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Toeplitz, Jerzy Bonawentura (1909–1995)

by Steve Ahern

This article was published online in 2019

Jerzy Bonawentura Toeplitz (1909—1995), film-maker, critic, and educator, was born on 24 November 1909 at Kharkov (Kharkiv), Russian Empire (Ukraine), one of four children of Jewish parents Teodor Toeplitz and his wife Halina, née Odrzywolska. The family moved to Warsaw in 1910, where Teodor, a social activist and town planner, was a member of the Warsaw city council (1919). Jerzy studied law at the University of Warsaw (LLM, 1933) but never practised. In 1930 he co-founded the Society for the Promotion of Film Art, an avant-garde group that used cinema to express political viewpoints. During the 1930s he co-directed a number of leftist films, including The Loves of a Dictator (1935) and The Beloved Vagabond (1936), and he also wrote film reviews. He married Izabella Gornicka in 1943. Neither expected to survive World War II.

The Polish film industry was nationalised in 1945 establishing Film Polski as the sole body producing and distributing films. Toeplitz worked as head of the scriptwriting office. Later, as founding professor (1948–68) and rector (1949–52, 1957–68) of the Lodz Film School, he played a crucial role in developing the curriculum that inspired film-makers such as Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski. His work at the school laid the foundation for Poland’s internationally successful film industry and the ‘intellectual renaissance’ (Dannatt 1995) of the country, but his time as rector was not without incident. He was temporarily removed from his position for being ‘politically incorrect’ (Jones and Walton 1995, 16) in 1952 and, following his support for student protests in 1968, he was dismissed. At the time, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency suggested that he was purged because he was Jewish. From 1968 to 1972 he was director of the film section at the Institute of Art in the state-sponsored Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw.

Toeplitz served as president of the International Federation of Film Archives (1946–72) and on numerous international film juries including the first and second Moscow International Film Festivals (1959, 1961) and Cannes Film Festival (1958, 1968). In 1970 he was approached by representatives of the Australian Interim Council for a National Film and Television Training School, Barry Jones and Phillip Adams, who were undertaking an international search for a founding director of the planned school. Toeplitz had spent 1967 as a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The chairman of UCLA’s department of theatre arts, Colin Young, strongly recommended Toeplitz to Adams and Jones, describing him as ‘the single most experienced film school administrator in the world’ (NAA A1838). Toeplitz visited Australia for three weeks at the end of 1970 as a consultant. In his view, film and television were ‘instruments of enlightenment’ designed to aid in ‘cultural development’; his report stressed that only the most ‘skilled, cultivated and intelligent’ (NAA A5908) people were suited to the task of creative film-making.

Returning to Australia in 1973, Toeplitz was appointed the first director of the Sydney-based National Film and Television Training School (later the Australian Film Television and Radio School—AFTRS). The author of an authoritative multi-volume history of world cinema, he published Hollywood and After: The Changing Face of American Cinema in 1973. His combination of intellectual rigour and practical proficiency inspired his students to re-energise the Australian film industry, fulfilling the aims of the government in starting a national, university-level film, television, and radio training institution. Among the first students admitted after a rigorous selection process were Gillian Armstrong, Phillip Noyce, Chris Noonan, and Jane Campion. Their subsequent success strengthened Australian culture against the proliferation of imported content. Toeplitz retired in 1979 and returned to Poland. The Australian Film Institute (later Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts) honoured him with its Raymond Longford award for lifetime achievement in 1979. He was appointed AO in 1985 and received an honorary doctorate from the Lodz Film School in 1993.

Quiet in temperament, methodical, patient, and tolerant, Toeplitz was not given to strong expressions of feeling, and his sense of humour was ‘preserved for friends and for rare, eccentric moments of debate’ (NAA A1838). Survived by his wife and three daughters, he died on 24 July 1995 in Warsaw. The AFTRS library is named in his honour.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Dannatt, Adrian. ‘Jerzy Toeplitz.’ Independent (London), 1 August 1995
  • Haltof, Marek. Historical Dictionary of Polish Cinema. London: Lahman Rowman & Littlefield, 2015
  • Jones, Barry, and Storry Walton. ‘Educator Steered a Course of Excellence.’ Australian, 29 August 1995, 16
  • National Archives of Australia. A1838, 553/3/89/1 Part 1
  • National Archives of Australia. A463, 1970/3079
  • National Archives of Australia. A5908, 156

Additional Resources

Citation details

Steve Ahern, 'Toeplitz, Jerzy Bonawentura (1909–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/toeplitz-jerzy-bonawentura-27628/text35060, published online 2019, accessed online 20 June 2021.

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