January 5, 2021

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 Wiedźmin, which portrayed a monster hunter tracking beasts across a fantastical continent.

Wiedźmin, 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 Gdańsk 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 Kieślowski’s magisterial Dekalog. Poetry readers would have been acquainted with Wisława Szymborska, who would win a Nobel Prize in 1996. Literature buffs would have known the dazzling reportage of Ryszard Kapuściński. 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 Łódź writes a story and ends up having an audience of millions across the world.