29 June 2014

Zbigniew Cybulski

At the XXVIII edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna, Italy, there is a special section on Polish cinema and Cinemascope. Polish cinema came to international prominence with a cinematic movement that flourished during the 1950s and 1960s, and pressed a fresh and controversial vision of World War II which set in motion a sort of national therapy session. One of the renowned masterpieces is Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie/The Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Has, 1965) – surrealism on epic scale starring the great Zbigniew Cybulski (1927-1967). With his trademark leather clothes and dark glasses, Cybulski is often referred to as ´the Polish James Dean´. He symbolised the angry feelings of young Poles trying to deal with their tumultuous post-WW II world. During his brief film career, he became one of the best-known and most versatile actors of the East-European cinema.

Zbigniew Cybulski
German postcard by Kunst und Bild, Berlin-Charlottenburg, no. S 758. Photo: CCC Film. Publicity still for Ósmy dzień tygodnia/The Eighth Day of the Week (Aleksander Ford, 1958).

The Young And Wrathful

In 1927, Zbigniew Hubert Cybulski was born in the small village of Kniaże near Stanisławów, Poland (now Ukraine). After World War II, ´Zbyszek´ joined the Theatre Academy in Kraków, where he graduated in 1953. He also studied journalism.

He moved to Gdańsk, where he made his stage debut in Leon Schiller's Wybrzeże Theatre. With his friend Bogumił Kobiela, Cybulski also founded the famous student theatre Bim-Bom.

In 1960, Cybulski moved to Warsaw, where he joined the Wagabunda experimental theatre. He also appeared on the stage of the Ateneum theatre, one of the most modern Warsaw-based theatres of the epoch. There he also worked as a director.

However, Zbigniew Cybulski is best remembered as a screen actor. He first appeared in Kariera/Career (Jan Koecher, 1954) as one of the extras (a bus passenger).

That year he also appeared as Kostek in Pokolenie/A Generation (Andrzej Wajda, 1955) starring Tadeusz Łomnicki and with the later director Roman Polanski in a supporting part. The film is based on the novel Pokolenie by Bohdan Czeszko, who also wrote the script.

Pokolenie was Wajda's first film and the opening instalment of what became his Three War Films trilogy set in the Second World War. On its face, the film is a coming-of-age story of survival and shattering loss, delivering a brutal portrait of the human cost of war. But as with all of Wajda's films, Polish history and the individual's struggle in the face of crushing political circumstances are just below the surface.

In Pokolenie, as later in Popiół i diament/Ashes and Diamonds, the communists and the nationalist Home Army, each representing a diametrically opposed view of Poland's future, are set on a collision course.

Cybulski´s first major roles came in the thriller Wraki/The Wrecks (Ewa Petelska, Czeslaw Petelski, 1957) and Krzyż Walecznych/Cross of Valor (Kazimierz Kutz, 1958).

Then he appeared as Resistance fighter Maciek Chelmicki, one of the main characters in Wajda's Popiół i diament/Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958). This became his internationally most famous film. After the film's release, sales of sunglasses shot up because Cybulski wore them consistently throughout the film.

Ashes and Diamonds is based on the 1948 novel by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski. It completed Wajda's war films trilogy, following Pokolenie/A Generation (1954) and Kanal/Canal (1956). The title comes from a 19th century poem by Cyprian Norwid and references the manner in which diamonds are formed from heat and pressure acting upon coal.

In 1958 Cybulski also played in Aleksander Ford's Ósmy dzień tygodnia/The Eighth Day of the Week (1958) based on a short story by Marek Hłasko. Since then, Cybulski was seen as one of the most notable actors of the Polish Film School and one of the ´young and wrathful´, as his generation of actors were called at the time. His style of acting was revolutionary at the time as was his image with his leather clothes and big sunglasses. Like James Dean, he played nonconformist rebels, and like him he died young.

Zbigniew Cybulski
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, no. 2.164, 1964. Photo: Progress.

Zbigniew Cybulski
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, no. 1.969, 1964. Photo: Progress.

A Legend Of The Polish Cinema

Zbigniew Cybulski continued to work with Andrzej Wajda and appeared in Niewinni czarodzieje/Innocent Sorcerers (Andrzej Wajda, 1960), with Tadeusz Łomnicki and Roman Polanski.

Twice he worked on Western-European productions. He starred in the French-Italian science fiction film La poupée/He, She or It (Jacques Baratier, 1962), and also appeared in the French-produced omnibus project L'amour à vingt ans/Love at Twenty (1962) by Pierre Roustang, consisting of five segments directed by five directors from five different countries.

Cybulski starred in the fifth segment, directed by Andrzej Wajda and entitled Warszawa/Warsaw, considered as one of the best segments. It depicts a brief intergenerational liaison based upon multiple misunderstandings. The episodes are tied together with still photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson and a Jazz soundtrack by Georges Delerue. La Poupée and L'amour à vingt ans were both entered into the 12th Berlin International Film Festival.

Cybulski started his successful cooperation with director Wojciech Has with the films Rozstanie/Goodbye to the Past (1961) and Jak być kochaną/How to be Loved (1963).

Their best-known film is Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie/The Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Has, 1965). The film was a relative success in Poland and other parts of communist eastern Europe upon its release, winning the Golden Wolf at the 1965 Bucharest Film Festival. It later also achieved a level of critical success in the United States, when filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola rediscovered it and encouraged its propagation.

Another critical success was the film drama Salto/Jump (Tadeusz Konwicki, 1965) with Marta Lipinska. The film received an Honorary Diploma at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, 1967.

With Has he worked again on Szyfry/The Codes (Wojciech Has, 1966), about a father searching for his son, who has been missing since WW II.

He also appeared in numerous television plays, including ones based on works by Truman Capote, Anton Chekhov and Jerzy Andrzejewski.

Zbigniew Cybulski died in an accident at a Wrocław Główny railway station on 8 January 1967, on his way from the film set of Yowita/Yovita (Janusz Morgenstern, 1967) with Daniel Olbrychski. As he jumped for the already speeding train (as he had often done), he slipped on the steps, fell under the train, and was run over.

Before the accident he said goodbye to Marlene Dietrich, a personal friend of his, who was a passenger on the train. He was buried in Katowice.

The following year, Wajda made Wszystko na sprzedaz/Everything for Sale as a highly fictionalised tribute to Cybulski. In 1969 the Zbyszek Cybulski Award was introduced for young film actors with a strong individuality.

Cybulski remains a legend of the Polish cinema. In 1996, readers of Film magazine awarded him the title of Best Polish Actor of All Time. The Polish band 2 Plus 1 recorded a tribute album to Cybulski, called Aktor in 1977.

Zbigniew Cybulski was married to assistant director Elzbieta Chwalibóg (1960-1967). Their son Maciek (born in the early 1960s) was never interested in showbusiness and became an architect.

Zbigniew Cybulski
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, no. 1.938, 1963. Photo: Progress.

Sources: AllMovie, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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