KRZYZACY – BLACK CROSS (1960)
Director: Aleksander Ford
Script: Jerzy Stefan Stawinski, Aleksander Ford and Leon Kruczkowski
Music: Kazimierz Serocki
Cinematography: Mieczyslaw Jahoda
Cast: Urszula Modrzynska, Grazyna Staniszewska, Andrzej Szalawski
Henryk Borowski, Aleksander Fogiel
Mieczyslaw Kalenik, Emil Karewicz
Aleksander Ford’s historical epic KRZYZACY is an adaption of the novel written by author Henryk Sienkiewicz. First released at the start of the 20th century, Poland as a nation was divided and controlled by Austro-Hungary, Germany, and Russia. Sienkiewicz hoped his book would instill pride and confidence in the Polish people to break free from their oppression. The book experienced a resurgence in 1945 at the end of the war due to its parallel themes of a dominating and cruel Germany, and a weakened Polish nation. Because this theme of a strengthened and independent Poland would seem counter-intuitive to censors, the context of the time of the films release is important. In 1960 Gomułka is in charge of the Polish government, at first allowing more freedom in the post-Stalinist era, he would succumb to pressure from Russia in the 60s to be more conservative. Gomułka also had an agenda against Christianity, which is perhaps a reason for acceptance of the film. That isn’t to say though that the fingerprint of propaganda can’t be found on KRZYZACY.
KRZYZACY continued its influence, becoming one of Poland’s most popular books in the 20th century. Additionally, its popularity surged in 1960 as one of Poland’s most seen and cherished films. However, Ford would find himself a victim of the system he cherished. A devout Stalinist and Communist, Ford was put in charge of the Film Polski unit a role in which he was able to exercise great control over Poland’s film industry. Ford would accuse and report one of his fellow directors, Jerzy Gabryelski, to the NKVD, which led to his arrest and torture. Continuing in his film career, he became a professor at National Film School in Łódź and established the framework for Polish Nationalist Cinema. In March 1968, the party turned on Ford, expelling him for anticommunist actions. Living in the United States, Denmark, and Isreal, Ford continued directing films until his death in 1980.
The film follows the story Zbyszko of Bogdaniec as he attempts to uphold the oath he pledges to his love Danusia, daughter of Yurand of Spychów. It begins with Yurand encountering Teutonic knights who have captured merchants in his kingdom. Demanding their release, the Teutonic knights get their revenge by setting fire to the farms of Spychów and raiding the city. While Yurand is out hunting, the Teutonic knights drag his wife from a horse, killing her. Later in time at an Inn, Zbyszko hears Danusia singing and upon hearing her fateful story, he vows to bring her the peacock flowers that the Teutonic knights wear on their helmets. Being the brash young knight Zbyszko is, he attacks the first Teutonic knights he sees, which happen to be a royal envoy. Everyone returning to the court of King Władysław Jagiełło of the Polish Kingdom, Zbyszko is condemned and sentenced to death but is saved by a Polish pagan tradition with Danusia covering his head and claiming his life herself.
Unsatisfied with their revenge, they leave Poland only to plan their attempt to kidnap Danusia by the orders of Siegfried de Löwe. Zbyszko’s uncle, Maćko of Bogdaniec, who left for Germany to plead his nephew’s case to the Grand Master, is ambushed by Teutonic knights but escapes barely alive. When he returns to Poland, he learns of his nephew’s freedom and travels to Bogdaniec so Maćko can recover from his wounds. During this time Jagienka of Zgorzelice falls in love with Zbyszko but their romance can’t be fulfilled because of Zbyszko’s love for Danusia. While Maćko is recovering, the Teutonic knights trick the Polish court and kidnap Danusia while sending a random note to Yurand. Alone, he travels to Szczytno where the knights try to trick him by claiming they have a different girl who claims to be his daughter. Enraged, he attacks the knights and they capture him alive, only to torture and release him.
When Zbyszko returns to court he learns of Danusia’s kidnapping and King Jagiełło begins to fear war with Germany. King Jagiełło sends his own envoy to question the Teutonic knights about their capture of ships and the kidnapping of Danusia. Unfortunately, the night they arrive the Grand Master dies, his brother takes the crown with intentions of pressing forward with a war against Poland. The film concludes against the backdrop of the Battle of Grunwald with each characters story being tied to the fate of their nation.
Despite being an historical drama, KRZYZACY bends history in a lot of ways. As touched on before, the film is steeped in propaganda, and it shines through mostly in the way Germany is portrayed. Throughout KRZYZACY, Germans appear in black and white and their national landscape in muted and cold colors, while the Polish are brightly colored and their lands lively. All the Polish knights live up to the chivalry of knighthood and the Teutonic knights lie, cheat, and kill in cold blood. This also shows a sharp contrast to what New School of Polish Film was trying to do at the time, with their focus on encouraging viewers to use film as a medium to think more deeply about social issues. KRZYZACY would mark the start of a rift between Ford and this new school of thought.
Still, KRZYZACY is an important film in the context of Polish cinema as a whole. It’s an early beginning in a long line of historical based dramas that Poland would go on to produce. Several other directors would imitate KRZYZACY’s original theme of using past historical events to hide contemporary ideas from censors, such as the Hungarian director Jancsó. The film also helps to provide a deeper understanding of the shift in schools of film theory in Poland. KRZYZACY seems to be another film trapped in time, loved by audiences in its original release, but its ties to propaganda lead modern Polish viewers to view KRZYZACY in a harsher critical light.
KRZYZACY is available in an English friendly, region 0, PAL DVD from DMMS. The film elements are in mostly good shape, with some color fading. Overall a gorgeous historical epic, regardless of its historical misstellings or hidden intent.