“The Prince and the Dybbuk” – from Moshe Waks to Prince Michael Waszyński

 

“The Prince and the Dybbuk” follows steps of the Polish film director Michał Waszyński- a man of many faces and many stories, whose life was as diverse as it was mysterious. Born in Ukrainian Kiev to a poor Jewish- Polish family, he directed over 40 pre- II World War Polish films, most notably “The Dybbuk” (1937), one of the best known Yiddish movies. During his career as a Hollywood producer, he worked with Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale and appeared in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1954 film, The Barefoot Contessa.

Directors Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski had a hard task of tracking and recreating the life of a real chameleon, who was continually changing religions, homes, names, and titles, often not leaving any traces of the past life. The film visits his relatives in Tel Aviv- who have vague memories of Moshe Waks (which was his real name), and the town of his birth in Ukraine. We also stop over in Hollywood to interview his fellow producers, a Roman palace where he lived after his marriage to a wealthy countess, and Spain, where he died as Prince Michael Waszynski in 1965.
Thanks to beautiful archival footage, the film takes us into his world, giving a sense of his abundant life. One of them is the giant set of “The Fall of Roman Empire” with Sophia Loren, which was one of the most expensive Hollywood films at that time. Waszynski was the executive producer and initiator of the ancient Rome project, the biggest in the history of moviemaking.

An aristocrat, an elegant man, surrounded by an aura of luxury. That is how people remember him. He achieved everything he imagined, and he created films and sets unthinkable for many of his contemporaries. His life was cinematic. But he also never spoke about the past and his roots. There was something that was hunting him, keeping him restless. The film jumps to the archive material from “The Dybbuk” every once in a while to remind about Waszyński’s origins and uncertainties he was not able to cut loose, running away from them into other lives. “The Dybbuk” is based on a traditional Jewish legend, in which the spirit of the first love haunts a young woman. A supernatural tale with elements of expressionism, the film is a recognized masterpiece of Yiddish cinema.

With a tinge of humor, Niewiera and Rosołowski create a portrait of a fascinating life, driven by personal ambitions but also agitated by fears, society’s pressures and demands. Waszyński was relentless in pursuit of his wildest dreams, which were an escape from the past he did not want to remember and a quest for social acceptance. His great fantasy and larger than life persona form an inspiring biography that escapes any classification attempts.

The film won the Venice Classics Award for Best Documentary on Cinema at the 74th Venice Film Festival.

Film lectors still dominate in Polish TV

Names like Jan Suzin, Lucjan Szołajski or Tomasz Knapik are well known to the Polish TV audience, even though it has never seen their faces. For decades films on Polish TV have been translated by one (male) person from beginning to the end, referred to as “lector.” Each of them has his specialty and temperament. Suzin has a name for westerns, Szołajski a reputation for thrillers and Knapik is a living legend whose filmography includes such hits as “Jaws” or “Star Wars.”
And however absurd this concept may sound to the non-Polish audiences, there are some solid arguments in its favor.

Such hidden stars do not exist in countries like Germany, France or Italy, where professional speakers assigned to individual actors dub films. There is “Angelina Jolie’s dubber,” “Tom Hardy’s dubber” etc. Sometimes the same reader is “in charge” of more than one actor.
It is a standard method in both cinemas and TV stations in most of the western countries. In Poland, it exists only in children films. Theaters screen all other movies in original version with subtitles.

 

Referred to as “whispering” in the industry jargon, lector can be heard a second’s split after the original line, which is also perceptible to the audience but lowered. We can still easily understand the authentic language- the idea is not to disrupt, but to help understand.

To discover the origin of this peculiar art, we need to go back in time to the Soviet Union. All countries of the former Eastern Block have embraced it, although sometimes in a modified version. In the model developed in Russia women’s voices are read by a female and men’s voices by a male lector. This so-called “Gawrilow’s translation” has been adopted for example in Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia or Lithuania.

One of the reasons for maintaining the lector- formula is economical. While dubbing requires paying actors, renting a studio and translating individual lines in perfect synchronization with the movements of the actors’ mouth, one- voice narration is much less expensive. The most proficient speakers manage to produce a full version of a film with as little as one reading. Also technically it’s less demanding. A single line has to fit in the time-frame of a take but does not have to cover the exact length of the spoken words.

Another thing is tradition, or rather audience’s habit. According to the statistics, it is the most preferred film translation alternative, with the lowest sympathy for subtitles. They are regarded as distracting, forcing to take the sight off the action. Dubbing, in turn, is unnatural for the watchers- hearing Tom Hanks speaking Polish just wouldn’t convince most of his fans.

Consequently, the viewers are satisfied with a translation of the spoken text’s essence, undeterred by the loss of some (often inherent) nuances and complete absence of acting skills. Problems may appear when more characters are speaking at the same time- their lines get shortened and simplified so that the whole translation fits in the frame. It can make the dialogues fractional and deprive them of valuable information. In such case, the original version in the background can help capture the right emotion.

One of the most distinctive voices belongs to Tomasz Knapik. His rough timbre is known to every single TV spectator in Poland. Besides the titles mentioned earlier, he also read „Pulp Fiction,” where his respectful articulation of film’s obscene language certainly caused a smile or two. He admits himself that „freeze !” is what he does better than „ I love you.” Another notable speaker of the Polish small-screen is Krystyna Czubówna- the real queen in the men’s world. Her specialty are documentaries about nature. Gifted with a calm, soft voice, she can remarkably narrate the bloodiest catfights on African desserts as well as tales from the empire of the ants. For ten years she was also presenting the evening news “Panorama” in the second public channel, which made her a widely recognizable person.
It’s worth to mention that other than in feature films, in documentaries, one voice narration is often more of a commentary than a translation (can be both though), and it relates to the picture rather than transcribing the original dialogues.

Although the majority of audience prefers lectors, and those paying for TV translations have no reason to protest, the question about their future raises. While Mrs. Czubówna can rest assured – in the documentary world they are known on the whole planet and don’t seem to be endangered, as to feature films, and notably series, new market players will have a say. For example Netflix or Amazon. For now, Netflix offers only 10 percent of its content with a Polish lector. Amazon is also reluctant towards narrators, providing its films and series with subtitles. But perhaps they will soon fall for the economic format as well, to the joy of the Polish users.

The viewers’ preference is the decisive factor when it comes to content delivered to their screens. Lectors’ longtime presence in people’s homes gave them a strong position and a considerable sentimental value. Even though the Polish audiences become more and more educated and could perhaps understand a great deal without the language assistance, they might never stop watching their annual “Home Alone” accompanied by the mellow voice of Janusz Szydłowski.

 

“Beyond words” review

The father and son reunite in Urszula Antoniak’s black and white immigration drama.

 

Michał (Jakub Gierszał) is a young, ambitious lawyer working in a law firm in Berlin’s Mitte. He lives in a flat that used to belong to his mother who passed away. A perfectionist and a professional, every day he learns German words from a recorder, practicing the pronunciation and trying to lose his Polish accent. Berlin is his home, no two ways about it, and he does not feel much connection with his homeland. In fact, he tries to suppress any signs of his origin, framing his German identity.

His boss Franz is also his best friend. They work together and have fun together, spending afternoons drinking fancy drinks in elegant Berlin bars. For Michał is seems to be a fulfillment of a life plan, he is wholly focused on his work, striving for professional excellence and the lifestyle related to it.

This ideal order is disturbed when Michał’s father Stanisław (Andrzej Chyra) appears after years and wants to make up for the lost time. The initial skepticism slowly gives way to a friendship, as they spend a weekend together and create an emotional bond. The father has built his life in a completely different way than Michał. He was a reckless musician, who did not stick to many rules but instead benefited from the joys of life. It is a clash of two different worlds, and there seems to be no place for such a variation in Michał’s well- organized routine. But the more he discovers his father, the more he starts identifying his roots.

The black and white photography gives the film a slightly vintage, classic look, which, together with the piano score, creates a poetic ambiance. The law firm where Michał works is situated in the city’s historical Museum Insel, and his flat is a spacious “Altbau” apartment with high ceilings and beautiful big windows. It has a somewhat austere design, which, we could say, corresponds to his vigorous life.

The dialogue is sparse, and as the title suggests, a lot happens between the words. We carefully observe Michał on the quest to determine his identity. The border between his Germaness and Polishness shifts throughout the film, as he favors the fist but cannot run from the second. Like his father points out, he becomes a different person when speaking Polish than he is in German. When Michał translates a discussion between Franz and Stanisław during dinner, he adjusts their responses to make it most appropriate for the other side.

Just as he is not ready to determine his true self, he is not able to decide whether he wants to bond with his father or keep him at bay.
His love life suffers from this hesitance as well. There is a seed of a romantic affair with a Polish waitress, but Michał never gives it a chance to advance, fearing this might expose him.


In the film’s first minutes we see him refusing to take a case of an African immigrant who wants to settle in Germany. For Michał, who considers himself a German, the newcomer has not earned it to be there- not speaking the language and keeping a strong bond with his native culture. He does not support the man’s argument that anyone should have a free choice of where he wants to live. But while the unexpected visit shuffles his sense of belonging, it also influences these views. Putting Michał in the middle of his two life stories, the director questions the power we have to determine our own identity.

Jakub Gierszał’s and Andrzej Chyra’s excellent performances are one of the good reasons why “Beyond words” is worth a trip to the cinema. Recognising the growing role of immigrants in today’s landscape, Antoniak made a film that explores an inherent challenge everyone who left his country is facing. It is not cinema that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats but rather a beautiful and thoughtful portrait of modern society.

 

Marcin Wrona’s ghost story “Demon”

 

When a happy couple arrives to celebrate their love in a remote Polish village, strange things start to happen to the groom. The ghosts from the past awaken and will not allow a happily ever after. In the last film before his death, Marcin Wrona proved that he was one of the most distinctive young Polish film directors.

Our English protagonist Piotr (Itay Tiran) comes to Poland to marry his blond sweetheart Żaneta (Agnieszka Żulewska). The couple arrives in a little, rural town and moves into an old house that belonged to her grandfather. They start joyous renovations, breathing new life into the somewhat neglected property. They are living the dream, no doubt about it.
While working on the lot, Piotr discovers a human skeleton buried in the ground. At first, he decides to keep the secret for himself, but he digs further, curious about his discovery.

The preparations for the wedding begin, and soon guests gather in a big stable next to the house. It is a real polish wedding with a lot of people, a lot of dancing and a lot of vodkas. While everyone engages in a wild party, Piotr starts experiencing hallucinations of a woman in a wedding gown. At first, the guests conclude that he drank too much, which does not keep his fresh father-in-law (excellent Andrzej Grabowski) from filling his glass over and over again. Soon, however, the situation becomes more serious. Piotr starts having convulsions, making terrible noises and eventually performs a dreadful, mad dance. It becomes intelligible that he was possessed by a demon.

The more festive it gets, the more symptoms arise. The hosts encourage the wedding guests to drink more, trying to win themselves time to mend the awkward situation. Or perhaps make them forget it easier. It seems, however, there are no illusions that the fun is long gone. The attention is now wholly focused on Piotr.

The priest suggests the involvement of spiritual forces, while the doctor assumes a drug overdose. Żaneta’s father becomes increasingly suspicious about Piotr and tries to annul the marriage. The bride, in a state of despair, is watching her world fall apart.

There is also an old professor who lived in the village as a boy. When Piotr begins to speak Yiddish, he is the only one that can communicate with him. The voice coming from Piotr’s mouth introduces itself as Hana- a Jewish girl whom the professor knew in his childhood. She declares to have chosen Piotr as her husband. We learn that the village was inhabited by Jews before the war and was later completely destroyed by the Germans. The professor also mentions dybbuk- a Jewish ghost who inhabits a body of a living person. The dislocated soul can only leave after it purged itself.

The film balances between a comedy and a horror, mixing humorous moments with its overly grim atmosphere. The wedding guests ridicule the idea of a demon, which brings us down to Earth. We may ask ourselves- would we believe in dybbuk? But their mocking attitude hides a desire to suppress the facts and keep the cumbersome secrets quiet. The wedding continues throughout the whole film, its craziness growing steadily. Foreign audiences may be rubbing their eyes in astonishment, seeing the amounts of vodka. But as much as Polish weddings are frantic, this one turns into madness.

The film refers to the Polish- Jewish history and the extermination of Jews that inhabited the country before the war. Forgotten victims become a symbol of abandoned memories and unrevealed facts. Did the house really belong to Żaneta’s family? How did Hana die? These questions remain open, and just as the audience is waiting for the resolution, Wrona cuts it off allowing them to look for a story themselves.

“I’m a killer” and “Red Spider” – serial-killer tales from communist times

 

Inspired by Socialist Poland’s demons, the directors Maciej Pieprzyca and Marcin Koszałka brought the dark legends back to life in two absorbing psychological thrillers. “I’m a killer” and “Red Spider” take us back to the country’s grim 70’s and 60’s to explore the sources of human evil.

“I’m a killer” by Maciej Pieprzyca is set in 70’s Poland, a country ruled by communism and its propaganda-machines, aiming to create an illusion of an ideal world. A series of brutal murders disrupts these efforts. The killer, who is pronounced Silesian Vampire, prowls around Silesia hunting down and murdering young women. The “ideal world” cannot suffer such a scratch and the authorities quickly mobilize militia to trace him. The investigation is handed over to a young officer- Janusz Jasiński- ambitious and excited to take up the biggest challenge of his career.

Soon after, Wieslaw Kalicki is arrested and accused of the crimes. The lead comes from his wife (masterfully played by Agata Kulesza), who denounces him hoping for 1 million rewards. Jasiński becomes a superstar- he is the talk of the town, a national hero, attracting the attention of media and sympathy of authorities. The thing is, he still has to find evidence against the suspect. And this goes badly. The more glory falls on the young officer, the less important the truth is. The authorities are entranced, lavishing presents on Jasinski- a new apartment, a color TV (something of a rarity back then). He also begins a love affair with a young girl, who is, as it will soon turn out, striving for a passport to leave the country.

His life could not be better, seems on the outside, but the conscience starts drilling Jasiński. He finds himself torn between the virtues of his new, luxurious life and a backbone which does not entirely allow him to send Kalicki to death.
This engaging thriller includes some brilliant performances such as the main character played by a lesser known to the Polish audience Mirosław Haniszewski as well as Arkadiusz Jakubik, in the role of Kalicki.

The film honestly portrays life under the communistic rule and the concerns of the society. It takes us in the world of the authorities’ tools and tricks and their competence in exacting the obedience of citizens, at their great personal costs.

Another famous serial murderer was subject to the film “Red Spider” released in 2016, just one year after “I’m a killer”. This time the story centers around the vampire of Cracow and is helmed by Marcin Koszałka, known to the Polish audience mostly as a documentary director. His beautifully photographed feature debut includes some hypnotizing aerial photography, like the drone shot of an illuminated amusement park in one of the first sequences of the film.

Again we find ourselves in communistic Poland (this time of the 60’s), shaken by a series of brutal murders committed with a hammer. A young sport-swimmer, Karol Kot, accidentally traces the killer in the mentioned amusement park and decides to confront him. The assassin turns out to be a decent and reserved veterinarian. The two get connected by their fascination with murder, or rather, Karol’s fascination with his new idol. The boy starts following in his steps, eventually turning himself over to the authorities as the “Red Spider”.

The film remains ambiguous about the young man’s motivation to take responsibility for the murders. Neither the political era nor family life provides a possible lead to the grounds of his decision. The director wants us to look for them beyond the perceivable.

It may leave some of the viewers a little unsatisfied by the end. We never see any hesitation of the main character, because we also do not see him making choices. We just watch him committing desperate acts, not able to delve into his psychology. This economy of expression makes us arrive at the end of the film feeling we could go for more.

As a point of interest: although the films are entirely different, they contain few similar points- a detective who gets rewarded after capturing the most dangerous criminal of his times, a conviction of the wrong person. Also, the ending, where we see a portrait of the deceased and where one life is saved in exchange for another.