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Magnetic Pole: Andrzej Kondratiuk and the Strange Attraction of "Hydro-Riddle"

The Polish director of the classic 1971 TV movie found voluntary geographical exile without leaving his own country.
Exile can take many forms. Several major filmmakers from Poland famously followed the Chopin route to France—Walerian Borowczyk, Andrzej Żuławski, to a degree even Krzysztof Kieślowski—while their pugilistic peer Jerzy Skolimowski, as well as Roman Polanski, was ranging even further across Europe and beyond.  But the comically-oriented writer-director Andrzej Kondratiuk—an early Polanski co-conspirator, who died in June aged 79—found voluntary geographical exile without leaving his own country. He was able to renew his creative energies in rural isolation, seeking, gaining and retaining true independence amid a political system founded upon collective, communal effort.
Kondratiuk’s five-decade career is thus a consistently idiosyncratic and enigmatic one, encompassing eight theatrical features, several shorts and five TV-movies. Among the latter is the work for which he’s now best known—at least at home—the raucous and irresistibly-titled black-and-white superhero/comicbook spoof Hydro-Riddle (Hydrozagadka, 1972), which after hostile initial reactions has steadily grown into a bona fide cult classic in Poland while remaining near-unknown elsewhere.
Hydro-Riddle was one of three Kondratiuks shown at the Warsaw International Film Festival in October under the august heading 'Classics From Poland,' along with Stardust (Gwiezdy pył, 1982) and On Cloud Nine (Wniebowzięci, 1973)—both also made for TV, running 58 and 45 minutes respectively. A bit of a strange “retrospective,” then, especially as the films were shown just once each—all on the final night of the festival, when most international guests and journalists would have already left the Polish capital.
I, however, stuck around specifically to catch the Kondratiuk tribute, reckoning that these three pictures would at least offer an entrance-point into a filmography I’d knew very little about beforehand—only to learn, just a couple of days before the screening, that Stardust would be shown without English subtitles. Kondratiuk at least managed to have some representation at the festival, which is more than can be said for the two rather better-known Polish directors named Andrzej who also passed away this year, Messrs. Żuławski and Wajda.
Żuławski’s February demise was perhaps “old news” by the time October rolled around, while Wajda actually expired during the festival—too late, apparently, for the organizers to amend the schedules. In death as in comedy, it seems, timing really is everything.
Taking his life in toto, it’s perhaps not surprising that Kondratiuk would spend the latter half of it as a semi-recluse in the minuscule village of Gzowo, which straddles the twisty Narew river some 26 miles north of Warsaw. He retreated here with his wife and muse Iga Cembrzyńska in the mid-seventies, and shot all of his features and TV movies in these rural areas, often in and around his own rambling farmhouse, frequently blurring lines between fiction, documentary and diary. Mystical, astronomical, new-agey titles are the norm for this period—Full Moon (1979), Stardust, Big Bang (1986), Milky Way (1991), The Spinning Wheel of Time (1995), The Sundial (1997) —the films making few waves outside Poland, apart from The Four Seasons (1985), which shared something (aptly) called the Bronze Leopard's Eye at Locarno.
Kondratiuk’s latter, cozy “home-bird” incarnation stands as the diametric opposite of the writer-director’s traumatic, itinerant earliest years. Born in Pinsk (now Belarus) in 1936, he was three years old when the Soviet Union invaded and effectively annexed Poland in September 1939. His family was forcibly transferred to what was then the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic—where his brother Janusz, later a successful filmmaker in his own right, was born in 1943. The Kondratiuks returned to Poland after the war, and between 1955 and 1960 Andrzej studied cinematography at the film school in Łódź—alma mater of countless Polish-cinema notables such as Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Janusz Morgenstern, Kazimierz Kutz and Polanski, who started there in 1954.
Kondratiuk worked as an actor on two notable early shorts directed by Polanski, Two Men and a Wardrobe (Dwaj ludzie z szafą, 1958) and When Angels Fall Down (Gdy spadają anioły, 1959), both of which attracted a measure of international attention. Then in 1962 they co-wrote Mammals (Ssaki), ten wordless minutes of absurdist quasi-Beckettian slapstick set in a wintry wilderness, and the last short Polanski completed before his big breakthrough the same year with Knife in the Water (Nóż w wodzie). Kondratiuk’s name is spelled “Kondriatiuk” in the hand-scribbled credits; both scriptwriters are comprehensively outshone by the larkishly jazzy stylisations of ill-fated composer Krzysztof Komeda (1931-69).
As Michael Brooke noted in a 2011 Sight & Sound article on the Kondratiuk brothers, “in retrospect Mammals‘mordantly Beckettian vision of the futile rivalry between two men stranded in snowy wastes is as much a characteristically Kondratiuk piece as a Polanski one.” Brooke goes on to praise Hydro-Riddle, “whose reputation for being the closest Polish cinema came to the Monty Python universe is fulfilled by the opening credits alone, delivered verbally by [Cembrzyńska] in a succession of exaggerated dramatic modes interspersed by jazzy scat-singing.”
These credits, which must take high honors in any accurate all-time ranking of the form’s finest achievements, kick off proceedings at a hysterical comic pitch which Hydro-Riddle never quite manages to scale again—though belly-laughs are plentiful throughout this nicely daft story of a nefarious Arab potentate plotting to steal water from Poland’s Polanski-immortalised lakes. His machinations, in tandem with outlandish villain Dr. Stain, are foiled by costumed superhero “As” (i.e. Ace), played in endearingly straight-faced, straight-arrow fashion by the silver-maned Józef Nowak as a parody of ramrod socialist-era virtue.
Kondratiuk handles matters with an unfussy light touch, and has considerable fun mocking the conventions of Hollywood spy-thrillers and costume-caper TV shows such as Batman. Directorial flourishes after those spectacularly oddball opening titles are few and far between, although he does go profitably bonkers with the camerawork during a sequence in which Ace receives some crucial information from an alluring belly-dancer in the middle of her hyper-energetic act, the camera rapidly zooming in and out as she breathlessly repeats the location of the villains, over and over and over again.
On Cloud Nine
The picture’s scattershot humor found little favor at the time, especially with stuffy newspaper columnists perhaps (justifiably) suspicious of Kondratiuk’s motivations and political soundness—hastening his flight from Warsaw. His follow-up for TV was rather more “orthodox” in such terms: the mid-lengther On Cloud Nine, whose Polish title Wniebowzięci is sometimes rendered as The Assumed, and refers to the religious concept of those lucky souls taken up by God into Heaven. On Cloud Nine features the very popular Polish double-act  Zdzislaw Maklakiewicz (Dr. Stain from Hydro-Riddle) and Jan Himilsbach as a pair of working-class schlubs who win the lottery and blow their money on airplane rides around Poland, obtaining temporary access to the country’s nascent Jet Set—albeit without any ultimate increase in their happiness.
Keen to get some background on this film, Hydro-Riddle and Kondratiuk as a whole, in Warsaw I had a conversation with the Polish journalist Jakub Mejer, who helped shed some light on the film’s context and hidden nuances.  
Andrzej Kondratiuk
Andrzej Kondratiuk on the set of Hydro-Riddle.
NEIL YOUNG: So, 2016 has been a bit of a dark year all over, and also in terms of Polish cinema history—the deaths of Żuławski in February and Wajda in October. And also Andrzej Kondratiuk in June...
JAKUB MEJER: Kondratiuk might be comparable to Żuławski, who is quite popular among film buffs and critics, but unknown to ordinary Poles. And these ordinary Poles, especially ones in their fifties and older, might not know who Kondratiuk is, but they might well know Hydro-Riddle [Hydrozagadka, 1971] or On Cloud Nine [Wniebowzieci, aka The Ascended, 1973]. Hydro-Riddle is definitely his most famous film. Clips, especially one line about how "alcohol kills real men," are widely popular on YouTube. There's also a line near the start about how hot it is in Warsaw—that one pops up in conversation.
In terms of comedy directors working during Communism, he might be in the top ten, but definitely not in the top three. He's much less famous than Stanisław Bareja [1929–1987, Teddy Bear (Miś, 1981)], Tadeusz Chmielewski [b.1927, Eve Wants To Sleep (Ewa chce spać, 1958)] or Sylwester Chęciński [b.1930, Controlled Conversations (Rozmowykontrolowane, 1991)].
In fact, he's way less known than his wife, Iga Cembrzyńska [b. 1939], who sings the opening credits for Hydro-Riddle. They got married 10 years later. She was a major sex-symbol of the 1960s, appearing in The Saragossa Manuscript [Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, Wojciech Has, 1965], Salto [Tadeusz Konwicki, 1965] and Jovita [Jowita, Janusz Morgenstern, 1967]. After they married, she mainly worked on his films. When he died, the tabloid press headlines were things like: "Cembrzyńska: I have no reason to live." "Cembrzyńska in mourning," etc.
YOUNG: Is Hydro-Riddle still shown on television much, or is it more known from DVDs and from YouTube clips?
MEJER: This year it was screened four times on public TV, including twice in prime-time. Right now the DVD is not available in major shops. There's a popular club in Warsaw named Hydrozagadka, which is a word known only from the film. Also, newspapers often use the word in headlines when there is a some kind of story involving water plumbing disasters, scams to do with water supplies, and so on.
YOUNG: So the word has become part of the culture now.
MEJER: Yes; dialogue from the scene with the woman in the hat was quoted in a well-known hip-hop track.
YOUNG: The suave man's repetition of "please take off your hat" in that scene is one of the funniest parts of the film...
MEJER: But he's not saying "please take off your hat"! That's a good example of something which might not be recognizable for Western audiences. He's using the word "zdejm," which is not a regular version of the word which means to take off (zdejmij). And there's definitely no "please." He's showing off how cosmopolitan he is, smoking Western brands of cigarettes, drinking whisky—and then he uses this rural, older and unsophisticated term, revealing himself as crude and sexist.
YOUNG: But the scene still works even if you don't grasp this linguistic nuance. It just becomes more of an absurdist scene. On the wider level, the villain, Dr. Stain, is presented as capitalistic. "Business is business," he says at one point, even using the English words. The costumed superhero Ace/As [Józef Nowak] is a caricature of straight-arrow anti-capitalist rectitude—there's his line about he would break down a door but does not do so out of "respect for the social order." And elsewhere he proclaims, "what matters are the industrial safety regulations, especially on the railways."
MEJER: People in Poland would understand it exactly the same way. There is also that very famous line about alcohol killing "real men." Alcohol is now sold everywhere, but in Communist times it was sold only after noon, and highly regulated with a big black market. There were many ad-campaigns warning against drinking at work, and binge drinking. There were many posters with slogans like 'Moonshine makes you blind.'
YOUNG: In terms of what is being spoofed with the superhero stuff, it's interesting that at one point As/Ace is specifically said to be more like Superman than Batman. And of course the main character has a Clark Kent type "normal" persona at work. But the film itself seems to be more a reaction to the Batman TV series with Adam West than any of the pre-Reeves Superman iterations.
MEJER: None of them were shown. Until 1970 there was only one channel. The first American comic books were printed in 1966, but they weren't widely popular. Comic books were presented in government propaganda newsreels as something bad—in the 1950s. We can presume that majority of people watching Hydro-Riddle for a first time in 1971 on TV had never any opportunity to read superhero comics or see any superhero film or series. But the plot, apart from the main character, is more like the adventure film or spy film. Nobody really knew what the comics were, but they knew it must be something despicable, ugly and American. In terms of TV, The Saint was shown in the 1960s, so people seeing Hydro-Riddle would at least have been familiar with that program, starring Roger Moore pre-Bond.
YOUNG: On Cloud Nine strikes me as more direct in its applicability to the social situation of the period, namely that— even in a well-established Communist/socialist society—there are strata of folk, divided by their access to money and therefore luxury. The protagonists, by chance, are able to access this "privileged class" and enjoy the benefits, though in the end they don't seem much happier overall.
MEJER: And that fits socialist rhetoric. We have to put it in context: 1970 saw the dire end of Władysław Gomułka’s rule [as First Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party] with crisis and heavy strikes; people were being killed by troops on the streets. When Edward Gierek took over; he relaxed government oppression. People were watching foreign films, travelling to East Germany and Bulgaria and Yugoslavia; they were buying cars, TVs, radios, having their own apartments. Highways were being built. This period of relative prosperity eventually breaks down because of debt in the late 1970s, and ends with the rise of Solidarity. But 1973, when On Cloud Nine was first shown, was still a time of prosperity, when there are many new things for Poles. Oranges and bananas in the shops. Kojak, The Avengers, Columbo on TV. Society by this point was a little more money-oriented. 
YOUNG: I was surprised to see a National Lottery and Coca-Cola in the film. Not one expects to see in a socialist country...
MEJER: The lottery was going since the 1950s. It was very popular and remains so. Coca-Cola was more or less widely available since 1972. It was all part of this early Gierek period: crude highways, the first rock bands, Pink Floyd vinyls, jeans. 
YOUNG: Do you think Hydro-Riddle is effective on any other basis than comedy? For me, there were three great significant comic "peaks": the opening titles, the belly-dance, and the take-off-your-hat scene, but there were stretches in the second half where I detected a certain amount of treading water.
MEJER: This kind of parody was definitely refreshing for Polish cinema at the time—but it's hard to argue, that it's a great film in technical terms. Polish comedies of that period (at least majority of them) were known for many technical mistakes and poor quality. For me, the plot is very enjoyable, I like these kinds of over-the-top spoofs. You mostly remember scenes, not whole movies. For example, The Cruise [Rejs, Marek Piwowski, 1970], which is a very famous cheap, independent comedy—it was the first film to team Maklakiewicz [Zdzislaw Maklakiewicz, 1927-1977) and Himilsbach [Jan Himilsbach, 1931–1988], who played the main roles in On Cloud Nine. And it’s just a mash-up of very loosely connected scenes. 
YOUNG: How was Hydro-Riddle received when first shown?
MEJER: I was just reading an interview with Kondratiuk’s brother Janusz conducted just after his brother’s death. He says that Hydro-Riddle received very, very negative reviews, and after that he left Warsaw. Daniel Passent [b. 1938], a very famous columnist, said it was a disaster. Kondratiuk’s later films were shot in his house, in the village of Gzowo in rural Poland. 
YOUNG: On a wider level, why do you think it is that Polish directors generally tend to have long careers and keep making films into their late 70s and 80s, such as Wajda [1926-2016], Polanski [b.1933], Skolimowski [b.1938] and Zanussi [b.1939]?
MEJER: Wajda once said that he had to do a lot of films because in Poland: you're mostly making money while working on a film, not from the distribution afterwards. Pensions for artists in Poland are ridiculously low. You can also find actors, singers, painters having very long careers. It was, and still is, almost impossible to live like Kubrick, making a movie every 10 years. Only people who were teaching, like Has, or had other jobs were able to do that. It's very common in Polish tabloids to read stories like "My Pension Is 40 Zloty [$12] A Month Says Famous Actor, 76." 
YOUNG: It would be unusual for even the biggest directors to get "royalties" from the profits of their films in the years and decades after making the films?
MEJER: That mostly depends on one thing: how often the film is shown in TV. DVD and Blu-ray sales are very small. As far as I know, money from cinemas is also low—especially because the majority of arthouse films are not breaking even. But there are exceptions: I'm quite sure Wajda was making good money on royalties. However, I'm also quite sure that, for example, Grzegorz Królikiewicz [b.1939, Na wylot (Through and Through, 1973)] is earning next to nothing.
YOUNG: Having seen a few films by Królikiewicz, I can’t understand why he isn’t a very big name in European cinema. Are there any other Polish directors, past or present, who you feel are particularly underappreciated in Poland and/or abroad?
MEJER: There’s Wojciech Smarzowski [b.1963, Traffic Department (Drogówka, 2013)] who's a big deal in Poland, but for some reason not so much abroad. I like personally like Władysław Pasikowski [b.1959, Jack Strong (2014)]—he's mostly a guilty pleasure, but some of his movies are great.
As this article went to press, we learned that writer-director Tadeusz Chmielewski died on December 4. For Polish cinema, a hard year.

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