From the archives: Pictures and sounds of a gone world (2011)

July 16, 2012

“My obsession with Warsaw began with a song.” That’s the way the author Ron Nowicki put it in his 1992 book, Warsaw: The Cabaret Years. For the former San Francisco writer, it was a chance encounter with an obscure song which set him on a path to put the shattered pieces of the past back together again. The book looks at cultural life in the Polish capital between the two World Wars. Though out of print, it’s well worth searching out.

Some years ago, Nowicki, a journalist and the founding editor of the San Francisco Review of Books, happened to hear an old recording by Hanka Ordonowna. It was in the soundtrack to a film. Nowicki was enchanted, smitten, and a little taken aback. He had heard nothing like it before. His explorations into the life and recordings of this Slavic chanteuse led him to discover she was the leading cabaret star in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as to write a book around her fame.

The book (left) which grew out of an interest in a Polish singer, Hanka Ordonowna (right).

The book (pictured left) which grew out of an interest in a Polish singer, Hanka Ordonowna (pictured right).

Her beguiling recordings call to mind more familiar efforts by the likes of Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich – though Ordonowna is an original talent in her own right.


I especially like “Milosc ci wszystko wybaczy,” whose title translates as “Love will forgive you everything.” The song was Ordonowna’s biggest hit and was featured in the 1933 film Szpieg w masce (A Spy In The Mask). It was composed by Henryk Wars to lyrics by the noted modern Polish poet Julian Tuwim. I think the YouTube clip embedded below carries the loveliness of the song a little better than this video excerpt from the film.

My other favorite Ordonowna recording is “Na pierwszy znak,” which translates as “At the very first sign.” It was also features lyrics by Tuwim, and was likewise included in Szpieg w masce. Be sure to also give it a listen.

Ordonowna was a familiar name to the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. He remembered her fondly when I had the chance to ask him about the singer, and Nowicki’s book, at one of his very last poetry readings in the Bay Area.

In the 1930′s, long before Milosz left Poland and came to teach at UC Berkeley and win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was associated with the “Catastrophist” school of poetry. The dark, sometimes apocalyptic themes of their work foretold the doom of a generation.

The obliteration of Polish culture – and the demise of the enchanting Hanka Ordonowna – was hastened by the Nazi invasion of September 1, 1939. By the end of the Second World War, Nowicki notes in his book, “Centuries-old buildings were destroyed, museums were bombed and looted, hundreds of thousands of books and manuscripts were burned. The roster of poets, writers and performers who perished during the war is a lengthy one. When Western observers entered Warsaw in 1945 they saw little except rubble. The artist Marek Zulawski, returning home from London, observed: ‘Warsaw is a living ruin’.”

Imagine being able to go back in time and observe the vitality of this gone world. Recordings, the words of poets and novelists, films – each give us that chance.

Lately, I’ve become a little obsessed with a Polish silent film called Mocny Czlowiek (1929). It’s title translates as A Strong Man, and it’s considered one of the greatest of all Polish films. When made, it themes and settings were thought very modern. The film depicts contemporary life in Warsaw at the end of the Twenties.

Like other films that disappeared during World War II, A Strong Man was long considered lost. However, a forgotten copy was found in Belgium in 1997.

Based on a novel by Stanislaw Przybyszewski (a Dostoevskian writer known as “the discoverer of the human naked soul”), A Strong Man tells the story of a mediocre journalist who, dreaming of fame and glory, doesn’t hesitate to lead his ill friend, a far more talented writer, to an early death in order to appropriate his unpublished manuscript.

The film is remarkable for many reasons. What stands out is its contemporary sensibility, its up-to-date themes, moral relativity, drug use, and casual acceptance of crime. Also striking is a vigorous film narrative brought about through the use of dynamic camera movement, montage, and the use of dissolves and double and triple exposures. For good reason, this Polish silent film has been compared to the best German and Soviet movies of the time.

A Strong Man was directed by Henryk Szaro. Interviewed after the film’s premiere, the director said he shot nearly five hours of footage. However, less than eighty minutes made it into the final film. The deleted scenes, the scenes depicting Warsaw in the 1920s, are gone.

A Strong Man can be seen in nine parts via YouTube. Part one is embedded below. Follow these links to view part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7part 8 and part 9. It’s well worth watching.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: