In a village hall near Warsaw, Danielak Lutek conducts his audience in a rousing performance of Ritmo Carnvale. At least, he tries. They’re unconvinced; close up, his face breaks into a desperate sweat. He demands they sing—”tonight, you are all soloists!”—and the song is warped to absurdity as they do; the ‘La La La’, a recurrent motif, reflective of those living through the contradictions of 1970s communist Poland.
Faking it until you make it is at the heart of Wodzirej (Top Dog). Lutek (Jerzy Stuhr) is a small-town entertainer with big ambitions, who will stop at nothing to achieve his aim of hosting his town’s 500th anniversary celebrations. As he tries to be picked as ‘MC’ by the weekend, we see how his many jobs are more than mere work for Lutek but are instead his way of life, a performance in themselves. Indeed, Lutek’s so set on his goal that, he forgets his own thirtieth birthday.
Young and old alike are guided into circle dances; wedding parties play Champagne Macabre, ducking as Lutek swings the glass bottle by a rope in a deathly and dynamic game of limbo. His talents extend to marketing, as he comperes fashion shows and chucks new, imported products into the crowd: “Cheese can’t harm anyone because it’s processed!”
Wodzirej caused controversy upon its release in Poland in 1977 for its exposé of weak moral codes and corruption. Its director Feliks Falk (also an artist and theatre director) worked at Andrzej Wajda’s X film studio, at the forefront of the emerging Cinema of Moral Anxiety.
Falk’s fantastic story is matched by Edward Klosinski’s cinematography. His evocation of communist Poland is partly why the film became an instant classic. Lutek’s scramble takes us through wood-panelled rooms, past concrete walls peppered with 500 lat posters, to the office of the President of the Housing Co-operative, which he bribes his way into with a cheeky grin and a sparkler. The social climber stops only to stuff his face on ‘set menu h2’, just 25 złoty.
These familiar scenes received knowing laughs from the many Poles in the audience at Kinoteka Polish Film Festival 2023, London’s annual film festival devoted to contemporary and classic cinema. (“That song, one person says one to another, “played at my wedding!”) The production bears the charming marks of its age in more ways than one. The sound dips in and out as if in a dream or state of nostalgia. Stuhr’s effortless humour is as visual as it is vocal, and sometimes even unintentional, as he overacts his silent mouthing to his partner.
More subtle, and powerful, is the use of colour. Red abounds; in the stolen drinks, the pencil used to write the names of Lutek’s competitors, the blood which courses down their punched faces—and his own, at the film’s crescendo. Again and again, we see the red and white of the national flag, reflecting the contrasts—and contradictions—of communist Poland. Iron bannisters cut across the cream and white walls in blocks of flats.
Lutek refreshes himself with white snow, after swapping sex for secrets from his former colleague Mela. She is one of many women draped in red—other blondes get scarlet feather boas and dresses—speaking to how women’s bodies are often prime locations onto which ideas of national identity are projected.
We also see women as symbols of Polish internationalism, performing the samba to songs like ‘Erotico Tico Tico’. Gendered power dynamics are apparent;tt is the men who debate whether to present dancing women as Brazilian or Cuban.They decide it doesn’t matter, so long as they dance in red bikinis.
Wodzirej truly decentres the Western European-centric narrative of Internationalism and globalisation. Lutek passively listens to English-language cassettes—‘Tom likes punctual people. He likes people who are punctual’—but they are strictly background noise to his everyday life. When he presses his face against the shop windows, filled with new TV screens, the shows he watches and aspires towards aren’t Western European. Indeed, he shares more in common with the traditions of Iranian ‘showmen’ than any English TV presenter.
This transnational solidarity is apparent in the overlaps with Central and Eastern European cultures, including the Balkans. Visuals and language resound too with those from Yugoslavia. Govno—it’s always the swears that are shared across borders, though the ‘thank yous’ which otherwise fill the film speak to Lutek’s performative politeness.
The film’s international success—including winning the Golden Plaque at Chicago 1979—is reflected in its contemporary understanding. The Kinoteka screening at Ciné Lumière, part of the Institut français du Royaume-Uni (French Institution), is testament to Polish culture’s continued global reach. But its cinema remains under-appreciated by audiences, often relegated to annual festivals like Kinoteka rather than integrated into mainstream programming. Perhaps it’s true too in Poland; many may recognise Stuhr first as the voice actor for the Polish-dubbed Shrek 2.
The sights of homemade lemon liquers and blue-and-white ceramic plates of borscht leaves its audience hungry and longing for more. And the experience can continue, for a privileged few. Diasporic diners carried on to Ognisko Polskie (Polish Hearth Club), part of the Polish Cultural Institute, for potato-stuffed pierogi, pickled gherkins, and rye bread. The food was served alongside avant-garde performances, inspired by Stołeczna Estrada Entertainment and led by Margot Przymierska, and a promise to evoke the world of communist Warsaw.
What can we in post-communist and post-socialist diasporas really take from such events? Do they perpetuate conservatism in the diaspora, or inequalities between those with communities concentrated in cities and those dispersed in towns and across regions? Understanding who has the privilege to attend in the first place is no doubt instructive as to who has the privilege to feel nostalgic about the past.
This isn’t an isolated case. Red tinfoil curtains hang too in the Moth Club, a reworked working men’s club in northeast London which hosts nights devoted to the music of the 1970s and 1980s. Here, as in Lutek’s small-town clubs, they hang as artefacts of a nostalgia which permeates into younger generations, detached from time and place.
Words by Jelena Sofronijevic
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