Polish Cinema of the Silent Film Era
The Wright brothers invented the first airplane. The French Lumiere brothers are also widely recognised as inventing the film camera and making cinema possible. In the same period a number of Polish investors were making headway in the early development of film production.
Prior to the breakout of WWII, Warsaw was the veritable hub of Polish cinema, with "as many as the sixty-three out of the sixty-seven films made before 1918 and 258 of the 267 full-length films completed during the whole interwar period were made in the Polish capital", according to film historian Marek Haltof in his book Polish National Cinema. Many of these projects were launched at the initiative of Warsaw's Jewish entrepreneurs.
The short comedy titled Antoś pierwszy raz w Warszawie / Anthoś in Warsaw for the first time, produced by the owner of Oaza, a cinema theatre in 1908. It introduced Antoni Fertner (1874–1959), whose on-screen persona as the chubby Antoś from the Polish countryside, established his fame among the early Polish cinema goers. Fertner went on to play several characters over the coming years, and could be considered the first recognisable "star" of Polish cinema. According to film-historian Marek Haltof, Fertner's favourite brand of comedy was farce. Slapstick was never popular in Poland. Farce. Coupled with musical comedy flourished in the 1930s, again with Fertner, though now in strong supporting roles. (Polish National Cinema, 2002).
One of the most notable individuals at the time was Kazimierz Prószyński (1875-1945). A Polish inventor, Prószyński built his first film camera, the Pleograph, in 1894. It was patented before the Lumiere brothers' invention. Prószyński used his invention to film what is considered to be the first Polish narrative film, Powrót Birbanta / The Return of a Merry Fellow (1902).
Another active member of the Polish film scene at the time was Bolesław Matuszewski (1856-c.1940), a former employee of the Lumiere factory. As early as 1898, he proposed the establishment of a film archive. It is worth noting that at the time, most of the films produced were newsreels or short documentary clips showing human activity. It was therefore a groundbreaking idea to protect this material.
Around the same time, the Polish silver screen saw the debut of Barbara Apolonia Chałupiec, who was to achieve world-wide fame as Pola Negri (1897-1987 ). She made eight popular erotic melodramas before leaving in 1917 for Germany and later Hollywood. Her Polish films included her debut Slave to her Niewolnica zmysłów / Senses (1914), Żona / The Wife (1915), Students / Studenci (1916), and Jego ostatni czyn / His last gesture (1917). Negri eventually became an international sensation, and is still considered to be one of the foremost sex symbols of the era.
Jadwiga Smosarska (1898-1971), was another star of the Polish silent film industry. She became famous for portraying roles of suffering and sacrificial womanhood, such as in Trędowata / The Leper (1926). Yet Polish cinema at the time was not all about epic storylines and femme fatales. One of the most significant players was Władysław Starewicz (1882- 1965), who was a great innovator of stop motion cinema. His The Cameraman's Revenge (1911) – made with insect "actors" – was a ground-breaking step in cinematographic techniques. A leading figure of this period was director Henryk Szaro (1900-1942 ), a former student of Russian theatre innvovator Vsevolod Meyerhold. Szaro went on to direct films such as Mocny Człowiek / The Strong Man (1929).
The end of WWI saw films produced in Germany, France and the US enter the Polish market, eventually dominating the local market. The May 1926 Coup d'État led by Józef Piĺsudski against then-president Stanisław Wojciechowski did not greatly affect the level of production. However the quality of films were nothing to write home about. There were only a handful of films of note, including the popular Wampiry Warszawy / The Vampires of Warsaw (1925) directed by Wiktor Biegański, as well as Huragan / The Hurricane (1925) by Józef Lejtes, which became Poland's first international success. Even prior to the war, Poland was making its mark on the world of film through many Polish-born Jews who emigrated to the U.S. Some of Hollywood's greatest studio empires were cofounded by Polish-born Jews, such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, cofounded by Samuel Goldwyn (1879-1974) who emigrated to the U.S. in 1896, and Warner Bros., cofounded by Schmuel Wonsal (Sam Warner), who emigrated to the U.S. in 1889.
Moralność Pani Dulskiej / The Morality of Mrs. Dulska (1930) was Poland's first sound film. It was a real international cooperation. It was based on the Polish drama by Gabriela Zapolska and directed by a Russian director working in Vienna, Bolesław Newolin. The financial backing was provided by Austrian and Polish Jews.
The biggest Polish film production companies during the 1930s were controlled by Jewish entrepreneurs: Sfinks, Leo-Film, Blok-Muza-Film and Gleisner. It might not be surprising therefore that the best-known Polish film to survive this era was a Yiddish musical Yidl mitn Fidl / Yiddle with His Fiddle (1936). The film was shot in Kraków's Kazimierz district and starred American actress, Molly Picon. The outbreak of World War II put a halt to all film projects, with many of Poland's most promising directors, producers and actors fleeing Nazi-occupied Poland for Europe and Hollywood, such as Roman Polański.
Author: Roberto Galea, June 2012