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Outsiders, Shamans, and Devils, Part 1: A Discussion of Central European New Wave Cinema with Daniel Bird

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Outsiders, Shamans, and Devils, Part 1: A Discussion of Central European New Wave Cinema with Daniel Bird

[Click here for part two of the interview.]

Daniel Bird has been a strong partisan for outsider cinema, having written about provocative Czech, Slovak and Polish filmmakers for such publications as Eyeball, Vertigo Magazine and Kinoeye, contributed to DVD liner notes and commentaries for foreign cinema, and programmed for the National Media Museum, the Cine Lumiere, the BFI South Bank and Aurora, among others. This first installment of a two-part interview is mainly concerned with the work of Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, whose highly emotional and aggressive films are frequently criticized for their “hysteria.”

Zulawski’s most popular movie, Possession, is a semi-autobiographical horror film about a marital breakdown between Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, where domestic quarrels take on a nightmarish quality as the actors verbally assault one another while the camera lurches and careens around them. But the film takes a step into the hyper-real with the appearance of Adjani’s lover, a morphing, tentacled octopus creature: this monster-as-metaphor captures the feeling of love torn apart greater than any naturalistic love story. “Zulawski films as if he were dropping an atomic bomb,” Bird wrote in Eyeball.

Zulawski’s first feature The Third Part of the Night (Trzecia Czesc Nocy) is also personal inasmuch as it was set during the German occupation (the director was born during World War II with bombs dropping overhead), but the horrific content (prisoners with fleas bred upon their flesh as an experiment in creating typhus vaccine) is not based in metaphor, but mortifying facts. His follow-up, The Devil (Diabel) is a period film set in Poland during the 18th Century, but as Bird says, “The governing bureaucrats claimed The Devil was just too depraved. Zulawski, however, maintains that the decision to [ban] the film was political rather than moral.”

Most of Zulawski’s films have been made in France, such as L’Important c’est d’Aimer and La Femme Publique, which are sexually charged and combative films about doomed romance and tempestuous desire, but I chose to ask Bird about Zulawski’s two other films made in his Polish homeland. The first, Na Srebrnym Globie (The Silver Globe), is a science fiction epic that’s operatic in its depiction of spacemen landing on the moon and, after generations of in-breeding, doing battle with demonic winged creatures that impale their victims on 40 foot stakes. The crash landing of a new astronaut leads to a new religion with this conflicted hero as reluctant Messiah, but this being Zulawski it all ends in despair. The censors got their hands on the film when it was half-completed, and it spent years unfinished, with the sets and costumes destroyed. He finished the film years later, patching it together with new footage mostly involving contemporary settings.

As for Zulawski’s 1996 film Szamanka, Bird says, “It concerns the intensely sexual relationship between an anthropology lecturer and a nineteen-year-old engineering student,” and the climax of the film resolves itself when the student “proceeds to ecstatically eat [his] brains with a spoon before the outbreak of World War Three or Four (don’t ask, I don’t know).”

Originally from Great Britain, Bird divides his time between his home country and Central Europe. Very attuned to the poetry of the fascinating, sometimes uncanny and disobedient, edgy and boldly committed foreign films that exist outside the mainstream, Bird’s willingness to venture into this strange new cinematic world and write about it allows an opportunity for readers to learn more about filmmakers such as Zulawski, who deserve a wider audience or, at the very least, should be given critical attention in order to allow the so-called cult audience to learn that these films exist.

In part wo, we’ll discuss Bird’s response to filmmakers such as Roman Polanski, Walerian Borowczyk, Juraj Jakubisko and the writer’s own creative work in film and performance art. But for the best way to describe Bird’s taste and sensibility, I’ll relay his description of his apartment in Warsaw, where he lived for two years on Tamka Street, “on the fourth floor looking out towards the Ostrogski Castle. I left the walls bare except for two posters: Sad Bozy and Sobor w Konstancji—I haven’t seen either film! Sobor w Konstancji is a formal, stylized rendition of a bearded king, his crown made up of primitive black devils.”

How did you discover the rich and surreal world of Central and Eastern European cinema?

Channel 4, when it was good. They used to screen Jan Svankmajer’s shorts. I remember taping The Coffin Factory late at night. Then there was the “Banned” season. That was where I first saw Jiri Trnka’s The Hand and Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism. I saw Borowczyk’s Renaissance on “Midnight Underground.” I got to see a pink 16mm print of Les Jeux des Anges at Stoke-on-Trent Film Theatre—that was my “Road to Damascus” experience. Zulawski’s Possession made a similar impact. It was a “video nasty” [and proved] quite difficult to track down. But the prospect of watching Isabelle Adjani fucking an octopus was just too hard to resist.

I started taking bus trips to Paris, where I would find the cheapest, dirtiest hotel imaginable, buy a copy of Pariscope and then gorge myself on cinema, pastries and coffee until my money ran out. At that time, I was studying Psychology and Philosophy at Keele University. I hated being on campus. I spent most of my time with a musician, Phil Todd. We started doing site-specific recordings, and put them out under the name of Anna Planeta—a reference to Makavejev’s Sweet Movie. Around that time I met Stephen Thrower at a Jesús Franco all-nighter at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. He asked me if I wanted to write for Eyeball. A few months later Zulawski was in Paris to promote Szamanka. So Thrower and I went there, and Zulawski was quite surprised to find two English guys who loved his film. Both Thrower and Zulawski made a big impression on me. Psychology, philosophy, music and cinema could coexist in the same discussion—without seeming pretentious!

In your DVD commentary with Zulawski on La Femme Publique, you ask him what he means by “surrealism” and he goes on to describe the Polish tradition of romanticism and idealism, but he demurs, “Maybe I’m using the word in an obscure sense for an English-speaking young intellectual who is asking me so many questions.” It brings up an interesting point of reference, which is your response to these traditions as a cultural outsider, being from Great Britain. Do you attempt to read these films in the context of their own cultural history, or is it more of a personal response, or perhaps both?

In Poland I am a cultural outsider. I try to read films in cultural context, but my response is, ultimately, personal. I am English, after all. But I have been living in Warsaw on and off since 2002. Yes, there are culturally specific aspects to many of the films I write about. Sometimes an understanding helps the appreciation of these films, but not always. Zulawski’s Diabel makes a lot more sense if you know something about the Warsaw student riots in March 1968. But what attracts me to a particular film is its bizarre quality. I guess you could say such films seem bizarre to a cultural outsider. But then I think the only person in the world who finds Diabel “normal” is Zulawski himself. Another important aspect is Zulawski, like Borowczyk, was an exile. Both made most of their films in France—does that make them less “Polish” than Andrzej Wajda? As a paean to Polish Romanticism, Zulawski’s film about Chopin, La Note Bleue, was a lot more successful than Wajda’s Pan Tadeusz. What about Zulawski’s L’Amour Braque—a film inspired by Russian novel made by a Pole living in France? Whose culture does this film belong to? This question only means something to a nationalist: “a Pole in Poland should make films about Polish subjects, in Polish. And only Poles can really understand them.” This attitude only leads to cultural isolation.

On the other hand, when Zulawski talks about “Polish surrealism,” he is right to describe it as a facet of Polish Romanticism. Unlike the Czech Republic, Poland never had a surrealist movement. However, to Western eyes, the films of Borowczyk and Svankmajer both strike us “surreal.” French critics, for example, see Borowczyk as a latter day surrealist, because of his friendship and collaboration with Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, for example. Borowczyk was certainly both aware and sympathetic towards French surrealism, but I would argue that the bizarre quality of his films is rooted in Polish Romanticism. Similarly, Diabel is deeply embedded in the Polish Romantic tradition, but in the West it seems an almost self-consciously surrealist film. For example, when I first saw Diabel in 1997, I remember thinking of it as the “Polish El Topo.”

Have you had the opportunity to read Jerzy Zulawski’s Na Srebrnym Globie? You make mention of an English translation in your Eyeball piece on “Zulawski and Polish Cinema”.

I have a manuscript of an unpublished English translation of Na Srebrnym Globie. I battled my way through the first two parts of The Moon Trilogy in Polish, On the Silver Globe and The Conqueror, but I have not yet read the third part, The Old Earth. The Moon Trilogy should be available in English. Stanislaw Lem, the author of Solaris, credits On the Silver Globe as the book that inspired him to write science fiction. However, the science fiction genre is really just a vehicle for exploring broader, philosophical themes. Jerzy Zulawski’s background was philosophy. I have a copy of his dissertation, The Problems of Causality in Spinoza. He was also a good Alpinist, and he drew on his experiences as a mountaineer in his descriptions of the lunar landscape. He lived in Zakopane, at the foot of the Polish Tatras Mountains. He was friends with the Wyspianski, avant-garde polymath Witkacy, as well as the anthropologist Malinowski. For me, all these factors figure in The Moon Trilogy.

You’ve given high praise to Possession, Diabel, The Third Part of the Night—but what are your impressions of the patched together film version of Na Srebnym Globie?

The fact that Na Srebrnym Globie is unfinished makes it an almost mythical film, like The Magnificent Ambersons. However, I do think some of the performances are too much, even by Zulawski’s standards! The costumes are staggering—Magdalena Teslawska is a genius. She has worked on several Zulawski films—Boris Godunov, La Note Bleue, Szamanka. She also worked on Avalon and was a design consultant on Ghost in the Shell 2. I was fortunate enough to work with Magda on a performance I directed in 2006. She has an incredible imagination combined with a very practical knowledge of how to realize bizarre ideas.

More recently she has been producing costumes for Mariusz Trelinski’s operas. Trelinski’s Madame Butterfly played well in Washington. Just a few weeks ago I saw Magda’s costumes for Trelinski’s Queen of Spades. Polish critics often refer to the “troika” of Trelinski, Teslawska and Boris Kudlicka, a young Slovak designer. However, it was Zulawski who put Teslawska and Kudlicka together for his production of Moniuszko’s The Haunted Manor in 1998. This production was a huge scandal, and Polish National Opera immediately commissioned a new production to supplant Zulawski’s. Nonetheless, Zulawski gave Kudlicka his big break.

The idea of opera—a total artwork—should not be ignored in Zulawski’s films. Boris Godunov is the obvious example, but all of his films strive towards a synchrony of words, movement and sound. Adjani’s infamous subway miscarriage in Possession gives Diamanda Galas a run for her money, not in terms of vocal dexterity, but in the way she modulates her wailing—it’s dramatic, emotional and quite beautiful too. Na Srebrym Globie struck me as some sort of massive site-specific cosmic opera. In fact, it was that thought that led me to stage fragments of Medea in the Wieliczka salt mine.

Andrzej Jaroszewicz’s cinematography is remarkable too. Extreme wide-angle lenses tend to get frowned upon these days. However, there is this quite remarkable tradition in Soviet cinematography, pioneered by Kalatozov and Urusevskii. In fact, the one film that Na Srebrnym Globie reminds me of is Kalatozov and Urusevskii’s The Unsent Letter. The clipped editing, particularly during the first part, was way ahead of its time. An Italian friend, Michele Salimbeni, likened this to the opening of Saving Private Ryan. Of course, now it is commonplace.

Regarding the Brechtian traveling shots in which Zulawski narrates the plot holes—I think these make Na Srebrnym Globie a film like no other. The traveling shots are so simple, so dynamic and quite touching at the same time. Zulawski’s film is largely based on the first two books of the trilogy. However, I like to think that 1980s Poland doubles for the “Old Earth” described in the third book. And, of course, it is strange to see the corridors of Warsaw Central Station before they got cluttered with kebab stores and porno shops.

You’ve described trying to get Zulawski to speak about Na Srebrnym Globie as drawing blood from a stone. Does it remain a terrible memory for him?

Ten years ago, yes, it was difficult to get Zulawski to talk about it. I don’t know why. I am not entirely sure if he considered the film to be an artistic success. But then, about six years ago, it was screened again on Polish TV. I think it surprised him. It probably looks more outlandish now than it did thirty years ago.

After the nightmare of what happened to this film and the banning of Diabel, what finally got him to return to Poland to make Szamanka?

There were a number of reasons. First, the Berlin Wall collapsed. Poland was now completely free of the Soviet influence. The key to understanding Szamanka is the author of the screenplay, Manuela Gretkowska. Gretkowska is Catholic and her writing is provocative. She studied anthropology in Warsaw and later at the Sorbonne. Her early novels were translated into French. So she had some affinities with Zulawski. Having written Szamanka she submitted the screenplay to TVP (Telewizja Polska, Polish Television)—a state institution. TVP rejected her screenplay on moral grounds. So whereas Zulawski’s films of the 1970s were suppressed on political grounds, now films are suppressed on moral grounds! The ideology of Communism was simply displaced by the Catholic Right.

In Post-Communist Poland filmmakers have the possibility of financing their films privately. That is exactly what Zulawski did. Szamanka was a three-country co-production: France, Poland and Switzerland. There was no money from the Polish state. Whatever you think of Szamanka (and I certainly think it is one of Zulawski’s lesser films), he certainly made a point—with private money you don’t have to make films the way the Polish establishment wants you to. Unfortunately, the Communist infrastructure is still very much alive in Poland. There is one difference, however. During Communist times, a director could submit his script to one of several film units—Tor, Kadr, X etc. Real filmmakers headed these film units, not bureaucrats. If one film unit did not like your project, you could always try one of the others. Today, however, if the Polish Institute of Film Art, PISF (Polski Instytut Sztuki Filmowy) doesn’t like your project, then it is dead in the water. Have a look at their website and download the document which details how they evaluate scripts—they give you a mark out of five for how “natural” your dialogue reads! What happens if your dialogue is unnatural? What happens if it is Mickiewicz? In other words, they only want to make a certain type of film. The ghost of 1970s Cinema of Moral Concern cripples contemporary Polish cinema.

Andrzej Wajda runs a kind of elite film school in Warsaw—it is interesting to look at his staff—Agnieszka Holland, Krzysztof Zanussi ... Jacek Petrycki teaches cinematography—he ’s a very good director of photography, but his background is in documentary and his approach is very realistic. Needless to say, these filmmakers still make films, with funding from TVP and PISF, which rarely get distributed outside of Poland. Holland seems to alternate between “serious” Polish films and more commercial assignments in the West—she’s even directed a couple of episodes of The Wire. However, if you are a filmmaker who values the visual—and cinema is a visual medium—I think you would have a very hard time in Wajda’s school.

The sad fact is that there has not been a Polish film in UK distribution since Wajda’s Korczak—and that was in the early 1990s. Last year a lot of Polish commentators seemed flabbergasted that Wajda’s Katyn did not win the Best Foreign Picture Oscar. There is a big debate about why the film was not sold widely around the world. The fact is that it is a very old-fashioned film, about a very Polish subject. There are some good performances—Danuta Stenka, Maja Ostaszewska for example—but the film is not really about Katyn forest, rather the wives of the soldiers murdered in Katyn forest. Sorry, but who cares about their wives? Their husbands are the ones who got shot! Katyn is their story. For me, the story of Katyn only starts in the last reel—which is the best part of the film. The next “big” Polish production is a film about yet another chapter in Poland’s long history of suffering—the murder of Father Popieluszko. I won’t be watching it.

Popieluszko and the Polish Catholic Church played very significant political roles back in the early 1980s. However, personally I find it difficult to find something positive to say about the role of Catholicism in Polish society today. The nadir was two years ago when Roman Giertych was Minister for Education. He proposed a black list of books not to be taught in Polish schools. He excluded Jewish writers like Julian Tuwim and homosexual writers like Witold Gombrowicz. Without both Jews and homosexuals the Polish literary pantheon gets a little empty. Things are changing, though. Whatever you think about Dorota Maslowska, she has certainly livened up the Polish literary scene, and it is good to see her work in English translation. Also, the emergence of Krytyka Polityczna marks the emergence of a young, intelligent left-of-center publishing and debate. For me this is very important, because in Poland I get the impression that a lot of people all too readily conflate Communism with socialism—that the crimes of the Communists somehow legitimizes gleeful capitalism and a “survival of the fittest” mentality. In this respect, contemporary Poland is a perverse echo of Thatcher-era England.

What is Zulawski working on these days? He seems to have abandoned films altogether and is concentrating on writing books. Have you had the opportunity to read any of his novels?

Zulawski has made clear his intention to return to filmmaking, and has written a script that he hopes to shoot in Poland. Funding, however, is still an issue. I have lost track of how many books he has written, but it is well in excess of twenty. I have read some of his books, but by no means all. Almost all of his books are heavily autobiographical. They tend to have themes rather than narratives. More and more are making it into French translation, thanks to the Herculean efforts of Eric Veaux. Around the time of Fidelity, Zulawski wrote a book called Infidelity. The protagonist, if you can call him that, is a philosophy professor specializing in Heidegger who takes sexually explicit photographs on the side. There are also allusions to Zulawski’s relationship to Sophie Marceau—which I guess was then main reason it was translated into French.

For me, his books are very much in the wake of Gombrowicz’s diaries. In other words, Zulawski’s principle subject is himself. Panu Śmiertelny is not about Jozef Pilsudski, but someone writing about Pilsudski. There are a lot of factual digressions in his books. Lity bor, for example, discusses March 1968 and serves as a good companion piece to Diabel. Zulawski also frequently experiments with literary form. Recently I have been given a rough French translation of Jonas. I don’t have this book in Polish. From what I have read it is much closer to Zulawski’s early short literary works like Casanova and Bluebeard—except here there is a real narrative.

Zulawski is a real writer. I was fortunate enough to collaborate with him on the English subtitles for Mondo Vision’s forthcoming DVD releases of L’Amour Braque and L’Important c’est d’amier. L’Amour Braque was a particular challenge—it was written by Etienne Roda-Gil, an anarchist and surrealist who wrote song lyrics. The French dialogue is a mixture of verse, slang and quotations. I spent two weeks over Christmas with Zulawski working hard to come up with English dialogue that preserved the rhythm and melody of Roda-Gil’s French, not to mention finding equivalent colloquialisms and similarly crazy imagery. It was hard work, but I learned a lot from Zulawski.

Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.