Interview: Piotr Szulkin
One of the most enigmatic and unclassifiable living Polish filmmakers, Piotr Szulkin appears to have bid farewell to cinema, for good. The zenith of Szulkin’s career coincided with the escalation of violence under the Communist regime in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Szulkin’s 1979 feature debut, Golem, a metaphysical parable about a quest for self-knowledge, premiered two years before the imposition of martial law in Poland. Like fiction directors Krzysztof Kieślowski and Andrzej Wajda, and documentary filmmakers such as Marcel Łoziński and Wojciech Wiszniewski, Szulkin was not spared political squabbles with Party leaders, or with censors. Yet, also like a number of Cold War-era filmmakers, he has said that censorship was a gift, forcing him to transcend the obvious, in search of allegory and metaphor.
In his 2004 book-length interview with Piotr Kletowski and Piotr Marecki, entitled Życiopis, Szulkin described his family’s World War II trauma: his father, scientist Paweł Szulkin, came from an assimilated Jewish family; his grandparents died in the Holocaust and his father immigrated to France in the 1960s. Szulkin grew up as Poland’s television was coming into its own. He sees in the medium, and in the media generally, a failed utopia, their transformative potential squandered on mass entertainment.
Lately, he seems to feel the same way about cinema. Szulkin’s last film, Ubu Roi, an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s eponymous play, was conceived in the 1990s. As in his early social satires dressed up as sci-fi, from The War of the Worlds: Next Century (81) to Ga-Ga: Glory to the Heroes (85), it hones in on the absurdities of officious jargon, the vacuity of political slogans, and the precariousness of social structures. But his eagerness to critique Poland’s newly minted democratic leaders met with resistance, and the project stalled. Released in 2003, Ubu Roi had lost its satirical edge. This experience convinced Szulkin of cinema’s precariousness under capitalism. Critical of politicians and producers’ meddling in the creative process, Szulkin withdrew from film and from public life.
Ironically, Szulkin’s hermit-like retreat has coincided with his growing recognition at home and abroad. Last summer, New York audiences could watch Golem as part of the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi program. Szulkin was the subject of a panel at Columbia University this past April and screenings at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn. Panel moderator Michał Oleszczyk, who serves as the artistic director of the Gdynia Film Festival (Poland’s largest festival dedicated to national cinema), made the case for Szulkin’s reemergence as an essential cult director, having referred to Szulkin as the “undiscovered Fritz Lang of the 1980s Mittleeuropa.” Oleszczyk puts his finger on what is unique about Szulkin: his ouevre is an uncanny mélange not only of German expressionism, French existentialism and Franz Kafka, but also of H. G. Wells-inspired futurist dystopia and American noir, à la Blade Runner. His haunted worlds owe as much to symbolist occult writers like Bruno Schulz and Gustav Meyrink (author of the novel, The Golem) as they do to politics.
A perennial outsider, Szulkin kept aloof from Poland’s cinema of moral concern, but he is one of the country’s great moral skeptics. His films are saturated with stark images that decry cynical social control—insidious regime oppression on one hand, and on the other, the moral corruption and ingrained passivity of ordinary citizens. Szulkin's post-apocalyptic films share a Foucauldian vision of power as being deeply internalized by people, regardless of the specific system we live in. The thirst for power runs in the human bloodstream, and spreads, like a virus. Thus Szulkin favors biological and galactic cataclysms, portraying humanity in constant crisis.
Earlier this month I interviewed Szulkin for FILM COMMENT via Skype.
You originally studied to be a painter.
I did not know much about film or the art of cinematography at the time I applied to film school. When asked during my entry exam what cinema meant to me, I said it was like a giant canvas. Of course, in some sense, I was completely wrong. As I matured in my role as filmmaker, I realized what a great responsibility it is.
Do you mean responsibility to the audience?
No. It’s a bit like being in a large crowd and suddenly being granted a microphone. When your power to address others is amplified, you must take responsibility for your words. I guess, in films such as Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or in general, under Franklin Roosevelt, American cinema had a social function. I am not suggesting that my work is identical, but merely that the sense of social responsibility persisted in Europe a bit longer. In Eastern Europe, particularly, given the repression, we used to have more reasons to dwell on social responsibility.
But I also understand responsibility more broadly. You must have something to say, and be able to convey this via a dramatic structure. Let me give you a few examples. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, in its essence, is not about making fun of the people of Kazakhstan. Instead, it brings to mind Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector—we find ourselves laughing at American mores, as in Gogol’s words, “Who are you laughing at if not yourselves.” Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, especially the director’s cut, echoes not only Joseph Conrad, but also Jean Paul Sartre. Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ builds an exquisite inner world of the main protagonist. The same can be said for Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse.
In your interview with Kletowski and Marecki, you mentioned that you had come to realize that film is not a canvas but more like a poster.
Film is a scream. A slogan that you throw out there to attract people, whereas painting must be contemplated at leisure. With film, you gather viewers for some 90 minutes. They may get something out of it, or not, depending on how strong your film’s formal aspects are. But film is a type of shorthand, when it communicates thought. You cannot subject it to the infinite analysis that can be achieved when facing a painting by someone like Leonardo da Vinci.
Do you still paint in your spare time?
In my head, constantly. And whenever I feel stuck, but only for myself.
You said you did not know cinematography when you applied to the Łódź Film School. But your fascination with cinema began early?
I was lucky to grow up during the early period of cinematography and television in Poland, when both programming and distribution were very reasonable. I lived near Iluzjon, the cinema of the Polish Filmoteka [a cinémathèque]. I will never forget seeing Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible at the age of 5. We had only two television channels in Poland, but they screened great cinema classics. For example, I first saw Fellini’s 8 ½ on television.
Which filmmakers influenced you when you were in film school?
As I tell my students, the art of cinema belongs to three men. Firstly, Eisenstein reached cinematic heights rarely attained by others. Eisenstein set his films to music, such as Sergei Prokofiev’s, rather than to dialogue. His film, Alexander Nevsky, is a grand symphony composed of image and music. Then there is Fellini, whose narrative cinema takes the form of psychotherapy. Fellini reveals his characters’ psyches, as he does in his masterpiece, 8 ½. And then there is Jean-Luc Godard, a true revolutionary who changed everything, and whose work coincided with the events of 1968. When today we speak of directors like Quentin Tarantino whose form shocks us, we must remember that Godard did it all some fifty years earlier. He wasn’t as bloody, but Tarantino pales next to the last few scenes of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. Perhaps, in some aspects, the Coen Brothers can be said to match Godard. They have an incredible sense of taste, form, and humor. We usually underestimate how invaluable irony is in dramatic narration, in literature and in film.
I can see the influence of Fellini in your approach to actors. With Eisenstein, is it mainly a question of montage?
Any great filmmaker must master montage. I learned editing from a genius editor, Agnieszka Bojanowska, back in the days when we had no equipment and still cut film manually with the help of a razor blade and acetone. Bojanowska was the pupil of Wacław Kaźmierczak, the spiritual father of all Polish film editors.
Bojanowska once told me that every image, even a blank wall, possesses an inner rhythm. An editor must find and enhance it.
Absolutely. The rhythm emerges once you’ve found what is essential in each shot. It’s not something that your audience will necessarily detect. It’s not about the beat but about the emotion that a rhythm conveys. It’s the foundation of montage.
Which of your films are most Godard-like?
My early school études—Everything [Wszystko, 72], with the garbage cans. I didn’t try to imitate Godard but instead to quote him. In Golem, certain scenes have internal jump cuts, which are post-Godard, not classic montage.
What about Working Women (Kobiety pracujace), your short film from 1978 that was also edited by Bojanowska?
The rhythm in that film comes from a certain technological invention of mine. As I recall, I filmed it using 16 frames, and then doubled each frame. When I sold the film in Germany, the Germans complained that the copy had technical errors. In my jokes, I always point this out as typically German. The distortion of reality is key to the film, but they still took it as a mistake.
I want to ask you about censorship under Communism. Marcel Łoziński once told me that, since the regime changed often, he could always convince some official to let him make films, if only to look better than the previous regime. What was your experience?
I was always an outsider, so I made an easy target. Once, when a new hardline vice-minister of culture took over, he immediately singled me out, along with Andrzej Żuławski, and announced that we would not be allowed to make films in the Polish People’s Republic. We were saved because the minister then died in a plane crash. With Working Women, the technical commission threatened to basically perforate the negative. It was said that my film offended socialist workers.
With Golem, the Catholic Church objected more than the regime did. Though right at the start, Studio Tor, for which I worked, along with Krzysztof Kieślowski, Krzysztof Zanussi and others, decided that they could not take political responsibility for my film. Tor’s director, Stanisław Różewicz, told me two weeks before the shoot. I stood in the Studio’s hallway, pale as death. Luckily, producer Jerzy Buchwald from Studio Perspektywa approached me [Perspektywa produced the film]. The Minister did not like my title, Golem, so I agreed to change it to Moloch; I then changed it back. Golem, as you know, is an old Jewish legend.
You’ve compared Krzysztof Kieślowski to a poker player in his dealings with the regime, whereas the approach of the brilliant documentary filmmaker, Wojciech Wiszniewski, seemed to you suicidal.
Krzysztof was a genius, which does not mean that he did not experience hard times. But far fewer than someone like Łoziński, who, though he is the most distinguished documentary filmmaker of his generation, was in constant conflict with the authorities. Myself, I was not attached to any group. Marcel was close to the “angry young men” in Warsaw—Kieślowski, Wajda. And still, he had difficulties.
His form was powerful, but you cannot expect bureaucrats to understand form. Wojciech liked to provoke officials. I get a sense that’s why so many of his films were censored.
I see parallels between you and Wiszniewski. You both deconstructed the regime’s iconography, its myths.
Absolutely. I was impressed by Wiszniewski’s ability to transform everyday thinking into absurdist or symbolic expression, which made it harder for the officials to take it apart. My films posed similar problems. The officials could not say outright that they objected to my form, because what does that mean? That my world is too blue or too green? How can you prove what meaning hides behind this? Of course, I endured many incidents. The minister who gave The War of the Worlds: Next Century a pass was sacked afterwards.
Going back to Golem, it’s the only film in your tetralogy that was co-written, with film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski. How did your collaboration come about?
Tadeusz recommended to me the book, The Golem, by the Austrian expressionist writer, Gustav Meyrink. I could not get through it, finding it very formalist, but I asked Tadeusz to narrate a few scenes, and based on them wrote the screenplay. Somehow, I captured the spirit of the book. Tadeusz actually never believed that I had not read it. Once, my DP, Zygmunt Samosiuk, tried to decide on the hair color for the main actress (Krystyna Janda), and finally picked red, on a whim. And, of course, it turned out that the main female character in the book, Rosina, has red hair! But that’s just how it is when making films. Some degree of magic is always involved.
What fascinated you about the story?
The scene with the newspapers flying down from the bridge. I knew I had to shoot it.
Anything else in the narrative?
The awakening of Golem’s consciousness. Golem is a fascinating legend, which tells a story of a man who is being manipulated, to the point where he cannot be sure who he really is. [Polish poet] Miron Białoszewski wrote an incredible poem to be recited in the film, about how we are constantly self-searching, and so feel lost, not just in the cosmic order but also in our own homes, in reality.
I’ve read that you also channeled your private fears into the film.
All filmmakers end up channeling their fears. 8 ½ certainly contains Fellini’s personal anxieties. So does Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, which poses an important question: to what extent we are all insane.
In your case, did existential fears mix with biological ones?
I have been sickly all my life, so yes. With time, my sense of my own biological slightness, or inconsequence, took on metaphysical dimensions.
There is one meta-moment in Golem, in which you play a television director, who complains that he has been given the wrong crowd to mix. We will speak about your fascination with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s La Ricotta, but is this where you parody yourself, as Orson Welles does in Pasolini’s short film?
This kind of thing has a long tradition in cinema.
But did you work in television at the time?
I had been thrown out of film school, because my student film, Everything, was seen as offensive to the working class. Back then you could not just make films without a diploma, so I began teaching photography, and worked as a special-effects expert in television. But I did make my way back to film soon enough.
The sepia effect in Golem was achieved with the use of filters.
Zygmunt Samosiuk came up with the idea. Unfortunately, when later scanned from the negative, the picture had changed. These days the golden bronzes are less prominent, there is more green. Time and technology have not worked in our favor.
The film is visually very different from the others in the tetralogy.
All thanks to Zygmunt Samosiuk. He was older and more experienced, but he acted like a friend. Golem was my first feature, so there are quite a few things that I would have liked to resolve differently. But in those days, film crews drank terribly, including on the set. Electricians drank, so did the guards. It’s hard to imagine how challenging this was. For example, Zygmunt and I shot the scene with the flying newspapers ourselves. We were the only ones still sober that day.
Despite all this, you always finished your films on time, in 28 to 30 days. Can you describe how you prepared for filming?
We did no preparations in the sense of extensive work with actors. I always began by building my own sets, because I am never satisfied with any set designer. Poor sets were always the most infuriating part of my work.
How would you describe your work with actors?
You can divide directors into three essential categories: Those who whisper to their actors, those who talk to them, and those who scream at them. You can tell which method a director uses from the results he gets. Those who scream should not make films, period. I’m one of those who whisper. I take an actor aside, look into his eyes, and appeal to his feelings. Not that I expect anyone to spill his guts on the set. I make technical remarks in an intimate way. It seems to produce results. I also act out scenes in front of the actors, especially when it comes to movement, but also the tone of voice, and so on. I rarely impose myself; though I do, sometimes.
Do you have the entire film edited in your head?
Absolutely. Especially since, in cinema, we are dependent on so many things, including the camera position, lighting, etc.
The War of the Worlds: Next Century
Your second film in the tetralogy, The War of the Worlds: Next Century, borrows aesthetically from American film noir.
I was thinking of films like John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. I aimed for limited expression, no psychologizing. Everything revolves around the plot. There are other things characteristic to my films, like the camera’s location, just below the actor’s face, as in film noir. In some films, during the action/reaction shots, I delay the reaction. There is a scene in The War of the Worlds, in which the main protagonist, Iron Idem (Roman Wilhelmi), very slowly peels off a bandage. He could just rip it off, but the point is to set the stage for his reflecting on his fate as he performs the action. It is also a distancing effect—he distances himself from his absurdist situation. The scene helps the viewer to perceive this.
The War of the Worlds takes inspiration from very specific political events. You’ve said that you wrote it after seeing both the Communist Party and the independent unions, Solidarity, press for a brutal confrontation.
I remember that when martial law came [in 1981], I felt like I had long expected it. The message in my films was always that the students should not throw Molotov cocktails. We are historical subjects, and should not let ourselves be objectified, or manipulated. We participate in History, but cannot always control the political situation. Once, after it was all over, a student came up to me to thank me. He felt like his seeing The War of the Worlds was the reason he had not ended up in jail.This brings us back to your sense of responsibility. The film was your scream, symbolically speaking.
My scream, and an expression of my need to confront the situation we had found ourselves in. I never had any doubt that martial law was coming. I even bought a shortwave radio to prepare for an emergency. I bought it for something like $50, which back then in my situation was a fortune. I hadn’t stored any canned food, perhaps unwisely, but I had the radio.
How did you arrive at the particular form of film noir?
You could say that Golem was inspired by German expressionism, and The War of the Worlds by American noir. But I don’t overthink such things. When I write a screenplay, I never know how it will turn out. I often joke to my students that writing is literally a “pain in the butt.” You must sit down for long enough to dig into your material. I tore up my first draft for The War of the Worlds, some 12 pages, because I realized that I had gone in the wrong direction—it was a straightforward allegory of the Soviet invasion. I think it is much better if we are not clear about who invades, Martians, doll-like figures, who knows.
I write my screenplays as novellas, paying attention to the text’s literary quality. I set a quota of at least four pages a day. I always write at night, while chain-smoking. I have written all my screenplays on a typewriter.
What about the challenges of translating literary text into images? In The War of the Worlds, there is a moment when Iron Idem is presented with the body of his wife inside a plastic bag. In the book, he does not see that her body shivers. This level of detail did not make it into the film.
It must have slipped by me. But I recall with what great effort we staged the scene, consulting eye doctors to make the actress’s eyeballs look perfectly white. They used egg whites, since we had no color contact lenses. Now whenever I see how easy it is with contacts to give an actor huge green eyeballs, I chuckle.
Tadeusz Sobolewski has said that your film is not really about the Polish regime, which was on its last breath, but about the violence wrought by the media—about what happens when “television consumes reality.”
He is right. There is a line in the film that says that television has eaten our brains.
There is also the recurring theme of an atomic bomb.
But more as a background, to show that something has changed our fate. It could have been the Cuban missile crisis, a bomb, Putin.
Or any type of cataclysm. You have a similarly loose approach to science fiction as genre. You always say that departing from reality is what counts.
I have never considered myself a director of science fiction films. My films are socio-psychological, perhaps even social. There is always an opportunity to make a valuable film in any genre, of course, but today, when it is all about selling products, that is so rare. I do not make sci-fi, but rather borrow from its aesthetic.
Ga-Ga: Glory to the Heroes
I’m fascinated by your multifaceted portrayal of power. We tend to think of regimes as overpowering, but in your films, power can be incarnated by an obsequious, seemingly harmless bureaucrat who brings you slippers, as brilliantly played by Jerzy Stuhr in Ga-Ga: Glory to the Heroes.
Stuhr is the incarnation of doubt.
Yes, but that’s in his other role, as Soft, in Obi-Oba: The End of Civilization (84), where he plays a demoralized utopist. In yet another of your works, a television adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (97), Arturo is a mediocre bureaucrat, who rules almost against his will.
Arturo Ui is my most important film. You could lift entire scenes and it basically reflects Polish reality today. Polish absurdities too, unfortunately.
It’s also political theater on a universal scale. It seems to say that we are all condemned to our own fear. Arturo actually says he is all we’ve got.
Those are my lines. I changed Brecht’s text quite a bit. Too bad Arturo Ui was only shown on Polish television maybe once. It shows the essential process of how nations turn fascist.
Yet in your films, there are no real monsters and no real heroes.
That’s because even the cruelest tyrants have been sweet talkers. Dictators always appear soft. They like to boast about how much they are loved.
I do want to return to Pasolini’s La Ricotta, which inspired your last film in the tetralogy, Ga-Ga: Glory to the Heroes.
In La Ricotta, Pasolini combines the sacred with the profane. The profane (a starving plebeian actor) plays the sacrum (the role of Jesus Christ). The actor pays the highest price by actually dying on the cross, as Christ did, but no one pays attention to him. Even today, I get goose bumps whenever I think of this film. Pasolini aimed for such an ambitious metaphor, in a film that lasts some thirty plus minutes. Metaphor is essential in cinema. Without it, a narrative becomes an empty gesture. That is why I value the Coen Brothers, because one can almost always detect some level of metaphor at play in their films, not to mention irony.
Your attitude towards crucifixion in is equally ironic. Your main character, Scope (Daniel Olbrychski), who is to be sacrificed in the name of social order, complains that there are only two and not three pales.
But no one even asks him what he thinks about the whole thing. That’s precisely the mechanism I wanted to show. Once, an old professor from Moscow told me that my film is an exact depiction of Stalinist Moscow. I was quite proud of myself, even though I had never experienced it.
Your crucifixion is all spectacle, no belief. It’s a media circus.
As it was for the Romans, who saw crucifixions as entertainment. Death was turned into celebrations in the Roman Empire, and that’s what we see in the film.
Yet it’s the only film in the tetralogy that ends well. Was it really your wife who asked for a happy ending?
She asked for the ending to be positive just once. I’m a Francophone, and “Gaga” also means “senile” or “an idiot,” in French. So there.
Ga-Ga: Glory to the Heroes
Staying with the question of irony in cinema: Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Munk, has been your idol.
He was our only truly great filmmaker. I think it’s telling that we have made only one-and-a-half great films about the Holocaust in Poland: Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage and Andrzej Munk’s Passenger, which he died in the midst of filming. The scenes he did film are incredible. Some 60 years since the war, we have not made a great film about the Holocaust or about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
But it’s not like no historical films are being made. Instead, films, such as Jan Komasa’s Warsaw ’44 (Miasto 44), revert to mythologizing history.
I would call it a mythomania, which is worse than mythologizing. Instead of meditating in silence over the tragedy of the thousands who were killed during the Warsaw Uprising [in 1944], we turn it into a cheap operetta. I have not watched the films in question, but I know that none of them is bitter; they are all heroic and incredible. We should be reading Miron Białoszewski’s A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, and not turning it into stories about remarkable boys who defeat Germans with their grenades. It reminds me of the war against the Russians in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. I am actually ashamed. In Warsaw, I see cars with stickers, “Poland fights,” used by people who do not understand what fighting meant during the war.
Do you think it’s a question of a generation gap?
It is a question of dumbing propaganda. The lack of Munk’s legacy.
In Munk, it’s not just the bitterness but also critical distance, the irony toward history that matters. Perhaps we should mention your short film, Meat (Mięso, Ironica), which won the top prize in Oberhausen in 1994. It is in direct dialogue with Munk’s World War II satire, Eroica. What are its origins?
Quite simple, actually. At a time when I could not find any work, I was approached to make a film for the Agriculture Department at the Polish Television. I always immediately agree to such offers. I suggested that I could make a film about a cow, or even better, about meat. They thought it was a terrific idea. I wrote the whole script in half an hour. I had only one limitation—I had to make the film in three days. I planned the schedule down to every 15 minutes. And so you get this elaborate film, with all these sets. When I ask my students how long they think I took, they always say seven to 10 days. I just made sure that I had comfortable shoes. After three days, when I came back home, my wife saw that my shoes were worn down to the holes in my toes. She said I had made the film in a maniacal state. I probably had.
Meat is your tribute to Munk.
I had grown up on Munk’s Eroica, which originally had three separate stories. I wanted to make three parts as well, but they did not let me.
Your films are finding new audiences in the United States. Do you have a sense of who your viewers are in Poland?
Young people who end up discussing my films on Internet forums.
Do you participate as well?
No. I don’t answer any invitations either. But I am sad to be learning about some of the American screenings of my films only through you. I always ask myself if I have fulfilled my obligation in life. I used to count how many people have seen my films, and wonder if I would end up with more hours of watching time than the hours in my own life. But then I stopped; it seemed too silly. Now I am quite weakened by various illnesses, but I think I have fulfilled my duty.