Politically Involved Filmmaker:
AFTER World War II civil rights were restricted in Poland as in most of the countries that fell into the zone of Soviet influence. Polish citizens experienced censorship in almost every field of their daily existence. Within the film industry censorship did not function solely as a means of checking final products from the standpoint of ideology. The controlling machine was not only the domain of the Party itself, even though its officials held decisive voice in restricting the autonomy of artists. The highly elaborate system also involved many moviemakers, who often proved to be very efficient in establishing methods of censorship and propaganda within Polish cinema. There was no clear-cut division between the Party and the filmmakers. Both groups became mixed, and the latter often willingly cooperated with the first.
Just after the war there was actually one person, a war survivor, who took over the Polish film industry, and at the beginning almost all of the film content control rested in his hands. Surprisingly enough it was not a Party official, but a professional film director named Aleksander Ford. He did not act alone; accompanied by many of his prewar coworkers, who were affiliated with the Party, he rebuilt most of the production infrastructure after 1945. While discussing this group of Polish cinema founders Roman Polanski concluded in his biography,
As Ford identified himself as a Communist, he tried to carry into effect his vision of filmmaking for
the public good. Even though he never fully succeeded, his actions resulted in generating a complex
system of cinema control, which was present in Poland, with slight modifications, almost until the
end of 1980s.
Ford’s affiliation with the Communist Party came to an end in 1968. Nevertheless, he was no mere
victim of the political system. In 1945 his position had been extremely strong. While the industry
was recovering from the war he had belonged to the group of decision makers. Nobody thought then
that he would become a victim of the system he himself had helped to create.
To the top
No doubt the most outstanding of his prewar output was the 1932 feature Legion ulicy, (The Street
Legion, 1932). This was the film that actually set the direction for his further artistic development.
It also earned him his first award: the gold medal of Kino magazine. Critics called it the best movie
of the year. Asked how he achieved such a great success, he usually pointed out the social
involvement of his movie, and replied, “Cinema cannot be a cabaret, it must be a school.” This
confidence in the educational role of movies and its ability to express social messages on the screen
was visible in all of his subsequent moves, not only as a director, but as the founder of Polish film
industry as well. He started his career from the leftist and Communist film and stayed there.
In 1929 in Warsaw the influential group of film makers and theorists was first formed. It was called
START (Stowarzyszenie Milosnikow Filmu Artystycznego: Society of the Devotees of the Artistic
Film). As a young Marxist Ford wanted to challenge the commercial cinema. Being a START
member he convinced himself that the movies should spread didactic messages and he tried to
propagate this point of view after 1945.
Ford spent the war in the Soviet Union. He refused enlistment under General Anders who supported
the Western Allies and driven by his ideological background in 1943 he joined the Polish unit of Red
Army formed under Soviet supervision in Russia. The military order by General Zhukov laid the
foundation for a crew of army filmmakers who were to make documentaries on the Soviet and Polish
joint military success. Ford was in charge of the Polish Army Film Command called Czolowka. He
was appointed by the commander in chief on July 16, 1943.
It is not clear why it was Ford who was chosen to be the head of film production for the army. One
possible and most reasonable explanation could have been his prewar achievement in filmmaking,
but most probably it was his political and ideological engagement, which was the decisive factor.
Other prewar Polish film directors cooperated with Ford under military rule. They possessed just one
camera, but worked very fruitfully and completed quite a few documentaries together.
The army financial support made filmmaking for Ford a much easier task than what he was used to.
He remembered well his prewar financial struggles; he realized how hard it was to gain money for
film productions. The filmmakers linked to the army often discussed the future shape of Polish film
industry. As the soldiers moved closer toward victory, Ford knew that the financial aspect of a
moviemaker’s existence could be again the hardest one.
Even before the first piece of land in Poland was liberated, the army filmmakers had made their
minds. They were in favour of a cooperative solution. “The opening titles of the film titled Majdanek
(1944) made during the Lublin period can be seen as an echo of those early cooperative speculations.
They stated that the producer of the moving documentary was Polish Film Cooperative.”(2) Ford was
one of the supporters of the social film industry idea, which he inherited from his prewar days. The
pattern of the planned cooperative was derived from the Cooperative of Film Authors, which was
established as the START initiative in 1937.
In 1944 the new authorities in Poland launched their project of rebuilding the country’s film industry.
They recognized socially and ideologically engaged films as useful tools of persuasion and
propaganda in the newly established political system. Besides, nationalization of the media made
control simpler and more efficient. The government Department of Information and Propaganda was
formed in July 1944. It consisted of seven units dealing with different media. Aleksander Ford was
in charge of the Film Division. According to its founding act the Film Division was responsible for
movie theatres, film distribution, promotion of culture and education by the means of film and most
of all it was an institution obliged to rebuild the film industry that was ruined.(3) A year later the
Department became a Ministry and the Film Division was renamed Department of Film Propaganda.
Political changes defined the model of the new film industry. It had to go along with the socialist
character of the economy. Thus, nationalization became a politically dictated necessity. Obeying the
will of politicians in power Ford gave up his idea of a cooperative. One day Ford, mysterious as
usual, told his colleagues that he just had had a conversation and that film industry would be state
owned. As to the questions “Whom did you talk to?” he replied “To whom I needed to!”(4)
The first target of nationalization was the theatres. Step by step the theatres were taken over by the
government officials and film industry people, until finally all of the Polish movie houses were
nationalized. Taking over the theatres was part of the implementation of Ford’s vision. The
concentration of production and distribution means in one hand allowed the thorough control of film
distribution. It assured that the approved productions would be exhibited, but the most important
reason of Ford’s support for this action was that ownership of the movie theatres and screening
rooms guaranteed the abolishment of any possible competitors.
In November 1945 Ford became the director of the fully nationalized state production company Film
Polski, which in fact replaced the earlier Department of Film Propaganda. This consolidated entity
was given full monopoly in production, distribution and exhibition of movies in Poland.
Ford was interested in rebuilding the film industry regardless of the costs. On January 19, 1945 the
Central Office of Control was established and then renamed the Main Office for Control of Press
Publications and Public Performances. Ford was probably aware what institutionalized censorship
meant for the filmmakers, but convinced it was politically just he supported this institution. As the
head of Film Polski he was obliged to set up internal forms of censorship, controlling all the stages
of filmmaking, starting from script writing. Being part of the political elite of the time he performed
the same actions as most of the politicians, and he himself tried to limit the creative freedom of other
The first censored movie in postwar Poland was 2x2=4 (1945) directed by Antoni Bohdziewicz. He
made his film in cooperation with young people from his Youth Film Workshop based in Cracow.
In May 1945 this production was banned from distribution by the Office of Control. It is not clear
to what degree this decision had to do with the content of the film, and to the personal influence of
Ford who did not appreciate Bohdziewicz because of his previous political rightist affiliation. Not
only did Ford disregard the film, but he also closed down the Workshop and decided that some other
more lenient directors should take over the education of the next generation of filmmakers. He even
provided the fully written schedule for the new workshop.
Ford wanted full control. He could not stand either competition or opinions that did not approve his
actions. Why? One of the Polish researchers on the subject, Edward Zajicek, answers the question,
“It is not impossible, as some of his antagonists stated, that he was afraid of the risk that new talents
would appear who would be much better than the old masters.”(5)
The conflict with the people from Cracow had its climax in 1946, when Bohdziewicz wrote to Ford,
The following two years proved Ford could not manage the film industry. Despite the close
supervision of films and scripts he was accused of allowing many ideological mistakes. The system
of control he had been obliged to create was supposed to eliminate anything that was not appropriate
for screen presentation, and Communist officials should not have found any problematic issues. It
did not work. Ford was accused of not encouraging writers to promote socialism.
The script problem spoiled Ford’s reputation; in addition, he failed in other areas. Instead of the
planned several thousand movie theatres in 1947 there were only 516 in the country. Moreover, the
audience complained about the quality of film prints and the repertoire that contained mostly Soviet
productions. Soon another problem emerged. Ford was accused of financial corruption within the
As a result of widespread criticism Ford was replaced, and the party official Stanislav Albrecht
became the new director of Film Polski. Ford was fired due to his poor cooperation with the Party
officials during the last year of his film industry supervision, and also because he failed to set up
stricter internal film content control. The Political Bureau of the Communist Party supported most
of the new director’s moves. He used political police methods while managing the film industry, but
it was exactly what he was expected to do.
Albrecht was able to find fault with all the steps taken by his predecessor. His objections did not
relate solely to Ford’s methods of handling the job. He also negatively evaluated Ford’s ideological
attitude and his artistic achievement.
Having lost his position in 1947, the offended Ford went to Prague in Czechoslovakia, where he
worked on his first feature production in the postwar period, titled Ulica graniczna (That Others May
Live/Border Street, 1948). Before leaving the country, he did not present the script to the new
industry management. Obviously, it was an act of insubordination performed in defiance of
Albrecht’s authority. Even though Ford tried very hard to avoid supervision Albrecht personally
came to Prague to check the movie in making. He was of the opinion that the movie about Jewish
tragedy in the Warsaw ghetto should never enter Polish theatres. Ford was forced to modify his
production but this did not help much. Even though Border Street obtained permission for
distribution, opponents accused the film director of neglecting socialist ideology. Similar objections
to Ford’s new production appeared during the Congress of Filmmakers in Wisla in 1949, where the
high-ranking political leaders instituted “socialist realism” as the leading filmmaking style. There
Ford was accused of offending Polish national feelings. He tried to defend himself, but his effort was
The trouble with Border Street did not mean that all of a sudden Ford had moved to the opposition
and had started to support political adversaries of the system. He had simply failed to perform as well
as the Communists at the top expected him to. Ford liked to be in power and he was willing to do
anything to regain his previous position. As a great conformist and opportunist he decided to comply
with the new politically trendy “socialist realism” in order to make up for his previous failure. More
or less at that time, he started to compete against Albrecht and they both fought each other in order
to gain higher positions in the industry’s Party ranks.
On December 15, 1951, Film Polski became the Central Office of Cinematography. Albrecht had
made his vision come true. The film industry was managed at the central level. The Central Office,
which began an even stricter control of filmmaking, became active in January 1952. Incidently, it
was quite a paradoxical year: the controlling machine went into effect at the year’s beginning while
the new Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech in Article 83 was passed in July.
At about this time Ford completed his “socialist-realist” movie Mlodosc Chopina (The Youth of
Chopin, 1952) where he implemented all the party prescriptions from the congress in Wisla. The
biography of the Polish piano composer was reduced to an image of the “friend of working classes.”
Distribution started in 1952. This movie was highly esteemed by Party officials and was held up as
a model film during the Filmmakers’ Meeting in March 1952. One of the Party officials named
Edward Ochab stated that the new production by Ford marked a serious achievement of the Polish
film industry in praising socialism. By conforming to the Party requirements while making The
Youth of Chopin Ford clearly found his way back to the top. He was again one of the country’s most
respected movie directors.
From 1952, Alexander Ford was again among the leading industry people. The party officials
appointed him as a member of many industry decision-making bodies. At some point he even found
himself overworked. In 1954 during the meeting of Commission for Evaluating Scripts and Films
Attending all the most important commissions was a clear sign of his rehabilitation by the Party. He
was seen as a good Communist again. It took great conformity on his part and sacrifice of personal
vision. But he had again found his cozy room at the top.
As a member of the Commission for Evaluating Scripts and Films Ford could meet his opponent
Albrecht face to face. Most often in his speeches he undermined the ideological approach of his
opponent. Albrecht wanted to spread the illusion of the Commission as the decisive body which
approved scripts for film production. Ford tried to abolish it by saying,
Ford was not in favour of the iron hand that Albrecht used in managing the film industry. Even
though he supported state control he usually meant it to smaller degree.
When all of a sudden the political freeze ended with the death of Josef Stalin and Khrushchev’s
denunciation of the personality cult, the first signs of relaxation appeared in Poland. It ultimately
changed the situation of the filmmakers. As te old structures started to crumble, Ford saw his chance.
In 1955 his conflict with Albrecht eventually ended altogether with the removal of the head of
Central Office from his post. However, Ford hated him so much that post factum he caused
liquidation of the Central Office which his opponent had regarded as his life-time achievement. The
film industry lost its central status and Ford finally managed to win and gain his previous position.
Nevertheless, it soon turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Those in favour with the authorities today
could find themselves out of favour the next day. Each step taken by an artist or an entertainer was
closely watched and noted by the authorities.
In the 1950s and 1960s it was very rare that a movie became the subject of scrutiny by the Main
Office of Control. As Zygmunt Machwitz noticed, on Mysia Street (the street in Warsaw where the
Main Office of Control was located) the filmmakers were given only seals of approval necessary to
start distribution.(9) After the “Polish October” all of the filmmaking control was handed over to the
Commission for Evaluating Scripts and Films under the film industry and Party supervision. Just
before 1968 the Commission was closed down, while the film units themselves were responsible for
controlling the content of their productions. Their actions were obviously supervised by Party
officials that had to be employed on separate basis in every unit. Anything that had been overseen
in earlier stages was corrected during the final pre-distribution screening for industry people and
party delegates which was known as kolaudacja. Therefore, government authorities and the proper
censors had to pass judgment on very few movies.
In 1968, When Love Was a Crime was banned even though it had been approved for distribution
before. As the political conditions changed due to the war in Israel, any connection with Western
democracies brought up charges of popularizing antisocialist ideology. Rybkowski surrendered under
pressure and together with three other movie directors made his public self-criticism.
Ford did not comply and refused any charges of antisocialism related to his production Eighth Day
of the Week. It was a 1958 production which had never been exhibited. (It is worth mentioning that
wide distribution of the film was not allowed until 1983, three years after the director’s death.(10)
From the very beginning of production the film was fated to struggle with censors. A major reason
was the fast that the scriptwriter Marek Hlasko was an author disapproved of by the Party for
presenting a dark vision of Polish reality which went against the dominant ideology. Being an
especially controversial film, Eighth Day of the Week had already been screened for Party leader
Wladyslaw Gomulka in 1958 but he had halted the projection and had left the room cursing not only
Ford but all other Polish movie makers. This resulted in the film’s distribution ban.
In 1968 the Party reminded itself of this controversial production, and accused Ford of antisocialist
activity for working on it in Federal German Republic ten years before. He did not feel guilty and
did not humble himself. His resistance resulted in an expulsion from the Communist Party. In
December 1968 his film unit Studio was liquidated by the authorities. As a film director who was
not engaged ideologically he did not have any opportunity to be employed in the film industry. He
lost his position for good. As with most of the Jews at the time he was forced to leave the country
and headed for Israel. Later on he tried to find opportunities in other countries. However, he never
managed to recover from his loss of home and emigration ended tragically for him.
After 1969 Ford’s name ceased to exist not only in contemporary production but also in the historical
analysis of Polish filmmaking. It was not supposed to be even mentioned. In The Black Book of
Polish Censorship, which used to be the basic list of prescriptions for censors in Poland in 1970s,
Ford was among other banned names. The chapter titled “Culture” of this publication stated, “As to
the persons listed below the rule of elimination of their names and any reference to their output from
press, radio and television, as well as non-academic publications should be applied.”(11)
(Aleksander Ford appears as the fifth name from the top of the list.)
Polish film director Andrzej Munk made a brilliant parody of that reality which promoted rather opportunism than stable political devotion. His conformist character named Piszczyk tries to be politically in tune, but he always finds himself on the opposite side from what he had initially planned. This movie was produced at the end of 1950s and is titled Zezowate szczescie (Bad Luck, 1960). The political swings in Poland under Communist rule were often faster than any opportunist could follow. Today, twenty years after Ford’s suicide we can compare him to this movie character. Having identified himself as a Communist, he used the whole range of opportunities to get to the top. But there is also a crucial difference: he reached the point when the twist in ideology was too much and he resisted the final call for extreme opportunism. Eventually he was rejected and expelled from the system he had co-built himself. It was one more among the many paradoxes of Communism in Poland. Politically controlled film industry in its great reliance on the Party officials excluded its founder and devoted supporter Aleksander Ford. His search for identity as a Communist filmmaker came to a tragic end.
2. Edward Zajicek, “Aleksander Ford – organizator kinematografii”, Miesiecznik literacki, No. 2 (1985): 65.
3. Daria Nalecz, Wstep, in Dokumenty do dziejów PRL: Glówny Urzad Kontroli Prasy 1945-1949, ed. by Daria Nalecz (Warszawa: Instytut Studiów Politycznych Polskiej Akademii Nauk, 1994), 11.
4. Edward Zajicek, “Aleksander Ford – organizator kinematografii”, Miesiecznik literacki, No. 2 (1985): 65.
5. Zajicek, “Aleksander Ford – organizator kinematografii”, 69.
6. Quoted from Jan Lewandowski, “Obrachunki Fordowskie”, Film Magazyn Ilustrowany, No. 6, (5 lutego 1984): 11.
7. Protokol z posiedzenia Komisji Ocen Filmow i Scenariuszy, 20 pazdziernika 1954, Archive of National Film Library in Warsaw, No. A-214, pos. 38.
8. Protokol z posiedzenia Komisji Ocen Filmow i Scenariuszy z dn. 28 pazdziernika 1953, Archive of National Film Library in Warsaw, No. A-214, pos. 25.
9. Zygmunt Machwitz, “Represje i opresje w kinematografii PRL”, Tygiel kultury, No.1 (1996): 95.
10. The first public screening took place in June 1981.
11. Czarna księga cenzury PRL, Vol. 1 ( Londyn: Aneks, 1977), 54-55.
12. Frank Bern, Poland, World Cinema 1, rev. edition (Wiltshire, BA, Flicks Books, 1990), 47.
Last edit 4 December 2004 - email@example.com