34 Best Movies to Watch From Poland

Staff & contributors
While barely 90 minutes long, Cold War is epic in scope and a modern testament to what cinema can be. Whether we are feasting our eyes on the decaying post-war landscape of Poland, the patinated streets of East Berlin, or the delicate magic of a historic Paris, Cold War offers its viewers meticulously staged black-and-white beauty, conceived by Polish wunderkind director Paweł Pawlikowski and his trusted cinematographer Łukasz Ża. Winner of a slew of prestigious awards, this is a film made for the silver screen, so we recommend leaving your iPhone on the table and getting your hands on the biggest screen you can muster for watching this. The plot is essentially about the obsessive attraction between musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and the young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), who is recruited as the newest member of the former's state-sponsored folk music band. Cold War follows their impossible love for fourteen years and across many European countries on each side of the Iron Curtain. It is a statement on how far artists go for their art, especially when they become constrained not only by dictatorship but also love. A poetic, sexy, and gorgeous movie without a wasted moment. A work of art.

Genre: Drama, Music, Romance, War

Actor: Adam Ferency, Adam Szyszkowski, Adam Woronowicz, Agata Kulesza, Aloïse Sauvage, Borys Szyc, Cedric Kahn, Dražen Šivak, Jeanne Balibar, Joanna Kulig, Slavko Sobin, Tomasz Kot

Director: Paweł Pawlikowski

Rating: R

Told through a series of flashbacks and personal archival footage, Beginners gives us the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a 38-year-old graphic designer from Los Angeles, and his two parents across three timeframes. Oliver has never had a meaningful relationship. Six months after his mother dies, his father, Hal, played by the amazing, Academy Award-winning, and, sadly, late Christopher Plummer, comes out to Oliver. He lives the last days of his life in liberation and, well, gaiety, before protracting terminal cancer. Some months later, Oliver meets Anna at a party, a young French actress (Mélanie Laurent) who is beautiful and warm-hearted, and they start an affair. Through this all, there's Arthur, a Parson Jack Russell. But don't worry. He doesn't talk. Beginners is a beautiful and intricate film about finding love and happiness. It's funny, warm, and sincere. A beautiful movie.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: AlgeRita Wynn, Algerita Wynn Lewis, Amanda Payton, Bambadjan Bamba, Bruce French, Catherine McGoohan, China Shavers, Christopher Plummer, Cosmo, Ewan McGregor, Goran Visnjic, Jennifer Hasty, Joanna Trzepiecinska, Jodi Long, Jose Yenque, Kai Lennox, Keegan Boos, Lana Young, Lou Taylor Pucci, Luke Diliberto, Mélanie Laurent, Maria Semotiuk, Mary Page Keller, Mélanie Laurent, Melissa Tang, Michael Chieffo, Patrick Birkett, Patryk Wisniewski, Rafael J. Noble, Reynaldo Pacheco, Rodney Saulsberry, Terry Walters, Tymon Tymanski

Director: Mike Mills

Rating: N/A, R

Joshua Oppenheimer's daring feat is a documentary unlike anything ever done. Despite it being one of the most difficult things to watch for any human being (or because of it), The Act of Killing received praise across the board, including an Academy Award nomination. Without Oppenheimer's efforts, you might have never heard of the unspeakable events that happened when, in 1965-66, Suharto overthrew the then-president of Indonesia and a gangster-led death squad killed almost a million people. Did they pay for their crimes? Quite the contrary: said gangsters went on becoming political mainstays in modern-day Indonesia, are still now heralded as heroes, and admit to all these crimes with a smile and not a hint of regret. The gruesome twist of this documentary is that Oppenheimer asks them to re-enact the killings in surreal, sadistic snuff movies inspired by the murderer's favorite action movies. You are forced to stand idly by as they re-create brutal mass murder and joke about raping a 14-year-old. However, somewhere amidst this terrifying farce, the killers, too, have fleeting moments of realization that what they're doing is wrong. If you make it through this in one piece, try watching its more victim-focused follow-up The Look of Silence. Bone-chilling but very powerful stuff.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Adi Zulkadry, Anwar Congo, Haji Anif, Herman Koto, Ibrahim Sinik, Safit Pardede, Syamsul Arifin

Director: Christine Cynn, Joshua Oppenheimer

Rating: Not Rated

Poland's nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2020 Academy Awards may have lost to Parasite, but director Jan Komasa's film is still utterly compelling. The crazy sounding premise is inspired by true events: after having had a transformative experience in jail, an ex-convict, played by the wiry, blue-eyed Bartosz Bielenia, decides he wants to become a priest. When he is told that his criminal history prohibits it, he goes down the path that got him into trouble in the first place and just pretends he is. Apparently, he does so quite convincingly—and serves the community well, which is collectively grieving for the victims of a tragic accident. For all his charisma, there's no way not to root for the crooked clergyman conning his way to the top. The complex character at the heart of Corpus Christi is refreshing and three-dimensional, and the smart writing of the film excels at exploring they grey areas of truth and religion. The ending, too, circumvents the soppy and the melodramatic. Thought-provoking European drama.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Łukasz Simlat, Aleksandra Konieczna, Anna Biernacik, Barbara Jonak, Barbara Kurzaj, Bartosz Bielenia, Eliza Rycembel, Jakub Sierenberg, Juliusz Chrząstowski, Leszek Lichota, Lidia Bogacz, Lidia Bogaczówna, Łukasz Simlat, Tomasz Ziętek, Tomasz Ziętek, Zdzisław Wardejn, Zdzisław Wardejn, Томаш Зитек

Director: Jan Komasa

This is an amazing documentary but be warned, the main character has some weird characteristics.

By coincidence, an art collector stumbles upon an undiscovered collection of sculptures and paintings that can only be described as the work of a genius. There was almost no reference to the artist, but upon research the collector finds that they are by a man called Stanislav Szukalski. He traces him down and finally locates him living anonymously in a California suburb. 

The documentary, Struggle: The Life And Lost Art Of Szukalski, is a collection of tapes from numerous interviews in the 1980s between the collector and Szukalski. He was helped by George DiCaprio, who would later produce this movie with his son Leonardo (!). 

In these interviews it becomes clear that Szukalski is pure genius. The funny thing is that he seemed to be well aware of this fact himself. 

Remember the weird characteristics I mentioned in that first sentence? Here we go. Szukalski’s past is full of a lot of antisemitism, sexism and bigotry. 

The question that lingers is how exactly can this forgotten-genius story be reshaped by the discovery of his twisted opinions. Can the artist be separated from the art? It’s a personal matter for the people who found Szukalski and later made this movie. It might never get as personal for you, but this movie will sure try to provoke an answer.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Adam Jones, Charles Schneider, Gabriel Bartalos, George DiCaprio, Glenn Bray, James Kagel, Nick Tate, Rebecca Forstadt, Robert Williams, Stanislav Szukalski, Suzanne Williams, Timothy Snyder

Director: Irek Dobrowolski, Ireneusz Dobrowolski

Rating: TV-MA

Even before any blood is inevitably shed during A Short Film About Killing (which serves as the expansion of another episode from director Krzysztof Kieślowski's Dekalog miniseries, alongside A Short Film About Love), there's something positively oppressive and sinister even just in the way the movie is shot. Kieślowski and cinematographer Witold Adamek use color filters to make the film deliberately ugly—as if the image is degrading right in front of us. Oftentimes shadows obscure the edges of the frame, shining a sickly yellow spotlight on the characters on screen. It's the perfect way to get right into the heads of these people existing in a lawless land driven by primal instinct.

When crime and punishment finally occur, they're equally difficult to watch unfold, but in different ways. Kieślowski lingers on the details—the tools and processes that we tell ourselves will make the act of killing easier. And what he's ultimately able to expose is how capital punishment has been made to seem humane, just, or necessary, when it's often even more barbaric, cruel, and unproductive than a crime borne of desperation. The very government that does nothing to address the roots of crime is the same one most eager to kill criminals instead.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Aleksander Bednarz, Andrzej Gawroński, Artur Barciś, Barbara Dziekan, Jan Tesarz, Jerzy Zass, Krystyna Janda, Krzysztof Globisz, Leonard Andrzejewski, Małgorzata Pieczyńska, Mirosław Baka, Olgierd Łukaszewicz, Władysław Byrdy, Zbigniew Borek, Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Zdzisław Rychter, Zdzisław Tobiasz

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s drama stars Irène Jacob as two identical women living separate lives, and the intricate and indelible ways in which they are bound together. While Weronika, a Polish singer, balances her familial duties and intimate romantic relationship, a French music teacher named Véronique senses that she is not alone.

The Double Life of Véronique’s hypnotic and entrancing qualities will wash over you like a tide crashing over a bed of sand. It is a tough film to capture in words, when so much of it is just beyond words—Kieślowski’s film is one to be seen, sensed, and experienced. 

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance

Actor: Alain Frérot, Aleksander Bardini, Bogusława Schubert, Chantal Neuwirth, Claude Duneton, Gilles Gaston-Dreyfus, Guillaume de Tonquédec, Halina Gryglaszewska, Irène Jacob, Jacques Potin, Janusz Sterninski, Jerzy Gudejko, Kalina Jędrusik, Lorraine Evanoff, Louis Ducreux, Philippe Volter, Sandrine Dumas, Thierry de Carbonnières, Władysław Kowalski, Youssef Hamid

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Rating: R

This Oscar-nominated drama tells the story of the events leading up to the Srebrenica massacre, in which 8372 Bosnian Muslims were killed. It focuses on one U.N. worker who was caught between trying to protect her family, herself, and helping people in need.

The film is as horrific as it is relevant: up until the actual killing starts, people are constantly being assured that everything is under control and that there is no reason to panic. This gives an eerie feeling of resemblance to the tone many minorities in distress receive nowadays.

Still, Quo Vadis, Aida? stops at depicting any of the acts that were committed that day. Instead, it focuses on Aida’s unrelenting race against the clock to save whatever she can.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alban Ukaj, Boris Isaković, Boris Ler, Dino Bajrović, Dražen Pavlović, Emina Muftić, Emir Hadžihafizbegović, Ermin Bravo, Ermin Sijamija, Izudin Bajrović, Jasna Đuričić, Job Raaijmakers, Joes Brauers, Johan Heldenbergh, Juda Goslinga, Micha Hulshof, Raymond Thiry, Reinout Bussemaker, Rijad Gvozden, Sanne den Hartogh, Sol Vinken, Teun Luijkx

Director: Jasmila Žbanić

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s trilogy reflects both the colors and the values of the French republic: liberté, égalité, fraternité. In Trois couleurs : Blanc (Three Colors: White), Kieślowski explores not only the theme of equality, but also the ramifications of defining and “achieving” equality as a European ideal.

After failing to consummate their marriage, Dominique (the ever-bewitching Julie Delpy) divorces Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), leaving him broke and humiliated. Karol plots to exact revenge on his ex-wife, becoming richer and cruller in the process. 

Although this is often regarded as the weakest of the trilogy, White is worth a watch not just for completionists. Kieślowski interrogates what it means to be equal in sex and socioeconomic class—and if when we strive to move upward in society, whether we are really debasing our basic humanity and humility.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Mystery

Actor: Aleksander Bardini, Andrzej Precigs, Barbara Dziekan, Bartłomiej Topa, Bozena Szymanska, Cezary Harasimowicz, Cezary Pazura, Florence Pernel, Francis Coffinet, Grażyna Szapołowska, Grzegorz Warchoł, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Nowak, Jerzy Stuhr, Jerzy Trela, Julie Delpy, Juliette Binoche, Marzena Trybała, Philippe Morier-Genoud, Piotr Machalica, Piotr Zelt, Teresa Budzisz-Krzyżanowska, Wanda Wróblewska, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Zdzisław Rychter

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

This gorgeous Scandinavian movie is based on a true story and stars the ever-reliable Stellan Skarsgard.

He plays the governor of a strict youth correctional facility in Norway in 1915. The arrival of a feared kid kickstarts events that are very famous in Norway but little-known elsewhere: an uprising within the facility that will eventually require the army to get involved. A strong movie with stellar (Stellan) performances.

Genre: Action, Drama

Actor: Benjamin Helstad, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Frank-Thomas Andersen, Kimmo Rajala, Kristoffer Joner, Magnar Botten, Martin Slaatto, Per Gørvell, Stellan Skarsgård, Trond Nilssen

Director: Marius Holst

Rating: Not Rated

Nelly is a concentration camp survivor who undergoes reconstructive facial surgery, and comes back to question whether her husband (unable to recognize her) was the one who betrayed her to the Nazis. Heavy, heavy stuff. But in Phoenix you will also see something else, as the story takes you beyond the subject matter to become almost a celebration of film: elements of Hitchcockian cinema intertwine with the realism of the likes of David Ayer are added to perfect performances to create a stunning, compelling, and exceptional film.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Claudia Geisler, Claudia Geisler-Bading, Daniela Holtz, Eva Bay, Felix Romer, Frank Seppeler, Imogen Kogge, Jeff Burrell, Kathrin Wehlisch, Kirsten Block, Max Hopp, Megan Gay, Michael Maertens, Michael Wenninger, Nikola Kastner, Nina Hoss, Nina Kunzendorf, Ronald Zehrfeld, Stefan Will, Trystan Pütter, Trystan Putter, Uwe Preuss, Valerie Koch

Director: Christian Petzold

Rating: PG-13

Only a few people in Dita’s house are related by blood, but you wouldn’t know that by how they move. They’re tight-knit but argumentative, loving at times but spiteful in other instances. In other words, they’re complicated just like any other family. Housekeeping for Beginners makes a compelling case for the validity—and at times necessity—of found families like Dita’s, who all found each other after being shunned by their race and sexuality. As in his previous works, Director Goran Stolevski paints a realistic and relevant portrait here, one tinted with striking pain and poignancy, bound to leave your heart aching long after the credits roll.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alina Serban, Anamaria Marinca, Bislim Muçaj, Blagoj Veselinov, Irena Ristić, Mia Mustafa, Rozafa Celaj, Samson Selim, Sara Klimoska, Vladimir Tintor

Director: Goran Stolevski

Rating: R

After two adaptations, with the 1982 version considered a Christmastime classic for Polish families, Forgotten Love can seem like a redundant take on the iconic Polish novel. With twenty more minutes, it seems like the new Netflix adaptation could only improve its take through better production design, and sure, it certainly delivers that pre-war aesthetic through period-accurate costumes, props, and sets. However, Forgotten Love takes a more streamlined approach to the novel’s plot, through changing certain character choices. Without spoiling too much, some choices paint certain characters in a better light, while other changes prove to add an entertaining twist, such as the humorous way the villagers defend Kosiba. Znachor takes the 1937 story into the present, bringing a new generation through the emotional journey of the cherished Polish tale.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adam Nawojczyk, Agata Łabno, Alicja Jachiewicz, Anna Szymańczyk, Artur Barciś, Dawid Ściupidro, Ewa Kolasińska-Szramel, Ewa Szykulska, Henryk Niebudek, Ignacy Liss, Izabela Kuna, Jarosław Gruda, Joachim Lamża, Kamil Pardo, Karolina Piechota, Krzysztof Dracz, Leszek Lichota, Maciej Damięcki, Małgorzata Mikołajczak, Maria Kowalska, Mikołaj Grabowski, Mirosław Haniszewski, Patryk Szwichtenberg, Paweł Janyst, Paweł Tomaszewski, Piotr Rogucki, Robert Gonera, Sławomir Holland, Stanisław Brudny, Waleria Gorobets

Director: Michał Gazda

Rating: PG-13