A Polish Keaton

Barely a decade after the European war of 1939-45, Poland’s decimated film industry emerged from the ashes to produce not only a globally-acclaimed film “new wave” (1956-1962) (1) but also a great screen clown in Bogumił Kobiela (1930-1967), so curiously blessed with the same initials as Buster Keaton.

Kobiela’s considerable talents were a Polish state secret until May 1960 when the Cannes Film Festival aired a major picture in which he starred. That was Zezowate szczęście (1960) directed by Andrzej Munk and otherwise known as Bad Luck or Cockeyed Happiness in English and De la veine à revendre in French. It proved a pleasant surprise for Cannes’ international press corps evoking noises about Kobiela’s “best actor” portrayal of the film’s central character, Jan Piszczyk. That award eluded Kobiela but French Critic Georges Sadoul lauded Bad Luck as “nothing short of a Cannes’ success” (2).

Kobiela’s stomping ground was Poland’s imaginative “student” fringe theatre that emerged in the early 1950s. It was less scrutinised by Communist censors than the main state theatres and in 1954, Kobiela and Zbigniew Cybulski co-launched the now-famous Bim-Bom (3), a fantasist, semi-cabaret troupe, in Gdansk. It was an early signal of the post-Stalinist thaw within Europe’s Communist Bloc. In Poland alone the same year, the artistic straitjacket of “socialist-realism” was dead and, in 1955, the government formally divided Poland’s national cinema into semi-autonomous film units, a direct cause of the Polish film miracle.

“Polish School” comedies

Despite such examples as Munk’s Bad Luck and Part One of his earlier Eroica (1958), screen comedy in Poland became overshadowed by ’60s Czech cinema through the likes of director Miloš Forman. But Munk, no comic filmmaker as such, might have reversed the balance had he lived long enough and been drawn into filming anything by Sławomir Mrożek, Polish cinema’s greatest missed opportunity, a versatle artist who is still regarded as central Europe’s best post-World War II comic playwright, cartoonist and storyteller. Mrożek even “arrived” simultaneously with Kobiela, with whom he worked briefly in Bim-Bom.

Bad Luck, like Munk’s earlier Eroica, commanded attention for its levity, striking foreign critics as uncharacteristic of the new Polish cinema seemingly weighed down by the emotional baggage of Poland’s tragic past, including the recent wartime occupation. Yet the new wave era, almost at its inception, produced an internationally successful comedy in Ewa chce spać, (Eve Wants to Sleep, 1957), the debut feature of a comedy specialist, Tadeusz Chmielewski. Publicity abroad likened Eve Wants to Sleep to a Mack Sennett comedy and liked its apparent digs at communism in a “surprising comedy from behind the Iron Curtain [showing that] man does not live by dread alone” (4).

Eve Wants to Sleep’s pretty new star, Barbara Kwiatkowska, would appear in Bad Luck as the first object of Piszczyk’s desire, and then in a later scene with Roman Polanski, one of the film’s two assistant directors, who later hailed Bad Luck as “too parochial to win the international acclaim it deserved” (5).

Nowhereland and Eroica

The near-surreal history of Poland would seem to offer a wellspring of tragedy rather than comedy but, in the hands of a Munk or Mrożek, this is not necessarily the case. Straight-faced French playwright Alfred Jarry could introduce his stage farce Ubu Roi, thus: “The action […] takes place in Poland, that is to say Nowhere” (6), and, indeed, according to the great Polish screenwriter and critic Bolesław Michałek, Poland’s disappearance from world maps between 1795 and 1918 is evident in much of Poland’s literature and therefore its cinema (7).

The first half of Munk’s Eroica is an audacious comedy about a delicate, tragic matter: the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Although Eroica borrows its title from Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3” (aka “Eroica”), it offers two original tales, retitled by co-author-screenwriter Jerzy Stawiński for the film, that are like musical movements (Scherzo Alla Polacca and Ostinato Lugubre, respectively). The first concerns a black marketeer named Dzidzius. He is initially seen on the fringes of the uprising (“those poor downtowners”, he mutters when hearing the explosions) before reluctantly joining the revolt. This was surely the role Edward Dziewoński was born to play. His Dzidzius and Bad Luck’s similar booze-happy rogue, Jelonek (also Dziewoński), are almost as memorable as Kobiela’s Piszczyk. Each has a wife named “Zosia”, both amusingly played by Barbara Połomska, one of several direct links between the two features.

Ostinato Lugubre is a skeptic’s look at the roles played by national myths. In this case, Polish POWs live out the war in a “nice” German camp that, despite outer resemblance to a concentration camp like Auschwitz (Oświęcim), carefully adheres to the rules of the Geneva Convention. This astonishes a new prisoner who gasps, “This is paradise!”, still unaware of how lethal this paradise is, one that literally bores one prisoner to death onscreen. Internees of this escape-proof camp sustain morale by believing that one of their number did actually escape and is probably now fighting Germans, a demonstrably false myth that is vital to maintaining the stability of camp captors and captives alike.

Eroica’s theme of heroism unites both stories, as does actor Ignacy Machowski as a Polish major heading off to do battle in Warsaw as Part One ends. In Part Two he briefly appears as an officer leading new internees into the camp. Ostinato Lugubre’s need for myths oddly echoes that much-quoted line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

Bad Luck

Munk’s equally marvellous, but more overtly comic Bad Luck, is adapted from Stawiński’s 1959 novel, Sześć wcieleń Jana Piszczyka (Six Incarnations of Jan Piszczyk), its title accurately suggesting the film’s episodic line. Bad Luck’s narrative structure recalls Charles Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) – due to a similar bookending of its main story as a flashback – its ending, slightly reframing the film’s opening, turning the beginning on its head. Bad Luck begins with middle-aged Piszczyk apparently being laid-off work while pleading for sympathy by recalling events that have dogged him since childhood. He even blames his “Jewish-looking” nose in a film where Munk and Kobiela, identifiably Jewish themselves, were well positioned to portray Polish anti-Semitism, even to comic effect. There follows a medley of Piszczyk’s misfortunes in Poland between roughly 1930 and 1959, some of which are stupefyingly funny thanks to Kobiela.

The film’s central character, Piszczyk, begs comparison with literary everyman figures like Voltaire’s Candide or Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Schweik. Stawiński would draw on his own figure of the type (Piszczyk) for at least three more books including Smutnych losów Jana Piszczyka ciąg dalszy (The Continuing Sad Destiny of John Piszczyk, 1986), which was  directed onscreen by Andrzej Kotkowski as Obywatel Piszczyk (Citizen Piszczyk, 1988).

One also reaches for other precedents of farcically mistimed political correctness or opportunism like The Vicar of Bray, the legendary English ecclesiastic – partly fact, partly fiction – who constantly re-adjusted moral values to the shifting winds of religious orthodoxy. Such comparisons are useful, if not exact.

In one of Bad Luck’s best scenes – a 1930s street demonstration – Piszczyk marches at the rear of a pro-government group and is then hemmed in from behind by club-wielding anti-government thugs. Not interested in politics but caught up in the game, he shouts patriotic slogans up forward, then anti-government slogans to mollify the rear before fleeing headlong into a group of Keystone-like cops whose brutally efficient clubs rain down on the camera lens (a moment shown from Pyszczyk’s point-of-view).

The extraordinary first sight of Kobiela as an adult student subjected to anti-Semitic taunts, conjures up mixed images of a young Danny Kaye or Gene Wilder. But the laughs do not necessarily come from the film’s speeded-up motion or other “Chaplinesque” effects. These were wrongly criticised by contemporary critics as gimmicky, whereas they’re legitimately used to represent Piszczyk’s glossed-over, embarrassed recall of forgettable past events like his high school days and his failure to win his first true love.

Beyond some crudely-designed opening titles over-telegraphing the comedy to come, Bad Luck quickly becomes a joyous film with a sound comic dimension. And what a precious window it offers for witnessing Kobiela’s talent, lamenting Munk’s death in a vehicle crash in 1961, or for wondering what Munk would have done after his unfinished The Passenger (1961-1963).

Endnotes

  1. Often called “The Polish Film School”.
  2. See Lettres Francaises, Paris, 19 May 1960.
  3. Among the too few accounts of this theatre movement, see Juliusz Tyszka “Student Theatre in Poland: Vehicles of Revolt 1954-57, and 1966-7”, New Theatre Quarterly no. 102, May 2010, pp. 161-72.
  4. From an advertisement in Ohio’s Newark Advocate 2 April 1966, p. 2.
  5. Roman Polanski, Roman by Polanski, Heinemann, London, 1984, p. 125. On his romance with Barbara Kwiatkowska/Lass and his work on Crosseyed Luck (sic.), see pp. 130-131.
  6. The full sentence, “Quant à l’action, qui va commencer, elle se passe en Pologne, c’est à dire Nulle Part”, terminated Jarry’s verbal introduction to his play, Ubu Roi, at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in Paris on either the ninth (dress rehearsal night) or tenth (premiere) of December 1896.The date is disputed.
  7. The best English introduction to post-war Polish cinema is Boleslaw Michaek and Frank Turaj’s The Modern Cinema of Poland, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1988. The author interviewed Michaek in Warsaw in late 1984.

Zezowate szczęście/Bad Luck (1960 Poland 92 mins)

Prod Co: Kamera Film Unit/Polish state Dir: Andrzej Munk Scr: Jerzy Stefan Stawiński, based on his novel Phot: Jerzy Lipman, Krzysztof Winiewicz Ed: Jadwiga Zajićek Prod Des: Jan Grandys Mus: Jan Krenz

Cast: Bogumił Kobiela, Maria Ciesielska, Barbara Kwiatkowska, Edward Dziewoński, Barbara Połomska, Kazimierz Opalinski, Henryk Bąk , Mariusz Dmochowski, Tadeusz Janczar, Adam Pawlikowski, Wojciech Siemion

Eroica (1958 Poland 87 mins)

Prod Co: Kadr Film Unit/Film Polski Dir: Andrzej Munk Scr: Jerzy Stefan Stawiński Phot: Jerzy Wójcik Ed: Jadwiga Zajićek, Mirosława Garlicka Prod Des: Jan Grandys Mus: Jan Krenz

Cast: (Part One) Edward Dziewoński, Barbara Połomska, Igancy Machowski, Leon Niemczyk, Kazimierz Opaliński (Part Two) Kazimierz Rudzki, Henryk Bąk, Mariusz Dmochowski, Roman Kłosowski, Bogumił Kobiela

About The Author

Frank Bren is a Melbourne actor, playwright and director.