Jerzy Passendorfer

Film-maker at his best with the monumental documentary
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The Independent Online

Befittingly, Jerzy Passendorfer ended his days in Skolimow, the retirement home for actors near Warsaw. Although he is best remembered in Poland for his popular feature and television serial Janosik, a spectacular epic about the semi-legendary though historically authentic Tatran highlander whose band of fellow mountain-men set about righting the wrongs of the oppressed, he directed some 20 features and documentaries in his time. But his beginnings were in the theatre.



Jerzy Passendorfer, film-maker: born Wilno, Poland 8 April 1923; died Skolimow, Poland 20 February 2003.



Befittingly, Jerzy Passendorfer ended his days in Skolimow, the retirement home for actors near Warsaw. Although he is best remembered in Poland for his popular feature and television serial Janosik, a spectacular epic about the semi-legendary though historically authentic Tatran highlander whose band of fellow mountain-men set about righting the wrongs of the oppressed, he directed some 20 features and documentaries in his time. But his beginnings were in the theatre.

Towards the end of the Second World War, in occupied Kraków, he appeared on the clandestine stage, studied acting at the Dramatic Studio of Stary Teatr, founded the Polish Academic Theatre, and worked with puppets. He then underwent basic film training and finally studied directing in Lódz and at the Prague film school FAMU, where he received his diploma in 1951, and made some educational films. Back in Poland, he worked as Leonard Buczkowski's assistant on the first full-colour Polish film comedy, Przygoda na Mariensztacie ( Adventure in Marienstadt, 1954).

His independent début came after the Thaw. Skarb kapitana Martensa ( The Treasure of Captain Martens, 1957) was a fairly simplistic saga of fishermen and sailors, but he subsequently tried his hand in a number of conventions: musical comedy in Mocne uderzenie ( Big Beat, 1967), social comedy and social and psychological drama in which he explored family issues and delved into the life of the criminal fringe; his tale of small-town embezzlement Niedziela sprawiedliwosci ( A Sunday of Justice, 1966) was sharply criticised for being "anachronistic" and in "bad taste".

In Skapani w ogniu ( Fire Bath, 1963) he touches on one of history's festering sores, showing the public struggles, private dramas and painful acclimatisation of Poles evicted from the Eastern borderlands and forcibly resettled on the territories "regained" from Germany after Yalta. Intriguingly, for Passendorfer himself was a "repatriate" from Wilno, the trauma of eviction is buried in the subtext; but then for mainly political reasons the saga of mass exodus has never been told.

If images on a screen say anything about their creator's psyche, Passendorfer was obsessed by the occupation and partisan warfare, and its moral and psychological problems. In the 1950s and 1960s war films enjoyed huge popularity with audiences in Poland, and Zerwany most ( The Lost Bridge, 1963), which shows the conflict with Ukrainian nationalist bands in the Bieszczady mountains, was no exception. In Barwy walki ( Colours of Battle, 1964), he managed to depict as honestly as was possible in those days the internecine complexities of the Polish resistance movement at a time when Home Army soldiers were fighting the Germans in a dubious questionable alliance with the pro-Soviet People's Army, Peasant Battalions, and Soviet aggressors.

Passendorfer was arguably at his best with the monumental documentary. A psychological war drama portraying the Home Army's attempt to assassinate the "butcher of Warsaw", the SS police chief General Franz Kutschera, Zamach ( Answer to Violence, 1959) earned him international recognition at festivals in Mar del Plata, San Sebastian, Guadalajara and Cuneo. In Kierunek Berlin ( Heading for Berlin, 1969) and its sequel Ostatnie dni ( The Last Days, 1969) - the two films were later combined as Zwyciestwo ( Victory, 1975) - the camera narrates the Soviet army's triumphant eastwards march, projecting a vast fresco of war, and generating some of the best battle scenes in the history of Polish cinema. His one-sided view of how the war ended for Poland had the blessing of official Marxist historiography.

In later years, Passendorfer was artistic director of the film ensembles Tor (1971-72) and Panorama (1972-75). He was director of the Polish Institute in Vienna (1979), and of the Polish Television Bureau for Collaboration with Abroad (1980-83). A co-founder and twice deputy chairman of the Association of Polish Film-Makers, he was deputy dean for artistic affairs at the Radio and Television Department of the University of Silesia in Katowice in the 1980s; and in the 1990s was a member of the Polish parliament.

His favourite scriptwriters were Wojciech Zukrowski and Roman Bratny, both stalwart supporters of the regime. After the March events of 1968, when the Communist Party was ultimately compromised in the eyes of the Polish nation, Passendorfer was elected chairman of the new executive of the United Film-Makers Basic Party Organisation. For those outside the haven of state control, he was ever a sympathetic, loyal and dependable colleague.

Nina Taylor-Terlecka

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