Polish World War II Drama Series ‘The Bay Of Spies’ Evokes Film Noir’s Moral Ambiguity And Has A Very Modern Resonance — Global Breakouts

Welcome to Global Breakouts, Deadline’s fortnightly strand in which we shine a spotlight on the TV shows and films killing it in their local territories. The industry is as globalized as it’s ever been, but breakout hits are emerging in pockets of the world all the time and it can be hard to keep track. That’s why we’re doing the hard work for you.

This week, we make our first trip to Poland, to check out a World War II spy drama. The Bay of Spies draws parallels to the likes of German Oscar Winner The Lives of Others and John le Carré TV adaptations such as The Night Manager. Politically, Poland is a charged place right now. The fact a film noir-influenced story based on real events during the war and with real moral ambiguity is the country’s most talked-about show right now is perhaps no coincidence.

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Name: The Bay of Spies
Country: Poland
Network: TVP
Producer: Akson Studio
International sales: TVP
Where you can watch: TBC
For fans of: John le Carré, The Lives of Others, The Key, film noir

Polish broadcasting is in the midst of a political war. Just before Christmas, Donald Tusk’s new pro-European coalition government fired the bosses of its state broadcaster, TVP, and shut its news channels, claiming the previous ruling party, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) group, had used it as a propaganda network. Protests have been held as the fight for the country’s media rages.

With the political picture as uncertain as this, it should really come as no surprise that there’s been plenty of interest in The Bay of Spies, TVP’s newest and, arguably, most ambitious drama series ever. The show, set in 1940s Gdynia, in a Poland under Nazi occupation during World War II, is a study in shades of grey and moral dilemma.

The series, based on true events, follows young Nazi intelligence officer Franz Neumann, who discovers that his real father was Polish. Using this to his advantage, he becomes a spy for the Allies and is tasked to obtain information about the activities of the German Navy (the ‘Kriegsmarine’). Employing a mix of charm and charisma, he snakes his way into the German elite and and becomes entangled in relationships with three women, but is soon suspected of treason by the Germans and the Poles. He is forced to break rules and completely change his values to survive.

The screenplay for the nine-part series comes from Michał Godzic (Chasing Dreams, Wartime Girls) and Wojciech Lepianka (My Father’s Bike), while Wanda Kowalska, the series costume designer, recently received the Eagle Award at Gdynia Film Festival. TVP has international distribution rights and we understand the expectation is Netflix will take local second window rights, as it did with prolific local producer Akson Studio’s previous series with director Michał Rogalski and TVP, Moth Hunting.

The series asks the viewer to consider whether honor matters when everything else is a lie. Further to that, adds Rogalski, it drills down on the notion that “the essence of good storytelling and human drama is ambiguity.”

Rogalski notes how Franz, played by Polish actor Bartosz Gelner, goes from being “a successful, young Nazi playboy, user and fighter” to a man “taken out his comfortable world and into one where he has to choose between good and evil.” The ambiguity becomes the “main driver,” adds Rogalski, who won the Screenplay Award at the World Film Festival in Montreal for his film Summer Solstice.

Rogalski notes that the Gdynia setting, on the Baltic coast, itself plays into the hands of him and his team. The series begins in the summer of 1940 “at the peak of Nazi success” in Europe during World War II after Poland had been invaded and occupied and France had just fallen under German control. The U.S. hadn’t yet joined the war effort and the Battle of Britain was raging across the English Channel. “It was super difficult to go against Nazi Germany at that point,” says the filmmaker. “That’s why it is interesting as a moral dilemma for the main character. It gave us opportunity to explore tension within him.”

In the same vein, Rogalski and his team looked to the shady black-and-white aesthetics of film noir for the cinematographic inspiration. Those films, which emerged in the U.S. before World War II and have their roots in German Expressionism, often looked at the grey areas of life, the moral dilemmas and a sense of overarching fear pervading regular life. Sound familiar? The producers also looked to photography from the era and movies set at sea during WWII, such as Sophia Loren starrer The Key from 1958.

Speaking more broadly on series and films in the spy genre, Rogalski says: “They have always condensed fear and emotion with very high peaks into a very short time frame. People love to watch this.”

He says that because camera technology is so good in television production in the modern era, the challenge for filmmakers to is to imprint “your own handwriting” on a show with ambitions as high as The Bay of Spies, adding: “We are not Fellini but still we have to press our personality.” That notion seems to be impressing on local audiences. Nielsen ratings have the show bringing in up to 18% shares in its weekly Sunday evening slot following a January launch.

Broader Picture

In Polish television, options for producers are limited. Netflix is broadly considered the most-active commissioner with the biggest pockets, having launched the likes of drama series High Water and the 1607 after opening an office in Warsaw in 2022. However, CEE originals chief Anna Nagler exited the streamer in November 2023.

Warner Bros Discovery pulled out of the CEE region’s originals game in 2022, ending a long-running association with Polish producers. Comcast- and Paramount Global-backed streamer SkyShowtime later acquired HBO Max’s local slate, including Polish drama series Warszawianka. Rogalski says HBO is now looking to produce one or two projects a year, while pay-TV player Canal+ remains active, and is also commissioning around eight projects annually. Commercial networks TVN and Polsat are trying to push into the premium TV market but producers say they are still more focused on broader, lower-budget crime and contemporary drama. SkyShowtime, Disney+ and Prime Video have development departments in the country but are not very active.

That leaves TVP, where major change is afoot as the traditionally right-wing governments of the past were recently replaced by a more centrist group. Rogalski says there is a “war going on” for the soul of the state broadcaster, with the new government and the media regulator — which was created by the PiS in 2015 with the power to sack managements and put in sympathetic journalists — at political loggerheads. News channel TVP Info was taken off air in December because Tusk saw it as having become a propaganda tool for the PiS, and the heads of state TV and radio were later dismissed. Opposition politicians staged a sit-in at TVP Info studio in protest.

Rogalski, who is totally supportive of the new coalition, adds that a “flaw” of Polish law meant the broadcaster has often been used as a “spoil of war” for the governing party of the day. A consequence of the Tusk government’s reforms is that budgets appear to be frozen for the foreseeable future. “For the next year TVP will probably not produce any big drama,” says Rogalski. “It is a terrible mess.”

However, that hasn’t stopped plans for a second season of The Bay of Spies. Akson Studio chief Michał Kwieciński, who Rogalski describes as a “very creative guy” is getting a second season written without confirmation from TVP that it will fund a second run. “That was his own risk, and I think it was the right decision because the reviews we’ve got,” he adds. “People would like to know what happens to our characters. We want to be ready when the money comes.”

We featured The Bay of Spies in our round up of 15 international dramas to watch for in 2012, and for good reason. Political turmoil or not, the series highlights what the country’s top filmmakers are capable of achieving when they’re backed.

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