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Outsiders, Shamans, and Devils, Part 2: A Discussion of Central European New Wave Cinema with Daniel Bird

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Outsiders, Shamans, and Devils, Part 2: A Discussion of Central European New Wave Cinema with Daniel Bird

[Click here for part one of the interview.]

In Daniel Bird’s Pocket Essentials Guide to Roman Polanski, he describes Polanski’s films as depicting “a godless world in which the good do not always triumph, the outsider is always persecuted and the innocent is always abused.” Placing an emphasis on the subjects of Polanski’s films rather than the sensational elements that in some ways overshadow the work, Bird opens the book with a discussion of the filmmaker’s early years in Poland, and how that informed his aesthetics, politics and point-of-view. Connecting Polanski’s work to what a western audience would refer to as absurdism or surrealism, Bird views them as personal artistic statements.

But the international reputation of Polanski cannot be discounted, whereas fellow Polish film director and animator Walerian Borowczyk straddled the line between iconic admiration and shock cinema infamy that turns some audiences away in disgust. His shift between early artistic films and later soft-core porn and infamous exploitation films makes him a bit of a wild card in international cinema even for those who take his work seriously. Aside from the graphic images of his films, involving rape scenes involving hairy beasts, vivid ejaculations, bestiality, and masturbating nuns, Bird would be the first to point out that they are viciously satirical depictions of class warfare, morally complicated depictions of sexual politics, and unforgettable images from the realm of the fantastic.

In addition to writing about these provocative filmmakers (and others, such as Jan Němec, Věra Chytilová and Juraj Herz), Bird has been involved in site-specific film, theater and audio projects, including live digital recordings of “sounds made and heard at a huge, long-abandoned Catholic schoolhouse” with his group Anna Planeta, which were “performed around sonic events generated by the buildings themselves, the effects of the elements, the bats in the roof—all direct to DAT.” With financing he received from the Polish Ministry of Culture, he created multimedia projects based on the Medea tragedy, set within the Wieliczka Salt Mine. As for his collaboration as screenwriter with noted Slovak surrealist filmmaker Juraj Jakubisko on Bathory, well, perhaps better to let Bird narrate that production, which sounds like an art house descent into production hell.

How did the opportunity arise to write a book about Roman Polanski?

I was working in a bookshop called Murder One. Sadly it closed a few weeks ago. It specialized in Crime Fiction. I was responsible for both the True Crime and Sherlock Holmes sections. I was lucky enough to get to know Mike Hart, who used to work at Compendium Books in Camden Town. For me, Mike was a mythical character. I think he shaped the reading habits of an awful lot of people over the years. One day a sales rep came into the shop and suggested that Mike should write a Pocket Essentials on Beat Poetry and that I should write something on cinema. Mike got the joke but I jumped at the offer. Overnight I drafted an outline for a book on Polanski. It was written during summer 2001, during down time at Murder One. There had not been a Polanski book for some time, and The Pianist was just around the corner, so I was lucky with timing. I envisaged the book as a kind of “rough guide” to, well, all the things I was into at the time. Jan Lenica did the posters for Polanski, so I wrote about Polish posters. Krzysztof Komeda did the music, so I wrote about Polish jazz.

During this time I was fortunate to know Ray Durgnat, and the book was written very much under his influence. I used to meet Ray in his flat near Finsbury Park Tube station. He was very guarded at first but gradually we became good friends. Back in the late 1970s, Ray was very outspoken about his suspicion regarding structuralism in Film Studies. I think he was ostracized as a result. At the time he was teaching at the University of East London—a former art college. Ray only taught at art colleges—St. Martins, the Royal College—which means he was teaching film for filmmakers. I think some of Ray’s last works—the long essay on Bresson, the book on WR: Mysteries of the Organism and the Red Psalm essay—are among his best works.

Personally, I think Ray was the victim of a certain snobbish class attitude. A lot of his peers took great pride in flirting with Marxism during their Oxbridge years. “Subverting the system” from within institutions like the BFI or academia. Ray came from a family of Swiss immigrants in the East End—very working class—who was bright enough to get into Cambridge and then to the Slade School of Art. He earned his bread writing for Films and Filming, which many people considered to be some kind of covert gay publication. Nonetheless, Ray was given free reign and his Sexual Alienation in the Cinema was drawn from articles he wrote for Films and Filming. The chapter on “Power Plays” gave me a lot of ideas for the Polanski book.

Ray wasn’t really a critic or a historian; he was, for me, a film writer. Unlike most critics, he had practical filmmaking experience—I think he worked as a script editor at the beginning of his career. He also wrote poetry, some of which was very good. He approached films as sounding boards for ideas; he was also a great stylist too. What I detest about a lot of the pseudo-academic film criticism that started to emerge when I was writing for Eyeball was the use of films to “illustrate” such and such an idea that was fashionable at the time. For me, it should be the other way around—a bizarre film evokes some ambiguous thoughts and feelings, and the act of writing is an attempt to articulate those thoughts and feelings. The process can be fragmented, searching and tangential, but the writing is always a response. I have never offered definitive “interpretations”, only “possibilities.” A piece of film writing should open a debate—I am always suspicious of somebody offering the “last word” on the subject.

What was the response to your Polanski book?

Not many people reviewed it. There was one online review in which it was clear the guy had actually read the book and knew what he was talking about. Other than that I think people were quite snobbish about the Pocket Essentials series. I think the strength and the failure of the book was that is neither academic nor mainstream. It took on “big” ideas in a flippant manner. Still, without it I probably would not have gotten involved producing the Anchor Bay documentaries on Polanski’s early films. A Ticket to the West and A British Horror Film are, in my opinion, quite good. It was great to interview to Wajda, Andrzej Kostenko, Janusz Morgenstern, Zygmunt Malanowicz, Halina Prugar, Gene Gutowski and Leon Niemczyk.

Polanski is rightfully admired for landmark films such as Chinatown and Repulsion, but not many people have had the opportunity to see his earlier work in Poland up until A Knife in the Water. Even Cul-de-Sac is somewhat difficult to track down. What are your impressions of these films, and do they allow any new insights into Polanski’s body of work?

To be honest, I am left cold by Chinatown. I admire it, but given the choice I’d much prefer to watch The Fearless Vampire Killers or The Tenant. Polanski’s short films are pure, unadulterated pleasure. There is something very pure about his early shorts, like Murder and Toothy Smile.

You had the opportunity to speak with Walerian Borowczyk near the end of his life. What were your impressions of the man?

He was very hurt. About ten years ago, an article that appeared in a Polish rightwing Catholic newspaper that featured an interview with the lead actress from Story of Sin, Grazyna Dlugolecka. The article asserted that Borowczyk sexually harassed her throughout the shooting. When I met Dlugolecka in 2002 she said her words had been taken out of context. Nonetheless, the damage had been done.

You’re working on a book about Borowczyk now?

I’m on the final draft. It has been a long journey. I started making notes well over ten years ago. I have tried to write a narrative, and incorporated as much biographical information as possible. I think a lot of people will be surprised. Most people will be familiar only with Borowczyk’s later feature films. However, that is only half his story. The book covers Borowczyk’s wartime experiences, his period of study at the Krakow Academy of Fine Art, his Socialist Realist lithography and satirical drawings, as well as an in-depth look at his collaboration with Jan Lenica. Very little has been written about Borowczyk’s life and work in Poland.

Short films are usually given short shrift, but I really think that Renaissance, Les jeux des Anges, Rosalie and Diptyque count among Borowczyk’s best works. These films tend to be characterized as the work of a “fellow traveler” of Svankmajer. However, Borowczyk had numerous connections with so-called “Left Bank” filmmakers—most notably his producer, Anatole Dauman, Jacques Forgeot and Les Cineastes Associes, not to mention Chris Marker. Borowczyk is usually described as an animator, but many of his short films feature very minimal animation. Borowczyk developed quite a unique film language. His approach to montage, framing, color and sound is very idiosyncratic. Sometimes it can feel mannered. Sometimes it feels like one hundred years of cinema never existed.

We’ve been speaking about Polish filmmakers, but you have also had the opportunity to live in Warsaw and develop multimedia projects there.

My first project in Poland was very ambitious. I was teaching English in Warsaw at the time. I wanted to make a film that I would have reviewed in Eyeball—something that straddled both horror and art house genres. I got a deal memo from Deana Jakubiskova for 2,000 Euros to develop the project—although she never actually gave me any money! My partner on this project, Elzbieta Rojek, used to be part of a prestigious Polish theater group, Gardzienice. They have, in my eyes, this kitschy folk aesthetic, and we both figured that we’d get money from the Polish Ministry of Culture if we proposed something similar—they like that sort of thing.

So I wrote some sort of pseudo-academic theater project. Of course, once we got the money we did something else. I quickly wrote a film script, Bloody Handed Fiend of Vengeance. It was to be an anthropological horror film-Greek tragedy recast as an exploitation flick. We found a female choir called Jarzebina from Kocudza, a village in the Lubelski region of Poland near the Ukrainian border. They had these incredible voices—all like Marianne Faithfull—they looked incredible too. We had enough money to shoot for a day in the Wieliczka salt mine—I spent a day scouting locations both on and off the tourist route. I chose a chamber that had this incredible amphitheater-like structure. Most of the money was spent getting the roof inspected—no simple task. Three or four climbers from Krakow had to traverse the roof to check no rocks were loose. We rehearsed two or three scenes from the script in Kocudza.

We had about two or three days. We tried to turn our poverty into an aesthetic—all the props were wooden. Some students from Lublin helped out—some as dancers in the film, others as technicians and translators. An Italian actor, Giovani Delfino, came over from Italy to play the male lead. Mikolaj Jaroszewicz, son of Andrzej Jaroszewicz, was the director of photography. Mikolaj, incidentally, immediately went onto film the Peter and the Wolf animation, which won the Best Short Animation Oscar.

There was one scene that was supposed to be a fevered hallucination in which Medea imagines being forced to watch her estranged husband consummate his marriage to Glauke. It was all pretty grotesque, and we were worried how compliant the villagers would be. So we bought a load of vodka and had a party while Mikolaj and I set up the lights—we shot everything in about two hours. We shot the scenes in Wieliczka in one day. There were lots of logistical problems—all the props had to fit in the lift—the bed and the cart had to be dismantled and reassembled inside the mine. There is always the danger of methane and explosions so we had to persuade a number of chain smokers not to smoke for one whole day. We knew it would be a long day so we bought lots of alcohol—but it had all gone within half an hour.

Were there technical challenges?

We did not have enough lights and I had to change the way I covered the scene—something I regret. The acoustics were, for our sound recordist, Jeremy Adamson, a complete nightmare. Even the hum of the transformers resonated throughout the chamber. However, when the choir sang the effect was overwhelming. I edited everything together very quickly—too quickly. I have mixed feelings about the result—I learned a lot, we all learned a lot. I learned that a big part of filmmaking was persuading people—persuading people to do things or give things for free because you have no money, persuading a self-conscious girl to fake an orgasm in front of a whole village because the scene won’t work without it. I also regret not being a bit more cavalier with lights and sound—there were a number of occasions when I should have stuck to my guns. The biggest mistake I made was to build up all this momentum and enthusiasm only to let it dissipate—which in hindsight was really stupid. I went to Prague to work on Bathory and Bloody Handed Fiend of Vengeance just fell by the wayside.

You worked with Slovak filmmaker Juraj Jakubisko on Bathory in 2005-2006. In Antonin Leihm’s article about Jakubisko, he said “the basic color is blood red [in Jakubisko’s films], the dominant sign is that of death, the main diversion is violence, in which heroes dance a merry jig of revolution and war.” That article was mainly about his work in the 1960s/70s. Having worked with him in a new decade, has time mellowed or changed him at all?

I first came across a still from The Deserter and the Nomads in Peter Hames’ book The Czechoslovak New Wave. I got to see the film at the Beaubourg in Paris in 1996, when they organized a year-long retrospective of Czech and Slovak cinema. It did not disappoint. I managed to get cassettes of the rest of Jakubisko’s early films and I was hooked. Two years later, in 1998, Jakubisko and his wife, Deana, came to Bradford Film Festival where they screened An Ambiguous Report about the End of the World. I interviewed Jakubisko afterwards and he told me how the negative of The Deserter and the Nomads had been lost.

Thereafter I became quite close to the Jakubiskos and set about helping the best I could to set up a new project. Juraj had written a script called The Third Sex. He wanted to shoot it in Czech and none of the financiers in London I spoke to were interested. Then I set about mounting a complete retrospective of his films. It finally happened in 2004 at the BFI Southbank. During the course of my research I established that the last print of The Deserter and the Nomads to be struck was by the London branch of Columbia sometime in the late 1960s. Columbia, which had since been bought up by Sony, informed me if they had any materials, then they would have been shipped to Los Angeles. In 2002, Deana Jakubiskova informed me that the negative was indeed at Sony. That was my role in tracking down the negative of The Deserter and the Nomads. A new print was struck and screened on Jakubisko’s sixty-fifth birthday at the Lucerna Cinema in Prague. I was very happy to be there.

About the same time Jakubisko sent me a four-page outline of what was then called Love Story Bathory. The translation was poor and my job was to polish the English. I tried and failed to get first English and then Polish co-producers on board. Then in 2005 Deana came back from Cannes with an English co-producer in place. The project looked like it was going to happen. At the time I was teaching English to make ends meet. When the project was about to start shooting I quit and moved to Prague. On paper I was contracted to film the electronic press kit, the “making of.” However, Jakubisko kept changing the script, and those changes needed to be changed into English—a language he doesn’t speak. I did this job together with the associate producer, Martin Spott.

Shooting started in December 2005—without a principal cast. Famke Janssen came and went early in 2006. Finally the bulk of the film was shot in the spring at Koliba Studios in Bratislava. Bathory was a filmmaking baptism of fire. I had a very romantic view of Jakubisko and that changed dramatically during the shoot. Jakubisko’s original script was 240 pages and contained some pretty outrageous imagery—talking decapitated heads, two-headed calves, burning giraffes—but unfortunately all that dropped away during the shoot. The dialogue was very exposition heavy, but Jakubisko was adamant not to change it. A Hollywood producer who was involved in the film at the beginning brought in a highly respected English playwright to polish the script. I thought he added humor and rhythm to a frankly ludicrous premise and lobbied hard for Jakubisko to use it. However, after a very awkward script reading session Jakubisko dropped it and went to the floor with a literal translation from his Czech. This, I feel, was a mistake.

The other problem was that the schedule at Kolbia was totally unrealistic. Shooting was put on hold after Koliba because of financial problems. When it resumed, many of the crew still had not been paid. There was a strike. Many people left. Then some money arrived and location shooting resumed. However, I had still not been paid. So I handed in my letter of resignation. I got paid in the end, but I didn’t get my “additional writing” credit. I can’t say I am proud of my contributions to the script. However, both Martin and I put a lot of time and effort into implementing Jakubisko’s changes. I finally got to see the film a few weeks ago in Prague. I am sad to say that I found it quite boring. All I can say is that, for me, it was a stillborn film—all the bits were there but it didn’t have any life. But that is filmmaking.

So you returned to Poland.

Almost a year later, I came back from Prague, quite disillusioned after Bathory, and started work on another project, also based on Medea. We got some money from a Los Angeles based arts charity, Arden 2. I was sick of lots of people and locations—I had enough of all that on Bathory. I wanted to do something very simple and pure—at least that was my intention. The performance, Monolog, was based on the monologue from Euripides’ Medea, in which she struggles with herself about whether or not to kill her children. I was interested in working with Ancient Greek—simply because ninety-nine percent of the audience would not understand the sense of what the performer is saying. All they have to go on is rhythm, intonation, breathing, footsteps and gestures. I wanted people to know how I felt in Poland most of the time! I think the visual language of the performance was very simple—there is a row of five spinning tops, the performer walks back and forth, knife in hand—to kill or not to kill? She plays with the spinning tops, and slowly a soundscape builds—footsteps, then spinning tops, cries and finally the monologue. All of this is fed through boundary microphones, and reverb is added giving the whole thing a slightly “epic feel. However, it took us a long time to get to this stage. We blocked the performance in the old medical academy in Lublin during August 2006. There was no water or electricity, and the place was in ruins. It was the only space we could find.

Of course, this would not have been possible in the UK because of Health and Safety laws. In a strange way, the place reminded me of where we did the Anna Planeta recordings. The entire budget went on two things—a babysitter for Ela’s son and materials for Magdalena Teslawska’s costume. The first version of the performance was presented at the Theatre Confrontations Festival in Lublin, October 2006. It was all a bit of a mess—Ela had not gotten used to the costume, it had not been lit properly and the performance was still just a collection of sketches. The response was mixed, to put it mildly. I don’t think many people knew what to make of it. Of the two local newspaper reviews, one was positive and one was negative. Many of Ela’s Gardzienice friends hated it, and I was treated like a pariah. But so what? I can’t say I miss these people. In fact, it comforts me to know that I trampled on their sensibilities.

We next went to High Fest in Yerevan, Armenia. They asked that we bring posters, but we didn’t have any money for posters. So I painted a coarse black grid, put the title of the of the performance in one box, the title of the group in the other, made lots of photocopies, and invited a load of school kids from Kunickiego Street—not exactly the most affluent street in Lublin—to make four blood red hand prints: Henryk Tomaszewski meets Yves Klein. The problem we had in Yerevan was that people kept stealing them. Yerevan was interesting. Trying to get fifty spinning tops and a hazer through airport security and customs—that was fun! We met some interesting people, [like] Albert Yavouryan, Paradjanov’s cinematographer on Ashik Kerib. We met at his flat, he got very emotional—his granddaughter was having an operation that day. We drank a lot of Armenian cognac. He was taught alongside Ilyenko by Sergei Urusevskii, who photographed Kalatozov’s films, most notably I Am Cuba. Urusevskii fascinates me. Albert invited us to the Film School the next day to give us an Urusevskii master class. He played a video of The Forty-First and talked us through specific scenes: which lens, which filter, drew our attention to dirt and moisture and the billowing black smoke. This, for me, was the highlight of the trip.

The performances at the festival were very erratic-the highlight, for me, was the Georgian State Finger Puppet Theatre’s production of Pink Floyd’s The Wall—staggering! Don Askarian invited us to his house outside of Yerevan. He had laid on a big meal and asked if I would work with him on English dialogue for a film based on Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat. Hadji Murat is a tremendous book. But I was still licking my wounds after Bathory, so I politely declined. The day before we were supposed to give the performance both Ela and I got food poisoning. All this happened with a week of the premiere of Monolog. We have since presented the performance at festivals in Ukraine, Sweden, Latvia and the UK.

You’ve had some amazing experiences. How would you sum up your experience of living in Central Europe, creating film and theater work there?

To put it simply, I would not have been able to do the things I have in England. At the end of the day, the Polish Ministry of Education and Polish Ministry of Culture have supported both my research and my artistic projects on and off for six years. I received an award from Sheffield University and they waived my PhD fees, but that is the only real financial support I have had for my work in the UK. By contrast, in Poland I received both a stipend and the freedom to pick and choose lectures at Warsaw University for two academic years. Ultimately, I have championed artists who are not thought of too highly in Poland, but nobody ever said, “No, you can’t write about that.” As I have said, I have tended to be drawn to filmmakers from former Communist countries working abroad. I think it is common for them to be looked on with suspicion at home. It is the same in Czech Republic—the architect Jan Kaplicky, who died last month—was valued much more in the UK than he was home country.

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