This documentary portrait of Michał Waszyński is a story about both the elusiveness of truth and the mystery that defines human beings. The dashing documentary directed by Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski was awarded the Venezia Classici prize in Venice in 2017. Culture.pl co-produced the film.
Waszyński was Jewish, but for many years he did not acknowledge his roots; he was gay, but married an older, well-off countess in 1946; he was the son of a smith, but presented himself in the West as a Polish aristocrat. In the 1930s he was one of the most recognisable Polish film-makers (he was the director of the famous Dybbuk) yet after the war he did not disclose that he had been a successful director. Instead, he would make up stories about his alleged military service in General Anders' army. However, the actual soldiers never confirmed his story.
Michał Waszyński was a Zelig of Polish cinema – a human-myth, a chameleon hiding behind lies, half-truths, and poses. He was also the most mysterious film-maker of his time.
Książę i dybuk. The Prince and the Dybbuk. Zwiastun. Trailer
In The Prince and The Dybbuk, Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski strive to get beneath the surface of these myths in order to discover the truth about Waszyński as both a human and an artist. The film is structured in a patchwork manner, combining archival recordings, stories of people who met him, and excerpts from a documental investigation carried out by two amazing directors.
The starting point for the film was the book The Man Who Wanted to be a Prince by Samuel Blumenfeld. It demystified Waszyński and revealed his mythomania. However, searching for sensation in this film is pointless. It is not based on controversies involving Waszyński's sexuality, affairs or marriage with the rich countess. It also does not report on the financial scams that he was said to have committed. This film is not a bill of indictment of a man creating his image through lies but rather an attempt to understand him as a person and get to know him.
As Piotr Rosłowski said in a conversation with Krzysztof Gierat:
Our attitude towards him changed. Firstly, we were fascinated with the Leonard Zelig alter ego of his, a chameleon-man, a person who would always fall on his feet, never made a wrong decision and, wherever he was, would always be on the spotlight. As we got more into the analysis of his movies when we gained new material, we started to see the mystery he tried to hide. That is everything he had in his subconscious: the Jewish shtetl, his roots that he disowned, the love he felt for another man that appeared in his life quite early and also affected him as a person. All this together marked his image with bitterness and sadness.
This is how The Prince and The Dybbuk became a psychological documentary, or rather a psychologising one. Following Waszyński’s trail, the authors strive to find out why he scrupulously tried to hide from the outside world by masking himself. The answer is to be found in The Dybbuk – the greatest work of his, in which he revealed the truth about his Jewishness, forbidden desires, sense of guilt, and a world that disappeared irretrievably.
Niewiera and Rosołowski – the creators of the widely acclaimed Domino Effect – use the experiences of the character as a metaphor for collective fate. In their previous documentary about a Russian-Abkhaz marriage, the private story also became a more general narrative about exclusion and divides between people. It is also the case with The Prince and The Dybbuk – a simple biography is at the same time a story of Jewish fate and the unbearable gravity of history. This was indeed too much to handle for Waszyński – instead of handling it, he escaped into myth and fictional tales. He hid in his fictive characters and stories larger than life.
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Still from The Prince and the Dybbuk by Elwira Niewiera & Piotr Rosołowski, 2017, photo: Against Gravity
While narrating Waszyński’s escape from demons and dybbuks, Niewiera and Rosołowski created a very touching and elegant film. They achieved this thanks to the tenderness with which they presented the private life of the character, but also with the help of the film’s layers. Apart from conversations with some witnesses of Waszyński’s life and some elements from his films, The Prince and The Dybbuk includes excerpts from films and chronicles from the epoch, including works by Man Ray, Andrzej Munk, and Bohdan Poręba, which help in placing Waszyński's story in certain geographical contexts. Thanks to them, the viewers are able to experience the adventure along with the main character, following him from the Jewish shtetl to palaces in Italy and the movie sets of blockbuster productions, starring, among others, Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale, and Audrey Hepburn.
In 2018 this film received a joint award with Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk for the best film about music and art at the 15th Millennium Docs Against Gravity Film Festival.
The Prince and The Dybbuk. Script and dir. Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski. Photo: Piotr Rosołowski. Montage: Andrzej Dąbrowski. Production: Małgorzata Zacharko, Matthias Miegel, Ann Carolin Renninger. Poland, Germany 2017.
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by Karolina Mroczkowska, July 2018