Polish Cinema's Golden Age: The Glamour & Progress Of Poland's Interwar Films
default, Polish Cinema's Golden Age: The Glamour & Progress Of Poland's Interwar Films, Still from the film Orlę, 1926, pictured: Hanka Ordonówna, Kurt Kurthoff, Lech Owron, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa / fototeka.fn.org.pl, interwar_1200.jpg
The Polish interwar period was one of energy and charm. Technological progress met a nation bursting with an enchanting diversity, which presented its glories most clearly on the silver screen. Polish cinema was a world of prosperity, one which came to an abrupt dark end with the advent of WWII. But the brilliant first days of Polish film cannot be forgotten: they shaped the cinema of the country forever, and had a bright impact across the world.
In the late 19th century, individuals from across the world were competing to be the first to invent machines capable of creating moving photographs. This technological battle to fashion a new, modern entertainment, ultimately culminated with the Lumière brothers’ public screening of projected motion pictures in 1895.
But though the Lumières are seen as the central pioneers of film, Poles too were essential. Piotr Lebiedziński and Kazimierz Prószyński made vast progress with the development of the pleograph, one of the world’s first movie cameras which, like the Lumières’ creation, also included a projector. Though it was patented two years earlier in 1893, it remained in the shadow of the French inventors, and has now been largely forgotten.
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Indeed, this is much like the story of the early days of Polish cinema: dwarfed by its neighbours, Poland struggled to make a name for itself in film production before WWII – a tragic fate for a national industry so brimming with novelty.
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A snapshot beginning
The early cinematographers in Poland kept up with their international rivals in terms of swift technological progress, though production in these early years remained pedestrian. The Lumière Cinématographe was first shown in Poland in Kraków in 1896, sparking work by others, such as the celebrated inventor Jan Szczepanik, now regarded as the ‘Polish Edison’, who made headway with telecommunications.
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Polish film manufacture at this time was immature, with its official birth in the nation dated as between 1907 and 1910. But, even before then, there were still attempts to kickstart a Polish cinema industry. The Krzemiński brothers opened theatres across Poland in the early 1900s, such as the Theatre of Living Photography, which was established in Łódź in 1899, closely followed by rival establishments, such as Aleksander Hertz’s Sfinks in Warsaw in 1909, which would later develop into one of Warsaw’s two leading film companies.
Many theatres created in this period adopted Gallic names, such as Parisiana, whilst others referenced the escapist nature of film with names like Atlantic and Rialto. These names were apt: Polish film in these days was produced to offer a glimpse of fantasy. Perhaps this was why the continental yet overwhelmingly Polish Sfinks succeeded for so many years. Yet film was still heavily controlled and devoid of any rating system. Children were forbidden from attending cinemas completely.
Alongside this development came the experimental work of the afore-mentioned Prószyński and Bolesław Matuszewski. But it was the short comic piece, Antoś Pierwszy Raz w Warszawie (Antoni’s First Time in Warsaw), premiering on 22nd October 1908, which truly precipitated the industry of Polish cinema. This 90-minute Franco-Polish film, of which only a brief segment now survives, was instigated by the owner of the Oaza theatre, Jakub Jasiński, with support from Antoni Fertner, who played the ludicrous protagonist. Developed in Paris by Joseph Meyer, it told the tale of a young man from the provinces who, during a visit to Warsaw, is thrust into the gaucherie of city life – but, unlike its story, the impact was monumental. It catalysed an interest in serious Polish film production, as opposed to Franco-Polish collaborations, whilst Fertner became the first Polish movie star, famed for his farcical approach.
However, as these bright early days of Polish cinema were rolling forward, the state itself was facing an immense tumult: a struggle to defend its national identity against years of occupation. Until the end of WWI brought new borders, Poland had disappeared from the map for 123 years. During this long period, its territory was torn between the equally dominating forces of Austria-Hungary, Prussia (Germany) and Russia – it was down to the displaced Poles to attempt to regain a culture of their own. Their objective was to promote national coherence and patriotism, as well as to stress the injustices committed against Poles by the occupying forces. A key work of this genre was the 1908 Pruska Kultura (Prussian Culture), which showed Prussian Poles oppressed by the Germanisation policy that was in full swing at the start of the century.
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But as politics changed, film changed with it. By 1915, when the Russians were driven out of Warsaw by Prussia, films with anti-Russian feeling blossomed. This was partially due to the following German occupation, with its concomitant arrival of producers from the newly-created German film industry eager to make their fare.
Indeed, Poland, and Polish film, remained in the grip of turmoil throughout WWI: though, by 1915, Warsaw had 25 movie houses, and two film-making companies, Sfinks and Kosmofilm – WWI hit both hard, resulting in a lack of funding for the former and a complete production shut down for the latter. The two companies merged in 1915, and managed to produce several documentaries on war-time life, such as the 1916 Warszawa W Chwili Obecnej (Warsaw at the Current Moment), which showed the current struggle but also promised a great future for Poles.
But the instability of cinema in Poland at the time prompted many native Polish stars to seek success elsewhere. Most notably, they included Pola Negri, who moved to Germany in 1917. This was why, when the war ended and independence was regained, Poland amplified the status of its stars as its cinema industry bloomed.
From cabaret to film
This promotion policy grew alongside the lively cabaret and theatre scenes which took Poland by storm in the early 20th century, influencing national feeling even before the war. Theatre actors and cabaret performers were desperate to play a role in early cinema production as it strengthened the state’s identity, including Stefan Jaracz who was already a household name for his experimental theatre work. Equally, the two performance styles of expressive theatre and whimsical cabaret were quick to seep into the budding film industry: early comic productions grew alongside melodramatic pieces.
One popular 1914 theatrical picture, Niewolnica Zmysłów (The Slave of Sin), featured the film debut of the previously-mentioned Pola Negri, a former theatre star who had caught attention from a young age with her stick-thin figure. Following her successes in Germany, she was destined to become a phenomenon around the world for her theatrical femme fatale and tragedienne roles. She would be the first European star to be signed to Paramount Studios and spent much of the 1920s in the USA.
But whilst Polish cinema was beginning to show its strengths, the government was cracking down, raising taxes on luxury items and pressing patriotism. It all catalysed dilemmas for film producers. Many decided to import foreign films rather than promote domestic works – and, for those who took the risk of the latter, the success rate was low. Sfinks still dominated the scene, and whilst feature films increased in number from the six made by Sfinks in 1918 to 22 made by multiple companies in 1922, there were lingering underlying issues with finances, inadequate technology and immature flair. And yet, struggles like this only strengthened the impetus to raise the national standard of production to one worthy of international competition.
Leading the way, Sfinks produced multiple melodramas at the start of the 1920s, launching the stratospheric career of the bewitching Jadwiga Smosarska, now that Negri was absent. Smosarska overwhelmingly played clichéd Polish females – alongside Sfinks’s focus on melodramatic yet patriotic films, the company had found a formula they knew could repeat to reap rewards.
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Location filming during the making of The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, directed by Ryszard Ordyński (in the middle), 1927, photo: Dom Wydawniczy PWN
But by the mid-1920s, the film industry was transforming once again, with the flat dramas of the immediate post-war replaced by more adventurous stories. In 1926, an alluring icon of interwar Polish music and cabaret, Hanka Ordońowna, made her film debut in the short Orlę (The Little Eagle), a comedy film based on an aeroplane trip from Warsaw to Tokyo. It was directed by Wiktor Biegański and promised massive appeal; its premiere on Marszałkowska, known as ‘the Broadway of Warsaw’ for its many cinemas, was attended by celebrated dignitaries such as the then President, Ignacy Mościcki.
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Ron Nowicki’s Warsaw: The Cabaret Years reports that Zofia Terne, another great star of Warsaw’s interwar cabarets, claimed Ordońowna was energetic in her approach to both industries: she rehearsed at the Qui Pro Quo club in the mornings, went to film shoots in the afternoons, and would then complete two shows at the club in the evenings.
Orlę ultimately went on to struggle, but it was another of Biegański’s works from this period, the thrilling 1925 Wampiry Warszawy (Vampires of Warsaw), the debut film for Igo Sym, which proved the most popular for Polish audiences desperate to entertain their passion for adventure.
This adventurousness was furthered by the strong literary basis in Polish films of the interbellum. Despite some sensational pieces that found popularity before WWI, such as the 1913 Halka and Quo Vadis?, the latter based on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, it was during the interbellum that this inspiration reached the heights of national fame. Though the war coincided with the advent of modernism, bringing with it a stress on immediate experience rather than fiction and stressing the documentary style, contemporary writers re-scripted the age-old patriotism of the classical novels for a more daring audience, and worked with directors who were beginning to show personal styles of production to create truly modern masterpieces.
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Sfinks was also becoming more subtle, releasing a film which would catapult Smosarska to the pinnacle of her career in 1926. The popular Trędowata (The Leper) was adapted from the acclaimed novel of the same name by Helena Mniszkówna which, in a contemporary literary environment seeping with historical fiction, was a glittering and liberating portal to a more lively Polish existence.
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Indeed, the first Polish film with sound, Moralność Pani Dulskiej (The Morality of Mrs. Dulska), released in 1930, was based on a Polish drama. It was widely acclaimed as a technological advancement for Poland, though the production was an international affair, and the quality of sound-on-disc, recorded at Syrena Records in Warsaw, and the poor lip synchronisation were criticised by newspapers. Nevertheless, it was another advance for the Polish cinema industry as a whole, particularly with its background in patriotism and theatre culture. It was also the first major movie success for cabaret performer Adolf Dymsza, and catalysed his brilliant movie career throughout the 1930s.
Film rolls forward
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Mira Zimińska & Franciszek Brodniewicz in the 1936 film Daddy Gets Married (Papa Się Żeni) directed by Michał Waszyński, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
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Indeed, it was in the last decade of the interwar period that Polish cinema became a national institution, with a body of highly professional work developed in the later years. Films began to experience a deep taste of the artistic with the establishment of the START association. This group of directors wanted to promote such flair, and technological advances coupled with the yearning popular desire for entertainment meant production could only mature.
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Stars like Mira Zimińska and Konrad Tom who had already found theatrical fame continued to make the move from stage to screen, sustaining their stage personas and thus a cult of celebrity. It has even been noted that production itself became stage-like, with long and medium shots predominating, and the theatrical as an integral element.
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The actress Nora Ney (1906-2003) in May 1933 at Wawel Castle in Kraków. The famous femme fatale of interwar Polish film was born near Białystok, and she rose to fame thanks to her fole in the 1929 film Policmajster Tagiejew. Photo taken from the book 'Lost World: Polish Jews – Photographs from 1918-1939', published by Boni Libri and the Jewish Historical Institute, photo: courtesy of the publishers
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Other stars, like Nora Ney, became famous solely for their films, which were produced in the late 1920s and 1930s, suggesting the industry was opening up to new talent as well as already celebrated individuals. Escapism remained a strong theme with films concerning exploration and the exotic often breakout successes, like the exhilarating (though now dubious) Czarna Perła (Black Pearl) from 1934, which was headed by the interbellum star, Eugeniusz Bodo, alongside the also highly-renowned Reri.
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Patriotic films were undeniably still popular, with the traditional trope of the brave Pole versus the primitive local popular, but comedies were most dominant. Polish film was returning to the humorous roots it did best, and the theatre and cabaret stars from Morskie Oko and Qui Pro Quo who flooded the cast lists were well prepared. Bodo and Dymsza starred in the now iconic Paweł i Gaweł (Pawel and Gawel) in 1938. Its independence and capitalism themes, as well as its melodrama, contributed to its classic status.
The end of the 1930s was the crest of the wave of the Polish film industry: production, approximately 30 films per annum, was still almost completely based in the capital, and it’s estimated that as many as 258 of the 267 full-length films made in the interwar decades were produced there, making Warsaw the hub of the growing entertainment medium. Like with music and the arts, film was a place for minorities to also make their mark, such as Warsaw’s vibrant Jewish population – many of the companies of the 1930s had Jewish investors, which propped up the business of production, and Yiddish cinema was on the rise in the era too.
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The cameras stop rolling
Despite years of chasing after international competitors being met with only limited international acclaim, by the later 1930s Polish film was finally beginning to carve a place for itself in the cinema world – but, as soon as WWII began in 1939, production ceased completely. Cinema continued to grow in the nation after the war, but the six years of silence were irrevocably damaging, with many filmmakers and stars, like Ney and Tom, moving to the West to never to return to Poland. Negri, who had attained immense success in Hollywood after a sparkingly European career, also passed away in America, whilst Smosarska moved to the US and only returned to her homeland for her final years. Fertner remained in Poland during the war, but never went back to the cinema afterwards; and Jaracz, who had been briefly imprisoned in Auschwitz during the occupation, died of ill health just after the war ended. Zimińska left the stage in 1947, but sustained renown until her death at the age of 95.
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The fates of the heavyweights of the Polish interbellum were no better. The magnificent Bodo died of starvation as he was deported to a gulag in 1943. Dymsza continued a career but died in Poland in 1975 after allegedly suffering from hearing loss and Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile, the smouldering Ordońowna died in Beirut in 1950.
As for Igo Sym, his pro-German stance before the war earned him favour with the occupying forces, later leading to his collaboration in propaganda films. In an even more sinister twist, he informed the Germans of the hiding place of his ex-stage-partner (and allegedly lover), Ordońowna, who was imprisoned in Pawiak Prison as a result. His traitorous activities resulted in a death sentence from the Polish Underground State, who had him executed in 1941.
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polish art of the interwar period
Like the interwar period itself, Polish cinema was a flicker of vibrancy and wonder which captivated all, even for the short few years in which the cameras rolled. Polish cinema would be irrevocably altered in more ways than one when the war had finally ended, when film celebrated the efforts of those striving to protect Poland, rather than celebrating the Polish state itself. But the stars of the interwar period, and the thriving culture they belonged to, are still remembered and celebrated today. The glamour lives on, even if the cameras have now closed their shutters.
Written by Juliette Bretan, Dec 2017