Aleksander Ford was a film director, born in 1908 in Kiev, died in 1980 in Naples, Florida. He created Knights of the Teutonic Order – one of the biggest films in the history of Polish cinema.
Film director, born in 1908, died in 1980.
Aleksander Ford was born to a Jewish family in Kiev as Moyshe Lipshutz. He studied Art History at the University of Warsaw. He debuted as a director in the early 1930s. His first major film which brought him fame was 1932’s Legion Ulicy (The Legion of the Streets), which told the story of Warsaw’s newsboys. In the same year, he went to Palestine to shoot a film and reportages about Jewish settlers (Sabra, Kronika Palestyńska/The Palestine Chronicle, Makabiada/The Maccabiah Games). Social issues also appeared in the pictures Ludzie Wisły (People of the Vistula) about bargees of the Vistula River (1938, together with Jerzy Zarzycki) and Droga Młodych (Children Must Laugh), a film in Yiddish about a centre for children suffering from tuberculosis in Miedzeszyn (1936). During the Second World War, Ford stayed in the Soviet Union, where he started cooperating with the Czołówka production company, and later with the Polish Army Film Production Company, which in 1945 was transformed into Film Polski state company.
That period yielded the films: Przysięgamy Ziemi Polskiej (We Swear To the Land of Poland), documenting the formation and swearing in of the 1st Division of the Polish Armed Forces (1943) and Majdanek – Cmentarzysko Europy (Majdanek – The Cemetery of Europe) (1944) – a reportage shot on 24th and 25th July, 1944, immediately after the camp’s liberation by the Soviet Union.
Ford’s first post-war film, Ulica Graniczna (Border Street) (1948) shows the tragic fate of the Jewish community in occupied Warsaw. The director described it as ‘a film about small people against the backdrop of grand politics,’ as its protagonists include a group of children living in a Warsaw tenement house. The picture received the Gold Medal at the 1949 Venice Film Festival.
In 1951, he made Młodość Chopina (Youth of Chopin), whose script was based on novellas about the famous Polish composer written by Jerzy Broszkiewicz, Gustaw Bachner, Stanisław Hadyna, and Jan Korngold. Ford intertwines the musician’s artistic maturing with major social and political events from 1825-1830: Chopin is surrounded by young revolutionaries from Warsaw, after which leaves for the countryside, where he encounters traditional Polish music and peasant songs, and eventually emigrates, where he learns about the failure of the November Uprising.
The socialist realist Piątka z Ulicy Barskiej (Five from Barska Street) from 1954 marked a return to contemporary themes and tackling the effects of war. The drama, based on Kazimierz Koźniewski’s novel, tells a story of five boys who, unable to adapt to the post-war reality, go down the criminal path. The main characters are played by, among others, Aleksandra Śląska and Tadeusz Janczar. The film received the Jury Award at the Cannes Festival.
The following work by Aleksander Ford was one of the first Polish colour films (realised in the CinemaScope system and on Eastmancolor film tape) and one of the most popular productions in the history of Polish cinema and a box office hit (with over thirty million viewers overall). The film in question is of course Krzyżacy (Knights of the Teutonic Order), an adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel (the script, written by Ford and Jerzy Stefan Stawiński, was also based on Krzyżacy 1410/Teutonic Knights 1410 by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski) – a true blockbuster, with 28,000 costumes produced and featuring 10,000 extras and 470 horses. The film was commissioned by the government and played an important propagandistic role. As Jerzy Pelc wrote in 1960 in Film weekly:
the celebrations of the anniversary [of the Grunwald victory] were a conscious political demonstration against the reviving West German revisionism.
Ford – one of the founders of START, a pre-war association promoting arthouse cinema, and the leader of Film Polski – was a perfect candidate for a director of such an important film in the eyes of the authorities, even though two years before he got into trouble with the censors. Wiesław Gomułka, first secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party, did not appreciate Ford’s Ósmy Dzień Tygodnia (The Eighth Day of the Week), based on Marek Hłasko’s 1958 short story, and after the pre-release screening he commented with outrage that ‘all Polish directors can see is drinking vodka.’ The film was therefore banned for a record-breaking period of time and waited twenty-five years for its premiere. In the 80s, the film was mainly watched as a curiosity, mainly for the performances of the young Zbigniew Cybulski and Sonja Ziemman, who in fact married Hłasko. The writer was critical towards the film, unlike the audiences in West Germany, where the film was available to public since 1958. It was Ford’s next film to be screened at the Venice Film Festival.
After the success of Knights of the Teutonic Order, Aleksander Ford also realised the psychological drama Pierwszy Dzień Wolności (The First Day of Freedom) (1964), whose protagonists were a German doctor and his daughters, who after the war were forced to face Poles returning from the front. The film was screened as part of the main competition at the Cannes Festival.
In 1968, in the light of anti-Semitic persecution, Ford was forced to emigrate – he first went to Israel, later to West Germany, and then to Denmark (while abroad, he realised the films Krąg Pierwszy/The First Circle and Jest Pan Wolny, Doktorze Korczak/You Are Free, Dr. Korczak), and eventually to the United States, where in 1980 he committed suicide at the age of 72.
From the perspective of time, his legacy is assessed in mixed ways – he was undoubtedly one of the biggest figures in Polish cinema and it is sometimes said that had he been in the United States in his younger years, he would have become one of the ‘fathers of Hollywood.’ In a conversation with Andrzej Wajda, David Halberstam even said that ‘had he arrived to the United States in the 20s, he wouldn’t have only been Goldwyn, but in fact Goldwyn-Mayer.’ His contribution to establishing film companies and Łódź Film School, where he held the function of the dean of the Directing Faculty between 1954-56, cannot be underestimated. For many artists, he was a master figure, however the indivisible power which he had over the entire branch of the industry was making him act dominant and undercut younger artists. His story – from omnipotence to collapse – remains one of the most poignant tales of Polish cinema.
Stanisław Janicki wrote a biographical book about Ford, and created a documentary about him titled Kochany i Nienawidzony: Dramat Życia i Śmierci Twórcy Krzyżaków (Beloved and Hated: The Drama of Life and Death of the Author of Knights of the Teutonic Order) (2002).
Knights of the Teutonic Order
łódź film school
the eighth day of the week
Sources: Dziennik Łódzki, Onet.pl, filmpolski.pl, ed. NMR, November 2016, transl. AM, May 2017