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Daniel Olbrychski

Daniel Olbrychski w filmie "1920 Bitwa Warszawska" w reżyserii Jerzego Hoffmana, 2011, fot. Forum Film Poland
Daniel Olbrychski starring in 1920 Bitwa Warszawska directed by Jerzego Hoffman, 2011, photo: Forum Film Poland

Film and theatre actor. Born on the 27th of February 1945 in Łowicz, Poland.

Olbrychski oscillates between extremes. (…) On one hand he's wonderful, on the other, he's bad, he's a demon. Sometimes he's super-sensitive, sometimes he's cruel. - Tadeusz Sobolewski

Table of contents: Beginnings | The 1970s - Significant Appearances | Later Roles | International Collaborations | Theatrical Roles | TV Theatre | Cultural Impact | Awards and Distinctions


In the years 1963-1964 Olbrychski was involved with the Youth Theatre of the Polish Television. As irony would have it, despite Obrychski's status as one of Poland's greatest actors he finished his acting studies at the Warsaw Higher Theatre School as late as in 2010(extramural exam – 1971). In his first year as a student he debuted in the movie Wounded in the Forest (Ranny w lesie) (1964) directed by Janusz Nasfeter. Only a handful of people remember nowadays that it was Nasfeter who discovered the young  Olbrychski (who was nineteen years old at the time). 

His next film Ashes (Popioły) (1965) eclipsed that debut. He played one of the main parts (Rafał Olbromski), under the direction of the great film-maker Andrzej Wajda. It was the beginning of a long-term collaboration of both artists. The period of apprenticeship at Wajda's team substituted for his acting studies. 'It was something better than school", Olbrychski remarked, 'practicing at the master's side and also making art'.

A twenty years old Daniel earned attention thanks to his natural charm and an aura of mystery that surrounded him, which suggested that an inner strength behind the boyish face and a unique personality. Olbrychski, although lacking in technique, created in Ashes a character that falls into memory and immediately received propositions of other roles: he played in two movies by Janusz Morgenstern: Afterwards There Will Be Silence (Potem nastąpi cisza) and Jovita and also in the film Boxer by Julian Dziedzina. In 1969 he once again worked with Wajda and appeared in the movies Hunting Flies (Polowianie na muchy) and Everything for Sale (Wszystko na sprzedaż). The second film was a tribute to the great actor Zbigniew Cybulski, who died tragically. Olbrychski played the part of Daniel, an actor.

Tadeusz Sobolewski writes in Film magazine (1975, nr 18) that the actor 'takes the place of the deceased Zbyszek. As if he was dubbed his younger brother, he takes on his role'. Other critics even wrote about a symbolic act of succession from the deceased actor-idol. However, 'even though Olbrychski grew up in the shadow of Cybulski's legend he never tried to imitate him. (…) He had a different acting style than Cybulski, he was a more restrained and relaxed actor' (Film 1995, nr 10).

The 1970s - Significant Appearances

Olbrychski admittedly became the idol of the seventies, but a very different one than his predecessor. In the same year 1969 he began working with Jerzy Hoffman, a director, who played a noteworthy part in his career. The part of Tuhajbejowicz in Henryk Sieniekiewicz's Colonel Wołodyjowski (Pan Wołodyjowski) became the young actor's great display. He played a wild Asian character, ruthless but at the same time capable of romantic sacrifices in love. It is worth noting that exactly thirty years later in With Fire and Sword, another super-production by Jerzy Hoffman, the actor played the part of Tuhaj-bej, Tuhajbejowicz's fictional father.

The year 1970 brought him completely different roles in Wajda's movies than in earlier ones.  The proposal to play in Landscape After the Battle, based upon Tadeusz Borowski's prose, came as a surprise to the actor, who couldn’t imagine himself portraying a tepid observer. It turned out however that he was well capable of conveying the personality of a man, whose vitality had been stifled and who is trying to return to life after the horrors of Auschwitz. Equally hard for him was the part of a discouraged, internally burned out after his wife’s death widower in the movie Birch Wood (Brzezina), based on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz's prose. With those two great performances he proved that the scale of his talent and potential is much bigger than anybody suspected.

He again presented his characteristic style of focused, keen psychological acting in Krzysztof Zanussi's movie Family Life. After a slightly unsuccessful appearance in Wajda's film Pilate and Others (1971), the actor brilliantly played the part of the bridegroom in The Wedding (Wesele) (1972) by the same director.

A still from The Birch Wood directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1970. Daniel Olbrychski and Elżbieta Żołek, Filmoteka Narodowa/
A still from The Birch Wood directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1970. Daniel Olbrychski and Elżbieta Żołek, Filmoteka Narodowa/

A nationwide discussion was provoked by the role of Kmicic offered to Olbrychski by Hoffman. For many people the actor then became public enemy number one. However he decided to play in The Deluge (1974) and his performance by far surpassed the stereotypes of a costume movie.  He portrayed a character that was suggestive and true in its contradictions – out of a villain and killer he managed to create a thoughtful, almost tragic individual. The actor prepared comprehensively for the role:

I knew I had to make a body-builder out of myself, because the viewer knows this great character and wants him to present himself as best as possible. I had to gain wonderful muscles, ride a horse well and learn how to fence.

 Daniel Olbrychski in The Deluge by Jerzy Hoffman, photo National Film Archives/
Daniel Olbrychski in The Deluge by Jerzy Hoffman, photo National Film Archives/

After the premiere of The Deluge the actor was widely praised for his performance and the film itself gained great popularity and was nominated for an Oscar. Olbrychski was having a run of good luck. Shortly after the shooting of The Deluge was completed, he once again appeared in a movie by Wajda. This time it was The Promised Land, where he played the part of a young nobleman Borowiecki, a man deprived of elementary human feelings, who is capable of committing any indecency for his career. In this role the actor gave a display of his wonderful technique and precision, even though he acted against himself. As he said, "When I was starting my career as an actor, my naïve soul thought that I would always act what I feel, that is to say, straightforward and noble characters".

The seventies ended for Olbrychski with another great role. It was the part of Wiktor Ruben in The Maids of Wilko (Panny z Wilka) (1979) – a movie based on Iwaszkiewicz's prose and directed by Wajda. In this role, which by many is considered the actor's best creation ever, Olbrychski achieved the pinnacle of acting subtlety. He played a character marked with a sense of non-fulfillment, searching for a lost time. This movie was also nominated for an Oscar.

The actor appeared also in Kung-Fu (1979, directed by Janusz Kijowski), Knight (1980, directed by Lech J. Majewski) and Visit to the Crime Scene 1901 (1980, directed by Filip Bajon) and later left the country out of artistic and political (the declaring of martial law) reasons. Therefore in the following years he mainly played in movies created by foreign directors. 

Later Roles

Daniel Olbrychski in Battle of Warsaw 1920 directed by Jerzy Hoffman, 2011, Forum Film Poland
Daniel Olbrychski in Battle of Warsaw 1920 directed by Jerzy Hoffman, 2011, Forum Film Poland

He returned to Polish cinema in 1985 with the role of a convict sent to a distant planet in the movie Ga, ga. Glory to the Heroes directed by Piotr Szulkin. Ha appeared also in Witold Leszczyński's Siekierezada, a poetic film based on Edward Stachura's prose as well as I'm Against by Andrzej Trzosa-Rastawiecki, where he portrayed a director of a drug rehabilitation centre. Three years later he played in Krzystof Kieślowski's Decalogue III. He returned once again to Polish movies with the film The Order of Feelings by Radosław Piwowarski (1993) and in 1995 he performed in The Story of Master Twardowski by Krzysztof Gradowski and Stone (Pestka) directed by Krystyna Janda and based on Anka Kowalska's prose. In 1999 he yet again collaborated with Wajda, this time on the adaptation of Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz, where he played the part of Gerwazy. Three years later he played Dyndalski in the same director's Revenge. Once more he met with Hoffman during work on the abovementioned With Fire and Sword and on the set of  An Ancient Tale: When the Sun Was a God, where he played the role of Piastun. Olbrychski also appeared in Zanussi's Weekend Stories and Persona non Grata (2005).

International Collaborations

At the beginning of the seventies he performed in three movies by the Hungarian director – Miclos Jancso. However his international career didn’t really start until 1979, when he played the romantic part of Jan Broński in the Golden Palm and Oscar winning The Tin Drum by Volker Schlöndorff, based on Günter Grass's prose. In the following years the actor traveled throughout Europe and played in Italian, French, German, Greek and after the year 1990 also in Russian films.

1981 brought him the leading part in The Fall of Italy (directed by Lordan Zafranovic) and in Les Uns et les Autres by Claude Lelouch, where he portrayed a conductor by the name of Karl Kremer. Next came Joseph Losey's The Trout (1982) and a role in the Oscar winning movie Dangerous Moves directed by Richard Dembo (1984). In the following years Olbrychski appeared in such movies as The Unbearable Lightness of Being directed by Philip Kaufman, Notturno directed by Fritz Lehner, The Jeweller's Shop (based on a play by Karol Wojtyła) directed by Michael Anderson, The Red Orchestra directed by Jacques Rouffio, Passi d'Amore directed by Sergio Solima and The Barber of Siberia directed by Nikita Mikhalkov.

He also appeared in movies realized by Polish directors, abroad: In Wajda's A Love in Germany and in Zanussi's Die Rolle and Das Lange Gespräch mit dem Vogel.

He has performed alongside great actors including Michel Piccoli, Iabelle Huppert, Marina Vlady, Leslie Caron, Hanna Schygula or such legends as Burt Lancaster or Simone Signoret. Altogether Olbrychski appeared in over one hundred Polish and foreign movies, including the Angelina Jolie-powered thriller Salt in 2009.

Theatrical Roles

Theatre was an individual field of the actor’s creative activity. Since 1969 he played in the Common Theatre and later in the National Theatre in Warsaw. There he played amongst others (450 times!) title roles in Adam Hanuszkiewicz’s spectacles Hamlet by William Shakespeare and Beniowski by Juliusz Słowacki. In France he appeared in the scene adaptation of Gone with the Wind, where he played the part of Rhett Butler. He collaborated also with Hanuszkiewicz on Aleksander Fredro. He was Edward-Papkin in Nonsense and Gustaw-Wacław in Man and Wife. He returned to Fredro in the nineties, when he portrayed the character of Cześnik in Revenge directed by Andrzej Łapicki (1998, Polish Theatre in Warsaw).

He played other roles in theatrical classics staged on the scene of the National Theatre by Hanuszkiewicz. He was Stańczyk and Wernyhora in The Wedding by Stanisław Wyspiański (1974) and Adam Mickiewicz in the spectacle Mickiewicz (1976). On the scene of the Warsaw Athenaeum Theatre he portrayed Rodryk in The Cid by Jan Andrzej Morsztyn staged by Hanuszkiewicz (1985). In the nineties he also played amongst others Keane in Genius and Madness by Alexandre Dumas directed by Andrzej Łapicki (1993, Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw) and general Wincenty Krasiński in A November Night. Dramatic Scenes by Stanisław Wyspiański put on by Jerzy Grzegorzewski (1997, National Theatre in Warsaw). In 2006, in a play prepared on the occasion of the actor's sixtieth birthday and directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, he created the character of King Lear from Shakespeare’s tragedy (Tadeusz Łomnicki Theatre in Wola in Warsaw).

Olbrychski shows the gradual change of the character – from an arrogant, self-assured ruler into a broken by life old man on the verge of insanity. He’s only poignant in a couple of scenes, when instead of loud words and gestures, the tragedy is played in an intense silence or in a whisper. However often when he’s shouting with his sword raised or chasing hallucinations with the expression of an amused child he is too literal. - Marcin Kościelniak wrote after the premiere in Tygodnik Powszechny” 2006, nr 5

TV Theatre

He has also played dozens of performances for television theatre, creating memorable Shakespearian roles, such as Othello in the play directed by Andrzej Chrzanowski (1984), Macbeth in Krzysztof Nazar's spectacle (1988) and also Raskolnikov in Feodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment directed by Andrzej Łapicki (1980). Olbrychski also portrayed the characters of the Commander's Deputy in Salome's Silver Dream (1994) and Kosakowski in Father Mark by Juliusz Słowacki – other, daring and keen television adaptations by Krzysztof Nazar (1994). He also played the Old Veteran in Wyspiański's Varsovian Anthem directed by Chrzanowski (1994), Michael in Ronald Harwood's Reflected Glory directed by Janusz Zaorski (1996), Stanisław August in Leszek Wosiewicz's historic comedy Caesarian Romance (1998) and Ernest Hyde in Edgar Lee Master's The Dead of Spoon River directed by Jolanta Patszyńska (2006).

Cultural Impact

Over the decades, Olbrychski has ranked among Poland's most beloved actors among general audiences. In 1996 he imprinted his hand on the Star Promenade at the first Star Festival in Międzyzdroje. He has received major awards and distinctions from his native Poland and other nations, including the The French Order of Fine Arts and Humanistic Sciences.

In an interview by Małgorzata Sadowska (Film 1999, nr 4) he confided:

I know what fame is, what money, festivals, awards, life in New York, Hollywood or Paris are like. But I’m happy living by the Vistula. (…) I might play something, but I don’t have to. When I don’t get a certain role I think: what a pity, thank God.

Daniel Olbrychski is also the author of books Reminiscences on Włodzimierz Wysocki (1990), Angels around the Head (together with Przemysław Ćwikliński and Jacek Ziarno, 1992), Done with a Few Years (1997).


Recently Olbrychski played in a Polish-German production Wintervater directed by Johannes Schmid (2010), Śluby panieńskie / Maidens' Vows, or the Magnetism of the Heart directed by Filip Bajon and based on a drama by Aleksander Fredro (2010), a supporting role in an American film Salt directed by Phillip Noyce (2010), a Hungarian film by Miklós Jancsó - Szlag trafił sprawiedliwość / So Much For Justice! (2010), Z miłości / Out of Love by Anna Jadowska (2011), a costume film 1920 Bitwa Warszawska / Battle of Warsaw 1920 directed by Jerzy Hoffman, a Polish-Italian production by Renzo Martinelli Bitwa pod Wiedniem / September Eleven 1683 (2012), an action film Sęp / The Vulture directed by Eugeniusz Korin (2012), Hans Kloss. Stawka większa niż śmierć / Hans Kloss. Stakes Larger Than Death by Patryk Vega (2012), an Irish production The Hardy Bucks Movie by Mike Cockayne (2013) and a full-lenght feature debut by Katarzyna Jungowska Piąte. Nie odchodź! / Fanciful (2014).

Although he stars in many films, Olbrychski is also active on stage, collaborating with several theatres in Warsaw. In 2010 he performed in an adaptation of Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam directed by Eugeniusz Korin (6. Piętro Theatre in Warsaw). Subsequently, he played in Po drodze do Madison / On the way to Madison directed by Grzegorz Warchoł, based on Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County (2011, 6. Piętro Theatre in Warsaw), Juliusz Słowacki's Mazepa directed by Piotr Tomaszuk (2012, Polski Theatre in Warsaw), Aleksander Fredro's Zemsta / Vengeance staged by Krzysztof Jasiński (2013, Polski Theatre in Warsaw), and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain directed by Wojciech Malajkat (2015, Syrena Theatre in Warsaw).

Major awards and distinctions:

  • 1969 – The Zbigniew Cybulski Prize (granted by the weekly magazine Ekran)
  • 1970 – Silver Mask – Prize
  • 1971 – Golden Mask – Prize; Award for male role in the film Birch Wood at the Lubuskie Film Summer in Łagów; Award for male role in the film Birch Wood at the International Film Festival in Moscow
  • 1974 – National Award of the second degree; Distinction – Golden Cross of Merit; Award for leading male role in the movie The Deluge at the Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdańsk
  • 1975 – Golden Camera (granted by the magazine Film) in the best actor category for the year 1974; Title of the Star of the Film Season at the LFS in Łagów; Award for best actor granted by the CRF and Acting Award at the FFLP in Czechoslovakia
  • 1980 – The Award of the Minister of Foreign Affairs for propagating polish culture abroad;
  • 1986 – Distinction (The Legion of Honour)
  • 1991 – Distinction (The French Order of Fine Arts and Humanistic Sciences)
  • 1998 – Distinction (Commander's Cross of the Order of the Revival of Poland for great achievements in artistic work)
  • 1999 – The Actor’s Mission Award at the International Film Festival Art Film in Trenczianskie Teplice (Slovakia)
  • 2002 – Super Wiktor 2001 – Prize
  • 2003 – Great Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany; Eagle – Polish Film Award (nomination) in the category: best supporting male role (in the movie Revenge)
  • 2006 – Golden Medal Gloria Artis – Medal for Merit to Culture
  • 2007 – Kristian’s Award for long-term contributions to the development of world cinematography at the International Film Festival Febiofest in Prague; The Constantin Stanislavsky Award at the 29th International Film Festival in Moscow
  • 2008 – Pushkin’s Medal (Russian distinction) for his special merits in the field of culture, education, art as well as for rapprochement of cultures of different nations”;
  • 2010 – "Złota Kaczka" Special Award for "the best actor of the best films"; Bałtycka Gwiazda / Baltic Star for promoting cultural cooperation between Baltic states; an award of the "Gentleman" magazine in the category of "Gentleman on screen";
  • 2012 – an award for lifetime achivement in Polish cinematography, especially for an outstanding performance in Promised Land granted at the 26th Festiwal Wybranych Polskich Filmów Fabularnych / Selected Polish Feature Film Festival inn Tarnów;  Acting Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Art of Film at the 'Plus Camerimage' International Film Festival of The Art of Cinematography in Bydgoszcz;
  • 2013 - "Platynowy Szczeniak" Award for outstanding achievements in acting at the 2nd Tadeusz Szymków Film Acting Festival in Wrocław;
  • 2014 - "Złoty Anioł za Niepokorność Twórczą" Award at the 12th International Film Festival "Tofifest " in Toruń; Honorary Citizenship of the city of Opole.


Author: Halina Olczak-Moraczewska, January 2005.

Updated by: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, November 2009. Translated by Marek Kępa, November 2011; updated December 2016, ND.

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Daniel Olbrychski


Daniel Olbrychski


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Daniel Olbrychski


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