Sfinks was the first big Polish film studio, founded in 1911 by Aleksander Hertz. Among other productions, it created the first silent works starring Pola Negri. It operated until the mid-1930s.
The history of Sfinks is inextricably connected with Aleksander Hertz. He was a qualified lawyer who worked in a bank in Warsaw at the beginning of his career. He was sentenced at the tsar's court in 1908 for supporting the Polish Socialist Party. After returning from exile, he started working in the film industry.
In 1909 he founded Towarzystwo Udziałowe along with Alfred Siberlast (Niemirski), Marek Zuker, and Józef Koerner and on 25th February 1909 opened the elegant and spacious Sfinks Cinema at 116 Marszałkowska Street in Warsaw. The cinema screened films produced by French film studio Pathé. It also made its own movies on the streets of Warsaw, recording the important events going on in the city. However, the beginnings were not easy as at the time in the film industry there were no rules of fair competition.
Hertz founded Sfinks film studio in 1911. According to Izabela Żukowska and Faustyna Toeplitz-Cieślak this investment was supported by the great Russian businessman and producer Aleksandr Khanzhonkov. It was to begin its activities by shooting adaptations of famous works of literature, however, only one out of the three pre-planned productions (including Sir Thaddeus) was successfully screened – it was an adaptation of the novel Meir Ezofowicz, written by Eliza Orzeszkowa in 1911. This story about a 19th-century Jewish community's conflict was not warmly welcomed; Józef Ostoja-Sulnicki, its director, was famous for making anti-Semitic statements. Little more is known about this film as only short extracts of it, kept in the National Film Archive, have survived until the present. To demonstrate for Hertz's ambition, it is worth mentioning Sfinks's attempt to film an adaptation of The Deluge by Henryk Sienkiewicz. It was supposed to be titled Obrona Częstochowy (The Defense of Częstochowa) and for its sake Hertz set up a company and took on Maria Dulęba (as Oleńka), Aleksander Zelwerowicz (as Zagłoba) and Stefan Jaracz (as Wołodyjowski), among others. Unfortunately, due to the Russian authorities' intervention, production was stopped.
The Vintage Charm & Chic of 1920s Poland
Sfinks's most important productions were actually less ambitious but rather entertaining – mostly kitchen-sink dramas and comedies. Thanks to Hertz's ability to find film talent, the film studio had its own stars – Sfinks's actresses, for example Maria Dulęba, attracted viewers to cinemas. However, the most precious gem that Hertz discovered was definitely Barbara Apolonia Chałupiec, famous worldwide under the pseudonym Pola Negri. For the first time she appeared on the screen in Niewolnica Zmysłów (Slave of the Senses, 1914). When this melodrama turned out to be a success, Negri signed a contract with the studio and starred in such films like Żona (Wife, 1915) and Studenci (Students, 1916) by Hertz. The only one among them to survive until now is The Polish Dancer (1917). It tells the story of a teenager, a successful local dancer who cherishes her freedom and causes trouble for the men she attracts.
Sfinks was the only Polish film studio to survive World War I and almost monopolised national film production. In 1915 Hertz's company merged with another prosperous film studio – Kosmofilm founded by Henryk Finkelstein and Samuel Ginzburg. Sfinks's films started to be recognised in the West and gained popularity abroad. This phenomenon had its negative results as it made Hertz's famous actresses leave their homeland and start their careers in the West. Pola Negri – dubbed 'the Polish Asta Niels' – severed her relations with Sfinks and after The Polish Dancer left for Germany. However, she had to return to Warsaw for a few months to play contractually obligated roles in four more films, including the triptych Tajemnice Warszawy (The Mysteries of Warsaw, 1917). After 1915, the film studio mostly produced melodramas based on Danish ones and and patriotic films such in Ochrana Warszawska i Jej Tajemnice (The Secrets of the Warsaw Okhrana, 1916), which was accepted by the German occupiers.
Hertz used high-tech equipment and employed reliable co-workers yet film production at that time was obviously far from its future standards. Pola Negri reminisced of working on the movie set for Sfinks in her autobiography (quotation at the end of the book Pamiętnik Gwiazdy / Diary of a Star):
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Luxury and comfort, which would later become the default for anything connected with film production, were not quite what we experienced on set… The cloakrooms and crumpled cubbyholes did not resemble today's fancy bungalows at all. People weren’t familiar with specialisation. … Everyone had some extra duties. Not only did I additionally work on the script, but also did my own make-up, sewed costumes and created ballet choreographies. Hertz painted the decorations and operated the camera, which wasn't surprising.
art of the interwar period
After World War I Sfinks gave a boost to another star – Jadwiga Smosarska, one of the most famous actresses of Polish interwar cinema. Smosarska appeared in many melodramas comprising the so-called 'Sfinks golden series', such as Niewolnica Miłości (Love’s Slave, 1923), O Czem się Nie Mówi (What We Don’t Talk About, 1924), Iwonka (1925) and Trędowata (Lewar, 1926) which did not survive until the present. The audience loved these simple love stories, unlike the critics, who wrote about 'Hertz's next leprous productions' and claimed that only the mythological Sphinx could help these trivialities become successful. Starting with Iwonka, Sfinks started to produce more and more rather tasteless patriotic films; they did, however, skillfuly use genre conventions. The adaptation of Władysław Reymont's The Promised Land (1927) directed by Zbigniew Gniazdowski and Hertz, created on the occasion of twentieth anniversary of Sfinks's activity, was the most ambitious and favourably assessed one.
After Aleksander Hertz's death in 1928 Sfinks never regained its former glory. Popular sound films like Trędowata (Lewar, 1936), Piętro Wyżej (One Floor up, 1937), and Ordynat Michorowski (1937) were created in its studio in the 1930s, however, the company ended their own productions with an adaptation of Stefan Żeromski’s book Dzieje Grzechu (The History of Sin, 1933). From today's perspective it is not easy to assess the studio's achievements. Press reviews suggest that Sfinks produced kitschy films on a low artistic level, reproducing mass culture schemes. On the other hand, they suited the audience's tastes and encouraged people to visit cinemas. Regardless of the artistic assessment, Hertz's film studio played a vital role in the earliest stages of the development of cinematography in Poland. Hopefully our knowledge about this period will improve and Sfinks's productions that disappeared (or at least extracts of them) will be found in Poland or abroad.
Originally written in Polish by Robert Birkholc, June 2018, translated by Karolina Mroczkowska, July 2018