As a result of successive partitions of the country by Russia, Austria, and Prussia, Poland had not been as an independent entity for well over one hundred years until 1919, shortly after World War I. The foreign domination of a fiercely nationalistic people—essentially renewed with the German occupation of 1939–1945 and continued by Soviet control of 1945–1989—has strongly influenced the country's cinema even up to the present day and has led to a filmic production heavily dependent on political and historical themes. This nationalistic impulse has been strengthened by subject matter drawn from Poland's rich literary tradition and the fiction and drama of Henryk Sienkiewicz, Stefan Żeromski, Bolesĺaw Prus, Wĺadysĺaw Reymont, Stanisĺaw Wyspiański, and Adam Mickiewicz who have provided an endless source of material. As with other countries of the former Soviet bloc, however, the renewed independence of the post-1989 period has produced almost as many problems in Poland as it has solved, and the disappearance of a state-subsidized (and controlled) system of filmmaking has led to a kind of free-market anarchy that has little respect for either politically-oriented themes or, indeed, for art.

Although Poland has never suffered the mass exodus or silencing of its finest talents as, for example, Czechoslovakia did after 1968, many important directors have chosen to work, either permanently or occasionally abroad but not always for political reasons. Since the 1970s, major figures such as Roman Polański (b. 1933), Jerzy Skolimowski (b. 1938), and Walerian Borowczyk (1923–2006) have created much of their finest work outside Poland. The country's best-known filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda (b. 1926), has made several co-productions in other European countries, as has Krzysztof Zanussi (b. 1939), while Krzysztof Kieślowski's (1941–1996) most famous films were made in France. With a few exceptions, such as Pola Negri (1894–1987), Poland has produced few internationally acclaimed film stars, though Zbigniew Cybulski (1927–1967) achieved widespread recognition during his brief lifetime, and such fine actors as Daniel Olbrychski (b. 1945), Bogusĺaw Linda (b. 1952), Maja Komorowska (b. 1937), and Krystyna Janda (b. 1952) have worked frequently in other European countries.

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