An interview with Żuławski from 1998.
This interview with Andrzej Żuławski was conducted at the Residence of the French Ambassador in London, on October 3, 1998. Together with Dominique Hoff, I programmed “A Weekend with Andrzej Żuławski” at the Ciné Lumière, part of the Institut Français. The season opened with the UK premiere of Żuławski’s Szamanka (1996)—in Polish with French subtitles only. During the screening there was a dinner where Żuławski punched a photographer. The Q&A was dominated by angry responses from Polish expats. Tears rolling down her face, a distraught viewer charged towards the screen before yelling at Żuławski, “How can you film Warsaw like this?” To which he replied in Polish, “Listen, lady: I live there, you don’t!” It is one thing to watch a Żuławski film, but quite another to live through one.
To know Żuławski was to be cast in a role. Mine was Boswell—at least in the Anglophone world. I first encountered Żuławski in Paris in 1997, where, along with Stephen Thrower, I interviewed him at length. My intention was simply to get answers to questions I had about Possession (1981), a film about the breakdown of a marriage and a love triangle involving a tentacled monster that fascinated and irritated me in equal measure.
Żuławski was born in L’viv, Ukraine, to Polish parents, during the Second World War. His father was a diplomat, and Żuławski accompanied him on diplomatic postings around Europe. He studied film directing not in Poland, but France, after which he worked as an assistant to the filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, while continuing his studies in political science and philosophy in Paris and Warsaw, respectively. There was always something excessive about Żuławski—not just his films, but also his personality. It was in France during the 1970s that Żuławski established himself not just as a director of actors, but as a filmmaker who dealt with big emotions. So when his wife left him, it was, therefore, inevitable, that he would make a film about it. A couple of years earlier, Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage had been released, but Żuławski felt there was something missing from Bergman’s break-up film: a monster.
It is important to remember the time when Possession was both conceived and made, the time of Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Alien (1979). In fact, after seeing Alien, Żuławski sought the artist who designed the Alien, H.R. Giger, to design his creature. Giger suggested that Żuławski contact Carlo Rambaldi, who built not just the Alien but also the aliens at the end of Close Encounters, and who would later make E.T. Unlike Spielberg, Żuławski set out to use Hollywood special effects to make a fairy tale for adults, which, ultimately is what Possession is. In Żuławski’s mind, the premise of Possession was Kafkaesque—a husband comes home from work to find his wife in bed with a giant octopus. While Żuławski took himself very seriously, that’s not to say he was unaware of the absurdity of his premise—Possession is a film that is fully cognizant of its own ridiculousness.
Żuławski would argue that the true horror of Possession is not the creature, but a couple breaking up without knowing why. This was real Lovecraftian territory—cosmic unknowability. It’s a Cold War film: in addition to the Berlin Wall restricting movement between East and West, it is a film about spies and spying, and the prospect of nuclear oblivion being always just around the corner. The action takes place in West Berlin, when the city was still divided. The Berlin Wall features throughout the film, so much so that it often feels like personal separation is being conflated with political separation in this film.
Possession is distinguished by expressive, some might say excessive performances, not least that of Isabelle Adjani. It’s a masterclass in how an actor can go big without sacrificing focus or precision. Adjani’s performance goes beyond film acting, into a place that feels more like experimental dance or even performance art, to the point where you might feel concerned about both her psychological and physical wellbeing. It also showcases Żuławski’s distinctive use of the camera to tell a story. Almost always moving, both chasing and interrogating the actors, the camera never hides or shies away. Rather, it is locked into a crazed dance with its subjects.
The following interview is my second conversation with Żuławski on record, which followed a trip to Poland the previous summer. The line of questioning reflected my newfound interest in all things Polish: Andrzej Wajda, theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski, the writer Witold Gombrowicz, etc. 1997 had proved to be an interesting time to visit Warsaw: eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, six after the disintegration of the Soviet Union; Poland was in flux—the colorful markers of a global, capitalist economy were crudely plastered directly on top of the grey concrete carcass of communism. What’s more, the Catholic Church, which two decades previously had played such a vital role in Polish political life, was beginning to steer the country towards the nationalist right, the full effect of which has only become visible to the international community over the last five years.
Looking back on this interview now, perhaps the most revealing aspect of it is Żuławski’s almost apologetic response to the incompleteness of Possession—the monster did not function dramatically in the way its director had envisaged, and a character was cut from the script whose presence, he felt, would have resulted in a greater degree of narrative clarity. It is also proof of how unhappy Żuławski was with the remnants of his science fiction folly, On the Silver Globe (Na srebrnym globie, 1988). In 2015, I co-produced a restoration of On the Silver Globe with the restoration specialist Wojtek Janio and colorist Gosia Grzyb; it premiered in the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, just a few days after Żuławski’s death on February 17, 2016. That screening closed a four-decade loop of events that began and ended at and near Columbus Circle: in 1978, less than a year after the almost-completed production of On the Silver Globe was shut down by the Polish Ministry of Culture, Żuławski found himself in a pitch meeting with industrialist Charlie Bluhdorn in the Gulf & Western Building, scrambling to restart his directing career with a script entitled Possession…
Looking back on this interview now, perhaps the most revealing aspect of it is Żuławski’s almost apologetic response to the incompleteness of Possession
[All parenthetical interventions have been made by the author, Daniel Bird.]
Daniel Bird: You worked as an assistant for [Andrzej] Wajda on Samson (1961), Love at Twenty (L’amour à vingt ans, 1962) and The Ashes (Popioły, 1965).
Andrzej Żuławski: First of all I was very young, I was 19 when I worked on Samson. There was a French actor [Serge Merlin] who didn’t speak another language so [Wajda] needed someone to connect. And so it started a friendship. Then I came back to study and Wajda called me to work on this short film Love at Twenty with several other directors, and then on The Ashes, which was a long story—it’s a fantastic story [based on a book by Stefan Żeromski. One of Żuławski’s lifelong ambitions was to make a film out of Żeromski’s diaries –DB]. It’s not his love to understand this kind of story and he made a very bad film.
DB: Your debut as a director was also an adaptation of a Żeromski story, Pavoncello (1967).
AZ: Yes, but I am not exactly proud of that film. In the Polish system, once you have made it through film school you have to prove that you can be a director. Therefore they gave me two stories for TV films based on classic literature [these half-hour films were part of a series originally shot on 35mm in color, broadcast on Polish television in black and white. In North America, they were also dubbed into English and broadcast in color with intros and outros by, of all people, Christopher Lee –DB].
DB: How did you react to Wajda’s comments at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival [where Possession and Wajda’s Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza, 1981) were both screening in competition, while, out of competition, Skolimowski presented a new version of Hands Up! (Ręce do gory, 1967), which had initially been banned by the Polish communist authorities –DB] when he asked "Polish exiles," such as yourself and Skolimowski, to come back and face the music of Gdańsk, etc.? [The Gdańsk shipyards were the birthplace, in 1980, of the self-governing Solidarity trade union movement. Led by future Polish President Lech Wałęsa, the organization successfully led labor strikes, which exposed state corruption and are regarded as having played a key role in bringing about the end of communist rule in Poland. –DB].
AZ: When he was saying that, we had this cold state of war. Andrzej Wajda’s biggest talent is political, more so than filmmaking, although his skills as a filmmaker are considerable. And whatever the system was in Poland, he always sorted it out. People forget, I think, that he was the first young filmmaker to go into the Communist Party during his studies. He became the assistant of Aleksander Ford, who was an extreme communist before the [Second World] war and a kind of patron of Polish cinema after [Ford was eventually driven out of Poland in 1968, as part of the anti-Semitic purges of the Communist Party of Poland that followed the Warsaw student riots that March, more on which below – DB].
DB: What do you think of Wajda’s recent films?
AZ: He’s made two films recently. One [Miss Nobody or Panna Nikt, 1996] was based on a best-selling novel, really big, but I never read it. The film made 6,000 viewers, but it was in every cinema possible. And there was another film, for which he got something in Berlin [Holy Week or Wielki tydzień, 1995]. I am sorry to say that this film is horrible and it made only 3,000 viewers. So he lost contact with his own audience. After The Ashes, we created the film group “X” and we produced quite a lot of films by [Krzysztof] Kieślowski, [Agnieszka] Holland, all these young filmmakers, reformers of the system. He was heading this group when he produced The Devil [Diabeł (1972); Żuławski’s second film was in fact the first feature produced by the “X” film group, of which Wajda was the artistic director –DB]. When you do your first film, you have to have a kind of mentor, someone who responds, because the country was at war and films are expensive. I was making The Third Part of the Night (Trzecia część nocy, 1971), and I asked him, naturally, and he said, “Of course,” but we never talked once about the script. When I showed Wajda The Third Part of the Night, he was very angry. He said we would have to re-cut the film as nobody would understand these jumps in time, and it should be simplified. I said I would not listen. I said, “In this particular matter you are wrong,” and the film was a big success with audiences for reasons that he could not understand. Even his film Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i diament, 1958) is, in fact, a pro-communist film [based on the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski. Żuławski had worked with Andrzejewski on an early draft of Gates to Paradise (Bramy raju), based on another of Andrzejewski’s books, which Wajda ultimately shot in English in 1968. Regarding Andrzejewski’s politics, interested readers are directed to chapter four of Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind, “Alpha, the Moralist” –DB].
The film says that these young intellectuals fighting in the Armia Krajowa [the Home Army, the principle resistance movement in German-occupied Poland –DB] were wrong and would have to disappear on the trash heap of history. And I think The Third Part of the Night was the first film in Polish cinema that recognized this group of people, this intellectual cast. Then Wajda produced The Devil and I was savagely attacked by the Ministry of Culture [it was banned from 1972 until 1987, ostensibly for its violence and cruelty, but more likely for Żuławski’s allusion to the role of the Polish Ministry of the Interior (i.e. The Secret Police) in the Warsaw student riots of March 1968 –DB].
I must stress that Wajda tried to defend the film, but they were not blind, and said, “No.” Then we had this nice relationship, but after making these two films and then On the Silver Globe, [getting] arrested in a way [the film was originally shot in 1976-77, but the production was shut down, towards the end of shooting, in late 1977 –DB], he thought that I had no chance, and all of a sudden he became very Catholic and right-wing, which I am not. When this whole story about On the Silver Globe exploded and [in 1980] Solidarity appeared, I was a member of Solidarity, while he became someone like Aleksander Ford. I don’t know why.
DB: Does this shift in attitude happen to a lot of Polish filmmakers as they get older, [Krzysztof] Zanussi for example?
AZ: Zanussi was always this way. He was educated by the Church. But he was very, very adroit with the communist government. He never had any problems, but he never made any films in a sense, just scripts with no impact or sense of direction, just moral fables. There was one Zanussi film, Behind the Wall (Za ścianą, 1971), a very simple, small TV film, that got something of reality in the film, very good acting; I thought that it was his one good movie. Today if you want to get the money for films, the Polish state tries to behave like the French state [Polski Instytut Sztuki Filmowej (PISF), funded by the Polish Cinema Law of 2005, was modelled on France’s Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC), which taxes distributors to amass a fund of public money to be given to filmmakers at the discretion of the experts it appoints –DB], and they give their money to very, very mediocre films which you can never see, and [Zanussi] gets his money from the state because he doesn’t have a popular audience to talk to. And so, you have this choice, which for me is either go low grade or of imitating the American cinema, where you have the local bank giving you the money. This year, for the first time there was an audience of two million people for a Polish film [Juliusz Machulski’s Kiler (1997) –DB] and a second one was very close, so Polish cinema, in terms of money and audience, has beaten the Americans. That’s good.
DB: The Łódź film studios also closed this year.
AZ: Yes, they are in the process of selling it, but nobody uses studios in Poland, it’s no longer the time when they have to build big sets in order to understand why the hell they built them. And these films are not being made at all. With costume or historical drama, it is easier to go to Ukraine or Romania—it’s cheaper. So we suddenly found ourselves in this crazy situation of being the poor Paris; we are quite rich in other ways, but we go to poorer places to make these films! But the disaster with Polish cinema this year is that it has made only seventeen films, when they usually made thirty-five, or sometimes thirty-six as in the seventies. There’ll be a lot of yelling at the Gdańsk film festival this year.
DB: How did you go about writing the script for The Third Part of the Night with your father, Mirosław Żuławski? Presumably the film has a large number of biographical elements in it, referring to his experiences in occupied, wartime L’viv?
AZ: One day I asked my father to write a kind of treatment, because he was a writer, and it was his experience, and he did these things for real, and the clinic in the film existed [the Institute for Typhus and Virus Research, where the Polish biologist Rudolf Weigl developed the typhus vaccine by using human louse-feeders, men and women exempted from war duty and deportation for their services. –DB]. I even have on my desk one of the lice cages he had to use—without the lice, of course. And I asked my father to be very precise about things like the time of day, who was there, and what was this organization, this huge thing? He was giving me these anecdotes about the German Army holding millions of soldiers, and the population too, so it was a big protection scheme. I did grow up in a big house, like in the script, but I was too little to remember any of it, so I asked him to do the story like one day in his life. But he wouldn’t do that; he started to organize a sort of little novella around it. So I interviewed him: “Was it 6:30 in the morning? Was it women and men together?”
There is no book about this piece of history [since this interview, an excellent English-language study has been published, 2015’s The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis, by Arthur Allen –DB]. It is amazing, we calculated that more than ten thousand young intellectuals had gone through this institute. They accused that professor after the war, and, at his trial, they asked him if he did or did not collaborate with the German Army. The trial lasted for a couple of days until they found out that he did it for the Armia Krajowa. The Resistance was asking him to continue with his research because the Institute was a safe place for their people; they were sending their people underground. Nobody was arrested, two arrests in five years; it’s incredible. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the day, the trucks arrived and closed the street and then everybody went on these trucks to Auschwitz or wherever, and people were just not coming home. So he wrote this very small story about a guy, thinking of having a baby with this woman, and the pain and degradation and humiliation which comes with that. I asked him whether I could rearrange this story to my requirements. So I used a double story, where the guy doesn’t do it right the first time and in this imaginary situation meets the same woman again [the do-over narrative template is based on Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge –DB]. So he said, “Okay,” and he accepted these changes, but my father was a very delicate writer, a realist – he wasn’t at all into the metaphysics of the story – but I thought it was good that we both signed the story as ours.
DB: Why do you use these double narratives so frequently – The Third Part of The Night, Possession and, most recently, in Szamanka? Does it come from Dostoevsky?
AZ: I don’t know why but I think this idea of the doppelganger haunts literature. It goes from Dostoevsky into the movies, maybe because they can visualize the moral and non-moral aspects of things. In fact, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde  is the prototype, even if it is not two people becoming something but one person becoming someone absolutely different. The reason and foundation of this idea, I read your essay and… you said that Possession was a film that was unfinished. It was unfinished for very, very idiotic reasons, reasons which connect to what we are talking about now. I never got the monster that I wanted, never. Rambaldi came from Hollywood to Berlin and said, “Listen, for the scene when you encounter the monster for the first time, with a close-up, I need two weeks.” And I had like two weeks to finish the whole film; I had five weeks to shoot the whole film. I said, “Carlo, it’s impossible.” So he brought a big pile of rough material, pink condom stuff—we couldn’t do anything, he got very red in the face, and I said, “Listen, you are an Italian and not an American, now you have to do something.” Because we couldn’t do absolutely anything with his monster. So he worked all through the night and locked himself in, and he did it with sticks and film stock woven together—it wasn’t what I had in mind, but the idea was there.
The whole story revolved around the monster that Rambaldi was supposed to build up. The monster had stages of development: there was the first outpouring of this thing from [Isabelle] Adjani in the subway; then the same stuff had to lay in the tub in her apartment, starting to shape itself into something; and each time you see it, it becomes more and more like a human form, and you see that she forms the husband, but it’s very fuzzy. I tried to give some life to this idea, which is basic to the film, but I didn’t get to show it in the way I would have loved to show it. And then something horrible happened with the eyes of the guy [in the climactic scene on the Joseph-Haydn-Straße staircase, Mark’s monstrous double, also played by Sam Neill, is supposed to have green eyes—like Helen, Anna’s double, also played by Isabelle Adjani –DB]. Therefore the whole thing is, I won’t say ruined, but this way didn’t work with the film.
I had to do it in the organization of the relationships in order to get this idea, but it would have been much, much simpler to do it another way. In the script there was an important character in the shoot, the first husband of the girl [an older character called Abe –DB]. In the beginning, it had the girl going back to this old man who had rescued her, made something out of her, etc. But the production insisted on getting this German actor, Bernhard Wicki [when Possession was initially pitched as a potential French-Canadian co-production, this role was to be played by Sterling Hayden, the legendary character actor and Kubrick veteran who flirted with the communist party and who testified against his colleagues during the HUAC hearings. As the production which got made was a co-production with the Berlin Senate, there were certain obligations to cast a percentage of West German actors and technicians—although according to producer Marie-Laure Reyre, Wicki was Żuławski’s first choice –DB]. He’s an interesting guy, and he made this good film, The Bridge (Die Brücke, 1959). For reasons unknown, he came to Berlin without knowing the lines, and I think he had a drinking problem [in fairness to Wicki, Żuławski’s script called for protracted monologues in self-consciously literary English –DB]. We started shooting on Monday and he was horrible, just horrible, and I said, “Okay, cut.” And I said, “If you don’t have money to hire another actor, forget it.” [According to Reyre, Żuławski left it up to her to fire Wicki without reason, after he decided to cut the Abe character from the script –DB]. But he was building this woman from nowhere into a more incredible person [in the script, the Joseph-Haydn-Straße staircase at the end of the film is supposed to be the house where Abe lives, and the girl with the foot in a cast who helps Mark’s double escape through the skylight is identified as Sara, Abe’s new wife –DB]. So the film has this, every film has it. If I tell you what we shot for The Most Important Thing: Love, (L’important c’est d’aimer, 1975)… I cut half of it because I could never finish it, and the producers were liars, all right [Klaus Kinski’s characteristically measured perspective on these events is detailed in his autobiography –DB].
DB: Both Possession and La Note Bleue (1991) are two of your most personal films, and it is no surprise that you worked with the same producer, Marie-Laure Reyre, on both productions. Did she have more respect for your original vision than some other producers?
AZ: She was good. She tried to be a strict producer on Possession, where we had very little money, which explains the choice of actors. At that time, Sam Neill was coming out of nowhere, so we could afford him [Żuławski and Reyre had seen Neill in Gillian Armstrong’s 1979 My Brilliant Career. Neill’s co-star, Judy Davis, was also considered for the role of Anna –DB]. She was strict, but she was good. La Note Bleue had the same problem; in fact the script was a lot larger, but she couldn’t afford it. So she gave me a choice of filming a smaller film or nothing. I think I filmed like one third of the script [a close reading of the shooting script would indicate that more than two thirds was ultimately filmed –DB]. The script itself was much more panoramic in view, I don’t know whether it would be better that way or not [much like On The Silver Globe, La Note Bleue is a gloriously frustrating film, an incomplete whole made up of bravura sequences directed by Żuławski at his best –DB].
DB: How do you feel about On the Silver Globe now, twenty years after you were stopped during the filming of it, and ten years after you were asked to finish it?
AZ: I prefer not to see it ever. It is a broken thing.
DB: Do you feel frustrated about the whole fiasco?
AZ: No, I never feel frustrated, it’s one of the mysteries of my life. When they asked me to edit the footage together, I wasn’t sure. It was very painful. I don’t like to go back. The film only really worked at the time that it was done; the monologues are viewed today as redundant, but at that time it was a breath of fresh air, you must remember how stale the atmosphere was. Nobody was saying anything, the only words you were hearing were basically idiotic Marxism or Leninism or whatever, so intellectual life was confined to very tiny, small groups, so just to hear something was fucking intelligent... So when I finished the film, the situation had changed [Żuławski completed it in 1986-87, i.e. after martial law had ended in Poland, and during Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union –DB]. Fifteen years had passed. To my mind, there are very few films that live longer than fifteen years.
On the other hand, the situation takes some funny twists in that the Americans have rediscovered Orson Welles. He was always one of my heroes. I admire him profoundly. The last scenes from The Lady of Shanghai (1947)—they’re still dazzling, and intelligent, too. Suddenly he’s a hero. They let him die by overdosing on food and wine and by doing all these commercial films which never gave him a chance. They even rediscovered Touch of Evil (1958). But who would believe that? I remember an issue from the only interesting French monthly about cinema, Starfix, and they published a study of my work and titled it “The Cursed King” [Żuławski is referring to an interview published in 1990 in Starfix, a magazine devoted to genre cinema, to coincide with the release of Boris Godunov–DB]. And I can remember when I was a student at film school, there was an issue of Cahiers du Cinéma dedicated to Orson Welles and he said, “I am born to play kings”—a totally arrogant and pompous thing to say which means nothing, but also means a lot. But his films are coming back, and it’s a good feeling.
You and I talked in Paris about the reception of Szamanka, and the French wrote horrible, horrible things about it [when I first saw Szamanka in Paris the previous year, a review was pinned up outside the foyer of the Espace Saint-Michel suggesting that if anyone saw Żuławski anywhere near a film camera they would be doing a public service by shooting him with a tranquilizer gun –DB], but when I am in Paris today, Szamanka is on video cassette and it’s a strong seller, and they were surprised when they had to reprint it. The turning of opinion was quicker than that on any other of my films. In fact, I have had very few good critics behind me in my lifetime—very strong, but very few.
DB: Max Tessier consistently followed your work from the early seventies right through to the early nineties; it’s interesting that a critic who has written extensively on Japanese cinema should follow your work. Your films bear the unmistakable stamp of Kurosawa, especially On the Silver Globe.
AZ: Early Kurosawa, some Mizoguchi, one or two Ozu films, and Kobayashi, we saw a lot of that. I remember Wajda and Roman Polański taking Cobweb Castle [a literal translation of the original Japanese title for Kurosawa’s 1957 Throne of Blood –DB] to the editing table and stopping it to see how it was done. And, for instance, I still think that Kurosawa’s version of Macbeth is the best adaptation ever, no one can touch it. But there were three main lines of influence upon all of us: the Italian neorealism of Rossellini, and De Sica, that was one; the other was the Japanese cinema of the ‘50s; and the third one was the American cinema. And they are so different that this synthesis might be one of the reasons for striking good fortune, along with the social attitude in Polish cinema, the moral attitude, the efficiency of directing and the pleasure of showing off. I still think that the best Polish film ever was [Wajda’s] Kanał (1957). It’s a perfect film. [In 1959, as a student at the French film school IDHEC (now La Fémis), Żuławski wrote his graduation thesis on Kanal. Thanks to the intervention of Polański, this led to Żuławski working as an assistant on Samson – DB].
DB: Wajda’s baroque aesthetics and drama in his early work can certainly be felt in The Third Part of the Night, and of course you refer time and time again to the staircase in A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955).
AZ: We are still under the major influence of Polish romanticism and Polish surrealism, Gombrowicz, and so on. You can still see all of these roots in Polański’s work [Żuławski would adapt Gombrowicz’s final novel, Cosmos, in 2015 –DB].
DB: So where does [avant-garde Polish theatre practitioner Jerzy] Grotowski fit into the scheme of things?
This may be my fault, because I had a long script and only two hours.
AZ: I was educated by cinema—by Wajda, because I loved his work, those three or four films he had made at the time I thought were brilliant. But it was an education in a very straightforward way, regular theatrics, regular acting, normal. Once I was in Wrocław, I think I was assisting Wajda on The Ashes, I don’t remember. Like everyone I went to see one of Grotowski’s performances, which was not as simple as it seems, because he had this crazy Laboratory Theatre, which was dependent on having an equal number of spectators and actors on the stage. It was a very, very important performance of sorts. I cannot even remember what play it was [the timing would suggest Żuławski saw Grotowski’s famed production of Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1636 comedy The Constant Prince –DB], I certainly didn’t know what it was about. But I saw for the first time in my life—I was very young—that a human being, an actor, could do things that I couldn’t have imagined were possible. Speaking voices, the relationship between dialogue and movement, is not as simple as in a Spielberg film where you stop and you talk. So this interweaving of movement, body and mind was very shocking for me, it was a light suddenly in the dark. I had never seen anything else like it.
And I certainly don’t know his methods, but when I went to Haiti [in 1978, during a visit to Bluhdorn’s Casa de Campo resort in the Dominican Republic –DB]—I was really interested in voodoo and the fundamentals of human experience—I learned from the Polish embassy that Grotowski was visiting Haiti regularly. So we were walking along the same path, in a sense [Grotowski’s first visit to Haiti to witness voodoo rituals was in 1977, as part of his Theatre of Sources project, which succeeded his paratheatrical experiments, as recounted by André Gregory in 1981’s My Dinner with André –DB]. His main aim was spiritual life: he’s a guru in this crazy institute and they show nothing, only occasionally will they show part of their work.
DB: But only to each other!
AZ: Yes (laughs.) No, I think they invited some people, but it’s still very obscure. Also, Grotowski was a very active member of the Communist Party, and just before going to Wrocław he was one of the Separatists, and suddenly he became the opposite. Those switches I cannot understand [this aspect of Grotowski’s career is frequently glossed over in English language literature on Grotowski –DB]. So, two things: this one encounter, this big shock; the fact that he wants to become a guru and I don’t; and the third part, which disturbed me very much, was that no actor from his theater made anything else… they tried but they were stopped.
DB: Didn’t that actress [Maja Komorowska] who was in a lot of Zanussi’s films "belong" to the Laboratory?
AZ: Yes, exactly, this is the only one who did something, and I am sorry to say that she is a very blurred actress, I cannot look at her. She did the Zanussi films and some others, but frankly she’s not very good [here Żuławski contradicts himself, as Komorowska appeared alongside Zbigniew Zapaszewicz in Zanussi’s Za ścianą, which Żuławski recognises above as Zanussi’s one good film with good acting –DB]. I cannot understand what exactly she’s doing, she’s not precise. So there is something wrong: you stay with him for life, or if you want to go back to something a bit more regular, a slightly more vulgar form of art, you are fucked up, you cannot do it. He opens something that is incredibly rich and interesting, and at the same time he doesn’t provide a safety net for actors to fall.
This security net is something that I tried to build into my work at the same time as I’m asking these actors and actresses to do things which may even seem revolting to some, these scenes of trances... But they risk nothing, after fifteen minutes they laugh and they go, they go and play at the Comédie-Française or do idiotic plays, it doesn’t affect them, it doesn’t hurt. Therefore I am so angry when I am asked, “Did you have the right to do this or that to these young actors?” What do you mean “to do this?” She was a piece of shit—not really— but now she’s something and something with a center, she knows about herself much more and she’s much more brilliant today [Żuławski is alluding to the response of the Polish press to his alleged treatment of Iwona Petry, who appeared in Szamanka –DB], so I cannot understand these people. I think if you asked Grotowski, “Do you realize what you are doing to these people?” he would say, “Yes, they become saints and so much better” [in this respect, Żuławski’s suspicions of Grotowski’s theatre as a cult were born out in recent years with the plethora of accusations in the Polish press of bullying at the Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices, founded by participants of Grotowski’s paratheatrical experiments –DB].
DB: Mad Love [1985’s L’amour braque, a free adaptation of Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel The Idiot] seems to be a good example of your own ideas about acting, but my grasp of French is very limited, and I couldn’t make much sense of the dialogue…
AZ: The dialogue was written by a lyricist [Étienne Roda-Gil], a very brilliant guy who uses French language in a very brilliant way. Each language has its own turns and forms which everybody uses. He built his dialogue from twisting these turns and phrases. So it sounds very familiar, but at the same time it’s profoundly disturbing, because it is really unfamiliar. He wanted to create this dialogue because this guy, The Idiot [Francis Huster’s Léon –DB], is really a stranger, he is the only one who speaks normal French amongst these gangsters. So he is even more of a stranger in a verbal sense, and the only thing he does understand is that every one of the protagonists of the story calls him “Idiot” at one point—so it punctuates the dialogue. But even the French had some problems with this, because the dialogue is very fast [in 2008, at Żuławski’s request, I helped him adapt Roda-Gil’s dialogue into English, recently reissued on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber –DB]. This may be my fault, because I had a long script and only two hours.
In fact, I am not a good listener to French dialogue. To the point where I wrote a whole film in verse My Nights are More Beautiful than Your Days (Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, 1989), nobody helped me. A typical French director closes his eyes on the set and listens to the actors “acting” and talking, and he develops an idea of whether or not a take is good or not through the voice. And this is pure crazy. And to me, this running, crackling, speeding dialogue was fun. Because there is no film to which I really listen to what is said. Oh, yes, All About Eve (1950), that dialogue is profoundly brilliant [Unsurprisingly, as a film about acting and actors, a Żuławski favourite –DB]. But other than that, I don’t care. I sometimes spend hours watching the TV screen with no sound—it’s very interesting. I saw Kurosawa’s version of The Idiot (1951). It’s very strange. He shot it on the northern island of Japan where they had the same buildings as they did in Siberia, but everyone was very Japanese. And I saw it in the original version, and it lasted for over four hours, and I never got bored for a moment.
DB: I was quite taken aback by the sheer scale and spectacle of Boris Godunov.
AZ: Yes, well, I did tricks (laughs). Thanks to Master Kurosawa. We had crowds running around the camera (laughs). Just for an anecdote. There is this coronation costume for Boris Godunov, and in Poland there was martial law and there was nothing on the shelves other than salt and vinegar. However, when the team produced the costumes they were so sumptuous, I was almost crying, they were fantastic and for a very low price. Then this lady who was doing these costumes [Magdalena Biernawska-Tesławska], she also made them for my opera in Warsaw [Stanisław Moniuszko’s Straszny dwór, or The Haunted Manor, which Żuławski staged during the 1997-98 season at Teatr Wielki –DB] she said, “Look closer.” So I looked closer at this coronation costume and it was covered with millions of pearls. And I said, “Where the hell did you get these pearls in Poland?” And she said, “Look closer!” And then I noticed that they were not pearls, but corn grains, wrapped in silk, each one individually [Biernawska-Tesławska’s Boris Godunov coronation costume is in the permanent collection of the Cinémathèque Française –DB]. And this is the way we work; she made this opulent effect without spending millions.
The other example is that, instead of building incredibly complicated architectural sets, I used just one Russian painter to paint the walls. We paid one guy and fifty students to paint the sets. So there are ways. We were also very lucky because we allowed to shoot in this castle in Dubrovnik, and the Russians were very angry with me [in 2003 I was present at a screening of Boris Godunov in Trieste where Żuławski was accosted after by a Russian physicist with a bad haircut visibly upset by this adaptation of Mussorgsky’s opera, a Russian cultural touchstone that Żuławski had the temerity to shoot in the former Yugoslavia –DB]. But I like this film, I like opera. There was a trend, Losey did one [1979’s Don Giovanni] and Zeffirelli did La Traviata (1983). [These opera films were all produced by Daniel Toscan du Plantier who, in addition to running a production company and being president of UniFrance, directed the classical music label Erato. Toscan du Plantier originally envisaged a film based on Tarkovsky’s celebrated 1983 Covent Garden production of Boris Godunov. After Tarkovsky’s death in 1986, Toscan du Plantier briefly approached Wajda about making the film before settling on Żuławski.]
I saw all these films years before and in none of them did the director make the slightest effort to move his camera to the music. And I did exactly the opposite and made sure that there was not one cut in the whole film that didn’t correspond to the music. [Despite this, distribution was hampered by legal action brought against Żuławski by the conductor, the famed Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who objected to the cuts Żuławski had made to the score and to his onscreen interpretation, specifically the nudity of Delphine Forest in the role of Marina Mnichek, voiced by the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya—Rostropovich’s wife. This was resolved in court with a title card before the film dissociating Rostropovich from the production –DB]. If you see the book of how I developed it, you’ll realize that it is crazy, because we have so many schemes and color lines in order to be totally precise [in this respect, it must be pointed out that Żuławski had been a vocal advocate of the films of Ken Russell, particularly since his 1970 film about Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, and his 1972 biopic of sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Savage Messiah –DB].
DB: You have also worked with a very tight-knit group of technicians and actors.
AZ: It’s easier, more comfortable to work with these people, for instance, Marie-Sophie Dubus [Żuławski’s regular editor, who incidentally also worked on Welles’ later productions, most notably 1973’s F for Fake – DB]. If I die, she will cut exactly at the same place as I would. I had no cutter in Szamanka. When I finished film school I had a diploma as a cutter. I even cut some of producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s films but I don’t like to talk about it, it was something that I had to do [here Żuławski is referring to Édouard Luntz’s Hold Up (La grabuge, 1973), which Żuławski recut and scored at the request of French producer Christian Ferry, who was then working for Zanuck –DB]. So I did the cutting myself. There was only one film that took longer to cut than ten days and that was Boris Godunov. But with any other cutter I would have these discussions: “Why the hell cut there?” [Dubus] doesn’t feel frustrated or a need to prove her talent or anything. It’s useless. Andrzej Jaroszewicz [Żuławski’s regular camera operator and cinematographer] is the same way: he will know by instinct what my instinct will be in a situation, so even if I am sick, it will be more than likely that he will place the camera where I would [here Żuławski is most probably referring to the opening shots of On the Silver Globe in the Polish Tatra Mountains which, according to Jaroszewicz, Żuławski was unable to direct himself because of a fever – DB].
DB: I noticed that these same technicians worked on [former partner] Sophie Marceau’s short (L’aube à l’envers, 1995), and your influence can be felt.
AZ: Well, some people wrote of the “Żuławski influence,” but she was very elegant and gracious about it and said, “Well, it’s a good influence”