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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » January 9, 2008
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Death of a Film Director
January 9, 2008 By W.Ż.    
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Acclaimed Polish film director Jerzy Kawalerowicz died in Warsaw Dec. 27 at the age of 85.

Kawalerowicz was born in January 1922 in GwoĽdziec near Kołomyja, which is now in Ukraine. He studied at the Cracow Fine Arts Academy and the Film Institute in 1946-49.

Kawalerowicz directed 17 films. He started out as an assistant director on, among others, the 1947 black-and-white film Forbidden Songs, directed by Leonard Buczkowski. His directional debut was in 1951 with the political drama Gromada about poor farmers battling to build a community mill in the face of resistance from wealthier landowners. Another of his films in this genre is Night of Remembrance, also set in the period between the two world wars and telling the story of a young man who leaves the poverty of his home village to become an activist in the working-class movement. By 1959, however, Kawalerowicz had changed his style and directed Night Train, a tale about a man and a woman who accidentally meet on a train.

In 1960 Kawalerowicz directed the first of his best known films, Mother Joan of the Angels, based on the book by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. The story is set in the 18th century in a remote convent where the heroine, Mother Joan, and other nuns are beset by demons. Mother Joan of the Angels brought Kawalerowicz international attention. The film was nominated for the Palme d'Or in Cannes in 1961 and won the Jury's Special Prize.

In 1966 Kawalerowicz directed Pharaoh, based on a novel by Bolesław Prus, the tragic story of Egyptian king Ramses XIII who incurs the wrath of his high priests. The film, considered to be one of the classics of Polish cinema of that period, was also nominated for the Palme d'Or in Cannes. It also won praise in the United States and was nominated for an Oscar.

Kawalerowicz's best known film in the 1970s was Death of a President, which depicts one of the most tragic events in Poland's interwar history. The political drama was made in 1977 and is about the assassination, in Warsaw on Dec. 16, 1922, of the then newly elected Polish president, Gabriel Narutowicz. The film was an international success and was nominated for the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival. It eventually won the Silver Bear.

One of the finest examples of Kawalerowicz's work in the 1980s is the drama Austeria, made in 1982 about the tragic end befalling Hasidic Jews in Galicia, a historical region of Poland, on the first day of World War I. Kawalerowicz himself described Austeria as "a chronicle of a disappearing world." The final scene where the Jews are machine-gunned to death during a bathing ritual is regarded as one of the most harrowing in European cinema history.

In 2001, after an almost 15-year break, Kawalerowicz directed Quo Vadis, based on the Nobel Prize-winning work of Polish 19th-century novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz. It is one of the most costly productions in Polish cinema history but nevertheless failed to secure the expected box-office returns.

Kawalerowicz until his death remained the honorary president of the Polish Filmmakers' Association, which he co-founded in the late 1950s. At last year's Gdynia Film Festival, Poland's most important film event, he received the Platinum Lion award for lifetime achievement in film. In 2005 he had won the Eagle Polish Film Award, also for lifetime achievement.

Kawalerowicz was for many years a lecturer at the famous State Theater, Television and Film School in ŁódĽ. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate from Sorbonne University in Paris. That same year Kawalerowicz's name was added to the list of Polish film celebrities enshrined in the ŁódĽ walk of fame: the Avenue of Stars on Piotrkowska Street.
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