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Poland’s rise to cultural power The nation is dismantling its reputation as a grey, ex-communist backwater

Who'd be interested in a series based heavily on Slavic myths? Photo: Getty

Who'd be interested in a series based heavily on Slavic myths? Photo: Getty


January 5, 2021   5 mins

In the early 2000s, the Polish video game developers CD Projekt Red approached the fantasy novelist Andrzej Sapkowski with an offer. They wanted to make a game out of his series WiedĆșmin, which portrayed a monster hunter tracking beasts across a fantastical continent.

WiedĆșmin, which had swelled in popularity in Poland after beginning life as a one-off short story, had been optioned for a video game before and the former sales representative Sapkowski was dubious about its prospects. As he later said: “They offered me a percentage of their profits. I said, ‘No, there will be no profit at all — give me all my money right now! The whole amount.’”

Sapkowski’s scepticism was understandable. CD Projekt Red were an obscure company, and their demo for the game, renamed The Witcher, was, by their own admission, “a piece of crap.” Besides, Poland was not exactly known for its video games — and who outside of Central and Eastern Europe would be interested in a series based heavily on Slavic myths?

The Witcher and its sequels were a gigantic success. People across the world loved the dark, rich and morally ambiguous stories. More than fifty million copies of the games have been sold. A Netflix adaptation has been developed. In 2018, Sapkowski took CD Projekt Red to court to belatedly try to get more money than the few thousand dollars he had initially accepted.

Last month, CD Projekt Red released another game, Cyberpunk 2077, to critical and commercial success (if marred, on some consoles, by technical bugs). Even before its release, Poland, surprisingly, was the world’s fourth largest exporter of video games, behind only China, Japan and Hong Kong.

This belies the image many have of Poland as a backwards post-Soviet newcomer to the first world: grey, industrial and sad. Of course, while not entirely false, this was something of a reductionist stereotype. It was misleading visually, when Poland had the grandeur of cities like Kraków and GdaƄsk and environmental riches like the lakes of Masuria and the mountains of the Tatras, and it was misleading culturally.

Cultural activity survived throughout more than a hundred years of partition, and even the horrors of Nazi occupation. Amid industrialisation, and beneath the cold eye of the communists, Polish creativity endured. Western film aficionados could have told you about Andrzej Wajda. Television connoisseurs would have spoken of Kieƛlowski’s magisterial Dekalog. Poetry readers would have been acquainted with WisƂawa Szymborska, who would win a Nobel Prize in 1996. Literature buffs would have known the dazzling reportage of Ryszard KapuƛciƄski. In general, though, state censorship and inadequate distribution meant that Polish art left a shallow imprint on the Western imagination — and that continued to exist in the years following communism’s downfall.

That seems to be changing. Over the past few years, Polish cinema and literature, as well as video games, have earned international acclaim — bringing modern craftsmanship to the nation’s history, and welcoming people to landscapes as brooding and mysterious as Scandinavia’s, cities as beautiful as France’s, and industrial wastelands as poetic as the North of England’s.

Ida, a loss-scarred film about people coming to terms with the Second World War, won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2015, while Zimna wojna (Cold War) was nominated in 2018. Last year, the veteran director Agnieszka Holland was elected president of the European Film Council. Olga Tokarczuk, a novelist, won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 for her fragmentary humanist novel Flights — and the Nobel Prize for Literature a year afterwards.

Polish productions have also earned more attention on the small screen. In 2018, Netflix produced its first original Polish series, 1983, based in an alternative timeline where the Cold War did not end. This month, Netflix announced that it is producing an animated series based on the classic communist-era Kajko i Kokosz comic books.

Poland has seen an economic golden age in the past decade, achieving annual growth rates of 4%, at least until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and established as a tech hub. With almost 40 million people and closing in on western European GDP per capita, it looks set to a significant economic power and with a cultural power, too — enriching its once monochromatic international image with colours and shades.

None of this has come without controversy. As Polish art has achieved more international recognition, Poles have been divided on the image of their nation that is being portrayed. Take Ida: many conservatives were troubled by the film’s dwelling on the complicity of some Poles in the persecution of the Jews. Activists campaigned for text to be inserted to emphasise that countless others struggled and suffered to protect Jewish people.

Countless Poles did struggle and suffer, but the demand confused art and history. Artists can tell stories without telling everybody’s stories — and if viewers take films about particular time periods to reflect the whole truth of those time periods that is their fault. The same mistake was made by different critics who thought the inclusion of a Jewish prosecutor who had been a post-war Stalinist fed anti-Semitic stereotypes. If viewers drew sweeping conclusions from one fictional character that would be unfortunate but it is not an artist’s duty to shepherd us around unreasonable conclusions.

Still, that does not mean one cannot be concerned about the conclusions people draw. It is true that American and Western European critics tend to take an interest in those books and films which flatter their prejudices — and can instrumentalise creativity towards ideological ends. For example, Olga Tokarczuk is an extremely talented and original writer whose work deserves attention, but it remains true that much of the attention she is given in America and Britain is attributable to progressive symbolism.

“Olga Tokarczuk: the dreadlocked feminist winner the Nobel needed,” blared one patronising Guardian headline. A New Yorker profile falsely claimed that Poland’s government had “passed a law forbidding discussion of Polish collaboration with the Nazis,” and described Polish progressives as people who seek a “truthful reckoning with Poland’s past” — the implication being, it seems, that conservatives do not seek the truth.

One could hardly pass over the political implications of art but one should avoid being incorrect, or condescending, or opportunistic. Filip Mazurek, a Polish critic, has written that “English language reviewers have ignored or even denied” the “metaphysical, quasi-religious” elements of Tokarczuk’s work, choosing to focus on “Tokarczuk as an anti-nationalist.” (Polish critics, Mazurek argues, did the opposite.) Again, this is not a criticism of Tokarczuk, but one can hardly be shocked that conservative Poles have been less than enthused about her international acclaim when it is premised, to a large extent, on her status as a symbol of opposition to their beliefs.

Yet one hopes there can be some extent to which people can put aside their differences. Frenchmen can be proud of Zola and Claudel, after all, and Britons can be proud of Orwell and Eliot. Besides, for all their disagreements about history and politics, Poles can remember what Henryk Sienkiewicz said at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Then, in 1905, Poland had endured a century of foreign rule by Russia, Germany and Austria, throughout which its culture and its language had been suppressed. The award, Sienkiewicz said, “…bears witness that that nation has a share in the universal achievement, that its efforts are fruitful, and that it has the right to live for the profit of mankind. If this honour is  to all, it is infinitely more so to Poland. It has been said that Poland is dead, exhausted, enslaved, but here is the proof of her life and triumph.”

That Polish art has endured at all is a triumph, and that it has spread across the world is doubly so. Still, one hopes and expects that future triumphs will not be measured in relation to past suffering — that, for example, it will not be a surprise if a sales representative living in ƁódĆș writes a story and ends up having an audience of millions across the world.

 


Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He has written for Quillette, Areo, The Catholic Herald, The American Conservative and Arc Digital on a variety of topics including literature and politics.

bdsixsmith

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Very interesting and I didn’t know about a lot of these cultural developments although I do know the country to some extent. I first went to Poland for a work project in 1994 and immediately liked the country and the people very much. I have returned a few times to explore further.

Anyway, good luck to then Poles. They are standing up to the EU and a recent Parliament did not feature a single Socialist. Smart people.

Dave X
Dave X
3 years ago

Olga Tokarczuk is highly critical of the current coalition government. But that didn’t stop her taking a large subsidy from that same government – which decided to financially support her as an expression of Polish artistic achievement!! Unfortunately, she opposed the financing of up-and-coming writers on the grounds that if they took money from the government that would make them fascist stooges.
Under Donald Tusk’s regime, we had state-funding for the highly-ideological film “Little Rose” produced by Jan Kidawa-BÅ‚oÅ„ski (hubby of a failed future presidential candidate for Tusk’s party). Little Rose purported to be historical, but twisted facts outrageously so as to paint the 1960’s Communist secret police in a more sympathetic light – to be victims even. Meanwhile, a real victim – an outstanding historian – was portrayed as a pathetic old lecher who topped himself. A complete hatchet job.
As for a “truthful reckoning with Poland’s past” – there’s little hope. The Polish government has other things on its plate (like the economy) than trying to prove that the large number of discharged German Army Mauser bullets found at a wartime crime scene at Jedwabne were actually fired by Germans. There again, perhaps there is some hope – the Communist secret agent who finances Polish studies at Christchurch College, Oxford has just gone bust and might go to jail for banking crime offences. Leszek Czarnecki, funder of POMP.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave X

Surely it would help the Polish government (PiS) not to blame the Russians (and shadowy Poles) for the airplane crash?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Wow! Something else we agree on. In 2010, shortly after the crash, a highly intelligent Polish friend – who escaped to the West in the 1970s then returned in the 90s – explained the demented way in which the Poles were blaming the Russians for the crash.

Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Perhaps if your family was one of the millions massacred by the Soviets, you would have a different view.

Stefan Komar
Stefan Komar
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

If Poles believes in the theory that Putin had the plane explode, why should they not express that belief? The arguments given that discredit the official Russian findings are very compelling. The immediate acceptance of the theory by the media that the crash was caused by fog, pilot error and the striking of the top of a tree was a little too soon. Giving credence to Putin and his investigators is a bit naive. Would they really reveal that he had the plane explode? What is very interesting here is that the same was said about Poles who stated that Russia killed thousands of Polish POW’s that were in their custody. Meanwhile the Russians claimed, and their version was accepted officially by the US and England, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that the Germans killed the Polish POWs that had been in Russian custody since 1939. Russia denied it for decades, but during Perestroika finally admit to this in the 1990’s and gave Poland a copy of the signed order by Stalin to have the POW’s all liquidated. There should have been an independent international investigation in to the plane crash, and not one by Putin’s Russia. Why is it that the plane has yet to be returned to Poland? Any idea?

Alex Delszsen
Alex Delszsen
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave X

Tusk is another example of a politician who failed up, like Ursula von der Leyen and Peter Mandelson. When they create messes back home, they are kept on the gravy train in Brussels.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Delszsen

How was Tusk a failed politician?

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Mr Tusk failed morally in that he betrayed his country and its culture. However, Mr Smith, you may mean politically rather than morally – in which case I would point to the defeat of Mr Tusk’s party in both the Parliamentary and the Presidential elections in Poland.

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave X

Donald Tusk is yet another example of how “free market liberals” end up as toadies of the Marxists. Of course he does not really believe in the free market at all – he believes in subsidies and edicts that favour massive international Corporations.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

“If viewers drew sweeping conclusions from one fictional character that would be unfortunate but it is not an artist’s duty to shepherd us around unreasonable conclusions.” This sentenced should be drilled into the heads of everyone studying, teaching or writing about the arts.

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
3 years ago

The culture of Poland, patriotic, religious, pro family and anti abortion, is the normal culture of the West – before the Frankfurt School of Marxism started to undermine the culture of so many Western nations.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago

If anyone here is interested in reading more Polish literature, I can recommend:
– “House of Day, House of Night” and “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” by Olga Tokarczuk.
– “Ferdydurke” by Witold Gombrowicz. A book bordering on utter gobbledegook – from a period in Polish literature where all rules on style went out the window and crackers experiments like this happened. It’s a combination of Monty Python and Roald Dahl with a smattering of Terry Pratchett thrown in for good measure.
“The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories” by Bruno Schulz. Schulz was apparently the virtuoso of the Polish language. I wish I could read his writing in the original language, but have to be content with the English translation. Reading Schulz is like eating an incredibly rich chocolate mousse – you have to put the book down after a few pages as it’s just too much at once! Schulz was a genius whose life was tragically cut short.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

With Fire & Sword
Deluge
Fire in the Steppe

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I have just finished reading “Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead” and would thoroughly recommend it. I intend to read more of her novels this year, in translation of course!

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

I would definitely go for “House of Day, House of Night” first, then “Primeval and Other Times”, then “Flights”. The translation of “The Book of Jacob” is only due in 2022 so a little patience is required!

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

I wonder if Ashes and Diamonds, generally considered one of the masterpieces of world cinema, was really less widely seen abroad, in its day, than was Ida more recently. After all, Wajda’s film appeared at the beginning of the period, lasting roughly from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, when European art house cinema was widely appreciated and celebrated across the continent, as well as in Britain and in North America. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a modern Polish art house film achieving the kind of substantial cult following even that Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy could a quarter of a century ago. Sadly, European art films are, for most people in English-speaking countries at least, a pretty marginal interest nowadays.

Steve White
Steve White
3 years ago

The thing is that Polish people like Poland, and they’re not hip on immigration, and according to most everything you read, you can’t like your own country and be for strong borders and not be called “Extreme Right” , or have “NeoNazi Roots”. Anytime any populist movement where people like their country gets going, it has to be given undesirable labels. This is how the globalist information masters control through propaganda.

So this article about it having a good culture doesn’t fit the larger narrative. Poland and Hungary are to be painted as Europe’s problem. Apparently the author didn’t get the memo.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

I saw the Witcher – Netflix. It is a terrible production.
That said the problem with art is that is always (90% of the time) made by liberals not conservatives.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Well, Jeremy, at least we agree on one thing. Namely, that the vast majority of art is that it is made by liberals, not conservatives. This is why I threw out the TV 20 years ago, and gradually stopped going to the theatre and mainstream/art house cinema.

Banned User
Banned User
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

It’s hardly surprising that people of a generally progressive mindset tend to be more creative than people of a generally conservative mindset – it’s strongly implied by the usual meanings of such terms.

Conservatives usually prefer the culture of the past, which doesn’t require living artists.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  Banned User

Conservatives might prefer a living tradition in which the art of the past informs that of the present, and in which the old exists in dialogue with the new.

Also, some forms of the culture of the past do require living artists – theatre and music, and their hybrid, opera, most obviously – in order to perform and sometimes to re-interpret them.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Banned User

I have spent my adult life as a ‘creative’ and attend a lot of underground cinema screenings of new films. I also spend much of my life in art galleries looking at new art and read a lot of contemporary fiction. Actually, my experience is that ‘progressive’ people are very uncreative and suffer from groupthink and a total lack or imagination. This is why so much of their art/film/literature is rubbish.

Jim Richards
Jim Richards
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

My experience also. ‘Progressive’ people hem in their thoughts with so many orthodoxies that it strangles creativity. To give a very brief example, it would be very hard for a British TV writer to emulate the French serial ‘Spiral’ which has non white as well as white villains. As a general rule in TV drama the straight white male did it

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Jim Richards

Your take on ‘progressives’ makes them out to be quite conservative. If it’s correct, the best political and cultural stance for someone who actually wants to create something would be to stay out of mainstream systems altogether. The problem for the ‘creative’ is not a conflict between one herd and another, it’s the herding itself. Unfortunately even the term ‘creative’ and those who adhere to it are being herded. Hence the new stuff seems to come up from the lowest layers of the social order.

Daniel Björkman
Daniel Björkman
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Progressive is not, in this case, the same as liberal. There have always been those who saw art mainly as a delivery mechanism for the correct morals. They tend to not create very good art… and certainly not entertainment. The fact that those people seem to be in ascendance at the moment is indeed much to be lamented.

But if you honestly think that conservative works, with their the endless cavalcade of manly white protagonist defeating shifty foreigners and grasping she-harpies with their manly white muscles and their manly white intellects, are any more stimulating… then I call that an expression of your own biases and nothing more.

Banned User
Banned User
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

You yourself stated that most art is not made by conservatives. I merely agreed, and said that it’s not surprising.

“Creative” suggests the quality of being enthusiastically open to new ideas and new experiences; “conservative” suggests the opposite.

But as is unfortunately common, when faced with such commonplace use of language, conservatives will hastily redefine “conservative” to mean “only a little bit conservative, in certain ways”.

And they’re convinced that “progressive” means “not at all progressive” . It’s difficult to engage with contrariness on that sort of scale.

Arild Brock
Arild Brock
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I also threw out the TV until reinstated when I discovered YouTube.
Not only for political reasons did I do away with the TV. Mainstream culture is also extremely boring. So the liberals are “creative”? They may be productive, but creative? It’s the same correct message over and over again plus general malevolence, endlessly. As John O’Sullivan of the Danube Institute put it: “They bore us to death.” It’s a political weapon!
However, I agree there is a shortcoming on the conservative, or shall we say non-progressive, side. Real conservatives are in the dilemma that there is not much to conserve now. It’s too late, actually, to be a conservative in the normal sense. So, as you say, they tend to go to the past. Which is also boring.
Hey, I am a non-progressive, but radical artist, why don’t you have a look at my images ““ my Corona-Series, for instance: https://www.galeriebrock.de
(are links allowed here?)

Alex Delszsen
Alex Delszsen
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

The original Witcher series in Polish, with English subtitles, can be found on You Tube.

Daniel Björkman
Daniel Björkman
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Awww, I thought it was entertaining enough, and certainly visually striking. I did think it seemed to sometimes put being bleak and cynical ahead of being coherent and comprehensible, though – a lot of the time I got the impression that I was supposed to understand that two people had a close and passionate bond despite no such bond having been shown on screen, since showing people bonding might make the viewer feel happy for a brief moment, and that would clearly be unacceptable.

VĂłreios ParatiritĂ­s
VĂłreios ParatiritĂ­s
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

It was weird how they made the protagonist a tourist in his own epic.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago

That’s an old trick — it’s in the Ramayana.

Alex Delszsen
Alex Delszsen
3 years ago

So many great films with subtitles on YT. Cannot find a film now of a military woman recruited for a special op that brought to mind the tragic Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Pitbull, nove porzadki is a scary, gritty Krimi, yet including one of the greatest entrapments of a guy by a woman ever, by the logic of a special sandwich provision. (Duolingo quickly lets you understand the importance of sandwiches to Polish culture. ;- ))

Seriously, I became scared of gangs in Poland the way non-Americans are afraid of crime in Los Angeles and New York. These are gritty, great films, far from Hollywood. From Knife in the Water, to the original Witcher, to a film about the early life of Karol Woytilja, or Pope John Paul II”You Tube is the place to spend Lockdown, starting with a search of Polish films with English subtitles. You are welcome! ;- )

O Th
O Th
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Delszsen

Try Pitbull but the series, not movies. Far better then movies.

VĂłreios ParatiritĂ­s
VĂłreios ParatiritĂ­s
3 years ago

This is fascinating and contrasts sharply with the failure of New Western Woke Art: Jodi Whittaker’s Dr. Who, Kathleen Kennedy’s Star Wars, Alex Kurtzman’s Start Trek.

It seems that the critical theory view of Art was overdetermined.
The audience can not be fooled. There is such a thing as authentic, organic culture and it will resist top down ideological art.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

True, but it’s not like the original Star Wars was an example of “authentic, organic culture”, was it? It was a shallow piece of ersatz myth-making that exemplifies the simple-mindedness and stupidity of modern popular entertainment.

Otto Christensen
Otto Christensen
3 years ago

“It is true that American and Western
European critics tend to take an interest in those books and films which flatter their prejudices ” and can instrumentalise creativity towards ideological ends. “
This astute observation describes the government/academic-woke controlled cultural output in Canada. Thousands of politically correct art-o-crats secured by salary, pensions, and unions shape the country’s cultural output according to the whims of ideologues and intetest groups. It is an upside down pyramid with the tip resting on the artists who squabble for grants; the population convinced that the “arts” have been managed therefore tune out, turn off and focus on social media wastelands.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

Poland owes its rise to cultural power to Adam Mickiewicz(1798-1855). He is looked upon as Poland’s national poet, their equivalent to our Shakespeare. Mickiewicz was in fact born in what is now Belarus which with much of present day Lithuania and Poland shared a history and culture as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for many centuries. He became a powerful poetic mouthpiece for Polish nationalism. Roman Koropeckyi in his biography of Mickiewicz says that he was known throughout the 19th. Century, in Europe, as the poet for “people that dared resist the brutal might of reactionary empires”.
He is best known for his epic poem “Pan Tadeusz”, published in 1834. It has overtones of “Romeo and Juliet” in that it is about a feud between two families which is made even more problematic by two young people from each family falling in love. However some reconciliation takes place when the families join together in attacking a Russian garrison. Although Mickiewicz was disappointed with the poem it became a powerful cry for the restoration of Poland to nationhood and an expression of pride in and love for the Polish ethos.
Like many poet of the Romantic era he uses the natural environment as a literary vehicle. Simon Sharma in his amazing book “Landscape and Memory”writes “the truly heroic historians of the drama are trees”
“Ye woods! the last to hunt among you there
Was the last king great Witold’s cap to wear,
Last happy warrior of Jagiello’s race,
Last Lithuanian monarch of the chase.
Trees of my fatherland! if heaven will
That I return there, shall I find you still?
My friends of old, are you alive today?
Among whom as a child I used to play;
And is the great Baublis living found
By age hollowed out, in whose wide round
A dozen folk could sup as in a room”
Adam Mickiewicz “Pan Tadeusz” trans. Kenneth Mackenzie

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

Polish film directors have been remarkable for some time. Ben mentions Kieslowski’s Dekalog, but he produced so many beautiful films. One of my favourites was the 1987 film “Blind Chance” about how apparently minor incidents would change the entire arc of a medical student’s career, but not his fundamental decency. One of the greatest Yugoslav films, “Siberian Lady Macbeth”, was directed by the great Andrzej Wajda, sadly his only Yugoslav film.

Lydia Bennett
Lydia Bennett
1 year ago

Good post! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our site. Keep up the great writing

Dillan Lang
Dillan Lang
1 year ago

I like the efforts you have put in this, regards for all the great content.

Santa-Rita Jail
Santa-Rita Jail
1 year ago

You ’re a natural at whatever you do!

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

See? all that overly complicated lightbulb changing paid off in the end!

Emperor Caligula
Emperor Caligula
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

*slow golf clap*