Aleksander Ford’s film from 1960.
If a place in the history of the cinema was determined by popularity, Knights of the Teutonic Order would be considered as one of the all-time most important Polish films. It is estimated that up to 1987, it was seen by 32 million people which, to date, remains an unbeatable record. This far-from-perfect historical film responded perfectly to the social demands of that time and became a significant element in the creation of national mythology.
The circumstances of its production were specific. Knights of the Teutonic Order was created to commemorate the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald and was a part of the preparations for the Millennium of the Polish State (the establishment of a Polish state is dated to 966, when Mieszko I, ruler of a territory roughly coextensive with that of present-day Poland, converted to Christianity). The film is based on the novel of the same name by Nobel prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz and from the very beginning had two purposes: as a patriotic demonstration and as a huge, monumental spectacle.
The choice of Sienkiewicz’s novel was determined by communist propaganda, which accused West Germany of attempting to revise the borders agreed upon after World War II (i.e. attempts to take away the south-western part of Poland) and wanted to visibly reprove it. Unfortunately, this immediacy leaves its firm print on Ford’s work – the characters are shown in black and white. Germans are hypocritical, cruel and bloodthirsty while Poles remain noble, honourable and just. The authors of the History of Polish Film (Historia Filmu Polskiego, vol. 4) noticed that the contrast between the two nations is enhanced by the use of colour – lively when Poland is presented, cold and obscure when the action takes place on lands ruled by the Teutonic knights.
The Polish-Teutonic conflict is a background for adventures and capers of individual characters such as Zbyszko z Bogdańca and Jurand ze Spychowa. Zbyszko (Mieczysław Kalenik) is a Polish nobleman, not that astute but as brave as a lion. He promises fidelity to the distinguished Lady Danusia but eventually falls in love with the folksier Jagienka. Jurand’s background is a bit more complicated. He is cruelly experienced by fate and has come acrossnumerous misfortunes caused by Teutonic Knights. Their stories interweave harmonically with court scenes where historical characters appear, such as King Władysław Jagiełło (painted in a much better light than in the novel) and Duke Vytautas. The 15-minute scene of the Battle of Grunwald, crowned with a spectacular victory for Polish troops serves as the finale for the Knights of the Teutonic Order.
After the premiere, Andrzej Wajda said that Ford’s film blights everything that Polish Film School tried to state in terms of cleverly opposing the official guidelines of Socialist realism. Indeed, Ford’s vision of the world is rather primitive: he approaches national myths in a very uncritical way, he makes no effort (contrary to Andrzej Wajda or Andrzej Munk) to provoke his audience to think more deeply – instead, he confirms the nationalist stereotypes according to the political line of the former First Secretary of Communist Party, Wiesław Gomułka.
Yet, as a popular film, Knights of the Teutonic Order works well: beside moments of naivety and kitsch there are also some scenes which fall deep into one’s memory, such as the blinding of Jurand or his the suicide of his torturer, Zygryf de Löwe. This adaptation of Sienkiewicz’s novel is, after all, a pioneering venture: it was the first huge production in Polish cinema, in addition, it is made in a panoramic format on colour Eastmancolor film. Thanks to the skills of the production team, Knights of the Teutonic Order attracted an immense audience not only in Poland but also in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and France.
Author: Robert Birkholc, March 2014, Translated by W.O., March 2014
Knights of the Teutonic Order, Poland 1960. Directed by Aleksander Ford. Script by Jerzy
Stefan Stawiński, Aleksander Ford. Cinematography by Mieczysław Jahoda. Music by
Kazimierz Serocki. Scenography: Roman Mann. Actors: Urszula
Modrzyńska (Jagienka), Grażyna Staniszewska (Danusia), Andrzej
Szalawski (Jurand ze Spychowa), Henryk Borowski (Zygfryd de Löwe),
Aleksander Fogiel (Maćko z Bogdańca), Mieczysław Kalenik (Zbyszko z
Bogdańca), Emil Karewicz (Władysław Jagiełło), Leon Niemczyk (Fulko de
Lorche), and others.
Executive Production: Studio Film