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Maria Hirszbein was born on March 5, 1889 in the town of Zgierz in Poland. She finished high school in Lodz, and then moved on to the Trade Academy in Berlin. She directed the prominent Warsaw film studio, Leo Film, which was the longest running studio in Poland, operating until 1939. Until 1939, Hirszbein was Poland’s only female film producer.
Her career began in 1924 at Leo Forbert’s studio, then called Leo Forbert Film. The studio specialized in films with Jewish themes. It produced, among others, the celebrated film Tkijes kaf/The Vow (1924), directed by Zygmut Turkow. Leo Forbert Film also produced several documentaries including Nowa Palestyna/New Palestine (1925) and Otwarcie Uniwersytetu Hebrajskiego/The Opening of Hebrew University (1925), with cinematography by Seweryn Steinwurtzel, and Lamedwownik/One of 36 (1925), directed by Henryk Szaro. This last film, however, brought the studio to the brink of bankruptcy. At this point, Hirszbein bought out her co-owner Leon Forbert’s shares, and took over the studio. As sole owner, Hirszbein changed the studio’s name to Leo Film and launched her leadership by turning its focus to films for Polish-speaking audiences. She also became active in the film community in 1927 by co-managing the newly formed Polish Union of Film Producers. In 1928 and 1929, alongside Gustaw Kryński and Adam Drzewicki, she served on the Advisory Committee of that same union. In the 1930s, she was the Vice Director of the Producers’ Guild and sat on the Central Board of the Polish Union of Film Technicians and the Advisory Committee of that same union from 1935 to 1936 (Source?).
During Poland’s silent film period and under Hirszbein’s direction, Leo Film produced five films of vastly different genres that were all aimed at Polish audiences. The first of them, Szaro’s 1926 film Czerwony błazen/Red Jester was an adaptation of a Polish detective novel and referenced motifs from American crime films. Leo Film’s next film, Szaro’s 1927 narrative drama Zew morza/Call of the Sea, fortunately preserved to this day in Russian and Polish archives, was one of the few Polish films widely distributed in the Soviet Union (source?). The company’s next film, the psychological drama Kropka nad i/Pieśń przerwana /Dotted ‘I’/Interrupted Song (1928), directed by Juliusz Gardan, has been compared to the aesthetics of the German kammerspiel, and in particular to the films of Lupu Pick (What sources say this?). All prints of this film are presumed lost.
Following this, Hirszbein and Leo Film produced Gardan’s film Policmajster Tagiejew/Police Chief Tagiejew (1928), an adaptation of a novel by Gabriela Zapolska. It is set in a small border town and deals with the persecution of Poles by officers of the Russian Empire in the last half of the 19th century. In this film, Hirszbein also acted as Director of Production. In 1930, Gardan directed a melodrama for with strong patriotic undertones for Leo Film called Uroda życia/The Beauty of Life, which was adapted from a novel by Stefan Żeromski. A silent version of the film screened in January 1930, at the same moment that the first wave of American sound films reached Poland. The director’s intention, in keeping with his other films, was to break with narrative paradigms rooted in theater, but because of the timing, the film passed unnoticed and was under-appreciated (source?). A few months later, Hirszbein decided to add sound to the film, which lent it a somewhat mechanical and artificial effect.
The first true sound film that Hirszbein produced was Serce na ulicy/Hearts on the Street (1930), made by Garden, which premiered in February. Hirszbein joined the crew as Director of Production on this film as well. In 1932 she produced, with meager financial means, an unusual film for the times titled Legion ulicy/Legion of the Street, directed by Aleksander Ford. The film narrated the lives of Warsaw newspaper boys. The film was widely recognized by Polish film critics and among Polish audiences. It was named best film of 1932 by readers of the popular weekly film journal Kino.
The transition to sound did, however, bring with it some momentary financial burdens for Leo Film. In 1932, Bolesław Land, an architect and set designer from Vienna, partnered with Hirszbein. During this period, Hirszbein produced several sound films with screenplays by Land that were directed by his wife, the character actor Marta Flantz. These included Gardan’s comedy 10% dla mnie/10% for Me (1933), and the drama Prokurator Alicja Horn/Prosecutor Alicja Horn (1933), whose screenplay Land and his wife adapted from a novel by Tadeusz Dołega Mostowicz. Flantz co-directed this film with Michał Waszyński. The company also produced the comedy Kochaj tylko mnie/Love Only Me (1935), under the direction of Flantz. After Land’s death in 1936, Hirszbein found herself once again entirely free to guide Leo Film as an independent producer. In 1936, she produced one of the most popular Polish comedies of the 1930s, Papa się żeni/Papa’s Getting Married, directed by Waszyński, with Hirszbein acting as Director of Production. She also gravitated back to Jewish themes, reviving a great success of Leo Forbert Film, Tkijes Kaf/The Vow. In 1937, the studio brought on Szaro to direct the sound remake of the originally silent Tkijes kaf with dialogue in Yiddish. The last film the studio produced before World War II was Szaro’s narrative drama Kłamstwo Krystyny/Krystyna’s Lie, which premiered in January 1939, with Hirszbein again acting as Director of Production. The outbreak of the war interrupted preparations for their next film, Szalona Janka/Crazy Janka, which was to be directed by Szaro as well.
Hirszbein’s studio launched the careers of director Gardan and actors Nora Ney, Franciszek Brodniewicz, Tola Mankiewiczówna, Helena Grossowna, and Tadeusz Fijewski. In his unpublished recollections, acclaimed interwar set designer Józef Galewski described Hirszbein as a woman of unusual energy, “active and energetic from morning to evening,” with a “small body but a great soul,” a phrase that recalls the well-known aphorism “a small body houses a great spirit” (page number?) Describing her style of leadership, he continued “…when you started up production with Leo Film, you knew that the money would materialize. It was an establishment known for its timely payments for all services rendered” (page number?). Elsewhere, he has commented: “…[Hirszbein] was a bold woman, a fantastic organizer, tireless, tactful, always on the job, paying punctually… Sometimes she paid with bills of sale, but with such reliability, that they were as good as money in the bank. Everyone involved from the director to the lay worker loved and respected her” (source? Page number?).
Hirszbein died during World War II under circumstances that are unclear to this day. According to Galewski, cited above, “She apparently died tragically in her office in September of 1939 from a bomb that had fallen into the house and burned it down together with the people inside” [my emphasis](Which source? Page number?). According to remarks made by her colleagues, Hirszbein did not want to abandon her elderly mother, and she died at her side in the ghetto, most likely in 1942 (source?).
Translated by Eliza Cushman Rose
Banaszkiewicz Władysław, Witczak Witold. Historia filmu polskiego/A History of Polish Film. Warsaw: T. I. Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1966.
Borzymińska, Zofia, and Rafa·l Żebrowski. Polski S·lownik Judaistyczny: Dzieje, Kultura, Religia, Ludzie/Polish Dictionary of Judaica: History, Culture, Religion, People. Vol. 2. Warszawa: Prószyński i S-ka, 2003.
Gross, Natan. Film żydowski w Polsce/Jewish Films in Poland. Trans. Anna Ćwiakowska. Krakow: Wydawnictwo Rabid, 2002.
Kalendarz Wiadomości Filmowych/Film News Chronicle. 1927-1936 – Are you citing a specific issue? or article (if so, what title/page number)?
Łozy, Stanisława, ed. Czy wiesz, kto to jest/Do You Know Who That Is? Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Głównej Księgarni Wojskowej, 1938.
Maśnicki, Jerzy, and Stepan Kamil. Pleograf: Słownik biograficzny filmu polskiego 1896-1939/ Pleograph: A Biographical Dictionary of Polish Film 1896-1939. Krakow: Staromiejska Oficyna Wydawnicza, 1996.
Włodek, Roman. “Film o mężach sprawiedliwych”/“A Film on Just Men.” Midrasz 1 (2011): nr 1 - is this the page number?
Archival Paper Collections:
Galewski, Józef. Wspomnienia filmowe/Reflections on Film. Unpublished manuscript, Special Collections, PAN-IS. Nr inw. 239 I-II. What do these numbers refer to, something at archive?
Materials related to Leo Film (commemorative photo albums, photographs, works, dedications, autographs, photograph of Maria Hirsbein). Feliks Matuszelański Collection, MHZP.Complete Project Bibliographies
A. Archival Filmography: Extant Film Titles:
1. Maria Hirszbein as Producer
Uroda życia/The Beauty of Life. Dir.: Juliusz Gardan, prod.: Maria Hirszbein (Leo Film Poland 1930) cas.: Adam Brodzisz, Boguslaw Samborski, Nora Ney, si/sd, b&w. Archive? Or lost?
Legion ulicy/Legion of the Street. Dir.: Aleksander Ford, prod.: Maria Hirszbein (Leo Film Poland 1932) cas.: Zofia Mirska, Stefan Rogulski, Tadeusz Fijewski, sd, b&w, 35mm. Archive? Or lost?
10% dla mnie/10% for Me. Dir.: Juliusz Gardan, prod.: Maria Hirszbein (Leo Film Poland 1933) cas.: Tola Mankiewiczówna, Tadeusz Wesołowski, sd, b&w. Archive?
Prokurator Alicja Horn/Prosecutor Alicja Horn. Dir.: Michał Waszyński , Marta Flantz, prod.: Mira Hirszbein (Leo Film Poland 1933) cas.: Jadwiga Smosarska,Franciszek Brodniewicz, sd, b&w. Archive?
Kochaj tylko mnie/Love Only Me. Dir.: Marta Flantz, prod.: Maria Hirszbein, sc.: Adolf Lantz (Leo Film Poland 1935) cas.: Lidia Wysocka, Kazimierz Junosza-Stepowski, sd, b&w. Archive?
2. Maria Hirszbein as Producer and Director of Production?
Policmajster Tagiejew/Police Chief Tagiejew. Dir.: Juliusz Gardan, prod.: Maria Hirszbein (Leo Film Poland 1929) cas.: Boguslaw Samborski, Maria Bogda, si, b&w. Archive: PLW.
Serce na ulicy/Hearts on the Street. Dir./sc.: Juliusz Gardan, prod.: Maria Hirszbein (Leo Film Poland 1931) cas.: Nora Ney, Zbigniew Sawan, Hanna Rozwadowska, sd, b&w. Archive? Or lost?
Papa się żeni/Papa’s Getting Married. Dir.: Michał Waszyński, prod.: Maria Hirszbein, sc.: Jan Fethke, Napoleon Sądek (Leo Film Poland 1936) cas.: Lidia Wysoka, Franciszek Brodniewicz, sd, b&w. Archive?
B. Filmography: Non Extant Titles
1. Maria Hirszbein as Producer
Czerwony błazen/Red Jester, 1926; Kropka nad i/Pieśń przerwana /Dotted ‘I’/Interrupted Song, 1928;