TV miniseries review: The King of Warsaw / Król (Canal+, 2020)
tl;dr: Excellent period gangster piece.
It’s 1937 in the Polish capital Warsaw. The city is informally run by gangsters, its Godfather Jan “Buddy” Kaplica (Arkadiusz Jakubik), a staunch socialist. On the other hand, budding nationalism with people like Bronislaw Zwirski (Adam Bobik) looking at Nazi Germany for ideas. The two sides often violently clash with each other.
Jakub Szapiro (Michal Zurawski) is a boxer, but also one of Kaplica’s enforcers. At home, he has a loving wife (Aleksandra Pisula) and two sons. At work … well, he makes sure people pay their dues to Kaplica. When they can’t, bad things happen to them. Mosze Bernsztajn (Kacper Olszewski) became fatherless that very way, and while attempting to kill Szapiro, Szapiro instead takes pity on the boy and takes him under his wing.
Things aren’t all well in the Kaplica camp, though. On the one hand, Szapiro could see himself in Kaplica’s shoes, but he’s loyal and willing to stay the course as his right-hand man instead. Janusz Radziwilek (Borys Szyc), whose speech impediment (I thought he was meant to be a foreigner who couldn’t speak Polish properly) is never fully explained, is willing to tackle the problem head on, aided and abetted by Edward “Eduardo” Tiutczew (Mikolaj Kubacki), a young man best described as “unhinged”, but at least he does as he’s told. Sometimes a bit too gleefully.
To complicate matters, the Prime Minister (Adam Ferency) is an old war buddy of Kaplica’s, making Kaplica more or less untouchable. Not everyone is happy about this, from the military (Christoph Pieczynski, Andrzej Szeremeta) who want to stage a nationalist coup d’état, and judiciary (Andrzej Seweryn), to the PM’s own secretary (Bartlomiej Topa), who simply doesn’t like the idea that a crime boss has a “get out of jail free” card. The conflict can even split families into two sides, with judge Ziembinski’s son Andrzej (Piotr Pacek) on one side, and daughter Anna (Lena Gora) on the other.
So not only are we looking at 1930s gangsters in Poland, we’re also looking at clashes between fascistic nationalists and socialists, Jews and anti-Semites, the rise of Nazism on Poland’s doorstep, and what you get is eight episodes of compelling drama. The ending is somewhat frustrating, and doesn’t really leave the window open for a second series (or does it?), but perhaps it’s better off being a one-off miniseries. I enjoyed it, at any rate, but then it’s set in an era not too dissimilar from Babylon Berlin, which I also really like, and it’s only across the border.
The characters have a lot of character. Some are a bit lighter than others – one is a butch lesbian (Barbara Kurzaj), for instance, while Kaplica’s preferences at Ryfka’s (Magdalena Boczarska) bordello is in stark contrast with his home life, shall we say? Then there’s Pantaleon Karpinski (Pawel Wolak) who has a twin brother at the back of his head or something like that? I think I may have missed the bit where that was fully explained, because seeing him as something akin to Voldemort at the back of Quirrell’s head was a big “wtf?!” moment. There are plenty of characters to creep you out as well, and knowing what was going to happen to Warsaw in 1939, especially for the Jewish population, adds an extra layer of urgency that of course the characters are completely unaware of.
The King of Warsaw, or Król (“king”) in its original language, is based on a 2016 novel by Szczepan Twardoch, which sounds like it might be really interesting to read. The show is available through Walter Presents on All 4 here in the UK.
4 out of 5 plane tickets.