Sex in socks

Grażyna Plebanek

They say we Poles are intense. We get heated up, gesticulate, ramble on in overly long sentences or hold back sullenly. We drown our sorrows, so says the stereotype. This is the face we mould for ourselves; this is the face moulded
for us. But it’s not the only one. The Slav god, Svetovid, had four. What would
Polish faces formed by film images made in Poland look like today?
The face of a woman. Moulded by forty years of conscientiously fulfilling life’s practical roles, it cries with emotion, even though the main character in Tomasz Wasilewski’s debut, In the Bedroom (2012), hardly says a word (her first is the familiar swear word “kurwa”, but it is barely muttered). Gradually freed from make-up and a fringe stiff with hair-lacquer, it reveals a childlike curiosity which pushes the woman to travel the world impulsively. She grows to know it from
the bedroom where she lures her men. Snuggling to their sleeping bodies, she
takes possession of their worlds — now it is she who reigns. On territory which
she — in her womanly way — has conquered, she is free. Who is this forty-year-old
Polish woman whose home resembles a well-guarded bastion? Had she not escaped her own world, she would not have got to know herself or her sensuality
— and not in the bedroom of the title at that.
The face of a man. Eryk, a secret services agent sent on compulsory leave, shouts and swears, shoots and kills, but can’t break through the drama of his
own past. The main character in Jan Jakub Kolski’s film To Kill a Beaver (2012)
is haunted by memories. The girl, who appears from nowhere, serves him in
many ways: through her body he wants to break free, through her sensitivity get out into the sun. The force of despair in the erotic scenes — full of courage and abandon although sex is performed in socks — leaves a strong impression. The hands of the girl bring the main character ultimate comfort. And, contrary to expectation, it is not in bed.
The face of a woman. The main character in a backdrop to war. It has only recently started to be “disclosed” that women are the silent victims of war; before, “her story” of war was taboo. Field nurses were surrounded by the aura of magnanimous angels; couriers added glamour. These are the images I
remember from Polish films I watched in childhood; such as the serial Czterej Pancerni i Pies (Four Tankies and a Dog) which every Polish child knew. Field nurse Marusia was the object of much sighing by boys in my class, courier Lidka, her fiercer version. The red-haired woman and the dark-haired one, aesthetically different, were excellent material for wives, faithfully cut according to a literary pattern provided by Henryk Sienkiewicz’s national
epic written “to fortify the hearts” of Poles fighting for independence.
When a book about the real life of a woman soldier, Wojna nie ma w sobie

nic z kobiety (War Has Nothing of a Woman) by Svetlana Aleksijewicz recently app-eared in Poland, we were shocked. The Byelorussian journalist showed

that although men and women wore uniforms of the same army, their fate
in battle, and especially in prison camps, differed dramatically. This taboo is
broken by Wojciech Smarzowski in his moving film Rose (2011). Here, war rolls not so much through conquered lands or occupied houses, as
through the body of a woman. The main character of the title, Róża, shares the fate of women raped in the Congo today; the violence they suffer turns them into
social pariahs. Alone, they face their abused bodies, diseases and pregnancy.
The man who in Smarzowski’s film appears at Róża’s side, plays a tribally basic role — he helps her survive, or rather, live a little longer. Their fates, seemingly intertwined, always run their separate paths, just as their bodies are different.
The resistance fighter from Warsaw, whose wife was raped and killed in front of
his eyes, is a drop of good in the sea of evil caused not only by the invaders but also by Poles themselves. Smarzowski breaks yet another taboo by showing how Poles treated the ethnically Mazurian population after the war.
The face of a man. The avenger. In Manhunt (2012), directed by Marcin Krzyształowicz, into the gloomy days of wartime Silesia is drawn the story of a woman’s betrayal, as if taken from Janosik [trans. note: a traditional saga about a highwayman]. Two women, a field nurse and the woman of the house, betray
men, each individually, each for different reasons. The Greek tragedy becomes a Polish one as the personal drama is shown against the backdrop of the historical trauma of Silesians which the Second World War confronts with the choice: to be a Pole or German. The choice facing the main character (brilliantly played by Marcin Dorociński): to seek brutal revenge on the woman who fatally betrayed his unit or to squeeze out remnants of what good is left in him.
A Polish face either screams or is silent. With intensity. It is suffocated by memory, history and the unexpressed — taboo. The figure of a man is still that of an avenger and knight defending women but he is joined by the man who suffers, who doesn’t know how to get to grips with himself. The women in films suffer, betray, kill — and finally do something to reclaim themselves. They still serve suffering men but to the role of field nurse they add another — that of the hand which punishes, which takes life away. The face of a Polish woman ceases to be the face of a suffering Madonna; from beneath it emerges the image of a Medusa.
Grażyna Plebanek is the author of the highly acclaimed and bestselling novels Pudełko ze szpilkami (‘Box of Stilettos’, 2002), Dziewczyny z Portofino (‘Girls from Portofino’, 2005) and Przystupa (‘A Girl Called Przystupa’, 2007). Plebanek’s latest novel Illegal Liaisons (Nielegalne związki, 2010) sold 27,000 copies in Poland and is her first novel translated into English (Stork Press, 2012). She lives in Brussels,