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Jerzy Kosiński's Life on the Silver Screen
Jerzy Kosiński, New York, 1988. Photo: Czesław Czapliński / Fotonova

Who was Jerzy Kosiński? A popular writer, acclaimed photographer, prized scriptwriter, piercing sociologist? Perhaps only the Great Manipulator, or even the Absolute Mystificator?

Regardless of the assumed standpoint, Kosiński's biography itself reads like a well-written screenplay. And it does not matter whether one means the biography he created on the basis of his novels, which were thought to be autobiographical, or the real one - from birth to suicide, which is impossible to pigeonhole.

In her book Filmówka / Film School, (Warsaw 1992), Ewa Petelska recalls that Jerzy Kosiński, who lived and studied in Łódź, belonged to a tight circle of friends at the Film School. Like the majority of the young inhabitants of Łódź, Kosiński treated the university at Targowa Street as a window to the world. He was a frequent visitor to the projection room where films unavailable elsewhere were shown. During these days of the mid 50s, Kosiński formed a friendship with Roman Polański. The Film School was also an important place where the first Polish post-war jazz band was born, the legendary "Melomani" / "Music Lovers". Jazz was after all one of Kosiński's passions. According to an anecdote, after the premiere of Nikodem Dyzma (1956), Jan Rybkowski's screen adaptation of the novel Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy / The Career of Nikodem Dyzma (1932) by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, Kosiński criticized the film's main character. In his opinion, Dyzma should not have engaged at all in his political career, and his success should not have been the effect of coincidence but a result of interpretation of his actions by others. Twenty five years later Kosiński published his novel Being There, its hero - the American Dyzma - is appointed for the highest posts without any action undertaken from his side.

Those who met Kosiński right after the war, recall that he used to entertain his interlocutors with stories from occupation. They were frightening, violent and almost on the verge of sadism. The Painted Bird (1965, Polish edition in 1989) was structured around such stories. When it premiered, the book was pronounced the most important novel about the Holocaust. Even tough the text does not specify neither the country where the action takes place nor the nationality of its protagonist (probably a Jew or a Gypsy) and despite the fact that there are no direct traces of its autobiographical character, The Painted Bird has been traditionally interpreted as the author's vision based on his own experiences. Kosiński himself never explicitly denied this assumption, however with time he withdrew from the statements quoted in the preface which assured the authenticity of the young protagonist's experiences. Kosiński's mystifications were uncovered by James P. Sloan, his American biographer (Jerzy Kosiński. Biografia / Jerzy Kosiński. Biography, Warsaw 1996) and Joanna Siedlecka, the author of The Black Bird (Warsaw/Gdańsk 2003), who investigated the towns of Sandomierz and Dąbrowa Rzeczycka where the Kosiński family safely survived the war times (despite their apparent Jewish features) in conditions totally different from the ones described in the novel. Luckily, The Painted Bird has one more side to it, namely the universal message. It studies the otherness and investigates the behaviour of the Other, an individual who tries to survive among a uniform and hostile group. Is this however a sufficient reason to film this novel by Kosiński which is deprived of authenticity? Václav Marhoul, Czech actor and director, has announced a screen adaptation of this story in 2013.

Sloan's and Siedlecka's theses were confirmed by Agnieszka Piotrowska in her film Sex, Lies and Jersey Kosiński (1995) produced for the BBC series "Bookmarks" nominated to the Emmy Award. Piotrowska referred to the testimony of Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize Laureate, who contributed to the promotion of Kosiński's novel in the 60s and later proclaimed it to be a great mystification. Taking into consideration other controversies raised by The Painted Bird - including the accusation that at that moment Kosiński's English was not fluent enough for him to have written his work in this language - it seems that the publication of this novel was a meticulously designed step taken to develop his career on the American market. After all, Jerzy Kosiński was a talented sociologist, one of the best students of Józef Chałasiński. Looking at Kosiński's career from a critical perspective, some of his actions are reminiscent to those described in The Career of Nikodem Dyzma - a story of a minor crafty bugger who does not undertake any actions but achieves aims which he even hasn't dreamed of.

What kind of aims were these? The answer to this question can be found in Randka w ciemno / Blind Date (1977, Polish edition 1992), another book which has been read as Kosiński's autobiography. Among many plots, there is a one about the protagonist of a Central European origin who develops his interest in photography and forges an invitation from a non-existing American university to be able to immigrate to the USA. The novel also depicts Kosiński's first marriage and the alleged story of how in 1969 he was late for a party at Roman Polański and Sharon Tate's villa in California and therefore was miraculously saved from sharing the tragic lot of their friends murdered by Charles Manson's gang. In his autobiography of 1984, Polański actually denied that Kosiński used to be their guest, however one of their friends denounced this information in the "Times" claiming that he saw an invitation letter addressed to Kosiński's name.

Blind Date reads as a ready-made screenplay for a feature action film full of dynamic events and secret passions. Kosiński, however, had more film experiences. In 1978, Hal Ashby, a director of the acclaimed Coming Home, produced a screen adaptation of Kosiński's novel Being There (1971, Polish edition in 1990). The film shot within the period of a few months became the hit of the subsequent season. The film brought an Oscar award to Melvyn Douglas for the best actor in supporting role and the Golden Glob to Peter Sellers for the best actor in a leading role. Jerzy Kosiński was honoured two prestigious distinctions for the best screenplay: the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the American Writers Guild of America, East.

Being There is an American version of The Career of Nikodem Dyzma. It is a story of an enigmatic person who by means of a few casually spoken phrases enters into the powerful society and is appointed as a candidate for the highest posts in the country. The point is that the man who hides under the name of Chauncey Gardiner is in fact a simple gardener, mentally retarded and without any knowledge of the outside world different than the one shown on TV. Contrary to Dyzma who as the time passes manipulates the surrounding reality more boldly, Gardiner is a passive protagonist who does not interfere with the course of events. The American cinema did not witness before such a biting satire on the American political system and its society addicted to media, TV in particular. Even though Kosiński was politically blacklisted, Being There was shown in the Polish cinemas in the mid 80s. The film was significantly censored. The viewers did not see the scene of Chauncey meeting the Russian ambassador which suggested that the European interlocutor gained his position in an identical way.

The special honour was given to Jerzy Kosiński in 1982, the man of the cinema, when he was invited for the Oscar Ceremony. He presented the laureates of the Academy Awards for the Best Screenplay. The writer observed the triumph of Warren Beatty's Reds (1981) from the backstage of this glamorous gala. Kosiński was engaged in the production of this film which won three Oscars and eight nominations (including the Best Picture nomination). Kosiński, who started his American career as a sovietologist and published two books on Khrushchev's Russia under the pseudonym of Joseph Novak, played the part of a Bolshevik functionary, Grigory Zinoviev. It is from him that an American reporter John Reed, the film's main character and author of a reportage piece entitled Ten Days That Shook the World, finds out that the commitment to the Communist Party is placed above private life. This discovery causes an ideological crisis of the journalist fascinated so far with the Bolshevik's ideas. The reviewer for the "Newsweek" considered the "wonderfully harsh" acting of Kosiński as an important contribution to Warren Beatty's film. Kosiński's participation in Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna's film Łódź Ghetto (1989) is also worth remembering. It was shown at the Sundance Festival. The film is entirely based on the ghetto inhabitants' diaries. Kosiński agreed to read fragments from the notes by Chaim Rumkowski, the chairman of the ghetto's Judenrat.

Jerzy Kosiński's suicide seems to be as precisely planned as the rest of his American career. Asked about the reasons for his suicide, Kosiński's wife Katherina "Kiki" von Fraunhofer allegedly responded: "He did, what he had to". Shortly after his death, many articles appeared which undermined his literary output, accused him of plagiarism, charged him with hiding the truth about himself, and building his career on lies. It is not known what was the truth and what was a conscious creation in his life. Jerzy Kosiński used to hide his true self also from the closest ones. Janusz Głowacki made an attempt to disclose his secret. In the middle of 2007, he received grant from the Polish Film Institute for the development of a project called J.K.. Was he successful? Until now, autumn of 2010, there has been no news regarding the screenplay yet. However, his novel Good night, Dżersi / Good night, Jersey is scheduled for release this November. It is a story of Głowacki's memories and vision of Jerzy Kosiński, his well-kept secrets pursued by the screenwriter determined to uncover them.

Author: Konrad J. Zarębski, October 2010. Translated by Katarzyna Różańska, October 2010.

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