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 after the premiere, with a ticket bought from a tout, and I didn’t like it at first. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I knew there was something special about the story of two men and a woman locked up in a mountain house; I knew there was something fresh in the mewing of the cat wandering around the house, interwoven with the jazz accompaniment. But no, I didn’t like it.
Was that when I came across Lewinkopf? It was hard not to come across him, he was giving interviews to all the newspapers… Oh, you’re interested in the bars. That’s rare. He usually went to Kameralna, and I – since I’d stopped being a nobody – went to SPATiF on Ujazdów Avenue, which until recently was called Stalin Avenue.
The club was on the ground floor and in the basement of a newly rebuilt tenement, and the walls were upholstered in purple plush, the colour of which gave the light seeping from the bulbs a pornographic feel. When it fell on a girl’s shoulders, she immediately seemed undressed. But to really get her undressed, you had to wait; there was a special hierarchy at SPATiF when it came to girls. First, they went out with filmmakers, then writers; journalists got the leftovers, but still high-grade, because there were no ugly girls in Warsaw at the time.
That’s how I met Teenybopper in 1963; she led me to Lewinkopf, and my fate was sealed.
Teenybopper was young. The year we met, she was taking her final exams at Żmichowska High School. Many people were competing for her, her appearance drew glances, heralding the fact that she would be beautiful one day: at the time she was only terribly thin and red-haired, and her father was a high-up official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He travelled the world a lot, and when he did, his flat on Przyjaciół Avenue was empty. I made love to Teenybopper there once a week, and once a week I asked myself why she had chosen me.
When I asked her about it once, she lifted herself up slightly, leaned the palm of her hand against the mattress and looked at me in such a way that I felt my intestines twisting into a sailor’s hitch.
“I have no idea,” announced the eighteen-year-old, who had recently learned to smoke cigarettes and had already smoked more than the average person smokes in a lifetime. “I think… I think it’s just that you look like someone who’s lucky in life.”
I thought then that she was right. Yes, I was lucky. Twenty-five years old, I had regular columns in “Film” and “Ekran”, a Lambretta scooter I’d bought with a coupon, a state-allocated flat on Nowotki Street, I was popular with girls, who knew who I was, which is why I invited them to the cinema and spent an hour and a half or two hours there, and it also happened that some of them I took back to mine. People like me are referred to as “born with a silver spoon…” – do you say that too?
But nevertheless, although I’d had good fortune, I didn’t feel completely happy, as if I were still lacking something. That something – I thought at the time – was the opportunity to go where I most wanted to go. By 1963, I had already reported from the Gdynia Film Festival three times for “Ekran”, but I was longing to go to some other seaside, somewhere warmer than the Baltic.
The accreditation wasn’t a problem, I received it from the Cannes people after the first telegraph request; the problem was the passport. Once, in a fit of weakness, I complained to Teenybopper about not getting anything from our folk. She nodded her little ginger head, and a few nights later she announced: “I’ve got something for you.” And she jumped off the bed like a nimble chimpanzee, minced over to the cupboard on all fours. When she opened it, although it was dark, I immediately saw the small book with the navy-blue cover. “Dad arranged it for you,” said Teenybopper, putting it between her teeth.
I think I already had suspicions about what would happen in Cannes, because instead of being surprised that she’d told myher father about me, I whispered that I didn’t want to go.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, snorting, as she got back on the bed and dropped the passport onto my chest. “That director you talk about all the time will be there.”
A week later, I was boarding an Air France flight.
I arrived in Paris before 7pm, I took the cable car straight from the airport to the station and caught the train that would reach the sea by morning. The city flashed behind the window like an arabesque tacked into the dark. For something to read on the journey, I’d taken a file of clippings about Lewinkopf from Polish and international newspapers. Look, here they are. You’re absolutely right, I have everything scanned.
We’ve already talked about Sucker, so how about The End of the World now, huh, young fellow? His second film, shot in France, the one that begins with the scene of two thugs pushing a car. “Le Monde”: ‘a fusion of Eisenstein, Orson Welles and Kafka’. “Le Parisien libéré”: ‘an unusual film, full of animal symbols’. It may be corny, but there really were a lot of cats there, just like in his next film.
‘Józef Lewinkopf’s Reluctance with Claudia Cardinale wins the main prize in Berlin!’ ‘Józef Lewinkopf’s new film is a masterpiece of world cinema.’ Oh, how they wrote about him! By the way, of all his films, Reluctance is the one I like the most. In this story about a guy from Madrid who’s struggling with psychosis, he achieved, in my opinion, what most directors dream of: he made a film that needs to be watched twice. The first time seriously, because we want to know how the story ends; and the second time in the proper way, as a comedy.
To return to that journey. From Paris to Gare de Cannes you travel first across the plains, then through the mountains, and finally along the sea. That May morning, as the train was approaching its destination, it was shimmering blue. I alighted, inhaled the crisp, salty air, and it struck me how the wind swayed the palm trees so nobly on the promenade. It looked like it was using them to fan an invisible queen. A thin navy-blue trail separated the line of the water from the sky, and when I turned my head to the right, I saw the hills rising behind Cannes, framed by layers of clouds like a row of ultramarine halos.
I was staying at the Hotel Martinez on Croisette Boulevard. At the sight of me the doorman raised his eyebrows, as did the receptionist, and there was no porter to show me to my room. Maybe it was just as well, because they didn’t hear my exclamation at the sight of the couch, the separate bathroom, the four armchairs, the TV!… and the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the bustling street full of people strolling along or sitting in cafés.
Was Lewinkopf staying at the Martinez too? How could I possibly know that, young fellow? Because I talked about him all the time, like Teenybopper said?
I did, you’re right. I was obsessed with him.
It started when I saw Sucker for the second time. From then on, I couldn’t free myself from Lewinkopf’s films, because every time I watched them – and there were many such times, ten or fifteen screenings for each film – I thought I knew what was behind the canvas on which the film was projected. Behind the canvas – this conviction overwhelmed me – Józef Lewinkopf was standing there and laughing at me.
I didn’t go to Kameralna club because I was afraid of bumping into him. I didn’t go to the official premieres of his films because I was afraid our eyes would meet. I didn’t accept assignments to interview him because I feared he would destroy me with one glance, but I had taken on the assignment for the one I was to do in Cannes, and that was a mistake.
During the festival, I didn’t watch a single film – not even The Maiden and Life, which Lewinkopf was presenting at the time. I spent five days in my room reviewing the clippings I’d brought from Poland, because it seemed to me that I had perceived something that few could perceive.
What I had perceived was that Lewinkopf, described by certain columnists as ‘born lucky’, was not that lucky at all and that he had more problems than any other filmmaker. Correspondence from the locations where he filmed abounded with rumours about his quarrels with producers; hearsay that actresses had resigned when he’d tried to accost them; accusations from unknown scriptwriters of their texts being plagiarized. Yes, in those days, Józef Lewinkopf was one of the giants of world cinema, but there were many signs that this was soon to change, and one of the tools of this change was to be me. On the last day of my stay in France, I stood in front of the door of a suite in another hotel, the Carlton; I knocked and the door opened.
“Oh, it must be you. The man from Poland, the journalist.”
Six foot five, a mop of black hair, a thinly shaved moustache on the upper lip, a non-iron white shirt with three buttons undone, pointed shoes, wide jeans.
And that smile: unforced, as if everything that happened pleased him.
The suite at the Carlton had three rooms: I was received by Lewinkopf in the living room, furnished in an old-fashioned manner, with a marble-covered fireplace, uncomfortable chairs and a collection of eighteenth-century portraits on the walls. Above the fireplace was a mirror that seemed accustomed to reflecting his image; still smiling, he sat down in a chair and said: “Before we start, tell me how things are in Poland. How’s Wajda holding up? Is Skolimowski still writing? Does Cybulski wear his glasses when he rides horses at Has’s place?”
I shared a batch of the latest gossip with him: who had fleeced who for cash and who’d recently had a bout of the clap. I was convinced I could satisfy him that all those things no longer concerned him; if I were Lewinkopf, that’s how I would have felt.
But he just smiled benevolently, and suddenly exclaimed: “Mitsou!”
I didn’t know what was happening until I turned my gaze towards the door of the neighbouring room. A cat sat in the doorway, white as a blank piece of paper, save for the black stripe that ran along its back. Having been summoned, it approached Lewinkopf’s chair at a dignified pace and hopped onto his lap. The director stroked it, the cat stretched, raised its head, then suddenly jumped off Lewinkopf’s lap and strutted towards the couch.
“I travel everywhere with him,” Lewinkopf said, by way of justification.
Do you remember, I wanted to ask him the uncomfortable questions that no one had asked him before? Remember that I wanted to humiliate him?
The gentle, lemon sun poured into the suite at the Carlton, landing on the pale parquet flooring, the wind toyed with the cream curtain. The longer the interview went on, the more I was convinced that I wouldn’t ask him a single uncomfortable question. As if Lewinkopf’s very presence meant that the only questions leaving my lips were those that he could glide over, merrily, in his thick voice, talking about how he’d worked with Sven Nykvist, Sophia Loren and Charles Bronson.
But I did pluck up the courage. It happened right at the very end.
“How do you explain the fact that the production of all your films goes so badly, but they still end up successful, huh?”
On hearing my words, he was a little bit fazed, lowered his eyes, bit his lip.
Then, as if he had planned it, he got up and walked over to the couch. The white cat had already clambered up to the ridge at the back. I watched attentively as Lewinkopf grabbed the animal, which was meowing pathetically, in the middle of its torso, and then dropped it.
It fell to the floor and scampered in a white, stripe-laced streak into the other room.
“Because I always land on my feet,” replied Lewinkopf, his gaze following the cat.
‘He lands on his feet’ was the title of the interview I published in “Ekran”. Look, here’s a scan. In the photo – a bit blurred, unfortunately – Lewinkopf is receiving the Palme d’Or for The Maiden and Life; I didn’t see it in person. Immediately after that conversation, in a state of slight agitation, I returned to Warsaw.
“This interview is a disaster,” I thought. But… you know what? I’m the only one who thought so. Everyone else had a different opinion. Do you know, young fellow, that no other issue of “Ekran” has sold better? A hundred thousand copies, can you imagine? That it was being ripped from people’s hands in high schools and universities, in cafés and on beaches, in mountain huts and on sailing boats? Would you believe that the answers Lewinkopf gave to my questions were exchanged on dates, the boys asking the girls and the girls asking the boys?
Me: ‘Like Lenin, you say cinema is the most important of the arts. Why?’
Lewinkopf: ‘Because that’s where the lights go out.’
Me: ‘How would you describe your affair with Brigitte Bardot?’
Lewinkopf (after a moment’s silence): ‘Recently, a man approached me in a toilet in London and asked if he could touch a certain part of my body because he wanted to have contact with something that had been inside her. But seriously, we’re friends.’
Talking of certain parts of the body, Teenybopper passed her final exams and decided to find someone her own age, for she was no Bogna and I was no Tyrmand. I wouldn’t say the break-up hurt me. She wasn’t the right person to be affiliated with anyway, and I was already twenty-six years old; Władysław Gomułka had recently announced the arrival of a period of ‘low stability’, hence my decision to stabilize.
I had a few more short but satisfying adventures with the minxes I met at Legia swimming pool, but in the end I got married. My chosen one was a quiet brunette, whom I’d first seen in photographs. “Ekran”, “Film” and “Przekrój” were running their ‘Polish girls on-screen’ campaign and women could send in their photos. Heaps of them arrived and I, as deputy editor-in-chief, got to decide who would appear in the magazine.
Hence, I decided to print the stills of Tuszyńska and Wachowiak, but not that of my future wife. Instead, in a fit of strange and incomprehensible emotions, I wrote her a long letter inviting her to meet for a lemonade. She was an overawed lass from Grodzisk Mazowiecki and Warsaw intimidated her, even a place as discreet as the PIW café on Foksal. As you can probably guess, she didn’t present much of a challenge, because behind her intimidation lay delight that someone who’d drunk with Konwicki in Jontek wanted to get her into bed. Two years later, I swapped my flat in Muranów for a little house in the suburbs, my bachelor lifestyle for life with a wife, and my Lambretta scooter for a Lada car.
All of this happened in the 1960s. What do you associate with that time? Humping, smoking and making music, am I right? For me, the sixties consisted primarily of strengthening my position as a leading Polish film columnist. To be honest, it wasn’t hard. I didn’t have much competition in my editorial office: if it appeared, in the form of trainees, I swiftly blighted their newly fledged careers. Gomułka blighted a few others.
Thanks to my position, I was able to travel a lot and that’s why – unlike the majority of the journalistic world, which had to rely on booze-laced rumours at Amatorska and Kameralna, or pay rip-off prices at the Bristol for access to outdated weeklies – I always learned about Lewinkopf’s most recent activities from the latest foreign press.
I liked that. I liked travelling to the festivals in Locarno and Berlin, and San Sebastián, where I browsed with impunity fresh issues of “News of the World” in hotel lobbies, still warm from the printing press, which reached Poland months later. From them I learned that, during the time I was buying the little house in the suburbs and the Lada, Lewinkopf had retained that absurd luck that I struggled to understand. For instance, he had become the pride of London, where he’d moved after Paris. Here’s a clipping, look, I scanned it from “Life”: The Playboy Club at 45 Park Lane, next to him Lownes, that’s Michael Caine, and this, dear sir, is Stash Klossowski de Rola. His father has quite a large part to play in this story, though it’s not immediately obvious. This is about Lewinkopf’s affair with Marianne Faithfull, whom he stole from Jagger. This one’s about no one knowing, the whole world wondering who was going to Catherine Deneuve’s husband – him or David Bailey. Here’s him and the cat, Mitsou. As you can see, I’ve compiled everything carefully.
Rumours are rumours, the press is the press. More than whom Lewinkopf was sleeping with at the time, I was interested in the films he was shooting.
He wasn’t shooting many, because, as if it were nothing, he’d broken at least three contracts during those years – one with Carlo Ponti, another with Caliban Films, and the third with MGM. On one occasion, he’d fired an actress the day before filming began, so of course it never got started. Once, he’d started filming a script for which he hadn’t bought the rights, and the author – quite sensibly – on learning that the project was already halfway through, demanded to be paid through the nose. A few kilos of film went in the bin and Lewinkopf had to pay for those losses out of his own pocket. Between 1963 and 1969 he made only two films, but he still landed on his feet, because both were utter masterpieces.
What do I see as a masterpiece, you ask. I’ll tell you in a minute. First, I want to say what these two films had in common: firstly, the presence of cats, which was unprecedented even for Lewinkopf (a little pack of them appeared in both films); secondly, the actress whose name you know, so there’s no need to mention her out loud. Yes, that’s the one. The one he fell in love with, and then married in 1968, and then what happened happened.
She appeared in both End, Deep and The Ardor of Vivian Darkbloom, in which she plays the title role of a woman who gives birth to the devil. Would these films have been masterpieces without her? In other words – it’s time I gave you the definition – without her, would they still make the viewer forget that they’re watching a film, but without acquiring a naive sense that they are being taken to another world? That’s what I’d been searching for at the cinema since I’d started going, but the answer is: I don’t know.
All I know is that I was in London for The Ardor of Vivian Darkbloom at the end of July 1969, and I’d gone there specially for that reason. When the screening ended, I smoked a cigarette outside the cinema and immediately went to the next screening, and then one more.
I returned to Warsaw with my mind in a whirl; that’s another characteristic of masterpieces. When you leave the cinema, even the most extraordinary instances in the real world seem pallid. Hence, that evening when I returned to Warsaw, it seemed pallid to me that man had landed on the moon; it seemed pallid to me that in my absence, a letter had arrived to announce the fact that Gomułka would soon be awarding me a medal of honour.
It was all pallid, and a few days later, what happened happened.
“He was the target,” said my wife. For all my cynicism, I loved her a little for that: because, although she was approaching thirty, in some ways she had managed to retain the naivety of a schoolgirl which manifested itself in indomitable certainty.
“He was the target,” she repeated. “Don’t you think?”
“Maybe,” I muttered. In fact, it didn’t interest me much. No, it’s not that this case left me indifferent. Absolutely not! It’s more that it provoked a feeling in me that I was a little afraid to give a name to. Today, however, I’m not afraid to say – yes, that’s it – I was happy.
I was happy that Józef Lewinkopf had suffered the biggest set-back he could have suffered. “So,” I sometimes thought to myself, “will you land on your feet this time? You won’t, you’re no cat. You don’t land on your feet in situations like this. In situations like this, all you can do is get slapped across the face and not get up…”
Indeed, for some time it seemed he wouldn’t get back up. Does that surprise you? During that time, I visited the Hotel Bristol every day – it was the only place in the capital where you could get international newspapers for a low price. Lewinkopf had hit the headlines and none of the articles were devoted to his successes. It seemed to me that Lewinkopf’s luck had run out. He’d stopped being lucky, and his happy life had been rung out with a chord as emphatic as that from which it had begun. Today, of course, as you and I both know, it’s recognized that he was just as much a victim of that crime as those who were murdered: but at the time, the police hadn’t ruled out the possibility that he was involved.
I hadn’t ruled it out either.
Do you find that ridiculous? Just think for a second: that man had everything. He’d lived the happiest life possible, due to the strange twists of fate that had come his way. He’d slept with the most beautiful women, drunk the best alcohols, dazzled at parties in penthouses and on yachts, visited tropical islands and snowy peaks. But all sensations, stimuli, even the most intense ones, get boring at some point. Happiness gets boring. So maybe, I reasoned, he wanted to try that too – why shouldn’t he try it, hmm?
Even when the police had ruled out his involvement, the newspapers didn’t leave Lewinkopf alone. Look, these are photos from his home in Switzerland, where he was holed up back then. Yes, as you can see, he’s being visited by girls from the local high school. ‘Pervert!’ the headline screams, and rightly so, because it screams just like everyone wanted it to. ‘Pervert’, ‘maniac’; that’s how Lewinkopf was most often described in the world press those days.
But in Poland? In Poland, as you know, if someone jumps above the surface of the sea in those areas we couldn’t even swim to, he is greatly admired, but only so as to be able to hate him with equal strength under optimal conditions. Here’s one such article, please, take a look, signed by someone you know, because it’s in my name. It starts pretty well, huh? ‘There were times when Józef Lewinkopf was a giant of world cinema, but those times are over and there’s no sign of this changing.’
That article of mine that you’re looking at was the last thing I wrote about Lewinkopf. After all, how many times can you write that someone’s had it? You won’t be satisfied yourself anyway, and the readers will be satisfied too quickly. I’d probably have forgotten about him were it not for one morning at the end of April 1972.
I was sitting at my desk in the “Ekran” editorial office, my typewriter in front of me. There was a piece of paper in the carriage on which I was intending to type out a review of a film called The Third Part of the Night. Suddenly, the door opened with a bang, and the editor-in-chief burst in, out of breath, and announced from the doorway: “You’re going to Cannes.”
“I know I am,” I muttered. “We agreed that a long time ago.”
The chief’s eyes lit up.
“No,” he said. “You’re going to Cannes to do an interview. Lewinkopf has shot a new film, news just got out today. I called the producer. You’re the only one he wants to do a big, personal interview with.”
You say King Oedipus was the first of his films that you saw? I envy you a bit. The more I think about it, the more I think that King Oedipus is the Lewinkopf film you should start from. Why? It’s simple. That’s the one with the most cats, his favourite animal.
The best scene for me is where Oedipus meets the Sphinx, played by some dark alley cat. If I remember correctly, it’s voiced from offscreen by Michel Piccoli…? That scene surprised me even more than the visit to the oracle, for which Lewinkopf had hired a beautiful Siamese female and dyed her fur gold. You wouldn’t get away with that these days. Or, you remember, the cats feeding on Lajos’s body. Or the cats eavesdropping on Oedipus taking Jocasta. Cats, cats, cats everywhere, the animals that land on their feet, just as Józef Lewinkopf – his majesty, their king – had landed.
After my first stay in Cannes, I visited the city virtually every year, and when I went there in 1972, I was convinced, sitting on a hill descending towards the Ligurian Sea, that I’d got used to it; and yet… One day in early May, when I got off the train from Nice and saw that the wind blowing from the water was trying to flatten the palm trees against the boulevard, I felt, despite everything, moved, like when I’d arrived there for the first time. As I had then, I took my luggage to the Hotel Martinez; like before, no porter escorted me to my room. I didn’t exclaim at the sight of the colour TV – I had the same one, maybe slightly inferior, from Rubin – and I didn’t hole myself up for a few days. I went to the festival.
You guessed right: behind the scenes, everyone was talking about Lewinkopf. Had he made a reference in the film to what had happened in Los Angeles? Would the rumours that his production was rubbish prove to be true? Did the actress he’d hired for the role of Jocasta really look like his wife – that is, after what had happened, his ex-wife?
“Apparently, they had terrible problems with the production,” said an Englishwoman I knew from Berlin and San Sebastián as we sipped heavy red wine at the press centre. “Crew strikes, unions…”
Maybe it was because of the wine, but I felt my blood run faster.
As the festival went on, I watched new films from Ribas and Carlos Saura, until finally, the evening of the King Oedipus premiere arrived. I spent two hours getting ready, checking which suit from the Moda Polska collection I looked best in.
Today, I know that I’d made the decision before I even went to Cannes not to get dressed at all, to lock myself in my room; but I didn’t know it that evening, I just couldn’t get to sleep for a long time. I lay in bed at the Hotel Martinez under a thin duvet, in my underpants and T-shirt, and I felt how cold I was. At one point, I thought that this chill was a blast of air rushing from the cinema, where the screening had just ended, and that it was coming from everyone’s applause. Then I fell asleep and woke up to find that, strangely enough, I’d had no nightmares.
You want to hear something about the interview, huh? I’ll tell you. Like nine years before, Lewinkopf was staying at the Carlton Hotel. Have you ever been there? You must go, although it’s not cheap. The massive palace was built at the beginning of the last century and, although all the towers, bay windows and rustic features were supposed, I think, to give it a light feel, it has nothing of the sort. Rather, it resembles the body of a prehistoric animal covered in coral reef-like ornaments.
I went up to the fifth floor and knocked on the door of suite number 101.
“Entrez!” came a voice.
I pushed the door handle and immediately heard another sound, the source of which I couldn’t locate at first: only when I looked down did I see that this pathetic mewing was coming from the mouth of a cat, which I had shifted when I opened the door.
It was white, except for a black stripe along its back.
“That’s Mitsou,” came a familiar voice.
I looked up. Without shoes, in a hotel dressing gown, with black hair – which in the last photos I’d seen of him fell in a fringe across his forehead, but that day was wet, slick with water and exposing his forehead – Józef Lewinkopf was standing in front of me.
“The same one that…?” I didn’t finish my question, because he snorted; but then he suddenly grew serious.
“Sort of. Cats, as everyone knows, have nine lives. So this Mitsou is also that Mitsou, only completely different… I searched for a long time for a white cat with a black stripe on its back. I finally found one. Actually, my agent found him. This Mitsou was born in Syria, but now he goes everywhere with me. Please, have a seat.”
With an imperious gesture, he pointed to an armchair; I sat down. Through the windows of the suite stretched a view of the beach, the skies above grey and threatening rain.
“I didn’t see you at the cinema yesterday.” Lewinkopf’s voice tore me from my thoughts.
“Because I wasn’t there,” I muttered; I couldn’t even be bothered to lie. Meanwhile, Lewinkopf smiled and said nothing, just went over to the dresser, on which there stood a silver pot of coffee, and poured some into a cup. I noticed he only poured one, although another cup stood next to it, as if intended for me. He drank his coffee, put his cup down and sat down in the armchair opposite, crossing his legs. His calves were very tanned and very hairy.
“And consequently, you suspected there wouldn’t be an interview,” he said. I nodded, although I didn’t think I shared this suspicion. “Recently, I met a woman, a girl actually…” Lewinkopf began. He pondered for a moment, then went on: “…who convinced me to talk to you. She knows you. She left Poland after the events of March 1968, with her father, though before that… Anyway…”
It took me a minute to understand that he was talking about Teenybopper. A thought crossed my mind: ‘We’ve had the same woman’. To mask my excitement, I asked: “Oh, what did she say?”
“She said you hated me.” Lewinkopf interlaced his slender fingers near his mouth. “I wonder why. For what reason.”
“I don’t hate you,” I said, exhaling.
“The fact that you say that is the best evidence that you do.” After he said that, silence fell.
“I used to hate you.” I finally broke the silence, and as I said it, I was convinced I was telling the truth. Lewinkopf followed up at once: “Why?”
I didn’t know how to put it. I, a leading Polish film columnist, didn’t know what words to use, can you imagine? I’d run out of phrases!
“Because…” I said eventually, “you’re so happy.”
The surprise that flowed across his face certainly wasn’t faked. He sank slightly into his plush upholstered chair, then said: “Me, happy?” I nodded.
Do you remember how I told you about my worst nightmare? The one where Lewinkopf was hidden behind a canvas on which a film was projected, laughing at me?
That day, Józef Lewinkopf laughed a guttural laugh that came from the pit of his stomach, which soaked into the walls of the hotel suite very slowly and for a long time.
“Me?” he spluttered when he’d finished.
“Yes, you,” I snapped, and Lewinkopf nodded his head as if he were agreeing with himself.
“Sir, I have been fortunate in my life,” he said. “Like a cat: I land on my feet. Stash Klossowski recently gave me a painting by his father, his self-portrait; it’s called His Majesty the King of Cats. And I’m also the king of cats, but please tell me: have you ever seen a happy cat? You see happy dogs, but cats…?”
I didn’t answer, and he said suddenly: “You’re the one who made me realize that.”
“Me?” I raised my eyebrows.
“Yes, you,” he said. “In this hotel, when I showed you the previous Mitsou, don’t you remember? Finally, you made me realize what had guided my life thus far: fortune, driving me into the worst abyss of misery in order to lift me out of it.”
“So you are happy,” I ventured.
“No, no…” He gave a dismissive gesture. “I’m lucky. I always land on my feet, but in order to land on them… Well, first I have to fall.”
I was silent, Lewinkopf nodded; I understood that the meeting was over.
That day, I saw him again at the Palais du Cinema. When in a hall full of elegant guests, a hall dripping with gold and red, the name of the winner of the Palme d’Or was announced as ‘Lewinkopf’, nobody was surprised. I watched as, clad in a tuxedo, he made his way up the carpet flowing over the stairs to collect the prize; I watched and wondered whether I was lucky too.
Rather than sitting the entrance exam for Film Studies, I took the first job that came along; although I received several offers to stay in the West, I always refused.
After all, everything was going well for me, I had a wife and a little house in the suburbs, and I was a nobody, I was convinced of that.
I wasn’t lucky. I was happy.
Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster
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