Paweł Chochlew – 1939 The Secret of Westerplatte
Michał Żebrowski in Paweł Chochlew's "The Secret of Westerplatte", photo: Ula Marchwiak/ITI Cinema.
Courage vs. fear, loyalty vs. egoism, patriotism vs. rationalism – set during the opening days of the Second World War, portraying an epic struggle that pitted Polish defenders against German forces, The Secret of Westerplatte comes to cinemas across Poland on the 15th of February 2013.
Depicting resistance in the face invasion, The Secret of Westerplatte tells the story of fewer than 200 Polish soldiers who held off the first German attack of the war for seven days. The defense of Westerplatte is one of the famous events of the September 1939 campaign, and served as inspiration for the Polish military. Partly based on fact, the film revolves around a conflict between two great individuals: Major Sucharski and Captain Dąbrowski. The former (played by Michał Żebrowski), the commander of Westerplatte, is against prolonging a battle that was doomed to begin with, while the latter, his deputy (Robert Żołędziewski), wants to fight until the end. "It’s a film about human choices in the face of deadly threats, about the eternal struggle between rationalism and idealism."
"From the moment I started to write the script," Chochlew said after the first screening of the film, "I wanted to make a film about love for the fatherland, a patriotic film". The director emphasised that The Secret… is a story about "people from flesh and bones, not about bronze statues, people whose actions were idealised through poetry. We intend to talk about people who are no strangers to doubt and fear, but who at the same time can fulfill their duties like their fatherland requires them to."
The film is based on the events that signalled the start of the Second World War. Early in the morning of the 1st of September, the visiting battleship Schleswig-Holstein began firing on the garrison of the Westerplatte peninsula in Gdansk, followed by the assault of 3,000 German soldiers. The Polish defense was made up of 182 soldiers and 27 civilian reservists. Under the command of Mayor Henryk Sucharski and later Captain Franciszek Dąbrowski, the Polish force was tasked with holding the peninsula for 12 hours. They fought for seven days, until they ran out of munitions. On the 7th of September, the Poles capitulated. Altogether 16 soldiers died defending Westerplatte, and 50 were wounded.
The film captures the moment in which Sucharski, an experienced officer, is faced with a key dilemma. He has ordered that the bunkers on Westerplatte be held for 12 hours, but comes to wonder whether - given the overwhelming superiority of the German forces and his growing number of wounded men - he should have surrendered with honour. Kamil Śmiałkowski writes for the website Stopklatka that the film shows "the conflict between two personalities – the rationalist Sucharski and the idealist Dąbrowski. [...] Captain Dąbrowski was brought up in the great patriotic traditions and values morality over the life of his subordinates [...]. Sucharski on the other hand, is tired, sickly and is fulfilling his duty and then simply has a lot of compassion for these boys who are dying pointlessly and without any hope for victory."
The Secret of Westerplatte began filming in autumn 2009, and its script provoked arguments and discussions. When creators reached out to the office of the Prime Minister of Poland hoping to receive patronage, a historian commented in the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza that "The script has nothing to do with historical truth. It's literary fiction which additionally is a blow to the dignity and honour of Polish soldiers".
The main controversy focused on a scene in which Westerplatte defenders urinate on a portrait of Polish Marshal Rydz-Śmigły. The director explained in interviews: "The peeing scene is there because in the script and film I needed to show that the soldiers were on the verge of giving up after the very dramatic experiences." Artists came to the defence of the film. A group of well-known filmmakers wrote an open letter addressed to the media and politicians, signed by Agnieszka Holland, Jerzy Stuhr, Jacek Bromski and Filip Bajon. The scene did not make the final cut.
The film's cast includes Michał Żebrowski, Robert Żołędziewski, Mirosław Baka, Piotr Adamczyk, Andrzej Grabowski, Kuba Wesołowski, Mirosław Zbrojewicz, Przemysław Cypryański, Andrzej Młynarczyk, Jan Englert and Borys Szyc. The score was composed by Oscar winner Jan A.P. Kaczmarek.
Paweł Chochlew (born 1971) is a graduate of the Acting Department at the Łódź Film School. The Secret of Westerplatte is the director's second feature, and his first non-independent production, after Takie życie / That's Life (2004).
Sources: based on the article by Bartosz Staszczyszyn for culture.pl, PISF
Editor: Marta Jazowska