"He was among the artists of Polish cinema the best craftsman. This is of course a compliment. He created cinema that was always worldly and European and precisely for this reason proved timeless. (...) Amidst the Young Poland or Romantic yearnings of his famous colleagues (...) he enriched poetry with prose. Kawalerowicz's cinematic panorama consisted (...) in picking out images from different sides: literary, cinematic and acting." [*].

He was born on 19 January 1922 in Gwoździec, a town in what is now Ukraine. His father, Edward, was of Armenian descent and served as head of the post office. During the Soviet and later German occupation, he lived with his family in Stanislawow, where he worked at the locomotive depot and later as a porter and storekeeper. Fleeing from the Germans, the Kawalerowiczs moved to Krakow in 1944, where they remained even after the war. There, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts for three years. It was also during this time that his filmmaking path began, as during his studies he completed the Film Adoption Course, at the forming Film Institute, which later became the Film School in Łódź.

He made his directorial debut in 1951 with Gromada, a film maintained in the socialist realist style, which like his two subsequent productions (Cellulose and Under the Phrygian Star) dealt with the theme of class conflict. When in 1955, as a result of a reorganisation of the Polish film industry, film teams were established, Kawalerowicz took over the artistic direction of the ‘Kadr’ team, where a few years later he made Pociąg (Train), which brought the director the Golden Duck awarded by the Film monthly and the Georges Méliès Premio Evrotecnica award at the 20th IFF in Venice. His next production, a screen adaptation of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz's short story Matka Joanna od Aniołów (Mother Joan of the Angels), which he wrote together with Tadeusz Konwicki, brought him artistic success and critical acclaim. The film was appreciated for its ascetic visual form, but was also interpreted as a commentary on the relations between the communist authorities and the Catholic Church at the time.

On the wave of acclaim, Kawalerowicz began work on another adaptation of literature, this time it was the novel by Bolesław Prus, Faraon (Pharaoh).  The film deals with the universal theme of the struggle for power. Some of the shots were taken in Egypt, but the cost of building the sets there on location would have been too high. The Kyzyl-Kum desert in present-day Uzbekistan was chosen for the construction of the Pharaoh's palace and Ptah's temple. The scale of the production was enormous - shooting took three years, with 2,000 extras in battle scenes. There was widespread praise for both the direction and the gold and blue tones of the cinematography by Jerzy Wojcik, as well as the unusual, ascetic manner of the set design by Jerzy Skrzepiński. In 1967, Pharaoh earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

After the not very successful film Gra (The Game), Kawalerowicz left for Italy, where he made a modernised version of Mother Joan of the Angels titled Maddalena. The film Śmierć prezydenta (Death of a President), which told the story of the assassination of Gabriel Narutowicz, was well received. The production was awarded the Silver Bear at the 28th IFF in Berlin. In 1982 Kawalerowicz finally managed to make his long-postponed film Austeria, telling the story of the Jewish community of a small Galician town.

The film adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel Quo Vadis turned out to be the most expensive (over 76 million zlotys) not only in the director's career, but also in the entire Polish cinematography of the time. Despite its attendance success - the film was seen by 4.5 million viewers and its premiere took place in the Vatican - Kawalerowicz's last film divided critics. In addition to his directing activities, Kawalerowicz was co-founder and first president of the Polish Filmmakers Association (1966), and from 1980 he was a lecturer at the Polish National School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź (PWST). On 23 March 1998 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne.

Died on 27 December 2007 in Warsaw without regaining consciousness after a stroke. (photo) Jerzy Kawalerowicz during the making of the film ‘Austeria’.

Photo: K. Kołodziejski, source: Fototeka FN