Dir:- Jacek Koprowicz

Starr:- Jerzy Stuhr, Maciej Stuhr, Ewa Błaszczyk, Karolina Gruszka, Ewa Dalkowska, Wojciech Pszoniak

In terms of twentieth century Polish art and culture Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (or Witkacy as he was better known) is perhaps best thought of as the enfant terrible, or chief prankster, of the first half of the century. Since his bizarre suicide in 1939, as the Nazi’s came marching into Poland, Witkacy has become an increasingly significant figure in literature, painting, photography and theatre. Very much an anarchic polymath, Witkacy seemed to revel in a certain degree of notoriety within his own lifetime, which has been only amplified thanks to the influence he had on late-twentieth century Polish cultural icons, such as Tadeusz Kantor. Even after his death Witkacy was still capable of creating a scandalous scene, as in 1994 it was discovered that his body was not buried at the site in which the Communist regime had claimed to have buried him in Zakopane.

This latest movie by Łódź filmmaker Jacek Koprowicz, who was responsible for directing the suitably macabre and almost wholly unique 1985 Polish horror Medium, explores the myth-making and fabulations that swirled around Witkacy, long after his death, in a quirky and absurdly comic manner, that isn’t too far from the tone of some of Witkacy’s own works. The movie is predominately set in 1960’s Communist Poland, around the period when the regime was apparently lending a little legitimacy to many eccentric rumours about Witkacy’s death (which some have suggested was merely to drown out the suspicious suicide of political activist and writer Jerzy Zawieyski). Maciej Stuhr, plays a student and bureaucrat, called Łazowski, who has become obsessed with Witkacy, making him the subject of his failed academic thesis. Increasingly convinced that the great artist is still very much alive, Łazowski begins to investigate the domestic life of Witkacy’s last love Czesława Oknińska (played with a real mania by Ewa Błaszczyk), who attempted suicide with Witkacy in 1939, but survived. Oknińska seems to lead a rather subdued and reclusive life in a suburb of Łodz. Only occasionally  does she venture outside the confines of her small flat, that is maniacally covered in Witkacy paintings and drawings.  One particularly ritualistic scene in the film involves Oknińska’s’s ordering of a beer in a restaurant called Giewont (which references the mountain upon which Zakopane is located), but aside from that the other sequences involving her seem to be culled from elements of Witkacy’s literary and theatrical work, in particular The Madman and the Nun and The Crazy Locomotive.

Within Polish cinema Jerzy Stuhr (best known to international audiences for his lead role in Kieslowski’s Camera Buff (Amator) and a supporting turn in the same director’s Three Colours: White) is very much cinematic royalty. As the star of the hugely popular Polish comedy Seksmisja, Stuhr is one of the most familiar faces from Polish cinema of the last three decades. Whilst among the younger generation of Polish actors Stuhr’s son Maciej has risen to increasing prominence in recent features such as Testosteron. Father and son have worked together five times in total, but Mistyfikacja is the first time that Maciej has appeared alongside his father in a film, not directed by Jerzy, since Maciej’s debut performance in Kieslowski’s 1989 Dekalog series of short features.

Stuhr Senior seems to really enjoy himself as the lascivious, exhibitionistic Witkacy, who has had to come to terms with the dramatically reduced circumstances of a pokey Soviet-era flat. Koprowicz never clarifies whether we are to read Witkacy’s appearances within Oknińska’s flat as real, or rather the wild imaginings of her diseased mind. This narrative trickery manages to simulate some of the mood of the times, with many people being convinced by Witkacy’s elaborate posthumous pranking. The gently absurd comedy of these domestic scenes, are underscored with a touch of pathos when considering just how terrifying a prospect Soviet rule would have been for an individualist like Witkacy. In amongst these domestic hauntings, there is a scene that reoccurs at the films close, involving Witkacy painting a portrait of a barber’s young bride, and being unable to keep his hands off the woman who is the subject of the picture. It gives a minor role to the veteran Polish character actor Wojciech Pszoniak (one of the stars of Wajda’s wonderful Łódż drama Ziemia Obiecana), but also serves to further fracture and fragment an already slightly convoluted chronology.

Mistyfikacja follows the pattern of movies like The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, by reimagining and fictionalising a historically, or culturally, significant individual’s biography. Yet Koprowicz perhaps has more purpose to his fictional tangents, as Mistyfikacja serves both as a biographical ‘what if…?’ and an atmospheric account of a peculiar incident in recent Polish history. Although what Koprowicz shows is a stylised rendering of events, much of the history is accurate, as Witkacy’s lovers really did receive mail from Witkacy posted after his death and there was a real sense that Witkacy had in fact been conducting the ultimate practical joke. However, as with much of modern Polish cinema that focuses on the recent Soviet past, there is the problem of specificity when it comes to international audiences. Witkacy is a remarkable Polish cultural figure, but despite some prominence during the 60’s and 70’s within theatrical and avant-garde art circles, his international reputation is somewhat low-key. It is difficult to imagine that too many non-Polish audience members would pick up on some of the more subtle references within the film, which could make the plot seem confusing for all the wrong reasons.

Ultimately, though, this issue of a national cinema’s reach shouldn’t detract from the relative merits of a motion picture. Mistyfikacja has none of the exotic visual texture of Medium, but it does manage to establish a fairly intriguing and mysterious atmosphere. The principal performers all deliver, with Błaszczyk, in particular, seeming to embrace the mannered style of performance frequently associated with Witkacy’s work. Whilst the movie may lack the substance of a more detailed biopic, it does still work quite entertainingly as an introduction to its subject, and even though it fails to offer as stimulating an experience as Koprowicz’s debut masterpiece, it does have an engaging, free-wheeling energy that makes it mildly diverting at the very least.