31 July 2013

1939 Battle of Westerplatte [movie review]

In the wake the embarrassing disasters that were the "Battle of Vienna 1683" and "Battle of Warsaw 1920" movies (both panned by critics and the Polish audience) another movie was being kicked around by studios, a movie about the Polish defense of Westerplatte - the military transit depot adjacent to the free city of Gdansk where the opening shots marked the beginning of WW2. This movie had huge problems during production and was stuck in production hell as studio executives didn't like the screenplay, supposedly "diminishing the heroic defenders of Westerplatte and falsifying facts". This was quite absurd because you nowadays read up on a lot of the historical facts of that battle.

The anger stemmed a lot from the original movie "Westerplatte" from 1967 where the defenders were portrayed as badasses and the whole defense as a human triumph over extreme conditions. The main problem with this is that the original movie was shot during the Soviet occupation, there was a lot of facts being surpressed at that time, the defenders themselves had also kept their mouthes shut about many of the events during the battle. So basically the 1967 movie only showed a lot of shooting and very little of the actual story. I also think that the characters were very one dimensional and the movie while being "OK" is not really that good for the simple reason of having little to offer except for action scenes.

The new movie released earlier this year is called "Tajemnica Westerplatte" in Polish, which translates "The secret of Westerplatte". The secret being that the actual command during the battle was not held by Major Sucharski but by his 2iC Captain Dabrowski. That Sucharski suffered from some kind of mental breakdown (in the movie it is epilepsy) and was unfit for command after the Germans bombed the shit out of the peninsula on the second day. The panicking Major wanted to surrender and was restrained while the battle went on for another 5 days under the command of captain Sucharski.

The Germans also found a couple of graves where it was assumed that a couple of Polish deserters had been shot and buried. The battle was not a dance on roses and a unified stoic defense. Cut off from all Polish forces on the first day the situation for the Polish garrison was completely hopeless The movie alludes that another secret could have been that Major Sucharski was informed, shortly before the outbreak of the war, that there would be no relief by Polish troops who would instead pull back south to not become cut off in the Polish corridor. This is speculative, but adds an interesting theory and a good motivation for the Major in the movie about wanting to surrender but being unable to tell the truth about why to his men. The fact is that the troops were only supposed to hold out for a couple of hours, that was their duty, and after that they would be relieved by the army from the south.


Historically this did not happen, but the defenders kept fighting and defending the tiny peninsula 2000meters long and 500 meters wide at the thickest, for seven days -being bombarded by naval artillery and German bombers on a daily basis. The Germans tried to storm the defenders at the start of the battle, thinking the defenders had been shell-shocked, but were beaten back by Polish defenses which had been secretly prepared before the battle and hidden from aerial observers. The following days the Germans probed the defenders with smaller forces after each bombing/barrage to see if they were any survivors. After the battle the once lush peninsula which had worked as a health resort before it became a military transit - looked like a WW1 battlefield. The area was completely covered in craters, blasted trees, and heavily damaged fortifications and barracks, and was likened to the battlefields of WW1.

Still a majority of the Polish defenders survived, and their unwillingness to capitulate was a beacon of hope during the first week of the German invasion as Polish radio kept announcing "Westerplatte still fights" in the daily broadcasts.

Of course this created a great story, the defenders became heroes, and the whole battle is something which can be compared to the battle of the Alamo in US history. The problem with the commonly depicted and told story up to this point was that it had avoided the uncomfortable additional truths, listed above - with the Major, the deserters etc. This is something that the 2013 movie tries to add to the story, and in many ways add a human element to the defense, and this rubbed many people wrong.

But is the movie any good then? Sadly I must say - not really. While being a lot better than the other two historical movies released recently Battle of Westerplatte too suffers from a lot of things such as poor screenplay and most importantly very poor effects.

It is very surprising how bad the CGI is when it comes to the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, you can instantly see that it is CGI and not a real ship. The movie lacks any kind of panoramic view of the Westerplatte peninsula, which is a wasted opportunity because it was at one point during the battle covered in fires and smoke from the explosions and burning fuel - something which would have made for an impressive shot. It also doesn't show any real aerial view of the bombed out peninsula when the Stuka bombers make their bombing runs, another wasted opportunity for a good looking scene.

The actors either on purpose through the directing, or by their own ineptitude, struggle with weapon handling - making every scene look as if they had never fired their rifles before. What's worse is the embarrassing "micro scale" of the scenes where there is any fighting. The peninsula was defended by around 200 Polish soldiers, but here are extremely few extras to make up Polish or even German soldiers. Groups of 7-8 soldiers are pitted against each other in really stupid and un-tactical shootouts where the Germans are depicted as morons and the Poles as lacking any accuracy. This is most evident in the scenes which take place on the beach where one of the Polish squads are holding a strongpoint and fight with a group of Germans at the distance of 15 meters.

To even allude that the Germans would not have seen them (and don't get me started on the piss poor tactics of approaching an enemy by crawling until you are in sight and then run 2 meters in upright position to the left in order to continue the crawl forward WTF?!) is pure fantasy.

The truth is that during the very first day of the historical defense, the Germans breached the wall shielding the peninsula from the mainland, and walked in with a large number of troops into a killzone of barbed wire, machinegun fire and mortar explosions. That was only because they thought the defenders had been killed by the naval bombardment. Further German attempts to take the peninsula with infantry  were made from all directions and even though they all failed the Germans simply didn't throw their men away in frontal assaults running in upright position at an enemy who opened fire at the distance of 10 meters.

I also talked about the area of Westerplatte being a WW1 battlefield at the end of the defense, this is something that you don't see in this movie either. It is obvious that they weren't filming at the Westerplatte location in modern day Poland but that the location shots were filmed elsewhere.  And while they got the vegetation and soil of the area accurate, they include a couple of shots that are just obviously  filmed at the edge of a huge  forest in some other place. And the lush, green and completely untouched nature of that forest quite jarring when the scene is supposed to take place towards the very end of the defense. I mean, they could have bought or leased a bit of land and burned it down  and blown it up like they did in the Gladiator for the battle of Teutenberg forest. It can't be that expensive to get a square kilometer of unwanted land for such a purpose?

The movie also failed to point out that the defenders of Westerplatte had huge amounts of machineguns for such a small company, and they had access to 4 medium mortars which were used extensively during the first days until they were destroyed by a bomber. There is also a scene that wants to depict the Germans driving a train with fuel cars into the Westerplatte peninsula to set it on fire and burn the defenders out, this is also a half assed scene since the main reason for this idea failing was that the driver of the train panicked and jumped out of the train before he was supposed to which allowed the Poles to blow it up in a harmless location.

So are there any redeeming qualities in this movie? There are a few. To me the human aspect of the movie is much more interesting in the 2013 movie than it was in the 1967 movie. The dynamic between Major Sucharski and Captain Dabrowski is really good, their motivations for surrender and continuation of the defense is also very great imo. To show that the soldiers weren't all "unflinching" is also probably more accurate - as I don't think the entire crew would keep their sanity during a 7 day long artillery and bomber barrage. The actor playing the doctor also does a good job, he's a very likeable guy and played the main villain for most of the "Czas honory" TV series. The fact that the movie is in color is actually also something that I would add to the "good" since being a wargamer who plays Early War Poles in Flames of War I get the question about Polish uniforms quite often and sources about Polish uniforms of 1939 show varying colors which can make it difficult for people to know which one is correct. The truth is that the uniforms varied in shade since they were made from different fabric at different time, this is represented very well in the movie, and you even get a glimpse of the Polish sailor uniforms. So if you are painting 1939 Poles the movie can supply you with a good

But the flaws are there and you can't ignore them. I watched the movie with my dad and we both had the same opinion. If you merged the type of effort put into the action and effects from the 1967 movie with the story and human aspects of the 2013 movie you could end up with something quite good. Both on their own they are both flawed.

Westerplatte 1967
+ weapon handling
+ military hardware
+ effects (for its time)
- very short
- nonexistent storyline
- partial coverup of the chain of command and other actual events

Westerplatte 2013
+ adds some historical truth about the defense
+ in color
+ shows more scenes of human interaction
- awful CGI and few special effects
- lazy location shots
- 2 hours long is too long for this story so it's slow paced
- poor portrayal of key moments during the battle
- poor portrayal of military tactics of both Poles and Germans during the battle

As a movie I would give it somewhere around 5/10. It's perhaps worth watching once, good for renting but not buying. What pains me the most is that truly great moments of Polish history are wasted away like this.

4 comments:

  1. Your review is spot on and matches my reactions to the film. The fact is that with just a bit more attention paid to the details that you cited, this would be minimally a class "B" and possibly even an "A" film. How hard would it have been after getting all the correct weapons and uniforms to put together a CGI project that would have enhanced rather than detracted from the film?
    Jerry
    A/K/A The Celtic Curmudgeon

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    Replies
    1. Yes it's a real shame, it would not take that much effort to really turn this into a 7/10 or even a 8/10 movie.

      I suspect that many of the problems in this movie such as the CGI are partially created by the problems in development hell this movie had.

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  2. This is normal in Polish present films. All films are poor:(

    We have in Poland a lot of great stories but almost all historical films are badly filmed:(

    This is very annoying especially for Poles. By this we are badly perceived in the world.

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  3. You have a very good points and observation on this film. Polish History, War History in particular is something that would make the best movies in existence, unfortunately this is rarely translated to film, Whether that is due to budget or rubbish directors i am not sure. Polish series and re enactment groups pull off better stuff than the film industry.

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