For decades, cinematic and literary artists either glorified drinking or laid bare its ugly truth. Some portrayed the pits of this addiction and unravelled its false myths, while others chose to describe its heroically dizzying heights. Gałczyński, Koterski, Pilch and Hłasko used the medium of poetry, writing and filmmaking in their battle against the vice. Meet the chroniclers – and victims – of Polish alcoholism.
The Polish Drunk’s Dictionary by Julian Tuwim
For Tuwim, the drinking customs of his contemporaries were so fascinating that he decided to portray them in one of his works. The 1935 dictionary is now a real delicacy for lovers of the more colourful Polish language.
The poet himself declared:
A free nation of thirty million, with, modestly counting, at least five million declared drunks, ought to have some kind of a lexicon, an encyclopaedia to make the treasures of our mother tongue shine - reflected in the bottle. Since these treasures echo with such a wonderful variety of colour, they ring among the glasses and bottles like a grand symphony, gurgling in the abysses of throats with such song, and with so many resonances of old custom and history, I don’t doubt that my drunks’ guide will find modest approval even in the eyes of the abstainers.
The lexicon collected by Tuwim is spread over some 250 pages. To find out more about the poet and a further array of his curious hobbies, read Mikołaj Gliński’s article Tuwim’s Tensome Faces…
Witkacy – An Addict's Menu
I am all for complete prohibition, but I must admit that in some cases, alcohol resolves a lot of misunderstandings – both internal and exterior ones.
Photos from the exhibition Witkacy and others, courtesy of the Wilanów Palace Museum.
Witkacy is an artist who frequently recalled his experiences with alcohol and drugs in his works. In his endless efforts to penetrate deeper into the psyche of his models (usually the artist's friends), when working as the S.I. Witkiewicz Portrait Painting Firm, Witkacy created under the influence of cocaine, peyote, mescaline and/or alcohol. This he believed intensified intuitive cognisance to the point of making psychoanalytical vivisection possible. His portraits bear abbreviations and letters that record the substances he was influenced by while painting. Witkacy began his first experiments with forbidden substances during his military service in Russia. Yet, in spite of his ongoing experiments with cocaine, peyote, mescal, ether, and alcohol, he didn’t abuse any one substance on a regular basis. It seems unlikely that he was himself addicted. He remains probably the best known chronicler of substance-induced states, as well as a pioneer of such thorough records.
To find out more about the artist's quirks, read our alternative biography of Witkacy
Delirious Heroes in The Land of Vodka – Drinking in Communist Poland
In 1984, Juliusz Machulski directed an iconic science-fiction comedy called Seksmisja (Sexmission). It contains hidden political satire and a critique of the lies inherent to a totalitarian communist government. In Machulski’s film, two male protagonists wake from experimental hibernation to discover themselves the last men in a world where the masculine kind is extinct. Those in power are women. When the men stumble upon an empty wine bottle, their comment is “Our folks were here”.
Zbigniew Cybulski, photo: Tadeusz Kubiak/Filmoteka Narodowa.
The joke captures a stereotypical expectation of the time, according to which drinking was a “sport for men”. Cliché had it that the measure of virility was how much a man could gulp down. Legends emerged, shared by writers, and the capacity of enduring alcohol became a strange kind of bravery. The myth seems to have reached its height in the communist People’s Republic.
Janusz Głowacki, the novelist and playwright, explains the mechanism behind this
Drinking is a bit like sexual life. It’s a sphere that the state was not entirely capable of controlling. One would drink and become free, or at least – felt liberated. Vodka was our Polish national pride
Głowacki was himself a chief chronicler of the colourful liquor sprees amidst the grey of the People’s Republic. More than that, he was their spokesperson, participant and documenter. He mocked it, distanced himself from it, but never dramatised it. Some have even accused Głowacki of contributing to the image of a drinking hero.
A scene from Antigone in New York, directed by Izabela Cywińska, 1993, photo: Zygmunt Rytka / from the archives of the Stefan Jaracz Teatr Ateneum, Warsaw
One would drink romantically, or tragically, against the communists, or out of common sense. People were surrounded by poverty, rudeness, lies, and a lack of perspectives. In Głowacki’s words - if your girl cheated on you - a shot of 100ml, you had no money for new shoes - 150, the censors took your book down - half a litre, a friend sold information about you to the communist police - 1,5 litres, we lost a football match to the Russians - a three dayer.
Watch our video interview with Głowacki about screenwriting
The Beer-hut Proust
Jan Himilsbach as Miś (The Teddybear) in the film "Przepraszam, czy tu biją" (Excuse me, do they beat here), directed by Marek Piwowski, 1976. photo: Filmoteka Narodowa/ www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Although numerous artists, actors and writers hit the bottle, Jan Himilsbach was the major face of Polish alcoholism. A man whose original profession was masonry, this amateur-actor writer and unparalleled communist celebrity, became Poland's drinking icon. The author and filmmaker Tadeusz Konwicki gave Himilsbach the moniker of “the beer-hut Proust”.
Himilsbach made his acting debut in the famed The Cruise / Rejs (1970), in which he and Zdzisław Maklakiewicz formed an inimitable comic duo. Below is a scene from the film in which the duo mocks the state propaganda even in its reasonable yet futile attempts to cure the nation of the addiction:
The protagonists portrayed by Himilsbach on the screen blended into one with his private personality, and what made the drinking talent all the more notorious was that it was indeed the actor's social popularity that continually won him more and more roles. Himilsbach was known and adored for phrases such as “real men drink [vodka] out of cups”. He also reiterated a phrase stolen from another famous drinker, Marek Hłasko: “Drinking means inserting the fairytale element into reality”.
Leopold Tyrmand - The Pride of High Tolerance
Mieczysław Pawlikowski and Tadeusz Kosudarski in Jerzy Hoffman's film "Pan Wołodyjowski" photo: Filmoteka Narodowa/www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Just as it seems to have delivered an illusory feeling of freedom, alcohol also cured Poles of their sense of inferiority. The stereotype of a hard-headed drinker may have been insulting but in the end, it was also a source of pride. It should suffice to evoke an ironic and yet heroic passage by Leopold Tyrmand in his Zły (Evil), in which he depicts the liquor combat of engineer Wilga and the Australians:
(…) everyone was well aware that in the Army of the Rhine, Australians bore the palm when it came to alcohol tolerance. Engineer Wilga sat by the table with five chaps in elaborate hats considered by the Australians to be suitable military head wear, and then he drank up three liters of gin, until the very last of the Australians fell under the table mumbling or crawled to the toilet – which was both allowed and foreseen in the contest rules. This achievement won Wilga great popularity, as well as fame and recognition for the Polish nation among the allied armed forces.
Myth Victim Marek Hłasko – The Polish Kerouac
Marek Hłasko and Krzysztof Komeda in Marek Niziński's apartment, Beverly Hills, 1968, photo: Niziński / IWL
Marek Hłasko could indeed be considered a victim of the drinking myth. For the brief time of his career, he would chase after the image of a rebel-artist. He was a writer whose books are now likened to that of Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Much like the American authors, Hlasko lived on the edge. Hłasko died young at the age of 35, (the same year as Jack Kerouac). He left behind a razor-sharp body of work that inspired a whole new generation of readers. Hłasko’s Beautiful Twentysomethings recently premiered in English in October, 2013.
Told in a voice suffused with grit and black humour, Hlasko’s memoir is a classic of its time. He describes his relationships with such giants of Polish culture as filmmaker Roman Polanski, novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski, poet Wladyslaw Broniewski, and essayist Kazimierz Brandys.
In his short story Umarli są wśród nas (The Dead Are Among Us), he wrote:
Those who don't need vodka should not dare to declare any judgements about it. If humanity has of yet attained anything stable in terms of spirit, it is indeed alcohol.
Gustaw Holoubek in Wojciech Jerzy Has' Pętla, based on Hłasko's novel, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Hłasko's novels were a drunk's collection of curios with descriptions of constant falls and illusory rises. The novel Pętla (The Loop) is probably one of his best known pieces, wherein he describes the impossibility of addiction, the repeated series of painful disillusions, which only death can put an end to. The novel was adapted into a film, directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has and starring the legendary Gustaw Holoubek.
Kuba wiped his forehead with his hand and started to speak to himself in his thoughts "It's already ten. I have to bear another eight hours. I cannot go now, earlier, because I would have to go without her; I would have to answer all those questions that they are going to ask me, I would have to say everything about myself… When I began drinking, why I drink, how much I drink, how much I have to drink to get drunk… I won't go alone. It's just eight hours. Then we will go there and I won't need to be afraid of time any more. They will give me this little powder and that's it. I will not be allowed to do this any more. Even when I will wake up in the night and won't be able to sleep. When I won't have an appetite. When I will have dreams of an empty patio, filled with pits of calcium. It's so easy to drink then. But I won't be able to. This pill bill hold me; I won't need to do anything myself, it will all of it for me. I will have to comply, or else terrible things will begin to happen to me. Shocks, comas, and I have a weak heart, I could even kick the bucket. This thought made him especially happy and he repeated: I can even kick the bucket because of this damn heart.
Jerzy Pilch's Delirious Universe
While it's hard to imagine Polish drinking literature without Hłasko, it's simply impossible to think of it without Jerzy Pilch. A winner of the 2009 Nike Award, his novel The Mighty Angel is considered Poland’s most famous story of alcoholism. Pilch's book is compared to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki. It was translated into English by Bill Johnston as The Mighty Angel in 2009.
Juruś, the novel's protagonist, is a writer and chronic alcoholic living a never-ending cycle of detox, rehab, happy departures from institutions and returns to his empty apartment, abandoned by both his wives. Eventually he ends up in his local bar, The Mighty Angel.
Although humorous, Pilch did take readers on a ride to hell, and described the universal nature of the delirium tremens, a suffering that surpasses all class and historic divisions.
The Drab and Filth of Smarzowski
Wojciech Smarzowski, the acclaimed filmmaker, has most recently adapted Pilch's prose for the silvers creen, with the 2014 premiere of Angel starring Robert Więckiewicz. This film "I made entirely sober", he declared in an interview for the Duży Format magazine.
Yet, Angel is one portrait in a series of films wherein Smarzowski conveys drinking as a morbid social ritual.
Already with his early Wesele (The Wedding), Smarzowski paraphrased the patriotic drama original by Stanisław Wyspiański. He depicted the Polish wedding customs as a festival of alcoholic abjection. In Dom Zły (Evil House), drinking was a means of escaping poverty, hopelessness and filth. And in Drogówka (Traffic Department), contemporary policemen treated vodka like the fuel of brotherly bond, an anaesthetic for feelings of guilt, a means of forgetting, and a possibility of opening up.
It seems that for Smarzowski, alcohol is one of the emblems of Polishness.
We Are All Jesus Christs
Marek Kondrat and Michał Koterski carry the cross of addiction in We Are All Christs by Marek Koterski, photo: press materials.
Marek Koterski's cinematography is a case apart, and so is his unique portrayal of an alcoholic's battle. In Wszyscy jesteśmy Chrystusami (We Are All Christs), Koterski conjured up one of the most terrifying and yet touching images of the addiction.
Koterski never hid his own drinking problem, and in the film he spoke about passing the addiction on through generations. Adaś Miauczyński, a recurring protagonist in Koterski's films, and also an alter-ego of the director is a de-classed member of the intelligentsia. In the film, Miauczyński repeated the mistakes of his own father and passed on the sin of addiction to his own son (also portrayed in the film by Koterski's only son, Michał, who publicly spoke about his own struggle with drug addiction)
The film by Koterski is one of the most perfect pictures of alcoholic disease, an ailment that looks for excuses and absolves itself. It is also a film that is disquieting as it borders on the surreal. Highly theatrical and nearly comic elements surface throughout the film, adding a completely unexpected quality of beauty while it seeks no excuse.
Koterski himself explained:
The first impulse for creating this film and its main axis are the painful memories of Sylwek the son about the drinking of his father, Adam. Adam's father also drank, and Adam was afraid of him, and had sworn to himself as a little boy that he will never assault his own son with such anxiety and shame (…) I will run ahead of the events and say something that I believe in, and something that is the fifth and most seminal reason for making this film: it's possible. It's possible to break free of the obsession of drinking. It's possible to regain control of one's life. It's possible to regain the love of a son.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 5/02/2014
translations of Hłasko and author quotes by Paulina Schlosser.
sources: "Alkohol i muzy. Wódka w życiu polskich artystów", Sławomir Koper, Warsaw 2013, "Polski słownik pijacki", Julian Tuwim, Warsaw 2008, Paweł Smoleński's talk with Janusz Głowacki- Gazeta Wyborcza,