Papusza: how a people made its way into history.


From the skillful hands of Krzysztof Krauze and  Joanna Kos-Krauze, an intimate and universal gem: Papusza.

by Francesco Cabras (translation by Elettra Sofia Mauri)

Papusza (2013) is a biopic, directed masterfully by Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze, about the Romany poetess Bronisława Wajs (1908-1987), born and raised in Poland. The film doesn’t follow a coherent chronological line, continuous flashbacks take the story from the beginning of the 20th century, when Papusza (which means “doll”, that’s the Romany name of the poetess) was born, to the first years of the postwar period, in a wounded and wrecked Poland, trying to put the pieces back together; and then to WW2 when Gipsies had to hide in the woods to escape from the horrors of the Nazis. Lastly, to the 1970s, when Papusza and her community were forced by communist authorities to become nonmigratory, settling down in houses and attending school, that will entail the cultural “death” of the Romanies (I shall come back to this).

A great, sumptuous, historical portrait of a community, that has never had a (conventional) history, as no-one ever bothered to leave written traces of it. This theme unequivocally comes to light in a dialogue between Papusza (Jowita Budnik) and Jerzy Ficowski (Antoni Pawlicki), in which the poetess points out the fundamental discriminating factor between her people and gadźe (Romany word used to call who doesn’t belong to their community) lies precisely in this point, the lack of a written culture. That’s what condemns them to yield hopelessly to a “foreign” and dominant culture.

Jerzy Ficowski (1924-2006) was a poet and essayist, who spent two years among the Gipsies. He learned their language, discovered and encouraged Papusza’s inclination to poetry, it was also thanks to him that the verses of the poetess ended up in the hands of Julian Tuwim, who arranged for publishing them on the magazine “Nowa Kultura” in 1951. Ficowski is a key character in the film as in Papusza’s life: he takes care of her uncertainties and cuts her loose from the feeling of being a foreign element in her community. Thanks to him, she eventually accepts to teach herself how to read and write. Sooner or later writing will bring misfortunes and curses on everyone…

Papusza becomes greatly appreciated as a poetess: finally, she succeeds in leaving a trace of herself, and most of all, of her people. She dragged the Gipsies (in the film the more politically correct name “Romanies”, is intentionally avoided) into History, also thanks to the writing of the first scientific essay about the gipsies in Poland, Cyganie Polscy (1953), by Ficowski. However, Papusza – and to a minor extent also Ficowski – will pay a bitter price for that, being pushed out from the community.


Papusza, while hospitalized in a psychiatric ward, can count only on the support of Ficowski and of her husband Dionizy (Zbigniew Waleryś): a man 20 years older, not loved and imposed by her family, apparently insensible to the talent and the delicate personality of his wife. Nevertheless, in a critic moment, he proves to care about the woman and to be willing to protect her fragility. On the contrary, their son Tarzan (Sebastian Wesołowski), initially proud of the mother, will reject her, refusing to visit her in hospital.

Papusza herself in a dialogue with her husband, while in hospital, wraps up the conversation begun years ago with Ficowski: “If I hadn’t learned to write, to read, to make poetry, now I’d be happy”. The poetess goes back to an universal theme: the contrast between nature and culture, the (supposed) spontaneity of the life “before culture” and the following loss of such a “heaven on earth”.

Most of the scenes were filmed into the woods, where Gipsies have lived before being forced to move into regular Papuszahouses (remarkable the photography by Krzysztof Ptak and Wojciech Staroń); nature represents their environment, where they can experience the ultimate freedom, that belongs to them by right. When the Gipsy community finds out about the plans that the government has set aside for them, they reject firmly the new obligations, refusing to send their kids to school. They don’t want them to learn reading and writing, being aware that all of this would lead to a slow “cultural assimilation”, a relentless loss of their own identity.

However, being aware isn’t enough: the last part of the film is set among featureless, socialist-style, bloki (blocks). A colorful spring (that the luminous photography mentioned before, let us sense it, despite the film being in black and white!), fades into a grey, monotonous, snowy winter. The Gipsies drag themselves into the day drinking and quarreling; the instruments became useless (Dionizy is an accomplished harpist), all is left are unlikely memories about Lenin – who wanted the musician and his Gipsy orchestra to accompany the revolution -, and Piłsudski – who waited for the musicians in Poland – … but is all gone, and so, the magnificent score by Jan Kanty Pawluśkiewicz takes on also the meaning of a nostalgic echo, an extreme attempt to get back what the “dominant culture” destroyed.

In regard of this subject, I want to remark also the Gipsy choir that sings in the theatre, during a solemn ceremony in honor of Papusza, at the beginning of the film: tunes that then were sung in the woods, among rivers and trees, now  are performed as a mere show for the pleasure of the “dominant culture”.

The directors’ view of this spontaneity and “naivety” of the Gipsies isn’t superficial or simplistic. Indeed, the everyday difficulties implied by such a way of living are shown clearly: internal conflicts in the community, the recourse to theft, fights with the gadźe, the intolerance and persecution that this people had (and still have nowadays) to endure, and yet, the delicate touch of the Krauzes is clear, their fascination in telling the downfall of a culture is undeniable.

Yes, now also the Gipsy community has made its entrance into history… this film offers an evaluation of such an adventure, the final price has been extremely dear.

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