Try pitching this in Hollywood: An epic 19th century poem, a kind of versified novel, beloved by patriots and dreaded by schoolchildren, about two feuding, gentry families in times of occupation and war. Think "Gone With the Wind" meets Walt Whitman.
In Poland, however, "Pan Tadeusz," its dusty 160-year-old language untouched by its adaptation to screen, is the box office sensation of the Christmas season. This past weekend, in its fifth week, the 2 1/2-hour film, playing on 25 percent of screens in Poland, surpassed all of last year's Polish ticket sales for "Titanic." And Andrzej Wajda's "Pan Tadeusz," set in an idyllic countryside with nostalgic images of full-breasted women in tulle and ruddy, scarred men with walrus mustaches, continues to pack them in.
For the first time since the fall of communism 10 years ago, which allowed the unrestricted importation of American movies, Polish films are ascendant, and out-grossing their U.S. counterparts here. And a domestic film industry that had been battered to near-death by Schwarzenegger and Stallone has lifted itself off the canvas.
No one is saying "Do zobaczenia, kochanie" ("Hasta la vista, baby") to Hollywood just yet. And it is unclear if only lavish productions like "Pan Tadeusz," not the deeply felt, allusive and political movies that have distinguished Polish cinema in the past 50 years, have a place in the new order.
But, certainly, a new optimism is in the air.
"It's been a great year," said Lew Rywin, head of Heritage Films, which produced "Pan Tadeusz." "But we knew this was coming. People were sick and tired of endless Hollywood productions and there was a shortage of films in Polish. If you have Polish stars, the Polish language and a nostalgic element, which Poles love, you can have a success."
This year's success began with director Jerzy Hoffman's "With Fire and Sword," another historic epic about battling Poles and Ukrainians. The film, which opened on Feb. 12, has sold over 7 million tickets in this country of 40 million people, twice as many as "Titanic" sold in 1998 and five times the ticket sales of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," this year's biggest import.
Huge box-office receipts for locally produced movies are not new in Poland. In the 1950s, for instance, a movie called "Teutonic Knights" sold 17 million tickets, and in the 1980s, a comedy, "The Sex Mission," sold 12 million. As well as domestic successes, Polish cinema after World War II also enjoyed worldwide prestige through the work of directors such as Wajda ("Man of Marble," "Man of Iron") and Krzysztof Kieslowski ("Red," "White" and "Blue"). And its prestigious film school here educated directors such as Roman Polanski, Barbara Sass and Jerzy Skolimowski.
The Communist state placed a high value on cinematic culture, and film evolved, through periods of repression and liberalization, as both a propaganda tool and a valve for controlled dissent. Some remarkable and enduring films, including Wajda's study of the Solidarity free trade union in "Man of Iron" were made with Communist funding. Indeed, the industry was cocooned by the state, which financed up to 30 full-length fiction films a year, funded the film school and supported 2,500 movie screens across the country.
After 1989, when government subsidies fell away, the number of films produced each year decreased to between five and 10 in the early 1990s, and the number of movie screens plummeted to under 400, most opting to show American films. There isn't a single art house movie theater in Poland exclusively dedicated to showing domestic movies or independent foreign films.
A deep pessimism gripped the industry in the mid-1990s. Four years ago, when he was asked about making a movie about the recent historical past, Wajda said "such a movie will not be made because there is no interest in it. The viewers who could be interested in such a movie sit in their slippers in front of TV sets."
The effect of the political changes on cinema has been nowhere more evident than in Lodz, once the heart of the Polish film industry. After World War II, with Warsaw in ruins, the new government opened a film school in this industrial city southwest of the capital and three studios were established around it. Now two of the studios are shuttered and one is barely functioning, according to Andrzej Bednarek, a professor at the Lodz Film School, which is also struggling with a 35 percent cut in state funding. Even the city's one art house closed.
"When I went back to Lodz recently it was a very sad day for me," said film director Juliusz Machulski, a graduate of the film school who directed "The Sex Mission." "The studio I remember so full of people is empty. There's a ghostly atmosphere.
"Once the gates opened in 1989 we wanted to watch every American film, at the cinema, on video, on television. And Lodz suffered."
Gradually, Wajda said in a recent interview here, an appetite for indigenous film reasserted itself, echoing trends elsewhere in Europe and the United States.
"The world is again starting to respect its roots," said Wajda just before "Pan Tadeusz" opened. "A longing for national cinema is even appearing in America. Spielberg's latest films no longer tell stories about dinosaurs, but about American boys who fight and die to change the world."
At the same time, the difficulty of financing movies in Poland eased. The government offered modest co-production grants and required television cable systems to partly finance a certain number of domestic films in return for their licenses. And, slowly, the evolving banking system became interested, first for the public relations value of being associated with a movie and now to make money.
"In the '80s we had to cheat the censor, now we have to outsmart the banker," said Machulski, of the changing difficulties of making movies.
In 1997 and 1998, Machulski's film "Killer," a comedy about a taxi driver mistaken for a contract killer, sold 2.1 million tickets and Polish film enjoyed its first major post-Communist success. The remake rights were sold to Hollywood Pictures for $600,000, $100,000 more than the original film's total budget. And "Killer's" success sparked a wave of productions, including "Killer 2." The success of "Pan Tadeusz" and "With Fire and Sword" is also inspiring new films--mostly historical epics, including a remake of "Teutonic Knights,' according to Rywin.
This year, 27 local movies were made, reaching pre-1989 levels of production. This happy trend is unlikely, however, to resurrect the city of Lodz, which is regarded as too removed from the bright lights of Warsaw by today's generation of directors and producers. And the future is just as uncertain for the city's student-directors and cinematographers, many of whom find themselves shooting advertisements after graduation.
"We've discovered there is a place for Polish commercial films like 'Killer,' 'With Sword and Fire,' and even 'Pan Tadeusz,' " said Bednarek. "The big, attractive Polish film has an audience. But is there room for the smaller film?"