10 Polish Films About War
small, Scene from the film ‘Katyń’, photo: Fabryka Obrazu / East News, fo_film_katyn_09_43154.jpg
After 1945, hundreds of movies about the Second World War were made around the world. Culture.pl has selected 10 of these films which show the war through the eyes of Poles – from the reels of the great Wajda, to a war movie where there are no heroes, to the Polish-French story of nuns whose peaceful lives are turned into a living hell. These powerful films explore life, death, love and treason, demonstrating the human capacity for the lowest deeds, but also for the highest bravery and self-sacrifice.
1. ‘Katyń’ (2007)
September 1939. Poland. Some Poles are fleeing east from the invading Nazi German forces; others are rushing to the west, hoping to save themselves and their families from the Soviet soldiers attacking from the other side. In fact, they had nowhere to run. The two dictators, Hitler and Stalin, had made an agreement to divide the entire country among themselves.
The citizens of Poland were doomed to horrors and anguish. In order to ‘neutralize’ the Poles, NKVD agents loaded thousands of officers, those of high military rank, clergymen and members of the intelligentsia into prisoner transports and sent them to the USSR. Later, they were all shot in the head – and forgotten for half a century.
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Andrzej Wajda, the famous Polish director and the creator of Katyń, resurrected this story in the cinema, guided in part by his own personal experiences. His father, Jakub Wajda, was killed in Kharkiv – one of the places where mass shootings of Poles took place on Stalin’s orders. In making this film, Wajda wanted to pay tribute to the memory of his father and the 22,000 Poles murdered by NKVD operatives, as well as to open the eyes of those who didn’t know the truth about the Katyń massacre.
The Oscar laureate saw his goal achieved in Moscow in 2008. After a screening of the picture, a young Russian woman asked for a word. She confessed that she had not known anything about this terrible story and suggested that everyone present honour the slain Poles with a moment of silence.
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Thank you! Even if you were the only person who saw this film, it would’ve been worth it. I made ‘Katyń’ for you.
2. ‘Róża’ (2011)
World War II is one of the most terrible events of humanity, composed of miseries, grief and the inconceivable suffering of everyday people. The movie Róża depicts the personal misfortunes of a woman living in the Masuria region of northern Poland. The main character of the picture, Róża Kwiatkowska, has lost her husband and, in this senseless tragedy, been left alone with her daughter.
Róża speaks and reads Polish fluently, but her former spouse served in Hitler’s army, and this is considered an unforgiveable sin. The new ‘Red’ authorities refer to her as a German. Her Polish neighbours, who have returned to the newly reacquired lands, despise her and bluster about expelling her to Germany. To everyone around her, she is foreign, feeble, defenceless – anyone could take advantage of her, and, terribly, some do.
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In his characteristically cruel manner, the film’s director, Wojciech Smarzowski, shows the hell in which Róża lives on a large scale. Could this woman possibly be saved from these endless horrors, assaults and humiliations by a Polish man named Tadeusz, who suddenly appears in her life? He is a widower and fought in the Warsaw Uprising. Tadeusz falls in love with Róża and wants to help her, to defend her – but can fragile love be victorious over the hatred and evil unleashed by the war? The answer lies in the film’s story.
When you watch this picture, pay special attention to the performance of the talented Polish actress Agata Kulesza in the leading role. She portrays the life of her heroine so subtly, with the precision of a jeweller – such that the character of this humble woman will be burned into your memory for a long time.
During filming, whenever I would talk with someone about Róża, I immediately wanted to cry. My brain was just not able to switch her off. Even half a year after finishing filming, Róża was still with me. I was constantly thinking about her, about other women who lived at that time,
the actress said in one interview (trans. KA).
This movie about love in a merciless time – about the terrible fate of those who did not start this war, but were forced to pay for it with the highest price – is a must-see.
3. ‘Four Tankmen and a Dog’ (1966-1970)
This serial was first shown in the USSR in 1966. Soviet audiences, as well as Poles, instantly fell in love with Four Tankmen and a Dog, which follows the wartime adventures of the ‘Rudy’ tank crew and a German shepherd by the name of Szarik. In the USSR, the serial was sometimes jokingly called ‘Three Poles, a Georgian, and a Dog’.
Many young women of the time were head-over-heels in love with the main characters of the 21-episode serial: mainly with the deadly, blonde-haired sniper named Janek, but also with the mechanic-driver Grigorij, who can’t for the life of him find his soulmate. The serial can undoubtedly be called a cult classic. After its debut, children played at being tankmen, while schools taught lessons inspired by the film – and Szarik became a popular name not only for dogs, but also for cats, turtles, parrots and canaries.
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Considering that the film was shot in the 1960s, it is important to understand that quite a few myths about war are presented in it. For this reason, in Poland, the serial is often considered to be ‘Soviet propaganda’.
Four Tankmen and a Dog is more of an adventure series than a historical one. It might not show an objective portrait of the time, but in it, you will find a lot of humour, selflessness, friendship and a desire to help others.
4. ‘The Pianist’ (2002)
For the director Roman Polański, war is not an easy subject. He, like Andrzej Wajda, had the misfortune to see and remember its trials. War turned Polański’s life on its head. After the beginning of World War II, his whole family was sent to the Kraków Ghetto. The Nazis sent his mother to a concentration camp; she would die in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. Both Roman and his father managed to escape death.
The Pianist is Polański’s landmark film, as he has repeatedly stated in interviews.
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If I could have only one film buried with me in my grave, I would want it to be ‘The Pianist’,
the director has said.
The movie, which portrays the story of the famous Polish pianist Władysław Szpilman, was Polański’s own form of therapy. Because of this film, he rooted around in his own soul and memory, engaging in a difficult dialogue with himself and his audience. This movie incorporates not only the life story of Szpilman, but also the memories of Polański himself. For instance, the director shows an empty street with suitcases, furniture, belongings strewn about – just as he recalled from the Kraków Ghetto after the first deportation of Jews to the concentration camps.
The Pianist received the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and three Academy Awards. One of these Oscars went to the performer in the leading role, Adrien Brody. Some musicians find it difficult to watch the parts of the movie where the famous American actor is playing the fortepiano, as these make evident that Brody himself hadn’t mastered the instrument. But everything else is flawless. The actor lost 14 kilograms for this role, and on the eve of the filming, he began leading a frugal way of life: he moved into a tiny apartment and refrained from using a television or a car.
It is interesting to note that the grandson of Władysław Szpilman makes a brief cameo in the movie. Little Daniel plays a child living in the Ghetto. If you still haven’t seen this film, which BBC Culture put on its list of the best of the 21st century, you simply must.
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5. ‘The Innocents’ (2016)
This movie is about how there is no running away from war. If war comes, no one can be spared. War is ruthless, merciless to anyone caught in its path.
The events of The Innocents (also titled Agnus Dei), a French-Polish film by Anne Fontaine, unfold at a convent in Poland. It is winter. World War II has ended. A young woman doctor from the French Red Cross arrives at the convent at the desperate request of one of the nuns. She finds out that many of the residents of the convent, having given vows of celibacy and chastity, are pregnant. The nuns are the victims of Red Army soldiers, who routinely forced their way into the convent and raped the women.
The horror in this story is not fiction. The film’s script is based on the diaries, letters and accounts of the French doctor Madeleine Pauliac, who from 1945 to 1946, worked in Polish territory. In the movie, fortunately, there are no rape scenes, yet a thinking and feeling viewer needs no visuals to understand the nightmare these defenceless women endured – both during the war and after the victory of 1945.
6. ‘Canal’ (1957)
Here is another film classic of the world-famous director Andrzej Wajda that deserves your attention. This is one of the first Polish films about the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Canal was also the first Polish film that was noticed in the West. Thanks to the picture’s showing at the 1957 Cannes Festival (Canal would receive a Special Jury Award), the world began to take notice of the genius of Wajda, then just 30 years old, and the Polish Film School.
Canal shows the fate of participants in the Uprising, who, navigating through sewer tunnels, are attempting to flee the centre of the Polish capital, which is being destroyed by the Nazi Germans.
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My youthful aspirations died in those sewers,
said Jerzy Stefan Stawiński, the film’s screenwriter and a soldier in the Warsaw Uprising.
On 22nd September 1944 at 10pm, Stawiński himself led 70 people into the sewers of the capital’s Mokotów district. The next day, only six of them emerged from the sewer in a different district of Warsaw. The rest had died. The Nazis had picked off the Poles in the underground labyrinth, opening manholes to shoot and throw grenades into them.
Eleven years later, Stawiński wrote about his terrible story, and Wajda decided to adapt it into a film. Telling the difficult truth about the Uprising was an important to the director – but he was not able to directly explain the absence of the Red Army, who watched from the other side of the River Wisła as the Nazis erased Warsaw from the face of the earth.
The idea to show the truth between the lines, in the language of symbols, came during shooting. Wajda later recalled:
The sewer would exit into the Wisła, and I recalled that all of the openings were closed with grates. If I was to show the characters of the film looking through the grates at the idle Soviet soldiers, the censors would have removed it from the film. I could show the other bank of the Wisła, however. There, in 1944, sat the Soviet forces, and all Poles knew this. A thoughtful viewer would immediately understand.
After Canal’s premiere, Polish film critics coldly commented on its overly modern dialogue, its poorly chosen military form and what they saw as the historical bias of the film. Despite this, audiences formed long lines around the cinemas to see it. In its first year, the movie was seen by 4.2 million Poles. The movie was shown in various countries around the world.
Canal was admired by both those who knew this terrible, true Uprising story and those who were completely unfamiliar with the topic. For instance, some American filmmakers purposefully stayed at the same hotel as the film’s screenwriter, Stawiński, during the Cannes Festival in order to express their admiration. They wished to ask him the question which everyone was dying to know:
Moving the rebels through the sewers – what a terrific and original idea! How did you come up with it?
7. ‘Warsaw 44’ (2014)
Director Jan Komasa’s film also shows the events of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. After the premiere, journalists wrote about the film: ‘never before has war been shown so realistically’; ‘this is a very accurate cinematic history lesson’ (trans. KA). After watching the movie, which took eight years to produce, you can only agree with such flattering commentary.
The director knew just how to take advantage of the technical capabilities of modern filmmaking, with the miracles of editing and computer graphics. Thanks to this, the viewers of Warsaw 44 actually feel like participants in these dramatic events. For the sake of objectivity, it is worth noting that Komasa went a bit too far with the special effects at certain points. If you decide to watch this picture, you will see how it begins as a love story, but with time, turns into a horror movie.
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Warsaw 44 tells the story of Stefan Zawadzki. After the death of his father, the young man decides to join up with the Warsaw Uprising. Friendships, first love, dreams about the future – can all of this survive, when their city is being turned into a battleground, with the hearts and minds of people so poisoned by hate?
Many people, of course, have compared and continue to discuss Warsaw 44 together with Wajda’s Canal; however, this isn’t a sound comparison. These are two different movies, made in different eras, with different aesthetics, as well as their own artistic and technical qualities. Each viewer is welcome to watch and decide for themselves which they like and understand better.
Remember that because of the great role played by special effects and high-quality CGI, it’s best to watch Warsaw 44 on a big screen with good sound.
8. ‘Manhunt’ (2012)
Manhunt is high cinema – a picture for connoisseurs of filmmaking as an art, and not simply a form of entertainment.
We all ought to look more deeply at war, in a different way. During the war, basically everything was covered in mud. Evil was on every side; therefore, in my movie, there are no heroes,
says Marcin Krzyształowicz, the director of Manhunt (trans. KA).
Krzyształowicz has made a movie in which there is no simple distinction between criminals and victims, heroes and villains. The actors are constantly changing their roles: a victim learns to kill without feeling; a criminal begins to trigger sympathy; the most terrible and basest crimes are committed in the name of good intentions – rescuing loved ones.
Who here is in the right? Who is to blame? There are no easy answers to these questions, which pop up throughout the story. Thanks to this film, the viewer can see just how thin the line between good and evil is, as well as how quickly a person can change into a monster.
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The main character of the picture is a Home Army corporal by the name of Wydra, who, by order of the military authorities, carries out executions. He is not interested in whether the person sentenced to death deserves this punishment or not. He simply takes his victim into the forest, conversing with them – discussing soccer, for instance – and then kills them. One day, Wydra receives an order to execute a Polish miller who had collaborated with the Germans. It turns out that the convicted man is Wydra’s childhood friend.
We highly recommend that you see Manhunt, which shows the true, hideous, inhuman face of war.
9. More Than Life at Stake (1967-1968)
The 18-episode More Than Life at Stake is a recommendation for those who like to watch old television series. It all began when screenwriters Andrzej Szypulski and Zbigniew Safjan saw the first instalment of James Bond. The two Poles, inspired by the engrossing plot, decided to write their own story about a superspy from Poland. They named their character Stanisław Kolicki.
In the concept of the screenwriters, who worked under the alias Andrzej Zbych, their hero tries to sneak into the USSR to hand over information about the concentration of German forces on the border. Soviet intelligence detains Stanisław Kolicki, as he happens to be the spitting image of a recently arrested German officer named Hans Kloss. They imbed the brave Pole in the military authority of the Third Reich Abwehr as Hans Kloss, and he begins to carry out his intelligence activities.
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The observant viewer may notice a few ‘blunders’ in this series. For instance, a mess tin from the time of the communist regime in Poland can be seen hanging in the Soviet command centre, and in one scene set in a Berlin train station, an inscription in Polish is visible on the door of the train car.
More Than Life at Stake is a far from historically accurate and objective presentation of the events of that time. If the Nazi Germans were as careless as shown in the series, the war would have ended much sooner. In the show, created by the directors Janusz Morgenstern and Andrzej Konic, everything is childishly simple: we are the good guys, they are the bad guys – and good always defeats evil.
10. ‘Stones for the Rampart’ (2014)
An ode to altruism, patriotism and young people who selflessly sacrifice themselves, Stone for the Rampart is based on the Aleksander Kamiński book of the same name. The film shows the story of three scout friends who joined in the struggle against the Nazi German occupiers after the war began.
The film is full of vivid, dynamic, and effective scenes. For example, the friends – Alek, Zośka and Rudy – tear down propaganda posters and take the Nazi flags off of the Staszic Palace, hanging up Polish ones in their place.
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Historians claim that the action of changing the flags on the palace during the German occupation never happened, but this is of little importance. Stones for the Rampart is not a movie from which to learn history. This is a picture about selflessness and the unwillingness to compromise, as well as youth – which, more often than maturity, is capable of sacrificing everything in the name of principles and values.
Originally written in Russian by Żenia Klimakin; translated by KA, Nov 2017