Wojciech Pszoniak is a theatre and film actor, born on 2nd May, 1942, in Lviv, died on 19th October 2020.
Theatre and film actor. Born on 2nd May, 1942, in Lviv.
One of the most interesting personalities of the Polish stage from the last fifty years, Pszoniak's roles in films by Andrzej Wajda brought him international recognition.
(...) When Pszoniak plays, he remains himself. He builds roles not on the basis of external, alien elements, which can be learned, but he draws from his experience as a human being, from his rich – as everyone’s – personality, which he does not want to hide behind costumes and make-up, but from which he wants to derive inner truth.
Maciej Karpinski, Pszoniak, Warsaw 1976
Pszoniak graduated from the State High School of Theatre in Kraków in 1968. During his studies, he performed at the STU Theatre. In the years 1968-74 he played in Kraków’s Stary Teatr. He made his debut there in the play Curse by Stanisław Wyspiański directed by Konrad Swinarski (1968). Pszoniak believed that it was thanks to Swinarski that his career as an actor began. He played the Apothecary in Wyspiański’s Judges (1968), Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970) and Parollesa in All’s Well That Ends Well by Shakespeare (1971) under Swinarski’s direction. The most important of these roles was the character of Puck – the perpetrator and participant in all the events happening on stage. There Pszoniak revealed his characteristic energy and vitality, astonished the audience with his physical dexterity, controlled the pace of the show, and dominated the stage in a remarkable way.
Meeting Andrzej Wajda
In 1971 he worked for the first time with director Andrzej Wajda, with whom he would join his artistic fate for many years to come. Their first theatre project was Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The role of Pyotr Verkhovensky was Pszoniak’s most significant in the Stary Teatr.
In his performance Verkhovensky is vehement, consumed by inner fire, prone to outbursts and unusual gestures. Pszoniak moves quickly, almost jumping on the stage, and makes nervous gestures, pouring out streams of words with burning eyes – this is acting of the highest order, the character is portrayed consistently and is worthy of this extraordinary performance.
(Maciej Karpinski, Pszoniak, Warsaw 1976).
In 1975, he once more participated in a play directed by Wajda, The Danton Case by Stanisława Przybyszewska. The premiere took place in Warsaw’s Powszechny Theatre in which Pszoniak worked from 1974 to 1979. His Robespierre was one of the greatest dramatic portrayals of the 70s. This time the actor replaced the impulsiveness known from the characters of Puck and Khlestakov from The Government Inspector directed by Adam Hanuszkiewicz at the National Theatre (1973) with restraint. Robespierre in Pszoniak’s interpretation was the epitome of a dogmatic and ascetic revolutionary. Elżbieta Wysińska wrote:
Wojciech Pszoniak’s self-imposed rigour radically alters the way he acts. An actor who is so incredibly lively, with such expressive facial features, stands still and by doing that he reveals all his hidden strength. Przybyszewska’s idealised Robespierre (...), interpreted by Pszoniak, showed integrity, and fascinated with his personality. In the performance Robespierre dominates the hall with his voice, the words spoken by him are crystal clear and explicit, not leaving room for any doubt. His representation of the role contains sensational proposals
Kultura 1975, No. 6
Other interesting roles performed by Pszoniak in the Powszechny Theatre included that of Randle Mac Murphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Dale Wasserman (1977) and Papkin in The Revenge by Aleksander Fredro (1978) – both directed by Zygmunt Hübner.
In 1978 he started performing on foreign stages. He appeared in the French Nanterre Theatre in Peter Handke’s play Foolish People are in Decline directed by Claude Regy, together with Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Olbrychski. Then, he played on the same stage in Witkacy’s They directed by Wajda.
The 70s were also a period of prominent roles for Pszoniak in Wajda’s films. In 1972 he played the journalist/Stańczyk in the film version of The Wedding by Wyspiański and Yeshua in Pilate and the Others based on Mikhail Bulgakov, and in 1974 he took the role of Moryc Welt in The Promised Land by Władyslaw Reymont. The role of Moryc Welt was a masterful representation, in which Pszoniak mixed his extraordinary comedic abilities and his distinctive, expressive style with an understanding of human psychology.
Pszoniak portrays the personality of his character bluntly, not avoiding even the grotesque (...), but at the same time he manages to protect him from a certain typology, for which the role provides quite a lot of opportunities. Indeed, every appearance of Pszoniak-Welt on the screen becomes an excellent scene, which is full of great sequences and splendid performances. It is nevertheless worth mentioning those that make the strongest impression, those in which the actor has managed to do real magic tricks: to give his character a life beyond the screen, to make of him a person who is more genuine than the people we live among.
Pszoniak, Warsaw 1976
The role of Welt brought an award for the actor at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia. In 1979 he starred in the German-French Tin Drum by Günter Grass, directed by Volker Schlöndorff. His next major film roles were: Rudy Josele in Austeria by Julian Stryjkowski directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1982) and Robespierre in the Polish-French Danton directed by Wajda (1982). For this role he was awarded at the Film Festival in Montreal.
Foreign stages and films
In 1982 Pszoniak permanently moved to France. He appeared on stage and in several foreign films. In 1993 he began working with theatres from London. Pszoniak’s most interesting theatre roles abroad were in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu the King directed by Roland Topor at the Chaillot Theatre in Paris (1992), Terence Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea directed by Karel Reisz at the Apollo Theatre in London (1993), and Miklós László’s Shop Around the Corner directed by Jean-Jacques Zibermann at the Montparnasse Theatre (2001), for which the actor was nominated for the prestigious Molière award. His film roles include Kajetan in Notturno directed by Fritz Lehner (1986), which earned him a nomination for the European Film Award, and Feliks in Agnieszka Holland’s To Kill a Priest (1988). Pszoniak portrayed Vivaldi in Venetian Red by Etienne Périer (1989), and he also played in Vent d’Est by Robert Enrico (1993) and La Chica by Bruno Gantillon (1995).
Visiting Warsaw's stages
Since his departure from Poland Pszoniak has appeared as a visiting actor on Warsaw’s stages. In 1986, he played Norman in the Polish premiere of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser directed by Zygmunt Hübner in the Powszechny Theatre, creating a superstar duet with Zbigniew Zapasiewicz.
Pszoniak leans towards a certain typology: characteristic posture, small steps, interrupted speech, slyness and flattery written on his face. He is a servant, but also a confidant of the artist, and even a grey eminence, who, when necessary, directs the course of events.
Radar 1987, No.4
In 1992, he starred in Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski at the Studio Theatre, where he partnered Krystyna Janda. Four years later he was Łatka in Fredro’s The Annuity directed by Andrzej Łapicki in the Polish Theatre.
This is Łatka without the grimace of a caricature which all his predecessors had, from Solski to Łomnicki. You could meet such a Łatka in front of the bank, where he approaches with a monotonous voice: ‘I buy equity certificates’. (...) Pszoniak’s interpretation of this role reveals a different, realistic Fredro.
Roman Pawłowski, Gazeta Wyborcza 1996, No. 253
The actor worked with Polish directors in films more often than in the theatre. He played Bogdański in The Daimler-Benz Limousine by Filip Bajon (1984). Furthermore, he starred in Wajda’s films, playing the leading role in Korczak (1990) and Zamojski in Holy Week (1995). Pszoniak also appeared in the series Removals by Leszek Wosiewicz’s (2000) and played The Stranger in Our God’s Brother by Krzysztof Zanussi (1997) and John Rydel in Bajland by Henryk Dederko (2000 ).
In the mid-90s, after a long break, the actor returned to the Television Theatre, which he had collaborated with from the beginning of his career, performing interesting roles in the 70s in productions directed by Zygmunt Hübner – he was Cliff in Look Back in Anger by John Osborne (1973) and Sganarelle in Molière’s Don Juan (1974). He played the role of The Husband in Gabriela Zapolska’s They are Four directed by Tomasz Zygadło (1977) and Dobczyński in Gogol’s The Government Inspector realised by Jerzy Gruza (1977). In 1994 Pszoniak played the following roles in the Television Theatre: the Patient in Seven Floors by Dino Buzzatti directed by Andrzej Barański, and Eric Wells in Harwood’s Poison Pen directed by Gruza, and later: Trusocki in Natalia by Dostoyevsky directed by Mariusz Treliński (1995), Robert in Marek Hłasko’s Killing the Second Dog directed by Tomasz Wiszniewski (1997) and the leading role in Funny Old Man in the play by Tadeusz Różewicz directed by Stanisław Różewicz (1998).
In 2000, he successfully directed and played the role of Leon in Jean-Claude Grumberg’s The Workshop in the Television Theatre – he had played this character before in the Hébertot Theatre in Paris (1999), and in 2002 he directed and performed again his Łatka in Fredro’s The Annuity. In 2001, Pszoniak was a visiting actor in the Ateneum Theatre in Warsaw in Francis Veber’s The Dinner Game staged by Wojciech Adamczyk. The role of François Pignon proved to be one of the most important achievements of the actor as a comedian. Malwina Głowacka wrote:
(...) This role is a masterpiece. The actor fills it with restrained humour. He does not resort to obvious gags, he does not let himself be carried away by a comic wave, which would decompose the play. He does not overact even though the audience, which laughs to tears, fuels the atmosphere. He knows that one cannot hear the music set at full volume. He knows how to tune an instrument in order to find the right tone and nuance. Pszoniak achieves this effect by hiding the comical nature of the character behind his silent, deadly serious face, only occasionally sneaking a smile. Even in the most absurd moments (...). That’s what the subtlety in Pszoniak’s role is based on.
Teatr 2001, No. 6
For his performances in The Workshop and The Dinner Game, the actor received the prestigious Aleksander Zelwerowicz Award in 2001.
More recently Pszoniak played the role of a teacher of literature who is aware of the futility of his work in Jean-Pierre Dopagne’s cynical monodrama Belfer! directed by Michał Kwieciński (Cinema-Theatre Bajka in Warsaw, 2004). However, in 2006 he came back to Dostoevsky on the stage of Warsaw’s Contemporary Theatre. Pszoniak spectacularly performed the role of The Uncle in Izabella Cywińska’s Your Excellency based on the short story The Village of Stepanchikovo. Elżbieta Baniewicz wrote:
Wojciech Pszoniak very clearly showed the mental destruction of his character, his indecision, the uncertainty of every movement and word, marked by excessive gestures and facial expressions. He created a haunted man, who is unable to live his own life, because he is constantly watching out for the judgment of others, or even worse – lives a life, which is only a reflection of his own.
Twórczość 2006, No. 4
Most significant awards and distinctions
- 1972 – Dziennik Polski Readers’ Poll Award for the role of Verkhovensky in Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky directed by Andrzej Wajda in the Kraków's Stary Teatr; Leon Schiller Award;
- 1974 – Boya Critics’ Club Award for outstanding acting;
- 1975 – Gold Cross of Merit; Award of the Minister of Culture and Arts; Best Actor Award for his portrayal of Moryc Welt in The Promised Land, directed by Andrzej Wajda at the 2nd Polish Film Festival in Gdynia; Award for the role of Robespierre in Stanisława Przybyszewska’s The Danton Case directed by Andrzej Wajda in the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw at the 1st Opole Theatre Confrontations; Award for the role of Robespierre in The Danton Case at the 15th Kalisz Theatre Meeting;
- 1977 – Award for his role in John Osborne’s play Inadmissible Evidence in the Television Theatre, directed by Jerzy Gruza at the Film Festival and Television Performances in Olsztyn; Award for his portrayal of Strindberg in Per Olov Enquist’s The Night of the Tribades directed by Ernst Gunther in the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw on the 17th Kalisz Theatre Meetings;
- 1979 – Award for the role of Papkin in Aleksander Fredro’s The Revenge directed by Zygmunt Hübner in the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw at the 5th Opole Theatre Confrontations;
- 1980 – Journalists’ Award for perfect acting in Locomotives in Julian Tuwim’s show Poems for Children in the Television Theatre directed by Anna Minkiewicz at the Film Festival and Television Performances in Olsztyn;
- 1983 – Award for Best Actor – Robespierre in Andrzej Wajda’s Danton at the 7th International Film Festival in Montreal;
- 1990 – Award of the Łódź Museum of Cinematography for best performance in Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak at the 15th Polish Film Festival in Gdynia;
- 1991 – Award of the Chairman of the Committee for Cinematography for best performance in Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak;
- 2001 – Aleksander Zelwerowicz Award of the monthly magazine Teatr for the role of Leon in Jean-Claude Grumberg’s The Workshop at the Television Theatre directed by Pszoniak himself, and for the role of François Pignon in Francis Veber’s The Dinner Game, directed by Wojciech Adamczyk at the Ateneum Theatre in Warsaw;
- 2008 – Order of Merit of the Republic of France for his contribution to the development of Polish-French relations in the field of culture.
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, July 2003; updated: November 2009; transl. Bozhana Nikolova, updated: October 2020
the promised land
The Rite of Passage
the gorgonowa case
to kill a priest
In the last decade, he acted in Stanisław Mucha's Hope, based on part of Krzysztof Piesiewicz's 2006 triptych Wiara-Nadzieja-Miłość (Faith-Hope-Love). He also acted in Janusz Morgenstern's last film, Mniejsze Zło (Lesser Evil, 2009), Janusz Majewski's The Rite of Passage (2010) and Rafael Lewandowski's The Mole (2010).
In 2015, he appeared on the silver screen in Jacek Lusiński's Carte Blanche and Majewski's The Eccentrics: On the Sunny Side of the Street. From time to time, he also appeared in television series: he appeared in Oficerowie, Second Act, and Agnieszka Holland's US mini-series Rosemary's Baby (2014). His last roles were in Dariusz Błaszczyka's televised play Hanoch Odchodzi Bez Słowa (Hanoch Leaves Without a Word) as Rabbi Nachman and Doktor Szebojgan (2016), and as Maurycy Grunberg in Andrzej Strzelecki's Paradiso.