Jacob, encounters a political protest. She drops her music when a protester runs into her; as she retrieves the sheets, she notices a young woman looking exactly like her boarding a tourist bus. From then on, the lives of the two women are forever intertwined. Most of the parts of the film set in Poland were shot right here in Kraków, in beautiful local interiors and on the Planty Garden Ring encircling the Old Town.

 

Two years later, the Kazimierz and Podgórze districts served as the backdrop of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”. The American director spent many weeks in Kraków to make sure the story of the German industrialist was as true to life as possible. Portrayed by Liam Neeson, Oskar Schindler saved the lives of over a thousand Jews by employing them in his enamel factory during the Second World War.

Any tour exploring the film’s settings simply has to take in Józefa, Szeroka and Ciemna streets in Kazimierz, and the Liban quarry, the Lasota Hill and Lipowa Street in Podgórze. Schindler’s former factory at no. 4 is now home to an interactive museum exploring life in Kraków under Nazi occupation. Spielberg’s film was awarded seven Oscars, helping arouse interest in Kraków’s districts with a strong Jewish connection.

 

Kraków’s post-war history has also found reflection in the silver screen. In Andrzej Wajda’s political film “Man of Marble” (1976), Krystyna Janda plays a student making a film about a hero workman of the Stalinist period. The film uses archive materials and new footage depicting Nowa Huta – the industrial district built in the 1950s on the outskirts of Kraków to provide housing for the local steelworks. Until recently, Nowa Huta was rather run down and brought uncomfortable associations with Poland’s communist past; today it is a popular tourist destination and serves as a backdrop to many films.

Cracovian biographies

Wajda, Poland’s greatest film director who passed away in 2016, had very close links to Kraków throughout his life. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts and directed many of his theatre productions and films, including “The Wedding” (1972) and “Katyń” (2007). He also founded the Manggha Centre (now Museum) of Japanese Art and Technology. A former resident of Kraków, Wajda was buried at the Salwator cemetery; two years later, a square by the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, near the Main Station, was named after him.

 

Another director who shaped Kraków’s cinematic history is Roman Polański. Although he was born in Paris, he grew up in Kraków. His life was heavily marked by the Second World War, and he was forced into the ghetto with his family. His schooldays, disturbed by the occupation,

and boyhood friendship with the future photographer Ryszard Horowitz were all a significant part in his life and art. In recent years, he has been working on a documentary about his time in Kraków.

 

Wojciech Jerzy Has, author of “The Saragossa Manuscript” (1964) and “The Hour-Glass Sanatorium” (1973), was born in Kraków where he also studied art and made his first films. He lived at 19 Św. Gertrudy Street for 24 years; today the building bears a commemorative plaque. Martin Scorsese was captivated by his surrealist imagery. One of Has’s favourite students was the internationally-acclaimed Cracovian film director Małgorzata Szumowska. She made her early, award-winning, productions – including her debut “Happy Man” (2000) and the highly personal “33 Scenes from Life” (2008) – in her home city.

And let’s not forget that the very origins of Poland’s filmmaking were rooted Kraków.

The building at 16 Józefitów Street, office of Nazi propaganda during the war and now the Museum of Photography in Krakow, was home of the Young People’s Film Studio since May 1945. The workshops trained future filmmakers, after Polish cinematography was utterly destroyed during the war. The modest building could be seen as the precursor of the legendary Film School in Łódź – all the Cracovian filmmakers listed here studied or taught there at some point in their lives.

Festival season

But Kraków’s cinema doesn’t just look to the past. Today, the city hosts myriad ambitious film festivals exploring a range of themes and styles, with the genre coming to life every spring. In April and May, the international festival of independent cinema Mastercard Off Camera takes over Kraków, bringing in stars of Polish and international cinema; guests leave imprints of their hands at the Czerwieński Boulevard at the foot of Wawel Hill. The festival presents unconventional, rarely-shown productions. The Film Music Festival is a major event held in late May, celebrating world-famous composers of music for blockbusters, art cinema and TV dramas. Screenings are accompanied by captivating performances of soundtracks using state-of-the-art audio technologies.

 

The Krakow Film Festival, held in May and June, marks the end of cinematic spring with documentaries, animations and short films made in Poland and abroad. First held in 1961, it is Poland’s first event of its kind and one of the longest-running in Europe. During the communist era, it featured blistering discussions on artistic freedom and the role played by documentary-makers in society. Today, the event is an important international platform for meetings between artists and the public. In 2020, the 60th anniversary KFF was held entirely online due to the global pandemic. The pioneering edition of the festival attracted thousands of new viewers from Poland and abroad.

 

Autumn features the International Film Festival Etiuda&Anima of student films and animations. It brings together acclaimed filmmakers and up-and-coming artists. Winter brings the Silent Film Festival, celebrating early movies. The organisers present remastered copies with live music accompaniment by some of the most interesting artists working in Kraków. Screenings are mainly held at Pod Baranami Cinema (27 Main Market Square); the art house cinema presents the latest films from Poland and abroad with English subtitles throughout the year. Despite the continuing expansion of multiplexes and increasing rents, Kraków is proud to be home to six studio cinemas, popular with cinephiles of all generations. The venues, most of which are in the city centre, present themed reviews, pre-premieres and special screenings.

 

The cinematic map of Kraków is also expanding into the future. The town of Alwernia, about 30 km west of Kraków, is home to Alvernia Planet. Until recently, this largest and most modern film studio in Poland only provided services to the cinema industry. It is now expanding into a vast entertainment and education park, introducing visitors to state-of-the-art technologies including VR and AR. Cinephiles visiting Kraków have plenty to explore: top quality events, cinematic journeys in time and myriad beautiful settings, both those familiar from favourite films and those still waiting for the call “lights, camera, action!”

Anita Piotrowska

Film critic for the “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly, publicist and curator of documentaries for the Kraków Film Festival. She is a member of the International Federation of Film Critics FIPRESCI and sits on juries at film festivals at home and abroad. Winner of the Polish Film Institute Prize in the film critic category (2014).

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