"THE PRINCE AND THE DYBBUK" - THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MOSZE WAKS. INTERVIEW WITH THE DIRECTORS
Krzysztof Gierat: It's not a traditional portrait film and that was probably your premise. The film shows a lot when it comes to Michał Waszyński's professional life, but you obviously didn't think about making a straightforward biography about him.
Elwira Niewiera: No, because in film we are always interested in personal stories, the experiences of characters. Here we were dealing with someone who had deliberately hidden and obscured things, who gave us a fragmented story and so we had a much greater challenge in terms of piecing together this mosaic of his life. Making a purely biographical film has never crossed our minds. It seemed to us that we had to go deeper into this character. It's a bit metaphysical, but Jola Dylewska (a brilliant cinematographer, the author of Po-Lin – editor's note) told us before shooting that when you're making a film about someone who's dead, it's not completely indifferent to them. While working on this film, we felt that Waszyński accompanied us, and he also needed time for us to take up certain themes.
KG: What you said is very beautiful, because this film is very metaphysical, but also, what's highlighted by the final caption – “in memory of Michał Waszyński” – it's also made with great sensitivity and respect for him.
Piotr Rosołowski: We're fascinated by this character, the mystery and complexity of a man who had so many different faces and was, at the same time, a very delicate person inside; someone who paid a great price for the luxury of being invented from the ground up.
EN: While reviewing the film in the editing room, after we had edited the final scene, I burst into tears, and that gave birth to the idea of adding the dedication “in memory of Michał Waszyński”. Personally, I am very grateful to fate that I was able to explore such a story.
KG: The motif of the Dybbuk, given to Polish culture by Ansky, but popularised by Waszyński, fascinates Polish artists despite the fact that it comes from a different religious and cultural area. But we also had our dziady, we had our Gustaw who transformed into Konrad, so it's not that distant, isn't it?
PR: This is the phenomenon of Waszyński's “Dybbuk”. The film, which captivated the Polish audience at the end of the 1930s, was shot completely in Yiddish and, despite taking place in Poland, these Polish contexts are completely absent. It is set in a Jewish shtetl and remains completely immersed in this world. It was almost completely isolated from its Polish neighbourhood. Already at that time the critics were surprised by this paradox: exotic, and at the same time close and understandable. The word “dybbuk” is also present in Polish culture: a ghost that can follow and haunt you. The culture of Ashkenazi Jews is also part of Polish culture and this legacy makes up the richness of the place where we were growing up.
KG: As you are well aware, a few years ago Łukasz Maciejewski wrote a great screenplay for a feature film which was supposed to focus on Dybbuk's production. The film has not yet been made. How was it in your case, where did this idea come from?
EN: The first impulse was Samuel Blumenfeld's book “Człowiek, który chciał być księciem” (“The Man Who Wanted to be a Prince”), which was released in Poland in 2008, but we learned that a film about Waszyński was being made, a Polish-German co-production. When we were finishing the “Domino Effect”, it turned out that the project had fallen through during the financing stage. We started the preliminary research almost overnight, which was very time-consuming and continued almost until the last day of editing. This was mainly due to the fact that our hero passed away 50 years ago, so many people who could actually say something about him, unfortunately, are also dead. A breakthrough came when we reached his family in Israel and foster family in Italy.
KG: Did your attitude towards him change during production, or did you constantly have in mind Jola Dylewska's words that he would accompany you at all times and you had to be wary not to harm him?
EN: We never thought that we have to be careful. I was constantly accompanied by a sensation of encountering difficulties along the way, but at some point we felt that we had gained Waszyński's trust and had his permission to go on. For example, we started working on the issue of homosexuality very late. This was the aspect that met with the most resistance.
PR: Our attitude towards him evolved. At first there was a fascination with this Leonard Zelig alter ego of sorts, the human chameleon, the man who always landed on his feet, who made almost no bad calls throughout his life, and wherever he appeared – he was always in the spotlight. However, when analysing his films, while coming more and more new material, his secret began to emerge. Everything that he pushed into his subconsciousness – the Jewish shtetl, the roots he renounced, his love for a boy which appeared quite early and also left a mark on him, all this added bitterness and sadness to the character. Almost simultaneously we started looking for things that would bring us closer to his personality, but it wasn't easy.
EN: Naturally, we needed time to understand this complex personality of his.
PR: Downright schizophrenic. For example, during the production of Dybbuk, he used Yiddish interpreters – despite growing up in a Jewish shtetl in Kovel, where everyone spoke Yiddish.
KG: And did he also hide his pre-war film past?
EN: Everybody who met him after the war had no idea that he was a director.
PR: That he was such an important director in Poland. After he settled in Rome, he did not maintain any relationship with the Polish diaspora. He simply created his new identity of Prince Waszyński, and was well aware that the Polish community would be able to expose his masquerade, so he mainly kept to film and aristocratic circles.
KG: We have a hero who wears different masks. A Jew pretends to be an aristocrat, a gay man marries a countess. However, wouldn't it have been easier for him in the film world to have the past of a prolific creator of the Polish interwar period?
EN: No one we talked to knew of his pre-war achievements. He probably assumed that “aristocrat” did not rhyme with “director”.
KG: But it does with “producer”, of all things. (laughs)
EN: That's why the role of a producer was so important for him later on and he no longer aspired to direct films.
PR: In fact, these are all our speculations, we don't really know that. However, we've often heard about his motto that what's ahead, new challenges, was the most important. He always tried to give the impression of someone who does not look back. Many people said very similar things about him – always very elegant, always drew attention to himself, that he was a very exceptional person, charismatic, friendly, and that he was able to find a common language with everyone.
EN: Imagine that we once went to Las Vegas for an interview with a production manager, who told us over the phone – “I used to drink coffee with him every day! How could I not know him?” No questions asked, we flew straight to Las Vegas, and this old man...
PR: He was about 90 years old.
EN: ...he says – “You know, that's amazing, I actually used to drink coffee with him every day, but I can't really say anything about him”.
KG: My first reflection after watching the film was that you made a classy film. This term refers both to your relationship with the hero and the narration, the artistic qualities of the film. The fact that it's extremely rich not only in terms of the terrific interviewees in various location is one thing, but you have an incredible amount of archival material, which the viewer fully identifies only at the end, by reading in the end titles that there's e.g. Munk or even Poręba in the film! (laughs)
EN: 28 different sources, imagine that.
PR: Even Man Ray is there!
KG: This allows you to locate these stories in particular places and at a particular time. Newsreels are featured from time to time. You didn't tinker with them at all? These were all verbatim comments from those reels?
PR: There was relatively little footage with Waszyński from the interwar period. On the other hand, we found quite a lot of press releases, conversations with him, and interviews. We composed two short newsreels from them, which served to convey important information to the audience, and at the same time maintain a certain formal consistency with the entire film.
KG: The film is built a bit like an investigation, but it's not a dry, matter-of-fact study, but rather a metaphysical tale, and it feels that you are not interested in discovering the complete story, only the truth...
EN: There is none!
KG: But through a tale you suggest a way of interpreting these events, with compassion and sympathy towards the hero, understanding his escape into masks...
EN: In our opinion, Waszyński disowned himself because it was too difficult for him to bear the burden of his own past. And that's why he decided to reinvent himself.
PR: This film is a bit like the complex figure of Waszyński, it has different layers. On the one side, there's some investigating, and on the other there is a spiritual layer, an attempt to enter his psyche. This is the more metaphorical layer. We were looking for a balance that would combine it all. In his book, Samuel Blumenfeld devoted a lot of attention to yet another of Waszyński's faces – the man who pulled lots of financial scams during these big productions. We could not find enough footage to put it into the film. Ultimately, I guess that some kind of emotional bond with him took the upper hand.
KG: It shows in how it is produced, the symbolism of individual shots, the mysticism of journals, the shadows, the pervasion, the vagueness, and the clashes of various, seemingly very distant, film scenes, such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of the pre-war world of the Jews in Poland. But... somehow all this is – to say in the language of film – “developed”.
EN: Yes, that's true.
KG: And you always emphasize this duality. The hero himself speaks about the magic of cinema here. A king may become a shepherd, and a beggar may become a rich man. Since a film is a dream, since a film is a great lie, why not lie in life if it does not hurt others? Although, as you mentioned, it could sometimes hurt, as he dabbled in some financial scams.
EN: He also had a gift of sorts; he appeared and disappeared at precisely the right moment. When these financial problems came up, he died. Just like that.
PR: During a party, while sipping champagne, he teleported to another space. Waszyński died two weeks before the bankruptcy of Samuel Bronston Production, where he played a key role, while its main owner was dragged around by various debt collectors and prosecutors for the next 10 years. As always, he knew when to appear and when to disappear.
Source: "Focus on Poland" Magazine issue 6 (2/2017); on main photo Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski at 74th Venice FF © Film Art Production