Women with moustaches and guys in dresses, a madman in a wig, and a female pioneer of socialism in manly attire? These are not conservative nightmares, but classics of Polish cinema, television and theatre. Here are some of the most spectacular examples of cross-dressing in Polish popular culture.
Table of contents: Pre-war dress-ups | Polish People's Repulic – Onto the tractors, women! | Gender beyond the Iron Curtain | Roman Polański and cross-dressing | Women play men
Before the world heard of Conchita Wurst, before Dustin Hoffman impersonated Sydney Pollack's red-haired Tootsie, and before Robin Williams entertained the world as Mrs. Doubtfire, major actors of the Polish silver screen paraded in women's dresses – from Adolf Dymsza and Eugeniusz Bodo, through Wojciech Pokora to Roman Polański. Cross-gender dressing was not only men's domain. For Teresa Budzisz-Krzyżanowska, Ewa Błaszczyk and Krystyna Feldman, their impersonations of men turned out to be some of the most significant roles of their careers.
Here are the most interesting cross-gender roles of Polish cinema and theatre:
She / he – pre-war dress-up
The Apartment Above (1937) – Eugeniusz Bodo is the Polish Mae West
It was 1937 when Leon Trystan's The Apartment Above film presented the most spectacular cross-dressing of Polish cinema. Two neighbours meet at a costume party – Hipolit Pączek (Józef Orwid) and Henryk Pączek (Eugeniusz Bodo). The former is quite open about his dislike for the latter, his younger neighbour. At the party, a 'Polish Mae West' appears on the stage, as she sings the song with a telling title, Sex Appeal is Our Feminine Weapon. In fact, it's Henryk – dressed up like the Hollywood star, with a tight dress over his large fake breasts, he quickly charms his old and grumpy neighbour.
There were more dress-up situations created in Polish cinema of the pre-war period. Another 1937 film by Mieczysław Krawicz, The Fool, had Adolf Dymsza disguised as a woman. But it was the song scene from The Apartment Above that made history as the most camp moment in Polish cinematography.
Is Lucy a Girl? (1934) – a pre-war Tootsie
It wasn't only men who would borrow the opposite genders' clothes. Women also keenly put on attire usually reserved for men. Such was the case with the titular protagonist of Julisz Gardan's film, Is Lucy a Girl?. Lucyna (played by Jadwiga Smosarska) is the daughter of a rich investor who returns to Warsaw after obtaining a degree at the Parisian Institute of Technology. Her father won't allow her to work in the car factory that he owns. In order to get her dream job, Lucyna dresses up like a man. She gets a post as Julian Kwiatkowski. The problem is that she soon falls in love with a colleague from work, engineer Żarnowskim (Eugeniusz Bodo).
Lucyna was one of the first gender revolutionaries of Polish cinema. Instead of abiding by the prescribed roles of a mother and wife, she dreamt of a career. Even when she wasn't dressed up as a man, she would ride around the city of Warsaw in her cabriolet, wearing a pilot's hat. She wouldn't change her ways even when her nanny told her that 'young ladies shouldn't be parading in pants.' Oh, really? The woman heroes of the post-war cinema certainly had a different opinion about that.
Polish People's Republic – Onto the tractors, women!
Socialist realism blurred gender boundaries in professions. Women doing heavy physical work became icons of popular culture in socialist realism. Female tractor drivers, masons and miners were all featured on posters, in propaganda articles, and in films. Unfortunately, levelling job opportunities had very little to do with social justice – women still received less money for their work than men. This was one of the triggers behind the biggest protests of the Stalinist period. It took place in August, 1951, in a cotton factory in Żyrardów. Women constituted a majority of the factory's workers, and the deliberations of their strike committee took place in the ladies' bathroom – the only place inaccessible to the Communist party services.
Adventure in Mariensztat (1953) – A girl with a trowel
'I will sooner be called Pumpernikel than some woman will be a good mason. I won't be Ciepieliewski any more, but Pumpernikel!' These are the words with which an experienced mason commented on the professional ambitions of women. He was part of a team of workers who were rebuilding Warsaw after the war, in what was the first Polish colour feature film in history – Leon Buczkowski's Adventure in Mariensztat (1953).
Hanka Ruczajówna (played by Lidia Korsakówna) was the star of a folk song and dance ensemble who came to the destroyed capital as it was being rebuilt. Instead of singing workers' songs, the young girl is rather interested in real building, and thus, she quickly puts on a worker's uniform and grabs a trowel. And even though she walks around the construction site in a man's outfit, this doesn't stop her from winning the heart of the handsome Jan Szarliński (played by Tadeusz Schmidt), the leader of the work.
Adventure in Mariensztat was one of the many post-war films which made up a socialist narrative of the working class and the women who ought to build the Polish Republic together with men. Another significant picture of this kind was the 1955 comedy Go Home, Irene directed by Jan Fethke, and featuring Lidia Wysocka and Adolf Dymsza.
Gender behind the Iron Curtain
Although the period of socialist realism may have seen women in men's attire as the ambassadors of an ideology, they soon turned into a comic figure meant to incite laughter in the audience.
Man - Woman Wanted (1972) – Marysia aka Stanisław
The most popular Polish cross-dressing comedy was shot by Stanisław Bareja, the director of iconic portraits of the absurdities of life in the Communist Polish People's Republic. In 1972, he created the film about a clumsy art historian, Stanisław Maria Rochowicz (played by Wojciech Pokora), unjustly accused of stealing a painting. In order to avoid jail, the unfortunate man decides to hide away in the disguise of a woman until he paints a copy of the stolen canvas himself. In order to earn a living, he gets a job as a maid – this is how he becomes Marysia and goes from house to house to find work.
In fact, for Stanisław Bareja, as well as Jacek Fedorowicz (a co-author of the script), this tale of a museum worker became an excuse for painting a caricature of different human types – from the socialist technocrats, to homegrown vodka-makers.
The Alternates (1986) – A woman taxi driver with a moustache
Bareja took on a similar theme 15 years later, in the TV sitcom The Alternates. In it, he depicted the story of a young woman who was hired as a driver for the Municipal Taxi Cooperation. In order to keep her job, the woman – played by Ewa Błaszczyk – had to put on a fake moustache as well as a specific hat. Driving around the city, she observed the humorous world of the declining Communist state from the windows of her cab, and thus she became one of the favourite figures of Polish television in the late 1980s.
Sexmission (1983) – A world without men – Juliusz Machulski mocks feminism
Even if the cross-dressing in Bareja's films was quite a source of laughter, the real hit of gender' comedy from Poland was Juliusz Machulski's Sexmisson. It told the story of Albert (played by Olgierd Łukaszewicz) and Maks (Jerzy Stuhr) – two men, who let themselves get put into hibernation in the late 1990s in order to be awoken 50 years later. When they wake, it turns out that all men have been wiped out in a nuclear conflict, and the world is ruled by women.
Drawing on the framework of science fiction, Machulski mocked feminism and totalitarian systems. The grotesque story of Maks and Albert turned out to be the tale of a great mystification, conjured up by an impotent dressed in women's clothes.
Roman Polański and cross-dressing
The Tenant (1976) – Roman Polański in a dress
Cross-dressing was not always just funny. One of Roman Polański's most frightening pictures, The Tenant, proves that the motif was also highlighted in thriller and horror films.
Based on the novel by Roland Topor, the film tells the story of Trelkovsky, an immigrant who moves into a Parisian apartment. Its previous tenant committed suicide a few days earlier by jumping out of the window. Drowning in his schizophrenia, Trelkovsky begins to believe that his neighbours are trying to transform him into the deceased former tenant. He soon buys a wig, high-heeled shoes and feminine attire himself.
Venus in Fur (2013) – Polański on erotic domination
The motif of cross-dressing appeared in Polanski's films on numerous occasions, and not always in such tragic context. A man dressed up as a woman was also featured in his latest Venus in Fur. An encounter between an intellectual director and an actress from the Parisian suburbs instigates a 90-minute battle for domination, a battle between the feminine and the masculine. The costume fulfills the dual role of a lure and armour – feminine high heels and a showy shawl are turned into a fetish and a symbol of power.
Women playing men
Hamlet IV (1989) – Hamlet was a woman
One of the boldest creations in the history of contemporary Polish theatre is Hamlet, directed by Andrzej Wajda , thanks to the role played by Teresa Budzisz-Krzyżanowska. In 1989, the prominent director staged the play for the fourth time in his career, at the Stary Theatre in Kraków. The main role was given to a woman. Joanna Walaszek noted in 1990 in the magazine Dialog that his idea
... was not about giving the role of Hamlet to a woman, but rather of giving it specifically to Budzisz Krzyżanowska. Her femininity makes her actions all the clearer – she can only wrestle with the role – she cannot identify with the character … not for one moment does the actress pretend to be a man.
The action of the performance took place on two scenic planes – on the stage and in the theatre’s changing room, and Budzisz-Krzyżanowska was playing both Hamlet and the actress trying to impersonate his figure. Joanna Godlewska wrote in her book The Latest History of Polish Theatre that ' … she was not a woman dressed up like a man, but the embodiment of Hamlet’s drama and perplexity, which are not, in the end, dependent on his sex ...'
What is interesting is that Budzisz-Krzyżanowska previously appeared in a staging of Hamlet, which was also directed by Wajda. In 1981 she played the role of Gertrude. Ten years later, she took on the task of impersonating the Danish prince, following in the footsteps of such prominent actresses as Sarah Bernardt, Helena Modrzejewska and Stanisława Wysocka, all of whom also played Hamlet.
... Nikifor was also a woman
The theatrical creation of Budzisz-Krzyżanowska isn’t the sole fantastic male role played by a Polish actress. Krystyna Feldman’s impersonation of the painter Nikifor also deserves similar recognition. Krzysztof Krauze, the director of My Nikifor had Feldman play the primitivist painter from Krynica. Feldman reached the heights of her talent in this film, and she was presented with the Karlove Vary and Gdynia Film Festival awards for her work.
As You Like It – Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik plays Shakespeare in masculine attire
When writing about women who play in men’s costumes, it’s impossible to forget Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik. In 1993, the least famous of the best Polish actresses performed at the Stary Theatr in Kraków, in As You Like It, directed by Tadeusz Bradecki. She played Rosalind, the daughter of the prince, who gets expelled from the court and flees disguised as a man.
In his review for Rzeczpospolita, Janusz R. Kowalczyk wrote:
Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik can add her marvellous role of Rosalinda to the list of her acting achievements, impersonating somewhat 'dark' characters … She felt good in men’s attire, both while seducing Orlando, and while training the insensitive Phoebe...
Twelfth Night, or What You Will – a women’s version
One of the most famous productions in the history of Polish theatre was directed by Jan Kulczyński at the Stara Prochownia theatre in 1976. In accordance with the ancient English legend about the twisted order of things, Kulczyński decided to only cast women in the Shakespearian comedy – who played both masculine and feminine characters. And the cast that he managed to bring together was impressive, indeed – Ryszarda Hanin, Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak, Zofia Rysiówna, Teresa Lipowska, Gabriela Kownacka and Hanna Skarżanka.