The Champion (2020): Is the Polish Movie Based on a True Story?

‘The Champion’ (also known as ‘The Champion of Auschwitz’) is a 2020 Polish sports drama film directed by Maciej Barczewski. It follows Tadeusz Pietrzykowski, a Polish boxer who gains fame for his almost undefeated strings of victories in the Nazi concentration camps. The story is set during the height of the Second World War and follows Pietrzykowski’s nearly impossible fight for survival. Given the realistic narrative and historical context, you must wonder if actual events or figures inspire the movie. In that case, here is everything you need to know about the inspiration behind ‘The Champion.’

The Champion: The Story of Tadeusz “Teddy” Pietrzykowski

Yes, ‘The Champion’ is based on a true story. Writer-director Maciej Barczewski penned the screenplay based on the real-life Polish boxer Tadeusz “Teddy” Pietrzykowski. The latter was born on April 8, 1917, in Warsaw, to Tadeusz, an engineer, and Sylwina, a teacher. At a young age, Pietrzykowski joined the boxing section of the Legia Warsaw club and was trained by Feliks Stamm. Soon, he made a name for himself as a boxer and was at his peak by 1937. However, in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Pietrzykowski volunteered in the army.

Image Credit: Robert Pałka/Iron Films

After Germany defeated Poland, Pietrzykowski attempted to flee to France but was arrested, tortured, and deported. On June 14, 1940, he was transferred from a prison in Tarnów to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Pietrzykowski was among the first prisoners to arrive at the camp, and in March 1941, he began participating in unofficial boxing matches there. His first fight was against Walter Dünning and was crucial in boosting the prisoners’ morale.

Pietrzykowski made a name for himself in the camp by fighting and defeating German officials in the boxing ring. Interestingly, he was nicknamed the “Weiss Nebel” (White Fog) due to his unique fighting style. Pietrzykowski reportedly lost only one fight during his time in Auschwitz and received certain privileges as a reward for his wins. Later, he transferred to other camps, such as Neuengamme and Salzgitter, and eventually settled at Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated in April 1945.

In his later years, Pietrzykowski settled in Bielsko-Biała and worked as a sport and physical education teacher and boxing instructor after finishing his studies at the University of Physical Education in Warsaw. He passed away on August 16, 1991, aged 74. In an interview with Cine Europa, writer-director Maciej Barczewski opened up about adapting the real-life boxer’s riveting true story for the screen. He revealed that he learned about Pietrzykowski through one of the written stories about the boxer.

Image Credit: Eleonora Szafran (Tadeusz Pietrzykowski’s daughter)

The director was intrigued by the boxer’s life and extensively researched him before making a film on the subject. “I was captivated by the fact that, for his fellow inmates, he was a symbol of hope for victory over Nazi terror. At the same time, it turned out that today he is a relatively unknown man, although due to the place and circumstances in which he had to fight his duels, his fights took on an almost mythical character,” Barczewski stated.

In the same interview, the filmmaker revealed that he tried to remain authentic about the portal of Pietrzykowski’s life and worked with the boxer’s daughter to craft the narrative realistically. However, in a separate interview, Barczewski explained that he took some liberties while adapting Pietrzykowski’s life to the screen as biopics require some streamlining. Hence, he decided to make some cosmetic changes to some events, locations, and characters. Nonetheless, the director affirmed that the movie remains true to reality.

Ultimately, ‘The Champion’ is based on a little-known but inspiring true story of survival against all odds through the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. It depicts real-life pugilist Tadeusz Pietrzykowski as a source of hope and strength among the camp’s prisoners. As a result, the viewers learn about his feats in the boxing ring and their impact on the camp and its prisoners. Moreover, the makers have taken the utmost care in sticking to facts while only making minor changes that elevate the true-to-life story. Thus, viewers receive an emotional, dramatic, and enthralling retelling of Pietrzykowski’s life.

Read More: Where Was The Champion (2020) Filmed?