I would like to say, out of AAAALL the top films set in Poland on this list, that only a small percentage are about the holocaust. Of course, that would be a bare-faced lie. Because for a country that’s over 1,000 years old and has a population of 38.5 million people, it’s legacy to Hollywood and the English-speaking world is largely centred around a horrific point in history that happened to Poland less than 100 years ago.
Though I wouldn’t say that these WWII and Holocaust set Hollywood films are bad films. On the contrary, some are the most revered and cinematic films in existence. And either surprisingly or unsurprisingly, Poland’s most successful and celebrated films are also Holocaust-centred. Though the stories are a little more diverse, I think.
Regardless, whether you’re only visiting Kraków for a weekend break or you’re interrailing through Gdańsk, Warsaw and Wrocław, it would be a really good idea to watch a few Polish films before your trip. Whether it’s just to get you excited about your upcoming break to Poland or learn something new about the country.
Note: One or two of these films aren’t necessarily shot in Poland but all the films are set in Poland and I’ve tried to be as diverse as possible in my selection. Let’s take a look at my top films set in Poland to inspire your trip!
Top Films set in Poland
1. Ashes and Diamonds (1958) dir. Andrzej Wajda
Language: Polish Run time: 103m 95% Rotten Tomatoes
Boy, this film takes me back. Not all the way back to 1958 but to 2016, when Polish Film School cinematic movement. Ashes and Diamonds concludes Polish director Andrej Wajda’s war film trilogy after A Generation (1954) and Kanal (1956). The film takes place in 1945, shortly after the conclusion of World War II. Soldier Maciek Chełmicki is part of the underground anti-communist movement. He receives orders to kill a man named Szczuka who works for the Polish Workers’ Party.No biggie, it’s only one of the most important films in Polish film history and one of the most prominent films in the
I cannot stress how incredibly well made and significant this film is. I’m so used to seeing post-WWII films about the American-Russian conflict in the Cold War, I know virtually nothing about the anti-Communist movement in Poland! Ashes and Diamonds is by no means a documentary, but it’s an incredible, gripping film which may open your eyes to what was happening post-war in Poland.
2. Knife in the Water (1962) dir. Roman Polanski
Language: Polish Run time: 94m 100% Rotten Tomatoes
Roman Polanski’s first-ever feature film, Knife in the Water was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Husband and wife, Andrzej and Krystyna, are driving to a lake to go sailing when they almost hit a hitch-hiker. They invite him along and eventually, things turn sour between Andrzej and the Hitch-hiker as they both seek the attentions of Krystyna.
As you can imagine, the tensions and suspense in Knife in the Water are heightened considerably due to their location in the middle of a lake. You may not learn a lot about Polish history from this film, but it’s still a bloody good film.
3. Europa Europa (1990) dir. Agnieszka Holland
Languages: German, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish Run time: 112m 94% Rotten Tomatoes
If you’re going to watch one of the many films set in Poland about the Holocaust, why not watch one by a Polish female director for a different perspective? Agnieszka Holland is one of the most accomplished Polish directors full stop and Europa Europa is a masterpiece.
Europa Europa is based on the autobiography of a German Jewish boy who escaped a concentration camp by posing as a Nazi German. The film takes us all over Europe starting in German, to Poland and the Soviet Union. If you watch one of the films set in Poland about the Holocaust from this list before your trip to Poland, make it this one. And this is only the first Agnieszka Holland film I’m gonna recommend!
4. The Double Life of Veronique (1991) dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski
Languages: Polish, French Run time: 98m 82% Rotten Tomatoes
One of two Krzysztof Kieślowski films on this list, The Double Life of Veronique is a little bit French as well as a little bit Polish. It follows two women played by the same actress, so naturally, they’re doppelgängers and aren’t aware of the other’s existence. Weronika is a soprano in a Polish choir and Veronique is a French music teacher. The film explores their emotional connection but also larger themes of grief, sadness, loneliness, human connection and so on.
The Double Life of Veronique seems like such a 1990s film. A little experimental, playing with the boundaries of realism, and never ever boring. So, let’s take a moment to celebrate the first modern, non-WWII film set in Poland featured on my list.
The moment’s over. Moving on…
5. Schindler’s List (1993) dir. Steven Spielberg
Language: English Run time: 195m 97% Rotten Tomatoes
I reckon maybe you’ve heard about Schindler’s List before now. And maybe you’ve even sat through it’s bum-numbing 3 hours and 5 minutes run time. Schindler’s List is an authentic, cinematic, historical epic and I’d be silly to deny what a massive impact this film made across the world when it was released in 1993 (best year ever imo…).
For those who don’t know, Schindler’s List is a dramatisation of the true story about how Oskar Schindler hired over 1,000 Jewish people in his factories in Kraków thus saving them from being killed in the Holocaust. Spielberg used incredibly authentic filming locations (including the real-life apartment of Oskar Schindler) and won seven Academy Awards. Okay, so I said if you should watch any film on the Holocaust on this list it should be Europa Europa, and I stand by that. But that’s because I’ve assumed you’ve already seen Schindler’s List. If not, stop reading this blog post and rectify that immediately!
6. Three Colours: White (1994) dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski
Languages: Polish, French, Russian, English Run time: 87m 89% Rotten Tomatoes
Would you believe it if I told you that Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy (1993-4), the last feature films he directed before he died, influenced Edgar Wright’s Blood and Ice Cream or Three Cornettos Trilogy? It’s true! Three Colours: Blue (1993), White and Red (1994) used colour to represent larger themes, as did Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World’s End (2013).
But I digress. The Three Colours Trilogy were co-productions between France and Poland, but Three Colours: White was mainly set in Poland and in the Polish language. After being left by his wife in a pretty embarrassing way, Polish man Karol also loses his money and business. He meets another Polish man in Paris by accident who manages to get him back to Warsaw where he attempts to earn back his money and exact his revenge using risky and dangerous methods.
As I said, Kieślowski’s 1990s films were anything but dull.
7. Jakob the Liar (1999) dir. Peter Kassovitz
Language: English Run time: 120m 29% Rotten Tomatoes
You might be wondering why I’d recommend a film with a 29% score on rotten tomatoes. And it’s a valid point because Jakob the Liar isn’t really that good. However, if you’re a fan of Robin Williams then that may be just enough to convince you to watch it.
Jakob the Liar is about a Polish-Jewish shop owner named Jakob in 1944. While waiting to be summoned for an offence by Nazi German officers, he overhears some news on a radio. Upon telling the news to the rest of the community, rumours of a secret radio pulsate through the town. Using this white lie to keep everyone’s spirits up, Jakob begins to tell everyone fake news that he heard on the ‘radio’.
Like I said, not an amazing film but a nice story about someone trying to boost morale in Nazi-occupied Poland.
8. The Pianist (2002) dir. Roman Polanski
Languages: English, German Run time: 150m 95% Rotten Tomatoes
I would have liked not to include Roman Polanski at all on this list, but unfortunately, he is one of Poland’s most prominent and influential filmmakers. Thankfully, it’s the last I’ll mention him here.
This film is basically Polanski’s Schindler’s List but instead of being set in Kraków, the action is in the Polish capital of Warsaw. Through the eyes of Szpilman, an accomplished Polish-Jewish pianist, we see how Warsaw changes over the years 1939-1944 as he attempts to evade capture and the concentration camps by hiding all over the city during World War II.
I’ve got to say, it is a really fantastic film. It enjoyed huge success at the box office and during awards season and it deserved every bit of success it achieved.
9. Warszawa (2003) dir. Dariusz Gajewski
Language: Polish Run time: 104m N/A Rotten Tomatoes
We’re getting a little bit indie now and Warszawa may be a little harder to find. It has a very indie plot: in the dead of winter, several people who live outside of the capital head to Warsaw for various reasons and tasks. Eventually, they will cross paths with each other.
Despite its lack of notoriety, I really wanted to recommend Warszawa on my list of films set in Poland to watch before your trip because it offers what most of the other films lack: normalcy. Just average Polish people going about their day in relatively modern times.
10. Katyń (2007) dir. Andrzej Wajda
Languages: Polish, Russian, German Run time: 125m 93% Rotten Tomatoes
This is the second and final Andrzej Wajda film on this list but he deserves two mentions because he’s just one of the best Polish filmmakers ever to have lived! Katyń is about the Katyń Massacre of 1940. Over 20,000 Polish citizens were executed by the USSR under Stalin’s rule. They were all part of the Polish army or reserve army and were captured as prisoners of war before the genocide occurred.
Isn’t it staggering that so many people were murdered during this one event and no one really knows about it? It’s an incredibly tragic part of Poland’s already tragic history. The film is super interesting, as well as heartbreaking, and covers the massacre from different perspectives. It’s an incredible film and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
11. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) dir. Mark Herman
Language: English Run time: 94m 63% Rotten Tomatoes
I had put off watching The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for years because all I’d heard was that it was grim, heartbreaking and horrifying. I finally watched it this year and a lot of scenes were really hard to watch, especially the ending. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas follows a German 8-year-old boy whose father is a Nazi officer. When the family up sticks to Poland, the young boy goes exploring and befriends a young Jewish boy, caged in an extermination camp surrounded by barbed wire. The boys’ naivety to their situation heightens how unnecessary, incomprehensible and hateful the whole ordeal was.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has garnered a bit of controversy from historians for its inaccuracies. However, it is a drama and even if it’s not completely accurate, I think the film achieves the desired effect.
12. In Darkness (2011) dir. Agnieszka Holland
Languages: Polish, German, Yiddish, Ukranian Run time: 144m 88% Rotten Tomatoes
Two down, one Agnieszka Holland film left to go! This time, it’s another film based on a true story about the lengths Polish-Jewish people had to go to in order to survive the Holocaust. For over a year during WWII, two Polish-Catholic sewage workers hid a group of 10 Jewish people in the occupied town of Lwów’s sewer system.
In Darkness is yet another Polish film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards the year it was released. Just goes to show you that for every horror story from the Holocaust, there are others which show the genuine kindness and compassion that different people can have for one another.
13. Ida (2013) dir. Paweł Pawlikowski
Languages: Polish, French, Latin Run time: 82m 96% Rotten Tomatoes
Wanna know the first Polish film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film out of all the Polish films that were nominated over the years? Well, it was Ida directed by the hottest Polish filmmaker working today, Paweł Pawlikowski.
Ida is set in 1962 and the titular character is about to take her vows to become a Catholic nun. Prior to doing so, she meets up with her Aunt, one of her only surviving relatives after being orphaned as a child. After learning her parents were Jewish, the revelation leads to a road trip around Poland to find out more about their family. It’s such a beautiful film and concentrates on the after-effects of WWII rather than the heart of the action.
14. Son of Saul (2015) dir. László Nemes
Languages: German, Hungarian, Polish, Yiddish, Russian, Slovak, Czech, Greek Run time: 107m 95% Rotten Tomatoes
Okay, I will admit that Son of Saul is technically a Hungarian film and it was even shot in Hungary, not Poland. But this is a list of amazing films set in Poland, not shot there. And it, too, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (since apparently, I’m counting them now). So I’m hoping you’ll allow it. Because not only is it an incredibly visceral, heartbreaking, creatively-shot film but it tells a story from inside the actual concentration camps.
Our titular character, Saul, is a Hungarian-Jewish man who is caged inside Auschwitz. He is forced to be a part of the crew that disposes of gas chamber victims. The film follows his life for just over a day when he becomes emotionally attached to a boy who initially survived the gas chambers and he insists on risking his own life to give the boy a proper Jewish burial.
15. The Innocents (2016) dir. Anne Fontaine
Languages: French, Polish, Dutch, Russian Run time: 115m 95% Rotten Tomatoes
Here I am, seemingly breaking the rules again with including a French film on my list of films set in Poland! Jeez, the audacity. I hope again you can forgive me because The Innocents is a bloody good film. At least it’s actually set and shot in Poland, specifically the Warmia region in the north.
The Innocents is based on the real-life accounts of a young French doctor (female, just so that’s clear) in Warsaw in 1945. While working for the French Red Cross in Poland, she’s brought to a convent where several of the nuns have been abused by Soviet soldiers. And that’s only the beginning of the traumatic events that occur within the convent’s walls.
I’m really bringing you a barrel of laughs with this film selection, eh? It’s not my fault all of the absolute best films about Poland are all distressing! But like Ida, it’s super refreshing to see a film related to WWII that’s so female-orientated.
16. Spoor (2017) dir. Agnieszka Holland
Language: Polish Run time: 128m 69% Rotten Tomatoes
So it’s not a very well-loved film or particularly revered by critics (though it definitely should have more than 69% on rotten tomatoes!) but I had to include Spoor on this list. Yes, it’s a thriller and a bit dark, but it’s good and not a Holocaust film so I really wanted to include it. It’s also the third and final film on this list directed by Holland!
Spoor is set in Kłodzko Valley in Southwest Poland. An elderly woman witnesses the murders of several hunters and when she tries to tell people who the killer is, no one believes her. Absolutely breathtaking scenery and something a bit different!
17. The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017) dir. Niki Caro
Language: English Run time: 126m 62% Rotten Tomatoes
If you want to watch a Holocaust film set in Poland but don’t want to dwell on how wretched humanity is for days afterwards, then The Zookeeper’s Wife is the film for you. Granted, the reason it’s not as heartbreaking as some of the other films is because it doesn’t pack as much punch as it probably should, but there you go.
The Zookeeper’s Wife stars my fellow ginger-haired pal, the uber-talented Jessica Chastain as the wife in question. She and her husband run Warsaw Zoo, one of the biggest zoos in Europe during the 1930s. And because of their expansive land and potential hiding places, they conceal hundreds of Jewish people during WWII. A really good-looking film and it’s in English if you can’t be bothered to read subtitles. No judgement here, I’m guilty of not being arsed to read subtitles too.
18. Cold War (2018) dir. Paweł Pawlikowski
Languages: Polish, French Run time: 88m 92% Rotten Tomatoes
We’ve arrived at the most recent film on this list set in Poland, and it’s directed by man-of-the-moment, Paweł Pawlikowski. And yes, it was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards! Who’d have thought? And Pawlikowski was also nominated for Best Director (an award he won at Cannes), as was the cinematography. So all those accolades should go some way to convincing you what a cracking film this is.
Cold War is set during the 1940s to the 1960s and follows two young lovers in France and Poland: a musical director and a singer. Of course, during the cold war, the course of true love was never going to run smooth.
Cold War is shot in black and white and it’s quite interesting how many Polish films have chosen to shoot in black and white. Okay, so I can only think of Ida and Schinder’s List… But that’s still a lot, right? And not many comedies on this list either. Anyway, something for you to think about while you’re watching all 18 of these films set in Poland that I’m sure you will inspire you to visit!
Other films set in Poland: Passenger (1963), The Promised Land (1975), The Maids of Wilko (1979), Man of Iron (1981), Run Boy Run (2013)
And those are some of the top films set in Poland! Have you watched any of these films or would you add any to the list? Let me know in the comments below!