Binge-Worthy: Polish TV Goes Global
Polish TV Goes Global, The Border, photo: HBO, center, wataha-hbo.jpg
For those who like to cosy up in front of the TV (or mobile device), Polish television has some gems for you: a cold-war science-fiction series, Netflix's long-awaited take on The Witcher, a dark journey across the drug-dealing Warsaw underground seen from writer Jakub Żulczyk's perspective, and more!
Recently, Polish television productions seem to have woken up from a long hibernation. A dozen years after the TV series boom, Poland has joined the conversation with premium productions, which abandon the comfort zone of soap opera conventions and increase the status of TV series from a mere audiovisual snack to a full supper.
1983: Polish female directors for Netflix
1983 | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix
A player who is sure to change the rules of the Polish TV series scene is Netflix. Already in 2017, its owners decided to produce a Polish original series entitled 1983 and co-directed by well-known female directors Agnieszka Holland, Kasia Adamik, Olga Chajdas, and Agnieszka Smoczyńska. 1983 will be an eight-episode thriller presenting an alternative history of Central and Eastern Europe.
The story begins in 2002 with the USSR still playing a major role on the international stage. What shattered Poland’s hopes for escaping the political entanglement with the Soviet Union was a violent terrorist attack which took place 20 years earlier and effectively prevented the Soviet colossus from falling. Two decades later, a surprising duo made up of a student-idealist and a bad cop come across evidence of a conspiracy which makes the Iron Curtain even thicker and more hostile.
This is how the plot is described by the producers themselves. Among the creators, there are screenwriter Joshua Long, producers Frank Marshall (The Sixth Sense, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Robert Zotnowski (House of Cards), as well as cinematographers Tomasz Naumiuk and Arkadiusz Tomiak. 1983 will be available on Netflix at the end of November 2018. Starring: Robert Więckiewicz, Maciej Musiał, Zofia Wichłacz, Andrzej Grabowski, Michalina Olszańska, Mateusz Kościukiewicz and Wojciech Kalarus.
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The Witcher: Geralt’s great comeback
Another Polish feature in the Netflix library is in a completely different genre. Before shooting 1983, Netflix started working on the adaptation of the eight-volume saga about Geralt the Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski (The Witcher is, of course, most well-known around the globe in its computer game form). In an interview for Wirtualne Media, the author and the project’s creative consultant Andrzej Sapkowski said:
I spent more than thirty years working on the saga motifs, so I’m happy that the Netflix adaptation will be faithful to the source text. I’m very satisfied with our collaboration and with the team that was working on bringing the heroes of my books to life.
The screenplay was mostly written by show runner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, previously involved in such productions as The West Wing, Power, and Daredevil. Meanwhile, the executive producers are Sean Daniel (The Expanse), Jason Brown (The Expanse) and Tomasz Bagiński, the talented Polish animator whose The Cathedral was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and the driving force behind making the show a reality over the last few years. The most recognisable face is, of course, Henry Cavill as Geralt. After the show's premiere, impressions were mixed, especially since some people didn't enjoy the plot's interweaving timelines, but the show soon became one of Netflix's most-watched original shows and has quickly built a strong fan following. A second season is due in the second half of 2021.
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Kruk: Crime in Eastern Poland
Kruk. Szepty słychać po zmroku | oficjalny zwiastun CANAL+ | 4K
While waiting for the Polish Netflix premieres, since March 2018 we've been able to enjoy one of the most highly-anticipated productions of the year. Kruk: Szepty Słychać Po Zmroku (Kruk: Whispers After Dark) is the story of Adam Kruk (Michał Żurawski), an officer from the Criminal Division of the Łódź Police, whose investigation on a mysterious murder leads him to his family roots in the Podlasie region.
The screenplay was written by Jakub Korolczuk and filmed by Polish fim director Maciej Pieprzyca (Life Feels Good, I’m a Killer). Interviewed for the Gazeta Wyborcza daily, he said:
‘Kruk’ combines criminal elements with magical realism. I view it as a very original idea and a potential for creating an exceptional TV series, which differs from others.
Korolczuk and Pieprzyca aspired to create a plot that would not be just another short crime story. They offer an unobvious story about accepting one’s own past and taking trauma head on. It seems that the series, directed by Jan Holoubek, will enchant the audience with exquisite cinematography – this is the first Polish TV series to be shot fully in 4K.
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Nielegalni: Spies on the screen
On Canal+, you can watch Nielegalni (The Illegals), directed by Leszek Dawid (You Are God). Nielegalni is a spy drama based on the three-volume novel by Vincent V. Severski, a retired colonel of the Polish intelligence. The long-awaited series is special – not only because the last Polish spy drama was made 50-years ago (More Than Life at Stake) – because it was shot in several European locations – from Istanbul, through Warsaw and Minsk, all the way to Stockholm. We follow the movements of elite Polish Intelligence agents. The series offers a complex mixture of conspiracies, political intrigues and terrorist collusions.
The series is written by Dorota Jankojć-Poddębniak, Maciej Kubicki and Bartosz Staszczyszyn and shot by Piotr Sobociński Jr (Hatred). Starring: Grzegorz Damięcki, Andrzej Seweryn, Sylwia Juszczak, Filip Plawiak, Agnieszka Grochowska and Tomasz Schuchardt.
Blinded By The Lights: Warsaw in a trance
Blinded By The Lights, a series based on a novel under the same title written by Polish writer Jakub Żulczyk, is one of the most highly-anticipated TV series of the last few years. Even though the work on the script started as early as in 2014, and filming began 2 years later, in the autumn of 2016, the six-episode series created by Krzysztof Skonieczny was only released on HBO in the autumn of 2018.
Why is it worth the wait? At the very least, it’s because of the people involved in the production process – rebellious artists with strong characters and their own, original and well-known styles. First of them is the aforementioned scriptwriter Jakub Żulczyk, and the second one is the director – Krzysztof Skonieczny. The latter entered into Polish cinema with a kick through his Hardkor Disco, receiving prestigious prizes at the Gdynia Film Festival. Żulczyk and Skonieczny invite us on a journey through the dark secrets of a Warsaw drug dealer. Blinded By The Lights includes popular faces from Polish film like Robert Więckiewicz and Cezary Pazura also acting up.
Commenting on the series, Izabela Łopuch, the head of the production for HBO Poland, said:
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Six days from the life of a cocaine dealer during Christmas is great material for a thriller, a dark story with action, sensation and a powerful, original undertone. We want Blinded By The Lights to be an elegy about Warsaw: strong, maybe even brutal in its sincerity but at the same time filled with romanticism and black comedy. A tale about the world in which all values have been rejected and people drift away into emptiness with their feelings, dreams and lack of contact with their own identity. Perhaps the only escape from this emptiness is to realise who you really are.
Zasada Przyjemności: A bloody investigation in the borderlands
Over the last few years, the Polish borderlands have been the location of interesting shows at least twice. The border between Poland and Ukraine in the Bieszczady Mountains was a meeting point for West and East in The Pack, while in Wasteland, a great series produced by the Czech branch of HBO, the Polish-Czech border becomes a symbolic space in which moral and ethical boundaries are blurred.
Audiences will experience another meeting of cultures this time round in a series directed by Dariusz Jabłoński, based on a script by Maciej Maciejewski (Glina; The Cop). His Zasada Przyjemności (The Pleasure Principle) is a crime story that takes place in Odessa, Warsaw and Prague, three cities where officers find the corpses of people murdered in the same way. To solve the mystery, investigators from Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic must act together as one team.
The Pleasure Principle features Małgorzata Buczkowska (I Am Yours) in the main role. The actress will be joined by the by top-notch actors from the Czech Republic and Ukraine: the excellent Karel Roden (The Bourne Supremacy) and Sergiej Strelnikow (Ekaterina). The cast includes also Stipe Erceg (The Edukators), Robert Gonera, Mirosław Baka and Magdalena Boczarska.
The seal was set on cinematography already in May 2018, but it is possible that the audience will have to wait a little longer for the first episodes. Only after that will we find out whether the Polish-Ukrainian-Czech Oresund Bridge will meet the public expectations.
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Wyklęci: History more lasting than bronze?
While premium commercial broadcasters are more interested in contemporary stories, Polish public television concentrates mainly on history. It seems that the widely-criticised The Crown Of Kings won’t be the only production devoted to the past in our TV guides.
Another one is going to be Wyklęci (The Cursed), a production that has been on everyone’s lips for over a year. Written by Jan Pawlicki (Mission: Afghanistan) and directed by Sławomir Fabicki, Wyklęci tells a story inspired by the life of three anti-communist underground soldiers – Łupaszka, Kuraś, and Anatol Radziwonik.
The series stars, among others, Antoni Pawlicki, Marcin Czarnik and Michalina Olszańska. The cast gives grounds to hope that the newest TVP production will face the myth of the cursed soldiers with honesty, and consider both their heroism and the controversies surrounding some of their actions. Hopefully it will at least breathe life into these people after they were turned into artificial figures in the less-noteworthy Historia Roja (The Story of Rój).
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Dom Pod Dwoma Orłami: Secrets from Breslau
Continuing the topic of complex Polish history, Waldemar Krzystek (Little Moscow, The Photographer) will take us back to Lower Silesia to examine the past of its inhabitants in Dom Pod Dwoma Orłami (The House Under Two Eagles).
The story begins during the huge flood in 1997, which affected Wrocław and other nearby cities. The titular house is one of the buildings which were affected by the disaster. When the flood is over, the historical building reveals its carefully-protected secrets. Each mystery will turn into a starting point for a story about the fate of the tenants, who witnessed World War II, the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, deportations to Russia, and repatriation.
Although the series has been much talked, and the media were reporting about the progress in documentary work, it remains unknown when the series will light up the TV screens.
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Drogi Wolności: Paths of an independent woman
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Fliming the TVP historical TV series Drogi do wolności (Paths to Independence) directed by Macieja Migasa, 6.03.2018, Kraków, photo: M.Lasyk/Reporter/East News
What is known, in turn, is that TVP’s biggest historical production this autumn was Drogi Wolności (Paths of Freedom), directed by Maciej Migas and written by Joanna Wojdowicz. This story of the Biernacki family from Kraków was inspired by the Polish women's diaries from the early 20th century. The three sisters are played by Julia Rosnowska, Paulina Gałązka and Katarzyna Zawadzka. They are accompanied by Anna Polony, Adam Cywka, Izabela Kuna and Michalina Olszańska. The website of Polish Television reads:
After the war, our heroines set up the Iskra weekly in Kraków. Having struggled with numerous problems, they release the first issue on 11th November 1918. This magazine published by young women allows us to create the historical background of the series.
In the series, the individual stories of the three sisters are told against the background of important historical events. Drogi Wolności is an initiative inspired by celebrations of the centenary of the Polish independence.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the subject matter, Drogi Wolności is the most expensive series TVP has ever made, with a budget exceeding 20 million złoty.
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The Border: The verges of humanity
The Border - Series Trailer (English Subtitles)
Here's one show that you really should not miss. The Border is a gem about the lives of Polish border guards working the edges of the European Union. Produced by HBO, the show has already made it to three seasons, each even better than the last. The show merges the crime genre with a dark thriller and everyday human drama, all against the background of some of the most important social issues of the last few years – the migrant crisis, economic migration, and more.
Over its three seasons, the makers of The Border have proven that its only true craft will do when it comes to creating art. Written by Katarzyna Tybinka, Piotr and Marta Szymank, the show impresses with its dramatic precision and intensity. It has a strong narrative structure and full-blooded heroes with clear goals and obstacles – this is what goes together to make probably create the best Polish show of recent years.
The show is available on HBO GO. In the UK, you can watch the first season on Channel 4's All4 website.
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The Mire: Dirty crimes behind the Iron Curtain
Welcome to 1980s Poland. Though the Berlin Wall still divides Europe, communism is noticeably in decline even though its representatives are still holding Poland within a tight grasp. Its within these surroundings that The Mire takes place, the stylish retro-drama directed by Jan Holoubek.
It begins with a double murder. The bodies of a young prostitute and a communist politician are found in a small town in south-west Poland. Elsewhere at the same time, two teenagers commit suicide. When a crabby old journalist and his younger colleague start to look into both events, they become convinced that the two are linked, while the truth about what happened is far worse than they first thought.
The five-part mini-series tells their story of their investigation while taking us back to the communist reality of the 1980s. ‘Welcome to the Polish swamp’ was the tagline advertising it when it was released in Poland. The description is fitting since Holoubek and Kasper Bajon’s production is a story about a world of dirty tricks, political censorship and injustices in which very few of us could bear to stand around in for long.
The Mire arrives on Netflix in the UK, along with a dubbed version, on 25th March 2020.
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polish tv series
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Sources: Wirtualnemedia, Gazeta Wyborcza, TVP, Wirtualnemedia, own materials, edited by BS
Originally written in Polish, March 2018, translated by AS, Sep 2018; updated by NR & AZ, Nov 2018; updated by BS & translated by AZ, March 2020.