Smierc prezydenta (Death of a President) (1977)





Director:     Jerzy Kawalerowicz. 

Starring:     Zdzislaw Mrozewski (Gabriel Narutowicz),  Marek Walczewski (Eligiusz Niewiadomski),  Henryk Bista (Priest Nowakowski),  Czeslaw Byszewski (Prime Minister Julian Nowak),  Jerzy Duszynski (Józef Pilsudski),  Edmund Fetting (General Józef Haller),  Kazimierz Iwor (Herman Lieberman),  Julian Jabczynski (Stefan Przezdziecki),  Erwin Kohlund (Prof. Isseling),  Zbigniew Krynski (Stanislaw Józef Thugutt),  Leszek Kubanek (Norbert Barlicki),  Wlodzimierz Saar (Stanislaw Stronski),  Jerzy Sagan (Wincenty Witos),  Janusz Sykutera (Stanislaw Car),  Tomasz Zaliwski (Maciej Rataj).

first president of the Polish Republic 1922 (for five days) Gabriel Narutowicz, who was opposed by the Polish Nationalists /Fascists


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.


Part I. 

Two men speaking in German (no English subtitles). 

Eligiusz Niewiadomski is being asked a series of questions.  He is 53 years old and has two grown children. 

Gabriel Narutowicz is 55, a hydro engineer and a professor.  The Soviets forbade him to visit Poland for 40 years.  He became a Swiss citizen and is a professor at the University of Technology in Zurich.  His wife was Ewa Krzyzanowska and he has two children.  After the death of his wife, he returns to Poland.  July 1920 he accepts the nomination for the post of the minister of public works.   Two years later he is the minister of foreign affairs under Prime Minister Nowak.  He will soon be involved in a huge political storm in Poland.  Fascism casts a shadow on Poland

Eligiusz Niewiadomski is not just an artist.  He is also a critic and art theorist.  He studied in St. Petersburg, then lived in Paris.  Returning to Poland, the Tsar's men arrested him for being a member of the League of Nations.  In 1919 he became an official in the Ministry of Culture and Art.  Later he went into the army and worked in intelligence.  In 1920 he came back to the ministry.  He resigned from that position, but the reasons for it are unclear.  He is a nationalist. 

These two men will "meet for only a blink of an eye, at noon, December 16, 1922." 

Flashback.  Tuesday, November 22, 1922, day of the Seym (lower house of the Polish parliament) opening.  Jozef Pilsudski enters the room to loud applause.  He speaks about previous unrest in the Seym and hopes things will be calmer now.  Mister Rataj, the new Speaker of the Seym, is now called up to speak.  He says he will strive to be impartial in his relationships with the different political parties.  The National Assembly will meet December 9, at 12 o'clock to appoint the President of the Republic of Poland. 

Friday, December 8, 19223, the day before the election of the president.  Narutowicz and a major in the army are out horseback riding.  The major asks him about his candidacy for the presidency.  Narutowicz dismisses the subject and returns to his office.  There Stanislaw Thugutt asks him to run for his group for the presidency.  Narutowicz says he can't run from either list because he is a democrat and a radical and none of the parties agree with his views.  Thugutt tells him that Liberation won't vote for Wojciechowski.  He adds that the right-wing candidate Trabczynski is out of the question.  The left-wing holds the power for now, but they are against Jozef Pilsudski.  Then Thugutt asks what will Narutowicz do if his candidacy is put forward by the Liberation party?  Narutowicz doesn't like the idea, saying he can't be elected to the presidency.

At a discussion of the various candidates, the PPS party says it will push its own candidate, but will support the candidate agreed upon with Piast and Liberation parties. But Piast will not agree to Narutowicz and Liberation will not agree to Wojciechowski (from PPS).  One good thing about Narutowicz, some argue, is that he represents no party.   

At a dinner party Narutowicz says that Jozef Pilsudski does not want to run for the presidency, because the office does not have enough power compared to the Seym.  Pilsudski has also asked Narutowicz not to run for the presidency.  Furthermore, says Narutowicz, he himself doesn't want to be president. 

Back to the present.  Eligiusz Niewiadomski is asked if on December 16, he tried to assassinate President Narutowicz?  The assassin says he does not plead guilty. 

Flashback.  No one knows who is going to be elected to the presidency.  Everything is so uncertain. 

Saturday, December 9, 1922, the day of the president's election.  The left wing candidate is Witos.  The Piasts want him.  The candidates nominated for the presidency are:

Jan Boduin de Courtnay --  the National Minorities (German, Jews and others);

Ignacy Daszynski  --  the Polish Socialist party;

Gabriel Narutowicz  --  Liberty;

Stanislaw Wojciechowski  --  Piast;

Maurycy Zamojski  --  Christian National Unity Association.

Back to the present.  Eligiusz Niewiadomski says the shots that killed the president were actually meant for the head of state Pilsudski.  He adds that he wanted to poke the balloon of the bulging up of the socialist parties with the popularity of Pilsudski.   

Flashback.  The results of the first voting for the election of the president are Zamojski 222, Wojciechowski 105, Boduin 103, Narutowicz 62, Daszynski 49.   In the vote each party voted for its own candidate.  The second vote is Zamojski 228, Wojciechowski 152, Narutowicz 151 and 11 votes for the others.  The National Minorities went for Narutowicz.  Daszynski is dropped for only receiving one vote.  A third vote is called.  The talk is that it will come down to a fight between Zamojski and Narutowicz.  Zamojski is the biggest land owner in Poland, but some say that Narutowicz is not even Polish.

Narutowicz asks one of the politicians if this cannot be stopped.  No.  On the fifth vote Narutowicz gets 289; Zamojski 227.   Narutowicz will be the new president, if he accepts the position and he does accept it.  One of the politicians suggest that Narutowicz use the "covered" vehicle from the Council of Ministers, because everyone knows Narutowicz's personal car. 

Demonstrations for the right-wing start.  One man shouts:  "Away with the non-Polish president!"   Narutowicz goes home and tells his family he is the new president.  They are shocked, but very happy for him. 

Back to the present.  On Tuesday, December 5, Niewiadomski says he learned of the recent event that Jozef Pilsudski would not run for the presidency.  That was the time he decided not to assassinate Pilsudski. 

Flashback.  Narutowicz and his family go out in the ministry car.  The demonstrators spot the new president in the car and bang on the car in protest. 

Sunday, December 10, 1922.   The new president has an official portrait made.  The speaker of the Seym comes to tell the president that three right-wing parties have decided to boycott tomorrow's inauguration.  Half of the members won't appear in the Seym.  The speaker asks Narutowicz if he has any devoted followers like Pilsudski does?  No.  He will need such men in these times.  Narutowicz says he will say goodbye to his employees tomorrow and then come to the Seym for the ceremony.  Mr. Nowak will accompany him. 

A clergyman, who is a member of Seym, shouts out to the demonstrators that Narutowicz is a non-believer and not even a Pole.   He says it was all a trick done by Pilsudski's people  --  Bolsheviks and Jews!  The left-wing and the National Minorities! One speaker says that tomorrow they won't allow the MPs who betrayed Poland into the Seym!   Gen. Haller tells the crowd to make sure Narutowicz does not take the inaugural pledge!

Thugutt telephones Minister Kaminski.  He says that lawless students are stopping cars and accosting pedestrians.  Kaminski says these are not riots, but Thugutt insists they are. 

Narutowicz talks with the major with whom he rides horses and complains about the lackluster defense of him from the moderate and left-wing newspapers.  He says it's really a choice between the constitution and thuggery.  He says he is not afraid.  

Monday, December 11, 1922, the day of the President's pledge.  The right-wingers report that all the streets to the Seym are covered with their supporters.  They will make sure that Seym members of the left-wing will not be allowed in. According to them, maybe even Narutowicz will not be able to get to the Seym.  Gen. Haller gives the order to stop them.  Three non-right-wingers are literally kidnapped by the thugs of the right-wing.  They are kept captive in a building.  Two more Seym members are grabbed by the fascists.  They call out for the police, but the police just stand there.  One of the men is even beaten with a pipe. 

Because of the rioters, the new president is told he will have to skip his visit to the Ministry.  He should go straight to the Seym.  At first, the president protests, but he quickly gives in to the others.  The fascists in the street attack the communist leader and his bodyguards.  They next try to stop Count Przezdziecki, but he gets through because he has a gun and says he will use it.  The men around the president says they will need a bigger police escort.  The Light Squadron was supposed to escort the president, but they have not even arrived.

The count arrives. He urges the president to go through the back entrance to the Seym, because the front entrance is blocked.  The president refuses.  He says he will hide from no one.  Prime Minister Nowak has backed out of accompanying the president.  The rioters stop the car of a representative of Italy.  They let his car through.  One of the riot leaders shouts:  "Long live Mussolini!"


Part II. 

The Light Cavalry arrives finally.  The president gets into his carriage.  Accompanying him, is his old boss Stefan. 

Back to the present.  The assassin talks about Mussolini and against the Polish socialists.  One of the members of the Seym beaten by the fascists, tells the speaker of the Seym that this is dishonor!  "Over there, MPs call for beating up other MPs!"  The speaker only looks at his watch and says:  "It's late!" 

Flashback.  The light cavalry reach a barricade.  They start tearing it down.  The president and Stefan are pelted with snow balls.  The president gets through.  When he sees the counselor, the man tells Narutowicz to pay not attention to the mob.  The president replies:   "I would rather give my life away, then resign in those circumstances."  Inside the president receives a big applause.  The speaker presides over the pledge.  The president repeats the pledge after the speaker.  After the ceremony, many of the MPs denounce Minister of the Interior Kaminski for not providing police protection for the Seym.  Kaminski pushes the blame onto the chief of police.  They demand that he resign. 

The president will now be returned to his apartment.  Meanwhile, the fascists are preparing to greet the MPs coming from the Seym.  But a large group of workers come marching down the street where the fascists are.  They free the three kidnapped MPS.  A fight breaks out between the two groups.  The police just stand around and watch.  The flag holder is shot dead.  Others area shot and fall dead or wounded onto the streets. 

The president reads his hate mail from Polish fascists.  Pilsudski asks the Council of Ministers for the power to put the riots down.  Permission denied.  Tomorrow the army will enter Warsaw, but without Pilsudski.  Arguing begins.  One fellow says that Chjena's hit squad fired on the workers.  One was killed.  Darowski is the new Minister of the Interior.  The army has been ordered to use their weapons if they meet resistance.

Tuesday, December 12, 1922.    The communist MP speaks out against the reactionary fascists.  The president tells the prime minister that he wants to offer the post of the Minister of Foreign Affairs to his main opponent Maurycy Zamojski.  The prime minister says this will not bring him any support from the right-wing and will alienate the left-wing. 

Back to the present.  The assassin raves about things that are not relevant to the murder of the president. 

Flashback.  Thursday, December 14, 1922, the day of the handover of the state authority.  Pilsudski will hand over the authority to Narutowicz. 

The situation in the Seym is still very divided.  Both sides want the other side investigated for their use of violence.  Daszynski gets up and really balls out the fascist right-wing.  He says they are trying to ruin the Polish democracy and the constitution.  He says their fascism either dies in Poland or Poland will face civil war.  MP Stronski is the next speaker.  He tries to justify the actions of the fascists in the street and say that the fascist MPs had no hand in encouraging the violence. 

Friday, December 15, 1922, the first working day of the president.  Two men come from the Zacheta management board to ask if the president could come to the opening of their art gallery.  The counselor says that if the president decides to come, he will come at noon.  He also asks the two men to be discreet about the time and place.  "The situation is not yet peaceful."  The men say this will be difficult, so the counselor tells them they can tell the artists. 

Back to the present.    The assassin spouts off about Poland needing the strong arm of government, not the weak arm. 

Flashback.  The counselor asks the president if it would not be fitting to have his first public appearance at the art exhibition in Zacheta?  Prime Minister Nowak and Gen. Haller will be there.  The president agrees.  The counselor says he will make sure security measures are put in place.  The president replies:  "It will be safer, if the police don't know about it."

Saturday, December 16, 1922, 7 a.m.  The president has planned a return visit at the cardinal's and then a visit to Gallery Zacheta with Mr. Car.  He says it will be a pleasant day for him.  The counselor finds out that the police already know about the visit to Gallery Zacheta. 

Back to the present.  The assassin says Narutowicz didn't even exist for him.  As a man he was a good, honored man.  He only existed as a symbol of the political situation, and, therefore, a symbol of dishonor. 

Flashback.  The president stops an execution of a Ukrainian criminal.  It is 11 a.m. and the president must go.  He tells a man named Leopold that in case of some misfortune, he should take care of the children.  Leopold asks him:  "What misfortune?"  No answer is given. 

The president says goodbye to the cardinal.  He gets in the car and heads off for the gallery.  Gen. Haller arrives. 

The president arrives and the people gathered outside clap their hands for him.  Narutowicz makes a slight bow to them.  Inside the building, the president starts climbing the steps.  He starts looking at the paintings on the wall.  All of a sudden, shots are heard.  Eligiusz Niewiadomski holds a pistol in his hand.  He stands quite still.  As he is grabbed, the assassin says he won't shoot again.  A doctor comes to examine the president and says he's dead.  Someone balls out Gen. Haller about being responsible for the president's death with his hateful speeches. 

The funeral is held. 

Back to the present.  The crazed assassin admits that the president didn't do anything to dishonor the country, but he was a symbol of the dishonoring of the nation.  He admits he committed premeditated murder. 

Flashback.  The funeral continues.  After the burial, the National Assembly elected a new president.  Stanislaw Wojciechowski was chosen. 

Back to the present.  Eligiusz Niewiadomski was sentenced to death on December 30, 1922.  He was shot dead by a firing squad. 


Spoiler Warning.  Good movie.  The political discussions in the parliament were a bit slow and it was almost impossible to keep the political parties straight.  Nevertheless, the film really picked up as the assassination approached.  So, overall, I enjoyed it.  It's a lot better than I thought it would be.  It was interesting that fascism started so early in Poland.  This is especially interesting, because fascist Germany would soon bring death and destruction, as well as the Holocaust, to Poland.  Of course, the fascists of Poland did not like the national minorities, especially the Jews, and there were a lot of anti-Semitic remarks by the politicians.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


1863  --  1863 Uprising.  After the uprising, Russification was more strongly enforced.

1865 (March 17)  -- birth Gabriel Narutowicz in Telšiai, Lithuania.

1866  --  death of Gabriel's father. 

1873 ---  his mother moved to Liepaja, Latvia, so her sons would not have to attend a Russian school.

1887 to 1891 – Gabriel studied at the Zurich Polytechnic, Switzerland.  There he helped Poles who were on the run from the Russian authorities. Because of this he was banned from returning to Poland. The Russian issued a warrant for his arrest.

1895 – Gabriel Narutowicz became a Swiss citizen.

After completing his studies, he worked on the construction of the St. Gallen railway as a construction engineer.

1895 – Gabriel became a chief of works on the River Rhine. Later he was hired by the Kurstein technical office.

1896 – Gabriel’s works were exhibited at the International Exhibition in Paris. Later he became a pioneer of electrification in Switzerland.

1907 – Gabriel became a professor at ETH Zurich, in the water construction institute in Zurich.

1913-1919 – he was dean of ETH Zurich.

1915 – he was chosen chairman of the International Committee for regulation of the River Rhine.

World War I – Gabriel cooperated with the General Swiss Committee to help victims of the war in Poland.

1918 (November 3) – Polish independence is proclaimed.

1919 – the Treaty of Versailles confirms Polish independence.

1919 (September) – Narutowicz is invited to return to Poland by the Polish government.

1920 (June 23) – Gabriel arrives in Poland. He becomes the Minister of Public Works in Włladysłlaw Grabski’s government. He keeps that job until June 26, 1922, working under first Włladysłlaw Grabski, then Wincenty Witos and the first and the second government of Antoni Ponikowski).

He works on building up Poland. He reorganizes the reconstruction administration and increases it efficiency.

1921 – almost 270,000 buildings are rebuilt, plus over 300 bridges.

He is a member of the government in every subsequent cabinet in a period of constant government crises.

1921 – the March Constitution of Poland says the president would be chosen by the National Assembly.

1922 (April) – Narutowicz participates in an international conference in Genoa where he plays a key role.

1922 (June 28) – Gabriel becomes the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Artur ŚSliwińnski’s governmen and then in the government of Julian Ignacy Nowak.

1922 (October) – he represents Poland at a conference in Tallinn.

1922 – elections to Parliament; Gabriel supports the National Public Union connected with Józef Piłlsudski. He becomes a candidate of Public Union on Eastern Borderland, but fails to get a seat in the Parliament.

He remains the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the government of Julian Nowak.

1922 (December) – becomes one of the candidates in the presidential elections for the Polish People's Party "Wyzwolenie".

After many rounds of voting, Gabriel becomes the first president of the Second Polish Republic.

This was a big shock to the right wing in Poland. Catholic and nationalist groups aggressively oppose him. Some in the press called him "the Jewish president". Right wing General Józef Haller criticizes his relations with and support of Józef Piłlsudski. Anti-government demonstrations take place in Warsaw.

1922 (December 11) – Gabriel is sworn in. (He would be president for only five days.) During the swearing-in ceremony, demonstrators try to stop the president-elect from getting to Parliament by blocking the streets.

Narutowicz realizes it’s impossible to form a majority government in Parliament. (He makes an attempt to create a government beyond the purview of parliament.) To cool the hatred of the right wing, he offers the post of minister of foreign affairs to his rival, Maurycy Zamoyski.

1922 (December 16) – Narutowicz is shot at 12:00 a.m. in the National Gallery of Art by painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski (who had connections with the National Democratic Party). Narutowicz dies.  The assassin is declared a hero.

1923 (January 31) – the assassin is executed on the slopes of the Warsaw Citadel.

mid 1920s to mid 1930s – the Polish government is under the control of Józef Piłlsudski, the politically-moderate independence movement leader. The man also engineered the defeat of the Soviet forces.

1922 (December 16) - 1922 (December 20)  --  Maciej Rataj was the temporary president of Poland. 

1922 (December 20) - 1926 (May 14)  --  reign of president Stanislaw Wojciechowski (deposed in the May Coup of 1926).

1926 (May 12-14)  --  coup d'etat led by Field Marshal Józef Piłsudski overthrew the government of Poland.   It was replaced by h a new government headed by the Lwow Polytechnic Professor, Kazimierz Bartel and the Sanacja political movement.  Piłsudski refused to take the Presidency.  Ignacy Moscicki became the new president, but Piłsudski was the behind-the-scenes dictator of Poland. 

1926 (June 1) - 1939 (September 30)  --  reign of president Ignacy Moscicki. 

1926-1935  --  Field Marshal Józef Piłsudski was the de facto ruler of Poland until his death in 1935.  

1939 (September 1)  --  German and Soviet invasion of Poland. 


Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)