Warsaw Uprising on Film
August 29, 2014
Miasto 44 (City ‘44), one of the biggest and most eagerly awaited Polish movie productions in recent years, is hitting cinemas across the country in September.
The movie is directed by Jan Komasa, who is best known for his award-winning film Sala samobójców (Suicide Room), and is a story about youth, love, courage and sacrifice that is set during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the bloody armed struggle against the Polish capital’s German occupiers during World War II.
Miasto 44 tells the story of young Poles destined to enter adulthood in the cruel days of German occupation. Despite the war raging around them, they are full of life, passionate and impatient, living as though each day was their last.
The main protagonist, Stefan (played by Józef Pawłowski) looks after his mother and younger brother after his father, a Polish Army officer, died during the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Stefan works in the Wedel chocolate factory and finds it increasingly difficult to bear the humiliation he suffers at the hands of the Nazis at every turn. When the opportunity presents itself, he joins the underground Polish Home Army, encouraged by Kama (Anna Próchniak), a childhood friend and next-door neighbor. Kama is secretly in love with Stefan. But it is a subtle and sensitive girl named Biedronka (played by Zofia Wichłacz) who becomes Stefan’s first love. But then the Warsaw Uprising breaks out.
The uprising was staged by the underground Polish Home Army in an attempt to drive German forces out of Warsaw before the approaching Red Army entered the city. During the fighting, which lasted for 63 days, about 16,000 Polish soldiers were killed or went missing, 20,000 were wounded and 15,000 were taken prisoner. As a result of air raids and artillery shelling as well as harsh living conditions and massacres staged by German troops, anywhere between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians died.
Although it takes place in a city during a war, Miasto 44 tells the story of people, not of armies or barricades. The filmmakers say the movie is not intended as an argument in the ongoing debate in Poland about whether or not the decision to stage the uprising was the right one. “The film aims to convey emotion and not weigh up arguments or reveal the secret workings of decisions made 70 years ago,” the filmmakers say. “That’s the job of historians… Miasto 44 is not a film about politics. It is a movie about love, youth and battle.”
Miasto 44 is a major movie production by Polish standards with a multimillion budget and an unprecedented filmmaking project in this country in terms of set design, costumes and visual effects.
The last major Polish movie production set during the Warsaw Uprising was Canal, directed by Andrzej Wajda, the 2000 Lifetime Achievement Academy Award winner. Made in 1956 in communist Poland, Canal gained international recognition and to this day remains a compelling picture. However, in the 1950s, freedom of speech and artistic expression was limited. While targeted against the Nazis, the Warsaw Uprising was fought by soldiers of the largely anti-Soviet Home Army and the postwar communist authorities in Poland were careful to censor this information. As a result, Wajda had to conform with the communist ideology and adjust his film to highlight the hopelessness of the struggle.
With a historical background like this, expectations were high of the next major release about the Warsaw Uprising—one made in an era when censorship is a thing of the past. But even though communism fell 25 years ago, no filmmaker took on the challenge until now.
Even though Miasto 44 will not open on the silver screen until Sept. 19, a large group of viewers were lucky enough to see it at a special preview screening that took place July 30 at Warsaw’s National Stadium. During the preview, which was held to mark the 70th anniversary of the uprising, the movie was shown on a giant screen 60 by 30 meters in size in what was the first event of its kind in the history of the Polish movie industry.
Attended by over 12,000 people, including President Bronisław Komorowski and his wife, the event started with a welcoming address to surviving insurgents who came to the ceremony from around the world. They received a long round of applause and then Komasa said to them: “I feel happy and honored to be standing here before you, the insurgents of Warsaw. May this film be a ‘thank you’ from the entire crew of 3,500 people who worked on it. I would like the film to make a difference. It is important to pursue the ideals of fighting for freedom and dignity.”
The first reviews following the preview ranged from highly favorable to critical. Tadeusz Sobolewski from the influential Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper ambiguously described Miasto 44 as a “perfect imitation of great cinema.” Some World War II veterans were not satisfied with the way certain historical facts are depicted in the movie and said the story distorts the reality of what life looked like in those days. A former insurgent quoted by the Natemat.pl website said he feels disappointed because the film failed to convey the atmosphere of the time and show what people were really like in those days. “I hoped to see people united, friendly to each other and having a common goal,” the man said.
Many other critics gave positive, if not rave, reviews. Newscasts from the special preview showed teary-eyed viewers who after the closing credits rolled spoke how enormously impressed they were by the movie.
Komasa later posted a comment on a social networking website to say that critical reviews were perhaps written too soon, as what viewers at the National Stadium saw was a version produced especially for the screening. The final-cut movie will open in theaters across Poland Sept. 19, but before that, Miasto 44 will be shown at the 39th Polish Film Festival in the northern city of Gdynia.
Marcin Mierzejewski and Marzena Robinson
Miasto 44 was filmed between May and August last year. The shooting took 63 days, the exact duration of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Cinematographer Marian Prokop filmed the movie on locations in and around Warsaw, Łódź, Wrocław and the towns of Walim and Świebodzice in southwestern Poland.
A total of 7,000 people came to audition for roles in Miasto 44. The production employed 3,000 extras and the sets were built by 10 separate teams that used 5,000 tons of rubble to recreate the destroyed city. Many scenes involved stuntmen, reenactment groups, military vehicles such as tanks and self-propelled guns, pyrotechnics and computer generated imagery.
To make sure Warsaw looked as similar as possible to what it was like in 1944, the producers consulted Hollywood special effects expert Richard Bain, who earlier worked with such movie giants as Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson and is notable for his work on Inception, King Kong and Casino Royale.
Director Jan Komasa, 33, is the winner of multiple film awards and one of Poland’s most talented young directors. He names Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Roman Polanski as directors who have inspired him all his life. “I know all their movies,” Komasa says. “My childhood idol is Steven Spielberg and I was lucky to meet him in person while he was filming Schindler’s List. Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by the movies he has made for wide audiences.”