We’re about to tread on dangerous ground, because this movie is about a battle of legendary importance in Polish popular culture — and the movie itself is controversial in its home country. The desperate stand of an element of barely more than company strength against thousands of Germans with air and naval gunfire support is significant as, say the legends of the Alamo, the Lost Cause, the Few or the 300 are to Texans, Southerners, Britons, or Greeks. Since we’re not Poles, and aren’t even fluent in the jazyk, we’re likeley to miss a lot of the nuance of the film.
The Battle of Westerplatte was a footnote to the German invasion of Poland, a battle known outside Poland more for its consequences to the world than its consequences on the ground. But the consequences on the ground were paramount for Poles. Their all-but-indefensible borders can’t hold back enemies, and in 1939 they had enormous ones on both sides, so holding back the enemies fell to the Polish armed forces. In 1939 this was a classic European draft army with a small professional cadre, a short term of national service, and a large pool of reservists.
If Poland is a defender’s worry, Westerplatte was a defender’s nightmare. A flat peninsula in Danzig harbor, it was 2000 meters long, a max of 500 wide, and mostly built up with barracks, warehouses, roads and railway lines. Its single land border was a brick wall with the Free City of Danzig on teh other side (and you will recall, one of Hitler’s casus belli was to repatriate Danzig to German nationality, so at D+1 hour it was teeming with Germans). In the real battle, the Germans came through the wall. Its other borders were all German-controlled waterways. The Germans plunked a 19th-century battleship, DKM Schleswig-Holstein, 200 yards off Westerplatte and opened up (they actually had to back the ship off from their original firing point — they were too close). They bombed the Polish strongpoints with Stukas.
The Polish commander, Maj. Henryk Sucharski, was a decorated hero of the tangle of wars that the nascent Polish Republic had with its former Soviet overlords and other neighbors. His second in command, Captain Francizedk Dabrowski, was, if anything, more determined to fight for Polish honor.
At the start of the movie, Sucharski is a professional officer and knows there’s no way he can hold the indefensible Westerplatte indefinitely. But his commanders know it too; and they have given him and his men a mission is to defend the position for 12 hours, maximum, giving time for the Polish army to relieve them. And then, a meeting with a general gives Major Sucharski a bit of bad news: due to new war plans, the cavalry won’t be coming. Instead of surging towards Danzig, the Poles would be retreating to a more defensible line, and waiting in their turn for British and French aid. Sucharski’s new mission: hold out for that period, longer if possible, then surrender. But as this would certainly undermine troop morale and their ability to stave off the Wehrmacht, he couldn’t tell anybody: this was his own secret. He can’t even tell Dambrowski, and this sets up the major conflict in the movie: all the Germans are a problem, but they’re just backdrop. The conflict is between the Poles who want to fight and Sucharski, who knows the battle will end in his surrender. There’s a tertiary conflict between Poles who would desert and surrender and Poles who would not let them (another case where the history and archaeology are ambivalent).
No one knows if such orders were ever given; this is all the filmmaker’s speculation, even though a surprising numbers of the defenders survived the battle and harsh Nazi captivity (Polish and Russian war prisoners were treated much worse than Western Allied POWs, for reasons that made sense to Nazis alone). Sucharski did not survive captivity long; he died in 1946 of illnesses he brought out of the camps. Dabrowski did survive, and later wrote about the battle. (Of course, they’d have done worse in the hands of the Soviets, who murdered their Polish officer captives).
The Alamo-like resonance of Westerplatte in Poland comes from the defenders stretching their half-day mission to seven days of frustration for the Germans. In the end, of course, the Germans won, and the German commander chivalrously returned Sucharski’s sword (it was taken again during his captivity, and is probably in some German attic to this day). Sucharski became a postwar hero, one that was acceptable to the postwar regime of “Russian officers in Polish uniforms” because of his working-class origins. A satellite-state era movie about Westerplatte played up Sucharski’s heroism, and downplayed the aristocratic Dabrowski.
But in this movie version, Sucharski suffers from epilepsy and depression which renders him hors de combat, and Dabrowski, unaware of the surrender orders, maintains the futile resistance at great loss of life, until he finally lets Sucharski make the surrender. This is one position some take about the battle, but if that happened, Dabrowski never let on during his life. Hence the controversy in Poland: imagine telling Greeks that Leonidas was a psychological casualty on Day 1 and his 2-I-C led the defense of the pass!
Acting, Writing and Production
The actors are uniformly good. In our opinion Robert Zolodziewski has the standout performance as the determined Captain Franciczek Dabrowski. Michal Zebrowski, in the role of Major Sucharski, is somewhat script-handicapped in making his character a believable one. The supporting cast is good in their roles when the script permits it.
Ah, the script. Let’s pause here to beat up the writer/director Pawel Chochlew. We think it’s harder to make a great film with one person in both positions, because a director is seldom as attached to a scene or a bit of dialogue as its writer is. If it’s the same guy, he gets “auterrhea” and develops what could be a tautly edited 90 minute movie into two hours of confusion. QED.
If this movie is accurate, Polish Republic Army units were unique in all history in that leadership was absolutely a function of rank, and that leaders reacted to leadership challenges by pulling rank and barking demands for witless obedience. Some leaders, of course, in all armies, do that. We call them bad leaders, and fortunately they are a minority. Not, alas, in this film. Unfortunately, there are no survivors of the battle left alive to explain or correct the story, at least not of the Polish side. The last one passed away last year.
Likewise, the tactical accuracy is appalling. Even in the first days of the war, for the Germans to rush up to within a few yards of a Polish field fortification on an open beach, and then to lie there eyeball-to-eyeball, suggests that Germans, unique among the races of the world, are lacking any impulse to self-preservation.
The action scenes, then, are often bad. Not always, which is what’s really frustrating. Chochlew shows some real signs of brilliance both in writing and direction, but the movie does not snap, no more does it flow, and the presence of some great scenes and some memorable lines does not a movie make.
Finally, the English dubbing is a bit rough around the edges. Still, some people prefer dubs to subtitles.
Accuracy and Weapons
We’re far from expert in Polish guns, but we noticed a strange dichotomy in the guns on hand. They were either surprisingly correct (for instance, they had weapons that looked and sounded exactly right for Polish BARs) or completely out of whack — the pistols the officers carried were TT-33s. (The guys with the TT-33s in 1939 were Russians, and they were shooting Poles with them).
The Polish uniforms look right, based on period photographs. The facilities look a little like Westerplatte at the start of the battle. The problem is, they don’t look right for the area at the end of the battle, when the real-world buildings were ruins and the lawns and forests were a cratered moonscape redolent of the Somme. Apparently the location (in Lithuania) drew the line at letting the filmmakers destroy it.
The tactics used seem… strange, the actors and extras unfamiliar with their weapons (almost all of them lower a rifle from their shoulder and stare at it to operate the bolt, only shouldering it for the next shot). There are too few extras, and so you see battles between single digits’ worth of Poles and Germans taking place at nought meters’ range. You hear a lot about the Germans’ overwhelming numbers (and in the real world they were about 100-1) but when the Germans show up they show up in squad strength.
CGI is used extensively, and it’s generally bad to dreadful. The dynamics of the ships and planes don’t comport to one’s memories of ship and plane motion, and what’s worth, the sea and air don’t look quite right either. The explosions (both special effects/pyro and digital effects/CGI) are dreadfully bad.
Directors, please: if you do not have the budget for CGI that does not suck, watch some films from the century before CGI to see how the best directors get around it. Bad CGI is like a 1940s film with bad model planes or ships. It’s like throwing rotten fruit through the fourth wall at the audience.
The bottom line
We’ve probably tried harder to explain the battle than the movie; that’s what happens when you’re watching an exported movie about another nation’s unexported history. 1939: Battle of Westerplatte is more for completists, for people who’d like to have some movie about most every modern conflict. There’s limited interest, outside Poland, for stories about a battle with a foregone conclusion (and in which the conduct of almost every European nation, except for Poland herself and possibly the nations that accepted Polish exiles, was shameful). Yet in some ways the lost-cause story is perennial and worldwide: the defenders of Westerplatte have a whiff of the Alamo, and of the 47 Ronin, about them; this movie could have been one that American and Japanese audiences would have loved (and would have filled them with goodwill towards Poland, too).
Pawel Chochlew could be one of the greats; he needs to get someone to edit him, or develop a ruthless ability to edit himself. 1939: Battle of Westerplatte was a lost opportunity. Imagine what Andrzej Wajda would have done with it!