Martin Scorsese's Hand-Picked Polish Classics Are Coming to Cleveland

Raging polka

Martin Scorsese, the guy who directed classic movies such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, has a long history of helping to restore and preserve old films. He's recently turned his attention to Polish cinema. Starting on Sept. 13, the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque will host Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, a collection of 18 Polish film classics from the 1950s through the 1980s that Scorsese hand-picked to circulate throughout North America. In a press release about the series, Scorsese says the films have "great emotional and visual power" and maintains they "stand up to repeated viewings."

"He was invited to go to Poland in 2011 by Andrzej Wajda; he's the greatest living Polish filmmaker," says Cinematheque director John Ewing. "While he was there, Scorsese was pitched on the idea of picking some favorites from Polish film history and putting them in a package and releasing them to theaters in North America."

Ewing first heard about this package in 2013, but at the time he didn't have the proper equipment to show the movies. Now he does. The series opened at Lincoln Center and has traveled to over 30 cities. Cleveland will be the last North American venue to show the movies.

The retrospective includes WWII dramas, historical epics, love stories, a cult fantasy, modern social dramas, contemporary moral inquiries and a couple of comedies. It commences with The Wedding (Sept. 13), a film version of a famous Polish play that's directed by Andrzej Wajda.

"It's a period piece and the costumes are very elaborate," says Ewing. "It's a quintessentially Polish film by a great Polish director. I think Poles will know the play and it alludes to Polish history. It's like a dreamscape where people from other eras turn up at this wedding. It's very symbolic and metaphorical. It's very rare and I don't think it was ever distributed in North America."

The series continues with The Last Day of Summer (Sept. 17), the debut from Tadeusz Konwicki, another famous Polish director. Several weekends are devoted to specific directors.

The majority of the screenings will take place at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, but Black Cross (Sept. 29) and The Saragossa Manuscript (Oct. 6) will screen at the Capitol Theatre. The series concludes with Austeria: The Inn (Oct. 25), Jerzy Kawalerowicz's film about Poland's lost Jewish population.

"What's interesting about [Austeria: The Inn] is that it deals with Jewish culture in Poland; that makes it very unusual," says Ewing. "They tried to make the film in the '60s and wrote the script in the '60s. It's a one-set drama for most of the film. Because the Jewish question was sensitive, they weren't allowed to make it, but he could do it in the early '80s. It's a fairly compassionate or even prophetic look at the Jews in Poland. It's not the cheeriest film to go out on but I don't think it was even seen in the States in the '80s."

Given Cleveland's strong Polish population, the festival should resonate with local moviegoers. There's a Polish studies department at CSU and a visiting Polish scholar is currently teaching a film course there. A Polish film critic is also taking classes at CSU and has expressed an interest in the movie series.

"I know most of the films — I've shown some of them here," says Ewing. "It's really a great series; there's no question about it. They've all been digitally restored so they should look spectacular."