Five Minutes With… Michał Rogalski

Five Minutes With… Michał Rogalski

January 30, 2024

Five Minutes with

The director of Polish spy thriller The Bay of Spies discusses the real-life inspirations behind the 1940s-set series, his directorial approach and how he seeks to distinguish his work from other filmmakers.

Second World War thriller The Bay of Spies opens in 1940s Gdynia, where young Nazi officer Franz Neumann discovers his real father was Polish.

Using this information to his advantage, he becomes a spy for the Allies and is tasked to obtain information about the Germany navy, leading him to become embedded in the German elite.

Debuting earlier this month on Polish broadcaster TVP, the nine-part series is produced by Akson Studio, with a screenplay co-written by Michał Godzic (Chasing Dreams) and Wojciech Lepianka (My Father’s Bike).

DQ caught up with director Michał Rogalski to discuss the inspiration behind Franz’s story and the challenges of creating an authentic period drama.

Director Michał Rogalski on set filming The Bay of Spies

What inspired you to make The Bay of Spies?
Franz Neumann is a fictional character. We didn’t have any real characters that led us to tell this story, but one important thing to know is the history of [Polish city] Gdansk, and then the character of Franz Neumann becomes clearer. Gdansk and the Pomeranian region was always contested between Poland and Germany. Until 1793, it was Polish land, then it became German land until 1920 and then a free city. The population of the city was very mixed, and so the identity of the people there was extremely mixed.

Franz Neumann didn’t exist exactly, but there were tens of thousands of Franz Neumanns who were suddenly discovering their mixed identity. During the time of the Nazis, this national identity became very important, especially for Germans, because they could separate the German nationals from the Poles or the Jews. For people like Franz Neumann discovering they were mixed, it was a burden and a source of moral and emotional tension.

Why was it an important story to tell?
This is important for today. Dictatorships like uniformity; they like to keep things pretty simple. Democracy, on the other hand, is more anarchistic and chaotic, but that’s the power of democratic societies. They are different, quarrelling, but they are more flexible and self-conscious. In dictatorships, you give part of your identity to the regime and you don’t have to have internal moral doubts. In a democracy, you have to choose by yourself. That may be a moral for the whole story.

When the Germans invaded Poland, particularly this region, they immediately executed Polish intelligentsia. They cut the head off of society, or so they thought, which makes this choice for Franz to commit to his Polish descent even tougher.

The Polish series stars Bartosz Gelner as a Nazi officer who becomes a spy for the Allies

What was your approach behind the camera in filming the spy thriller?
The spy thriller is always only about emotions, and people like spy thrillers because you can meet the ultimate danger, the ultimate emotion of fear.  You have two approaches [to making a spy thriller]. One is like James Bond, the other is like a John le Carré novel, where the spies are not super elegant in tuxedos but rather sweaty, tired people who have to do jobs that are difficult and boring, and also super dangerous. One of my favourite films is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [based on the le Carré book of the same name].

Given those examples, we were not exactly able to shoot a super-realistic spy story. We had to keep a line between those two genres, because I wouldn’t like this to just be a James Bond situation. We decided it should be quite spectacular – the scenery, the beaches, the beautiful city – but on the other hand, Franz has this heavy burden and finds himself in dangerous spy situations. We had to find the middle ground between those circumstances. What it became is partly a pop TV series but also a pretty realistic psychological, emotional drama.

What were the creative and technical challenges you faced realising this historically authentic period drama?
As usual, the modernity. You have to find angles without plastic windows, modern benches and lamp posts. But the world is changing, aesthetics are changing. You can’t find any preserved, ready-to-film locations. Some time ago, I spoke to Maria Djurkovic, the set designer for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Ferrari, and she had the same issues, with budgets way bigger than ours.

Some things you can fix in CGI. It’s normal practice now that you don’t take out satellite dishes or anything like that because they can be easily removed by the computer. But it is a little more difficult if you have a building with hundreds of windows and half of them are clearly plastic, so you have to deal with those and do a lot of research about what the lamp posts and benches should look like. I tend to think that big budgets can damage the artistic imagination. Sometimes imagination works better than millions of dollars. You have to find the small cracks in modernity to find the right angle for the camera.

Akson Studio produces the nine-parter for local broadcaster TVP

How is the genre growing in popularity in Poland?
Last year we had a spy drama set in Communist Poland, and a couple of years back we had a contemporary spy story. It’s popular with the audience but it’s not popular [with television producers] because it’s super expensive – and the further back in time you go, the more expensive it becomes. But The Bay of Spies was great fun to make. First of all, with my DOP Maciej Lisiecki, we are always looking for inspiration for pictures, for photographs, for works of art that can bring an atmosphere of the period to the drama. We decided to base our aesthetic on the cinema noir of the 1940s, which is quite appropriate to this period. It worked fantastically for spy dramas.

We were also searching for landmark buildings in Gdynia and Gdansk so it could be easily recognisable but would also give the right atmosphere of the city. In Gdansk we have the Amsterdam-style buildings. If we’re talking about Gdynia, we’re going for modernism. It works quite well creating the right atmosphere of these places. And it was fun because building the sense of imminent danger on screen and all these moral and fears and tensions within the character is always tempting for actors to play. The more emotional it is, the more they like it.

You’ve worked on a lot in Polish television. How is Poland facing current industry challenges?
There is nothing super specific about Poland. It’s a question for the whole industry in Europe. Whether it’s Poland, France or Britain, it’s just a question of scale. We are doing a little bit less because we have a smaller market. But the problems stay the same. The good thing is technology, for example, made this whole project generally look good.

If you look at TV shows from the 90s or 80s, they were usually shot on 16mm film and they looked bad. There’s a very big distinction between films and TV series. Right now, we are shooting on exactly the same equipment, the same cameras and the same lenses, with the same amount of light. Of course, there is a certain trap, because all productions look the same right now. So there is some necessity, for me personally, to distinguish my work from other projects. That’s why we’re looking for crazy lenses. For this project, we shot on Japanese anamorphic lenses from the 70s, which gave it a very distinctive and retro look. That’s how you try to find your personality in a very uniform world.

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