After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, alongside soldiers the first cameramen went to the front. Some of them were Poles.
All parties of the first world conflict soon realized that war footage was a good way to instantly and on a mass scale popularize their victories, show defeats of their enemy, or maintain the patriotic sentiments.
First War Reportages
During WWI the Poles, deprived of their nationality and statehood, had been inducted into foreign armies and fought on both sides of the war front. The first Polish cameramen would record on their cameras the wartime turmoil in the ranks of their occupants’ armies. Today, it is hard to determine who was the filmmaking pioneer on the war front. Frequently quoted are two men: Jan Skarbek-Malczewski and Aleksander Jasielski (in fact: Norbert Hochman).
Jan Skarbek-Malczewski served in the Russian army. The collection of his first war front images was a reportage on a bombed fortress in Przemyśl. He filmed e.g.: tsar’s visit on the front. He recalled: “(…) tsar was visiting destroyed Austrian forts. I was prepared, I went to the forts and got my camera ready. When he and his official suite came, I started to roll my camera. Tsar Nicholas was looking at me attentively. It was for the first time I had seen the Russian autocrat; he did not look very imposing. When his suite moved forward, I quickly ran around, and when the tsar descended the steps, I was ready and rolling again… I developed and copied the film, it was very good, and – as I learnt afterwards – I was to receive from the tsar, as a special award, a gold watch. The watches from the tsar were heavy of gold. I was to be given one for my footage from Przemyśl, but the revolution broke out and… my gold watch went to hell.”
The second of the above-mentioned cameramen, Aleksander Jasielski, wore the uniform of the Imperial-Royal [kaiserlich-königlich, k.k] Army, and was the author of the most probably the first in history wartime aviation reportage. Jasielski started his military service in December 1914. To war he took a heavy box – the hand-cranked Pathé camera. One day, a Czech airman, Lt Sladeczek, got interested in his camera. He had this devil’s idea and suggested that the cameraman joined his squadron so he could fly and film their high-sky exploits. As there was no such job as a cameraman in the k.k. aviation, Jasielski was appointed the lieutenant’s orderly.
The Polish cameraman described his first combat flight in Sladeczek’s plane as follows: “(…) monoplane was a box patched together mostly of plywood and linen. One could suspect that the main drive keeping this flying coffin was the faith of Lt Sladeczek in… the victory of k.k. Austrian army.” The Blériot fighter was single-seat, so lieutenant decided that his cameraman would be lying on the floor behind a pilot seat. The floor had two drilled holes: the first one for the camera lens, the second one for the viewfinding lens. As Jasielski further recalls: “After the first fifteen minutes of this flight I was deeply convinced that the plane’s floor had been made of the hardest battens, my Pathé camera – of the hardest steel, and the fuselage walls were rigged up of the most fragile glass.”
Unfortunately, the filming itself did not take long. The sky-high acrobatics was too much for the camera: the viewfinding lens tilted, and the crank ultimately fell off. Lt Sladeczek, unaware of the above, would pilot his plane with bravado towards the enemy trenches and battery posts. Although the first war aviation coverage was not fully successful, a brave Polish cameraman and a courageous Czech pilot beyond any doubt became part of the cinematography history.
The Polish Legion’s Cameras
The soldiers of Józef Piłsudski from the start of war had the possibility to serve under the Polish ensign. Among Polish servicemen, there were also cameramen. Subordinate to the Supreme National Committee, which held political control over the Polish Legions, there was a film and photography section which soon delegated several cameramen to the just being formed two Polish Legion’s brigades. The 1st Brigade’s newsreel cameraman was Józef Mróz of Lviv Polonia film studio. The 2nd Brigade employed two cameramen: Franciszek Zyndram-Mucha and WO Maksymilian Stransky.
The Polish Legion’s cameramen would film the newsreel material and coverages on trainings, inspections or marches, and to lesser extent on the front activity. With their cumbersome equipment, they had little chance to capture such dynamic activity as the Battles of Łowczówek, Rafajłowa, Rarańcza or Stochód River. Scarce stock footage, which survived until today, does not allow however to fully estimate the work of the Legion cameramen.
In 1917, Maj Awit Szubert and cameramen: Zyndram-Mucha and Stransky initiated the founding of the Central Film Office [Centralny Urząd Filmowy] at the Warsaw staff of the Polish Legions. The production and laboratory base became the greatest at the time film studio in the Kingdom of Poland – Sfinks. The Office took over from the cameramen filming with the Polish Legions and the Supreme National Committee about 5,000 meters of newsreel footage, which were the first stock footage of the first national film archive. At the same time, he started to produce their own productions. The Office’s cameramen would film the breakthrough moments of November 1918, such as disarming German soldiers on Warsaw streets. Majority of footage are the reports on numerous official ceremonies, e.g. the film on the Polish Army’s oath of allegiance on Saski Square in Warsaw and the Wawel Hill in Kraków.
In 1919, the Central Film Office of the Polish Army was founded in the 4th Department of the General Staff of the Polish Army. Its manager and cameraman became Franciszek Zyndram-Mucha. The Office’s scope of tasks also included organization of field cinemas, and the production of the first propaganda and instruction films. At the time of martial law, the Office was to censor the productions for public movie screens. Polish military cameramen soon took advantage of their Great War experience while filming during another armed conflicts of the young Polish state – e.g. in the Polish-Soviet War. When watching the fragments of newsreels or films with the Polish Legionaries, we should remember them.
autor zdjęć: Ilustrowana Kronika Legionów Polskich 1914-1918