His Majesty the King of Cats
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Photo by J. Giletta, 1909, Wikimedia Commons
Fiction

His Majesty the King of Cats

Wojciech Engelking
Reading
time 31 minutes

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In those days, Józef Lewinkopf was one of the giants of world cinema, but there were many signs that this was soon to change. Omens announcing his imminent decline were scattered across “Trybuna Ludu”, “Le Monde” and “Corriere della Sera” like a puzzle that only a few people could piece together. For the rest there were articles announcing more of Lewinkopf’s successes: here, please, take a look – yes, scanned – an enthusiastic review of Sucker. Here, a piece about the Ministry of Culture’s decision of 11th December 1958 to submit the film for an Oscar. A short note that he had been nominated, a shorter note that he hadn’t received the award. No, I don’t have a recording of the ceremony. I have something else. You can see perfectly well that Brigitte Bardot… How did you put it? Of course, that he was banging her. The question is, in what positions, and whether it was on the bonnet of the Bentley.

This photo you’re looking at was taken in 1959. Lewinkopf is walking with Bardot on the beach in Saint-Tropez. He’d recently turned thirty-three, he’d left Poland and he looks a bit intimidated by the life that has invited him between its thighs. This is what the world looked like in 1959: Lewinkopf was banging Bardot, the Russians launched a space probe from the Bajkonur spaceport; I, meanwhile, was as much of a nobody as it is possible to be, a student of the Faculty of Polish Studies at the University of Warsaw.

I’d arrived in Warsaw three years earlier, just before the start of October. A few days later, autumn had chopped down the young, recently grown trees in tones of ochre, crimson and copper – or at least, I feel like it chopped them down. Just like I feel that after that, winter covered the streets in white, then spring adorned everything in greenery, and in summer the sky turned blue. When I was a nobody, my world was made of completely different colours; these colours were shades of grey, like those on the screens of Warsaw’s cinemas.

There were around twenty cinemas in the city, and tickets were cheap. The cheapest was Stolica in Mokotów. Sometimes you could even get in for free, for the latest screenings, and they’re the ones I usually went to. They ended well after midnight and afterwards I was always faced with the nocturnal trek to my room in the student dorms on Niemcewicza Street. During these walks through the city, which had not yet fully risen from the rubble, I invented scenes for other films: the ones I’d make someday when I got into the Film School after graduating in Polish Studies. Only people with a master’s degree were accepted at Łódź. My autobiography didn’t mention the fact that I wanted to go to Łódź, you say? No, it didn’t.

I didn’t mention it because in the end, I didn’t go, and I didn’t go because when the winter of 1959 came, one of my Polish Studies professors, whom I often saw at Stolica cinema, approached me to write my first text, which was published in the December issue of “Ekran” magazine. It was a review of Lotna. I slated that film maliciously enough to appeal to the teddy boys crying over “Po prostu” magazine, and I toed the line enough to appeal to those higher up. After all, malice is also a kind of official line… Without going into details: shortly afterwards, I was offered a permanent position with that and a few other publications, and thus, by the time I graduated from Polish Studies in 1961, I had a label – not a nobody, but a young, promising journalist.

I thought you’d ask whether I regretted the Łódź decision; in fact, you ask when I saw Sucker for the first time. Shortly

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