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Interview: Jerzy Skolimowski

A conversation with the young Polish director of Le Départ and Hands Up!

The following interview, transcribed from tape and edited by Peter Blum, was made at the offices of Celebrity Holdings, U.S. agent for Film Polski. Talking with Skolimowski were Gideon Bachmann, Harrison Engle, Beverly Walker of Springer Associates, Benno Brecher of Celebrity Holdings, FILM COMMENT Editor Gordon Hitchens, and Nell Cox, whose photographs appear in this section. Yolanta Skrzywaiv served as translator for Skolimowski. Also present was Adam Holander, instructor in cinematography at the School of Visual Arts, New York, an old friend and former classmate of Skolimowski at Lodz; Holander was then shooting JOHNNY COWBOY for John Schlesinger in New York.

This article was originally titled, “Jerzy Skolomowksi: ‘…An Accusation that I Throw in the Face of My Generation…’”

SKOLIMOWSKI: It is my most sensory feeling that I try to represent in my films. It is what I can touch. Concrete. This is what I think and this is what I take under consideration. The moral criteria are subcon­scious and don’t come from the reasoning of these things. I just don’t think about them. This comes sub­ consciously. Emotionally. I can discuss and reason on the esthetic criteria. But the moral criteria are beyond the discussion.

Do you feel that you work in conflict with society?

After HANDS UP, yes.

Because of the Polish government’s re­ action to the film? Or in the original conception of the film?

In making it and in the reaction, too. The film is a great provocation that I, as a direc­tor, throw in the face of society. It is not only Polish society but is very universal. All over the world. I feel it is an accusation that I throw into the face of my generation, the generation of people in their thirties who are already adults but who are coming to the point that their hands are empty. This is the generation that has thrown up their hands because they are helpless and they lack initiative. And inac­tive, in a way.

Do you think this generation exists in all countries?

I think so. You know it’s a very delicate problem. If I knew how to theorize about this subject I would write an article, a book about it, a political speech. But I don’t know how to talk about it, so I make movies. It represents a conglomeration of the problems of this particular generation, both their inner and their outer problems.

This is the generation that created the Happening as a show. In this film I show a Happening. It is not just an eternal show but something very deep, a psychological Happening. I’d like to talk about a specific scene. There are these people who get drunk and jump into a train, a freight car. The whole car is filled up with plaster. They are dressed in their tux­edos; they just came out of a ball. They all roll over in the plaster. One of the people is put in the plaster, covered up. They’re all doctors. It looks like a sadistic play. But it’s not a sadistic scene because what they play is taken from their past. The man who got plas­tered is the one who in the Stalinist era was dependent on the Stalinist ideas. During the Stalinist era he was probably in the political position to keep the others down.

In other words, he’s calcified from a particular era—he follows rigidly that particular ideology?

This is too difficult to describe. My ideas have been presented in images, not exactly in words.

You have appeared in 3 of your 5 fea­tures. Did you train as an actor originally?

No, I never trained as an actor. It’s a spontaneous talent. Some people ask me whether it is not too difficult to act in a film at the same time as directing and writing the scenario. But I feel it is much easier for me to play a part than to explain to an actor exactly what I want.

Do you have any conflict within your­ self as an actor and director? Do you find yourself improvising, for example, as an actor in a way that as a director you didn’t preconceive?

I don’t divide my personality as an actor and as a director. It is always one personality in every respect.

How do you feel about the audience reception to your work here in New York?

There is a big difference between my first and second films and the third, BARRIER. The latest two will be much more interesting for the American public and the critics. They represent a much larger spectrum. The fourth, LE DÉPART, is for a broader public; BARRIER the third, is for a much more narrow public, for a very particular group of people who can appreciate certain values in art. I feel that everyone who sees these films will like either one of them, either LE DÉPART or BARRIER. Some can even like both of them, even though they are very different.

Were the earlier films more particularly Polish, and the recent films more universal?

Yes, I think so. I feel BARRIER is very much Polish but it is very modernistic, and if you like modern movies, you probably will like this film.

Jean-Pierre Léaud in Jerzy Skolimowski's Le Départ (1967)

Do you start with a mood or an idea or a situation or an autobiographical episode or what?

I accumulate the ideas and little details of a certain period, certain scenes, certain dialogues, which then create a general idea. For ex­ample, in BARRIER my first idea was just one small scene using the ski jump. I wanted the character to slide down the ski jump on a suitcase. This was a very foolish idea at first but I used it and created a whole movie from this idea.

You, Polanski and Wajda have been working in the West. Is this a significant trend? A commercial accident?

They both had different reasons for working in the West. I can only talk about myself. Working in Western Europe is a very interesting ex­periment from the workshop point of view, as well as psychologically, in making a film without speak­ing the language of the particular country. It gave very interesting results in working with actors, espe­cially Jean-Pierre Léaud. We had an excellent com­munication by gesturing and making faces.

Is there anything like a trend or an exo­dus of Polish directors away from Poland? What does this mean in terms of a loss to the national character of Polish films?

I feel that this is a natural circula­tion of intellectuals, and it would be impossible for people who are interested in creating art to live in one place or in one particular house or with one wife.

Bergman works only in his own coun­try, and he says that his films are significant to the extent that he is a Swede who works only in Sweden.

But, but Bergman is known as a coward. He’s known not only to never leave Sweden but also to work only with 50 particular actors whom he never changes. He’s working in a very closed circle and he doesn’t like to leave it. But Antonioni left Italy and went to London. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Cassius Clay went to China.

Of course, it only means that travel abroad spreads my horizons, and after coming back to Poland I’ll be able to create better films, as was the case with LE DÉPART: this film, made in Belgium, was the opening for creating the film I like best, HANDS UP, which followed it in Poland. And HANDS UP will be the begin­ning of something new again.

Do you feel that in HANDS UP you were amplifying some of the ideas that were expressed by you and Goldberg and Polanski in KNIFE IN THE WATER, in which the complacent middle-class is also criticized?

Stop. HANDS UP can’t be compared with any other movie ever made. I beg your pardon. It is my child and it is my favorite child and it doesn’t resemble any other children in the world.

Have you a comment on the with­drawal of HANDS UP from Venice?

I feel that there is some part of my fault in it, because I got a great show of confidence from the State. I didn’t even show a scenario and my ideas were barely outlined. I had only a first idea. I should have realized that certain ideas wouldn’t be permitted by my government; since I didn’t, I have to pay the consequences.

What are the scenes your government didn’t like?

There are no particular scenes that could be censored; it’s just the whole temperature of the film; it’s the temperature of boiling water that the whole film is immersed in. I hope to re-discuss those problems with the censors and maybe… [Skoli­mowski here strongly corrected the translator in English: “Not maybe—positively”].

Besides, even boiling water cools off after a certain time. I don’t know if you understand my speech. I speak very emotionally. I don’t know if my emotions can be translated. I hope that these problems, which are so tender right now, may not be after a certain time.

But it would be much better if the film is shown when these ideas are hot. Because by that time you’ll want to make another film about some­thing else that’s going to be hot then.

I feel I’ve burned myself already right now, as we’re speaking metaphorically about temperature. I don’t yet have my next movie in mind so I don’t have worries. Some people in power in Poland told n1e that the great movie is great trouble.

Have you thought of making a film in London or in the United States?

There are possibilities but I prefer to make films as close to Warsaw as possible.

Are there many Polish films that are permitted internally to circulate and yet are not re­garded as exportable for purposes of policy?

No, there is no situation like this. I think Poland tries to sell every movie, and I hope cer­tainly that HANDS UP will not break this precedent. I wouldn’t like this picture to be famous only for this reason. I would rather the fame for the picture itself.

Mr. Blum was born in 1943 in Massachusetts and is pres­ently completing his Master of Fine Arts degree in film at Columbia University’s School of The Arts. His short films include A HARMONICA INSIDE and LYNDABIRDVILLE.