He was able to 'put a twist on words'. Against the background of the dullness of communist Poland, he was a phenomenon

He was critical of the image of transformation presented by Władysław Pasikowski in 'Pigs'. - He waged a personal war on this film," emphasises Barbara Giza.

Master of the short form. A penetrating, sensitive erudite man. Shy during public appearances, which might have been surprising, after all in the pages of periodicals or newspapers he did not spare his blunt assessments. "The greatest talent of Polish literary and film criticism". - Wacław Holewiński wrote about him.

However, Krzysztof Mirtrak's lifelong dream, as he is referred to, was to write a great novel - a dream interrupted by his sudden, untimely death, the 30th anniversary of which falls on Friday, 4 August.

"Mętrak had an incredible talent for writing, which he manifested from an early age", says Barbara Giza, PhD, a film expert from the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin and the National Film Archive - Audiovisual Institute in Warsaw (FINA), co-author of the monograph 'Krzysztof Mętrak', from which we learn, among other things, that this wunderkind of literary and film criticism learned to read and write at the age of four.

But his great passion was also football. As a teenager he was a promising footballer. He played in the Polonia juniors and appeared in the team of Warsaw. And when he gave up active playing to pursue his studies, he nurtured his passion for football as a fan and columnist for the weekly magazine 'Piłka Nożna', where he ran a regular column entitled 'Warming the bench'.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE "I first became familiar with Krzysztof's football columns. I regularly read the weekly magazine 'Piłka Nożna'. I was, like Mętrak, a football nut," says Wacław Holewiński, prose writer, literary critic, publisher, democratic opposition activist in the People's Republic of Poland, and privately a friend of Krzysztof Mętrak.

Another of his friends, director Janusz Zaorski, wrote in the aforementioned monograph that "it is a kind of paradox that this sensitive, deeply educated, fragile intellectual was at the same time a strong, athletic man".

The miracle child of Polish literary criticism

He grew up in Muranów, so the Polonia stadium, which he supported, was almost under his nose. He came from an intellectual home. His father, Czesław Mętrak, was a professor at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW).

"Krzysztof wrote in his diaries that his family home shaped his ethos, which is that a person is judged precisely by their intellect, and certainly not by their financial status," says PhD Giza. He regarded this ethos as an imperative that guided him throughout his creative path.

Mętrak had his first successes at a very young age. During his school years, he won Polish literature competitions; he also received an award for his matriculation paper. In 1962, when he passed his maturity exam, he debuted in "Życie Literackie" ("Literary Life") (he won a competition organised jointly by the weekly and the Ministry of Education), he also wrote for "Twórczość" ("Creativity").

"He was only 17 years old. It was incredible. I cannot recall another case like it. He was the miracle child of Polish criticism,' assesses Krzysztof Masłoń, publicist and literary critic.

At the age of 18, he started working with "Współczesność" ("Contemporary Times") and soon with "Kultura" (the Warsaw-based one) - in time, he would become the head of the literary criticism section of this magazine. In subsequent years, he would publish in many other titles, including "Literatura", "Tygodnik Kulturalny", "Film", "Kino", "Kulisy" ("The Globes") and the aforementioned "Piłka Nożna".

- "He wrote in a great many titles: about literature, film, football. To tell the truth, I associated him with everything and nothing," smiles Krzysztof Masłoń, talking about how he came into contact with Mętrak's work. In time - as early as in the 1980s - he would make a closer acquaintance with him ("for me, then a journalist with not much of an oeuvre, it was a great ennoblement").

Book Devourer

Meanwhile, Mętrak graduated in Polish Studies at the University of Warsaw. During his university years, he was president of the Warsaw Polish Studies Circle. In addition, at the age of 22, he became the second youngest member of the Polish Writers' Union (ZLP).
Warsaw 1970. Kazimierzowski Palace at 26/28 Krakowskie Przedmieście, where the rectorate of Warsaw University is located. Photo: PAP/Zbigniew Wdowiński
His talent was recognised and appreciated at the university, as evidenced by the fact that he probably wrote one of the shortest master's theses in the department's history. It was only... 12 pages long and was written under the supervision of Professor Stefan Żółkiewski.

"It was a formality. There was no need to confirm his competence because he had distinguished himself very much during his studies," says Barbara Giza, PhD, who speculates that Mętrak "wrote so many texts, the level of which met the criteria for a master's thesis, that the professors decided that there was no need for him to prove his creative abilities by writing an extensive thesis".

He was distinguished by his versatility and erudition. The lightness with which he tackled subjects from different fields. All this, however, was backed up by hard work. "He was incredibly well-read. It was said that he was more well-read than the Polish language teachers," says Tomasz Zbigniew Zapert, publicist and literary critic, author of the TVP Weekly, who kept in close touch with Mętrak in the last years of his life.

"Christopher was a devourer of books. He read an incredible amount. This also applied to films, which he watched maniacally. Hence he also had more to say about them than others. This was complemented by an extraordinary erudition," says Wacław Holewiński.

Extremely light writing

Mętrak's erudition was more evident in his writing than in his speaking (especially in public). "Krzysztof was shy. When he chaired a meeting or appeared on television, you could always see his great nervousness and uncertainty. On the other hand, when he did put his thoughts on paper, they were usually revealing. Compared to the greyness of communist Poland, also in terms of vocabulary, Mętrak was a phenomenon. He was able to 'put a twist on words', compare very distant literary or film works and draw conclusions," recalls Holewiński.

Tomasz Zbigniew Zapert characterises his personality in a similar way. He recounts that Krzysztof often attended various literary or film events. However, he was not the type of storyteller in this milieu. "He usually pondered and then said something very pertinent. His punch lines were very insightful, clever," Zapert recalls.

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Mętrak's texts were witty. The author did not shy away from humour, bluntness or, at times, biting. Krzysztof Masłoń recalls that he was exceptionally easy to write, which sometimes aroused the envy of other authors. At the same time, he wonders whether "it would not be better for him to concentrate on one area. He points out, however, that this is just speculation.

Speaking of blunt, biting and sometimes unfair judgments, there is no shortage of them in the two volumes of the Diary, which was written for a drawer and published post mortem. They include phrases such as: "Słojewski [Jan Zbigniew Słojewski, alias "Hamilton" - ed.] - a platypus and an onanist", or - here in a pinch, but with humour - "About Jacek Gmoch: an Oscar for "Jaws"".

Tomasz Zbigniew Zapert, on the other hand, recalls that Mętrak did not like the prose of Andrzej Żuławski, "surrounded by the nimbus of a director who made a career in the West" and who "started to dabble in literature and write ponderous novels". - Krzysztof was negative about his work. He said it was form over substance; shocking in form. He showed himself to be prophetic, for he believed that if an artist has nothing to say, he tries to shock, strip, spit, and so on. He claimed that art, both cinematic and literary, was moving in this direction," says the publicist.

Alcoholic shout-out

The achievements of this extremely talented artist, however, had another side to the coin. "There was also the negative aspect of his great success at such a young age. As the golden child of literary and film criticism, he also felt enormous pressure. He felt that he had to write more and more brilliantly, that he had to write a great, monumental work that would be a confirmation of his talent," says Barbara Giza, PhD.

Jednocześnie zaznacza, że choć Mętrak spełniał się w małych formach dziennikarskich, to marzył o wielkiej powieści, której nie udało mu się napisać. I dodaje: „Presja, która na nim ciążyła sprawiała, iż nie zawsze dobrze sobie radził ze swoją nadwrażliwością i świadomością, że wszyscy oczekują od niego czegoś nowego i lepszego w zakresie osiągnięć twórczych”.

The struggle with pressure began to take the shape of alcoholic jamming. In his 'Diary', Mętrak noted: "Irena Szymańska once told me: you are too exuberant after vodka, too calm while sober. You should reverse the proportions".

As far as his weakness for alcohol is concerned, Mętrak was not an isolated case in the intellectual or (more broadly) intellectual-artistic milieu. - At that time, for the representatives of that community, a form of self-affirmation and one of the most important criteria of how they evaluated each other was the artistic quality presented. In fact, they had a harsh attitude to each other and placed very high demands on themselves - both individually and environmentally," says Professor Giza.
Despite his convivial lifestyle, Krzysztof Mętrak was dutiful. Photo: PAP/CAF/Tomasz Gawalkiewicz
He adds that if someone was a mature, well-formed person, they could look at these issues from a distance, but if someone entered this environment at a very young age, like Mętrak, and stood in one row with Andrzejewski or Słonimski, the pressure they felt was not always creative. - Sometimes it was simply a burden," she stresses.

Barbara Giza notes that this is one of the reasons why alcohol was such a significant presence in the creative community during the communist period. On the other hand, it was a form of spending time together, a way of social functioning, and a certain alcoholic style was in force.

Star of the feasts

Mętrak was sociable by nature. "He liked people, meeting them. He was undoubtedly a convivial man, in a style that is no longer modern. He loved long discussions in the fumes of cigarette smoke and with alcohol. These conversations were of an unusually high standard - at least as long as he was sober; they were based on a great deal of knowledge and abounded in unusual associations. If they were written down, they could serve as material for a critical text or a really interesting book", says Wacław Holewiński.

While Mętrak was extremely shy in public appearances, in a trusted circle where he felt safe, he opened up and was most often the star. It was at one such banquet in 1989 that Holewinski met Krzysztof. - "I was invited to a banquet in a private flat. I was to be the star of the opposition (Holewiński was then in charge of the Przedświt publishing house, one of the largest in the underground - editor's note), and Krzysiek was to be the star of literature. But the meeting unexpectedly went the other way: we talked to each other for a couple of hours, disregarding the others; we must have disappointed them. We arranged to meet at my place a few days later," says the prose writer, who at the time lived in Ujazdowskie Avenue, i.e. close to the editorial office of "Literatura", with which Mętrak was associated.

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This initiated regular meetings of a group of friends - which also included Jerzy Górzański and Krzysztof Karasek - where they discussed literature and football. They also participated in the so-called football salon at Zaorek's, i.e. watching matches together at Janusz Zaorski's house.

Wacław Holewiński told Krzysztof Mętrak that he was looking for an editor for an American series he was preparing in Przedświt. - "One day he brought Lech Budrecki to me and, all gleeful, said: "'You won't meet anyone in Poland who knows American literature better'. It was absolutely charming," says Holewiński. - "He was delighted to be able to recommend to me someone as extraordinary as Leszek," he adds.

Budrecki joined a group of intellectuals meeting in Ujazdowskie Avenue. "They were sitting: Karasek, Mętrak, Górzański, Budrecki and me. Suddenly someone would throw in a name, such as Hermann Hesse, and several hours of discussions would begin. But not about "The Glass Bead Game" or "Steppenwolf", great novels, but also well-known to everyone, but at the little novel 'Demian'", Waclaw Holewinski recalls with a note of nostalgia in his voice.

Columns from Balbinka

Despite his convivial lifestyle, Krzysztof Mętrak was dutiful. He never failed at work and always handed in his texts on time.

Krzysztof Masłoń recalls the beginning of the 1990s, when he worked at "Rzeczpospolita", then located on Starynkiewicza Square, close to the editorial offices of "Express Wieczorny", "Przeglad Sportowy" and Radio Solidarność. - Krzysztof circulated around the neighbouring editorial offices. There were pubs nearby - you could always find him working on his articles and features in one of them in the mornings or at midday," says Masłoń.

On one occasion their gazes met eloquently, as if expressing longing for the bottles lined up behind the counter. - 'I'd love to, I'd love to, but I have to finish,' Mętrak replied.

Tomasz Zbigniew Zapert met Krzysztof in similar circumstances. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was an intern at the 'Express Wieczorny', where Mętrak published. - He would bring hand-written columns to the editorial office. They were then transcribed by a typist. Sometimes we had to wait because there was a queue, so he would go downstairs to the Balbinka café. I was a messenger, I carried his texts to the typist,' recalls Zapert, who a few years ago, in an interview with Krzysztof Masłoń on Polish Radio, confessed that Mętrak was his mentor.

Krzysztof Mietrak's dutifulness is confirmed by Wacław Holewiński: 'He was undoubtedly a hard-working man who could always write a column on time. He could drink until 1 a.m., get up at 4 a.m. and write. It never happened that he did not hand in a text.

The meaning of life

On the web you can find information about Mętrak that he was associated with the anti-communist opposition. However, this is denied by his friends.

"This is complete nonsense. Krzysztof obviously knew many oppositionists, but he never openly chose to speak up for them. He said outright that he lacked courage, that he didn't know how to do anything else but write. He was afraid that they would take away his chance to earn a living this way," emphasises Wacław Holewiński.

Krzysztof Masłoń adds that Mętrak "was close to the opposition with his heart", but he did not show it with his behaviour. - "The 1970s, when the democratic opposition was being born, was a time when one had to make choices, sometimes difficult ones: which side to stand on; whether to sign something; whether to protest. Mętrak never did this, which he reproached himself for, as he had a very critical attitude to the system and to authority. He considered his intellectual ethos to be a weakness, but he did not want to expose himself to the risk of creative outlawry, such as being banned from printing,' Professor Giza analyses.

'He took his work extremely seriously,' the professor continues. - "He was an artist for whom writing and participating in intellectual debates in general had the value not only of a professional job, but also a personal way of life. It was the meaning of life for him," she emphasises.

The war with Pasikowski's " Pigs "

He was clearly disillusioned by the political transformation. - "I remember the party on the night when Jan Olszewski's government was dismissed. Krzysztof commented that you cannot build a normal state on crumbling foundations. He had quite a radical and sober view on the matter," says Tomasz Zbigniew Zapert.
Bogusław Linda as Franz Maurer (left) and Edward Linde-Lubaszenko as UOP captain Tadeusz Stopczyk during the shooting of the film directed by Władysław Pasikowski 'Pigs 2: The Last Blood'. Photo: PAP/Afa Pixx/Krzysztof Wellman
Mętrak was distanced from the systemic changes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, including the Round Table talks. "In Mętrak's diaries from that period one can read disbelief and an ironic distance towards that reality. He wrote that it took the communists 44 years to decide that they would share power," says Professor Giza.

Mętrak was also critical of the image of transformation presented by Władysław Pasikowski in Pigs. "He waged a personal war on this film," emphasises the expert. She also points out that the political transformation also created a distance in Krzysztof Mętrak towards his own environment, which - according to him - failed the test of defending values.

He noticed that his colleagues, who not so long ago were participating in intellectual debates, discussing literature, had suddenly turned into people for whom earning money was important. - "In a word, that they had entered the capitalist system with a sense of having to change their priorities," says Professor Giza. For Krzysztof, this was an acute experience. He did not spare his recent colleagues, whom he considered to be close in spirit, bitter opinions and harsh rebukes for too easily - in his opinion - rejecting the intelligentsia ethos.

Allegations from outer space

It is puzzling that, despite his enormous creative output, only three of his books were published during his lifetime: 'Autographs on Screen' (1974), 'Legends Do Not Die' (1979), and 'After the Screening' (1988).

He did not focus on publishing his work in book form. 'He was characterised by self-criticism. He kept a distance from his own work, which prevented him from making it public," wrote Adam Wyżyński in the aforementioned monograph. The film expert added that this mainly concerned poems that were scattered in the press of the 1970s.

For Mętrak was also a poet. His most famous work was his ironic poem about Janusz Wilhelmi, written after the tragic death of the former head of 'Kultura' in a plane crash. After publication, Mętrak was expelled from the weekly's editorial board. "Wilhemi was a diabolical figure. A bit mythologised, I think, but indeed various sins were attributed to him. He was a man of infernal intelligence, but who simply served the Reds," recalls Krzysztof Masłoń.

Mirtrak's subsequent books were published after his death. "Krzysztof was a mess who completely neglected to have his extremely valuable texts come out in book form. It was obvious to me, just a moment after the funeral, that I had to take on the task of editing Krzysztof's most important books,' says Wacław Holewiński.
Thus, Przedświt published 'Krytyka, twórczość - przeklęta' ('Criticism, creativity - cursed') (1995), for which the texts were selected by Lech Budrecki, as well as a collection of football columns 'Grzejąc ławę' ('Warming the bench') (1997), this time selected by Jacek Gniedziuk. On top of that, Krzysztof's widow, Anna Osmólska-Mętrak, offered Wacław Holewiński to compile her husband's diaries. "They were in complete mess. They were often broken sentences or single words. Without compromising the integrity of the text, I prepared three volumes, which were submitted to Iskry publishing house. The third volume did not appear. 'The family seems to have been concerned about the absurd allegations that followed the publication of two volumes,' says the novelist and publisher.

People started 'making up unbelievable things', such as that Mętrak was an anti-Semite. "This was complete outerer space. Krzysztof was friends with many people of Jewish origin. He didn't give a damn who had what background. I very much regret that the third volume has not been published, there are so many valuable things in it," adds Holewiński bitterly.

According to Barbara Giza, it would be worth compiling an anthology of Krzysztof Mętrak's writings on literature and cinema. She emphasises that his view of cinema was particular. - First of all, he saw cinema as a kind of emanation of social moods. He believed that going to the cinema was like going out on the street, that when you watch a film, you sense what people are living, what is important to them. The artistic or aesthetic assessment was less important to him than what the film says about the present day, about people,' emphasises the expert, adding that Mętrak left behind a huge collection of texts, the diversity and, above all, the very high quality of which testify to his extraordinary talent and outstanding intellect.

Show at the Capitol Cinema

Krzysztof Mętrak had many creative plans. Among other things, he intended to write a book about his favourite actor ¬ Humprey Bogart, with whom he was fascinated. He was professionally active to the end. "We met frequently at film screenings. I spoke to Krzysztof the day before he died, and we arranged to go to a screening at the Capitol Cinema the following day," recalls Tomasz Zbigniew Zapert. Mętrak did not make it to the Capitol again. He died unexpectedly on 4 August 1993 of a massive heart attack. He was 48 years old.

Krzysztof Masłoń remarks: - What is 48 years? Some people still look promising at this age....

– Łukasz Lubański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: Krzysztof Mętrak at an evening in memory of Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński in 1981. Photo: PAP
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