A Crash Course on the Warsaw Uprising Through Film
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Through Film, Still from the film 'Miasto 44', directed by Jan Komasy, photo: Ola Grochowska / Akson Studio, miasto_44_jana_komasy_4.jpg
The tragic fate of Warsaw during WWII is known to Poles, but others may not be as familiar with the heroic resistance that was the 1944 Uprising. Here, Culture.pl has put together a series of films that will spare our readers having to pore over history books.
The impact of the war years and the brief, devastating Warsaw Uprising continues to affect contemporary Poland and its filmmakers, musicians and other artists. This shortlist of contemporary films that make use of new technologies to spotlight the Uprising indicates how the present generation confronts the past and the desperate battle that forced Poland to rebuild its capital from complete devastation. We couple these summaries with a brief historical timeline to illuminate the films’ pedagogical value.
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1. ‘Warsaw Uprising’ by Jan Komasa (2013)
Warsaw entered its fifth year under Nazi German occupation in August 1944. With the help of the Allies, however, and the Red Army’s offensive against Nazi forces, the possibility of liberation finally seemed feasible. The underground Armia Krajowa – known in English as the Polish resistance Home Army – organised Operation Tempest, an endeavour to make Warsaw Polish again.
For those interested in historical footage rather than reenactment, Jan Komasa’s film Warsaw Uprising is a must. The award-winning director of Suicide Room created this non-fiction war drama from more than 100 clips of archival black-and-white footage chronicling the Uprising, which was shot by two brothers in August and September 1944.
With the aid of historians, Komasa selected the clips from six hours of the vintage film material to colourise and splice together in order to follow the brothers’ tale of the Uprising. As the original footage was silent, the filmmakers used lip-reading to re-create the action's missing dialogue.
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The Warsaw Uprising as we know it is no longer black-and-white,
says the voice-over in the film’s trailer.
Each film segment required detailed analysis to identify where in Warsaw the shot was taken and the people who were in it. With the help of their Facebook page, the creators requested help in accurately identifying their rare subject material. Warsaw Uprising premiered during the Uprising commemorations in August 2013.
2. ‘There Once Was a Child’ by Leszek Wosiewicz (2013)
On 3rd August 1944, the Home Army succeeded at capturing several districts of Warsaw. Nevertheless, several key areas of the city, such as bridges and transportation hubs, remained under Nazi German control. In various aspects, the city gradually declined throughout the occupation, prompting the formation of a civilian resistance Army – with more than 4,000 women and children in its ranks for the lack of men in fighting condition.
Leszek Wosiewicz’s film, Był Sobie Dzieciak (There Once Was a Child) portrays a young boy confronted with important life lessons against the backdrop of the Uprising. An aspiring poet, the boy refuses to fight alongside the Polish insurgents. When he meets a woman accused of cooperating with the Nazi Germans, their fates intertwine. Although their motivations are different, they share the same goal – to enter Warsaw on the 12th day of the Uprising.
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Był Sobie Dzieciak opened in cinemas across Poland on 1st August 2013. Wosiewicz had previously gained acclaim for his film Kornblumenblau (1989), which presents the trauma of the Holocaust in a unique way.
3. ‘August Sky: 63 Days of Glory’ by Irek Dobrowolski (2013)
Using two captured Nazi German tanks, Zośka, the elite Home Army battalion, freed about 350 Jews from the notorious Gęsiówka prison. From 5th to 7th August 1944, Germans counter-attacked via air and ground artillery to force open a west-east corridor through the city. In accordance with Himmler’s order to spare no one, the Germans executed about 65,000 men, women and children in the Wola and Ochota districts.
A cinematic tribute to young Poles who fought in the Uprising, August Sky: 63 Days of Glory utilises a decidedly contemporary approach. Director Irek Dobrowolski, himself the son of an insurgent, weaves together interviews with living witnesses and recently discovered archival footage. His multi-thread film employs professional actors, war veterans in the roles of insurgents and the rappers Bilon (Maciej Bilka) and Wilku (Robert Darkowski) from the popular hip-hop bands Hemp Gru and Molesta Ewenement. Showing that Polish hip-hop is affected by the past too, the rapper Bilon appears on the soundtrack with the song August Sky.
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August Sky: 63 Days of Glory opened in cinemas in Poland and internationally on 13th September 2013.
4. ‘Baczyński’ by Kordian Piwowarski (2013)
In the last two weeks of August 1944, Poles captured several Nazi German strongholds in the city, but they failed in all major efforts to connect the centre and northern districts and break the Old Town siege. Stalin refused Churchill and Roosevelt’s pleas of help for the ‘handful of criminals in Warsaw’. From 20th to 25th August 1944, an uprising of the French resistance battled successfully for the liberation of Paris.
Mixing feature-film and documentary approaches, Kordian Piwowarski’s film provides a biography of Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński – one of the famed Polish poets of the 20th century and a soldier in the insurgent Home Army, who died on the Uprising's fourth day.
Baczyński is among the most renowned representatives of the Generation of Columbuses – the generation born in newly independent Poland, which regained statehood in 1918 with the Treaty of Versailles. Their adolescences were shattered by the Second World War (also among this group were Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II and Stanisław Lem, the great sci-fi novelist).
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Baczyński published his first poem at the age of 15 in 1936. After 1939, his artistic vision began to express the tragedy of the individual. An active member of the Home Army and major military figure of the Polish underground state through the war years, Baczyński became the most-celebrated poet of fighting Warsaw, and an early martyr to the cause.
Pairing biography with an essay about poetry and WWII documentary with a study of youth and heartfelt courage, Piwowarski's film blends a video-clip style with the talking heads characteristic of documentaries, while simultaneously staging scenes and stylising war-time images and black-and-white photographs from the album Generations.
5. ‘Coming Closer’ by Michał Nekanda-Trepka (2012)
When the Warsaw Uprising collapsed in September 1944, the Nazi Germans evacuated survivors and then methodically completed their destruction of the city. The vicious 18-day house-to-house battle for the Old Town ended on 2nd September, with insurgents retreating to the city centre via sewers and with further mass executions of civilians by the Nazi Germans. From September 3rd to 10th, the Nazi Germans recaptured the main riverside district, Powiśle, and effectively cut off insurgents from the River Wisła.
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Some six decades later, thousands of photographs from these implementations were discovered among the Luftwaffe collection at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. These aerial shots of the occupied capital taken by the Nazi German air force, together with photos of the city's inhabitants, provide a visual spine for Nekanda-Trepka's film. Coming Closer includes the accounts of insurgents, civilians and Wehrmacht soldiers who, as young boys, were deployed in Warsaw in August 1944 to help fight the most intensive, organized revolt against the Nazi Germans in occupied Europe.
6. 'City of Ruins’ by Damian Nenow (2010)
The Red Army captured the right bank Praga district on 15th September 1944. Polish First Army units under Soviet command established bridge-heads on the left bank, but lacked the support to save the Czerniaków district. On 18th September, a massive mission by US Air Force B-17 Flying Fortresses brought supplies after the Soviets relented, granting clearance for refueling at their airfields. The Battle of Mokotów, the southern district, ended on 27th September with a capitulation after the Nazi Germans agreed to observe the Geneva Convention and cease on-the-spot executions.
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In City of Ruins, a bird's-eye view of Warsaw in acute computer animation simulates the city's grim, abandoned remains as seen in the spring of 1945. The short film reconstructs a reconnaissance flight, its pattern similar to that of B-24 bombers that dropped munitions and aid packages for city residents – the only material assistance which the battling city received from the West.
Some 30 artists laboured on the project for a year, using 100 computers that required two months in order to render the virtual images. More than 600 Soviet photographs taken in shattered post-war Warsaw provided a model for the film's painstaking precise representations, along with two aerial maps from 1945 and 1947 provided by Polish Army cartographers – and thousands of other photographic materials.
According to Michał Gryn, the head of the project at animation specialists Platige Image, it was a special challenge to ‘re-create’ the bridges blown up by the Nazi Germans, as with the temporary pontoon bridges used as the Soviet military moved towards Berlin. The film is now a centrepiece at the Warsaw Uprising Museum, leaving an indelible impression of what the survivors endured.
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7. ‘Hardkor 44’ by Tomasz Bagiński
After 63 days of battle, all fighting ceased at 20:00 on 2nd October 1944. The Home Army under Geeral Komorowski surrendered to General von dem Bach, who together, reach a capitulation treaty. In the following days, more than 15,000 insurgents go to POW camps, with more than 5,000 wounded soldiers going to hospital. All of the remaining inhabitants were expelled from the city. In the two months of fighting and mass murders, about 17,000 insurgents and more than 200,000 civilians were killed.
Tomasz Bagiński, a contemporary master of animation, sends a strong message with his animated reference to the Uprising, using video-game-like characters and sequences in telling a tale of 'freedom, [...] love, hope and... WAR'. The creator of the Oscar-winning Cathedral presents an action-filled representation of the Germans as cyborg-like creatures attacking the inhabitants of Warsaw.
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8. ‘Warsaw 44’ Jan Komasa (2014)
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Photograph from the set of Jan Komasa's 'Warsaw 44', photo: press materials / Akson Studio
Incensed by defeat, the Germans defied the terms of the capitulation treaty and destroyed all that remained of Warsaw. With a methodical series of dynamite attacks and the burning of houses street by street, the Nazi Germans destroyed nearly 90 percent of the city, leaving Warsaw a sea of ruins by January 1945.
Komasa’s film focuses on the bravery of young Poles during the Uprising. Depicting the sympathetic side of the Polish insurgency, it ‘reflect[s] modern issues and concerns, concentrating on the relationships between the mostly young men and women’, as the director stated in Hollywood Reporter.
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn; edited by MJ, AL, LB, JH, 10 Oct 2013
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