Wednesday 02 August 1995
Toeplitz, who died in Warsaw at the age of 85, had an impressive academic record, publishing a six-volume History of Cinematographic Art (1955-89); but as an educator Toeplitz made film history rather than writing it. For Toeplitz was the founder of not just one, but two of the world's most renowned film schools, both of which formed an identifiable national cinema around them.
In 1947 Toeplitz was instigator and then from 1949 to 1952 and 1957 to 1968 director of the Polish Film School, based in Lodz but regarded with awe globally as the world's finest. Located in the palace of a pre-war merchant prince and heavily subsidised by the Polish government, Lodz was deliberately intended to create a new Polish cinema.
The notoriously tough entrance exams were almost enough to put off Toeplitz's most famous pupil, Roman Polanski. In fact Polanski's entire early life was formed by the academy, his acting debut was in a graduation film by students and he made seven short films at the school, including Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958). Whilst at Lodz Polanski married his first wife, the famous beauty Basia Kwiatkowska, who had become his room-mate. Just after their wedding Polanski received his directing diploma.
Lodz under Toeplitz was the nexus of Poland's intellectual renaissance, with such pupils as Wajda, the playwright Agnieszka Osiecka, Jerzy Skolimowski, then a poet, the jazz composer Jerzy Matuskiewicz, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and even the novelist Jerzy Kosinski, who Polanski spilt tea over on first meeting, to test what he would do. The school was very much about the industry rather than intellectual theory and maintained strong links with ex-pupils working in the outside world.
All the important post-war Polish and East European directors were trained by Lodz, much as in America a whole generation of movie brats emerged from film schools rather than through the industry.
Despite, or because of, his pivotal role at the school, which he combined with serving as Director of the Polish Film Corporation and the Institute of Art at the Polish Academy of Science, Toeplitz was forced to resign from it in 1968, as the result of anti-Semitic campaigns, and he left the country. His popularity was probably not helped by his brother, the acerbic critic "K.T.", one of the most infamous journalists in Poland.
Meanwhile in 1969, the Prime Minister of Australia, John Gorton, announced a plan to create an Australian film industry, including a film training school. After a long search for a director, Toeplitz was appointed to run the Australian Film Television & Radio School (AFTRS) when it opened in 1973, on the outskirts of Sydney. His school at Lodz had done for Poland exactly what Australians wanted for their own country, kick-start an entire film industry. Barbara Leaming's 1982 book Polanski explains why Australian headhunters settled on Toeplitz and Lodz: "One of the finest film schools in the world, far more successful than most of its Western counterparts . . . it had been started by the government to create a Polish cinema virtually from scratch."
Or, in the words of Phillip Adams, one of the original Australian search team, "If we were going to have an industry, we were really looking to start from ground zero."
The first Australian students under Professor Toeplitz in an Interim Training Scheme included Gillian Armstrong (Last Days Chez Nous, Little Women), Phil Noyce (Sliver, Clear and Present Danger), Chris Noonan, the present chairman of the Australian Film Commission, and the leading film historian Graham Shirley.
The success of a whole wave of Polish directors from the Sixties was replicated by their Australian counterparts in the Eighties, all trained by the same man. AFTRS soon established itself as a serious rival for American schools, turning out graduates from Peter Weir to Alex Proyas, a pop video director feted by Madonna who recently directed The Crow.
Toeplitz remained Director of the AFTRS from 1973 to 1979, when he returned to Poland. In 1979 he received the Raymond Longford Award for outstanding service to the Australian Film Industry, which it might be easier to say he had singlehandedly created.
At the school he left behind the Jerzy Toeplitz Library, over 5,000 video titles, scripts and screenplays as well as books, periodicals and clippings service, the largest film library in the southern hemisphere. He also left behind an entire antipodean entertainment industry and a new aesthetic category of his own invention, "Australian film".
Jerzy Toeplitz, film historian and educator: born Kharkov, Ukraine 24 November 1909; OA 1986; married 1943 Isabella Stanislawa Grnicka (three daughters); died Warsaw 24 July 1995.
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