Tommorow: Hollywood. Cinematography in Poland.
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Tommorow: Hollywood. Cinematography in Poland.

Since great film studios are associated mostly with Hollywood, to learn that Poland was once strong and successful in the movie business will come as a surprise to many.

Probably the oldest Polish film still in existence is a motion picture entitled “Pruska Kultura [Prussian Culture]” directed by Mordechaj Towbin and filmed in 1908.  It sought to criticise the attempts of the Prussian occupier to germanise the Greater Poland region. It was for this reason that it was censored and never released. The first Polish film to actually make it to the big screen was a comedy, filmed also in 1908, and entitled “Antos po raz pierwszy w Warszawie [Tony’s First Visit to Warsaw]“. The film was directed by a French filmmaker, Georges Meyer, and the lead role was played by the then popular actor of Warsaw stage – Antoni Fretner.

The origins of Polish cinematography, however, stretch way back before then. In the last decade of the 19th century Kazimierz Prószynski, Piotr Lebiedziński, and Bolesław Matuszewski constructed cameras designed to capture motion pictures. In 1894 Prószynski invented a pleograph – an early movie camera with the additional function of a projector. A year later (1895) Lebiedziński invented his cinematograph on which he captured a number of short films. The unofficial king of Polish inventors, Piotr Szczepanik, came up with a way to produce colour films and thus designed his own version of the same device.

In 1895 two brothers Bolesław and Zygmunt Matuszewski started the first Polish film studio: „Paryska Fotografia Lux Sigismond et Comp” [Paris Photography Lux Sigismond et Comp]. Between the years 1896-1898 a number of documentaries presenting the daily life of Warsaw were filmed. Bolesław Matuszewski is considered to be the father of cinematographic theory. His two publications entitled Une nouvelle source de l’histoire [The New Source of History] and La photographie animée, ce qu’elle est, ce qu’elle doit être [Motion Photography – What it is Currently and What it Should Be]. Both works were concerned with the importance of motion pictures in the portrayal of history.

The first public film screenings in Poland took place in 1896. The first cinema in Poland, established in 1899 by two brothers Antoni and Wladyslaw Krzeminski, was called Gabinet Iluzji [The Illusion Room] and located in Lodz.

Shortly after, a new Polish film studio came into being under the name of Towarzystwo Udziałowe Paleograf [Shareholders’ Association Pleograph]. It was based in Warsaw and managed by Kazimierz Proszynski. The entrepreneur was trying to sell film cameras that were produced by his company. To that end he organised many screenings in Ogród Saski in Warsaw of which the first took place in 1902. The films presented during the screenings were short documentaries on the life of Warsaw. Prószyński produced two short films entitled Powrót birbanta [The Return of the Merry-maker] and Przygoda dorożkarza [A Cabman’s Adventure] starring actors from Warsaw’s stages: Kazimierz Junosza-Stępowski (his debut) and Władysław Neubelt. Both pictures remain lost and their fate is unknown.


The beginning of the 20th century saw the Polish movie business in stagnation. Luckily, it picked up once Aleksander Hertz founded his film studio Sphinx which soon became one of the most important dream factories of independent Poland.

Documentaries were the first films produced by the Sphinx studios, but soon the owners decided to try their luck in bringing well-loved novels to the silver screen. The first film of this kind was directed by Józef Ostoja-Sulnicki and based on an Eliza Orzeszkowa’s novel entitled Meir Ezofowicz. However, due to market demand, they quickly changed their focus. Contemporary viewers were looking for something more light hearted, and most of all they wished to see films that would grab their hearts and bring tears to their eyes. The perfect romance to that end was seen in Niewolnica zmyslow [The Slave to Her Senses]. It was filmed in 1914, directed by Jan Pawłowski, starring Apolonia Chałupiec (later known as Pola Negri) as the main protagonist. During the First World War the Sphinx studios were paradoxically liberated from censorship of the tsar as the Germans stepped into the lands of the former Russian partition. This marked the beginning of a new movie genre – patriotic melodrama strongly critical of the Russians. Ochrana warszawska i jej tajemnice [The Russian Political Police and its Warsaw Secrets] released in 1916, and Carat i jego slugi [The tsar and His Minions].


After the regaining of independence in 1918 Polish cinematography was tasked with the challenge of blending the differences between the lands of the former partitions. Thanks to the unification of the market, the Polish film production business bloomed. Due to the expectations of Polish viewers, who demanded to see mostly patriotic melodramas, Polish productions were unable to prove successful on the foreign market.

The critics emphasised their over-official and trivial character. Open propaganda was the dominating feature of films directed between the years of 1919 and 1922. Once the newly regained independence and the country’s borders became more firmly established, patriotic topics slowly gave way to comedies and romance film. The following productions were amongst contemporary blockbusters: Cud nad Wisla [The Miracle on the Vistula River] (1921) directed by Ryszard Bolesławski, tear-squeezers such as Iwonka [Ivone] (1925) by Emil Chaberski, Trędowata [She – the Leper] (1926 by Edward Puchalski, Mogila nieznanego zolnierza [The Unknown Soldier’s Grave] (1927) by Ryszard Ordyński, as well as Pan Tadeusz (1928) of his, and Henryk Szaro’s expressionistic picture – Mocny czlowiek [The Strong Man] (1929). The biggest Polish warship super production – Gwiazdzista eskadra [The Radiant Squadron] (1929) by Leonard Buczkowski was an epic story of Polish air fighters during the Polish and Soviet war. Copies of the film were so ruthlessly destroyed during and after the war that there is no knowledge of any that may have survived to this day.

Artistic and vanguard productions such as Witkacy (1929), directed by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, did not warrant commercial success and were a rarity.

The true cinematographic revolution was the appearance of sound motion pictures in the 1930s. Moralność Pani Dulskiej [The Morality of Mrs Dulska] (1930) was the first Polish film of that kind.

Film adaptation of novels proved to be very successful at that time. Józef Lejtes became the main director of the genre. His film Mlody las [The Young Forest] (1934) was the first Polish film to receive an international award at a festival (in Moscow). He was also the director of two very successful films: Dziewczynki z Nowolipek [Girls from Nowolipki] (1937) and Granica [The Border] (1938) which were not void of deliberations of social and moral character. Among other notable directors of those times were: Juliusz Gardan (Czy Lucyna to dziewczyna? [Is Lucy a Girl?] 1934); Leonard Buczkowski (Wierna rzeka [The Faithful River] 1936); and Michal Waszyński (Znachor [The Quack] 1937). Due to the fact that members of the Jewish nation were quite a large ethnic group in independent Poland, the production of films in the Yiddish language was also popular. Of this genre the Dybuk (1937) by Michał Waszyński can serve as an example of a picture of exceptionally high artistic qualities, whilst films by Jozef Green, such as Jidl mitn fidl (Jidl Plays the Violin, 1936) attracted a large number of viewers. Some of these motion pictures were saved by Jewish emigrants who took their copies to Palestine where they survived the horror of the holocaust.

In time, Polish cinema produced shining stars such as: Eugeniusz Bodo, Adolf Dymsza, Aleksander Żabczyński, and Pola Negri, who for a number of years was the great diva of Hollywood.

The final years of the Second Republic of Poland brought colour productions. Tadeusz Jankowski was the pioneer of films recorded on colour tape. He was the author of the following documentary productions: Piękno Księstwa Łowiskiego [The Beauty of the Łowicz District] (1937) and Wesele księżackie w Złakowie Borowym [A Wedding Party in Lowicz District] (1938). Both titles received awards at festivals in Paris and Budapest. Right before the outbreak of the Second World War a film entitled Malownicza Polska [Picturesque Poland] (1938-1939) was produced with New York’s World Fair of 1939 in mind. The picture in large parts served in the production of Romuald Gantkowski’s film The Land of My Mother (1943), which was a narrative with Ève Curie – the daughter of Maria Sklodowska-Curie.

In 1939 there were approximately 150 operational film studios in Poland. They produced between them a total of approximately 30 feature films and between 100 and 300 short films. In 1938 there were 807 cinemas in operation. The film version of Eliza Orzeszkowa’s novel entitled Cham [The Cad] (directed by Jan Nowina-Przybylski) proved to be the biggest international commercial success with 13 distribution rights sold to other countries. Polish cinema, however, never managed to get out of the so-called second league due to a lack of financial assets, poor infrastructure, and its limited recording potential in comparison to international giants such as the USA, Germany, and Italy.

Author: Piotr Galik

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