Cinema & The Warsaw Uprising: Capturing Painful History & Political Agendas
The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 does not sit quietly among the distant historical events that populate the hundreds of years Poland has existed. On your first day in Warsaw, you already begin to notice that the tragedy, which happened 70 years ago, has not yet faded into the past for the city. Everything is a reminder of the uprising.
Dozens of memorial placards, sculptures and monuments hang on buildings and stand along streets and in parks, not only recalling those 62 days of revolt, but also indicating how many people died in this place or that. There is also the city itself – its strange, freakish construction, in which painstakingly restored quarters of old houses garishly stand alongside modern architecture, and narrow streets unexpectedly turn into wide avenues with unwieldy Stalinist edifices. Then you realise that while some districts and buildings managed to be saved, in large parts of the city, nothing that once was there remains. Here, everything had to be rebuilt. Sometimes you may come across an old house among dozens of newer ones. Somehow during the uprising, it miraculously held its ground and now conveys the spirit of a city that no longer exists.
A painful history lesson, in brief
Germany was suffering defeats on all fronts. In France, its entire western force had been annihilated. The Soviet army virtually controlled half the territory of what is now Poland, that which lay to the east of the River Wisła. The end of the war was coming. But this did not hinder the Germans from not only smothering the uprising in the Polish capital, using divisions that were more needed on the front, but also turning Warsaw into ruins and obliterating hundreds of thousands of civilians. Sources differ on the exact numbers, but it is rather certain that between 150,000 and 200,000 Varsovians were killed at the hands of the Germans during this time. Another 600,000 became refugees, and many were taken to German labour camps. The one-million-strong city was methodically erased from the face of the earth. More than 85% of the city was destroyed, even though the uprising even at its greatest extent hardly controlled half of Warsaw. The city was abandoned after the Soviet offensive and had to be restored, reconstructed, made habitable in the course of the following decades. It was only in 1970 that the population of Warsaw returned to what it was before the war.
Such trauma can’t possibly dissipate. It is hard to forget. Rather, it is impossible to forget. And Varsovians remember. Yet it must be taken into account that the memory of the uprising is not simply a tragic subject. There was such a quantity of motives and causes intertwined in this event, the repercussions were so difficult, that so much is still unclear. The uprising was not only an attempt to defeat the losing Germans. The soldiers of the Home Army, which led the combat operations in the capital, were trying to save the ‘Second Republic’, the Poland that emerged after the First World War as a new independent nation state. This state had been eliminated by Hitler and Stalin in 1939.
The uprising was an attempt to restore a legitimate government inside the capital, one which would overthrow German rule and force the Soviet Union to recognise its sovereignty. We now see that this was all very risky. The Home Army soldiers were for the most part very poorly equipped and inexperienced. Facing them was a real army with tanks, artillery and airplanes. A few days passed, and it became clear that the uprising would be put down. The Soviet army had already reached the banks of the Wisła, but Stalin fully understood that the rebels were not only acting against the Germans, but also against him. Because of this, he waited, and allowed Warsaw to be destroyed, and with it any vestiges of the Second Republic. The regime of the new communist People’s Republic of Poland entered the capital of the exhausted, crushed, and surrendered country.
The talking cure?
The Warsaw Uprising was a very unique topic. In Soviet times it was, of course, talked about and remembered, but the details were avoided as much as possible. The who, why and what that made it all happen could only be discussed behind closed doors. But after the fall of the communist regime, the causes of the uprising became up for discussion in earnest.
Nevertheless, the uprising became a legend, one of the key events of Polish history. Polish culture tried to make sense of this nightmarish and controversial subject, to figure out how to continue living after what had happened. Cinema did not stay on the side-lines. The uprising became the basis for many films. With their help it’s possible to not only learn the specifics of what happened in Warsaw, but also to see how its perception changed.
It is remarkable that the first fictional feature-length film shot in post-war Poland portrayed the uprising. This was the Leonard Buczkowski’s classic film Forbidden Songs, which appeared in theatres at the very beginning of 1947. Forbidden Songs is a light, musical movie about the war. Many pictures like these were made in all countries during the post-war years, perhaps as part of the globe’s effort to move on. But Buczkowski used an interesting technique to develop his topic.
During the years of the occupation, songs were one of the few forms of protest available to the Poles. The Germans mostly did not understand that the tongue-in-cheek lyrics, which were composed and sung in the streets, were about them. Buczkowski managed to put many of these songs in his movie. The main character of the movie, Roman, is a musician, like many of the other characters. He begins to take part in the musical protest, which gradually transforms into an organised resistance. The uprising is shown at the end of the movie as an effort by Poles to overthrow the occupiers. Nothing is said about the causes of the uprising, yet both the street-to-street battles and savage destruction are shown. One of the film’s strongest scenes, which distinguishes itself from the light and carefree mood that pervades the rest of the movie, shows the exodus of Varsovians from the city. In this moment, the refugees have stopped, are turning about and looking at the ruins that stretch to the horizon. The pain of these people is the most powerful and genuine emotion in the film. However, Forbidden Songs has many other merits. This well-made, rich movie with its relatable characters and lovely music, is moving and heartfelt. Poles stood in line for entire days, fighting for tickets to see this movie in theatres, and later professed that Forbidden Songs had become their favourite film. In many polls relating to the history of Polish film, Forbidden Songs regularly falls in the top ten best movies.
After the communist takeover
In 1950, the movie Unvanquished City made its debut. It was strongly ideology-driven and overflowing with Stalinist mythmaking. At the centre of the film is a certain Rafalski, who goes into hiding among the ruins during the uprising. Over the course of the movie, he fortifies and equips his hiding place, rescues Krystyna, a girl who the Germans are trying to shoot, and encounters a trio of Home Army soldiers sneaking around the destroyed city. Thus, the heart of the film became the topic of the so-called ‘Warsaw Family Robinson’, those real-life people who continued to hide in Warsaw after the defeat of the uprising and the razing of the city. The most famous of these ‘Robinsons’ was Polish pianist Władysław Szpilman, who soon after the war wrote his famous memoir The Death of a City, a book which influenced the makers of Unvanquished City. However, the significant thing about their film was not the plot, but the details that were left out.
In Unvanquished City, there are many scenes where we see the Germans systematically destroying Warsaw. Indeed, there is not a single film about the uprising that doesn’t include a collection of scenes with fires being set and buildings being demolished. At this time the filmmakers were able to add authenticity to their pictures by capturing the real ruins of Warsaw, which were slowly being removed in order to make space for new buildings. But the Germans were not the only contributors to the destruction of the city. There were also the Soviet forces which set out to free Warsaw along with the valiant soldiers of the so-called People’s Army (which was under the command of the pro-communist government in Lublin). In the movie, the Soviets are shown as liberators. There are both portraits of Stalin and Soviet soldiers who come and established order in the occupied city. Indeed they bring peace and justice, which was strongly emphasised in the movie, but there is no mention of how they waited on the banks on the Wisła for the uprising to be defeated before they made their approach. However, in one of the last scenes of the film, we nonetheless see Polish soldiers, who are climbing on the statue of the Syrenka (Warsaw’s mascot, a mermaid with a sabre) and hoisting up the Polish flag.
The death of Stalin emboldens social metaphor
Polish cinema would return to the topic of the uprising very quickly. And there would be very different movies. After the death of Stalin, radical changes occurred in Poland, much more serious than in the Soviet Union. Poles more freely and frankly spoke about the uprising, even alluding that the tragic fate of Warsaw was not only the Germans’ fault.
Of course, the most recognisable work on this topic was Andrzej Wajda’s film Canal. Canal is one of his three iconic films about war (the others being A Generation and Ashes and Diamonds), filmed at the beginning of the director’s career in the 1950s. As always, Wajda is interesting not only for what he shows, but also for what he thinks about it. Canal is not a re-enactment of the uprising, but a real attempt at reflection, a search for metaphors and generalisations. And here Wajda arrives at counterintuitive conclusions. His movie is strange. It tells of a group of Home Army soldiers who are trying to escape the enemy siege through the sewers. Unfortunately, the sewers turn out to be a nightmarish trap for them, a place of ultimate confusion, death and defeat. One of the characters, watching the disarrayed soldiers collectively lose their minds, recites lines from Dante’s Inferno.
Wajda was definitively bleak in this movie. He is essentially saying that in the uprising, heroism was twisted around into failure. The uprising simply resulted in an occasion to understand the type of person one is in failure. This is a terrible test provided by history, and to some extent it is metaphor for all Poles, who after the war found themselves immured inside a tomb of filth and death. In the last scene of the movie, one of the few survivors reaches a grate at the end of the sewer, through which water drains into the Wisła. He can’t breakthrough the grate and he grasps the bars, realising that he is trapped. He looks out at the opposite bank of the river, overcome with his powerlessness. In the years the film was being made, many knew what Wajda wanted to say in this scene. Everyone knew that on the other side of the river stood the Soviet forces. But they would not be coming, they would not be helping. They are not saving the rebels, but merely putting up new grates. Truly, Canal to this day is the most ground-breaking and masterful film about the Warsaw Uprising, and the most prominent manifestation of this subject in cinematography.
Yet another classic production which concerns the events in Warsaw is Andrzej Munk’s Eroica. Though Munk may be considered less significant in Polish filmmaking than Wajda and Kawalerowicz, he tragically died at the very dawn of his career. Eroica is one of his few pictures. Like Munk’s other films, it was dedicated to the topic of the common man, whose actions move history. Initially, this movie was to be composed of three 40-minute novellas about the unknown heroes of war, the people, whose deeds seemed insignificant but nevertheless brought the cause closer to victory. Munk removed the first novella from his film, as a result Eroica contains only two stories. The second story is about captured soldiers in a German concentration camp. And the first one under the title Scherzo Alla Pollacca depicts the uprising, and strangely enough, shows the tragic events in Warsaw in a comic light.
The main character Dzidziuś is an ordinary and down-to-earth man. He volunteers in the Home Army, but at the first sign of trouble he runs away to his home in a comfortable suburb of Warsaw. At home, however, he is surprised to find some Hungarian officers who wish to join the side of the rebels. Dzidziuś must risk his life, constantly darting between the Hungarians and the leaders of the Home Army, who he wants to make allies. He fears for his own life and looks for every opportunity to weasel out of his mission. Along the way of his endless running about across the front line, he manages to get plastered and narrowly avoids cheating on his wife, who herself is constantly cheating on him. On top of it all, his entire mission falls apart. But according to the filmmakers, it is people like Dzidziuś who were the real heroes of the war, given that a hero is someone who, above all, overcomes himself. And the striking message that becomes apparent at the end of the film is that ordinary people, like Dzidziuś, will fight even unhappily for their country and city, simply because it’s impossible not to. Heroism according to Munk is not some other-worldly quality, but a natural trait in honest folk during wartime.
It is worth mentioning yet another picture about the uprising that was made during this time. It’s called The Stone Sky. It was created by the directing couple Ewa and Czesław Petelski. This movie isn’t showy, and the uprising is used as a background for the drama, which centres around several people trapped in a basement after a severe bombardment. The six heroes of the film are essentially slices of Polish society. Here there is the slick and self-confident Maniuś, a woman with a child, a young girl, an old woman, and a university professor. All of them await a rescue that will not come. The movie turns out to be a story of resignation and hopelessness that none of the trapped survivors is willing to admit. That said, the end of The Stone Sky is somewhat open, but it doesn’t leave any hope.
The 1970s: reflections on the experience of individuals
After this, the topic of the uprising did not appear in Polish film for a long time. It’s difficult to say if this was due some new censorship requirement or if the times simply changed. The 1950s were a time of relative freedom, and the end of the decade changed as a reaction to that. The 1960s were the era of Gomułka, which brought the first serious crisis in Poland under the communist regime, an anti-Semitic campaign and workers’ demonstrations. It is not surprising that in 1970 the uprising appeared in film once again. This time the topic was not limited to film, but also appeared on television, specifically the five-season show Kolumbowie directed by Janusz Morgenstern. This show was an adaptation of Roman Bratny’s Kolumbowie: Rocznik 20. Bratny’s work was an attempt to rationalise what became of the generation that came of age during the the war and the occupation. Twenty-year-old Poles were essentially the first generation that were born and raised in the new independent Poland. And it was they who had to endure the most terrible hardships of the occupation and war. They became discoverers of a world governed by new cruel rules. This is where the nickname ‘Columbuses’, which was bestowed by Bratny, came from. The nickname caught on, and many Poles born in the 1920s were called ‘Columbuses’. The uprising was portrayed in the fourth and fifth seasons of the show, which retold the successful beginning of the uprising and its tragic end. Kolumbowie was not a revelatory piece. It did not attempt to unpack the actual causes of the uprising. Morgenstern was more interested in the young people who were forced to give up their not-yet-lived lives for the rebellion.
Nine years later, he returned to this topic once more when he made the short film W-Hour. This was the name given to the time the uprising began – 5pm on 1st August 1944. The rebels here were shown as teenagers. Despite the occupiers, all around them is a relatively peaceful city where everyone is living their own lives. But something had to change. The young people start the uprising, which seems less like a war and more like a game. Once again, the real causes of what happened were not discussed. From Morgenstern’s picture it is hard to understand why it was necessary to attack the Germans, who were equipped with tanks and guns, when the Soviet army was already approaching. What sort of hell sucked the inhabitants of the whole city into it and brought such a terrible sacrifice? Not a single word was spoken about this.
The Third Republic unleashes memories of graphic despair
Up until the fall of the Communist regime in Poland, the subject of the uprising evolved into a historical legend. It was a legend everyone knew, but one no one wanted to discuss in earnest. Only pivotal developments within the country allowed filmmakers to return to the uprising. And this was not by coincidence. The fall of the communist regime and the rise of the ‘Third Republic’, which exists to this day, opened anew a discourse about how the post-war years were basically a Soviet occupation. It may have seemed like Poles had their own country and government, but events connected with the Solidarity movement and the following strikes, civil unrest, and martial law showed that Poland was more like a colony of the Soviet Union. Only the gradual demise of the empire allowed the overthrow of the communist authorities and the creation of a new state.
The uprising was the obvious connection between the new Poland and the old country that had ultimately died during those days in 1944. Unsurprisingly, the first to start talking about this was Andrzej Wajda, creator of Canal. This time he decided to talk about those events that people were prohibited to speak about in the 1950s. In 1992, Wajda made a movie based on the novella of his perennial co-author Aleksander Scibor-Rylski The Crowned-Eagle Ring. The uprising only plays a small part of the plot in this film. It is basically a prologue to the principle events, though never before had the uprising been portrayed so bloodily, harshly and realistically on film. Here, the uprising is a bloodbath, a catastrophe that everyone just wants to survive, not thinking about what is surrounding the country or who is controlling it. The main character Marcin is a Home Army soldier. He sees that the German occupation will essentially turn into a Soviet one. How could they fight in such circumstances? Wajda shows everything that had been hushed up before – nationalism, the sudden beginning of repression, torment in agencies, villainy, whistleblowing. It was becoming clear why the Home Army did not want such ‘liberation’ from the Nazis. But the nightmarish Polish security service officer Kosior reminds the rebels of their dire situation, citing that the Germans murdered hundreds of thousands of Poles over the course of the uprising. Meanwhile, Stalin would have no hesitation in putting down any future Polish revolts and deporting the participants to the gulag. It is better to rescue Poland for the goal of bringing communism, than to kill her completely. This situation brings Marcin to the decision to commit suicide. It is this film that most accurately and completely describes the events of these years, although it should be noted that this film is often too dry and straightforward. The Crowned-Eagle Ring should not be elevated to the level of Wajda’s best pictures, although it is certainly an outstanding work of cinema.
Modern directors search for lyricism in tragedy
In the last decade, there has been a lot of talk in Poland about the uprising. Now it is recognised not only as a tragic event, but as a key point in the rise of the new Poland. The Varsovians’ loss in this fight turned out to be a moral victory. If not for the uprising, it is possible there would be no Solidarity nor the wide protest movements. The modern perception of the uprising is very evident in the appearance of the museum in Warsaw dedicated to the subject. Dozens of books have come out on the uprising, and there are souvenirs, cards, even comics about these events. To some degree, the uprising became an attraction of a sort, much like, for example, the battlefields in Normandy. All of this is echoed in the movies that have been made in the past few years.
These movies exist on different levels. For instance, take a look at Roman Polański’s The Pianist. This movie can be strongly considered, if not a masterpiece, then one of the most accurate and vivid works about the war, the Holocaust, and, of course, the uprising. The Pianist, like Unvanquished City in its time, was based on the memoirs of Władysław Szpilman. While the 1950 film made good use of the themes and details of these memoirs, Polański made the plight and actions of the Jews very real and detailed on the screen, as they were the first victims of fascism and the first to rise up against the Nazis in Warsaw. In the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, an uprising began in April 1943. It was violently put down, but for many Varsovians, the action of the Jews was an inspiration for further resistance.
The Pianist is unique in that we see all of these events only through the eyes of Szpilman. The uprising in the ghetto, and then the Warsaw uprising are shown as scenes watched through a window. We see, how the German war machine worked inside Warsaw day in and day out, quietly and ruthlessly destroying everything that rose up against it. Polański does not try to make sense of the reasons for the uprising. He is interested only in the survival of his hero in this endless nightmare. The final credits say that Szpilman after these events lived until 2000 and remained a pianist. This is a truly moving moment. It means that despite all of the horrible experiences he lived through, he was able to preserve himself and return to a normal life.
Other movies about the uprising can seem very feeble and pretentious, as well as not always being well made. The August Sky: 63 Days of Glory, Dance of Death, Baczyński – all three of these were made in the past few years. Each of these films has some redeeming qualities. 63 Days of Glory is, in its own way, a piercing attempt to connect the events of the uprising to the present day. It is a story about those who have forgotten those events and about those who remember. The filmmakers sincerely revere the fallen and there are more than a few vivid images in the movie, but for the most part it looks amateur and at times, simply homemade. Dance of Death is a more serious, though just as poorly-funded film, which tells about the uprising through the eyes of a young man, who in the midst of the most terrible occurrences falls in love for the first time, with a German girl no less. But in this film, much seems arbitrary, and the story itself is not always psychologically authentic. Baczyński is interesting in that it is a biographical film about Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, a poet and one of the brightest and most celebrated representatives of the Columbuses’ generation. Baczyński was killed on the first day of the uprising. His fate reflects what happened to his peers in a striking way. But here the problem is the same – home video quality production, and the inability to make this film at the appropriate level. The filmmakers combine documentary and fictional material, trying to make an emotional film, but their picture is neither a statement on the uprising nor the poet’s works, nor even a fictional event.
Technology informs and distracts from the most recent films
In 2014, the 70th anniversary of the uprising was widely observed, and filmmakers did not stay on the side lines. The young director Jan Komasa made two very different pictures which, though certainly interesting, shouldn’t be considered as equals to the films of Wajda and Munk. One movie, which is simply known as Warsaw Uprising, was created with the effort of the Warsaw Uprising Museum.
Though a fictional picture, it is composed entirely of real documentary material in what turns out to be an intriguing and quite innovative film experiment. The film chronicles of the uprising were arranged and colorised on a computer and a scripted voiceover was added. As a result, we see the uprising through the eyes of two brothers, who are supposedly filming this chronicle of events we are watching. There is a lot of good material and fine scenes in the film, though the decision to convert the scant footage available into a movie did lead to a curious result. That being said, before us is the first detailed cinematic description of the events in Warsaw, its own kind of anatomy of the tragedy. If you want to see how the events unfolded, Warsaw Uprising is the exact film that you need to watch. Here there is no attempt to make any serious generalisations about what happened. It is simply a fanciful story made with the help of real eyewitnesses and modern technology.
Komasa, however, did not stop here. He continued on to make one of the most expensive movies in the history of Polish cinema, a large-scale picture by the name of Warsaw 44. This ambitious spectacle carried extremely heavy expectations. The beginning titles even communicate that the movie was created through the patronage of Poland’s president. And in the movie, the director aptly demonstrates his ability to handle modern cinematic technologies – the action scenes indeed seem vivid and effective. There is much realism and detail straight from eyewitness accounts. And then there is the young hero, Stefan, who finds himself entangled in a love triangle with two ladies while the uprising rages around them.
The impression is that Warsaw 44 ought to be a typical ‘historical film’, that is a film made specifically for a historical event. But the technology and effects, unfortunately, frequently obscure the meaning of the events. To say it nicely, you will not find much sense in Komasa’s movie. There aren’t any interesting characters in this picture. The scenery is incredibly bad. This film is simply an attempt to connect the events of the uprising with some sort of plot. There are many cut scenes and slow-motion sequences that seem completely inappropriate when showing the suffering and death of people. The Germans are for the most part caricatures, and the suffering of the people shown in the film seems inauthentic. The director is very removed from what is being shown, that much is obvious. Towards the end you catch yourself thinking that it is completely impossible to understand why this film was made. The only strong image we see is in the finale. Before us is a panorama of a completely destroyed Warsaw on fire, which gradually changes into modern Warsaw – with skyscrapers, bridges, hundreds of cars. Warsaw was ultimately victorious, and this is a visual demonstration of that. However, this image comes across as a bit heavy-handed.
It must be said that visiting Warsaw and seeing before you a big city practically recreated from scratch, it never fails to surprise. Today’s Warsaw is not just a city, but a monument to the human spirit, the will to survive no matter what. Perhaps, the memory of the uprising is honoured so much, because you think not only about the sacrifice of the dead, but what they have achieved. Poland again lives independently, as she wants, and no one can break her.
Originally written in Russian, June 2015; translated by KA, Nov 2017