Forever Young: Classic Polish Cinema for Kids
Several generations were raised on them. They brought millions of viewers into cinemas and in front of television sets, and their sayings and songs made their way into colloquial speech. Here are some of the classics of Polish children’s entertainment from during the communist regime.
Stawiam na Tolka Banana
Among thirty- and forty-year-olds today, there is probably no one who doesn’t know this show. Based on the 1966 novel by Adam Bahdaj, this production from Stanisław Jędryka was one of the biggest hits on television for decades in the era under communism.
The show tells the story of four teenagers who were on the verge of rebellion until they meet Tolek Banan, a charismatic scout who teaches them about friendship, honesty and solidarity.
The adventures on Stawiam na Tolka Banana (editor’s translation: I Bet on Tolek Banana) were not only entertaining, but also educational (many series of that time had a propagandistic agenda). It seems not everyone caught the message at first. After the broadcast of the first episode, an activist from the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party asked creators, ‘What are you putting on television? Gangs, the margins of society, bazaars… as if there aren’t decent youth organisations in our country’.
Fortunately, no one took the show of the air and Stawiam na Tolka Banana became a cult classic and educated a generation. It’s not by chance that the show’s theme song by Jerzy Matuszkiewicz, Ballada o Tolku Bananie (The Ballad of Tolek Banan), was later covered by Polish bands such as Wilki and Strachy na Lachy.
Podróż za jeden uśmiech
The story of Tolek Banan and his young friends is one of many children’s classics from the writing-directing duo Adam Bahdaj and Stanisław Jędryka. Their other big hit was Podróż za Jeden Uśmiech (editor’s translation: Journey for One Smile) from 1972.
The protagonists of this seven-part series were Poldek and Duduś, cousins who set off on a journey from Kraków to Hel to join their mothers for a vacation by the Baltic Sea. Their journey doesn’t go according to plan and the young heroes have adventures along the way that change their lives forever.
Jędryka’s series paralleled the genre of a road trip film to the journey of the boys towards adulthood. It quickly became a television hit – not only because of the popular form, but also thanks to the two young starring actors. In the 1970s, Filip Łobodziński and Henryk Gołębiewski were the biggest child stars of film and television (Podróż za Jeden Uśmiech was also released a 90-minute film in 1973).
Wakacje z duchami
Wakacje z Duchami (editor’s translation: Vacation with Ghosts), the next in the series of hits from Jędryka and Bahdaj, debuted on Polish televition in the spring of 1971. The series follows the adventures of Pikador, Perełka and Mandaryn, three boys who spend their holidays in the forest and one day decide to investigate the ghosts that haunt the nearby castle.
The series, which strayed from Adam Bahdaj’s literary prototype, featured child star Henryk Gołębiewski, alongside some of best actors of the era, including Zdzisław Maklakiewicz, Janusz Gajos and Józef Nowak, who once again played a good policeman, a role familiar from earlier Jędryka productions.
Abel twój brat
After Jędryka, the second greatest director of children’s entertainment of the years under communism was Janusz Nasfeter. His Motyle (editor’s translation: Butterflies) and Kolorowe Pończochy (editor’s translation: Colourful Stockings) are true masterpieces of children’s cinema. While Jędryka created entertaining stories that blended educational values and youthful idylls, Nasfeter portrayed his young heroes in a completely different way. Of Nasfeter, Łukasz Maciejewski wrote in Polish magazine Tygodnik Powszechny:
Janusz Nasfeter made films about children – for adults. He remained a big child himself – hypersensitive, neurotic, not quite fitting in….
Abel, Twój Brat (editor’s translation: Abel, Your Brother), is among Nasfeter’s most unforgettable works. It tells the story of Karol Matulak, a skinny boy raised by his overprotective mother. When Karol goes to a new school and tries to make new friends, the sensitive boy is an outsider and soon becomes a victim of local bullies.
Childhood in Nasferter’s films never resembled the idyllic vision Jędryka portrayed. It was instead a series of painful encounters – with the world, with one’s own emotions and with parents who, despite sincere efforts, could not understand the experiences of their children.
‘Hator, hator, hator’ – spoken by a talking cat, this spell will forever be remembered by fans of Siedem Życzeń (editor’s translation: Seven Wishes). Despite its simple plot and the fact that it aired over 30 years ago, Janusz Dymek’s show is hard to forget.
Maciej Zembaty, one of the scriptwriters and the voice of the talking cat Rademenes, wrote of the show:
Siedem Życzeń is a modern fairy tale, based on a classic story – anything you can imagine, can happen.
The show told the story of Darek, a thirteen-year-old who rescued a black cat from local hooligans. The cat turns out to be Rademenes – a magical creature who can not only speak, but also grant wishes. In gratitude for Darek saving his life, Rademenes promises to fulfil seven of the boy’s wishes – one in each episode.
Przygody psa Cywila
Rademenes wasn’t the only animal to find fame on communist era television in Poland. Even more popular than the magical feline was his older colleague – Cywil, a wise and brave German Shepard serving in the ranks of the Milicja Obywatelska (Citizen’s Militia).
Cywila was the hero of Przygody Psa Cywila (editor’s translation: The Adventures of Cywil the Dog), which debuted in September 1971. An investigative comedy about an impatient policeman Walczak (played by the great Krzysztof Litwin) and his dog, the show appealed to both children and their parents. Przygody Psa Cywila was both a family show and a crime drama and each episode introduced a new mystery to solve.
While the majority of children’s shows were set in the present (partly in service of their propagandistic function), the creators of Janka took viewers back to the 1920s to tell the story of a band of children led by the teenaged Janka and her friend Julka.
The series from Janusz Łęski and Adam Iwiński wove the girls’ stories into a narrative of a longstanding dispute between two rival families. Episodes were filled with adventure, love and even magic – viewers might not remember the details of the plot, but it is impossible to forget the picture of a twisted ring that had the power to perform miracles.
Janka was produced in 1989 as a Polish-German collaboration and attracted veteran actors Krzysztof Kowalewski, Marta Lipińska and Joanna Żołkowska with great roles. More importantly, it introduced Agnieszka Krukówna, who became one of the most popular teenage stars of the early 1990s.
Akademia Pana Kleksa
More than 14 million viewers saw Krzysztof Gradowski’s 1983 film adaptation of beloved Polish poet Jan Brzechwa’s book, Akademia Pana Kleksa (Academy of Mr. Kleks). As for how many watched it on television, it’s impossible to know. For years, Akademia Pana Kleksa was not only one of the most popular children’s television shows, but also one of the most popular films ever made in Poland. With Mr. Kleks, Gradowski created art – mingling a classic fairy tale with elements of a musical. It became a cult classic for a generation.
On the occasion of the show’s release on DVD, Łukasz Maciejewski wrote in Tygodnik Powszechny:
It doesn’t matter that an objective evaluation of Akademia Pana Kleksa and subsequent films must be critical. Time has taken its toll. After all these years, the imperfections of Akademia are apparent: palaces made of cardboard, the young actors aren’t the best, there are shoddy tricks, etc. But the greatest strength of this kind of story is nostalgia. It is nostalgia that raises us far beyond the imperfections of directing, acting and editing. With nostalgia it’s not worth polemicising – it’s indelible.
Waiting for magic
Nostalgia keeps us coming back to the productions of our youth. Thinking back, it’s regrettable to note that after the era of communism in Poland, Polish cinema largely forgot about its young viewers. For the past three decades, the worlds and adventures of young heroes have rarely been seen on screen. There have been a few, including Andrzej Maleszka’s Magiczne Drzewo (editor’s translation: The Magic Tree), Tomasz Szafrański’s Klub Włóczykijów (editor’s translation: The Wanderer’s Club) and Maruisz Palej’s Za Zamkiętymi Drzwiami (editor’s translation: Behind Closed Doors), but Polish film has room for many more.
The market can no longer ignore young viewers. There is an increasing awareness of this, as evidenced by the 2016 program at the Polish Film Institute, which financed a program to produce films for young viewers. Who knows, maybe we’ll soon see programs that will be for a new generation what Akademia Pana Kleksa or Stawiam na Tolka Banana were for their parents.
Sources: Tygodnik Powszechny, Nostalgia.pl, Filmpolski.pl, TVP, author’s information; originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, 5 May 2017, translated by AGA. 10 Jul 2017