On the third Tuesday of every month Ognisko Polskie hosts a film club for members and guests to watch classic and contemporary Polish cinema; this week they screened acclaimed director Bożena Garus-Hockuba’s hour-long documentary The Lilpop Sisters and Their Passions, a portrait of the lives and loves of four beautiful sisters who grew up in interwar Poland. Born between 1904 and 1912, the Lilpop sisters had a charmed upbringing in a home that was a centre of artistic, musical and literary culture in Warsaw. The Lilpop dynasty was accordingly well known and the expectation was that the beautiful sisters would marry illustrious men – an expectation they all met. Garus-Hockuba’s documentary portrays the more-or-less happy unions of the four of them, but only goes so far in revealing the true nature of these relationships – the film seems to sustain a fiction of happy families and obscures from view the agonies of love, loss and philandering husbands.
Garus-Hockuba tells their story using original archive footage as well as contemporary interviews with family friends and relations. The eldest sister Halina Lilpop married the conductor Artur Rodziński, whose career took him around the world, including stints as music director of the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics. But Rodziński also liked making home movies and by his death in 1958 had amassed hours of 16mm footage: a treasure-trove Garus-Hockuba uses lavishly to bring the stories to life.
The film attempts a portrait of the four sisters as a counterbalance to the prominence and fame accorded to their husbands while alive. Though a documentary it has a strangely ethereal quality, chiefly due to Rodziński’s filming, and this seems to belie the wrenching heart-ache these women experienced in life and love. Much of the grainy black and white footage, accompanied by music (including recordings by Rodziński), is full of smiling, laughing, glamorous people having fun in the sun – seemingly impervious to the horror about to shatter Europe and their lives.
The Lilpop Sisters starts with Halina (1904-1993). Her marriage to Rodziński began in scandal when she left Poland for the United States with him: at the time he was a married man. Through him she lived her life and Garus-Hockuba portrays Halina and the marriage sympathetically and without judgement – but clearly Rodziński was a difficult man to live with. In the film, his son Richard recounts his father telling him he kept a list of lovers; Halina dismissed it as nonsense, but inevitably after Rodziński’s death, Richard found the list. Halina gave the world-famous Rodziński unwavering support, but the pain she presumably went through is glossed over in the sepia, dreamy, happy-families quality of the film.
The second sister, Felicja Lilpop (1908-1993), was the wife of the musician and industrialist Kazimierz Krance. Of the four sisters’ marriages theirs seems to have been the serenest, a union between two talented and passionate people: she was a painter and he was a pianist. But as with millions of European émigrés, fate was to deprive them of the opportunity fully to realize their ambitions.
The third sister was Aniela Lilpop (1910-1998), the only one of them it seems to have forsaken artistic men in favour of politicians. Her first, short-lived marriage to Witold Mieczysławski, a pre-war diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was followed by a second, much later in life, to Edward Raczyński, Polish President-in-Exile from 1979 to 1986. He was a staggering 93 when he married Aniela, his third wife, thus legalizing a union that had been going on for many years.
Finally, the film tells of the youngest and unhappiest of the Lilpop sisters, Maria (1912-1972), who married the celebrated and self-absorbed poet Zbigniew Unilowski, an alliance cut short when Unilowski suddenly died – a crushing blow both to young Maria, now widowed with a baby, and to the literary world of Warsaw.
The Lilpop Sisters and Their Passions is a gentle, soporific portrait of four spirited and beautiful women whose lives spanned the turbulent twentieth century, and Garus-Hockuba’s conclusion is that out of the four sisters, Felicja had “the fairytale marriage”. But the question is, do we believe in fairytales?
The Lilpop Sisters and Their Passions was screened as part of Ognisko Polskie’s Kinoclub, an ongoing monthly programme of Polish cinema events at London’s Polish Hearth Club.