REVIEW: Ksiaze i dybuk [The Prince and the Dybbuk] [2018]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 82 minutes
    Release Date: May 18th, 2018 (Poland)
    Studio: Wide House / Seventh Art Releasing
    Director(s): Elwira Niewiera & Piotr Rosolowski
    Writer(s): Elwira Niewiera & Piotr Rosolowski

He never spoke about his past.

The title says it all: Ksiaze i dybuk [The Prince and the Dybbuk]. Rather than describe two separate entities, however, Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosolowski‘s documentary portrays director Michal Waszynski as both and neither. Their investigations lead them to multiple countries as close friends and basic strangers attempt to piece together who he really was on-set and off. This means interviews with his “second family” in Italy (the Dickmanns), World War II veterans who served in the Polish/Russian unit he documented, an extra from The Fall of the Roman Empire (on which he was a producer and “the boss” to some), distant probable family (the Waks), and many others commenting on his heritage, religion, sexuality, and elegance. He was simultaneously Ukrainian Jew, Catholic Pole, Countess’ husband, and more.

With a wealth of archival footage showing Waszynski at premieres, behind the camera, and enjoying life in one of the many houses he rested his head, there’s no shortage of evidence depicting his public persona. Delving deeper to discover what went on inside his head therefore proves the real challenge. Niewiera and Rosolowski use clips from his films to infer upon this psychological and emotional struggle with identity and the past—the lynchpin being a 1937 Yiddish fantasy entitled The Dybbuk that was name-checked by Joseph Goebbels and perhaps a skeleton key that could unlock his buried demons. Why else would his chauffeur relate a story wherein Waszynski needed to search the city for the dybbuk? Why else would those closest to him not know about his origins?

The answer might be as simple as remembering the fact that Waszynski wasn’t around to set the record straight. For all we know everyone onscreen is merely relaying what they think the truth is. And who are we to question any of it when there’s little to corroborate anyone’s account? What’s even more interesting is that nothing anyone says refutes another’s recollection. The Italians don’t know who he was before he arrived so maybe he was a Jewish teen with the surname Waks in Kovel. Those from Kovel who recognize him in photos don’t know where he went after so maybe he did convert to Catholicism before finding his was to Poland. Was he too fat to be a gulag prisoner? Did he inherit a fortune? Why not?

So while the topic of a film director is definitely niche, there’s plenty of intrigue here beyond discovering more about a guy who worked with Orson Welles, Sophia Loren, and Ava Gardner amongst other Hollywood legends. Besides Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s widow Rosemary, there aren’t any famous-adjacent interviewees to pretend the film is anything more than a fascinating forensic case into an enigmatic man who seemingly transitioned between four or five vastly different lives within his sixty years on Earth. What’s great too is that some of the footage seen was collected rather than shot by Niewiera and Rosolowski. We’re seeing people look at photos and remember his name without prompt. One even says he doesn’t know the man he’s talking about as anything other than “The Polish Prince.”

It may appear like some small detail, but this lends an authenticity that disembodied voices asking, “What do you remember about Michal Waszynski?” can’t. We literally move from the humble Dickmanns in Italy to Kovel because of a photograph. From there we discover a second name, second religion, and second life—the main through-line being that this man was kind, generous, and a filmmaker. Was the image he presented to the world the “real” him or was it the person he pushed aside to become that façade? Does one have to supplant the other or can they co-exist? The answer is in the eye of the beholder because each person we hear cherishes their interactions with the version of Michal they knew. The rest is superfluous.

That’s the draw. This in-flux nature of history as told via first-hand accounts that can only account for bits and pieces of the whole. Niewiera and Rosolowski do a great job putting it all together with clips, interviews, and environmental parallels between the Rome and Kovel of then and now, but it’s that uncertainty born from concrete evidence that sticks with you after the credits. Because this notion that Waszynski made his way out of the chaos of an anti-Jewish Europe to become an honorary prince and countess’ widower could be seen as the result of good and evil. Maybe it was his purity of heart and pride in his work that made him a success or perhaps he did make a deal with the Devil after all.

[3] Waszyński and Orson Welles – copyrights Massimiliano and Oberdan Troiani archives

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