Jerzy Bossak was a documentary film director, journalist, pedagogue, and one of the key organisers and authors of post-war cinema in Poland. He was born in 1910 in Rostov-on-Don, and died in 1989 in Warsaw.
Documentary film director, journalist, pedagogue, one of the key organisers and authors of the post-war cinema in Poland.
He completed his studies in law and philosophy at the University of Warsaw. In late 1920s, he started working as a film critic, mainly for the leftist press, such as the Lviv-based Sygnały, or Dziennik Popularny, co-edited by Wanda Wasilewska. He was an active member of START – Society of the Devotees of the Artistic Film. During the war, he stayed in Lviv, where he collaborated with Nowe Widnokręgi magazine published by Wasilewska. Later on, just like many other Poles, he found himself in the depths of the USSR. From late 1943 on, he took part in the creation of the Polish Army's Czołówka Film Studio, accompanying and filming the Polish Army on its march all the way to Berlin. In 1944-49, he was the editor-in-chief of the Polish Film Chronicle and a programme director of the Film Polski production and distribution organization. He was a founder and the first editor-in-chief of the Film weekly (1946), as well as a founder and the first director of the Warsaw Documentary Film Studio (1949). During the Stalinist era, he was removed from cinema life, both as an organizer and as a creator. In 1956, he became the art director of the Warsaw Documentary Film Studio, and one year later he founded the Kamera film group. He headed both institutions up until 1968, when he was yet again discharged from all positions. It was a similar case with his position as a dean of Directing Department of the Łódź Film School, which he administered from 1956, teaching at the same school since 1948. He regained his position as dean in 1987, for two years. In 1979, he started co-directing, together with Tadeusz Makarczyński, the Début Studio of the Warsaw Documentary Film Studio. He was active in the Polish Filmmakers Association, Association of Polish Theatre, Film, Radio and Television Artists (SPATIF-ZASP), and International Documentary Association. As an artist, he received many awards for lifetime achievements, for example the Award from the Minister of Culture and Art in 1978, or the Wektor 79 award from the Polish Filmmakers Association.
He was one of the first Polish filmmakers to be presented with prestigious film awards after the war, such as for instance in 1947 in Cannes, for the documentary Storm in Poland, co-created with Wacław Kaźmierczak, and in 1954 for the documentary Powrót na stare miasto (Return to the Old Town – editor's translation). Polish Film Chronicle, where Bossak worked not only as a manager, but also as an editor, author of commentaries, and producer of many special editions, received numerous awards.
The creative and organizational activities of Jerzy Bossak were undoubtedly guided by the ideas of the prewar START – Society of the Devotees of the Artistic Film. Edward Zajicek (Poza ekranem. Kinematografia polska 1918-1991 / Beyond the Screen: Polish Cinematography 1918-1991) emphasised that nearly entire managing staff of Czołówka, which was the springboard of post-war Polish cinema, had belonged to START. On one hand, they postulated film's liberation from commercialism that was imposed by private producers, and on the other, ideas of ‘artistic and utilitarian cinema,’ which Bossak consistently introduced in his oeuvre. As he said, after the war, that documentary film:
was needed immediately. Not only in order to document the facts, but also – and perhaps most of all – in order to support the mobilization of social energy needed for the revival and reconstruction […]. Our films had to be not just informative and educational, but also moving. They had to resonate with the minds and feelings of millions of audience members.
And that is why Bossak explained that ‘the English documentary formula could not work for us as an informational tool.’
Bossak addressed this need by reacting instantly to the ongoing war and postwar reality in such films as The Battle of Kolberg, The Annihilation of Berlin, or in one of his most renowned films, Storm in Poland, and later by creating so-called compilation films, epic historical frescos, such as the famed Requiem for 500,000, or September – This Happened…, which, was less critically acclaimed, due to some historical inaccuracies. In both approaches, however, it was the sequencing of the footage which endowed them with the artist's own interpretation that mattered the most, something which was especially apparent in the case of Storm in Poland and Requiem for 500,000. The former was created with the use of footage sourced from the Polish Film Chronicle in a way that highlighted the universal messages related to a disaster. Requiem for 500,000, on the other hand, was constructed out of propaganda footage shot in the Warsaw Ghetto by German camera operators in such a way that, as Krzysztof Kąkolewski wrote, one could talk about a peculiar collaboration ‘between the Nazi cinematographers and the prominent director.’ (Film no. 22/1963). In Chełmska 21 (Warsaw, 2000), Konrad Zarębski wrote:
The production of this film was a certain act of courage, consisting in the change of the recipient of the photographic material – the chronicle of the establishment and annihilation of the Ghetto, intended as a testimony to German precision and glory, was transformed into a patent proof of the crime against humanity.
polish documentary film
łódź film school
warsaw documentary film studio
polish film chronicle
Bossak used to say that he creates epic films. He also often defended the essence of a documentary film from the influence of literature or plot, as, while engaging with the experiences of the socialist realism era, he perceived those features as threats to documentary. A documentary film was to be limited to recording facts, while the authorship of a film was to be reflected predominantly in their selection and composition. He even described himself as a ‘classic by choice,’ guarding the purity of the genre. His methods did not always work, sometimes failing for objective reasons – the political situation called for simplifications (such as for instance in Reminiscing Years 1945/1946 or September – This Happened…), or sometimes the epic panorama would overshadow an individual person, like for example in 273 Degrees Below Zero. Nonetheless, several films by Jerzy Bossak, such as The Annihilation of Berlin, Storm in Poland, Requiem for 500,000, Return to the Old Town, or one of the first and more prominent examples from the so called black series, Warsaw 1956, have cemented their position in the canon of Polish, as well as international documentary cinema.
After Jerzy Bossak's death, an article in the Film weekly, which was incidentally founded by him, emphasised that he ought to be remembered for all of his activities. There was, after all, ‘Bossak – organizer of film life in Poland,’ ‘Bossak – director and theoretician,’ and finally ‘Bossak – pedagogue and advisor.’ He is dubbed as the father of Polish documentary, however his impact spread over the entire post-war cinema in Poland. At the end of the day, it was him who, having found himself with Czołówka on the territories liberated from German army, was the originator, founder, and organizer of numerous film institutions which were active in Poland for years, and most of which still exist. These included the Polish Film Chronicle, whose formula he conceived, film groups – independent artist collectives, the Film magazine, the Warsaw Documentary Film Studio, and Łódź Film School, to whose establishment and organization he also contributed.
He is also remembered for his support and participation in artistic projects of his peers – both directors and students. Roman Polański said once that he owes his entire film career to Bossak. He created his début picture, Knife in the Water, in the film group Kamera, which was managed by Bossak. Andrzej Munk, Wojciech Has, Andrzej Wajda, Witold Lesiewicz, Janusz Majewski, and others also produced his films there. In Jadwiga Zajiček's film devoted to Bossak, A Life Like a Film, Andrzej Wajda said that in Polish film there was only one true producer, and it was Bossak. Jerzy Bossak was for example the originator of and inspiration behind the script, and eventually of Man of Marble, which turned out to be one of Wajda's most acclaimed films.
- 1944 Majdanek – cmentarzysko Europy / Majdanek – the Cemetery of Europe (group production, formally directed by Aleksander For, with script and art production by Jerzy Bossak). A shocking first documentary about the Shoah and the era of crematoria, realized in the first days after the liberation of the Majdanek Nazi camp in Lublin.
- 1945 Bitwa o Kołobrzeg / The Battle of Kolberg. Special edition of Polish Film Chronicle, realized in Kołobrzeg during the conquest of the city and immediately after the supersession of the German forces by the Polish army. Second World War.
- 1945 K.R.N. 1943-1945 / S.N.C. 1943-1945. Report from the 7th session of the State National Council, realized as a special edition of Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1945 Na zachód / Westward. Reportage from the front, realised during the march of the Polish Army to the Baltic. Second World War.
- 1945 Dwudziesty drugi lipca – Święto Odrodzenia Polski / July 22 – National Day of Poland's Revival. Reportage from the celebrations of the first anniversary of the foundation of the Polish Committee of National Liberation and of the unveiling of the monuments of Mikołaj Kopernik and Christ the King.
- 1945 Nowa Polska / New Poland (screenplay by J. Gorczycka). Reportage about the post-war reconstruction of Białystok and Stalowa Wola.
- 1945 Pierwszy Kongres Związków Zawodowych / First Congress of Trade Unions. Reportage from the hearing of the Congress of Trade Unions, realised in Warsaw on 15th December, 1945, as a special edition of Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1945 Rząd Jedności Narodowej przybył do Warszawy / Government of National Unity Arrives in Warsaw. Reportage from the arrival of the Government of National Unity to Warsaw, realised as a special edition of Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1945 Testament Jaracza / Jaracz's Will. Funeral of the prominent actor of the interwar period – Stefan Jaracz.
- 1945 Zagłada Berlina / The Annihilation of Berlin (co-realised with W. Kaźmierczak). Story about the participation of Polish Army in the final attack of the Red Army and the conquest of the capital of the Third Reich, Berlin. Realised as a special edition of Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1945 Ballada F-moll / Ballad in F minor. Film about Warsaw, which was never distributed in cinemas. Most of this film's footage was destroyed, while the preserved fragments were used a few years later in Tadeusz Makarczyński's film Suite Varsovienne.
- 1946 600-lecie Bydgoszczy / 600th Anniversary of Bydgoszcz. Reportage from the official celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the city of Bydgoszcz.
- 1946 IX Sesja KRN / 9th Session of the State National Council. Reportage from the hearing of the State National Council, realised as a special edition of Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1946 Marszałek Tito w Polsce / Marshall Tito in Poland. Reportage from the visit of the official Yugoslavian delegation to Poland, realised as a special edition of Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1946 Młodzież Na Uniwersytetach / Youth at Universities. Portrait of the life of students of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, realised as a special edition of the New Poland Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1946 Most / The Bridge. Film about the reconstruction of the Poniatowski Bridge in Warsaw, which had been destroyed by the Germans during World War Two.
- 1946 Na straży pokoju / Guarding the Peace. Reportage from the first session of the United Nations Organization, realised as a special edition of Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1946 W bratniej Jugosławii / In Kindred Yugoslavia. Reportage from President Bierut's visit to Yugoslavia, realised as a special edition of Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1946 X Sesja KRN / 10th Session of the State National Council. Reportage from the hearing of the State National Council, realised as a special edition of Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1946 XVII Mistrzostwa Bokserskie w Łodzi / 17th Boxing Championship in Łódź (screenplay by K. Gryżewski). Reportage from boxing championship, realised as a special edition of Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1946 Niemcy okupowane / Occupied Germany. Realised as Polish Film Chronicle's foreign reportage, devoted to the German surrender, Nazi crime trials, displacements, and the industrial reconstruction in Western Germany.
- 1947 Powódź (klęska powodzi) / Storm in Poland (co-realised with W. Kaźmierczak). A dramatic depiction of a flood caused by the outpouring of the Vistula River in 1947. Film constructed our of footage of the Polish Film Chronicle, without voiceover commentary. (Awards: 1947 – Cannes, Grand Prix for documentary film)
- 1947 Nasz marszałek / Our Marshal. Reportage dedicated to the supreme leader of Polish Army, Marshal Michał Rola-Żymierski, realised as a special edition of Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1947 Rok 1946 / 1946. Summary of the key events of 1946.
- 1949 Straż nad Bałtykiem / Guard on the Baltic. History of the Polish sea.
- 1950 18 milionów / 18 Millions. Reportage from the national Peace Congress in Warsaw, realised as a special edition of Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1950 Pokój zwycięży / Peace Will Win (as Jerzy Szelubski). The proceedings of the 1st Polish Peace Congress's hearings and the nations' struggle for the preservation of peace.
- 1950 II Światowy Kongres Obrońców Pokoju w Warszawie / 2nd World Peace Congress in Warsaw. Realised as nine special editions of the Polish Film Chronicle.
- 1951 Pokój zdobędzie świat / Peace Will Overcome, Peace Will Win – USA (as J. Szelubski, co-realsied with J. Ivens). Film about the 2nd World Peace Congress in Warsaw in 1950. (Awards: 1952 – Karlove Vary)
- 1952 Spotkanie w Warszawie (Ślubujemy Tobie Ojczyzno) / A Meeting in Warsaw (We Pledge to You Homeland). Film about a convention of young strike labourers, which took place in Warsaw on 22nd July, 1952. (Awards: 1953 – 3rd collective National Award, 1953 – Bucharest, 3rd prize at the Film Festival of the World Festival of Youth and Students)
- 1954 Powrót na Stare Miasto / Return to the Old Town. Film about the reconstruction of the Warsaw Old Town. (Awards: 1954 – Cannes, first prize for documentary film, 1954 – Edinburgh International Film Festival, honorable mention)
- 1954 W pogoni za żółtą koszulką / In Pursuit of the Yellow Shirt. Reportage from the course of the 1954 Peace Race.
- 1955 Spotkanie w Warszawie / A Meeting in Warsaw (screenplay: J. Bossak, A. Adzhubei, and B. Ivanov; production: J. Bossak, R. Grigoriev, I. Kopali, and J. Posielska). Film about 5th World Festival of Youth and Students
- 1956 Warszawa rok 1956 / Warsaw 1956 (screenplay and production in collaboration with Jarosław Brzozowski). One of the first and most famous films from 'black series.' Warsaw's monumental governmental edifices and residential ruins.
- 1961 Wrzesień – tak było / September – This Happened… (co-realised with W. Kaźmierczak). Full-length film based on archival footage from before World War Two and the battles with Germans in September 1939.
- 1963 Requiem dla 500 tysięcy / Requiem for 500,000 (co-realised with W. Kaźmierczak). A montage of German film footage and photographs sourced from archives of different countries, many of which were used for the first time. From the foundation of the Warsaw Ghetto, to life behind the walls in an enclosed Jewish district, to the Holocaust and the 1943 Ghetto uprising (Awards: 1963 – Kraków, Golden Dragon, 1963 – Leipzig, Silver Dove Grand Prix, 1964 – Oberhausen, honourable mention, 1965 – Florence, International Ethnographic and Sociological Film Festival, first prize in the Social Film category, 1964 Robert Flaherty Award).
- 1964 Chwila wspomnień – rok 1945-1946 / Reminiscing Years – 1945/1946 (co-realised with W. Kaźmierczak). Compilation film based on archival footage from film chronicles. (Awards: 1967 – Monte-Carlo Television Festival, honourable mention)
- 1964 Chwila wspomnień – rok 1947 / Reminiscing Years – 1947 (co-realised with W. Kaźmierczak). Compilation film based on archival footage from film chronicles.
- 1966 Ecce Homo. Reportage from the competition in Montréal.
- 1967 Dokument walki / Documenting the Battle (co-realised with W. Kaźmierczak). Full-length compilation film dedicated to the Polish soldier's battle with the Nazi German armies.
- 1968 273 dni poniżej zera / 273 Degrees Below Zero (in collaboration with Jarosław Brzozowski). Full-length film about contemporary Siberia. Overview of the region, nature, and civilization.
- 1968 Wieś w Tajdze / A Village in Taiga. Reportage from a small village in a taiga inhabited by Poles.
- 1969 W Jakucji / In Yakutia (in collaboration with Władysław Forbert). Reportage about contemporary Yakutia.
- 1969 Polacy na frontach II Wojny Światowej / Poles on the Fronts of Second World War. Full-length film, never screened in full.
- 1985 Impresario (co-realised with H. Janas, B. Krupa, B. Tomorowicz, Z. Osiński, B. Witanowski, and K. Tumicka-Palluth). Portrait of Jan Wojewódka – a trader and impresario from Chicago promoting Polish culture in USA.
- 1985 Chopin w Polsce / Chopin in Poland. A documentary film realised for a TV station from Western Berlin about Chopin's and his family's life in Poland.
Jerzy Bossak also authored screenplays and commentaries for such documentary films as: Fabryka żarówek / Lightbulb Factory (1946, dir. K. Gordon), Cracovia (1969, dir. Władysław Forbert), Osada nad Nysą / A Settlement by Nysa (1948, dir. J. Plucińska), List górnika / A Miner's Letter (1949, dir. J. Vogel, M. Niewiarowski), Preparat 'T' / Preparation 'T' (1953, dir. Włodzimierz Borowik), and Paragraf zero / Article Zero (1957, dir. Włodzimierz Borowik). He also realised specialised editions of Polish Film Chronicle: Przegląd Wojskowy / Military Review, Przegląd Kulturalny / Cultural Review, and Filmową Kronikę Harcerską / Scout Film Chronicle. Furthermore, he provided pedagogical supervision for several dozen projects by many different directors.
Jerzy Bossak was the protagonist of the documentary film A Life Like a Film, realised in 1994 by Jadwiga Zajiček and a film by the German director Klaus Wildenhahn, Ein Film für Bossak und Leacock from 1983, dedicated to two pioneers of postwar world documentary cinema, as Wildenhahn has referred to Bossak and the US American documentarist Richard Leacock.
Author: Jan Strękowski, December 2003, transl. AM, May 2016.