Posted by Susan Doll on June 16, 2008
For aficionados of foreign film, great Polish cinema generally brings to mind such names as Wajda, Kieslowski, and Zanussi. Those are the directors who inspire retrospectives at film festivals and whose careers are studied in film schools. But, these type of directors no longer typify Polish cinema, which has managed to survive the many changes and struggles of the post-communist era with commercial fare often patterned after Hollywood genres. The director considered the most commercially successful in all of Polish film history has dominated the Polish box office since the early 1980s, bridging the late communist era and the contemporary commercial industry. His name is Juliusz Machulski, and his string of oddball satires and genre flicks have such a madcap craziness about them that they are immediately recognizable as his.
The son of popular Polish actor Jan Machulski, Juliusz graduated from the famous film school in Lodz in 1978. In 1981, he made his first feature film, Vabank, a caper film in the spirit of Rififi or The Sting. Vabank starred Juliusz’s father, Jan, and it introduced the Polish audience to what would become the Machulski style—broad comedy, slick production values, a Polish twist on a familiar genre, a manic energy, and a preference for oddly imaginative production design.
Over the next two-and-a-half decades, Machulski dabbled in a variety of popular genres, typically giving them a comic spin. In Sexmission (1983), a science fiction romp with echoes of Woody Allen’s Sleeper, two buddies wake up in the future to find they are the only two males in a post-apocalyptic underground society of large women. They discover a magic weapon—kissing—that tames the tyrannical Amazons, turning them into docile kittens. Deja vu (1989) is a Mafia story about a hitman who changes his ways when the city of Odessa, Russia, embraces him with open arms. In Kiler (1997), a hapless taxi driver named Jurek Kiler is mistaken for a professional assassin, because “kiler” is the word for “hitman” in Polish. Not only does Kiler spoof the action genre, it pokes fun at many classic films, including Taxi Driver. Kiler paved the way for Superproduction (2004), a giddy satire of the contemporary commercial cinema industry that Machulski’s films helped make possible. The main character, a film critic turned scriptwriter, endures crooked producers, untalented thespians, cranky critics, and vacuous TV interviewers while trying to see his first script through to production. It’s a microcosm of what has happened to the Polish film industry in its desire to emulate Hollywood as a production model.
No matter the genre, there is an inanity to Machulski’s films that is his calling card. His older movies are perhaps the purest examples of this, and early hits such as Sexmission and Kingsize(1987) reveal an inventive comic mind formulating his talents.
My personal favorite is Kingsize, a sort-of science-fiction fairy tale about a world of teeny-tiny people who live in the basement of an old library in the wooden drawers that used to hold the card catalogue. Barely a few inches tall, the tiny people call themselves Dwarves, and their home is known as Drawerland, though in some subtitled versions, it is called Shuflandia. The Dwarves are led by an oppressive ruler called the Big Eater, played by Machulski favorite Jerzy Stuhr. Dissidence is not allowed in Drawerland, and anyone who opens his mouth too much is sent to “Recovery,” a euphemism for slave labor. It isn’t much of a stretch to see that Drawerland is communist-run Poland, but this message does not get in the way of the fun. However, fear of the Big Eater and his repressive tactics is not the worst part of living in Drawerland—the biggest drawback is the absence of women. (In Sexmission, the world was inhabited only by women.)
The residents of Drawerland dream of going “kingsize,” meaning they yearn to drink the potion that will allow them to grow to the size of human beings who live in the real world. The potion is reserved only for the elite of Drawerland, or for agents who spy in the real world, or occasionally as a reward for those who devote themselves to the Big Eater. Again, any similarities to the old days of communism are surely intentional. The appeal of the real world is wine, women, and song—especially the women—and that appeal is so overpowering that those who crossover do not want to come back. The plot of Kingsize involves a scientist who is trying to reproduce the potion while living in the real world and bring it back to Drawerland so that everyone can experience “kingsize.” When that scientist is kidnapped by Drawerland agents, he is made “micro” again and then sent to Recovery. It is up to his buddies to rescue him from the clutches of the Big Eater.
Zany as the plot may sound, describing the narrative does not do Kingsize justice. It is the inventive set design, the strange vibe, and such peculiar details as referring to the people of the real world as “the Coke Drinkers” that makes you laugh out loud. In Drawerland, the Dwarves find cast-off items from the kingsize world and re-use them in ways appropriate to their micro size. Safety pins are weapons; a colander becomes an apartment; a tea pot is used as a sauna. The police wear bottle caps as helmets, and toy wind-up cars are a good mode of transportation. Seeing these small everyday items in a different scale and context makes the familiar instantly unfamiliar, which is disconcerting at the same time that it is funny.
When a character named Olo returns to the kingsize world without taking the potion, he remains micro among the full-size humans. Again, the familiar turns unfamiliar as Olo struggles to get along in the real world—not unlike poor Scott Carey (played by Grant Williams) in The Incredible Shrinking Man. Too bad Scott was not a character in a Machulski film, because instead of battling nasty kitty cats, Olo finds himself scaling the backside of his naked full-size girlfriend. The image of tiny Olo jumping up and down on her buttocks, then sliding down the curve of her hips is at once erotic and funny—a fine line to walk. Sexmission had a similar approach to sex and humor, and these early films did not escape the scissors of the Soviet censors.
Some see Machulski as the golden boy of Polish cinema because his films brought audiences into the theaters to see home-grown product in the economic chaos of the post-communist era, and his success steered a younger generation of directors on a similar path. From Vabank to Superproduction, his films have experienced major box office success, with Kiler becoming the largest-grossing film in Polish history up to that time. Others see him as a pariah because he steered the industry toward commercial fare that lacks the artistic weight of Wajda, Hoffman, Zanussi, or other lauded directors of Poland’s so-called cinema of morality of the 1970s.
I doubt if Machulski ever makes the film history books, which is too bad because his films have a consistent style that is recognizable, and his twists on established genres are always entertaining. His films also reflect or reveal something about Polish society, just like the work of more lauded directors, but it’s just hidden beneath a surface of special effects, offbeat humor, genre conventions, and broad physical humor.
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