What is the secret source of nostalgia for the world of pre-war cafes, cabarets, tiny cinemas and glamorous revues? Poland of the 1920s is trendy again, and this phenomenon cannot be explained merely on the grounds of vintage fashion. The journalist and film critic Wojciech Kałużyński suggests it answers a new need of escaping reality, this time by those disenchanted with capitalism.
Kałużyński’s latest book Kino, teatr, kabaret w przedwojennej Polsce (Cinema, theatre, and cabaret of a pre-war Poland) delves into the cultural atmosphere of the 1920s and 1930s. We decided to verify his thesis and present you with contemporary echoes of longing for the mythical epoch across literature, music and film.
How great things were before the war!
Maja and Jan Łoziński are passionate researchers of Polish traditions and the evolving life style of Poles. They employ archive press and documentary material as well as old diary entries, creating reportage from the past. With these bits and pieces of memoirs and data, Łozińskis recreate an inexistent world with great precision. In their series of bestselling books about inter-war Poland (titles in the series include Flavours of the 1920s, Skiing, Bridge and Dancing, Balls and Banquets of the II PR) the two authors unravel mysteries of artistic and diplomatic fetes and soirees. Inspired by life around a set table and the people that give it its shine, in his talk with Polska the Times, Jan Łoziński commented:
It may sound strange, but we were most thrilled by the modernity that surfaced across various areas of life at that time. Motor vehicles, aviation, architecture, industrial design… it seems as if the 20th century began for good only then.
The Łoziński couple admit that the longer they delve into the period, the more critical they are of contemporary reality.
For us, who have spent our childhood and youth years in a tough Polish People’s Republic, what was most impressive were the press photos depicting major streets filled with life, as well as modern architecture, storefronts and the images of luxiours apartments from the 1930s. It was sad to apprehend the regression, a civilisational withdrawal that took place with the advent of communism (...) We think that this period of our country’s history is very much idealised nowadays. It is probably an understandable reaction to a [previously prevailing] shattering critique of the inter-war period and of the authorities, a critique that we were fed with in communist Poland. In truth, we will all probably still have to wait for an objective judgement of the II Rzeczpospolita [so-called II Republic]
While waiting for the results of historic inquiries and conclusions, we strongly recommend the newest book written by Maja and Jan Łoziński, Życie codzienne arystokracji (The Everyday Life of Aristocracy). It is an unparalleled chance to take a stroll across the most magnificent residencies and palaces of Poland, such as Łańcut, Nieborów, Rogalin and Nieśwież. The readers are invited to peek into dining rooms, bedrooms, wardrobes, and nurseries of these homes. It was in those households that the very first Polish tennis courts were set up, while the residencies’ garages hosted the first automobile races.
Stories like this happen only in romantic novels
Kamil Janicki, a historian, columnist and translator, and the author of numerous books. He has written several books to date, among them three devoted to the interwar period, Elity w II Rzeczpospolitej (The Elites of the II Republic), Pierwsze Damy II Rzeczpospolitej (First Ladies of the II Republic) and the recently released Upadłe damy II Rzeczpospolitej (Fallen Ladies of the II Republic). In a talk with Wirtualna Polska, he commented:
Although life of the elites was luxurious and elegant, the inter-war Poland had other nonorthodox and perhaps more interesting facets. The way to a career and independence was filled with obstacles especially for women. Already while writing my earlier book, I noticed that these beautiful and pampered flowers hide a long, controversial, and very dirty history under the guise of their elegant attire, pompous parties and excellent manners. The way in which the world of politics and the elites functions today is nothing compared to a pre-war Poland.
Before bravely exploring the underworld of Poland in the 1920s, Janicki unfolded the stories of three women, the icons of this period: Maria Wojciechowska, Michalina Mościcka and Maria Mościcka. Janicki begins his narrative saying “Stories like these happen in romance novels, but not in real life!”, drawing the readership’s attention to the biggest scandal of the 2nd Republic, one that stirred heated reaction not only in Polish but also in international press. The President of Poland, Ignacy Mościcki married a woman 28 years his junior. And not just any woman! She was the wife of his own adjutant and the secretary of Mościcki’s first wife, who had died only a few months earlier. The news was immediately seized by tabloids, as well as leading press titles – among them, The New York Times. Thus, for one brief moment, Poland was in the centre of global attention.
Janicki writes that both the President’s wives share not only a tumultous lifestyle but also the brutal fate of being forgotten. Maria Wojciechowska is not even mentioned in any encyclopedia, Michalina Mościcka is the heroine of stiff and spare bios, and Maria Mościcka never raises above gossip entries in old press. Janicki believes each one of these women deserves better, and with his book, Fallen Ladies of the II Republic, published by ZNAK company, he intends to bring their figures back to life.
A novel in episodes: sport, transgression and scandal
The basic problem encountered by anyone studying Poland’s interwar period is the abundance of material. Sławomir Koper, the author of 22 literary hits about the time has drawn on this bounty, and each of his publications beats records of popularity. The reason of Koper’s success is not only his talent for telling stories, but also the niche he has discovered. Yet, this writing was not always easy. In an interview for historia.org.pl, Koper explains:
For twelve years I managed to publish six books that completely disappeared in the market. Nobody wanted to publish my work, so I wrote for myself. Some of the titles that recently emerged were the result of airing my hardrive by the Bellona publishing company
No other time period in Poland saw such a huge explosion of talent in every genre of art. Żeromski, Reymont, Tuwim wrote their works, as Witkacy and Stryjeńska painted, Ordonka sang and Loda Halama danced, Smosarska and Żabczyński triumphed on the silver screen. But rather than creating an encyclopedia of Polish artists, Koper x-rays their secrets and scans through their private lives. He writes about their sexual preferences, alcoholism, drug addiction as well as financial fraud. He has found enough stories to tell over a few thousand pages and in 22 episodes. More keep coming up and they inspire writers, researchers, historians, directors and filmmakers.
Celebrities of the II RP, or Bodo comes out of the fridge
Not discourged by the sight of bookshelves bending under the weight of books on the inter-war period Wojciech Kałużyński took up his own research in the area. In the introduction to his Kino, teatr i kabarety w przedwojennej Polsce he straightforwardly asks, “All was already known, the theme was already exhausted, so why write anything about it?” The answer is simple - what pushed him was his own fascination with a period when going to the cinema was the most popular way of spending free time, regardless of social standing. Kałużyński evokes the customs and a savoir-vivre connected to movie-going:
If the audience did not cry during the screening, it was a bad production and no excuse could do it justice. There was a trendy way of classifying this effect in Warsaw of the day, with a scale of the intensity of tear-induction, ranging from one, thtough two, and up to even "five-tissue" films!
Kałużyński also evokes the legends that circled round about the producers’ ways of saving money, which they did by copying open-air shots from foreign films. An order may have looked something like this: "I need thirty meters of a storm at sea, twenty meters of sunset in a village landscape and ten meters of clouds in the sky"
Warsaw 1935. This city no longer exists
Nobody has taken on a project like this one before. A group of architects, computer engineers and graphic designers worked on a digital 3D reconstruction of pre-war Warsaw for 4 years. The audience’s appetite was whetted for a long time, and the result was a great success. The actual interest in this 20 minute film surpassed all expectations. Warsaw 1935 prooves that the Polish capital is an extraordinary place, the witness of tragic history, as well as the home to a spirit of persistence.
Jacek Zieliński, a varsavianist comments
At first glance, one is literally breathless. It is like a state of sleep wherein reality mingles with fantasy. It seems we are witnessing the birth of a myth that will shape the image of this city for thousands of people in the years to come.
Pola Negri’s digital lifting
Thanks to the miracle of digital reconstruction and remastering, a whole array of pre-war stars has recently made its comeback. Zofia Zajączkowska and Stefan Jaracz are the old new stars of the silverscreen, thanks to the much awaited premiere of Pan Tadeusz, a 1928 treasure of Polish cinematography. Directed by Ryszard Ordyński with a music score by Tadeusz Woźniak, the digitally remastered version was distributed at nearly 40 movie theatres across Poland. The screenings were also much appreciated by Polish and Lithuanian viewers at various film festivals.
An unexpected career was also recently made by the lost and found copy of Mania, starring Pola Negri. The copy was bought from a Czech collector and thanks to its digital remastering, Pola Negri - Poland’s only cinematic legend with a Hollywood career - could once again set out on a world tour. Screenings of the film formed part of the 2011 programme of promoting Polish culture during Poland’s presidency of the EU council. Projections, accompanied by live orchestra under the baton of Jerzy Maksymiuk, took place in theatres in Paris, Madrid, Kiev, Berlin and London.
Nearly a century passed before Pola Negri’s Hollywood vicissitudes were staged as a theatre production. Boasting a grand scale and broadway finesse, Janusz Józefowicz and the team of Teatr Studio Buffo produced the first Polish 3D musical devoted to the legendary Polish actress. Employing great visual effects and 3D projections, Józefowicz and his team paved a new path for Polish music theatre. The 3D film material for the performance was specially prepared by Platige Image studios, the creators of the Oscar-nominee animated film entitled Cathedral.
Tuwim at the club, and Fogg in the rhythms of reggae
After Silesian, Kaszobe, rock and hiphop interpretations of Tuwim, the time had arrived for a club adaptation of his poetry. Kasia Dereń and Rafał Malicki are the authors of a remix with lyrics from the poet’s Nie ma kraju (There is no country) piece.
Mieczysław Fogg is also enjoying a contemporary remix of his oeuvre. Cafe Fogg was created thanks to the initiative of Michał, the great grandson of Mieczysław. Together with a DJ and a group of acclaimed Polish artists, he created a homage to his ancestor, and the most famous bard of a pre-war Warsaw. Cafe Fogg is an array of 14 tracks, with Tango Milonga, Ta ostatnia niedziela (This last Sunday) and the hit A ja sobie gram na gramofonie. The remixes and takes on Fogg’s original songs always feature archive recordings of his vocals, and the resultant mixed style is a collection of pieces ranging from classic jazz, through swing, reggae, funk, hiphop and club sound.
A Cabaret Re-invented
The best cabaret traditions, as well as numerous texts authored by Tuwim, were brought back to life in a recent staging of the Duch Pikadora show, directed by the young Michał Walczak. The retro comedy style mingled with small-stage show form, in a piece that is both an homage and a refreshing new take on the forgotten formula of the intelligentsia’s literary cabaret. The artists thanked their audience, summing their project up in the following words: “Madness in rehearsal, folly at the premiere”.
Foxtrotting with Black Mary
A mythical figure of the capital’s ballads, the queen of the Praga district, is evoked by artists from Scena Lubelska in a piece entitled Czarna Mańka - królowa przedmieścia (Black Mary, Queen of the the Suburbs).
While writing the play, the artists used gathered historic materials and written accounts by Stefan Wiechecki Wiech and Stanisław Grzesiuk. They also looked into a music documentary and specialist records of old prisoner’s code of ethics and their lifestyle. The artists also talked with old dwellers of Praga and other Warsaw districts, who still remember a pre-war capital and its life. It was thanks to these people that Scena Lubelska artists were able to reconstruct foxtrotts, polkas and waltzes - once so popular, they are now performed spontaneously by actors on stage, to the company of live music.
Real pre-war instruments add to the flavor of the piece: a three-row harmonium, a baraban drum, a mandolin and a violin. The musicians not only searched through old musical scores, but they also tried to learned ways of performing them from old street musicians.
A Walk around old Warsaw
We want to sustain the memory of old Warsaw but also incite its fame! Respect!
The participants of an amateur group, Grupa Teatralna Warszawiaki began their project with spontaneous happenings, recreating historic scenes in the crowds on the street. At a different time, they would enter the patios in Praga district to sing protest songs that were popular during nazi occupation. The group was received were warmly, with older members of their audience crying, and the younger ones gladly joining in. A few years later, they created their first perfomance, Cafe pod Minogą, based on Stefan Wiech Wiechecki’s text. It was staged at the Teatr Ochota in Warsaw. The artists declare
Our lot keeps on learning from old Warsaw-dwellers with great interest. Whether it is card tricks or song lyrics, that are known to the streets but were never written down anywhere. The inspiration for our stage scripts comes from old press and stories we are told. We believe that the humour that accompanied the dwellers of Warsaw before the war still has the time power today
Author: Anna Legierska, translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 4/12/2013