Forever Young: Classic Polish Cinema for Kids
small, Forever Young:
Classic Polish Cinema
for Kids, A still from the series 'Do Przerwy 0-1', 1969, photo: from the archive of TVP, do_przerwy_0-1.jpeg
Several generations were raised on them. They drew millions of viewers to cinemas and television sets, and their sayings and songs made their way into colloquial speech. Culture.pl introduces you to some of the classic Polish children’s films from the era under the communist regime.
'Stawiam na Tolka Banana'
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Still from 'Stawiam na Tolka Banana' ('My Bet's on Tolek Banan'), directed by Stanisław Jędryka, photo: Stefan Kurzy / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Amongst 30- to 40-year-old Poles today, probably only a few don't actually know this show. Based on the 1966 novel by Adam Bahdaj, this production, directed by Stanisław Jędryka, was one of the biggest hits on television for decades in Poland under the communist regime.
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The show tells the story of four teenagers on the verge of rebellion – until they meet Tolek Banan, a charismatic scout who teaches them about friendship, honesty and solidarity.
The adventures on Stawiam na Tolka Banana ('My Bet's on Tolek Banana') were not only entertaining, but also educational (many series in this period possessed a propagandistic agenda). It seems that not everyone caught the message at first. After the broadcast of the first episode, an activist from the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party questioned the creators:
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What are you putting on television? Gangs, the margins of society, bazaars… as if there aren’t decent youth organisations in our country.
Fortunately, no one took the show off the air. Stawiam na Tolka Banana became a cult classic and educated a generation. It’s not by chance that the show’s theme song, Ballada o Tolku Bananie (The Ballad of Tolek Banan) by Jerzy Matuszkiewicz, was later covered by Polish bands such as Wilki and Strachy na Lachy.
'Podróż za Jeden Uśmiech'
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Still from 'Podróż za Jeden Uśmiech', directed by Stanisław Jędryka, 1972, photo: Kadr Film Studio / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
The story of Tolek Banan and his young friends is one of many children’s classics from the writer-director duo Adam Bahdaj and Stanisław Jędryka. Their other big hit was Podróż za Jeden Uśmiech ('A Journey for One Smile'), from 1972.
The protagonists of this seven-part series are Poldek and Duduś, cousins who set off on a journey from Kraków to Hel to join their mothers for a vacation by the Baltic Sea. Their journey doesn’t exactly go according to plan – and the young heroes' adventures along the way change their lives forever.
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Jędryka’s series made a parallel between the genre of the road-trip film to the boys' journey towards adulthood. It quickly became a television hit – not only because of the popular form, but also thanks to the two young stars. In the 1970s, Filip Łobodziński and Henryk Gołębiewski were the biggest child stars of film and television (Podróż za Jeden Uśmiech was also released as a 90-minute film in 1973).
'Wakacje z Duchami'
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Still from 'Wakacje z Duchami', directed by Stanisław Jędryka, 1970. Pictured: Edward Dymek, Henryk Gołębiewski, Lech Wojciechowski; photo: Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fm.org.pl
Wakacje z Duchami ('Vacation with Ghosts'), the next in the series of hits from Jędryka and Bahdaj, debuted on Polish television in the spring of 1971. The series follows the adventures of Pikador, Perełka and Mandaryn – three boys who spend their holidays in the forest and decide to investigate the ghosts that haunt the nearby castle one day.
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The series, which strayed from Bahdaj’s literary prototype, featured the child star Henryk Gołębiewski, alongside some of best actors of the era – including Zdzisław Maklakiewicz, Janusz Gajos and Józef Nowak, who once again played a good policeman, a role familiar from earlier Jędryka productions.
'Abel, Twój Brat'
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Still from 'Abel, Twój Brat', directed by Janusz Nasfeter, 1970, photo: Janusz Zachwajewski / Kadr Film Studio / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
After Jędryka, another great director of children’s entertainment from the years under the communist regime was Janusz Nasfeter. His Motyle (Butterflies) and Kolorowe Pończochy (Colourful Stockings) are true masterpieces of children’s cinema.
While Jędryka created entertaining stories that blended educational values and youthful idylls, Nasfeter portrayed his young heroes in a completely different way. Of Nasfeter, Łukasz Maciejewski wrote in the Polish magazine Tygodnik Powszechny:
Janusz Nasfeter made films about children – for adults. He remained a big child himself – hypersensitive, neurotic, never quite fitting in….
Abel, Twój Brat (Abel, Your Brother) is among Nasfeter’s most unforgettable works. It tells the story of Karol Matulak, a skinny boy raised by his overprotective mother. When Karol goes to a new school and tries to make new friends, the sensitive boy is an outsider and soon becomes a victim of local bullies.
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Childhood in Nasferter’s films never resembled the idyllic vision Jędryka portrayed. It was instead a series of painful encounters – with the world, one’s own emotions and parents who, despite their sincere efforts, couldn't understand the experiences of their children.
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Still from 'Siedem Życzeń', directed by Janusz Dymek, 1984, photo: Polfilm / East News
‘Hator, hator, hator’ – spoken by a talking cat, this spell will forever be remembered by fans of Siedem Życzeń (Seven Wishes). Despite its simple plot and the fact that it aired over 30 years ago, Janusz Dymek’s show is hard to forget.
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Maciej Zembaty, one of the scriptwriters and the voice of the talking cat Rademenes, wrote of the show:
'Siedem Życzeń' is a modern fairy tale, based on a classic story – anything you can imagine can happen.
The show told the story of Darek, a 13-year-old who rescued a black cat from local hooligans. The cat turns out to be Rademenes. As it turns out, this magical creature can not only speak, but also grant wishes. In gratitude for Darek saving his life, Rademenes promises to fulfil seven of the boy’s wishes – one in each episode.
'Przygody Psa Cywila'
Rademenes wasn’t the only animal to find fame on communist era television in Poland. Even more popular than the magical feline was his older colleague – Cywil, a wise and brave German Shepard serving in the ranks of the Milicja Obywatelska (Citizen’s Militia).
Cywila was the hero of Przygody Psa Cywila (The Adventures of Cywil the Dog), which debuted in September 1971. An investigative comedy about an impatient policeman named Walczak (played by the great Krzysztof Litwin) and his dog, the show appealed to both children and their parents. Przygody Psa Cywila was both a family show and a crime drama, with each episode introducing a new mystery to solve.
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Still from 'Janka', directed by Janusz Łęski, 1989. Pictured: Agnieszka Krukówna, photo: Roman Sumik / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
While the majority of children’s shows were set in the present (partly in service of their propagandistic function), the creators of Janka took viewers back to the 1920s to tell the story of a band of children – led by the teenaged Janka and her friend Julka.
The series, from Janusz Łęski and Adam Iwiński, wove the girls’ stories into a narrative of a longstanding dispute between two rival families. The episodes were filled with adventure, love and even magic – viewers might not remember the details of the plot, but it would be impossible to forget the image of the twisted ring which had the power to perform miracles.
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Janka was produced in 1989 as a Polish-German collaboration and attracted veteran actors Krzysztof Kowalewski, Marta Lipińska and Joanna Żołkowska to great roles. More important, it saw the debut of Agnieszka Krukówna, who became one of the most popular teenage stars of the early 1990s.
'Akademia Pana Kleksa'
More than 14 million viewers saw Krzysztof Gradowski’s 1983 film adaptation of Akademia Pana Kleksa (Academy of Mr Kleks), the beloved book written by the Polish poet Jan Brzechwa. As for how many watched it on television, it’s impossible to know.
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For years, Akademia Pana Kleksa was not only one of the most popular children’s television shows, but also one of the most popular films ever made in Poland. With Mr Kleks, Gradowski created a real work of art – mingling a classic fairy tale with elements of a musical. It became the cult classic of a generation.
On the occasion of the show’s release on DVD, Łukasz Maciejewski wrote in Tygodnik Powszechny:
It doesn’t matter that an objective evaluation of 'Akademia Pana Kleksa' and subsequent films must be critical. Time has taken its toll. After all these years, the imperfections of 'Akademia Pana Kleksa' are apparent: the palaces are made of cardboard, the young actors aren’t the best, there are shoddy tricks, etc. But the greatest strength of this kind of story is nostalgia. It is nostalgia that raises us far beyond the imperfections of directing, acting and editing. When it comes to nostalgia, it’s not worth polemicising – it’s indelible.
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It's nostalgia, after all, that keeps us coming back to the productions of our youth. Thinking back, it’s regrettable to note that after the era of communism in Poland, Polish cinema largely forgot about its young viewers. For the past three decades, the worlds and adventures of young heroes have rarely been seen on screen.
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There have been a few, including Andrzej Maleszka’s Magiczne Drzewo (The Magic Tree), Tomasz Szafrański’s Klub Włóczykijów (The Wanderer’s Club) and Maruisz Palej’s Za Zamkiętymi Drzwiami (Behind Closed Doors) – but Polish film has room for many more. The market can no longer ignore young viewers. Thankfully, awareness of this issue is growing – as evidenced by the 2016 program at the Polish Film Institute, which financed a program to produce films for young viewers.
Who knows? Perhaps we'll soon see programs for the new generation – like what Akademia Pana Kleksa or Stawiam na Tolka Banana were for their parents.
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, 5 May 2017; translated by AGA, 10 Jul 2017
Stawiam na Tolka Banana
podróż za jeden uśmiech
Przygody psa Cywila
film for children
Sources: 'Tygodnik Powszechny', Nostalgia.pl, Filmpolski.pl, TVP, author’s information