Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 03 January 2007
Source Second Run DVD
If you’ve ever wondered what a Polish historical epic looks like, to set beside Hollywood’s examples of the genre from the same time like Ben Hur, Spartacus or El Cid, here’s your chance. It certainly looks different from the Hollywood variety, with its eyes turned towards influences from Soviet Cinema – in more than one respect, the spirit of Alexander Nevsky seems to hover over it – and as with so many Polish historical films, epic or not, there’s a nationalistic project at work, too.
Another fifties Hollywood epic I could have mentioned here is Quo Vadis, which shares a connection with Knights of the Teutonic Order. Both are adaptations of novels by Nobel Prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz, but although Quo Vadis is the most well-known of his novels outside Poland, Krzyzacy (the source for Knights of the Teutonic Order, usually known in English as The Knights of the Cross) is more characteristic of a work that repeatedly demonstrates an interest in critical moments in the history of the Poles and an accompanying strong anti-German bias. Importantly, in terms of their underlying nationalistic ethos, these works were all written at a time when Poland no longer existed as an independent nation, but was divided up among adjoining states.
The historical moment at the crux of Knights of the Teutonic Order is the Battle of Grunwald of 1410. Here the Roman Catholic monastic order of warrior-monks, who had spread through Central and Eastern Europe initially on a mission to Christianise by the sword, were decisively defeated by a combined Polish-Lithuanian army. The narrative in the film itself has a choppy, lurching flow to it, briefly staying with one scene and characters before suddenly switching to a new locale. This no doubt reflects the problems of adapting to film the greater detail and epic breadth of a novel.
Sienkiewicz’s style is that of Sir Walter Scott, mixing invented characters (the main protagonists) with actual historical figures. So, the film opens – after a brief prologue scene where the envoy of the Knights challenges the Polish King on the day of the battle, a scene that we later realise is a flash-forward when it reoccurs two and half hours later – with Jurand of Spychow, a Polish landowner in resistance to the Knights. He soon pays for this with the brutal murder of his wife and the burning-down of his home. Here, Ford plays out the violence of the Knights as an assault on innocence and the natural world, the symbolic image of Poland itself which reappears in association with the later character of the tomboyish free-spirit Jagienka. So, girls in white dancing in a meadow are brought to a stop, an owl stares with blinking eyes, horses neigh, deer and wild boar flee, and tongues of fire leap through the forest.
In line with the Scott style of epic that this is, the film’s main protagonist – though not one that takes up most of the screen time – is the dashing young knight Zbyszko of Bogdaniec, who soon enough pledges himself to Daniusia, Jurand’s daughter. She’s being brought up in a duchess’s household while her father conducts his guerilla-like resistance to the Knights. In knightly mode, Zbyszko undertakes vengeance on Daniusia’s behalf; meanwhile, the Knights devise a dastardly plan to kidnap Daniusia in order to lure her father into their hands.
This Zbyszko/Jurand/Daniusia storyline – along with subplots involving Zbyszko’s war-grizzled uncle Macko and, most importantly, Zbyzko’s unacknowledged “true love” Jagienka – is the private narrative played off against the background of the public narrative, the story of the historical figures (the King of Poland, the Grand Master of the Knights, etc) whose conflict climaxes with the Battle of Grunwald.
Unsurprisingly, the Knights are portrayed in Ford’s film in almost exclusively negative terms, as violent and brutal, although there are some nuances to this. Even as the Knights first evolve their kidnap plan and stab in the back a French nobleman who threatens to reveal all, one Knight offers an expression of his moral qualms, a realisation that the principles according to which they operate are being compromised: “Why, oh Lord, to spread Thy rule, to defend Thy home, do we have to make so much injustice?”
More significant in this sense is the figure of the Knights’ Grand Master. On the Knights’ side he offers the one voice of regret, reason, and moderation – “Sometimes I think that war means perdition” – but he is old and sick, and the loss of his authority to his more warlike fellow Knights is conveyed by Ford in the slow pan from his death bed across the faces of the figures surrounding him (“In God’s name, war!”) and back again.
There’s a monumentality to this shot that’s reminiscent of the cinema of the Soviet Union, where Ford himself spent the war years. This kind of weighty composition reoccurs throughout the film—there’s the low-angle shot, for example, of Jurand in close-up caressing the face of his daughter as a mass of sky forms most of the background behind him and a choir murmurs on the soundtrack. One repeated structuring device is the slow tracking shot that sets a crowd scene by passing from one side to the other, whether it’s a court, in a snow-bound tavern, or of the prisoners at work in the Grand Master’s castle. There’s also a taste for overt colour symbolism, composing shots in terms of the contrast between white-clad Knights and red-clad Poles. Exteriors favour a lyrical naturalism that gives expression to a patriotic love of the land, but Ford is not adverse to expressionistic touches at an appropriate moment, such as the final confrontation between Jurand and Siegfried de Löwe and the subsequent suicide from a lone black-silhouetted tree.
I’m not sure how much there is a direct influence from Eisenstein on Ford, or whether Ford’s visual style merely reflects a more general influence from Soviet cinema. Still, through its very subject matter it’s impossible not to think of Alexander Nevsky, another tale of nationalistic resistance to the invading Knights/Germans. By point of historical comparison, the famous battle on the ice that forms Nevsky’s centrepiece took place in 1242, almost 200 years before the events of The Knights of the Teutonic Order. Still, it’s hard to avoid the similarities between Ford’s climactic battle scene and Eisenstein’s (and note, by the way, similarities in the outdoor exterior shots with Olivier’s work in Henry V and Richard III, again influenced by Eisenstein): the long-shots of charging cavalry, the medium-shots of artfully staged action, the low-angle shots of single figures posed against the sky, and close-ups of a confused flurry of arms and armour. Even the music here seems reminiscent of Prokoviev’s work on Eisenstein’s film, and Ford’s film also shares Eisenstein’s sombre postscript to the battle as the light darkens and his camera tracks across the field littered with bodies, shields, and spears.
Aleksander Ford was a rather tragic figure in the history of post-War Polish cinema. A committed Communist and a supporter of Poland’s new Communist state, he was the prime figure driving the establishment of the new centralised film industry, although he lost out in bureaucratic struggles in the late forties. Then, after resuming his directorial career with a series of films – of which Knights remains the most famous – he again fell foul of the authorities at a far more serious level, being purged in the anti-Semitic campaign of the late sixties. Two unsuccessful foreign productions in the seventies found him ending up in Florida, where he committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 71.
But if Knights of the Teutonic Order remains Ford’s most significant contribution to Polish cinema (setting aside his institutional contributions as a Stalinist), it is finally a humanist statement and a love letter to the Polish soil. In the former vein, the key narrative development is Jurand of Spychow’s ultimate renunciation of vengeance when confronted with his arch-enemy Siegfried de Löwe, an act of such superior moral status that it shames de Löwe into suicide.
Ford does draw a parallel between the two camps as they prepare for the final battle, the leaders planning tactics and both sides ending on an identical invocation to God: “The rest is in God’s hands. He will support His faithful servants.” But it’s equally clear who has the upper moral hand here, particularly when, only fifteen years after the end of World War II, the Poles cry on the one hand “The Germans are marching!” and the Knights, on the other, are showing giving a repeated “Heil! Heil! Heil!” In the film’s terms, the defeat of the Knights is only just, and the sombre battle postscript is quickly followed by the more brightly-lit, joyous scene of Zbyszko and Macko’s return. The final shot pans across a lush landscape to end on the beaming face of Jagienka as she waits to greet them, the very embodiment of the Polish spirit of freedom.