Women in Polish Cinema

TitleWomen in Polish Cinema
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsBabovic, Jovana
Author(s) of reviewed materialMazierska, Ewa, and Elzbieta Ostrowska


PublisherOxford: Berghahn Books
ISSNISBN: 1-57181-948-7
Review year


Full Text

Despite the rise of academic interest in East and Central European film studies in the last decade, the roles and representations of women have remained largely neglected. The marginal analysis of static constructions of women in film and the sparse attention given to the works of female filmmakers can be attributed to the societal constraints of particular male-normative societies as well as the continual exclusion of women from the mainstream film industry. The aim of Women in Polish Cinema is two-fold: first to contextualize Polish cinema in its wider cultural history, and then to deconstruct the representations of women within this national cinema.
Ewa Mazierska and Elzbieta Ostrowska, the editors and primary authors of the studies, address the images of women on film from the World War I era to post-communism, and devote particular attention to the recurrent theme of the Polish Mother in the shifting ideological climate. Adding to contemporary literature, the authors strive to “rectify the oversight and denigration of women in Polish films on both sides of the camera” (p.1) by reexamining the essentialist representations of femininity and Polishness, and challenging the traditional notions of women’s issues in cinema as insignificant compared to the concerns of the nation and state.

Women in Polish Cinema is divided into three thematic parts focusing on cultural, cinematic, and practical topics of women’s involvement in film. In the first section, a supplementary chapter by Joanna Szwajcowska deconstructs the historical and cultural origins of the Polish Mother and lays the foundation for forthcoming analysis of women through the last century of Polish cinema. The study draws on history across the nineteenth-century (the era of partitioned Poland), the emergence of the Romantic conceptions of national identity and motherland, and the repressive occupations of the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Szwajcowska makes a convincing case for the cultural construction of the myth of the Polish Mother, bound by parallel warrants for sacrifice and patriotism. In the second section of the book, “Women According to Men,” Mazierska and Ostrowska explore the reproductions and reconceptualizations of this idealized image of the Polish woman in twentieth-century cinema. Organized temporally, the chapters trace the evolution of the Polish Mother myth though several stages of Polish history, in each instance vigorously situating the representations of women in the films into the Polish societal milieu. In the last section, “Women Behind the Camera,” the authors devote biographical essays to four female filmmakers who have significantly contributed to Polish cinema. Each article is lush with well-described sequences and accompanying film stills illustrating the images discussed in the text, as well as a selected filmography.

The most pertinent feature of Women in Polish Cinema is the book’s striking interdisciplinary approach to understanding the representations of women and femininity. Although the title implies a limited focus, the compiled essays succeed in contextualizing the topic into a diverse spectrum of fields and thereby expanding the book’s relevance to studies of history, cultural and intellectual history, feminism, and religion. In fact, the authors map out their desire to transgress “the level of textual analysis and to situate the films within a broader system of representation in Polish culture” (p.5), and the book’s final outcome is a brilliant accomplishment of this goal. Ostrowska’s chapter “Polish ‘Superwoman’: a Liberation or Victimization,” for example, heavily relies on the socialist discourses of the immediate post-World War II period in order to position the images of women as prototypes of totalitarian ideology prevailing in society as well as in socialist realism. Similarly, in “Witches, Bitches, and Other Victims of the Crisis of Masculinity: Women in Polish Postcommunist Cinema,”  Mazierska juxtaposes the “socialist Cinderella” and the traditional Polish Mother with the post-1989 construction of  femininity in relation to the political, social, and economic factors. The essay closely connects the circumstances of men to the consequent representations of women during this period of revived patriarchal and nationalistic values. Other articles discuss the engagement of the Polish Mother myth by successive regimes as a recycled strand of continuity of national consciousness, the reconstruction (or, deconstruction during the socialist period) of women’s sexualities to suit the societal designs, and the ideological discourse implicated in framing women, particularly Jewish women, as the “other” in postwar films.

In addition to the contextualization of the representation of women in film (most often by male filmmakers), the authors also take care to profile four prominent female filmmakers – Wanda Jakubowska, Barbara Sass, Agnieszka Holland, and Dorota Kedzierzawska. Although this last section of Women in Polish Cinema reads like an overstated contributive history, some practical dilemmas of female filmmakers can be extracted from these narratives. The authors are primarily concerned with constituting a women’s cinema, following Judith Butler’s model of women’s cinema as “minor cinema” that uses the same mainstream language to discuss different concerns. However, the biographies of these four filmmakers are illustrative of another major problem plaguing Polish cinema over the last century: because women’s issues were deemed “unserious” in relation to other national or patriotic concerns, even female filmmakers shied away from addressing these topics, from challenging and reframing images of women in cinema. While Sass and Kedzierzawska have been more valiant in their choice of subject, other women filmmakers have rejected associations with feminism and strayed from specifically women’s themes in their attempts to gain mainstream credibility. The understated motive of the authors is, of course, to encourage Polish scholars and female filmmakers to contest the marginalization of both women’s issues and female filmmakers, as well as to engage with women’s cinema more seriously.

While the authors craft a compelling argument for the significance of women’s cinema, the narrative lacks a transnational contextualization that might make the book more widely relevant. The depth and breadth of contextualization within history, culture, and cinema is superb, but an effective extension to the study might juxtapose the Polish case with other national or regional cinemas. In addition to a comparative approach within Central or Eastern Europe, other possible future projects might include an in-depth examination of the pluralities of women’s experiences or a further engagemnt with the parallel representation of men and masculinity.

Transnational contextualization aside, the Women in Polish Cinema is an excellent case study of the evolving representation of women in film. Through a combination of text and context, directors’ work and their biographies, and the societal perceptions of films thought the generations, Mazierska and Ostrowska thoroughly explore Polish cinema as a rich cultural output. The recurring motif of the Polish Mother, and the spawning variations of women’s roles, are well-traced through cinematic representation, and contextualized along the axis of masculinity, economics, history, and religion. Well-conceived and eloquently written, Women in Polish Cinema is a valuable contribution to contemporary literature that both challenges existing normative frameworks and inspires future dialogue.