fot. Maciej Świerczyński/ Agencja Gazeta

With a degree in mathematics and several years of art history and journalism studies under his belt, Saniewski decided to switch to filmmaking. His cinematic works focus on challenging and weighty social issues. Saniewski’s widely acclaimed “Custody” (1983) won the Best Debut Director award at the Film Festival in Gdynia and the FIPRESCI in Mannheim, while his 2006 production “Immensity of Justice”, inspired by true events, won the Critics Award in Gdynia.


Wiesław Saniewski

Writer and director. But also film critic, reporter, columnist, lover of horses, and by education – mathematician. After years spent on movie sets he said: “I’ve never made films that weren’t »mine«, ones that I’d have to be ashamed of” 

“Both in writing and in directing, he has the markings of a hunter: tracking, aiming, and hitting the bulls eye” – wrote Adam Horoszczak. Wiesław Saniewski is the author of, among other works, the collection of reportages “Pierwszy stopień do piekła” (1978) and two collections of film essays – “Wróżenie z kina” (1978) and “Niewinność utracona w kinie” (1981).

His passion for film started in childhood. “I was lucky in that they often shot movies on my street and in my neighborhood, including »Ewa Wants to Sleep« and »Ashes and Diamonds«. When I saw the latter one years later, I realized that creating new worlds out of familiar, everyday elements of our reality is fascinating, and that it’s something I would like to do in life” – recalls the director.

While he was a film critic, he was interested in cinema as a reflection of reality and he would probably agree with Godard that “cinema is truth 24 times per second”

Already in 1971, at a festival of student films in Katowice, he won the main jury award and the audience award for his short film “Wielki świat”. In 1977, he wrote the script for Jan Rutkiewicz’s TV film “Poza układem” about a speedway rider who, much like Jerzy Szczakiel before him, was ostracized by his peers even though he won the world championship. Soon he was assisting Andrzej Wajda on “The Conductor” (1979), Wojciech Marczewski on “Creeps” (1981) and Sylwester Chęciński on “Bo oszalałem dla niej” (1980). On the latter two, he worked as an assistant director. 

But starting from 1980, he worked mostly as a film critic who – as Maria Kornatowska noted – “has a light, intelligent, synthetic and dynamic, nigh on literary style (…) Wiesław Saniewski was interested in cinema as a reflection of reality, as a mirror and a yardstick for the processes that take place in the world around us. He would have probably agreed with Godard that »cinema is truth 24 times per second«”. Nowadays, he is mostly interested in creative cinema for which reality is merely a springboard, a starting point.

In one interview he admitted that he treated writing reviews as a replacement job: “Already in high school, I knew that I would one day make movies.” His TV debut “Freelancer” (1981) about a journalist who becomes unwittingly involved in a political intrigue to get rid of an uncooperative factory manager, was pre-screened on 8 December 1981, as the last film before the introduction of martial law in Poland. But it was blocked by censorship, because the public broadcaster decreed that the film – as the director recalls – was “too pessimistic, sad, and showed life in too dreary a light”. It would have to wait six years for its TV premiere.

In 1983, Saniewski shot “Custody” (1983) about young Klara (Ewa Błaszczyk) accused of financial malfeasance and sentenced to life in prison, who then decides to give birth to a baby. Saniewski’s film takes place almost exclusively behind bars: the prison system becomes something of a model of a society subjected to exploitation, violence, and constant repressions (“what is this, a concentration camp, or something?” – asks one of the convicts), humiliated and forced into dishonesty. Except in this case, the victims (but also the abusers) are women: adapted to the brutal rules of the game, but also slowly becoming self-aware and looking for their own voice.

“Custody” received the FIPRESCI award at the Mannheim festival. It was also invited to many other festivals, but government officials blocked the film’s authors from accepting those invitations.

The excellent “Custody” had to wait two years to premiere in cinemas – it received the Golden Celluloid Tape for the best Polish film of 1985, and the FIPRESCI award at the Mannheim festival. It was also invited to many other festivals (including Venice), but government officials blocked the film’s authors from accepting those invitations. The film was also noticed at the Gdańsk Film Festival, where Wiesław Saniewski received the award for best debut, Ewa Błaszczyk for best leading actress, and Witold Adamek for best cinematography. “I don’t remember being awed by any film that year” – recalls Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak, who was on the jury. “The only one that impressed me was Wiesław Saniewski’s »Custody«. I really wanted the acting award to go to Ewa Błasczyk, precisely for that movie. And we managed to make it happen.” “You have to understand that when I was shooting the film, people were starved for acting work” – says Saniewski. “The radio and TV boycott was underway, and my actresses really wanted to act. I was making a film that had nothing to do with TV, and its subject – a women’s prison – was completely unique. For the first few days we shot in a high security prison in Wronki. You had to leave your ID at the gate. So you sort of became a man with no name. And once we were inside, the prison atmosphere got to us all. It got under our skin.”

In his next film, “The Stalking Season” (1985), the main part – that of a fencer who kidnaps his son from his ex-wife who is fleeing abroad – was played by Cezary Harasimowicz (to this day, it is his only starring role). “It was an attempt to make psychological cinema using the thriller toolkit” – says the director. In “The Touched” (1988) he once again showed a hermetic community, this time that of a psychiatric hospital. “I added a universal layer to »The Touched«: I tried seeing the film as a parable of reality in which some people play the patients, others play the doctors, but they’re all trapped in the prison of the same condition” – explained Saniewski, whose film was often compared to Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Many years later, the director wrote the script for Paweł Reut’s excellent and underappreciated debut about autistic children “Paradox Lake” (2001). “I wouldn’t call autism an illness” – stressed Saniewski. “I’d rather use the word disorder, or maladjustment. There’s something unique in autism that touches on some secret of the human brain: take for example the incredible mathematical skills, excellent hearing, or photographic memory of autistic people.”

At the dawn of the 1990s he made two feature films – the dramedy about Polish artists in Berlin who try to stage play that had been blocked due to martial law ten years before “Stranger Must Fly”, which was well received in the US, and the criticized in Poland but excellently received abroad “The Soldier in the Rain” (1996) about a young prosecutor who stumbles upon some uncomfortable truths about her family. The film received enthusiastic reviews in American trade magazines, e.g. “Variety”, and brought Saniewski his first ever directing award, at the Houston International Film Festival. The director also started making documentary films, including ones about Marek Hłasko (“Wracając do Marka”, 2002), Urszula Ledóchowska (“Zwyczajna świętość”, 2004), and Witold Gombrowicz (“A Split of Gombro in Berlin”, 2004).

His last completed film – “The Winner” – has a lot of autobiographical motives. It is also a tale about disillusionment with art, about abandoning one’s profession and discovering a new passion in life.

His great return to feature films was 2006’s “Immensity of Justice” in which a young boy (Robert Olech), encouraged to become a lawyer, learns of a several year old criminal case from three points of view. Therefore, the film is not just about solving the mystery, but also about three different versions of the past. And above all – about the nature of justice. Saniewski showcases the pitfalls of easy accusations, and like all the best court dramas, touches on the greatest paradox of all: that legal trials are in fact feats of showmanship during which the truth tends to get blurry. “Immensity of Justice” was noticed at festivals in Gdynia, Tarnów, Września, and Łagów, but also Moscow, Chicago, Batumi, and Houston.

Wiesław Saniewski’s great love have for years been horses – the breeding of racehorses, but also detailed analyses of their genealogical trees and achievements. He got into horseracing during martial law, in order to pay the bills. Now he often says that horseracing gave him artistic freedom, but also saved many a movie – like “Paradox Lake” which, when they ran out of money for film stock, he financed with his winnings. “Horseracing has nothing to do with real gambling” – stresses the director. “Its closest cousin is stock market trading, where intuition and knowledge need to be accompanied by thorough analysis.”

He referenced this passion in “The Winner” (2011), a film which, as Saniewski says, “is about people and horses racing each other, about the difficult art of winning, but also about the incredible, seemingly impossible friendship of two people who are practically worlds apart”. There are more personal touches sprinkled throughout “The Winner”: in the film’s most important race, we see Ruten, the Polish Horse of the Year, winner of the 2008 Derby, and in the audience we can spy the director himself. The race takes place in Baden-Baden, where Ruten placed second several years before. But perhaps the most important autobiographical motif lies somewhere else – “The Winner” is also a tale about disillusionment with art, about abandoning one’s profession and discovering a new passion in life.

This disappointment descends on Oliver Linovsky (Paweł Szajda), an excellent pianist who can’t reconcile himself with failing to win the Chopin Competition and his wife abandoning him. He wants to break the leash that was held by his wife, mother, and manager. He is offered a helping hand by Frank (Janusz Gajos), a gambling addict he randomly meets at a bar and into whose house he moves in. The pianist doesn’t want to race anyone anymore, and instead becomes fascinated with horseracing – especially since in this arena, success hinges on not listening to sycophants, not following in other people’s footsteps, and being able to at some point say: enough.

“I’ve never made films that weren’t »mine«, ones that I’d have to be ashamed of” – said Wiesław Saniewski after the premiere of “The Winner” (which received audience awards in Tarnów and Chicago, among other places). In September of 2016, he started shooting “Dywizjon 303” – a film that many Polish directors had considered tackling for several decades. The parts of the two main pilots – Jan Zumbach and commander Witold Urbanowicz – are played by Maciej Zakościelny and Piotr Adamczyk. The film’s authors can also count on the support of the sons of Arkady Fiedler, on whose book the film is based. Unfortunately, sudden illness forced Wiesław Saniewski to stop shooting, and the film will be completed by a different director.

— Paweł T. Felis (translated by Wojciech Góralczyk)

2015 Dom kobiet (teleplay)

2011 The Winner (feature film)

2006 Immensity of Justice (feature film)

2006 Immensity of Justice (series)

2004 Rozdarcie czyli Gombro w Berlinie (docudrama)

2003 Zwyczajna świętość (documentary)

2002 Wracając do Marka (documentary)

1996 Deszczowy żołnierz (feature film)

1994 Dwie Marie (documentary)

1993 Stranger Must Fly (feature film)

1988 The Touched (feature film)

1985 The Stalking Season (feature film)

1983 Custody (feature film)

1981 Freelancer (TV feature film)