Filmmakers often ask the army for support. Recently, seamen from Gdynia helped with making a film about the mysterious disappearance of the most famous Polish submarine.
“Prepare to submerge. Check the water tightness of the vessel, report any abnormalities and emergencies, particularly leakages and outflows,” shouts the commander of ORP Orzeł, Maciej Bielak. I am watching the speed indicator. A moment ago it showed 3 kn. It quickly grows to 5, 6, 7... I hear the order: “Fill the forward tanks,” and then a loud roar of the masses of water moving outside the vessel. “Trim five negative. Submerge to periscope depth!” I can feel the deck under my feet tipping to the front. The depth gauge indicator starts moving: 10 m, 12 m, 14 m… “Slow acceleration... Now level it.” The submarine returns to horizontal position. The commander and his deputy turn periscopes. They observe the situation in front of and behind the vessel. Everything is fine. We are moving several meters below the surface of the Baltic Sea. We will soon resurface.
Is that what the moment of submerging looked like on the historic ORP Orzeł? It was probably very similar. The question seems only natural, since the situation I find myself in is a bit like going back in time. The crew of the modern-time Orzeł are not only training. They are mainly helping in the process of making a film about their predecessors – the crew of the legendary submarine which disappeared without a trace on the North Sea during the war.
U-Boat’s “Stage Make-up”
“This story has been stuck in my head since I was a child,” admits Jacek Bławut, the director of the movie entitled Orzeł. Ostatni Patrol. (Orzeł. The Last Patrol.) “It is shrouded in mystery, which gives it a lot of cinematographic potential,” he adds. It is Sunday morning. The quay of the naval port in Gdynia is very busy: the seamen are preparing ORP Orzeł to sail out to sea. There are also people from the film crew. They have just finished installing the cameras. Two of them have been mounted on the hull. The third one has been hung on the conning tower, from where the vessel can be steered when moving on the surface. The camera is directed towards the glass portholes, which have been partly covered for the time of filming. “The ones on the historic Orzeł’s conning tower were round, ours are rectangle-shaped, so we had to introduce some slight changes,” explains Commander Bielak. Also the conning tower itself had to be modified, since part of it is caught by one of the external cameras. The technicians are putting a huge letter A on it. The historic Orzeł had the tactical number 85-A in the same place. The film crew want to film the vessel while submerging and surfacing,” explains Commander Bielak. “We’ll go 20 m underwater twice: in the afternoon and right before sundown. The pressure could destroy the cameras if we went deeper. Besides, it would be hard to film anything there,” he adds. The light quickly gives way to darkness under the surface of the Baltic Sea.
When I board the modern Orzeł, the film crew at the naval port has already been working for a few days. Scenes with actors are shot in, i.a., the old German torpedo production and testing plant, now the seat of the naval commandos of the Military Unit Formoza. On the opposite quay, the technicians are finishing work on the conning tower of the old Orzeł, or rather its imitation, situated on the B-7 barge of the 3rd Ship Flotilla. “We are going to shoot a scene where Orzeł, after resurfacing near the coast of the Netherlands, meets German vessels and has to escape,” announces Bławut. The scenes he mentions were shot after I had left Gdynia. They were filmed from the deck of a rented ship. The roles of the German vessels were played by one mine-sweeper, two cutters and one M-22 motorboat, all belonging to the Polish Navy.
When We Beat the Bolsheviks
“In Poland, we are experienced in shooting battle scenes with cavalry or infantry, but sea battles have rarely been made here,” admits Jacek Bławut. “There was Orzeł [Eagle] by Leonard Buczkowski...,” I throw. “Yes, but he had ORP Sęp at his disposal!” The movie about the escape of the Polish ship interned in Tallinn, and its way to Great Britain, opened in theatres in 1959. That movie was also made with the army’s assistance. During the shooting, the filmmakers used, i.a., the twin vessel of Orzeł, which had gone missing several years earlier. Bławut’s crew is not as lucky, so they do what they can. For example, a model made for the needs of the movie will be filmed in special pools. “We want to be better than the creators of Das Boot,” laughs Bławut.
In fact, the history of the Polish army connected to making movies is almost a hundred years old. In 1921, the Ministry of Military Affairs commissioned the making of Cud nad Wisłą (Miracle on the Vistula), with Jadwiga Smosarska in the main role. The movie has not survived to this day, but it is not hard to guess that this silent film praised the courage of the Polish soldiers fighting with the Bolsheviks. Eight years later, the film production company Klio-Film made the film entitled Gwiaździsta Eskadra (Starry Squadron). It depicted the story of American pilots of the 7th Fighter Squadron who had helped the Poles to repel a Bolshevik attack. The film was directed by the already mentioned Leonard Buczkowski, and the script was written by a writer and an air force officer, Janusz Meissner. Years later, he wrote in his book that during their first meeting Buczkowski explained: “The plot is to be thrilling, fast-paced, with dramatic tension […]. Don’t think about technical difficulties. If you need an army division, I will make sure we have it. If you want to include a river crossing, a city bombing, or blowing up a bridge with a train on it – consider it done!” The movie was shot at the proving ground in Biedrusko and at Ławica airport. The army lent to the filmmakers as many as 200 aircraft with crews. However, the real flood of war-related productions that needed the army’s support came in the times of the Polish People’s Republic.
From “Rudy” to Karbala
At the end of the 1960s, the Officer School of Armored Troops in Poznań (Oficerska Szkoła Broni Pancernej w Poznaniu) welcomed the film crew working on the series Czterej Pancerni i Pies (Four Tank-men and a Dog). From the point of view of the then propaganda, the series had crucial meaning. Fast-paced plot, beautiful locations, and outstanding acting created a perfect package for political indoctrination. In short: the authorities wanted to serve to the viewers a believable story about the Polish-Soviet brotherhood of arms. Therefore, the filmmakers could count on all possible help, including, naturally, the army’s assistance.
At the Poznań school, they noticed a training tank based on the wreck of an old T-34. It was constructed in a way to enable the soldiers to easily look inside it. The filmmakers liked the idea so much that they rented the trainer tank and used it for all scenes shot inside the tank from episode nine to the end of the series. Today, the mentioned T-34 is one of the exhibits at the Poznań Armored Weaponry Museum (more on the subject in Polska Zbrojna 10/2019). Other exhibits include two tanks shown in the Bridge of Spies by Steven Spielberg. They had to be repainted in GDR colors for the needs of the Hollywood blockbuster. Also the missile frigate currently known as ORP Gen T. Kościuszko has marked its presence on the big screen. Almost three decades ago the vessel was used in several scenes of The Hunt for Red October. At the time, the frigate was still an American vessel known as USS Wadsworth.
The participation of the Polish army in film productions did not end together with the Polish People’s Republic. In 2009, the Navy’s sailing training ship ORP Iskra was used in filming Miasto z Morza (City of the Sea), which tells the story of the birth of Gdynia. Iskra played the role of STS Lwów, a pre-war sailing vessel referred to as the school of navigators. “Scenes with our participation were shot at sea, but also in Hel, where one of the characters boards the vessel,” recalls Commander of ORP Iskra, Jacek Miłowski. Of course, the ship was not filmed in its entirety. “The differences between Iskra and Lwów are so evident that the viewers who have some knowledge of the subject might notice them. It didn’t even make sense to adapt it. But our seamen had pre-war uniforms on,” explains Commander Miłowski, adding that the shots taken during filming have been put in the ship’s chronicle. “For us, it was certainly an interesting experience,” he emphasizes.
The soldiers of the 1st Greater Poland Mechanized Brigade, who helped in making Misja Afganistan (Mission Afghanistan) are of similar opinion. This 13-episode series with Paweł Małaszyński and Eryk Lubos tells the story of Polish soldiers serving in the Ghazni province. Before shooting, the actors completed training organized by JW Grom commandos and land forces troops. The film was shot at the air base in Powidz, but also in Świętoszów and Wędrzyn. “Our soldiers can be seen in the film, for example drivers of Rosomaks rented for the needs of the movie,” recalls Maj Artur Pinkowski, then the spokesman for the 17th Brigade, now for the 11th Armored Cavalry Division. “A military base where the soldiers portrayed in the film were stationing, as well as an Afghan village, were built at the proving ground in Świętoszów. There is a lot of open space, sand... It all looks a bit like Afghanistan,” adds Maj Pinkowski.
Col Grzegorz Kaliciak, at the time also a soldier of the 17th Brigade, helped with the production of another film, Karbala. In 2004, as the commander of a reconnaissance company, he led the defense of the City Hall in Karbala, Iraq. It was the biggest battle fought by Polish soldiers since the end of WWII. Karbala tells the story of this operation. “Initially, I gave advice to Krzysiek Łukaszewicz – the scriptwriter and the director of the film. He proved to be a very open-minded person. Later, I was offered the job of an official consultant for the film,” says Col Kaliciak, today the commander of the 6th Masovian Territorial Defense Forces Brigade. Kaliciak went to the set, i.a. to Jordan. He talked to the film crew members and actors, mainly to Bartłomiej Topa, playing the role of Capt Kalicki, a character based on Kaliciak himself. “They asked me about the details of cooperation with the Bulgarians who also took part in the fights for the City Hall. They wanted to know what the soldiers did in their free time during the mission, how we mounted armor on our vehicles, or about our attitude to the rules on wearing uniforms,” enumerates the officer. “I explained, for instance, that soldiers only had two uniforms, so we sometimes let them move around the base in their t-shirts only,” he adds. He likes the effects of the filmmakers’ work. “I think that the film shows the reality of military missions very accurately. The makers didn’t use the pattern you can see in many American productions. Soldiers in this film are not some machines that shoot non-stop, and their ammo never runs out. We did run out of ammunition in Karbala, and the movie shows that... I am glad I had a chance to be a part of this undertaking,” concludes Col Kaliciak.
autor zdjęć: Dariusz Minkiewicz