None of Lejtes’ films became internationally recognised masterpieces, but they are considered among the top achievements of pre-war Polish cinema. In comparison with other film directors of the era, Lejtes distinguished himself by his solid education and high artistic sensitivity, as well as his readiness to address difficult issues. The ambitious artist often sought a foundation for his works in the literature – he adapted, among others, The Young Forest by Adolf Hertz, The Rose by Stefan Żeromski, The Girls from Nowolipki Street by Pola Gojawiczyńska, and The Frontier by Zofia Nałkowska. In the interwar period, outstanding novels were often trivialised by filmmakers and turned into banal melodramas, but Lejtes’ approach to screen adaptations was always serious. The director tried to adapt not only the story but also the problems of the literary works. They were often based on Polish history – the director made films about Barbara Radziwiłłówna, Tadeusz Kościuszko, the January Uprising, and the Russian Revolution of 1905. Although the artist is primarily associated with historical dramas, he also proved himself as a maker of social (The Girls from Nowolipki Street) and psychological cinema (The Frontier). After World War II, Lejtes tried to continue his career in the United States, but he did not find much success across the ocean.
The director’s biography itself could be the basis for an intriguing film. Lejtes was born into a family of assimilated Jews who moved from Russia to Poland at the end of the 19th century. From his childhood he showed artistic interests – he went to music school, was passionate about painting, and was a frequent guest of theatres. He was also an avid patriot from an early age, which is why he volunteered for the army in 1920 to take part in the Polish-Bolshevik War. Although he was a supporter of Marshal Józef Piłsudski, he experienced his first political disappointment in 1920, when as a Jew he was sent to the infamous internment camp in Jabłonna. After his release, Lejtes began studying philosophy at Jagiellonian University, but after two years he changed his field of study to chemistry. At the same time, he became more and more interested in cinema, so he went to Vienna, where he became an assistant to Mihály Kertész (who later became famous as Michael Curtiz for directing Casablanca), and then to Robert Wiene himself on the set of The Knight of the Rose from 1925. At that time Lejtes definitively abandoned chemistry and decided to dedicate his life to the ‘tenth muse’.
The director’s debut, the Polish-Austrian co-production Hurricane (1928), is a sentimental love story based on the events of the January Uprising. Although this silent film is characterised by its sublime frame composition which alludes to Artur Grottger’s paintings, it was not enthusiastically welcomed by reviewers and was criticised for its tawdriness. Lejtes took up historical issues in two subsequent works, which have not survived to today. The plot of From One Day to the Next (1929) begins on the frontlines of World War I. It is the story of a love triangle, praised after its première for its sophisticated camera work. The visual layer was also an asset of the war drama The Wild Fields (1932) – the first film with sound by Lejtes. This time, reviewers were less enthusiastic and reproached it for being excessively aesthetic. On the other hand, Under Your Protection (1933), a melodrama about a paralysed pilot in which romantic motives went hand in hand with religious ones, turned out to be a great success. Lejtes himself could not, however, enjoy it to the full – the surname of the Jewish artist did not appear in the credits of the Catholic film, because the producers were afraid of anti-Semitic attacks by members of the right-wing National Democracy movement. For unknown reasons, the artist was also not listed in the credits of General Pankratov’s Daughter (1934), though according to witnesses he continually helped its director, Mieczysław Znamierowski.
Lejtes’ next film, The Young Forest (1934), awarded at the Moscow festival, turned out to be his first major achievement. The story takes place in 1905 in a Russified middle school, where students rebel against their teachers who condemn all signs of Polishness. The most important aspects of this adaptation of Hertz’s play are, first of all, the great staging of crowd scenes at the school and the psychological portraits of characters played by leading Polish actors. Even though the story’s message is strongly patriotic, Lejtes brings nuance to the black and white division into Polish patriots and Russian partitionists – awkward French teacher (Michał Znicz), the constant victim of student’s jokes, and the Russified Professor Kiernicki (Stefan Jaracz), rejected by his own son, who joins the rebels, are ambiguous and profoundly human characters. Using film methods such as camera movements and frame composition, the director broke from the theatricality of the original and created a drama that permanently went down in the history of Polish cinema.
The director returned to the theme of the Russian Revolution of 1905 in The Rose (1935) – a somewhat unsuccessful and uneven work, which, however, seems even more interesting than The Young Forest in its artistic aspects. This adaptation of Żeromski’s work was to be, as the initial subtitles say, ‘a rose on the grave of the great writer,’ but the director greatly softened the revolutionary meaning of the original, and the brutal interference of censorship forced further changes. Nevertheless, Lejtes managed to show the drama of the revolutionaries, who were forced to fight not only with tsarism, but also with the sceptical Polish society and their own weaknesses. The psychologically complex character of Anzelm (Michał Znicz), a proletarian devoted to the revolutionary cause who decides to denounce his comrades out of concern for his son deserves particular attention. However, it is the formal layer of the film that makes The Rose unique: the dynamic shots of the ballroom scene, the chiaroscuro effect in intimate frames, and the expressive camera angles that may be associated with the later works of Andrzej Wajda.
Understandably, Barbara Radziwiłłówna (1936), the greatest period drama of interwar cinema, was much more popular. With little regard for historical truth, the filmmakers focused on the romantic theme – Barbara (Jadwiga Smosarska) falls in love with King Zygmunt August (Witold Zacharewicz), whose feelings are mutual, but the intrigues of the court, especially Zygmunt’s mother, Bona (Leokadia Pancewiczowa), do not allow the lovers to enjoy their happiness. Although the moral background was vividly portrayed, and the scenography as well as the costumes are still impressive, psychological simplifications make Barbara Radziwiłłówna similar to mediocre Polish melodramas of that period.
Lejtes did not demonstrate his full talent until The Girls from Nowolipki Street (1937). The story of a few friends who live in a poor neighbourhood of Warsaw – Bronka (Elżbieta Barszczewska), Franka (Jadwiga Andrzejewska), and Amelka (Tamara Wiszniewska) – is one of the few successful social dramas of Polish pre-war cinema. Born into impoverished families, the heroines are exposed to various threats from powerful and wealthy men, and a bad reputation could ruin the girls’ lives. This time the melodramatic theme plays a secondary role – the portrayal of everyday life and real human problems is the most important aspect of Lejtes’ adaptation of Gojawiczyńska’s novel. It is no coincidence that the film begins and ends in the yard of a tenement on Nowolipki Street – their individual stories are closely tied with the social context. Lejtes also took up social issues in the less successful The Frontier (1938). The best piece of this adaptation of Nałkowska’s novel is the character of Justysia Bogutówna (Lena Żelichowska), an eighteen-year-old maid who is abandoned by nobleman Zenon Ziembiewicz (Jerzy Pichelski) and descends into madness after having an abortion.
The dynamic development of Lejtes’ film career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. The director joined the Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade and collaborated on the documentary war film Od Latrun do Gazali (editor’s translation: From Latrun to Gazala, 1943), which has not survived to the present day. After the war, Lejtes did not return to Poland – first he settled in Israel, then in Great Britain, where he directed minor productions. In the 1950s he moved to the United States and continued to work as a film director, however, now for television. Interestingly, he made, among others, one episode of Bonanza and the last episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series entitled The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1962).
Lejtes did not find fame abroad, but he still remains one of the most respected Polish filmmakers. At a time when national cinematography was dominated by films that were underdeveloped in terms of technique and purely entertaining, the director's works stood out with their high artistic level and therefore raised the bar for other filmmakers. Lejtes was one of the few Polish interwar directors to master the language of film and use a rich repertoire of audio-visual means. Most importantly, the form was adapted to the substance of the works – expressionist chiaroscuro, introvert scenes, or various camera angles always served the dramaturgy and reflected the emotions of the characters. The makers of the Polish film school who debuted in the 1950s usually cut themselves off from pre-war cinema, but it seems that the films by Józef Lejtes – showing the tragedy of history, visually refined and mostly realistic – have many elements in common with later masterpieces.
- 1968 – The Counterfeit Killer (TV)
- 1968 –The Outcasts (TV series 1968–1969)
- 1967 – Valley of Mystery (TV)
- 1964 – Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (TV series 1964–1968)
- 1964 – Twelve O'Clock High (TV series 1964–1967)
- 1964 – The Movie Maker (TV)
- 1961 – The Dick Powell Show (TV series 1961–1963)
- 1961 – Target: The Corruptors (TV series 1961–1962)
- 1959 – Adventures in Paradise (TV series 1959–1962)
- 1959 – The Alaskans (TV series 1959–1960)
- 1959 – Bonanza (TV series 1959–1973)
- 1955 – Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV series 1955 - 1962)
- 1952 – The Faithful City
- 1949 – Ein Breira
- 1947 – Dim'at Ha'Nehamah Ha'Gedolah
- 1947 – My Father's House
- 1943 – From Latrun to Gazala (Od Latrun do Gazali)
- 1938 – The Line (Granica)
- 1938 – Kościuszko at Racławice (Kościuszko pod Racławicami)
- 1938 – Signals (Sygnały)
- 1937 – The Girls from Nowolipki Street (Dziewczęta z Nowolipek)
- 1936 – Barbara Radziwiłłówna
- 1936 – The Rose (Róża)
- 1935 – The Day of the Great Adventure (Dzień wielkiej przygody)
- 1934 – The Young Forest (Młody las)
- 1934 – General Pankratov’s Daughter (Córka generała Pankratowa) (uncredited)
- 1933 – Under Your Protection (Pod Twoją obronę) (uncredited)
- 1932 – The Wild Fields (Dzikie pola)
- 1929 – From One Day to the Next (Z dnia na dzień)
- 1928 – Hurricane (Huragan)