Life & Culture

The King of Warsaw TV review: A powerful crime drama about Warsaw's pre war Jews

Knowing the fate of Poland and its Jews in the Second World War, this powerful crime drama is something of a double-edged sword


The King of Warsaw
Channel 4/Walter Presents | ★★★★✩

It might be tempting to state that brooding character Jakub Szapiro is a bit of an enigma, except that like most gangsters, he’s not. He’s driven by the basest of things – money, sex, power – just because he’s sullen about it, doesn’t mean he can’t be read like a book. That his story as told in The King of Warsaw – a hit in its native Poland at the end of 2020 and finally showing here on Channel 4’s Walter Presents platform – is based on a book, speaks to what seems to be missing from this adaptation; the interior.

I’ve not read the original novel by Szczepan Twardoch, but as he also wrote a chunk of these eight episodes, I imagine the plot mirrors it pretty closely. Combining real historical figures such as Poland’s then prime minister, with fictional characters inspired by real people, like our man grabbing for the crown, boxer/gangster/Jew Jakub, chess pieces shift around the board in pre-war Warsaw. On one side, the fascists, on the other, communist gangsters. In the middle are caught the Jews, making up nearly a third of the city’s population, the type of demographic soon never to be been seen again in any European city.

Knowing the fate of the country, and specifically its Jews, is a double-edged sword in terms of being able to appreciate the show. On the one hand it’s a fascinating glimpse of a lost world, with much considerable effort obviously undertaken to recreate it as authentically as possible, from the localised dialect of Yiddish being spoken, to the innovation of actually hiring some Jewish actors. On the other, it’s difficult to invest in the struggles of a Jewish character’s climb to the top, with a reign destined to be so short-lived.

Not that most of the first episode makes it clear whose story this is, or what’s going on at all. Opening in a yeshivah, a daydreaming student is beaten up by his fellow students after class for being poor. Which would suggest that the rabbi is a particularly terrible teacher. Then we meet some Jewish gangsters. Who are going to attack a meeting of communists? No wait, they are the communists? Who are battling some fascists? Wait, only one of the gangsters is Jewish?

I’m sure the book is much clearer, and I’m going to track down a copy, if only to be able to get the most out of watching the rest of the series. Jakub Szapiro is interesting to watch, and he’s charismatically portrayed here by Michal Zurowski, scowling like a resolute Volodymyr Zelensky. But it’s not because his actions or conversation make him mysterious.

He clearly lays out his fears of being beaten in what is to be his last boxing match, he’s clearly upset about murdering a fellow Jew, but for the atheist with ‘Death’ tattooed in Hebrew on his knuckles, there are considerable internal contradictions and conflicts bubbling away.

Whether literature or television is the best place to examine them as they overflow, remains to be seen. Or read.

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