No new Polish films were produced under the German occupation; audiences could see only German and Italian films or Polish films from the prewar period. Many major figures in the industry emigrated, either to the West or to the Soviet Union; others joined the resistance, where several were killed or imprisoned; and still others collaborated with the occupying authorities. The Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 resulted in the near-destruction of the non-Communist resistance, and the Government of National Unity that had been formed in 1945 was replaced in 1947 by one dominated by pro-Soviet Communists. The film industry was nationalized with the formation of Film Polski in November 1945 under the direction of Aleksander Ford, and the ĺódź Film School (soon to become world famous) was established in 1948 with Jerzy Toeplitz as rector. The country's frontiers were readjusted, shifting its territory to the west and resulting in a more homogeneous and strongly Catholic population.
The basic infrastructure of the film industry had been destroyed during the war, many leading personnel were lost, and relatively few cinemas survived. Only thirty-eight features were made between 1947 and 1955, and, after an initial period of liberalization, ideological conformity was imposed and Socialist Realism, with its standardized plots and subject matter and distaste for experimental or unconventional techniques, became the only acceptable film style. Some films of genuine quality emerged nevertheless, such as Ford's Ulica Graniczna ( Border Street , 1949), set in the Warsaw Ghetto, and Piątka z Ulicy Barskiej ( Five Boys from Barska Street , 1954), which deals with juvenile delinquency. Jakubowska's partly autobiographical and strongly pro-Soviet Ostatni Etap ( The Last Stage , 1948) was set in Auschwitz. Wajda's Pokolenie ( A Generation , 1955) introduced a major talent, though its politics were later to be judged too "correct" and compromised.
The Poznań riots of 1956 brought about a change of government under the previously disgraced Wĺdysĺaw Gomuĺka, and a short period of relative liberalization followed characterized by the work of the so-called Polish School. The film industry was reorganized into eight "units" run by the filmmakers themselves, though
Wajda's Kanaĺ (1957) and, especially, Popiól idiament ( Ashes and Diamonds , 1958), starring the charismatic Zbigniew Cybulski, were huge international successes and established the director as both celebrating and demystifying Polish "romanticism" in flamboyant and memorable visual images. Andrzej Munk's (1921–1961) more skeptical and antiheroic Czĺowiek na Torze ( Man on the Tracks , 1957)and Eroica ( Heroism , 1958) announced a talent that may have been even finer but was cut short by the director's early death in 1961. Wojciech Has (1925–2000), with Pożegnania ( Farewells , 1958); Jerzy Kawalerowicz (b. 1922), with Pociąg ( Night Train , 1959) and Matka Joanna od Anioĺów ( Mother Joan of the Angels , 1961); and Kazimierz Kutz (b. 1929), with Krzyż Walecznych ( Cross of Valor , 1959), all laid the foundations for prestigious and long-lasting careers in the industry.
Despite tightened censorship after 1960 and attacks on "subversive" Western influences, a new generation of directors attempted a more realistic, personal, and skeptical approach to the traditional themes and to explorations of Polish identity and moral dilemmas. The two leading figures here were Roman Polański, with Nóz w Wodzie ( Knife in the Water , 1962), and Jerzy Skolimowski, with his semiautobiographical early films, such as Walkower ( Walkover , 1965); both directors attacked the conformism and false heroics of Polish society, filtered largely through class or generational conflicts. Both were invited to work in Western Europe, initially in France. Polański then moved to Hollywood, until legal reasons brought him back to France. Skolimowski too had worked in the United States but returned to Poland in 1967 to make the strongly critical Rę ce do Góry ( Hands Up! ). When it was promptly banned, he continued his career in Britain and the United States, returning to Poland after the fall of Communism to produce a largely unsatisfactory new version of that film.
Literary adaptations and epic productions such as Ford's Krzyżacy ( Black Cross , 1960) and Kawalerowicz's Faraon ( Pharoah , 1966) flourished, though Ford, like many others, emigrated to Israel in 1968 following a series of officially sanctioned anti-Semitic campaigns. Following worker riots in Gdańsk in 1970, a change of government saw Edward Gierek replace Gomuĺka, and another brief period of liberalization ensued. Several highly stylized, often symbolic, films appeared, sometimes with "Aesopian" undercurrents that criticized contemporary society within an allegorical or historical framework. Some of the more notable of these are Andrzej Żuławski's (b. 1940) Trzecia Część Nocy ( The Third Part of the Night , 1971), Janusz Majewski's (b. 1931) Lokis ( The Bear , 1970) and Zazdrość iMedycyna ( Jealousy and Medicine , 1973), Kazimierz Kutz's Sól Ziemi Czarnej ( Salt of the Black Earth , 1970) and Perĺa wKoronie ( Pearls in the Crown , 1972), Wojciech Has's Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą ( The Hour-Glass Sanatorium , 1973), Edward Żebrowski's (b. 1935) Szpital Przemienienia ( Hospital of the Transfiguration , 1978), Walerian Borowczyk's (1923–2006) Dzieje Grzechu ( Story of a Sin , 1975), and Wojciech Marczewski's (b. 1944) Zmory ( Nightmares , 1979). Marczewski's Dreszcze ( Shivers , 1981) was banned, however, as was Żulawski's Diabeĺ ( The Devil , 1972), and the latter director then left to live and work in France.
Several major figures emerged in this period: Krzysztof Zanussi demonstrated his austere style and concern with moral choices and problems in Iluminacje ( Illumination , 1973) and Bilans Kwartalny ( The Quarterly Balance , 1975); Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941–1996), after several controversial and sometimes banned documentaries, provided similar social criticism in his feature Amator ( Camera Buff , 1979); and Felix Falk's (b. 1941) Wodzirej ( Top Dog , 1978) satirized social climbing and careerism. Agnieszka Holland's (b. 1948) Aktorzy Prowincjonalni ( Provincial Actors ) appeared in 1979, as did Filip Bajon's (b. 1947) Aria dla Atlety ( Aria for an Athlete ). The groundbreaking films of the period, however, were Wajda's Czlowiek z Marmuru ( Man of Marble , 1977) and Czlowiek z Żelaza ( Man of Iron , 1981), whose strong political themes both reflected and contributed to another bout of worker unrest and led to the formation first of KOR (Committee to Defend the Workers) and then of Solidarity in 1980.