After first describing the development of Polish cinema before 1914, this article will explain the impact of the First World War on both the screening sector and domestic film production. In doing so, it leans not only on film history[1] but also considers the perspective of cinema history, which shifts the focus from films to exhibition places, cinema programs, and cinema audiences. The article builds on Mariusz Guzek’s monography with its comprehensive look at film culture in Polish territories during World War I.[2]

Starting with the changed geopolitical and political framework, the article demonstrates how cinemas grew despite general impoverishment amid the devastating war. While shifting the attention towards film programs, it portrays the involvement of exhibition places in the war propaganda of both fighting sides. Afterward, the article describes the devastating effect of the war on domestic film production and focuses on the adaptive strategies of the one surviving production company. Finally, it demonstrates how this company’s changed geopolitical position influenced the contents of its film productions.

In the twenty years preceding World War I, cinema in the Polish territories unfolded within the larger geopolitical framework that had been created by the partitioning of Poland in the late 18th century. Cinema in the Polish lands functioned within the state markets of the respective ruling powers, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. As such, it was subject to the borders between the monarchies, as well as to their policies towards the Poles and other national and religious minorities. Under these unpropitious conditions, about 300 films were made between 1895 and 1914. Most of them were short and had only a few copies. With a few exceptions, they are regarded as lost today.

In the Prussian partition, where restrictions on Polish national life were the harshest, no attempts at Polish filmmaking occurred. Conversely, in the Austrian partition, in autonomous Galicia, film exhibition took place within the established framework of an urban entertainment culture in which the Polish language was privileged compared to the languages of other national minorities like the Ukrainians and Jews. Enjoying relative freedom, local film companies in cities like Krakow and Lviv contributed to cottage film production.

However, it was Warsaw, the capital of Russian-controlled Congress Poland, that become the heart of the Polish film production industry. As the largest Polish city and an important railway hub, Warsaw offered an attractive local market and provided convenient access to other urban areas of the multi-ethnic Russian Empire. After the Russification policy was loosened as a result of the 1905 Revolution, cinema thrived, benefiting from the ensuing economic recovery and cultural revival. Relying on growing purchasing power, the first two longer Polish feature films were made as early as 1908, whereas film production on a regular basis started in 1911. By that time, cinema owners Mordechaj A. Towbin (ca. 1872-ca. 1922),[3] Aleksander O. Hertz (1879-1928) and Juliusz Zagrodzki (1880-1965), using actors from the Polish Theatre (Teatr Rozmaitości) under the name “Artistic Cooperative” (Kooperatywa Artystyczna), debuted with feature films, followed soon afterwards by the photographer Marian Fuks (1884-1935) and the engineer Henryk (Chaim) Finkelstein (ca. 1876-ca. 1942). Here, it should be noted that Towbin with his company Sila (1911-1912) and Finkelstein with his company Kosmofilm (1913-1915) also shot Jewish feature films. They were based mainly on Jakub Gordin’s (1853-1909) plays and performed with actors from the Jewish Theatre, headed by Abraham Izaak Kaminski (1867-1918).[4] On the whole, Jewish films constituted about one-third of domestic production. That gave Warsaw the leading position within the worldwide Jewish filmmaking industry before World War I.[5]

World War I had a substantial impact on both the exhibition sector and domestic film production. First, the war changed the geopolitical position of the film market, as the Polish lands found themselves in the middle of the military conflict between Russia and the combined forces of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Apart from the Prussian partition, Polish territories became the stage for military operations on the Eastern Front and therefore experienced terrific material and human losses. Remaining initially under Russian rule, the Warsaw-based film industry had to adjust to German occupation beginning on 5 August 1915. After that date, the film markets in all Polish lands were controlled by the Central Powers.

Simultaneously, the war changed the political framework as both belligerent sides competed for Polish loyalty and army recruits (3 million Polish soldiers fought in the armies of the partition powers). They offered pledges of future autonomy and altered their cultural policies towards the Poles accordingly, trying to win them over. Consequently, both sides, which exploited their enlarged film productions for their own war propaganda, started to release films based on Polish literature, culture, and history.

The Exhibition Sector

At the same time, the war generated new borders and consequently limited the flow of films. Whole segments of the partition powers’ markets, including the Polish lands, had been cut off from the former leading countries in film production. The shortage of imports, therefore, posed a constant problem for cinema owners, whereas the demand for feature films and newsreels with information from the front lines increased. Despite the general impoverishment, people, even whole families, flocked to the venues looking for distraction from the fears and food shortages they were experiencing. Moreover, mobilization brought soldiers – who had mostly been recruited from agrarian areas – nearer to cities and towns, where they often went to moving pictures for the first time in their lives. There were also field cinemas on the front lines for the soldiers.[6]

Cinema owners responded to the growing demand for entertainment with flexible repertoire strategies. Lacking a regular supply of new films, entrepreneurs organized cabaret shows and seldom changed their programs. Now and then, they screened old films under new titles. Consequently, the exhibition sector in the Polish lands expanded, benefiting from climbing attendance rates, and cities like Warsaw even gained elegant new venues within the first two years of the war.[7]

During the war, cinemas took part in charity activities. Bigger venues like the Palais de Glace or Sfinks in Warsaw arranged benefit exhibitions to provide social aid, support hospitals, welfare organisations, and religious communities. Entrepreneurs also covered some educational costs for underprivileged school children and students, and rented their venues at lower rates for educational shows. In doing so, cinema, at that point still associated with lower forms of entertainment, climbed up the social ladder and took its position among honourable cultural, social, and educational organizations. Moreover, cinema owners came together in the face of a long-lasting conflict with the local authorities over taxes. The conflict peaked in August 1916, when cinemas in Warsaw successfully went on strike. The strike consolidated the entrepreneurs, which laid the ground for future film industry unions.[8]

The market in the Prussian partition had been continuously supplied primarily with German pictures. These, for the most part, also dominated the screens in Galicia. Audiences in Russian-controlled Poland, by contrast, witnessed a substantial linguistic and political change in cinema programs. In the first twelve months of the war, Russian films and newsreels dominated the screens. Among them were Russian adaptations of Polish literary works, like Maziepa (Mazeppa, 1914) by Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849) and Potop (The Deluge, 1915) by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) from the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, aiming “to lift up the hearts” of the Poles. Moreover, the Russian administration allowed screenings of Polish films such as Pruska kultura (Prussian Culture, 1908), which had been forbidden before 1914. Portraying the discrimination of the Poles in the Prussian partition, the film was in line with Russian anti-German war propaganda.[9]

Pruska kultura was forbidden again after the Central Powers took control of all Polish territories in August 1915. By the same measure, Russian productions and the Russian language disappeared from cinemas in Congress Poland, and venues were supplied mainly with German films until the end of the war and the initial post-war years. Productions depicting Polish suffering under Russian rule aligned with the German politics towards the Poles. The action in Tyrannenherrschaft (Under the Yoke of Tyrants, 1916) covered, for example, the history of Poland from the decline of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century until World War I. Polish striving for independence was depicted in the uprisings against Russian rule, while ignoring the protests against Prussian rule. The end showed the Central Powers returning the lost crown to Poland. Similarly, the adaptation of a drama by Gabriela Zapolska (1857-1921), Der 10. Pavillon der Zitadelle (The 10th Pavilion of the Citadel, 1917) showed the political oppression of Poles in Russian-ruled Warsaw. Focusing on the private love matters of the successor to the throne in an eastern empire, the German-Polish cooperation based on Zapolska’s play Carewicz/Fürstenliebe (Tsarevitch/Prince Love, 1918) pointed to the problems of autocratic rule in tsarist Russia. The film, however, was not shown until the end of war.[10]

Polish Film Production

Unlike the exhibition sector, domestic film production had been weakened due to both the displacement of film professionals and distribution problems. Production was already disrupted by mobilization efforts, which drafted cameramen to the front lines. That put an end to cottage filmmaking in Galicia. Cameramen like Franciszek Zyndram Mucha (1894-1940) joined the Polish legions or the Austrian army and filmed their battles. After the Polish Film Office had been established within the structures of the Polish legions in 1917, Mucha become its technical chief. On the other side, Warsaw-based cameramen like Jan Skarbek-Malczewski (1883-1967) filmed the battles of the Russian army. Mieczysław Domański even commanded the Russian army’s film unit, the Skobielewski Committee.[11]

The Polish film industry also lost one of its best directors, Edward Puchalski (1874-1942). Puchalski started to work in Moscow for Aleksandr Khanzhonkov (1877-1945) as early as the spring of 1914 and, between 1915 and 1917, ran his own production company there called Lucyfer. Additional film professionals, like the actor Antoni Fertner (1874-1959), came to Moscow one year later, fleeing the approaching German troops. Starring in around thirty films, Ferner gained a reputation as the Russian Max Linder. Two-thirds of the films were made by Puchalski’s production company.[12]

Borders also limited the distribution of domestic productions. Most Warsaw-based producers therefore went bankrupt, leaving initially only Sfinks and Kosmofilm on the market. Kosmofilm, which merged with Sfinks in 1915, released only three films: Di farsztojsene tochter/Wyklęta córka (The Cursed Daughter, 1915), Zajn wajbs man/Małżeństwo na rozdrożu (His Wife’s Husband, 1916), and Die mishpuche Cwi/Rodzina Cwi (The Cwi Family, 1916). The war that destroyed the leading producer in Warsaw, by the same token, interrupted Yiddish film production in the Polish lands for a long time.[13]

Sfinks, led by Hertz and with Finkelstein as a vice director, thus enjoyed a near monopoly. Having a profitable rental office and a network of cinemas in Warsaw, Sfinks was an independent producer. Hertz initially also benefited from his collaboration with Pathé and Khanzhonkov, and cooperated during the German occupation with the Projektions A. G. Union, and later with the Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA). These contacts gave him an advantage when it came to film supplies, providing access to the Russian market, and later to the German one as well. Hertz produced newsreels, war reportage, and twenty-one longer films with his cameraman Witalis Korsak-Gołogowski (1873-1936). Four of the latter were made before 1915, whereas the remaining seventeen feature films were shot during the German occupation.

The most lucrative films were melodramas starring Pola Negri (ca. 1897-1987) (born Apolonia Chałupiec). As Hertz’s biggest discovery, she debuted in Niewolnica zmysłów (The Slave of Sin, 1914) as a Polish femme fatale. Perpetuating this onscreen image, she starred in Żona (The Wife, 1915), Studenci (Students, 1916), and in the series Tajemnice Warszawy (Secrets of Warsaw, 1917), consisting of Tajemnica Alei Ujazdowskich (The Secret of Ujazdowskie Avenue), Arabella, and Pokój nr. 13 (Room no. 13). Before leaving for Germany and later Hollywood, Negri made Jego ostatni czyn (His Last Gesture, 1917) and Bestia (The Beast, 1917), her only surviving film from that time. Negri eventually became an international sensation and is still considered to be one of the prime sex symbols of the era. Another actress who had debuted with Sfinks and followed Negri to Berlin was Mia Mara (1897-1960) (born Aleksandra Gudowiczówna). Mara would later be called one of the biggest stars of German silent cinema.[14]

The war also fostered the patriotic film genre. Just before the German invasion, Sfinks brought out a documentary called Szpieg (The Spy, 1915), a reconstruction of the devastation of the town Kalisz by the German invaders. From 5 August 1915 on, the tsar’s empire was the onscreen enemy, meeting both the German anti-Russian war propaganda and audiences’ expectations in Congress Poland. Depicting the ruthless activity of the head of the tsarist political police in Warsaw, Ochrana Warszawska I jej tejemnice (The Secrets of the Tsar’s Warsaw Police, 1916) highlighted the legal political oppression of Poles in the Russian partition. Focusing on the life, love, and death of a former officer of the tsar’s Leib Guard, Carat i jego sługi (Tsarism and Its Servants, 1917) showed similarly brutal anti-Polish activity by tsarist authorities, including numerous interrogations, imprisonment, and Cossack charges. The melodrama Carska Faworyta (The Tsar’s Favourite, 1918), however, portrayed the complex relationship between the Russian heir to the throne and the prima ballerina of Warsaw theatres.[15]

In general, twenty-four feature films were shot in Warsaw during the war, whereas more than 150 documentaries were made in all the Polish territories. Most of these films have been lost, so their content can be retraced mainly only through press announcements.[16]


Placing the Polish lands in the middle of the military conflict between Russia and the combined forces of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the war involved Polish cinema in the propaganda of both belligerent sides. World War I, also called the first great media war, took Polish cameramen to the front lines. Some of them filmed battles for the Austrian army and the Polish legions, whereas others did the same for the Russian army. Simultaneously, both sides used cinema in the Polish lands to strengthen their political and cultural influence.

Due to the growing demand for films, the exhibition sector was strengthened during the war. However, this development proceeded on credit, as the country had been devastated and the former partitions had to be united into one national state. The newly independent Poland had, in total, fewer cinemas per citizen than other neighbouring countries.

World War I put an end to Polish filmmaking in the former Austrian partition and destroyed most of the Warsaw-based companies, including the former worldwide leader in Yiddish film production, Kosmofilm. Due to the business strategies of the one surviving company, Sfinks, Warsaw remained the hub of Polish film production and distribution. This would change after the Second World War. Beginning in the mid-1920s, the Polish capital once again hosted Yiddish filmmaking, but the industry’s centre had by then shifted to the United States of America. By that time, enduring business connections between Sfinks and UFA and the dominance of German films in cinema programs were further consequences of the war.

Karina Pryt, Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main

Selected Filmography

Arabella (Poland, 1917)

Bestia [“The Beast”] (Poland, 1917)

Carat i jego sługi [“Tsarism and its Servants”] (Poland, 1917)

Carewicz/Fürstenliebe [“Tsarevitch/Prince Love”] (Poland/Germany, 1918)

Carska Faworyta [“The Czar’s Favorite”] (Poland, 1918)

Der 10. Pavillon der Zitadelle [“The 10th Pavilion of the Citadel”] (Germany, 1917)

Di farsztojsene tochter/Wyklęta córka [“The Cursed Daughter”] (Poland, 1915)

Die mishpuche Cwi/Rodzina Cwi [“The Family Cwi”] (Poland, 1915 or 1916)

Jego ostatni czyn [“His Last Gesture”] (Poland, 1917)

Maziepa [“Mazepa”] (Russian Empire, 1914)

Niewolnica zmysłów [“The Slave of Sin”] (Poland, 1914)

Ochrana Warszawska I jej tejemnice [“The Secrets of the Tsarits Warsaw Police”] (Poland, 1916)

Pokój nr 13” [“Room No. 13”] (Poland, 1917)

Potop [“Swedish Deluge”] (Russian Empire, 1915)

Pruska kultura [“Prussian Culture”] (Poland, 1908)

Studenci [“Students”] (Poland, 1916)

Szpieg [“The Spy”] (Poland, 1915)

Tajemnica Alei Ujazdowskich [“The Secret of Ujazdowskie Avenue”] (Poland, 1917)

Tajemnice Warszawy [“Secrets of Warsaw”] (Poland, 1917)

Tyrannenherrschaft [“Under the Yoke of Tyrants”] (Poland/Germany, 1916)

Zajn wajbs man/Małżeństwo na rozdrożu [“His Wife’s Husband”] (Poland, 1915 or 1916)

Żona [“The Wife”] (Poland, 1915)

Section Editors: Ruth Leiserowitz; Theodore Weeks