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Polish Film and the Holocaust

Polish Film and the Holocaust: Politics and Memory

Marek Haltof
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Polish Film and the Holocaust
    Book Description:

    During World War II Poland lost more than six million people, including about three million Polish Jews who perished in the ghettos and extermination camps built by Nazi Germany in occupied Polish territories. This book is the first to address the representation of the Holocaust in Polish film and does so through a detailed treatment of several films, which the author frames in relation to the political, ideological, and cultural contexts of the times in which they were created. Following the chronological development of Polish Holocaust films, the book begins with two early classics: Wanda Jakubowska'sThe Last Stage(1948) and Aleksander Ford'sBorder Street(1949), and next explores the Polish School period, represented by Andrzej Wajda'sA Generation(1955) and Andrzej Munk'sThe Passenger(1963). Between 1965 and 1980 there was an "organized silence" regarding sensitive Polish-Jewish relations resulting in only a few relevant films until the return of democracy in 1989 when an increasing number were made, among them Krzysztof Kieślowski'sDecalogue 8(1988), Andrzej Wajda'sKorczak(1990), Jan Jakub Kolski'sKeep Away from the Window(2000), and Roman Polański'sThe Pianist(2002). An important contribution to film studies, this book has wider relevance in addressing the issue of Poland's national memory.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-357-0
    Subjects: Film Studies, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Acronyms and Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    The vibrant, multicultural mosaic of prewar Polish culture was destroyed during World War II. Poland lost more than six million inhabitants, almost 22 percent of the entire population. That number includes about three million Polish Jews, approximately 90 percent of Polish Jewry, who perished during the war in the ghettos and extermination camps built by Nazi Germany in occupied Polish territories.¹

    In a dispute with several historians who argued that Polish anti-Semitism and the indifference of Polish “bystanders” determined the fate of the Jewish population, Lucy S. Dawidowicz declares in her book,The Holocaust and the Historians, that “the Germans...

  7. Chapter 1 Postwar Poland: Geopolitics and Cinema
    (pp. 11-27)

    The Polish state ceased to exist in September of 1939.¹ In accordance with the Nazi German-Soviet Union (Ribbentrop-Molotov) Pact, Nazi German forces invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and then Soviet armies attacked from the east on 17 September, thus completing another partition of Poland. Unlike a number of other European countries whose film production was maintained at the prewar level, or had even increased at the beginning of the 1940s, Poland had no feature film production during the occupation.

    During the war, a number of established Polish filmmakers lost their lives. Actor Eugeniusz Bodo (Bogdan Junod, 1899–1943), a...

  8. Chapter 2 Wanda Jakubowska’s Return to Auschwitz: The Last State (1948)
    (pp. 28-52)

    In her landmark film,The Last Stage(Ostatni etap, also known under the titleThe Last Stop, 1948), Wanda Jakubowska (1907–1998) depicted the monstrosity ofKonzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenauand drew on her firsthand experiences to portray the “factory of death.” With its dramatization of the camp experience,The Last Stageestablished several images easily discernible in later Holocaust narratives: the dark, “realistic” images of the camp (the film was shot in Auschwitz-Birkenau); the passionate moralistic appeal; and the clear divisions between victims and victimizers.¹

    In film criticism,The Last Stageis often discussed as “the mother of all Holocaust films,”²...

  9. Chapter 3 Commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Border Street (1949)
    (pp. 53-73)

    Aleksander Ford (1908–1980), the controversial organizer of Polish postwar cinema, released his first film,Border Street(Ulica Graniczna), on 23 June 1949. The much-awaited film dealt with the wartime predicament of Polish Jews, and for the first time represented on the screen the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (19 April– 16 May 1943). The film had been produced mostly at the well equipped Czech Barrandov studio (sometimes labeled the “Slavic Hollywood”) and with the Czech contingent—cinematographer Jaroslav Tuzar, editor Jiřina Lukešová, and art director Stépán Kopecký, among others. The straightforward and realistic (although studio-made)Border Streetshows the partitioning of...

  10. Chapter 4 Images of The Holocaust During the Polish School Period (1955–1965)
    (pp. 74-114)

    Several important developments in Poland were propelled by the political thaw after Stalin’s death in March 1953, particularly after a speech by Nikita Khrushchev in February 1956, in which he criticized Stalin and condemned the personality cult. The escape from Poland in December 1953 of a high ranking officer of the Ministry of Public Security, Józef Światło, and his broadcasts via Radio Free Europe after fall 1954 embarrassed the communist authorities by revealing the inner workings of the Polish security apparatus. Światło’s disclosure of Stalinist crimes led to several changes within the communist apparatus that culminated in 1956. The death...

  11. Chapter 5 Years of Organized Forgetting (1965–1980)
    (pp. 115-138)

    In the second part of the 1960s, the leader of the Polish Communist Party, Władyław Gomułka, had been gradually losing political control. Exploiting the growing disappointment with Gomułka’s regime to their advantage, the nationalistic (so-called

    “partisan”) faction of the Communist Party, led by General Mieczysław Moczar, started to gain the upper hand. A Ukrainian national (true name Mykoła Demko), and according to several sources an NKVD agent, Moczar became one of the leading communist apparatchiks, the minister of interior affairs (1964–1968), and head of the state audit body—the Supreme Chamber of Control (Najwyższa Izba Kontroli, NIK).¹ Since 1964,...

  12. Chapter 6 Return of the Repressed: “The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto” (1981–)
    (pp. 139-186)

    The Polish approach to the common Jewish-Polish history changed toward the end of the 1980s. The television screening of Claude Lanzmann’sShoah(1985) had a profound effect and stimulated a heated debate in the Polish media.¹ Although generally praised for his forceful account of the Holocaust, Lanzmann has also been accused by many Polish commentators of being biased in his selection of material and, thus, of presenting an incomplete picture of the occupation in Poland. As some authors observed, Lanzmann’s emphasis on anti-Semitic traits in Polish society prevented him from telling a more balanced version of what really happened.²


  13. Chapter 7 Andrzej Wajda Responds: Korczak (1990) and Holy Week (1996)
    (pp. 187-210)

    Since the beginning of his career, Andrzej Wajda has frequently cast his films with Jewish characters. He devoted more time to Polish-Jewish relationships than any other major Polish director. Wajda has stated on several occasions that Jewish characters and topics are present in his films because they are present in Polish lives: “One cannot be a Polish filmmaker and completely disregard this matter.”¹ Wajda’s often proclaimed ambition has been to reconcile Poles and Jews. The scriptwriter ofKorczak, Agnieszka Holland, explains that Wajda “keeps doing movies about that, it’s his own obsession, the guilt.”² Given the above, it should come...

  14. Chapter 8 Documentary Archaeology of the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish Past
    (pp. 211-226)

    Documentary films always played a vital role in Poland. Since 1945, they have been made primarily by the Documentary Film Studio (Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych, WFD) in Warsaw, and also by the Czołówka Film Studio and the Educational Film Studio (Wytwórnia Filmów Oświatowych, WFO). ThePolish Newsreel(Polska Kronika Filmowa, PKF) performed the role of a chief documentarist of Polish life from 1945 to 1995. Starting in 1958, Polish movie theaters were obliged to screen short films (documentary, animated, or educational) before the main feature, a factor of great consequence for the makers of short films (this practice lasted until the...

  15. Afterword
    (pp. 227-229)

    Polish films about the Holocaust form an important group within the Polish national cinema. Several of them, first and foremostThe Last StageandBorder Street, also belong to the classic films of the “Holocaust genre.” They serve not only as the first attempts at representing the Holocaust, but also they have shaped the future representations of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising respectively.

    The majority of films discussed in the present book reflect in a significant way the changing political climate in postwar Poland, the pressure of politics, and the tension between the demands of the communist ideology and...

  16. Filmography (Chronological order)
    (pp. 230-249)
  17. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 250-264)
  18. Index
    (pp. 265-274)