Tuesday, 8 December 2015

A moving documentary about Warsaw

Dan Cruickshank's BBC4 documentary about Warsaw is well worth watching. I watched it tonight with my father - a Warsaw Uprising veteran - for the second time in a week.

Apart from being a truly uplifting story about how a nation resurrected its capital, it's a personal tale of a return to childhood. In 1956, the seven year-old, Dan moved to the city when his father became the Warsaw correspondent of the communist Daily Worker. (This detail reminds us of how many 'useful idiots' the USSR had working for it within the British elite.)

The documentary follows Dan Cruickshank as he returns to Warsaw for the very first time since he left the city as a boy. He finds the apartment in which the family lived (on the corner of the Old Town square, Świętojańska 33/2), and shows us pictures of buildings he drew as a child with amazing levels of details (not surprising then, that he'd grow up to pursue a career in architecture).

Warsaw was razed to the ground by the Nazis but lives again, a thriving, vibrant city that blends 21st Century skyscrapers with a rebuilt Old Town. Nearly 90% of Warsaw was destroyed, Mr Cruickshank reminds us. The story he tells is one of a heroic city's courage and willpower. "Warsaw came back from the dead in a most miraculous of resurrections," he says.

The destruction of the city was "a premeditated crime, devised before the war had even started - to destroy the city and kill its inhabitants. To destroy Warsaw was to destroy Polish hopes for the future, to destroy its identity." Looking over Nazi documents held at the IPN, Poland's national institute of remembrance, Mr Cruickshank noted that Hitler's plans called for the total annihilation of Warsaw and its replacement by an architecturally banal, smaller German settlement, from which the conquered lands would be administered.

Footage from the incredible 3D animation Warszawa Miasto Ruin (below), shows the state of the city after the Nazis had left, point zero from which the rebuilding had to take place. The question facing Poland's new rulers in 1945 was just how to rebuild the capital.


The role of Polish town planners and architects who managed to convince the Soviet placemen in charge of the country that the Old Town should be restored to its original glory was crucial. Mr Cruickshank sets out the political situation that Poles were in after the war: "The Soviets had plans of their own. Poland had passed from being under one totalitarian overlord to another." By 1956, regime had arrested quarter of a million Poles for wanting an independent Poland, says Mr Cruickshank, saying that 23,000 had been killed under Stalinism.

Against this background, there were two competing visions for the rebuilding of Warsaw - straight, broad boulevards, with stone-clad apartments for the apparatchiks - or rebuilding the city as it had been before, the gargantuan vs human scale. Planners of the new communist regime wanted to build a modern city for the workers, a socialist utopia. But to buy in the population, the communists realised that the city needed to have its heart back.

The role of the rebuilding of the Old Town in post-war communist propaganda was significant. The slogan Cały naród buduje swoją stolicę ('The whole nation builds its capital') - worked, because Warsaw loved its Old Town and wanted it back. I was moved by the interview with the elderly Warsaw lady who recalled as a child spending Sundays with her family moving the rubble. The communists bought off discontent at the price of compromising their vision of a grandiose city built for a Homo Sovieticus worker army.

It is worth looking at the images for odgruzowywanie Warszawy on Google Images. "When people of Warsaw wanted to put the horrors of Nazi occupation behind them, they had to do so under the shadow of Stalinism," says Mr Cruickshank.

And then there's the Palace of Culture. "A vision of a socialist utopia. A Soviet vision for the new Warsaw. The unwelcome gift from the Soviet authorities, paid for from the exploitation of Poland's natural resources, a Soviet brand burnt into the heart of the city," he says.

About half of the hour-long documentary is dedicated to the story of the rebuilding of the Old Town and the Royal Castle, and how it was done. I learned several new facts. The Old Town as we see it today is not an absolute replica of how it looked before the war, but rather an ideal of how it looked like in its glory days in the 18th Century. The plans were based on Bernardo Bellotto's paintings and pre-war technical drawings made by architecture students. The City Museum - located in three of the five houses in the Old Town that survived, thanks to their fire-proofed interiors - contain many original features including painted ceilings from the early 18th Century.

Work on rebuilding the Royal Castle - seriously damaged in 1939 then totally destroyed in 1944 - didn't start until 1971, and was largely paid for by Poles, including those living abroad. The communists didn't want it. Royalty and lavish interiors are the very stuff that inspires revolutions, said Mr Cruickshank. Of the treasures currently on display in the castle, 80% of that which had survived had been hidden from both the Nazis and the communists. Historic doors were smuggled out after the war by being used to carry away in rubble. But much was recreated. Behind the throne, some sixtty or so silver eagles. The originals were all looted by German soldiers. One turned up in New York in 1991. From it, the rest were re-cast. The result is that today, "with its sumptuous gilded interiors, the Castle looks as if the war had never happened - and I suppose that's just the point," he says. "This is a heroic story for a city of heroes."

Aesthetically, it works, concludes Mr Cruickshank. The people of Warsaw had recreated their city "as a vital, total, work of art. Seventy years on and World War 2 is a distant memory. Warsaw today is a boom town..." To prove the point, he visits Warsaw Spire, at an earlier phase of construction without much of its cladding. This will be, he says, the city's second-highest building after the Palace of Culture. "The resurrection of Warsaw has been miraculous, from a city almost 90%, destroyed a place of despair and desolation," he says as the camera down sweeps across a modern skyline. "We can learn much from Warsaw. Confidence in the future. Passion and verve, commitment, determination and love;" the camera cuts away to the large Kocham Warszawę sign on the Spire.

Incidentally, if you're reading my blog in Poland, you can't watch this worthy BBC programme using iPlayer (which in any case only gives access to programmes 30 days after broadcast.)

Why can't I use iPlayer abroad?

Due to rights restrictions, we’re not allowed to make BBC video available outside the UK.
Which rather flies in the face of the British government's efforts to create a Single Digital Market across the European Union. And through it to promote British soft power. It hope Dan Cruickshank's documentary will one day be shown on Polish television. I'm proud of the way the BBC has portrayed Our City.

This time two years ago:
On being rich in Poland

This time This time last year:
The link between health and happiness explored

This time three years ago:
The black SUV, the black SUV... (with the darkened rear windows)

This time five years ago:
Atonement

This time eight years ago:
Where I'm from, and why

1 comment:

Ivy said...

Thanks for your review of Dan Cruickshank's programme about Warsaw. I was fascinated by it,and it was revealing to read about the programme from your viewpoint. I visted Warsaw in 1984 and I was mesmerized by the Old Town and the Royal Castle. I taught English in Poznan in the late 80s and it was interesting to hear about the events in Poznan in 1956 as reported by Dan Cruickshank's father. By the way, I'm American and I now live in England. My grandfather was born in Poland, in Sierpc.