Though his name is less familiar in the U.S. than Polanski's or Wajda's, Jerzy Kawalerowicz has been a major force in post-war Polish cinema, with a career that spans half a century, a creative output of remarkable variety, and films that continue to enjoy the highest critical acclaim. A master craftsman who combines intellectual depth with a keen visual sense, he has said of himself, "I have no artistic credo except this, that I try not to copy myself or others." There are perhaps two striking qualities that unite his diverse films: an ability to capture the sweep of history and the texture of social context while penetrating the psychological struggles, the existential plight, of the individuals he portrays; and a mastery of the language of film, particularly in his collaboration with such brilliant cinematographers as Jerzy Lutowski (on the visually stunning Mother Joan of the Angels) and Jerzy Wojcik (on Night Train).
Kawalerowicz, after a childhood rich in memories of the Hasidic milieu that predominated in the Ukrainian village where he was born in 1922, studied painting and art history at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow from 1945 to 1948. At that time he also took courses on film and found himself working as director's assistant on two of Poland's first post-war classics, Leonard Buczkowski's Forbidden Songs (1946) and Wanda Jakubowska's searing Auschwitz re-creation, The Last Stage (1947), probably the first post-war Polish film shown theatrically in the U.S.
As artistic director of the semi-autonomous and prolific film production unit Kadr, established in 1955, Kawalerowicz became one of the leading figures in cinema's so-called "Polish Spring" of the late 1950s, a movement that included Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk, and Tadeusz Konwicki.
Night Train (1959) is a landmark film, almost entirely set inside a sleeping-car during a one-night journey, and superficially analogous to (and initially promoted as) a Hitchcock-like thriller (and at least as masterly in its craftsmanship), yet below the surface a Bergman-like study in human isolation that raised eyebrows in the cultural bureaucracy of the Polish People's Republic but brought Kawalerowicz international recognition. The director remained true to his "artistic credo" in declining an offer to do an American re-make.
Mother Joan of the Angels, 1961 Special Jury Prize winner at Cannes , is widely regarded as the director's masterpiece, having lost none of its visual and psychological power: a study in the willing submission to limitations on one's own human nature, and the tensions that result. The film remains one of the classics of Polish and world cinema.
Kawalerowicz's ability to bring out the human threads in an historical tapestry is exemplified in such varied films as the spectacular Oscar-nominee Pharaoh (1965), the Death of a President (1977), which has the documentary precision of a Costa-Gavras film, Austeria (1982), which evokes the multicolored tapestry of the Jewish community itself on the eve of World War One while hinting metaphorically at its future demise, and of course Quo Vadis (2001).
An amazing career. And a chance, as well, to see many of Poland's finest actors in top form, such as Zbigniew Cybulski, Lucyna Winnicka, Jerzy Zelnik, Wojciech Pszoniak, and Boguslaw Linda.