dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1965
Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

The film, based on the novel of the same title by Bolesław Prus, deals with the universal theme of the struggle for power. Although the story is set in ancient Egypt, the mechanisms of the clashes for influence, control and dominion remain unchanged through the centuries, as stressed by the co-writer of the script, Tadeusz Konwicki.


The title character of the film is the young heir to the throne, Ramses XIII (Jerzy Zelnik), who, with a head full of ideas and self-confidence, wants to carry out profound reforms in his country which is essentially ruled by priests. However, those led by the priest Heryhor (Piotr Pawłowski) will do everything to prevent this from happening. Taking advantage of their position, they oppose the young pharaoh’s plans because they fear losing control and their own wealth. The matter is further complicated by Ramses’ affection for a young Jewish woman, Sara (Krystyna Mikołajewska), who soon gives birth to a son for him. Feeling powerless and seeing the futility of his actions, Ramses decides to use the army against the priests. They, however, use the solar eclipse as a sign of Amon’s divine disfavour and wrath. The soldiers are overwhelmed by panic, which leads to a tragic finale.


The film took three years to produce. With the plot so clearly set in place and time, matters of set building, prop and costume design proved crucial. The film’s production designer, working at Wytwórnia Filmów Fabularnych in Lodz, Jerzy Skrzepiński, recalls working on “Pharaoh” as the greatest adventure of his life. Together with Polish archaeology celebrity Professor Kazimierz Michałowski and his assistants from Warsaw University, he spent more than two months in Egypt making thousands of drawings documenting the monuments there. One of the consultants was also Shadi Abdel Salam, an Egyptian art historian who was a consultant on the film “Cleopatra” which was shot two years earlier. All costumes, wigs, props were created in the set design studios of the Studio. Scenes set in the pharaoh’s palace and the labyrinth were also created in the atelier of the Lodz-based studio. In contrast, most of the outdoor scenes involving a large number of extras were shot in the Kyzylkum desert in Uzbekistan, where temperatures reached 60 degrees Celsius at midday.


After the pre-release screening, which took place on December 2, 1965, the film was considered a great achievement of Polish cinema. Kawalerowicz’s picture was also appreciated abroad, and in 2014 Martin Scorsese selected it for presentation in the United States and Canada as part of the festival of Polish films “Martin Scorsese Presents. Masterpieces of Polish Cinema”.