Polish audiences were exposed to the films of Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers in 1895 and 1896 before domestic production began a few years later. Early Polish films took the form of newsreels or similar factual material, such as the medical subjects and short documentaries of Polish life produced by Bolesĺaw Matuszewski, who also wrote theoretical articles on the new medium and proposed the establishment of a film archive as early as 1898. The first short narrative film, Powrót Birbanta ( The Return of a Merry Fellow , 1902), was directed by Kazimierz Prószyński (1875–1945), an important pioneer of film technology. This was followed in 1908 by the first short feature, Antoś pierwszy raz w Warszawie ( Anthoś for the First Time in Warsaw ), and a spate of literary adaptations, comedies, and melodramas, few of which have survived. During this period, the Sfinks Film Studio turned out patriotic and sensationalist works and several Yiddish films, and the anti-Russian epic Kościuszko pod Racĺawicami appeared in 1913. The leading director of the time was Aleksander Hertz (1879–1928), and production flourished particularly—and surprisingly—during the war years of 1914–1918. Pola Negri (originally Barbara Apolonia Chaĺupiec) made eight popular erotic melodramas before leaving in 1917 for Germany and then Hollywood. Another leading female star of the period, Jadwiga Smosarska (1898–1971), specialized in roles that portrayed suffering and sacrificial womanhood, such as in Trędowata ( The Leper , 1926).
The immediate postwar period and the 1920s saw increasing American, French, and German domination of production and distribution. Homegrown films focused on patriotic, anti-German, and anti-Russian themes along with literary adaptations. Józef Piĺsudski's couṕtat in 1926 had little effect on film production, but few films of lasting merit were produced. Wampiry Warszawy ( The Vampires of Warsaw , Wiktor Biegan d'éski, 1925) was popular and Huragan ( Hurricane ), directed by Józef Lejtes (1901–1983) in 1928, proved to be the country's first international success. In 1924, the literary critic Karol Irzykowski published Dziesiąta Muza ( The Tenth Muse ), and although it was an early major theoretical work on film aesthetics, Polish filmmaking continued to rely largely on well-worn farcical, melodramatic, patriotic, and sensationalistic themes. Production fluctuated between a low of ten features in 1931 to a high of twenty-seven in 1937.
The conversion to sound came slowly, with the first Polish talkie, Moralność Pani Dulskiej ( The Morality of Mrs. Dulska ), appearing only in 1930, and initially resulted largely in highly theatrical works lacking any real sense of film style. Meanwhile, from 1929 to 1930, a group of avant-garde filmmakers and theorists—including Aleksander Ford (1908–1980), Wanda Jakubowska (1907–1998), Stanisĺaw Wohl (1912–1985), and Jerzy Toeplitz (1909–1995)—argued for a more "socially useful" type of filmmaking than what was currently typical. Although their START (Society of the Devotees of the Artistic Film) group was dissolved in 1935, it provided the basis for the revitalized Polish cinema of the post-1945 period, especially in the films of Ford and Jakubowska. Ford's second feature, Legion Ulicy ( The Legion of the Streets , 1932), and his co-directed Ludzie Wisĺy ( The People of the Vistula , 1937) attracted particular attention. Józef Lejtes and Juliusz Gardan (1901–1944) (especially with his 1938 Halka ) became important directors, Jadwiga Smosarska remained a popular actress, and the comic actor Adolf Dymsza (1900–1975) starred in films such as Dwanaście Krzeseĺ ( Twelve Chairs , 1933) and Antek Policmajster ( Police Chief Antek , 1935). The producer Joseph Green (1900–1996) brought about a revival of Yiddish cinema with such films as Yidl mitn Fidl ( Yiddle with His Fiddle , 1936) and Dybuk ( The Dybbuk , 1937).
On the political front, a nonaggression pact between Poland and Germany in 1934 was followed by the death of Piĺsudski in 1935 and the establishment of a military dominated "Government of the Colonels." Then came the German invasion of 1 September 1939, followed by yet another partition as the country was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union.