1918 - 2013

Silent films: Second life

Filmoteka Narodowa

Conservation and digitalization of the oldest films from the collection of the National Film Archive in Warsaw
Filmoteka Narodowa / 2014


Many pre-war Polish feature films remain missing. Those that were miraculously found - for instance in private collections - are often in such bad shape that running them through a classic projector would ensure their complete and irreversible damage. Thanks to the possibilities offered by digitization and time-lapse, frame-by-frame digital restoration, restored films can be seen today not only in cinemas or on DVD, but also on the Internet.

The NITROFILM project, Filmoteka Narodowa (The National Film Archive) digitised 43 pre-war films made on a highly flammable nitro base and restored three silent productions: “Mania. Story of a cigarette factory worker”, “Pan Tadeusz” and “The Call of the sea”. Each of the three films had their grand re-premieres.


“Mania. Story of a cigarette factory worker” from 1918 is a classic melodrama. The film tells a story of tragic love between a young woman and music composer - Hans, who writes an opera for his beloved one. Unfortunately he is unable to finalize the production because of the jealousy of another competitor to Mania’s hand. The girl does everything to help her lover to present his opera piece to the public. Her actions, however, eventually lead to tragedy.

Filmed in 1928, “Pan Tadeusz” is an adaptation of an epos under the same title by Adam Mickiewicz. It is one of the most significant masterpieces in Polish literature. The film's premiere honoured the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of Polish independence. The plot corresponded with the sublime atmosphere of this anniversary: two conflicted Polish noble families unite when faced with the invasion of Russian troops. A great deal of well-known scenes from Polish history were portrayed in this film. In the end, love overcomes the differences – the engagement of the youngest members of both families brings hope for a peaceful and united future.

In “The Call of the Sea” from 1927 the leading theme is also one of love, but this time it is presented within the conventions of adventure and sensation. Stach enlists himself on a ship. He quickly wins the trust of the captain and the heart of his daughter – Jola. But once Stach returns to his hometown, he meets Hanka. Teenage love comes back to life. The girl however, must save the family fortune and marry a rich neighbour. Only when Stach is in danger, Hanka decides to follow her heart.


These three films are also important examples of changes in the method of expression, as they are important moments in the actors' careers.

Admittedly “Mania” is a German film, however the leading role is played by the young polish actress, Apolonia Chałupiec, back then already known as Pola Negri. By 1917 she earned status of a star of silent cinema in Poland. The camera loved her. Negri had beauty, grace and a ballet background. She starred in eight Polish films. She mainly played femme fatale roles – for instance in “Wife” by Jan Pawlowski (1915) or in “Beast” by Aleksander Hertz (1917). When Negri ended her contract with the Polish label - Sfinks, she went abroad. Her career took off. “Mania” comes from the time when Negri performed in Germany. Altogether she starred in 20 films, directed mostly by Ernst Lubitsch. A few years later she went on to conquer Hollywood and gain worldwide fame, something that was never again accomplished by a Polish actor.

The performance in “Pan Tadeusz”, due to the significance of theme and the anniversary role of the film, involved only the most prominent theatre actors, even for brief roles. Stefan Jaracz, an icon of the theatre in Poland, played the small but very vital role of Napoleon Bonaparte. Some of the lead actors had rarely performed in films before. Mariusz Maszyński, who played the role of the Count, for a time avoided any contact with cinematography.

Nonetheless, among them were also some who saw an opportunity in cinema as an alternative to theatre. Antoni Bednarczyk, in the film - Maciek of the Macieks, was one of those professional theatre actors who contributed to breaking the moral barriers and general reluctance towards the new medium. In “Pan Tadeusz” there was not a single leading star. Today, this particular method seems to be the most interesting part of the film, because so many celebrities from the world of theatre could, at the time of the premiere, be a proof that the art of film begins to be equal to the art of theatre.

On the other hand, “The Call of the Sea” was a film that had created and promoted the publics's favourite actors. The main roles of Hanka and Stach were performed by novice film actors: Maria Malicka and Jerzy Marr. Their careers soon accelerated.

Nora Ney, who portrayed the character of Jola, was soon given the title of “Queen of the screen” by a weekly magazine “Cinema”.

The curious part in the film was the performance of a teenage Tadeusz Fijewski. No one imagined back then that this was when the career of one of the most important Polish actors would begin. After the war, Fijewski starred in over 20 films revealing his enormous versatility of acting skills – he successfully portrayed diverse, comic and dramatic characters.


During the production of "Pan Tadeusz” it was clear from the very beginning that it was going to be the biggest event of its time in contemporary Polish cinema. The buzz around the film was caused mainly by three things. First of all, it was an attempt to transfer the national treasure of literature to a feature film – an epos by Adam Mickiewicz. Secondly, the production budget amounted to half a million zlotys (for comparison, at that time a car cost a few thousand only). Lastly, the film’s premiere was going to honour the celebration of the tenth anniversary of Poland's independence.

The director himself - Ryszard Ordyński, was thrilling and anticipated by the audience. Educated in Germany, previously he had worked in the U.S., he was an organizer of theatrical life in Warsaw. Ordyński planned his film to be an attempt to revive the image of one of the most famous works of Adam Mickiewicz. The director wanted to show "a certain type of people in a certain era, lazy in everyday life, as they roam next to cows and sheep, but at any moment ready to act hastily, impetuous, and when the need arrived- heroic”.

Whereas “The Call of the Sea” was then advertised as the first Polish maritime film and thanks to the efforts and commitments of the creators parts of the film were shot on the Baltic Coast, in the authentic landscapes of Gdynia, Gdańsk and Puck. The scenes shot at high seas came out impressively and even a real seaplane was used for the scene in the final chase. The film was directed by Henryk Szaro, one of the most important pre-war directors. In years to come he was recognized for highly successful adaptations of Polish literature, including “The Story of Sin” by Stefan Żeromski and “A Strong Man” by Stanisław Przybyszewski. “The Call of the Sea” is the oldest surviving film in his directing.

Henryk Szaro - pierwszy od lewej

The participation of Pola Negri in “Mania” guaranteed the film’s immortality. From the moment the actress left her home country for good, Poles interested in cinema kept track of her international career with great interest. Negri herself kept very loose contact with Poland. Although shortly after the premiere of “Mania” she visited Krakow where she guest starred in the theatre, but no further announced visits ever came into effect. As well as her plan to pay Poland a visit in the 70s, although thoroughly prepared, for unknown reasons the visit never took place. No wonder that, although Negri remained important and close to hearts of the Polish audience, at the same time she was, in a sense, inaccessible. Precisely this inaccessibility has always escalated the interest of native scholars and moviegoers in the character of Pola Negri. It resulted in many books being written about her as well as hundreds of articles, and foreign silent films are still being admired mainly because of her.


Filmoteka Narodowa (The National Film Archive) has probably the world's only preserved copy of “Mania” on the film on a nitrocellulose base. The copy is nearly complete; it lacks only the very endings of several scenes, which does not affect the reception of the film.

After the war, “Pan Tadeusz” was known only in fragments. In 1955 Filmoteka Narodowa received a copy including an additional 40 minutes of recovered film. It was not even half of the original version, but it seemed that nothing more could have survived.

An unexpected breakthrough also occurred in 2006. Miss Agata Szkarłat from Wrocław called Filmoteka Narodowa with sensational news: amongst her family’s memorabilia she found 18 reels of films.  Seeing subtitles and costumes on the copy she immediately assessed it was pre-war “Pan Tadeusz”. It turned out those were unknown fragments that complemented the copy kept by Filmoteka. Unfortunately, “Pan Tadeusz” was not yet complete, however the scale of this discovery was spectacular. Another 1012 meters of film accompanied the 1220 meters held by Filmoteka, so nearly twice as much!

Many stills illustrating the missing scenes from “Pan Tadeusz” can be found in the archives of the Museum of Cinematography in Lodz. With those, one can get an idea of what is still missing in the film.

“The Call of the Sea” survived in two, incomplete copies which, when combined, make almost the entire film. Both copies, however, were in such poor technical condition that they could only be secured and stored. Presenting the film to the cinema audience was made possible only after digital restoration.


The surviving copy of “Mania” was characterized by damages typical of the oldest movies. Due to previous usage of the film, many intermittent, thick, oblong scratches emerged and the surface of the film became very dirty and deformed. As it would later turn out, the most burdensome damage for conservators were pieces of paper stuck to the film emulsion. It was impossible to assess what the initial purpose of it was. The paper, covering significant parts of the image, was previously removed. This treatment executed ​​in the past gave rise to new, additional scratches and defects in emulsion. At this stage, the only thing left to do was to remove the fragments of paper.

The copy of “Pan Tadeusz” found in 2006 was also severely damaged. When it found its way to Filmoteka, it consisted of more than a hundred scraps of tape ranging from several to several hundreds of frames. Some of the fragments could be put together: they were matched accordingly to the shapes of ruptures and traces of splices . In other cases, conservators had to first examine scraps of film under a magnifying glass to identify actors and distinguish their roles, then to determine which of the stages from the plot was shown on each fragment and finally they could put the frames in the correct order.

After the conservation work, the films were scanned. First they were ‘dry’ scanned and then also ‘wet’ scanned. Behind these two terms are two different techniques. Dry scan means that the film’s image is scanned precisely and in detail, including all the defects in the nitrocellulose base and in the photosensitive emulsion. The result is a sharp, high-definition scanned image, but unfortunately with lots of minor scratches.

This is how we get a digital copy in high, 4K resolution. It is an exact copy of the original carrier. We can then proceed to the second type of scanning, with the use of an immersion liquid. During this procedure, the film is submerged in the liquid. The liquid’s purpose is to fill any minor cracks and scratches in the film base and in the film emulsion so that the damage is less visible. This is the stage when we begin restoring the film image in high, 4K resolution. This method is so far the only effective mean for restoring scratches. Subsequently, treatments with the use of digital reconstruction techniques and with the participation of a team of specialists are implemented, that is time-lapse, frame-by-frame image retouching.


The grand finale of the restoration process of these three titles was their splendid re-premieres in film theatres. Music for each of the films was written and composed specially for the occasion and performed live at the events. Music for “Mania”, the film that re-premiered on 4th September 2011 at the National Philharmonic, was written and conducted by a renowned composer - Jerzy Maksymiuk.

The following shows of “Mania” took place in five European capitals - Paris, London, Madrid, Kiev and Berlin. The events accompanied Polish representatives in the Council of the European Union. In each of these cities the film was viewed with live music, which was performed by Wroclaw Leopoldinum Orchestra under the wand of the composer. The events were successful and in each city the film was met with a very warm reception from the audiences.

The re-premiere of “Pan Tadeusz” took place on 9th November 2012 and was honoured by the music composed by Tadeusz Wozniak in collaboration with Tomasz Szymus, Tomasz Filipczak and Piotr Wozniak. The grand ceremony took place at the newly re-opened cinema Iluzjon Filmoteki Narodowej - Film Museum. Thanks to live transmission, the re-premiere was webcasted and held in over 40 cinemas all over Poland and in Vilnius (Lithuania) simultaneously.

Krzesimir Dębski composed the music for “The Call of the Sea”. The re-premiere was held on 29th November 2013 and it finalised the NITROFILM project “Conservation and digitalisation of pre-war feature films at the National Film Archive in Warsaw"”.

NITROFILM received a special award in a competition organized by the Ministry of Regional Development for the most interesting informational and promotional projects for beneficiaries of the Operational Programme - Infrastructure and Environment. NITROFILM was awarded for the most comprehensive promotional activities. The program was also acclaimed by the minister of Culture and National Heritage, Bogdan Zdrojewski, for the effective use of EU funds for culture. More about project and films on www.nitrofilm.pl

One of the elements of the promotional campaign was to run NITROAKCJA (nitro action), pursued under the slogan “We embrace old films”.  Over nearly the past 60 years of active history, Filmoteka Narodowa has succeeded in finding and rescuing 159 Polish pre-war feature films as well as dozens of documentaries from deterioration. However, this is still only part of the production of rich, pre-war Polish cinematography. So, the search continues.

Cinema "Iluzjon" in Warsaw
Credits: Story

Organizer — Filmoteka Narodowa
Curators — Aneta Kozłowska, Piotr Śmiałowski
Coordinators — Karolina Brzozowska, Paulina Świątek, Justyna Jabłońska
Consultants — Renata Wąsowska, Michał Pieńkowski, Monika Supruniuk
Translation — Krystyna Biernawska, Samuel Hemingway
Editor — Katarzyna Koła

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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