Faith Kept Behind Bars
Teresa Kotlarczyk's Prymas—trzy lata z tysiąca
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, head of the Catholic Church in Poland from 1949 until his death in 1981, was one of the most important figures of Polish twentieth-century history, and also one of the best-known victims of Stalinist-era repression in Eastern Europe. For just over three years, from 25 September 1953 until 28 October 1956, he was imprisoned by authorities in several remote monasteries in an attempt to curb this staunch anti-Communist's influence in Polish society. In late October 1956, Wyszyński was released as one of the Communists' main concessions to the Polish populace after widespread unrest shook the country that autumn.
Teresa Kotlarczyk's latest film, Prymas—trzy lata z tysiąca (Primate, 2000),  is an account of those three years. Cardinal Wyszyński is played by Andrzej Seweryn; the two other main characters in the film are his fellow inmates, including a priest, Stanisław Skorodecki, (Zbigniew Zamachowski), and a nun, Sister Maria Leonia Graczyk (Maja Ostaszewska).
Why make a film like this now? Although its makers have suggested their intended audience was more the current "generation of twenty-year-olds," rather than older Poles who can actually remember the Cardinal, it seems unlikely that this film would be able to attract young people.
In fact, in its weekend film listings, Gazeta Wyborcza's summary of Prymas gave it a rating of just three stars, saying: "You could watch it, but what for?" Much more likely to draw crowds of teenagers are the recent film adaptations of the Polish classics Pan Tadeusz (1999) and Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword, 1999), for example. These films are always sure to be blockbusters, because going to see the film version then obviates the need to actually do required readings.
The film is clearly a symptom of Poland's current yearning for the kind of great moral figures it had in the past. In general, the country seems to be suffering from a lack of heroes, which perhaps helps explain why the nation has been so quick to jump on to the new world ski jump champion, Adam Małysz, admired for being just a "regular guy." The amount of attention the film garnered at its premier from Poland's political, cultural and ecclesiastical elites seemed to be evidence of their awareness of this need in Polish society.
In these relatively calm times, when Poles' biggest worries are usually of a financial variety, and weighty moral and ethical questions seem—thankfully, many might say—to be a thing of the past, Prymas also serves to remind Poles about times that often demanded heroism and strength of character, which since 1989 have receded into the past remarkably quickly for the younger generation.
In Pope John Paul II's homeland, this film also reminds Poles of another of their country's great Church leaders—who is currently a candidate for beatification, the first step toward sainthood. The diocesan phase of this process, during which witnesses are interviewed and documents examined, just ended last month in Warsaw after almost twelve years.
In addition to being a figure of religious standing, Wyszyński was also known as the "interrex," harking back to the precedent set by Church leaders who acted as national leaders in the absence of secular Polish rulers during other periods of foreign domination in Polish history. It appears unlikely, however, that the current pope will beatify his former superior in the Polish Church—even after his private viewing of Prymas at the Vatican.
The most potentially intriguing element in Prymas is the psychological interplay between Wyszyński, Skorodecki, and Sister Leonia. Skorodecki, imprisoned himself during the anti-Church campaign during the early 1950s, was taken from a normal prison and placed together with Wyszyński in a monastery, officially as Wyszyński's personal chaplain. Suspecting that he would be asked to collaborate and inform on the Cardinal, he also had to prove to Wyszyński that he was trustworthy.
Sister Maria Leonia Graczyk, another actual person who was interned with the Father Skorodecki and Wyszyński, as their helper, was potentially the most interesting character of the three. Known by her code name Ptaszyńska ("Birdie"), she, on the other hand, was induced to collaborate, informing regularly on their activities. (These reports were published in London in 1993.) These potentially interesting interactions fall short on screen, however, perhaps because the screenplay is too thin to give viewers a deeper sense of the tensions between them, and of the moral choices Sister Leonia made, for example.
The film's misleading approach to the historical subject most deserves criticism, however. While the film clearly does not claim to be a documentary account of Cardinal Wyszyński's internment, in several places it deviates significantly from the truth, presumably in an attempt to heighten the drama. This gives the film a slightly melodramatic feel to it, even though the story should in itself contain more than enough drama for a skilled scriptwriter and director.
Because Wyszyński's story is in part being told as a means of educating a younger Polish audience for whom this film will be perhaps the main source of information about this great historical figure, these misrepresentations are not acceptable and have raised objections from Church leaders and others.
In one early scene, for example, Wyszyński, Skorodecki, and Sister Leonia are shown sweeping the rubble from an altar in a ruined monastery chapel. While the conditions were less than optimal, it has been pointed out that they were exaggerated in the film, and that they would not have cleared the rubble from the altar in any case, since Wyszyński said Mass in his room.
More importantly, one of the more sinister threads in the film was the preparation of a Wyszyński double by the secret police—someone who would be coached to imitate Wyszyński to perfection so he could replace him in public, as the mouthpiece of the state—has no basis in fact, and could certainly mislead people.
The film has also been criticized for its portrayal of Sister Leonia, who was made out to be a fickle simpleton, easily enticed into collaboration with the secret police with boxes of oranges and other goodies, which she greedily consumes as she grips a pencil stub, scribbling her reports with the effort of someone who seems not much used to writing.
Just as the film oversimplifies the dynamics of Ptaszyńska's collaboration, it also makes out the system itself to be much cruder than it was in reality. Though the priests were persecuted and imprisoned during the Stalinist period in Poland, the repression there was not on the same scale as it was, say, in neighboring Czechoslovakia. The opening scene of Prymas, however, shows priests being rounded up en masse and carted away, something that was not the norm in Poland, if indeed it happened at all.
The secret police are shown as brutal, and they undoubtedly were; what the film's makers did not succeed in doing, however, was to delve more deeply into the more sophisticated aspects of the system's functioning and the hard choices faced by those who chose to work within the regime.
Despite the dramatic subject, taking place during what was often a terrifying time for many Poles, the film fails to convey the atmosphere of the era convincingly. In part, this is because there is insufficient background, especially for younger Poles, or foreign audiences: too much is assumed about viewers' knowledge about the historical context.
Better in print
On the other hand, although the mood of the film is gloomy, the scenes are dark, the settings ominous, and the encounters with the secret police suitably
evil, the lack of a plot, other than the story of what was in general a rather uneventful confinement, makes the film tedious.
Another major fault of the film is that it is overacted, which is understandable to some extent, considering the challenge of having to portray the sufferings of this larger-than-life figure.
To learn about Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński's experience during his years in confinement, one's best source would be to read his prison diaries, Zapiski wiezienne, which exist in English translation (under the title A Freedom Within), as does his biography, by Andrzej Micewski. The film Prymas, while admirably conceived and technically well-executed, it leaves quite a lot to be desired, both in terms of dramatic and historical content.
Christina Manetti, 26 March 2001
Wyszyński on Wyszyński:
1. The literal translation of the title is "Primate—Three Years from a Thousand." This is a reference Wyszyński's position in Polish history as the "Millennium Primate," something owing to the fact his tenure spanned 1966, when the Polish state and Polish Christianity celebrated its 1000th anniversary. For obvious reasons, this rather meaningless part of the title is not translated for the official English-language name of the film.