The first time I saw a Polish comedy occurred years before I moved to Poland or even had met a Pole. When I was a teenager, the British TV station Channel 4 often showed some rather obscure movies. One of the films was Polish and led to the following discussion at my school between a group of teenage boys:
Boy1: Hey lads, there was a film on TV last called ‘Sex Mission’!
Boy2: Shit, I missed it.
Boy3: Don’t worry. I recorded it.
Boy2: Was there any sex in it?
Boy1: No sex, but lots of naked women.
Boy2: Can I borrow the tape?
The VHS tape was passed from boy to boy so we could all watch the film. There were even some heated arguments about who got to borrow it first. When he made the film, I doubt that Juliusz Machulski imagined his film would cause fights between teenage boys at the other end of Europe.
So what did a 14 year-old Scottish boy make of Seksmisja?
- I remember finding it really funny, especially Jerzy Stuhr’s performance.
- I was knowledgeable enough to get the joke about Marie Curie being a woman (a może Curie-Skłodowska też?).
- I learned that the Polish word for ‘replay’ is the same as in English… only there are too few of them.
- When Maks says kierunek Wschód, tam musi być jakaś cywilizajca (we go East, there must be some civilization that way), I thought it was a practical suggestion. Missing the irony completely, I knew that civilization started in Greece, and that it was east of Scotland. So, I thought that going in the direction of Plato, Aristotle and Homer seemed like a good call.
Years later when I moved to Poland and Poles urged me to watch a film called Seksmisja, I could tell them ‘actually, I saw that years ago!‘ Of course, I would pretend that I watched it because I was an intelligent child who liked foreign films… and not because of its title!
Seksmisja is part of the Polish comedy pantheon. When I started living in Poland, there was a consistent pattern to the films that Poles recommended, and I was repeatedly encouraged to watch comedies from the 70s and 80s, particularly Rejs, Seksmisja and Miś.
But what is it like to watch these films through foreign eyes? Did I find them funny? Did I understand the satire? Did I even understand what’s going on?
First up, I decided to try the film that Poles pronounced ‘Race’. With such a title, I assumed it was a fast-paced action movie – the Polish version of ‘The Fast and Furious’ or something. But actually, it turned out that the title was Rejs meaning ‘cruise’, and the film wasn’t very fast, and it definitely wasn’t furious.
And I must admit that when I watched Rejs for the first time I understood it less than I understood Seksmisja as a 14-year old! While Miś and Seksmisja have a clear story that you can follow, the plot in Rejs is like the kiełbasa belonging to Jan Himilsbach’s character – it disappears in front of your eyes. Who are the passengers? Where are they going? Why do they have all those meetings? Why does the stowaway (played by Stanisław Tym) start organizing cultural events? Why all the gymnastics?
And the language is another challenge. It’s not the tempo of the speech – which is actually quite slow and clear – it’s that some of the vocabulary goes way over my head:
It’s by saying służbowo that Stanisław Tym is allowed onto the boat in the first place. I understood that it meant ‘on business’, but he didn’t look like he was there to repair the engine or check the navigation system, so what kind of business did he have? Another key moment is when someone writes głupi kaowiec in the ladies toilet. What’s a kaowiec? And why is it written in the ladies’ toilet? My first thought was that kaowiec was the person who made cocoa for the crew, but wouldn’t that be a kakaowiec?
When the engineer Mamoń says that a w filmie polskim, proszę pana… nic się nie dzieje. (in Polish films… nothing happens) he wasn’t even considering the perspective of a foreigner who is watching Rejs for the first time. Without knowing the language, the political situation in Poland at the time and key reference points in everyday culture, a foreigner misses so much that, indeed, on first viewing, it does seem like nothing is going on.
In Miś, on the other hand, there’s so much going on, but the challenge is to separate the satire from reality. Not having lived in Poland during the communist period, I didn’t know which scenes are based on real situations, which jokes are satire and which were invented for the film:
- were the spoons in milk bars really chained to the tables?
- in kiosks were the best-selling products shampoo, meat and aftershave (for drinking)?
- did they really sing patriotic songs about Trasa Łazienkowska?
- was kiełbasa a form of currency?
- were passports handed over during a ceremony with music and dancing dwarves?
Another thing that confused me was the scene when trainer Jarząbek sings Łubu dubu, łubu dubu, niech żyje nam prezes naszego klubu. Niech żyje nam! I had no idea what was going on. Why was he singing into a tape recorder hidden in the wardrobe? What does łubu dubu mean? Is this satire or is the actor just a famous Polish rapper? It’s so easy to Miś-understand!
What I love in Bareja’s films are the huge number of supporting characters who have short vignettes – whether it’s drunks lying in the street who comment as the main characters pass by, or people who burst into kiosks carrying their mother on a stretcher – it gives his films the feel of comedy sketch show and reminds me of Monty Python movies. In Miś, for instance, the film repeatedly shows two cleaning ladies sitting in the Gents toilets at the Tęcza sports club. These women gossip about Ryszard’s situation and interact with a male employee who comes in to use the facilities, and thanks to this, the audience gets an update on the plot. I couldn’t help wondering whether they had a dramatic purpose as a ‘Greek chorus’ or were they included because there were always two cleaning ladies eating lunch and gossiping in the toilets during communist times?
One of the interesting things in Miś is how the UK is perceived. While it was portrayed as a safe place to keep your money, Ryszard does have to put up with terrible bureaucracy when he discovers there’s a strike at the bank. Yet the best part is Paluch’s description of his imagined trip to the UK – trudno wytrzymać człowieku…Taką rudą wódę piją, na myszach!… taki malutki wypijesz, dwa dni nieprzytomny jesteś‘ (it’s hard to cope…they drink this red water, for/made of mice…drink a small one and you’re unconscious for two days).
Being Scottish, I was keen to hear his thoughts on whisky, but I couldn’t work out if he meant it was ‘for mice’ or ‘made from mice’. In either case, it’s ironic because my description of Poland would be similar: ‘it’s hard to cope…they drink this white water made from mice.. drink a small one and you’re unconscious for two days’.
In conclusion, I definitely think that these films should definitely come with some sort of rating. Some films are rated 18 or 15, others are PG (parental guidance), which means a child can watch but should have an adult with them. These Polish comedies should have a new category of rating:
- PolG – Polish Guidance – Foreigners can watch these films but should be accompanied by a Pole who will help to provide context and explain the jokes. If an unaccompanied foreigner tries to buy a ticket for one of these films, then they should be escorted out of the cinema by security.
Besides the guidance, there’s one other trick to really appreciating these films, and that’s to watch them at least three or four times. To quote Maks in Seksmisja, what you need more than anything is a… replay, replay!
So finally we come to the key question: did I find these films funny? Undoubtedly, yes! They are hilarious, and that is saying something when you consider that I only got 30% of the jokes during the first viewing!
Back when I was 14 years old, my first ever contact with Polish culture or the Polish language was watching Seksmisja with subtitles. If the film had been dull, if the jokes weren’t funny or the acting wooden, then I doubt I would have ended up living in Poland years later.
What bigger influence can a movie have than that?