Lost & Destroyed: In Search Of Classic Polish Films
default, Still from the film Vampires of Warsaw, 1925, directed by Wiktor Biegański, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa/fototeka.fn.org.pl, center, wampiry_warszawy.jpg
Though many of the innovative, thrilling and monumental pictures from the interwar period can still be relished today, some have been destroyed beyond repair, or exist only in fragmented form. Important reels were shattered during the war or the communist regime era, leaving aching gaps in cinematic history. What are some of these most significant damaged or lost films?
Interwar Poland was a time of burgeoning film production, with efforts to rival western cinematography reaching a fever pitch by the 1920s and 1930s. And yet, even some of the most significant, pioneering films from the period – many featuring plots taken from ephemeral cabaret shows – were lost to time, but their legacies still live on in records. Despite crude production and often critical condemnation, these were the foundations of the Polish cinema industry.
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Still from the film Vampires of Warsaw, 1925, directed by: Wiktor Biegański, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa/fototeka.fn.org.pl
Psychological thrills: Vampires of Warsaw (1925)
Vampires of Warsaw was an exhilarating tale of subterfuge and crime, telling of a couple of Russian aristocrats determined to get themselves married to a wealthy Polish man and his daughter in order to kill them and inherit their wealth. For Polish cinema, it was a first – still seen as director Wiktor Biegański's most popular film for its strong mise en scène, slow pace and psychological focus, it was celebrated as unique in the cinematic Polish world, which tended at that time to focus on national subjects. It also showcased the influence of Russian film-making on Biegański's work, paving the way for a sophisticated Polish cinema which would utilise influences from east and west.
The picture was the film debut for Igo Sym, playing an advocate. Sym’s acting career exploded in the years following 1925, leading to a reputation for sublime portrayals of elegant men and aristocrats which would take him to the screens of Vienna and Germany a mere two years later. In the later war years, however, he ended up collaborating with the Nazis, resulting in his execution by the Polish underground state.
For the assistant director, Michał Waszyński, who was being reared in film production by Biegański, Vampires of Warsaw also provided a career boost. Waszyński would go on to forge a reputation as one of the leading lights in Polish interwar cinema, eventually working with Eugeniusz Bodo in the creation of a production company called BWB.
Nonetheless, Vampires of Warsaw was not met with completely overwhelming success, caused in part by a general distrust and disbelief in the power of Polish cinema in those early years. Despite its adventurous appeal, famed Polish writer and co-founder of the Skamander poetry group Antoni Słonimski dubbed it ‘the first bad Polish film’. He also referred to the script as a ‘headache’ in Wiadomości Literackie, the central cultural magazine of the era, which was known for ridicule.
A Kurier Warszawski review of 1925 also addressed the sub-standard nature of the film, stating that its most prominent failure was: ‘a conglomeration of sensational themes that choke each other and unnecessarily burden the action. Secondary scenes take up too much space, and large scenes pass too quickly.’
There were other setbacks too, not directly related to the film’s actual content. In W Starym Polskim Kinie (editor’s translation: In The Old Polish Cinema) by Stanisław Janicki, it is recorded that Biegański once said:
Two cinemas in Lviv, which belonged to the Kucharek brothers, bought my Wampiry. However, the city authorities were entitled to levy a tax on films and depending on the amount of tax, production of a film in Poland resulted in either a source of income or brought a deficit. The Mayor of Lviv had marked Wampiry 30 percent tax. So I went to Lviv, tried to convince him that it was necessary to reduce the tax by 10 percent. I told him how important the development of the film industry is… After a long discussion, he said he might even understand our efforts, but he had never been to the cinema (in 1925!) And the tax was not decreased.
Polish prowess: Eaglet (1927)
100/XX. Anthology of Polish 20th Century Reportage, edited by Mariusz Szczygieł
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Still from the film Orlę, 1926, pictured: Hanka Ordonówna, Kurt Kurthoff, Lech Owron, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa/fototeka.fn.org.pl
Eaglet was another of Biegański’s distinctive pictures from the era, detailing the mystical efforts to retrieve treasure taken by a robber, and the subsequent search campaign in the Tatra Mountains.
The film was based on a flight made by Polish aviator Bolesław Orliński in 1926, who had travelled from Warsaw to Tokyo and back in one month. Suitably, Biegański used novel cinematic filming techniques, capturing the Tatra Mountains from multiple points of view to use as a backdrop, and shooting the final scene from an airplane to mimic the flight of an eagle. His duet of talented assistant directors – Waszyński and pilot-cum-filmmaker Leonard Buczkowski – ensured people took note, with expectations for success rivalling that of Vampires of Warsaw.
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This was bolstered by its role as the central film debut of Hanka Ordonówna, who had by then achieved cabaret and theatre renown in Poland and abroad.
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The film premiered on Marszałkowska Street, known as ‘the Broadway of Warsaw’, with the event promoted to such an extent that it was even attended by President Ignacy Mościcki. However, the film did not achieve the successes it was predicted.
Actor Zdzisław Czermański would later detail the haphazard reality of film production in his book Kolorowi Ludzie (Colourful People), published in London in 1966. He remarked that it was:
One of the most stupid episodes of my youth, at the beginning of winter 1927. At that time Warsaw was greeting and celebrating Captain Orliński after his triumphant return from the flight from Warsaw to Tokyo and back. And this event, and the glory of the aviator, stimulated Biegański to make a film in a hurry… Regardless of the comic terms of the contract – five hundred zlotys and a tuxedo specially made for the film – I took this role simply because my partner was supposed to be Malicka… Being in the studio for the first time, I was sure that before I stood in front of the camera I would be instructed what to do… Meanwhile, Biegański, whether it was because he was in a hurry or simply because he did not know what to do, he accepted my acting in silence and only occasionally admonished me… But I have not said the most important thing so far: Malicka did not act with me. She withdrew from the contract at the last moment, which I learned only when it was too late to do the same, because several important scenes were shot with me. Malicka's role was taken over by Majdrowiczówna, a renowned beauty, known for her memorable performance at the National Theatre in Zorilla's ‘Don Juan’… What were the reviews I did not want to know. I've only read one in the Warsaw Courier. The film reviewer condemned the piece and wrote three words about me: ‘Mr. Czermański failed.’
A national celebration: Gwiaździsta Eskadra (1930)
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Film programme for Gwiaździsta eskadra, 1930,
publisher: Dom Press S.A. Warsaw, photo: Museum of Cinematography in Łódź
Despite some cinematic innovation, many films even after the twenties still touched on national, patriotic subjects – such as Gwiaździsta Eskadra (Starry Squadron), directed by Buczkowski. The film was part documentary, part drama, detailing the story of the American pilots who formed the Kościuszko Squadron and fought in the ranks of the Polish army in 1918-1920 to defeat Russia. But the central plot was one of romance, with a story about one specific pilot called... Captain Bond. His tale was inspired by the real life of US aviator and adventurer Merian C. Cooper, a Polish Air Force officer during the war, and father of Polish translator and writer Maciej Słomczyński.
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Production required incredible sophistication and flair, with filming allegedly involving the co-operation of military aviation. In fact, Gwiaździsta Eskadra was the most expensive Polish film produced in the interwar period – an unsurprising feat considering it was reportedly the first time in Polish cinema that battle scenes had been shot in the air. Filming occurred above Poznań and Biedrusko, with major public interest in production – a Polish military magazine Polska Zbrojna, which still exists today, reported an interview with the film crew, in which they assured that ‘this film exceeds the realism and technique of aerial combat shots of American aerial films.’
However, mid-way through filming, a tragedy occurred. In November 1929, the plane controlled by Lieutenant Eugeniusz Wyrwicki, who was being filmed for aerial combat shots, came into contact with one piloted by Lt. Pil. Jan Bilski. As a result of the collision, the wing broke away from the hull, and the plane of Lieutenant Bilski fell into a corkscrew descent. Bliski and the observer were killed, as neither had parachutes. Lieutenant Wyrwicki survived the accident.
Despite this catastrophe, the film was still awaited with anticipation and vast media fascination. The director was interviewed in Poznań newspaper Nowy Kurjer in 1930, responding sardonically to the interviewer’s interrogation:
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The nameless hero of my movie is the airplane. I hope that he will ‘play’ his role without complaint. In Gwiaździsta Eskadra there are some things that have never been in Polish cinema yet... Do not, however, think that it is a ‘heavy drama’... I'm happy with the team; they worked hard and without complaint. I can say the same about my hero: the airplanes. Obedient beasts...
The film starred Buczkowski’s wife, Barbara Orwid, as well as Franciszek Haberek, Lieutenant-Colonel in the Polish Air Force. At first a silent film, sound was introduced in the international version in 1933. Despite public captivation, criticism of the picture eventually hit the press – Gazeta Polska and ABC acknowledged the effort in production, but claimed it was lacking in maturity.
Public pressures: Hallo Radio (1934)
Hallo Radio was another attempt at documenting national feeling. Exploring the role of media information in shaping the public, it was a protest against war and militarism.
Directed by Eugeniusz Cękalski, one of the most significant documentary producers of the era, the picture showed the daily workings of a radio station, with separate episodes of dramatic action included. Made at a time when educational and documentary films were becoming popular, Hallo Radio was a satire on the domineering tendencies of some political decrees. The last scene of the film, which displayed military manoeuvres, ended with a gas attack, with the final shot being an alarm siren and SOS filling the screen.
As is the case with other lost classics, not much is known about the production or distribution of the film, other than that it was one of the first Polish sound films and that, with its ironic hints at political and military progress, it showcased the pertinent public concerns in the Poland of the era.
Of loss and love: ABC Miłości (1935)
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Still from the film ABC miłości, director: Michał Waszyński, 1935, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa/www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
ABC Miłości (ABC of Love) came at the height of Waszyński’s directing career, and is now regarded as one of the most successful Polish comedies of the era. It told the all-too-familiar story of a failing artist, Wincenty Poziomka, who has resorted to managing a shop to sustain himself, though he still dreams of a stage career. Falling in love with Helenka, a character played by Maria Bogda, who was voted the most beautiful Polish woman in 1929, Poziomka realises that their future lies together – in the shop.
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The film was notable particularly for the wide participation of cabaret stars in its production: acclaimed songwriter Marian Hemar wrote the script, and stars included actors Konrad Tom and Adolf Dymsza as the lead. The film, with its simple script, was indeed promoted as showing a ‘new Dymsza’ of a serious and sentimental nature, a far cry from his previous comic success earlier that year in Antek Policmajster. Dymsza found success in a less expressive style in ABC Miłości, with laughs coming more from witty humour than cheap gags.
There were also, again, production issues – subtitles for the film were allegedly in the unstable pre-reform Polish spelling, as the film was made before the language decrees which made official the spelling proposals of 1936.
From the first day of filming, issues arose – a young girl in the cast could not cope with the pressure, so a replacement had to be sought.
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The memoirs of another actor in the picture, Kazimierz Krukowski, also recall:
In the first day of filming for ABC Miłości...the production manager, pale as a sheet, declared in a trembling voice to Waszyński:
‘We cannot film today because Hemar did not send the script.’
Waszyński looked at the set decorations, photo cameras, at the actors and said:
’We will shoot from memory. Light! Actors on the set! Get ready!’
We filmed a movie without a script for two days. Waszyński remembered all...
Suitably, Waszyński’s own effort was met by that of Filmoteka Narodowa, who have worked meticulously in recent years to digitise the film using four sources of varying quality. So, unlike most of the other films on our list, we can actually see an incomplete version of ABC Miłości. The picture is still missing around 25 minutes, but the overall success of the film can now, at least, be appreciated.
Cosmopolitan connections: American Adventure (1936)
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Still from the film Amerykańska awantura, director: Ryszard Ordyński, 1936, photo: wikipedia
American Adventure was directed by famed theatre and film producer Ryszard Ordyński. It told the story of a bartender, who dreams of being a technician and inventor, and his impromptu meeting with an American journalist he falls in love with. His dreams and aspiration to marry the journalist prompts him to follow her to America, though he loses his money and lives with continuing hardship – until he invents a new pocket radio/television camera and wins the journalist’s love.
The film starred Polish interwar heartthrob Eugeniusz Bodo, with its printed programme – complete with photographs of ship voyages and high-rise buildings as backgrounds – celebrating the progress Polish cinema was making by the mid-thirties. Indeed, there are historical photographs of Wolska Street in Warsaw where we can see advertisements for the film displayed, suggesting the impact of the industry on public consciousness. Wiadomości Literackie made the surprising compliment that the script and acting was sophisticated, and the film even starred Mieczysława Ćwiklińska, a long-celebrated Polish actress who had been working in entertainment since 1900.
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Nonetheless, controversy struck production following racist comments Bodo made to the press concerning filming in America. He reported that ‘the closer, however, was Harlem, the less you saw white faces on the bus. I admit that I was overwhelmed by a strange feeling in which I had complete awareness of the fact that I found myself in a seven-million-strong huddle – surrounded by black people.’
Bodo went on to claim two black citizens had threatened him – though Piotr Derewenda cited that: ‘when filming... Bodo told reporters that he was attacked by black citizens of Harlem, who left him in his underwear and so he had to return home... though the reality was that filming was made in Gdańsk.’ Some sources, however, do suggest individual scenes were filmed in New York and on the Polish transatlantic warship MS Batory – though how much of Bodo’s own repulsive narrative was true is questionable. It may well have been an attempt at cajoling media interest, in an effort to raise awareness of the film and its novel use of international topics.
And, despite some modern techniques, American Adventure also met with some critical dismissal – a 1937 edition of central film magazine Kino stated:
Despite the considerable amount of funds, Amerykańska Awantura does not differ much from recently produced Polish musical comedies... the comedy plot is too simple and transparent... It must be admitted, however, that in these ungrateful conditions the filmmaker managed to keep the picture at a pace, and at times even gave it the necessary momentum. In terms of acting, American Awantura was a nice surprise. Comedy characters were drawn heavily and vividly. The acting is lively and natural – though the effect is spoiled by the poor sound quality. The voice of the speaker, harsh and dull, comes out from the side of the screen.
A journalist in Kurier Poznański also criticised the sound quality and some acting, though claimed the positive ending made the film a success.
Sporting success: Jadzia (1936)
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Still from the film Jadzia, director: Mieczysław Krawicz, 1936, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa/www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Jadzia was a sports comedy, starring renowned actress Jadwiga Smosarska as protagonist– whose eponymous character bore her namesake. Filmed by Mieczysław Krawicz, who would later attempt to record the Warsaw Uprising on camera and sadly perish in the process, Jadzia came out as the Berlin Summer Olympics reached their close. It was inspired by the increased interest in sporting prowess in Poland, with the story celebrating two tennis champions with similar names.
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As was often the case with the common Polish interwar cinematic technique of qui pro quo – by which a misunderstanding and confusion of identity is used for dramatic effect – the film was humorous though romantic, with a love affair eventually ensuing between the two players.
With the title so clearly echoing Smosarska’s own name, however, the film was also seen as a celebration of the actress – whose charm, beauty and talent had taken Polish entertainment circles by storm. Indeed, the film featured a song also called Jadzia, sung by the gorgeous interwar singer Adam Aston, with lyrics giving an explicit nod to the actress herself:
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It's so weird, ma'am,
I know thousands of names,
And suddenly one of them grabbed me
It burst into mind –
And now, constantly, madam,
This name is in every sound,
And where I'm going, it’s chasing me everywhere,
Today this name is chasing me,
Just Jadzia, but how it sounds
In her bright eyes the bright sky shines…
The film was screened in the United States, though copies had been scarce in recent years – until 2013, the remnants of the film lasted about 75 minutes. However, in 2013, Filmoteka Narodowa succeeded in constructing a new, almost-complete copy, which was broadcast for the first time on TVP Polonia in June 2017.
An international affair: Dyplomatyczna Żona (1937)
Dyplomatyczna Żona (Diplomatic Wife) was a dual-effort film, produced simultaneously in Polish and German versions by Krawicz and Carl Boese. It concerned the story of a diplomat’s wife – pictured in the film’s advertisements clad in exquisite furs and cutting a poised and elegant figure – who became embroiled in various complications of love and profession. Though the German edition still exists today, the Polish was lost.
With its diplomatic focus, the film was an apt illustration of Polish-German relations at the time. It was produced at a time of recent co-operation between the two states on artistic matters in an attempt to alleviate political tensions – but the Poles soon sensed these agreements were only beneficial to the German side, so the cinematic trade deal ended in 1937.
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Posters to the paired films Dyplomatyczna Żona (1937) and Abenteuer in Warschau (1938), photo: Film Museum in Łódź
KINA reported on the hectic filming of both versions, with production allegedly costing almost a million zlotys:
The biggest two sound halls in Poland are occupied by a group of people making an international film... I see familiar Polish actors and next to them as if their reflections are reflected in the mirror. Those are known German actors playing in the foreign version of the film...
At this point, a great comedian known from ‘Skowronka’ from Eggerth, a Viennese – Rudolf Karl... begins to shout...
‘Sie haben das am anwenigt passenden Ort gemacht,’ he turns to Karl with Rostowski's remarks.
Slate. The image is interrupted. No replay. Boese says with a smile:
The film was also notable – as KINA points out – for the wealth of Polish entertainment talent who were involved, including Konrad Tom, Igo Sym and the electric dancer Loda Halama.
The finale: Parada Warszawy (1937)
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Freeze-frame from the film Parada Warszawy, photo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6uJPmdD_3s
As illustrated time and time again, Polish interwar cinema was teeming with a hefty dose of inspiration from cabaret, prompting innovation and comedy – and the classic picture epitomising these influences has to be Parada Warszawy (Warsaw Parade). This picture came towards the end of the golden era of Polish cinema, and featured a plethora of famed cabaret artists, performing theatre and revue numbers, directed by Konrad Tom. The film came a year after the death of Tom’s wife and illustrious cabaret star Zula Pogorzelska – it was, perhaps, one last Polish celebration of the entertainment industry which had been so rich through the country, and the rest of the world.
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And it certainly lived up to this promise, with performances by stars including Henryk Wars’s orchestra, Tadeusz Faliszewski, Loda Halama, Chór Dana, Hanka Ordonówna, Zofia Terné, Fryderyk Jarosy and Stefcia Górska.
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The programme’s first page proclaimed:
With a song on the lips,
With joy in the heart,
With humour and verve,
Before the most splendid movie parade,
The foremost artists of the stage and screen:
Though now very much forgotten in cinematic history, with few records, the film was referenced in the picture Wspomnienia z Warszawy, which contained some elements of the 1936 hit. The detail on the copy for this later film describes: ‘Warsaw was drowning in flowers. Warsaw was playing. Warsaw was singing.’
art of the interwar period
And some of the film still sings – 20 minutes survives to this day, including a compelling Chór Dana piece, and a short recitation of A Ja Nic, Tylko Ty!, in which a lively, childish Lena Żelichowska sings alongside a disgruntled Jarosy.
The star of the show, however, came at the end, with the finale performance of Żegnamy Was! sung by a suave, charming Tadeusz Faliszewski. As he gestures across the stage, inviting his audience and orchestra to sing along with him, Faliszewski utters the last and most telling lines of the picture – a perfect summary of sentiment towards all Polish classic films lost to today’s world:
We say goodbye to you, yet we will meet again!
I, for one, hope his promise comes true.
Written by Juliette Bretan, July 2018
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