Battle of Warsaw (1920: Bitwa Warszawska) Review

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1920. Poland faces invasion from Russia, and Chief of State Jósez Pilsudski (Daniel Olbrychski) is determined not to give up without a fight, despite warnings that Polish forces are not strong enough to resist. Jan Krynicki (Borys Szyc) is called up, and takes advantage of his last night of freedom by marrying cabaret singer Ola Raniewska (Natasza Urbanska)...

One thing that the easy availability of DVDs from other countries to our own has shown us, is that there is a large gap between our view of a country's cinema and that of a native to that country. That's true even for countries with which we share a language, but it's even more so with a nation whose principal language isn't English. Our view of French cinema, for example, leaves out the majority of commercial films made there, the thrillers and comedies and other genre fare that simply never gets exported to us. (It's worth mentioning that when Truffaut's The Last Metro was one of the very few films made by one of the key New Wave directors to also be a sizeable hit at the local box office.) Nowadays, given an internet connection and a seller willing to ship overseas, you can order anything that's available. Of course, that creates another problem which anyone with more than a passing knowledge of a given national cinema will be very familiar with: the frustrating knowledge of how much is not available.

There have been attempts to redress this in recent years. Bollywood films have a distribution pattern that bypasses the usual pattern of reviews and wide coverage in favour of marketing directly to their niche audience, and very successful at this they are too. A similar thing has been done with Polish films too, ones aimed at a wide commercial audience rather than arthouses, with runs in cinemas near to Polish communities. One of these was Battle of Warsaw (1920: Bitwa Warszawska), which played UK cinemas in October 2011. I went to see it on its opening Sunday with a friend and her partner: said partner and myself were almost certainly the only non-Poles in the audience. Battle of Warsaw was the most expensive Polish film to date, and the first one shot in 3D.

Inevitably some names are familiar. Daniel Olbrychski has acted in many films over the years, for such directors as Wajda, Kieslowski, Von Trotta and Jancso. DP Sławomir Idziak made his name working with Kieslowski, and was responsible for the bile-and-vomit colour scheme of Dekalog 5/A Short Film About Killing, before much work in the West, including an Oscar nomination for Black Hawk Down. But the young male lead, Borys Szyc, would be much better known to native audiences than foreign ones and this is only Natasza Urbanska's second feature. And the director, Jerzy Hoffman, has a fifty-year career but this is one of just three films of his to be commercially released in the UK, and the other two (Fire and Sword (Ogniem i mieczem), from 1999, and Army of Valhalla (Stara basn. Kiedy slonce bylo bogiem), from 2003) were DVD premieres in the last two years, presumably on the back of the success of Battle of Warsaw.

There's nothing particularly subtle about Battle of Warsaw: it's a straight-down-the-line mainstream war movie, intended as celebration of one of its nation's great victories of history. I'm not best placed to judge its historical accuracy, so I will leave that to others. The battle scenes are this film's raison d'etre and they are well enough done, with some occasionally gruesome moments contributing to the film's 15 certificate. The use of 3D is effective, with bayonets, guns and marching soldiers galore, so it's a pity that this DVD release is 2D only. But it's the kind of film where its heroine can machine-gun a whole phalanx of Russian soldiers without a hair or a daub of makeup out of place.


Battle of Warsaw is released by Metrodome on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. It begins with trailers for two other Metrodome releases, Resistance and Days of Glory, but these can be skipped if required.

The word “film” is an increasingly common misnomer as this was both captured and projected digitally, at least at the showing I attended. Idziak shot the film on the Sony HDC-P1, capturing at 1080/24p. Hoffman seems to have given him his head as to the film's look, as it has a very heightened, heavily manipulated image that is nothing like realism but doesn't resemble film either – though it does evoke the early colour processes that were around in 1920. Given that this is a very recent production, what you get on this DVD is what was up there on screen, albeit downscaled to SD PAL. And that is exactly what it does look like, with the colours and the shadow detail in line with what I saw on screen...except that it's 2D and not 3D.

The soundtrack comes in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0), mostly Polish-language with some scenes in Russian. It's perhaps surprisingly a somewhat front-and-centre sound mix, with the surrounds mostly used for music and ambience. The subwoofer comes in to play with the many examples of explosions and gunfire. English subtitles are non-optional, which is worth bearing in mind if you are fluent in Polish or Russian or both.

The only extra is the theatrical trailer (1:17)

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