Knights of the Black Cross (Krzyżacy) (13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival/Masterpieces of Polish Cinema) Review
Poland, the early fifteenth century. Jurand of Spychow (Andrzej Szalawski) makes a stand against a band of Teutonic knights, who retaliate by killing his wife. His daughter Danusia (Grażyna Staniszewska) goes to the court of the Duchess of Mazovia to seek revenge, and there meets Zbysko (Mieczysław Kalenik) who swears to help her in this...
Based on the 1900 novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature five years later), Krzyżacy was released in Poland on 15 July 1960, the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald, with which the novel and film culminates. (The Kinoteka Festival have given this film an English title of Knights of the Black Cross though the previous UK cinema and DVD releases went out as Knights of the Teutonic Order, which was also the subtitle on the screener copy I watched. End of pedantic titling note.) It rapidly became one of the biggest box office hits in Polish film history and as of 1987 had sold thirty-two million tickets in Poland alone. By comparison, the present population of Poland is only around six million more than that. The film was sold overseas, including the UK, and shows if nothing else that the Poles could make large-scale historic epics of the old school as well as anyone else.
Aleksander Ford (1908-1980) began his filmmaking career in the silent era, with his first feature in 1930. The pre-war cinematic output of Poland is almost certainly all but lost, due to wartime destruction of the archives, but following World War Ii and Poland's annexation into the Soviet Bloc film production came under the control of the government who set up Film Polski to produce and distribute them, with Ford becoming the organisation's first director. Ford also set up the film school in Łódź, which numbered among its students Roman Polanski, Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk and others. As a film director, he made Poland's first colour feature, Five Boys in Barska Street (Piątka z ulicy Barskiej) in 1954. By 1960, colour was still unusual in Poland, and Knights of the Teutonic Order became the first Polish feature in Scope as well, using the French Dyaliscope process. While it's certainly a foursquare epic, with a fair dollop of romance in amongst the fighting, not dissimilar in style to films coming out from Hollywood around the same time, there is a certain scale to it which a big screen will certainly benefit. Back in 1960, there was no CGI, of course, and so those are real people appearing as extras in the battle scenes, fifteen thousand of them.
Knights of the Teutonic Order was Poland's submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, though failed to make the shortlist. It was released in the UK, in a subtitled version on the arthouse circuit, somewhen between November 1961, when the BBFC passed it with an A certificate, uncut, and January 1964,.when the Monthly Film Bulletin reviewed it. It would have dropped out of circulation at some point, and there have been no British television showings that I can trace, perhaps mercifully as the film would almost certainly have been panned and scanned, but it became available again in 2006 when Second Run released it on DVD. That disc had a transfer which was unfortunately cropped to 16:9 and also lost 27 seconds of horsefalls at the behest of the BBFC, for a PG certificate. The present version has been the beneficiary of a 2K digital restoration and is now available to see on British cinema screens, in its full Scope ratio, for the first time in likely over forty-five years.
Krzyżacy is showing on 16 and 26 April at the BFI Southbank, London, as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema strand of the 13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival. The screening on 16 April will be introduced by critic and filmmaker Kuba Mikurda. Tickets for both showings are still available at the time of writing.