Pigs & Pitbulls: 10 Best Polish Crime Dramas on Screen
default, Still from 'The Dark House' directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, 2009, photo: ITI Cinema / promotional materials, center, dom_zly.jpg
Stylish noir crime dramas and theatrical adaptations of Raymond Chandler novels. Bloody stories about human nature and scenes from Polish history stopped in time. Hit shows and unforgettable cinema classics. Here are the ten best crime dramas of Polish cinema and television.
‘The Criminal and the Maiden’ (Zbrodniarz i Panna), directed by Janusz Nasfeter, 1963
The genre of Polish detective stories belonged to Joe Alex in the 1960s. Maciej Słomczyński, who wrote under this mysterious pseudonym, was an outstanding translator, screenwriter and creator of crime fiction. He published his books using different pseudonyms, and it is under the name Kazimierz Kwaśniewski, that he wrote the book Zbrodniarz i Panna, one of his most popular books.
Educated in British criminal prose, Słomczyński reached for fiction and narrative schemes straight from the detective stories of Agatha Christie and created novels that entranced readers and directors under the communist regime. Several television plays and films were produced based on his novels, such as ‘Cobra’ Sensational Theatre (Teatr Sensacji ‘Kobra’) abd The Last Course by Jan Batory, Where Is the Third King by Ryszard Ber and The Criminal and the Maiden.
Out of the three, the last one was considered the best. Directed by Janusz Nasfeter – who later became a master of children's cinema – the film told the story of an investigation conducted by Captain Ziętek (heartthrob Zbigniew Cybulski). To capture the murderer, the brave policeman, along with a young woman (Ewa Krzyżewska) who would recognise the killer, go to a seaside town to search for him. The problem is… is that he recognises her first, commencing a game where the hunter becomes the hunted.
'The Criminal Who Stole a Crime' (Zbrodniarz, który Ukradł Zbrodnię), directed by Janusz Majewski, 1969
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For decades, this mystery film directed by Janusz Majewski has enjoyed the reputation of being one of the best and most original Polish films ever made. The Criminal Who Stole a Crime is a film experiment in which crime fiction is combined with reportage – the story about an investigation and a search for the truth is reminiscent of a para-documentary.
The history of this film dates back to the late 1960s, when the Citizens' Militia Headquarters announced a competition for a novel about the work of law enforcement officers. One of the awards in this competition was awarded to Krzysztof Kąkolewski, an outstanding journalist, who would later become one of the masters of Polish reportage.
His novel – based on real documents, hearing and interrogation transcripts as well as expert opinions – got the attention of director Janusz Majewski. Based on it, Majewski put together a story about Captain Siwy, who risks his life and career in order to bring to justice the murderer responsible for the death of a young girl, who testified in a notorious trial. And, as with Kąkolewski’s book, in the film fiction meets fact, cultural observation mixes with imagination, and the intrigue and suspense deepen with every minute. Just add the outstanding performance of Zygmunt Hübner, and it’s perfectly clear why the film deserves its legendary status.
'Trouble Is My Business' (Kłopoty to Moja Specjalność), directed by Marek Piwowski, 1977
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These cinematic detective stories soon found their way to the small screen. This was all thanks to ‘Cobra’ Sensational Theatre.
What was this ‘sensational theatre’? These were mainly theatrical adaptations of classic crime writing by the likes of Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, Richard Harris, Joseph Kesselring and Raymond Chandler. It was the latter who was the author of Trouble Is My Business – brilliantly adapted for television by Marek Piwowski.
The story of detective Marlowe, who accidentally gets entangled in a grim plot of family secrets and revenge was transferred to the screen with Piwowski’s signature style and charm. And, thanks to the superb role of Jerzy Dobrowolski, it became one of the greatest hits of the renowned ‘Cobra’ Sensational Theatre.
'Vabank', directed by Juliusz Machulski, 1981
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Still from 'Vabank' directed by Juliusz Machulski, pictured: Jan Machulski, photo: Polfilm / East News
There have not been all that many successful crime comedies in the history of Polish cinema, so the ones that were truly good, stood out. In 1981, Juliusz Machulski secured himself a place in the history of Polish popular cinema with his debut film Vabank.
Originally, Machulski was only supposed to be a screenwriter. He wrote Vabank (va banque, a commonly used as a gambling term) for director Janusz Majewski, who specialised in rather obscure detective stories. However, Machulski's esteemed older colleague did not have the time to do anything with the script. Studio Tor was going give it to Marek Piwowski but Machulski decided to shoot the film himself, with the help of Jerzy Kawalerowicz.
Vabank tells the story of the safecracker Kwinto (played by Jan Machulski, Juliusz's father) who, after leaving prison, devises a plan to get revenge on Kramer (Leonard Pietraszak), the dishonest bank owner who landed him in prison. Machulski proved to be an extraordinary director and showed it was possible to make great American-style genre cinema in Poland too. He moved the plot to the 1930s and merged a ‘heist movie’ with an unpretentious comedy.
His version of Vabank was a spectacular triumph. Critics were delighted with the young artist's technique and skills. The film’s soundtrack quickly became a hit, and Machulski – a star.
'Pigs' (Psy), directed by Władysław Pasikowski, 1992
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It's with a total 31 reprimands and just 18 praises that Franz Maurer, one of the most important heroes of popular Polish cinema, finished his work for the communist regime’s Security Service (SB). Tough, cynical and devoid of illusions, he was the perfect hero for Poland after the transformation.
In the Pigs films, Władysław Pasikowski turned Maurer into a lonely avenger, who – although quite corrupt and not without flaws – is the last bastion in the fight to salvage principles. In the interpretation of Bogusław Linda, Franz was a new model of masculinity – a Polish macho who does not bow down to anyone but, when necessary, can shed a tear.
By telling the story of his entanglement, Pasikowski portrayed a sad picture of reality. He described the world of the Polish transformation, a reality in which old values lost their significance and the new ones had not yet crystallised. He also took a swing at national sanctities and entered into an iconoclastic dialogue with Andrzej Wajda's cinema.
When Wajda watched the scene of the drunk Security Service agents making a travesty of the Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski, he stated that Pasikowski must know something about the Polish viewer that to him still remains a mystery. After many years, Pigs became a cult film and, in addition to its popularity, it also gained recognition as a film that best captured the spirit of its time.
'Extradition' (Ekstradycja), directed by Wojciech Wójcik, 1995-1999
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Franz Maurer was not the only tough guy who supported the birth of a new democracy. Olgierd Halski from the series Extradition was another.
He had a sort of rough charm about him, was rather fed up with life but still had enough strength to stand up to wickedness. He successfully passed the verification process and changed from a militia officer into a policeman. Halski did not fear bullets or the Soviet mafia, who had popular reign over television programmes in the 1990s. He also could care less about being noticed by cowardly and corrupt superiors – he moved around the city in a leather jacket and a modest Polonez car to eradicate all injustice.
In Wojciech Wójcik's series, the Western genre figure of a lone ranger was exploited and applied to the narrative of the social changes in Poland in the early 1990s. That is probably why Extradition was met with such a positive response from audiences. It’s enough to mention that before it even hit TV screens, it was available on VHS but before you could rent it, you had to wait weeks for your turn.
The sensational crime drama instantly became a TV hit. Not only thanks to the well-tailored scripts written by Witold Horwath, but also because of the excellent acting: the cast included Marek Kondrat, Witold Dębicki, Krzysztof Kolberger and Lew Rywin, who played the role of a Russian gangster.
'Cop' (Glina), directed by Władysław Pasikowski, 2004
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This too is a story of a tired and weary defender of justice. Andrzej Grajewski, the hero of Władysław Pasikowski's Cop, is Olgierd Halski’s kindred spirit and the Polish equivalent of Kurt Wallander, the fictional Swedish police Inspector created by Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell.
The cop, played by Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, was exhuasted, his life was not going as planned, his relationships with loved ones were in jeopardy, and the world ignored his service and remained ungrateful. And yet, the boorish policeman faced the evils of the world with dignity. Jakub Socha wrote about him in Dwutygodnik magazine:
Gajewski, like Philip Marlowe, is not nice at all, but he is a decent man (...) The world tires him, but doesn't break him. He knows how to move in it, despite the fact that the system of moral norms and imperatives are rarely of any help. So how does he know? One could say that Gajewski is guided by personal judgment; in moments of uncertainty, he simply behaves decently...
This is presumably why the knackered policeman became a favourite amid Polish television viewers, and why the show Cop still appears at the top of the rankings of the best crime stories from Poland.
'Pitbull', directed by Patryk Vega, 2005
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Still from 'Pitbull' directed by Patryk Vega, pictured: Marcin Dorociński & Andrzej Grabowski, photo: Interfilm.
While TV shows such as Extradition or Cop were about the struggles of a noble loner with systemic injustice and a corrupt world, Pitbull by Patryk Vega revolutionised the way cops were portrayed on television.
In his series, not only were the streets full of evil but even police precincts looked like Polish units of Sodom and Gomorrah. The city was ruled by the mafia, the capital's cops were under the mafia’s thumb – the police was no better than the bad guys they supposedly were out to catch.
Of course, this does not include everyone. Despero, played by Marcin Dorociński, worked in the corrupt city. A thirty-year-old tough guy who managed to hold on to some remaining decency despite the fact that he had only drunks, cynics and corrupt bastards as police partners.
To tell their fate, Vega created a dark show in which crime stories met with melodrama and a dash of comedy. At the time, the young director was still trying to stick to the rules of filmmaking, so Pitbull, rough, almost a para-documentary in form, stood out among television productions that were drowning in mediocracy. This was also the dawn of Vega's great career, which, however, never surpassed the artistic quality of Pitbull.
'The Dark House' (Dom Zły), directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, 2009
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Marian Dziędziel in 'The Dark House' directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, photo: ITI Cinema / promotional materials
While Machulski offered viewers a Polish version of classic American noir cinema in his film Vabank, his younger colleague, Wojciech Smarzowski, created his own genre, which (half) jokingly could be called ‘Polish noir’.
Instead of spectacular cars, beautiful femmes fatales and men in fedoras, the film portrays imperfect heroes immersed in their own turpitude and weakness – a back-breaking sad reality and a stark portrait of Polish society. Smarzowski, who has become the most important diagnostician of what it means to be Polish in the cinema of recent years, is at the same time one of the finest craftsman of Polish cinema, combining the grim diagnosis with an effective form.
It is no different in The Dark House, a criminal tale that becomes a dark portrait of Poland’s national vices. With time, Smarzowski turns the story of a zoo technician – who one day arrives to a home in the rural outback – into one of murder, an unwanted investigation and dark secrets uniting the local community. But the criminal intrigue is only the starting point for presenting a sad, though poignant portrait of Poles.
'The Border' (Wataha), directed by Kasia Adamik, Michał Gazda, Jan P. Matuszyński, Olga Chajdas, 2014 –
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Still from the series 'The Border', photo: HBO / promotional materials
Although crime dramas have been popular on Polish television for years, the quality of most of their stories about policemen leaves much to be desired – the intrigue disappoints and the intellectual secondariness offends even the genre’s biggest fans.
The Border, a series produced by Polish HBO, is a notable exception. The story is about Wiktor Rebrow (Leszek Lichota), a border guard officer stationed in the Bieszczady Mountains, who is one day accused of a co-ordinating a bombing. The outlawed man not only tries to clear his name of the charges but also accepts the game that local criminals are making him play.
In The Border, the crime story includes today’s most urgent social problems –the story of border guards is an invitation to discuss immigrants, the refugee crisis and the need for solidarity across borders.
There were three seasons of The Border but the quality of the show never tapered. On the contrary – the third and last instalment of the series is a criminal masterpiece, in which we find not only colourful characters and well-drawn moral threads but also a full-blooded crime drama devoid of boring scenes or weak points.
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Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by AD, May 2020