Film Exhibition in Warsaw in 1913

A Bottom-up Three-perspectival View of Early Cinema in the Multinational Russian Empire

Karina Pryt
In the first two decades, when cinema was developing worldwide from a novelty into an entertainment industry, Warsaw belonged to the multinational Romanov empire. Located at its western borders, this Polish city was an important transportation and trade hub and became also a site of the domestic film industry with all its branches – production, distribution, and exhibition. The new medium had a special appeal, and it has always been assumed that the cinema was a social place where people of different classes and ethnicities came together. This article looks at the development of the local cinema market and explores the participation of the local Russian, Polish and Jewish populations. Inspired by the New Cinema History (NCH), it takes its contraposition from the traditional film historiography that uses a top-down approach as a method and the national paradigm as a defining category. Instead, it gives a three-perspectival view utilising a variety of sources including a collection of cinema programmes in three languages from 1913. Based on that, it maps screening venues with QGIS and analysis of cinema programmes, shedding new light onto the complex cinema culture of the city that was called Varshava (Варшава) in Russian, Warszawa in Polish, and Varshe in Yiddish.
Warsaw; Early Cinema; New Cinema History, GIS; Congress Poland; Russian Empire; Yiddish.


State of Research and Methodological Approach

Sources and Source Criticism






Suggested Citation


Film screenings in the era of early cinema, which spanned from the 1890s to 1915, were very different from today's practice. Produced for the broadest possible audience and transnational circulation, the silent films were shown on location under unequal conditions of both time and place. Accompanied by music, an ‘announcer’ and much public involvement, the screenings had more of a resemblance to live performances. They could vary from cinema to cinema and be subjected to the narrator's style and the audience's spontaneous reactions. Compiled from what was available on the market with respect to the target audiences, cinema programs consisted of a range of films of different lengths and genres. Longer feature films, produced from 1907 initially in France, later also in Denmark, Italy, the USA, Germany, the Russian Empire, and other countries, were still shown together with newsreels, travelogues and sports films. Individual full-length films came onto the market in 1913 but became standard only in the course of the First World War.

This article aims to examine film exhibitions in Warsaw based on a sample from 1913 when both formats still existed. The year 1913 was chosen for pragmatic reasons because around that time newspapers were pushing cinema programmes more regularly than before, allowing for the establishment of a sufficient empirical basis for this study. At this time, the capital of present-day Poland was still under Russian rule and had an ethnically differentiated population with Russians, Poles, Jews, and other groups living mostly side by side separated by language, religion, occupation, and settlement. The relationships between these three aforementioned largest groups were complex and sometimes tense. Nonetheless, social boundaries between them were not always fixed and definite, as there were numerous intersections in the economic and cultural spheres.

To capture the particularities and differences of these early shows poses a challenge, because, much to a historian's chagrin, they rarely received attention in the press, diaries, or memoirs. A rare trace of these elusive events can be found in cinema programmes that were published in local daily newspapers only occasionally at first, but more regularly over time. Such press entries, which provide film titles and sometimes also additional information on genre or stars, are commonly used in film studies as the only source of knowledge about the films themselves when researching early cinema. Information about the locations of the screenings with their individual programmes has also been extracted from these sources. However, only the application of digital tools allows for the utilisation of such scattered press entries for a systematic and detailed investigation into cinema operations in areas with ethnically mixed populations.

Therefore, my objective is to use the Geographical Information System QGIS (formerly Quantum-GIS) for mapping the early film shows in Warsaw against the local social and cultural setting. The aim is also to embed this local study in the broader geopolitical, structural, and economic framework. First, the rise of cinema in Warsaw is presented within its geographical and political contexts, and the structural preconditions for film distribution and screenings are explained. Next, this article queries how films were selected and promoted: were they targeted at all patrons, regardless of their background, or were they organised along the existing boundaries reflecting interethnic tensions and conflicts? The empirical basis for this article consists of cinema programmes from 1913, from the Russian Varshavskaia mysl' (Варшавская Mысль), the Polish Kurier poranny, and the Yiddish Haynt ().

Given the preliminary stage of this research, the study does not claim to be exhaustive but provides an overview and identifies trends. However, this bottom-up three-perspectival approach offers new observations on both film exhibition and inter-ethnic relations in the divided city that was called Varshava (Варшава) in Russian, Warszawa in Polish, and Varshe in Yiddish.

State of Research and Methodological Approach

This article, placed at the intersection between film studies and history, benefits from a large body of works from various disciplines. Methodologically, it strives to overcome the mainstream of research within the humanities, which is oriented around the framework of the nation-state. This line of research is indebted to the national narrative that emerged in Europe in the 19th century and has long dominated the scientific programmes of the social sciences and humanities. Based on the assumption that modern societies aspire to the distant goal of a homogeneous nation-state, this narrative adopts the inclusive and exclusive practices of national development. Elements such as national minorities or transnational networks that do not fit into this narrative are consequently not taken into account (Conrad and Randeria 2002).

Focused as it is on issues linked to the production and content of films, traditional film history has also been written according to the outlines of national narratives. Central to this are works representing the Polish perspective (Balcerzak 1928; Jewsiewicki 1951, 1966; Banaszkiewicz and Witczak 1966; Banaszkiewicz 1955; Zajiček 2009, 2015; Lubelski 2009; Lubelski and Stroiński 2009; Haltof 2002) and those written from the Soviet Russian perspective (Likhachev 1927; Ginzburg 1963; Vishnevskii 1945). It must be noted here that many of these influential works were written during the Soviet period, which also affected the representation of national minorities in these film industries. Following the example of the Soviet Union, its satellite states (like the Polish People's Republic) after 1945 officially promoted the idea of internationalism, but in practice leaned towards nationalism to gain political approval at home. They also replaced the initial official support for the founding of Israel with an anti-Zionist stance in 1948, which is why the Jews as part of Polish History were rendered taboo or, in the best case, marginalised in the historical narratives well into the 1980s (Zaremba 2001, 2019).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this perspective was challenged by contributions from Jewish studies that highlighted the input of Jews to the Polish film industry (Gross 2002; Hoberman 2010; Silber 2012, 2015; Bauer 2017). This issue has been also stressed in further works (Mazur 2007, 2009, 2015, 2016b, 2016a, Pryt 2013), and the Jewish involvement in cinema in Ukraine has been similarly underlined (Morozov and Derevjanko 2004). Furthermore, another study has looked at the share of all non-Russians in Russian film production (Drubek 2021), adding significant momentum to earlier works (Youngblood 1999, 2005; Drubek 2012).

The focus on the production and content of films has been challenged by cinema historiographies conducted for the Polish lands (Hendrykowska 1993, 1997, 2003, 2008, 2016; Biskupski 2013, 2016, 2009; Dębski 2016, 2015, 2013). Studies about the Russian exhibition and market (Tsivian 1994; Flickinger 2006, 2001, 2008; Kovalova and Tsivian 2011; Kovalova 2016). However, none of these works has examined cinemas’ locations and programmes in relation to differentiated audiences. Without empirical proof, it has been believed that the same films were shown and watched by all classes (Hendrykowska 1993: 99). Furthermore, ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences and divisions have been either unnoticed or considered to be irrelevant in this form of entertainment. In some cases, cinemas were described as places where languages and cultures met and intermingled (Biskupski 2013: 107), however, omitting to discuss this issue within the larger context of the persisting interethnic conflicts.

Conversely, the previously broadly represented notion of cinema as an alternative, classless and unifying public sphere has already been challenged by far-reaching examinations into venue locations, programmes, and socio-geographies of cinema-going initiated in the USA. It has been demonstrated that film shows, like other forms of consumption, were conditioned by issues linked to class, ethnicity and religion (Hansen 1990, 1991; Thissen 2012, 2001, 1999, 2014), with the strongest segregation between social spaces for white and black residents (Allen 2011: 50). Expanding this line of research, the New Cinema History (NCH) deliberately counterposes traditional film history and considers film screenings as distinct cultural and social phenomena anchored in the particularities of time and space (Maltby, Biltereyst, and Meers 2011: 34). This multidisciplinary approach, which intersects with economics, geography, social history, and anthropology, also opened up to more quantitative and systematic research methods and the use of digital tools. Most of the research has been done for the post-World War II period, but this innovative method has revived film history in the earlier epochs. The identification of cinema locations has been considered important, and a few new cinema historians introduced mapping with Geographic Information System (GIS) to the field quite early (Verhoeven, Bowles, and Arrowsmith 2009; Allen 2011; Klenotic 2011). This application has inspired some further works (Verhoeven, Bowles, and Arrowsmith 2009; Klenotic 2011, 2014, 2019, 2020; Horak 2016; Porubcanská 2018; Noordegraaf et al. 2021; Biltereyst, van Oort, and Meers 2019), including mapping cinema topographies in conjunction with demographic data on dialects as a starting point for drawing conclusions about potential early cinema audiences in Amsterdam (Verhoeven, Bowles, and Arrowsmith 2009; Noordegraaf et al. 2021).

Inspired by this strand of NCH, my article is a continuation of a previous investigation (Pryt 2022, 2023) and also builds upon research into the local history of Warsaw (Gawryszewski 2009; Szwankowski 1963; Pietrzak-Pawłowska 1973; Corrsin 1989, 1990, 1998). To set this local study within the larger historical political and social context, it uses specific investigations into the Russian rule in Warsaw (Rolf 2015) and the local Jewish community (Ury 2012; Blobaum 2001, 2017; Weiser 2015). Finally, when interpreting cinema programmes, the article takes advantage of the rich studies on Early Cinema from the USA and Western Europe (Gunning 1990; Abel 2005; Haller 2016; Loiperdinger and Haller 2016; Garncarz 2016, 2015, 2010; Elsaesser 1992, 2002).

Sources and Source Criticism

This study draws on a broad collection of sources in three languages, compiled and sifted through with the assistance of digitisation, which has made a considerable volume of databases, library, and archive collections available online. The ongoing shift from analogue to digital research methods has made it possible to create this empirical base without having to leave the comfort of the office. However, compiling the data from historical sources in the three languages still requires a considerable amount of work, which could be done only with the help of my student assistants. Anna Mendzheritskaya assisted me with the Polish newspapers as well as with the Russian newspapers and film trade journals, while Melanie Haag supported me in researching the Yiddish newspapers.

The Russian Varshavskaia mysl' (Warsaw Thought) and the Polish Kurier poranny (Morning Courier) were digitised and made available online by the University Library of Warsaw (Crispa): Similarly, the Yiddish Haynṭ (Today) was digitalised in a joint initiative between the National Library of Israel and Tel Aviv University, and is accessible on the website Historical Jewish Press: Historical Jewish Press ( Furthermore, data mining methods have been applied to the imposing collection of Russian film periodicals, assembled by Rashit ​​Yangirov and provided online by the commercial international academic publisher Brill: The leading journal Sine Fono provided the most accurate data on cinema topography that was used for mapping along with a historical map and statistical data on local demography (Wakar 1916).

The cinema programmes, which are the main reference source for this study, were surveyed in all three newspapers on a daily basis from a sample taken from 1913. Compiled in an Excel spreadsheet, the collection of film listings comprises almost four thousand entries. This collection does not reflect the number of films or the number of screenings. Therefore, this dataset does not allow for an exact reconstruction of film exhibitions in Warsaw. However, after a critical evaluation of the sources and methods used, tendencies and broad outlines can certainly be discerned.

It must be considered here that only the Yiddish Haynt can be assumed to have an ethnically homogeneous readership, while both Varshavskaia mysl' and Kurier poranny could also have relied on Jewish patrons who were linguistically acculturated into Russian or Polish respectively. Furthermore, the dataset does not reflect all film shows, which were screened. One reason for this is that some issues are unavailable, as they were confiscated by the authorities. Another is that due to Jewish religious observance, there were no Saturday editions of Haynt, which does not necessarily mean that no Jewish viewers went to the cinema that day. Likewise, it must be considered that people spontaneously went to the cinema without having read the advertisements in the press. Furthermore, there were also cinema owners who preferred not to spend money on advertisements, while others who invested in press advertisements did not do so regularly. Some advertisements mentioned all the film titles shown in a programme, others only selected ones, while some only announced an upcoming programme change without adding titles. Moreover, one must be aware that the high number of hits results from both recurrences and overlaps. The recurrences arose from the fact that the same title could be advertised by the same venue in the same newspaper for several days. After a certain time, the film could be shown in another cinema that announced it again in the same newspaper. To compound this issue, the same title could appear in the three newspapers in three different language versions.

Given the amount of data, the allocation of all language versions and the identification of all films is beyond the capacity of this article. Selected representative examples were identified using online databases. The Polish Film Polski provides data on domestic productions (, while the German Early Cinema Database gives information on film supply and distribution in Germany that is also applicable to other countries at this time (

Infrastructure of Film Supply and Exhibition in the Westernmost Metropolis of the Russian Empire

Until the outbreak of World War I, the cinema market in the Polish lands unfolded within the geopolitical parameters initiated by the partitioning of Poland in the late 18th century. Disconnected from other territories of the former Polish state, which were ruled by the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, the local film market in Warsaw was incorporated into the regional structure of the Russian-governed Congress Poland, which had been established in 1815 and had autonomy within the Russian Empire only until 1863. Constituting a sub-region within the legal and economic system of the Romanov empire, Congress Poland represented one of the most densely populated, militarily strategic, and economically important peripheries of the empire. Its political centre, Warsaw, ranked third after St. Petersburg and Moscow in relation to size with a population of 845,000 in 1913. Privileged, but constituting a minority of only about 4 per cent, the mostly Orthodox Russians faced a majority population of 56 per cent of Catholic Poles, followed by a Jewish population that made up 38 per cent (Wakar 1916: 9). They were mainly Polish Jews and Jewish newcomers, called Litvaks, from Lithuania or other European parts of the Romanov Empire, belonging to the Ashkenazim branch of Judaism. Speaking different Yiddish dialects, both latter groups differed also in terms of their religious practices and degree of acculturation into the language and culture of the Poles and Russians respectively (Weiser 2015: 310).

Densely populated Warsaw was also an important transportation and trade hub on the mainland in the far west of the Russian Empire. As such, it benefited from faster train connections to France, the cradle of the European film industry, and hosted the first screenings in the winter of 1895/6 (Zajiček 2009: 11). Nevertheless, Warsaw was superseded by other cities in the European part of the empire as the nascent film industry in the Russian Empire was consolidated. Its centre arose in the Empire’s second-largest city, Moscow, where Pathé-Frères launched its first Russian subsidiary as early as 1904, laying the foundation for film production in the Russian Empire. Expanding its distribution network, Pathé-Frères opened additional offices in the port cities and trade hubs of St. Petersburg (1905) and Odesa (1906) but did not move into Warsaw until 1908. Viewed from this perspective, Congress Poland was on the outskirts of the Russian Empire’s film market. Consequently, Warsaw exhibitors had to travel to Moscow or St. Petersburg to obtain films. They were almost exclusively French titles, which had already been exploited on the Russian market (Balcerzak 1928: 10).

By that time, the Polish territories of the empire, like other parts of the Russian Empire, were recovering from political unrest linked to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 and the revolutionary upheavals lasting from 1905 to 1907. After the Tsar had conceded to the sharing of his autocratic power with a newly established parliament (Duma) in May 1906, the situation in the economic and cultural sectors improved gradually, although political repression, which was very harsh in the Polish lands, continued. The number of death sentences remained consistently high until 1909, and banishments peaked in 1907-1908 when more than 8,500 people were forced to leave their homeland (Rolf 2015: 376).

Despite this, the introduction of relative political liberalisation, accompanied by some new freedoms for national minorities the following year, brought a surge of modernisation and accelerated social transformation, which had started earlier, throughout the empire. This process was particularly dynamic in the Congress Kingdom of Poland, where Poles and Jews were given limited rights, such as the reintroduction of the Polish language in the administration and in state schools (for some subjects) and the lifting of the ban on Yiddish, respectively. After the sanctions imposed on assemblies were also lifted, both population groups strengthened their social self-organisation creating parallel institutional structures. Therefore, running along ethnic lines, this cultural and social upswing deepened the borders and intensified the conflict between the local Russian, Polish and Jewish communities (Rolf 2015: 393, 402).

The cinema boom, which had begun in urban areas of North America and Western Europe in 1905-06, started in the Kingdom of Poland in 1907-08 (Hendrykowska 1993), coinciding with this general economic, social and cultural upsurge. This revival was accompanied by growing inter-ethnic tensions with Polish-Jewish confrontations becoming more common. The long-standing threat narratives of over-alienation and Polish marginalisation were given a new twist with the Polish polemics against the influx of Jewish migrants taking on an increasingly sharp tone from 1909 onwards. There were heated debates about the proportion of Jewish residents, and their perceived dominance in real estate, trade and industry, and the question of who owns Warsaw regularly came up in these debates (Rolf 2012: 400).

These campaigns were also directed against cinemas as many of them were run by Jewish entrepreneurs. Right-wing dailies and many satirical newspapers advocated boycotting these cinemas and placing them in the hands of Christian entrepreneurs. The fiercest hostility was directed against Mordechai A. Towbin (1872- ca. 1920), a merchant from Zaslavl in Volhynia (in present-day Ukraine), who had run a centrally located cinema at 118 Marszałkowska Street since 1907 and opened the first distribution office Siła a year later (Pryt 2023). Less resentment was addressed towards Aleksander Hertz (1879-1928) who came from an acculturated Jewish family from Warsaw and founded a cinema and distribution company Sfinks next to Towbin’s venue at 116 Marszałkowska Street in 1909.

Alongside these local companies, which were the most established, other distribution offices opened, resulting in the regional market becoming more independent. Films were bought abroad, primarily in Paris or Berlin, bypassing the Moscow distributors. Now agents from film production companies based in the Russian part of the Empire, mostly in Moscow, came to Warsaw to sell their pictures directly to local distributors. After consulting with cinema owners about their purchases, the distributors would pay in advance (Balcerzak 1928: 11). Best placed to understand the local situation, both distributors and cinema owners decided which films would appear in the Warsaw market.

In addition, because they understood local cultural preferences better than the Russian outsiders, some Warsaw-based entrepreneurs went into production themselves in 1908; and this gained momentum in 1911, giving birth to a distinct domestic film industry. With Towbin and Hertz leading the way again, the local producers released features based on either the culture of Catholic Poles or that of Ashkenazi Jews. The latter were the most profitable because they could also be widely disseminated in other areas of the Empire.

Nevertheless, with little more than a hundred cinemas (Jasielski 1958: 71), the Kingdom of Poland took only a subordinate position within the Russian Empire’s film market, which had about 1500 cinemas in 1913 (Youngblood 2005: 556). A Russian trade journal explained the lag of the regional Polish cinema market by its geographical position on the edge of the empire’s film market, bureaucratic hurdles and the relatively high taxes charged for screenings (Anon. 1911: 12).

Conversely, in relation to the Polish lands, the local market in Warsaw had the highest expenditure on cinemas amounting to "several million roubles per year", as reported in 1914 by a newly established Polish trade film journal (Anon. 1914: 2-3). This demand was met neither by local production, which released over 50 features until 1913 nor by the production of other companies in the empire, which rose rapidly from 19 (1909) to 129 (1913) (Youngblood 2005: 556). As in other parts of the Empire, most films shown were still foreign. The leading pioneers Pathé Frères and Gaumont faced rising competition from French companies, Eclair and Film d'Art, the Danish Nordisk, the American Vitagraph and the Italian Cines and Ambrosio (Anon. 1914: 2-3). According to Youngblood, more than 1,000 imported films were shown on screens throughout the Empire in the period 1912 – 1914 (Youngblood 2005: 558).

These films first required approval by Russian imperial censorship, which was strict compared to other European countries (Youngblood 2005). While earlier research claimed it was mainly religious (Tsivian 1992), more recent studies show a much broader spectrum of regulations and practices (Drubek 2012: 128-144). They conclude that censorship was primarily politically motivated, and issues of morality, sexuality, suicide or violence in the arts rarely bothered the censors. Accordingly, the police only occasionally confiscated offensive material, but more often let themselves be bribed (Youngblood 2005: 559). In further support of this, the Russian film trade press reported that despite special censorship of titles with pornographic content, these films were still found in cinemas (Anon. 1912: 22-23).

The same was true for Warsaw, where bribes were occasionally imposed for films regarded as pornographic (Anon. 1909: 4). Furthermore, there was a ban on topics that portrayed the Polish striving for independence, which is why Towbin’s first production Pruska kultura / Prussian Culture (1908) was prohibited. Moreover, beyond state regulation, Catholic Church dignitaries reviewed any depictions of religious content. For example, the adaptation of Stefan Żeromski's novel of the same name Dzieje grzechu / History of Sin (1911), which was the most popular film of the year (Dębski 2015), was eventually withdrawn from cinemas in Warsaw in September due to its portrayal of Catholic saints (Anon. 1912: 22-23).

Mapping film shows in the divided city of three nations

Given the commercial nature of screenings, it can be assumed that cinema operators aimed to reach the widest possible audience. However, the question is whether all venues targeted Russian, Polish and Jewish patrons equally, or whether there were certain preferences in this respect. Considering the limitations outlined in the source criticism, an attempt is made here to identify some striking features and patterns by mapping cinemas whose programmes appeared in the three daily newspapers Varshavskaia mysl', Kurier poranny and Haynt. The first step was to create a cinema topography based on the list published in Sine-fono (15 October 1911: 2) and supplemented by ads from the local daily press. The entries from each of the three newspapers were then assigned to the respective cinemas, which were labelled with their names accordingly. Consequently, three different topographies of cinema advertisements were created that allow the first conclusions to be drawn.

Topography of cinema listings in Kurier poranny 1913 created in QGIS.
Topography of cinema listings in Varshavskaia mysl' 1913 created in QGIS.