Jewish cinemas in Warsaw during the inter-war period

Yiddish cinema was an exceptional manifestation of Jewish culture — films in Yiddish were produced only in Poland an the United States and it was there that the circles of actors, directors and screenwriters connected almost solely to Jewish cinema began to form.

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The employees of the „Sfinks” film atelier

However Yiddish cinema is only one of the aspects of the Jewish presence in Polish cinematography in the inter-war period. Modern cinemas are the final stage of the movie production and distribution cycle, however, in the inter-war period cinema proprietors were involved in both the distribution and the advertisement of films, and often times even their production. Many cinemas were directly connected to production companies (e.g. the “Atlantic” and “Sfinks” cinemas), sometimes they were owned by the same people. 

When you take a closer look at these “cinematic enterprises” it becomes immediately apparent why drawing a line between Jewish and Polish cinematography in the inter-war period is so difficult. What’s more, even when reading the press from that time it is difficult to discern which information applies to Jewish cinema owners — the authors of the articles describing the problems of the “cinema men” did not consider them to be a separate group, nor did they indicate the Jewish character of certain cinemas. This lack of a “Jewish theme” is also obvious in the reviews which don’t mention the language of the films they describe.


When speaking of the impact the Jewish citizens of Warsaw had on the capital’s cinematography we should start earlier than 1918. Even before the First World War Warsaw had tens of cinematographs. It should be noted that this mean not only light theaters (the name given at the time to buildings adapted or constructed with the specific purpose of displaying films in them) but also simple wooden booths in which a standing audience could watch a few minutes of moving pictures. Aleksander Hertz’s movie theater “Sfinks” opened in 1909 in no. 116 Marszałkowska Street (later moved to the Luksenburg Gallery on Sentorska Street) and Mordechaj Towbin’s “Iluzjon” (opened in 1908 in no. 118 Marszałkowska Street) were the leading cinemas in Warsaw. These two entrepreneurs owned not only elegant cinemas in the center of Warsaw but also two production companies — “Strength” (“Siła” Towbin) and “Sfinks” (Hertz). In those first years of cinemas being present in Warsaw the rivalry between these two entrepreneurs did not only dominate the capital’s market but also set the tone for the entirety of Polish film production at the time. Both men decided to, almost simultaneously, produce the first Polish patriotic films, which caused them problems with Russian censors.Prussian Culture a film produced by Towbin and focused on current issues fell victim to censorship — tsarist authorities confiscated it before anyone could even view it. A showing of the film was held only after the start of the First World War. The movie told the story of a children’s strike in Września. Around the same time Hertz produced a rival film The Sweetness of Sin (which also had a patriotic theme) that managed to avoid trouble with the censors. Even these early productions show that Jewish producers were mainly concerned with the audience, who were at the time very interested in patriotic themes.


It must be noted here that the two entrepreneurs had very different business approaches. Aleksander Herzt focused mostly on a strong, recognizable brand and wanted to be considered a patron of the arts; Mordechaj Towbin, however, would stop at nothing to defeat his competition. He was famous for his fictitious bankruptcies, double bookkeeping and a reluctance to fulfill his financial obligations. Though Towbin’s statement concerning his competitor has become famous “He is just as much of a thief as I am, he just wears white gloves” his action show that he lacked any scruples when it came to business. When Hertz invited Max Linder, an extremely popular actor at the time, to perform in Poland, Towbin came to him with an offer of cooperation — after his performance in a rented auditorium of the Philharmonic Orchestra building the actor would visit Towbin’s cinema. Hertz made it clear that no partnership between them was possible. In response Towbin, pretending to be his competitor, collected Linder from the station and took him to a hotel. He then called Hertz and forced him to share the proceeds of all the actor’s performances in Poland. Hertz had no choice but to accept this proposition since part of the proceeds was still more than he would get if he had to cancel all the actor’s performances. Their rivalry finally ended when Towbin was arrested in 1914 for financial crimes (the nature of which was never specified). This was such a significant event that it was reported on the front pages of newspapers. Despite their rivalry it was obvious that Hertz had by then become a powerful film producer and, as he had planned, a patron of the arts. His production company “Sfinks” (started with Alfred Silberlast and Józef Koerner) produced from one to nine movies a year, including Meir Ezofowicz. In 1913 they started to consider making an adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s trilogy. When Towbin’s cinema started showing Quo Vadis (a huge success of Italian cinematography at the time), Hertz started a company called “Falcon” (“Sokół”) which was meant to produce the Polish version of the film. It should be pointed out again that both producers cared little about the topic of the movie as long as it was a financial success.


The war weekend the position of many film producers and cinema owners. Surprisingly it wasn’t the war effort itself but the extremely high taxes imposed on cinemas which lead to the fall of many companies, including Jewish ones. From July 28th to November 11th 1918 twenty-one premieres were held, only two of which did not bear the stamp of the “Sfinks” production company. There was no doubt that it was Hertz’s company which shaped Polish cinematography. Only the end of the war and the creation of new film companies ended Aleksander Hertz’s hegemony. However, this short period turned out to be extremely beneficial not only to Hertz himself but also to the history of Polish cinematography — Apolonia Chałupiec, later known as Pola Negri and the only Polish actress to date to become a success in Hollywood, had her debut in films produced by “Sfinks”. For a short time (1925–1926) the company was called “Polish Film” (“Film Polski”) and its board of member included prince Radziwiłł and count Lubomirski. During that time the company produced mainly optimistic and patriotic movies, hence the name change despite the management remaining the same. However strange may this partnership between the aristocracy and Jewish entrepreneurs seem, it was a quite common occurrence in the world of film. 

Aleksander Hertz passed away too soon in 1928 at the age of 49. After his death “Sfinks” continued to function under the management of Henryk Finkelstein, who lead the company until 1936 when, after releasing its final film The Leper (which was, as all other adaptations of this novel, a huge success with the audience and a failure with the film critics) the company was closed. It should be mentioned that log after Hertz’s death his photograph graced the first page of the annual Film News Calendar (an almanac for those working in the film industry) with the caption “Creator of Polish Cinematography”.


Author: Katarzyna Czajka

The full article was published in the Jewish History Quarterly.

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