Working at Facets Multi-Media has introduced me to foreign films most movie-goers don’t even know exist—from Krik Krak, the long-forgotten experimental documentary from Haiti, to Yesterday Girl, Alexander Kluge’s debut feature that introduced the New German Cinema. My friend Lew from Rentals exposed me to Lady Terminator and the wonders of 1980s Indonesian horror, while Charles, our intrepid cinematheque programmer, started my year off with a good laugh via Four Lions, an English comedy about terrorism.
Among my favorite films released on the Facets DVD label are many from Poland, particularly those from the post-communist film industry. To many film scholars, Polish cinema means the work of Andrzej Wajda and the so-called “cinema of morality” of the 1970s or even the “Polish School” of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Directors like Wajda, Jerzy Hoffman, and Krzysztof Zanussi were renowned for the formal characteristics of their styles and for the subtexts of their films, which were often veiled criticisms of communism. Wajda and his peers attracted an arthouse crowd to their films and the devotion of educated audiences and intellectuals in Poland and around the world. But, Polish cinema to me brings to mind directors like Juliusz Machulski and stars like Boguslaw Linda. While I admire the work of the great directors of the communist era, who smartly weaved social commentary and criticism as subtexts in their narratives, I am amused by the often uneven but always entertaining movies of the post-communist era.
Following the political changes of 1989 due to the Velvet Revolution, the cinemas of Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Yugoslavia entered a new phase. The shift to a market economy led to drastic cuts in state subsidies for the cinemas of these countries, leading to a massive drop in indigenous film production. Film industries simply could not fund production on their own. Consequently, movie theaters began closing or were turned into discos or sex clubs. Viva capitalism! Hollywood quickly moved in, distributing American movies that had previously been available only sporadically—a situation some judged to be worse than the sex clubs. Eastern European screens became dominated by Hollywood movies to the extent of 95 percent in some countries. A new generation grew up watching—and preferring—American genre movies, including action films, crime dramas, and mob movies featuring larger-than-life stars such as Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzeneggar, and Steven Seagal.
In Poland, the film industry survived this chaos because some funding was still allocated through the state while more was provided by Polish television; but, more importantly, young directors and actors drew inspiration from—or copied—Hollywood genre movies. The first real success of the Polish cinema followed American patterns, with heroes shadowing American ones. Those films quickly assimilated into Polish cinema. They became the most successful indigenous Polish films of the 1990s.
As Facets began to sell/rent these Polish action flicks on DVD, I noticed many of them starred a handsome actor named Boguslaw Linda. He played a rough-edged cop in Kroll (1991), a father who rescues his daughter from danger in Tato (1995), and a fierce member of the secret police in Pigs (1992). Clearly, Linda was adopting the archetype of the tough guy from Hollywood action films. After one reviewer compared him to Bruce Willis, I began to refer to him as “the Bruce Willis of Poland” in sell copy for our Linda titles, and it didn’t take long for a handful of DVD reviewers to repeat this nickname for the actor in their reviews. Hey, I didn’t go to film school for nothing! Linda even starred in a western called Dead Man’s Bounty (2002), which was dubbed a pierogi western by one writer and a kielbasa western by another. (By the way, I did not coin either of those phrases—even sell-copy writers have their standards!)
Born in Torun, Kujawsko-Pomorskie, Poland in 1952, Boguslaw Linda was trained at the National Higher School of Theater (PWST) in Krakow. His professional acting debut occurred in December 1975 at the Stary Theater when he appeared in the play Biale ogrody. Two years later he made his film debut in a small role in Dagny, the story of a Norwegian woman who crossed paths with painter Edvard Munch, playwright August Strindberg, and writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski when the three were expatriates in Berlin in the 1890s. During the communist era, Linda appeared in the films of Poland’s major directors, including Wajda’s Man of Iron and Danton and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue, establishing credibility as an actor. After the fall of communism and a new generation of filmmakers began to adopt Hollywood practices, director Wladyslaw Pasikowski cast him as the tough cop in Kroll. The film became a big hit and established Linda’s identity as an action hero, though he also starred in critically acclaimed dramas and literary adaptations (Pan Tadeusz; Quo Vadis).
Throughout the 1990s, crime thrillers such as Pigs and Pigs 2 further constructed his star image as a maverick tough guy who could be darkly menacing in crime dramas or appropriately funny in action comedies. Handsome and charismatic, Linda has a deep voice and a striking jaw line. To accentuate his roguish persona in his films, he often wears dark shades and a light stubble—the perfect touches for an action star. Linda tends to work with the same directors who understand the nuances of his star image. His films for Wladyslaw Pasikowski are arguably the most famous and include Pigs, Reich (2001), and Demons of War (1998). Maciej Slesicki softened Linda’s image slightly by casting him in stories with a touch of melodrama. In Tato, he plays a father called upon to rescue his daughter from a life-threatening situation, which seems to be a plot common to action films all over the world, while in Sara, he portrays a bodyguard who falls in love with the daughter of a mob boss.
Just as Hollywood action films sometimes pair up two stars with contrasting personalities or physical traits, so was Linda occasionally teamed with a second popular action star, such as Marek Kondrat. In Deserter’s Gold (1998), a light-hearted WWII adventure about two members of the Polish underground, Kondrat and Linda conspire to outwit the Nazis by robbing a German bank and using the loot to purchase a shipment of guns.
Dead Man’s Bounty, aka Summer Love, is one of the most interesting Linda films, not only because it is a pierogi western but also because of Linda’s costar—Val Kilmer. Perhaps inspired by Italian westerns, writer-director Piotr Uklanski offers a stripped down western in which the characters are referred to by their archetypes. Linda is “the Sheriff,” Kilmer is “the Wanted Man,” Karel Roden is the “Stranger,” and Katarzyna Figura is “the Woman.” Most of the action takes place in one setting, consisting of a couple of ramshackle wooden buildings along a dusty Main Street. The dialogue is minimal and repetitive, which works in the film’s favor because Linda’s Polish accent is distracting given the Old West milieu. And, bizarrely, Kilmer plays a dead man from the beginning of the film to the end. As intriguing as this sounds, American audiences are likely to be confused and annoyed with the film as it does not deal with any of the basic themes of the westerns. It is a quirky collection of scenes designed to showcase Linda’s heightened masculinity, including one in which he has mysteriously injured his arm. He coils a rope around it like a sling, picks up a glass of beer in his hand, and then pulls on the rope to lift the glass to his lips.
While I am intrigued and entertained by Linda’s action films, which emulate the conventions of American genres, they lack the craftsmanship of their Hollywood counterparts. The budgets are lower, the storylines are derivative, the cinematography is flat, and the editing can be kind of wonky. Yet, many of the films are watchable because of Linda’s star image and charisma. And, just as the images of Hollywood stars represent an ideal, value, or virtue, so does Linda’s persona signify something beyond the obvious. He is the model of Polish masculinity with the strength to endure whatever comes his way. His characters not only defeat his enemies with brawn and brute force but they are able to withstand the blows of any enemy.
In that regard, it seems no accident that his popularity grew in the 1990s in the immediate post-communist era, a time of identity crisis for Poland as the country established a new government and economic system. A mythic figure that represented strength and endurance was needed to inspire confidence and a sense of nationalism. By the time of the millennium, Boguslaw Linda had become an icon of Polish strength—so much so that in a film like Dead Man’s Bounty, there is no need for character development. The endless scenes featuring Linda’s Sheriff enduring bizarre or violent situations may seem odd to American audiences but likely resonate with Polish ones.
Though Linda’s action films can’t compare to Hollywood’s slick genre movies, I respect his star image, and I am moved by its relationship to Polish history and society. Perhaps I should refer to Bruce Willis as the Boguslaw Linda of Hollywood.
by Suzi Doll