Speak of the Devil: Diabolical Plots in Polish Film
They bring evil and death, but also freedom. They haunt 17th-century monasteries, astronauts and expectant mothers in Manhattan, yet also teach some the truth about themselves. Culture.pl brings you some of the most interesting devils of Polish cinema.
The horror lies in man
The Devil, directed by Andrzej Żuławski, 1972
Among all the devils of Polish cinema, none can compare to Wojciech Pszoniak’s devil in Andrzej Żuławski’s The Devil. In his performance, Satan is a grotesque, scary figure. Dressed in a black cape, he suddenly appears to push the main character onto a path of evil.
Żuławski’s devil was demonic and human at the same time. In an interview with Piotr Kletowski and Piotr Marecki, the director noted:
The horror lies in man, not in the personification of this man.
Twardowski: from legend to outer space
While Żuławski drew on tradition from Mickiewicz and Słowacki, he also confronted that tradition with heated polemic. Most Polish films about the devil have adopted a more deferent attitude towards romanticism.
The best examples of this are the films devoted to the character Pan Twardowski, a nobleman who outwitted the devil for his power. The Polish Faust tale is mainly attributed to Mickiewicz’s Pani Twardowska and Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s Master Twardowski and it is these tales that are the starting point for most of the films that expand on the legend.
The first such film was made in 1921 and directed by Wiktor Biegański. Not much is known about this film and it has unfortunately not survived. The only evidence of its content is a collection of chapter titles, which show that Biegański’s film was a fairy tale adaptation of the Twardowski legend.
Twardowski, directed by Henryk Szaro, 1936
We know much more about subsequent film adaptations of the story. In 1936, Henryk Szaro, one of the most important Polish filmmakers of the interwar period, produced his own version of Twardowski.
It tells the story of a nobleman who, in pursuit of a worldly life – and the love of an avaricious woman – decides to sell his soul to the devil. Szaro uses all the elements of the classic legend and adapts them to fit the film format.
Twardowski starred some of the biggest names in Polish cinema at the time – Franciszek Brodniewicz, Kazimierz Junosza-Stępowski, Stefan Jaracz, Elżbieta Barszczewska and Józef Węgrzyn. Unfortunately, the producers didn’t have the resources required for such a large production and the director had to abandon many costly scenes and replace outdoor shots of Kraków with models.
Dzieje Mistrza Twardowskiego, directed by Krzysztof Gradowski, 1995
It was almost sixty years before Twardowski again appeared in a Polish feature film, but that does not mean the legend disappeared from popular culture.
In 1955, Lechosław Marszałek created an animated version of Pani Twardowska and in 1976, another animated version by Andrzej Piliczewski appeared on screen. In 1996, a televised cartoon by Krzysztof Kokoryna featured Twardowski as well.
In 1995, the feature film Dzieje Mistrza Twardowskiego (editor’s translation: History of Master Twardowski) by Krzysztof Gradowski debuted in theatres. From the legend of the nobleman, the devil and their unfortunate pact, Gradowski created a fairy tale family story.
In Dzieje Mistrza Twardowskiego, Gradowski, the director and scriptwriter of the classic Akademii Pana Kleksa (editor’s translation: The Academy of Mr. Kleks), was not able to repeat the spectacular success of his flashiest films. It was not the film’s conservative approach to the Twardowski legend, but its lack of resources for realising the fantastic tale that hindered its success. Made on a shoestring budget in the mid-1990s, the film suffers from ineffective special effects, which today arouse not a sense of wonder, but rather a smile of pity.
It is unfortunate that this promising project was brought down by its simplistic staging and unimpressive effects, for it otherwise had all the elements of a big success. The film had a well-written script, a brilliant message as well as a team of great producers, led by award-winning cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski, composer Andrzej Korzyński and famed Polish actors such as Daniel Olbrychski, Franciszek Pieczka and Jerzy Bińczycki.
Twardowsky & Twardowsky 2.0, directed by Tomasz Bagiński, 2015 & 2016
If the problem with Krzysztof Gradowski’s film was the lack of special effects to elevate the drama of the story, the two most recent films dedicated to Twardowski suffered from the opposite issue – excellent special effects overpowered the story.
The creator of both of these recent films is Tomasz Bagiński, an accomplished animator, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Cathedral. In his interpretation, Twardowski gained a new entourage but lost some of its more subtle meaning.
Bagiński and his scriptwriter, Błażej Dzikowski, moved the story to the present day, or rather, they set it apart from real time. Their Twardowski is a Polish astronaut who, after signing a pact with the devil, is sent to a space station on the moon. When he rebels against the devil, the two become locked in an unlikely duel.
Everything would be perfect, if not for the fact that the two shorts seem to be directorial exercises and a sample of Bagiński’s computer skills, rather than films of flesh and bone. What is the point of casting a great actor such as Robert Więckiewicz, if the films are devoid of dramatic tension and the story is just a pretext for stunning visual effects?
Special effects vs. natural suspense
Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polański, 1968
True horror does not need special effects. Sometimes a brilliant director is enough. These principals guided Roman Polański when he made his first American film in 1968.
Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of a young couple who moves to a new apartment. As Rosemary and her husband begin to meet others in the building, they don’t realise that the seemingly kind new neighbours are engaged in an evil pact.
It’s easy to imagine how this adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel would have turned out in the hands of a lesser director – it would have joined the dozens of shoddy horror films that disappear quickly into the depths of oblivion. Instead, Polański’s Rosemary’s Baby is unforgettable – not only for the wonderful performances from Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon, the haunting Rosemary’s Lullaby composed by Krzysztof Komeda, and the cinematography by William A. Fraker, but above all, because of the understated aura of mystery that pervades the whole of Polański’s picture.
Polański’s film is characterised by tense ambiguity through the end. Demonic neighbours seem to be kind-hearted pensioners, not the messengers of Satan. Rosemary’s obsessive visions are read as signs of mental illness and seem unrealistic.
The work gained notoriety thanks not only to its undeniable artistic quality but also because of the legends that began to build around it. Hollywood lore considered Rosemary’s Baby to be a cursed film – while filming, Mia Farrow divorced Frank Sinatra, Krzysztof Komeda died tragically soon after the film was completed, a year later, Polański’s wife Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Manson Family, and in 1980, John Lennon was killed in front of the historic Dakota building where the film was shot…
Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Agnieszka Holland, 2014
We might add the 2014 television adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby to the list of evidence that the story is cursed. Director Agnieszka Holland adapted the story into a two-part, three-hour series for the American station NBC and set the story in Paris.
Yes, Paris. Because in Holland’s Rosemary’s Baby a lot has changed – New York is replaced by the French capital, Zoe Saldana steps into Mia Farrow’s iconic role, and the demonic retirees of the original are swapped for members of the upper class. Agnieszka Holland told the Polish weekly Polityka:
Evil is beautiful, rich and cynical. Not a group of eccentric old pensioners like in Polański’s film but rather Parisian high society.
Unfortunately, Levin’s novel was not well served by this new adaptation. In the NBC series, the characters have lost their ambiguity and portraits are drawn in broad strokes. While one could watch Polański’s film and wonder if the heroine was the victim of diabolical intrigue or mental illness, the presence of evil forces is clear in the cold steel and ominous gargoyles of Holland’s adaptation. The suspense of Polański’s film, built on what is left unsaid, dissipates in this new version full of unnecessary additions.
The Ninth Gate, directed by Roman Polański, 1999
Polański has also made less-than-successful films about devils, temptation and the fight against the forces of evil. This was the case in his The Ninth Gate, an adaptation of Arturo Pereza-Reverte’s The Club Dumas.
Here, instead of the innocent Rosemary facing the devil, we find Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), a New York bibliophile who earns his living locating rare books. When a rich collector asks him to find two copies of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, Corso goes on a journey that brings him face to face with Satan.
In adapting The Club Dumas for the screen, Polański significantly changed the plot of the novel. He bid farewell to many of the characters, simplified the structure, and… lost much of the magic of literary prototype.
Like Agnieszka Holland’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Ninth Gate suffers from being overly literal, with Polański assuming a campy aesthetic. The Ninth Gate is a kitschy movie but it’s aware of its kitsch. As was the case in his earlier The Fearless Vampire Killers and Pirate, here Polański plays with the conventions of vampire stories and pirate films, exhibiting once again that he enjoys toying with the rules of occult cinema. The resulting film was scary, but at times also provoked an ironic smile.
Mother Joan of the Angels, directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961
This is the most innocent of the ‘diabolical’ portraits in Polish cinema. Mother Joan of the Angels by Jerzy Kawalerowicz is a story of religion, knowledge and faith, body and soul, and enslavement and rejection of limitations.
In Iwaszkiewicz’s story of a romance between a possessed nun and a priest, Konwicki and Kawalerowicz found potential for a tale of human passions, religion, dogma and evil. They abandon much of the social and political aspects of the text and focus on the relationship between Mother Joan and Father Suryn.
Of the work, Kawalerowicz said:
In his story, Iwaszkiewicz was interested in a matter that is very close to us all: the matter of attraction. This is a film about human nature. In spite of the specificity of characters and realities, the film explores the conflicting feelings of people who wear church clothes and the psyche of those who do not.
More than a film Satan and demonic possession, Mother Joan of the Angles is an exploration of human nature suspended between spirituality and carnality. Thanks to cinematography from Jerzy Wójcik, the story is conveyed in an unsurpassed play of black and white, and shadows and light.
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, 30 Jun 2017, translated by AGA 17 July 2017
Sources: Żuławski. Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej by Piotr Marecki Piotr Kletowski (Warszawa 2008), Kino polskie wobec katolicyzmu by Krzysztof Kornacki (Gadańsk 2004), Polański. Biografia by Paul Werner, Anna Krochmal, Robert Kędzierski (Poznań 2014), Filmpolski.pl, Polityka.pl