Hitman: Juliusz Machulski’s Blockbuster Comedies
small, Hitman: Juliusz Machulski’s Blockbuster Comedies, Scene from ‘Sexmission’ directed by Juliusz Machulski, 1983, pictured: Jerzy Stuhr & Olgierd Łukaszewicz, photo: Film Studio Kadr / Filmoteka Naro, stuhr jerzy role filmowe 18_6353074.jpg
His feature-length debut launched him into the annals of Polish cinematic history, and his next film proved him to be one of the most adept comedians of his generation. His dialogue has morphed into everyday catchphrases, and he became one of the most bankable Polish directors. Here are Juliusz Machulski’s best movies.
While at the turn of the 1980s, Polish cinema was infused with moral anxiety, and new directors were marching in line with government oppression, Juliusz Machulski found his own beat. He decided to fill a gap in Polish film by creating a recreational comedy according to American styles.
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Scene from ‘Vabank’ directed by Juliusz Machulski. Pictured: Jan Machulski, photo: Polfilm / East News
He wrote the script for his debut feature a few years before filming. Janusz Majewski was supposed to helm the project, but he lacked the time to do anything with Machulski’s writing. The script had to wait. Studio Tor wanted to give it to Marek Piwowski, a fellow comedy director but Machulski decided to film it himself, and in 1981, thanks to Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s help, he was able to complete Vabank.
The story begins with safebreaker Kwinto (Jan Machulski), who, after leaving prison, plots revenge on Kramer (Leonard Pietraszak), the owner of the bank who led to his arrest. The story was proof that, even in Poland, it was possible to create American style cinema. Machulski skipped over complex politics and set the action in the 1930s, and added light-hearted comedy to the crime story.
Critics exalted. A critic wrote:
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Besides one unnecessary scene of a murder in a stadium (unnecessary because it comes from a different, bloody crime film) ‘Vabank’ is as watchable as American films with all their tradition, specialists and dollars – which means without a moment of boredom, with a lightness, with tension and laughter simultaneously, with unmissable dialogue. Times are difficult, but ‘Vabank’ will deliver a breath of fresh air akin to high art. It’s quite a lot.
Filmpolski.pl, trans. AZ
For Machulski, Vabank was the beginning of an adventure with cinema and film festivals. It was thanks to his debut that he ended up at the Metro Manila Film Festival. His film was presented alongside films by Francois Truffaut, Peter Weir and Karel Reisz, and since Poland was under Martial Law, the public was expecting a work that reflected the political turmoil taking place at the time. And here Vabank was something unexpected – a brilliant comedy, full of intrigue. Machulski received an award for his debut, and seeing the reaction of Asian audiences, he understood that ‘cinema knows no borders, or martial law’.
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Scene from ‘Sexmission’ directed by Juliusz Machulski, 1983. Pictured: Jerzy Stuhr and Olgierd Łukaszewicz, photo: Film Studio Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
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Despite this, his next film was a little more political. And even funnier. In 1983, only two years after the debut of Vabank, Machulski came out with Sexmission, a sci-fi comedy that brought over 11 million Poles to theatres, becoming one of the biggest box office hits in Polish cinema.
Not everyone expected such a success. Jerzy Kawalerowicz, at the time the head of film studio Kadr, didn’t want to take on production costs for Sexmission. He was afraid that the Polish film industry was not yet able to tackle a science-fiction production. He wanted to turn it into a Polish and Czech co-production, but Poland’s southern neighbours tossed aside the script for ideological reasons. Machulski wrote in his autobiography:
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The film takes place in 2044, when communism clearly no longer exists. I was asked to move the action to 2344, which I could not agree to.
Sexmission came to life regardless. And it proved that the success of Vabank was not luck, but proof of Machulski’s directorial talent. The film tells the story of Max (Jerzy Stuhr) and Albert (Olgierd Łukaszewicz), who volunteer to undergo hibernation for a scientific experiment and return to the world after many, many years to discover that women rule society. Sexmission became a genre-bending hit. Machulski linked comedy with dystopian sci-fi, and the film became a satire about totalitarian government and feminism.
It also became a true goldmine of bon-mots, some more easily translatable than others. ‘To the West, there must be some civilisation there,’ ‘Darkness, I see darkness’, ‘Maybe Curie-Skłodowska was also a woman’, or the teary ‘A woman is hitting me’ stand up fairly well in English. But ‘Nasi tu byli’, ‘Nas? Bohaterów? Prądem?!’, or ‘Permanentna inwigilacja’ are best laughed at and quoted in their original language.
‘Vabank II’, 1984
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After the unprecedented fiscal success of Sexmission, the bar was set high for Machulski. He managed to clear it with room to spare, improving upon his debut Vabank. The director searched for an interesting story. His father, Jan Machulski, an excellent actor himself, wanted to help.
One day, in the autumn of 1984, Jan Machulski called his son, requesting that he come meet with someone who had an idea for his next film. Machulski (Jr) met with an eccentric older man and his assistant, Maestro and Miss Li, as he described them in his autobiography. Maestro wanted Machulski to create a film about his… dog, which he swore could paint.
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When Maestro and Miss Li closed the doors, I turned to Jan. ‘I’m sorry I made you spend so much time searching for my new film idea. Fine. We’ll go the easy way. We’ll make Vabank II.’
That’s how Machulski recalled the birth of the second instalment in the adventures of the safe-breaker Kwinto, who, after escaping from prison, set his sights on his mortal enemies.
Vabank II did not replicate the success of Machulski’s debut, but it did show that the director was able to prove his ease in using and transforming genre conventions. Vabank II was a self-reflexive text that also was ironically linked George Roy Hill’s The Sting or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
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Fans of Machulski had to wait three years for another film, but it was worth it. Machulski returned swinging, telling a story much different than those of his previous films.
Kingsajz was the story of a mysterious land called ‘Szuflandia’ (Drawerland), where among drawers, dividers and other office equipment, lives a race of Lilliputians led by the high official Kilkujadka (Stuhr). He guards the secrets of a special elixir called Kingsajz (A Polish-isation of the word ‘Kingsize’), which has the ability to transform the Lilliputians into a normal-sized humans. Yet one day the alchemist Adaś manages to recreate the secret formula…
Just a quick glance at the summary is enough to know that Kingsajz was quite a jump Machulski. A cross between Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Sławomir Mrożek’s unforgettable stories, with fantasy and absurdity walking hand in hand. That’s not all – the fourth film from Poland’s king of comedy was designed as an ironic blow to the communist regime.
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In his own words: ‘truth be told, all of my films which I’ve made, are very Polish’. But despite their unique Polishness, the world grew more and more interested in the Machulski’s work. And he himself dreamed of making a film in Hollywood. This dream led him to Judd Bernard, a producer straight from the Dream Factory, who wanted to start a working relationship with the Polish director.
Machulski told him his idea, of an American hitman who comes from Chicago to Poland in the late 1980s. His mission is to get rid of an escaped gangster from the United States. In the new country, the hitman battles with communication and cultural barriers, and when he doesn’t fulfil the assignment, he has to be locked up in a Polish prison to protect himself from the men who gave him the assignment in the first place.
Machulski explained the plot for fifteen minutes. When he was done, Bernard lifted up his receiver, dialled a number and after a moment said:
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Sam? It’s Judd Bernard. There’s a young, damn talented director from Poland with me, who has a genius idea for a film!
Unfortunately, the American film never came to be. But Machulski still made his first foreign film, but instead of doing it in the City of Angels, it was in the Soviet Union, and the American killer came not to Warsaw but to Odessa. The action was moved from 1986 to 1924. And so came about Déjà Vu, one of Machulski’s films that you can keep returning to and never be bored.
When Machulski’s film screened at a Swedish film festival, Jerzy Kosiński, writer of the critically-acclaimed novel Malowany Ptak (Painted Bird), was in attendance. After the screening, Kosiński and Machulski had an important conversation, which Machulski later described:
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‘The film reminds me of a great big ship’, Kosiński said. ‘Transatlantic. Beautifully upholstered and so on. Except it’ll never leave port. Know why?’ He’d begun referring to me with the informal you. I didn’t know. ‘Because no one will understand why an American film was filmed in Russian.’ Jerzy gently let me know that to make anything of a film, same as in literature, it must be in English. I knew he was right.
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Małgorzata Kożuchowska and Cezary Pazura in ‘Kiler’ directed by Juliusz Machulski, 1997, photo: Jacek Szymczak / Film Studio Zebra / Filmoteka Narodowa
The beginning of the 1990s was a singular time for Polish cinema. Along with the rapid development of an international free market of cinema, Polish films quickly lagged, lacking funds to finance new projects, and directors couldn’t find a common language to unite their new viewers. Machulski (alongside Władysław Pasikowski) was one of the exceptions. Fascinated with American pop culture, he was able to use its schematics for his own purpose, and the public of now-free Poland wanted glamorous and shiny films. During this period, Machulski filmed some hits and some misses, but his standout picture from this part of his career was Kiler (Killer).
The hero of the film was Jerzy K., a Varsovian taxi driver, who is one day arrested in a case of mistaken identity. While in prison, the klutzy Jerzy is confused with Kiler, a murderer of international infamy. Soon enough, a few Polish gangsters free him from behind bars, and Jerzy Kiler must come face to face with the consequences of his newfound fame.
So began Kiler, one of Machulski’s best films of the era and one of the 1990s most unpretentious Polish comedies.
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I tried to do everything to make this film one and a half hours of carefree fun for the viewer.
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Cezary Pazura and Janusz Rewiński in ‘Kilerów Dwóch’ (Two Kilers) directed by Juliusz Machulski, 1999, photo: Krzysztof Wellman / Film Studio Zebra / Filmoteka Narodowa
Viewers appreciated his attempt, and over two million viewers went to see Kiler in theatres. While today that may sound feeble, in 1990s Poland the film was a home run. This success once more drew the attention of American producers. Disney Studio decided to buy the rights for an American remake of Kiler.
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…our media went wild. Speculation began: will [Cezary] Pazura be replaced by Jim Carrey, or Will Smith? Will Danny Devito play Siara, and Melanie Griffith Kasia Figura? The only thing they knew ‘for sure’ was that Barry Sonnenfeld would direct, following his success with ‘Men in Black’. Serious newspapers and rags alike wanted to conduct interviews, numerous stations invited me to their talk shows, and Nina Terentiew was willing to give up a whole block of ‘Bezludna Wyspa’ (editor’s note: a talk show) to the stars of ‘Kiler’.
Unfortunately, the American version of Kiler still doesn’t exist. Its Polish counterpart, meanwhile, was the director’s last true blockbuster hit. The director, who had a unique ability to find the key to people’s hearts and wallets. These comedies have achieved cult status in Poland, and will make many generations to come laugh.
Originally written in Polish, July 2017, translated by Alicja Zapalska, 3 October 2019.