International New York Times: A School With a Sense of Place


LODZ, Poland — Andac Karabeyoglu, a third-year student at the Lodz Film School, sat in a campus cafe on a recent day and explained why she had come all the way from her home in Ankara to study in Poland.

Part of the draw, she said, was that Lodz was one of the few film schools left in the world where students still learn on 35-millimeter and 16-millimeter film; but another attraction was the school’s unique way of teaching.

“Coming here gives you a different way of looking at things,” said Ms. Karabeyoglu, 27. “We have to write our own scripts, we have to edit, we have to do our own sound, so there is a huge process that you have to learn. The main aim is not the industry but about discovering yourself, what your strengths are.”

On Oct. 11, the Leon Schiller National Higher School of Film, Television and Theater, to give the school its full name, marked its 65th anniversary with huge ceremony and a bigger party. The Oscar-winning Austrian director Michael Haneke was awarded an honorary doctorate — Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese are among a handful of other directors who have been granted that honor — and graduates and filmmakers from across the globe were invited to campus to celebrate.

The school counts award-winning film directors like Mr. Polanski, Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kiezlowski among its graduates, together with renowned cinematographers including Pawel Edelman, Dariusz Wolski and Andrzej Bartkowiak.

“When I was at school, as all other students, we believed we were wasting our time,” Mr. Polanski said by telephone. “But with the perspective of a few years, I realized how much I got from this school.”

“Teaching filmmaking is a paradox,” said the school’s rector Mariusz Grzegorzek, a Lodz graduate who has taught directing there for two decades. “If you are smart enough, you can learn the basics of filmmaking in two months. I don’t like it when film schools say, ‘We will teach you, we will train you — all the wisdom, all the rules.’ The most important thing about our school is this good balance between learning the craft, learning the theory and learning how to get your message across in your art.”

World War II saw Poland devastated by German and Russian invasions. By the time it ended, with the country under Soviet domination, many of its pre-war filmmakers and actors were dead or living in exile.

“1945 was pretty much year zero for the Polish film industry; they had to start from scratch, and Lodz was part of that,” said Michael Brooke, a British film historian and writer. “There was little money for filmmaking,” he added, “so many of the talented people went into teaching — so you had that right from the start, and they have maintained that tradition.”

The filmmakers Andrzej Munk, Witold Sobocinski and Mr. Wajda — whose film “Walesa, Man of Hope” opened this month in Poland and Britain — were some of Lodz’s earliest students, becoming leaders of Polish New Wave cinema in the 1950s.

“The difference between Lodz and other films schools was that students were taught to be very analytical, very precise and very to the point,” said Jozef Robakowski, who teaches multimedia at the school and is one of Poland’s most influential video artists. “That was partially influenced by Soviet art and partially because of strong relations between the school and the Lodz Art Museum, founded by avant-garde artists in 1930. So those things had impact on movie making here.”

wajdaStudents also learned — mostly from one another — how to use symbolism to put across political views while living in a totalitarian state. “Symbolism is a very big thing in the film language in Poland,” said Kathrine Windfeld, an Emmy-nominated Danish director who studied in Lodz in the early 1990s.

“Everyone, for example, knew that if a white horse crossed through a frame, it meant ‘we want a free Poland.’ I learned the language of symbolism there, that everything in filmmaking has to have layers,” she said.

In the 1980s, during the years of martial law in Poland, innovative teachers including Mr. Robakowski — who had pressed the heads of the school to create a more multimedia platform — were dismissed from their positions or left in protest. But with the collapse of Communism in 1989 came a fresh openness to new technologies and media.

In 2011, a 30 million zloty, or $10 million, new media center opened — with facilities for animation, special effects, photography and editing — partly financed by the European Union. “We are changing some traditions,” said Ryszard Lenczewski, who teaches cinematography.

Mr. Lenczewski, for example, has his students finding and using professional cinematography apps for smartphones and tablets. But students are still required to take classical courses, including the history of art, music and literature.

“You learn how artists like Rembrandt played with light,” said Wojciech Pus, a video and installation artist who teaches a workshop on the use of light as a medium. “Students learn to see film not only as something technical or as a profession but that there are also very strong aspects of academia in filmmaking.”

While filmmaking in the last decade has gone almost completely digital, many current students say that what drew them to Lodz was the rare chance to get to work with 16 millimeter and 35 millimeter film. Students in their first two years must shoot short films on both formats.

“Most students I have met at film festivals say that shooting on film, if their school even offers that, is the last thing they get to do,” said Pawel Maj, a Polish-Canadian fifth-year directing student. “In directing, we shoot documentaries on 35 millimeter, which is practically unheard of in the world these days.

“Very few people make documentaries on film, but that is the idea,” he added. “You cannot just roll your camera and shoot everything; you have to make a plan, storyboard the shoot and do a lot of research.”

Another aspect that has been a draw to students — past and present — is that the vast majority of the teachers are also professional filmmakers. “I remember two workshops with Wojciech Sobocinski, who had worked on films with Wajda and Polanski,” said Dariusz Wolski, the cinematographer on films including “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Prometheus.”

“He talked to us about reshooting, real problems of being on set, and those things have stayed with me to this day.”

Classes are small, and students spend up to 14 hours a day on campus. Intense bonds grow not only between classmates but also with tutors and professors.

“We would learn a lot from each other,” Mr. Polanski said. “There are these big wooden stairs on which — even when I last visited the place — students still sit on those, as we would sit and talk. We would discuss, fight a lot, sometimes literally, physically; and we all remember, all students, those wooden stairs.”

Mr. Maj said that in meeting professors both in and out of the classroom, an important rapport develops. “You have these partners in crime as opposed to people who are leading you,” said Mr. Maj, who has a degree in film studies from the University of British Columbia. “I have had Skype conversations with my tutor at 1 a.m. because I needed to talk to him. I could never imagine that from a standard institution in North America.”

Over the last 15 years, a new generation of talented filmmakers has emerged from the school— including “Elles” director Malgorzata Szumowska, Palme d’Or winner Emily Young and Oscar-nominated Slawomir Fabicki.

Entry to the school is fiercely competitive — in recent years, for example, more than 150 applicants from around the globe have competed annually for seven spaces in the five-year master’s course in directing.

“Lodz has an important reputation, big time,” said Ms. Windfeld, who has directed shows like “The Killing” and “The Bridge.” “It is like going to Eton,” she added, referring to the exclusive English school near London. “You see people’s eyes change when you tell them you went to school there. They are always very impressed.”


1st photo, Polanski shooting a film; 2nd, Wajda on set of “Walesa”