Act Like a Man: The Defiant Individualism of Zbigniew Cybulski

The "Polish James Dean" was much more than an imitator in his wildly singular films for Andrzej Wajda.
Christina Newland

Act Like a Man is a column examining male screen performers past and present, across nationality and genre. If movie stars reflect the needs and desires of their audience in any particular era, examining their personas, popularity, fandom, and specific appeals has plenty to tell us about the way cinema has constructed—and occasionally deconstructed—manhood on our screens.

Zbigniew Cybulski

In the postwar Polish cinema, it’s difficult to overstate the revolutionary difference presented by the screen appearance of Zbigniew Cybulski. In a nation so thoroughly devastated by the Nazi occupation and the horrors of Stalinism, Cybulski and his generation helped represent the future, though not unchecked by the nightmares of the past. In his short 39 years, he starred in dozens of films—the most prominent of which were collaborations with close friend Andrzej Wajda. 

In 1956, what would later be called “the thaw” would help spring Polish filmmakers from creative prison. Occasioned by the death of Stalin, and a number of other political factors, society in communist Poland would become more liberal and increasingly autonomous from Soviet control. This also allowed a genuine movie culture to flourish, making space for films which were not merely tools of propaganda or hardline socialist realism. Between 1956 and 1963 or so, an informal group of screenwriters, filmmakers, and actors who would become known as the Polish Film School would crop up. Among their ranks were many who would find international acclaim: Jerzy Skolimowski, Roman Polanski, and of course, Wajda and Cybulski.

For Wajda and others, a major tool in the arsenal would turn out to be Cybulski; a handsome young actor who had already formed an accomplished theatre troupe before moving to motion picture work. He and Wajda would make their first incursion into cinema together, in Wajda’s debut film, A Generation (1955). He played Stach, a teenager living in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who joins the Resistance.  But Cybulski arrived most fully formed in Wajda’s masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Set in 1945, the story concerns the immediate chaos of the postwar situation through the experience of one young man, Maciek, a Home Army veteran who’s been asked to assassinate an incoming commissar. Cybulski, as the doomed hero, channeled the rebellious bebop energy and style of a more contemporary moment into the historical part. Although the film is set in 1945, Cybulski reportedly refused to wear period-correct costumes, instead turning up in his own clothes. Donning a pair of large black sunglasses, clothed in denim and leather like the best of the ‘50s rock and rollers, Cybulski’s aesthetic spoke to blossoming youth culture. So too did his ambivalent character, who is—not coincidentally—shot down by the new Stalinist order of ‘40s Poland. Contrary to the drab everyman of socialist realism, the livewire eccentricity of Cybulski felt singular; in previous Soviet cinema, the charming oddball could never be the protagonist. In a national cinema where individualistic heroism was subsumed to the collective, he represented the romantic hero of a more western narrative. 

Even Cybulski’s physicality seemed borrowed from a totally different vernacular. The actor was always leaning or slouching against something, like a loose-limbed cat. And when he did move, he was jumpy, much like the American Method actors of the same era. He leaps into action during a scene watching a nightclub singer in Ashes and Diamonds, and as he purposefully sets shots of vodka alight on the bar, there’s a manic sadness in his eyes. His immolation of the booze is a gesture toward the lost youth of the war; a nihilistic response to survivor’s guilt when so many of his comrades have died

In Wajda and Cybulski’s next film together, Innocent Sorcerers (1960), the freewheeling influence of the West—jazz, sexual freedom, youth culture, and perhaps most notably, a refusal to make explicitly political cinema—was felt. Cybulski is not the main star, but one of the guys who hang out with the protagonist. Tadeusz Lomnicki plays a trainee doctor, who spends most of his downtime chasing girls, playing music, and supervising at a boxing gym. Cybulski proves to be the perfect avatar for a new form of Polish man: flirtatious and confident, he grins and walks with his hips thrust forward, the image of virility. Rumor held that, in real life, the reason he barely took off his tinted sunglasses was because he had spent so long underground while fighting during the Warsaw Uprising that his eyes struggled to adjust to daylight. It’s apocryphal, as Cybulski was said to often grapple with the fact that he had been too young to fight the Nazis; but if nothing else, it was a real case of ”print the legend” persona building. 

On the January 8th, 1967, Cybulski was catching a train at Wrocław station during the shooting of The Murderer Leaves His Trail. He was in the frequent habit of hopping on train cars, something a keen viewer of his movies can spot him imitating on multiple occasions. The 39-year-old actor tried to jump onto the train car, missed, fell onto the tracks, and was tragically run over by the train, killing him.The shock waves were enormous; there was a period of national bereavement after his death, and plaques and statues have since been erected in his honor. In Poland, since 1969, the Zbigniew Cybulski Award for best young actor is awarded annually—going some way to underline his enormous presence and impact on Polish film culture. 

In 1969, Wajda released his film Everything for Sale, a partly-fictionalized meta-commentary on his dead star’s life and career. Existing in two timelines—one with Cybulski alive and another where real colleagues and lovers discuss him posthumously—the film is self-reflexive and mournful. But it is also unafraid to criticize the actor, who could be a turbulent, changeable personality and a faithless, cruel boyfriend. Unusually for the director, he had also written the screenplay, re-staging the fatal accident as a scene from a film within a film—perhaps as an attempt to rewrite this tragedy or to wrest back control from such a senseless end. 

Because of the nature of his sudden premature death—as well as his specific brand of Fifties cool—Cybulski has often been referred to as a “Polish James Dean.” On paper, the similarities make sense: his get-up of jeans, leather, and tinted sunglasses; his coiffed dark hair and strong jawline; his tendency to play doomed, alienated young men. In a larger sense, Dean’s role in the sea change of how masculinity looked and behaved in this era was the biggest point of comparison between the two actors. But traumatic history and the oppressive forces of Polish film censorship would bear down on Wajda and Cybulski in a way Americans could scarcely imagine; Wajda even had to fight to keep Maciek’s pivotal death scene from being cut out of Ashes and Diamonds. Some more conservative Americans might not have liked Dean’s wildness and vulnerability, but dislike him was all they could do. In Poland, Cybulski’s borderline punk attitude was more radical by far. Even after the so-called “thaw,” the government had a top-down insistence on instructive, positive portrayals of Polish youth, and Cybulski simply did not fit the bill. Wajda and Cybulski refused to bow down to didacticism, and the actor’s nonconformist spirit—right down to his posture, his speech, and his very appearance—would remain a leading light of Polish cinema. His definition of manhood was one of spirited defiance to the very last. 

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