Revealed: Fascinating story behind Poland’s most iconic cinemas
A few weeks ago, Szczecin found itself at the centre of a media firestorm after it was revealed that Google users had ranked a pudgy cat by the name of Gacek as the town’s premier attraction.
Hilarious, said some. Adorable, said others. A few, however, could be heard asking if there really was that little to see in Poland’s north west. As it turned out, at least for now, the answer was no – and in the most literal of terms.
Pushing the ponderous Gacek from the headlines, this week the town has returned to the news after it was disclosed that one of the world’s longest continuously-running cinemas was in danger of shutting.
Spotlighting the troubles faced by Poland’s independent cinema scene, the news broke after the owner of Kino Pionier, Jerzy Miśkiewicz, announced his imminent retirement. “I’m 73,” he explained, “I don’t have the mental and physical health to do this anymore.”
Itself the subject of five documentary films, the Pionier originally operated as the Helios.
Opened by Otto Blauert in 1907, for years it was certified by Guinness as the world’s oldest cinema – a title it held until new evidence uncovered a handful of other claimants to the crown.
This, though, does not detract from the Pionier’s spirit. Sold to Albert Pietzke in 1909, on September 26th of that same year the new look Helios relaunched with local newspapers carrying advertising bulletins that promised “a world class theatre” that would show “real life dramas, fantastic plays and cheerful blockbusters in good quality pictures.”
Eight films were screened on that first day alone, and whilst the conservative local residents are said to have at first received the cinema cooly on account of the immoral reputation of this new-fangled medium, they soon took it to their hearts.
Not that this meant much to Pietzke – conscripted into the German army, he was killed in action in WWI in his first year of service.
There, the story may have ended had it not been for the indefatigable efforts of his widow, Hedwig. Showing an adroit nose for the business, by the 1930s she was running three of the thirty plus cinemas that by then had bloomed in what was then known as Stettin.
Although little can be found about her political leanings, Polish films continued to play there well into the 1930s, only to be phased out entirely by the outbreak of WWII. By then known as the Welt, like the other cinemas of its era its program was dominated by propaganda films such as those from the canon of Leni Riefenstahl.
Come peace, and Stettin found itself rebranded Szczecin, and the swastika swapped for the hammer and sickle. Given the turbulence of this political transformation, it can be no surprise to learn that the cinema (now working under the name of Odra), reopened on Boxing Day, 1945, with a screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet epic, Ivan the Terrible.
Finally settling for its current name, Kino Pionier, in 1950, it was immortalised, even, in the poetry of Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński. Lovingly revived by its present-day management in 2002, today’s Pionier exudes much of the decadence of old, decorated as it is with glass sconces, voluptuous scarlet colours, antique posters and humming projectors.
In fact, one screening room has been rendered in much the same way as it would have once looked and scattered with tables and chairs. To this day, silent films are accompanied by the sounds of a piano manufactured in Stettin in 1898.
But has that piano played its final tune? With no buyers yet entering the fray, the Pionier stands to follow in the footsteps of Poland’s other lost cinemas.
In this regard, there can be few losses that have resounded more than Warsaw’s Moskwa. Opened in 1950, its launch was attended by the Minister of Culture & Art, Stefan Dybowski.
“It is no coincidence this has been named the Moskwa,” he told the assembled crowd. “…That was the wish of the people… Their wish is an expression of love for the country of socialism.”
Met with rapturous applause, his speech set a tone for a cinema that could have been built with propaganda in mind – even its corridors were decorated with the portraits and bas-reliefs of the builders and welders that had helped in its construction.
An architectural behemoth, it is with no describable amount of irony that the Moskwa would play an iconic part in Poland’s backlash against Communism. When Martial Law was declared in 1981, photographer Chris Niedenthal surreptitiously shot a picture of an armoured vehicle standing outside – in the background, the cinema could be seen advertising Apocalypse Now.
“I knew immediately that the whole scene was a wonderful play on words,” he once told me over coffee, “the difficulty was getting the film out of Poland.”
Desperate to beat the curfew that had been put in place, Niedenthal collared a West German student on his way to the 22:10 train to Berlin and pleaded with him to get his film to Newsweek’s office in Bonn. “From there, everything was in the lap of the Gods.”
Only later did Niedenthal learn that his picture had, to use modern parlance, gone viral. “As for the student,” he added, “I never found out who he was.”
Demolished in 1996 using a series of micro-detonations and a good old-fashioned wrecking ball, when Warsaw lost the Moskwa, it lost a piece of history.
Of course, this was not the only Warsaw cinema deemed surplus to contemporary demands. In more recent times, we’ve bade farewell to the Skarpa, as well – enriched by marble from Kielce and abstract mosaics authored by one of the artists involved in the Old Town’s reconstruction, it is said that enthusiastic film fans would often queue for two-days to be guaranteed a seat at the Skarpa’s film festivals.
It was a place that everyone had a memory of – even I. Like yesterday, I remember squashing into the dank and murky Morgan’s pub for an England World Cup match in 2002. When the TV went on the fritz, the punters that had amassed were led in Pied Piper formation by the pub’s landlord (and chief hedonist), Tom, to the Skarpa which just so happened to be showing the match.
Over sloshing beers we sang and partied that afternoon, hidden from the blazing sun outside by the Skarpa’s delicious shadows. When it was bulldozed to make way for a lux apartment block, I too lost a piece of my Warsaw.
Other cinemas have faced a more teasing fate – surviving, just not in their intended form: in the case of Warsaw’s Femina, this capital classic was surrendered to Biedronka.
More extraordinary, Nowa Huta’s Światowid cinema – built in a bombastic Socialist Realist style – now enjoys a curious second life as a museum dedicated to the Cold War’s paranoid times. Entering its gloomy guts, one descends to a maze-like network of nuclear shelters set beneath, their corridors lined with fallout posters, sinister medical equipment and various bits of Doomsday paraphernalia.
But not all of Poland’s classic cinemas have fallen foul of the country’s mania for ‘shiny, new things’. By polishing themselves up, but retaining their keen sense of history, cinemas such as Warsaw’s Iluzjon and Muranów have become bastions of culture, not least thanks to the almost Lynch-esque atmosphere that they effortlessly seem to cast.
Pairing these elements with arthouse and alternative repertoires, they have flourished among a fresh flock of cinemagoers who value experience and atmosphere over popcorn and air-con.
And who could forget Kraków’s Kijów. Although boasting a more mainstream schedule, it’s impossible not to be dumbstruck by its design.
Completed in 1966 after seven-years of work, what was once Kraków’s largest cinema is today a joy of retro features: past a frontage clad set with glass and mosaics, and under a spectacularly angled roof, visit to be awed by a foyer sheathed in hand-carved ocean coloured ceramics that took six-months to fire.
Featuring a concave screen from Denmark, at a stroke this became Poland’s most modern cinema, and when it opened to show War & Peace, over 230,000 people clamoured to visit in the following months – reputedly, the original film reel still sits in the cinema’s dusty vaults.
After rough times, it’s now rightfully viewed as a treasure of the modernist style.
For me, mind you, there can be no better example of how to resuscitate a cinema than the Muza in Poznań. So shabby had it become, that when I first saw it many years back I assumed that it was the kind of sleazy joint that grubby men in anoraks would frequent.
Founded in 1908, and alternatively known as the Apollo, Colosseum, Europa, Świt, Zentral Lichtspiele and the Wolność, this ailing joint was given the kiss of life in 2018 courtesy of a retro-minded refit authored by the Toya design studio.
Fusing the past, present and future in a coherent manner, it’s become a poster child for regeneration – an exciting mix of nostalgia and arty contemporary touches, Poland’s second oldest cinema is nothing if not an example of how the cinemas of the past can face the tomorrow.