Beginnings Are Useless: A Conversation with Andrzej Żuławski

A discussion with director Andrzej Żuławski on the occasion of the first US retrospective of this major European director.
The Ferroni Brigade

Andrzej Żuławski

Above: Andrzej Żuławski on the set of Boris Godounov (1989).

The first American retrospective of Andrzej Żuławski offers the chance to discover an auteur whose idiosyncratic vision is as radical, overwhelming and instantly recognizable—it may take no longer than a few shots—as those of canonized masters like Robert Bresson and Andrej Tarkovskij. But maybe Paul Verhoeven would serve as a better comparison, since Żuławski has remained similarly polarizing due to a punchy sensibility that had the French coin the term "Zulawskienne," meaning "over the top." Consider the opening of his first feature The Third Part of the Night (1971): A woman reads out the apocalyptic passage containing the title from the Book of Revelation, only to be struck down minutes later by one of the soldiers on horseback suddenly intruding in her house. Clearly, this is a world where anything can happen, and Żuławski makes sure it does. Then again, the most staggering metaphor of this feverish World War II nightmare set in Nazi-occupied Poland—the bizarre "lice-feeding" experiments conducted to produce a typhus vaccine for the German Wehrmacht—is entirely based on fact (Żuławski's father Mirosław, a Polish writer and diplomat, who co-wrote the script, had submitted to them: the employment seemed to guarantee a degree of safety for Polish intellectuals and resistance members).

Although associated with a visceral, trembling style and lamentably compartmentalized for his most lurid ideas—like the horror creature Isabelle Adjani shacks up with in Possession (1981)—Żuławski's work teems with the inventiveness of a highly cultured man, resulting in a provocative mix of big ideas and emotional torrents (mirrored in the director's decision to mostly  reject conventional explanations, while conveying the themes with a painful and ecstatic nakedness, frequently extending to his female protagonists). His idea of cinema as a bastard, as offered in the following phone interview he graciously submitted to for MUBI, may also shed a light on his outré, yet refined aesthetics. Although the catchphrase of BAM's series title "Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Żuławski" seems unfortunate in pandering to the mainstream cliche of Żuławski's image (certainly The Cinefamily's factual "The Unbelievable Genius of Andrzej Żuławski" is preferable), it nevertheless is a long-overdue opportunity to discover the films of one of the major living directors of Europe. Even as, adopting the spirit of the auteur himself, one maybe shouldn't see it as a beginning of appreciation, but the mesmerizing plunge into something that has already started.

Thanks to Gabriele Caroti and Natalia Babinski for helping arrange this interview.

NOTEBOOK: The way you conceive of cinema shows great awareness of the other arts. Very often filmmaking plays an essential role in the plot, but there's also photography, painting, poetry. How do you feel about the relation of cinema to other arts? Do you feel it is minor because it draws on them or do you see this combination as a quality?

ANDRZEJ ŻUŁAWSKI: Cinema is a thief. It's a bizarre coincidence because of its chemistry: It's theater with physical interventions through the camera etc. in order to be cinema. It is absolutely awkward and unexpected. But what is normally expected is to show, as with Plato's allegory of the cave. Why we want to show things, I don't know. Why kids want to play, I can't say. This is just basically, very profoundly in our nature. So cinema, when coming into existence, stole—or borrowed, if you want—everything around: painting, literature and music, theater, vaudeville, grotesque, pantomime. Whatever you want! So cinema is a bastard. And that's why I love it so much.

NOTEBOOK: This conception translates to your work in the way you often combine elements that many other directors presumably would not feel appropriate: Like the sudden intrusion of humor in scenes that have been horrible up to that point. The bastard nature of cinema helps in doing these things, making those combinations much more powerful.

ŻUŁAWSKI:It is rare that a critic notices all these funny elements! But in normal life also the funny elements intermingle with the dramatic, the tragic and the lyrical. In fact it's the same thing. I like some of George Stevens' works very much, because he also made films with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy—and maybe those are his best films, I don't know! But then he went very serious and really pompous, I think. But there is something in the middle of his career, when he interjected this slapstick and humour into some absolutely serious works, and I loved it. These moments I really love. So that observation is very justified, but few people see it, and I'm very sorry for that.

NOTEBOOK: We have friends whom we otherwise respect very much, but they absolutely reject this element of your work, which we just don't get. To me in a way it is also obviously true to life.

ŻUŁAWSKI:I don't know what people you deal with, but people have this curious tendency when dealing with art or so-called art that they become rigid: With them, it has to be either this or that. In their opinion, you can't mix Thomas Mann with Franz Kafka. But in my opinion, this would make a very powerful and seductive proposition for the future of literature. They want to keep the serious things apart from the vulgar and the frivolous etc. And they're wrong!

NOTEBOOK: We think it is one of the ideas that contributes to making your work so personal that you have no other choice but taking it personal. Which may be another reason they don't fit this concept of categorization: Putting things into categories helps to maintain a distance, to keep the art at arm's length.

ŻUŁAWSKI: Distance...well, that is a question which could be debated for hours. I am also a member of the audience, and since I was educated in a certain way I can see so many different kinds of films and like them equally. I don't want to be pretentious and say: That's the only way—my way! And please hate the others, but not my film! That would be absolutely monstrous and I am too aware of the fact that cinema is like a tree. On a tree, of course, you have different branches, but we're all sitting on the same tree. Now it's electronic, but yesterday it was still chemical and theatrical. You have to humble and accept that we all are on that tree. But at the same time I am not humble because I do what I please. And I do this only because I think I am absolutely the same guy as any other guy in the cinema. I am not different.

NOTEBOOK: That is the democratic idea: that everybody is the same in the audience.

ŻUŁAWSKI: Yes. But sometimes the audience elects Hitler and sometimes they applaud Stalin.

NOTEBOOK: One of my favourite films is your adaption of your great-uncle's novels, On the Silver Globe (1988). It seems to us one of the strongest expressions of one of your key themes: the search for freedom, which is the movement that drives all your films.

ŻUŁAWSKI: I hope that this comes through. Even though sometimes I hid it under masks—in order not to preach!

NOTEBOOK: The only film you made in Poland after you were forced to abort On the Silver Globe in the mid-70s was when you returned 20 years later to make Szamanka (1996): We were surprised to learn how violently that film was rejected at home. Do you think that is because it is such an unflattering portrayal of the beginning of capitalism coming into the Polish society?

ŻUŁAWSKI: I wouldn't know! Because in your question you project your own clear vision of something, which is only remotely attached to reality in Poland. Poland is still a very backwards country. Still! And Szamanka was made 16 years ago. At that time the church, the clergy, the rest of the communist system, the petit bourgeoisie were trying to grab some riches and make some money: They were really ruling the country, and this is a film which is against every aspect of their thinking, or rather their non-thinking. This backwardsness of the country—in a way it's like in Stendhal's novel "The Red and the Black": We had the red, and now we have the black. You know that priests were forbidding people to go to the cinema in smaller towns in Poland, saying to see this film is a sin. It totally destroyed the girl who played the title role, and up to this day Szamanka is considered a failure in this intelligent country of mine. I hope I'm not pretentious in saying this: But it is not!

NOTEBOOK: We certainly agree with you, but the film is still hardly known, so we don't know how many can...

ŻUŁAWSKI: Well, it will start because Mondovision in the US has produced this beautiful DVD available in a luxury version and a normal one. The French did the same, and the Italians are following. So I hope that slowly this film, which was very important for me to do in Poland after all these years abroad, will meet some understanding.

NOTEBOOK: In a way it fits with your early Polish features, The Third Part of the Night and The Devil (1972), which are also not exactly flattering portraits of Polish society either. But they were veiled in historical terms, whereas Szamanka is contemporary: Still, all show a very ugly society, basically.

ŻUŁAWSKI: Yes, but societies are very ugly, basically. And a filmmaker who flatters the society in which he lives for me is a skunk. Almost everyday in the Polish radio, TV and newspapers it slowly, slowly emerges that everyday in the countryside they murdered the Jews, because they were free to do so. And so there are very few clean spots, even as they are kept, of course, magnificently clean. But it is mostly the intelligentsia which preserves this consciousness and moral attitudes. So if you say society, you must really be more specific: What strata of society? Or society as a mass of uneducated, Catholic, hateful people? Which is horrible, up to this day.

NOTEBOOK: It's no different in Austria where we live.

ŻUŁAWSKI: About a decade ago I was reading Thomas Bernhard, and I understood him completely.

NOTEBOOK: It is not as well known as your film work, but you are also a very productive writer: You have written over two dozen books. We know the earliest have been translated into French, but are others available in any translation?

ŻUŁAWSKI: Six were translated into French, and the seventh and eight are in the works. But otherwise...well, do something in Austria!

NOTEBOOK: In your films you have often attacked religion and the backwards thinking it has encouraged, but there is something very pronounced about them that we would not exactly call religious: they have a strong spiritual aspect.

ŻUŁAWSKI: Yes, but you cannot put an equation mark between the church, which is an organization gaining a lot of money, and faith or spiritual aspirations. You cannot equate that, or even translate one into the other. Even today, it's ananthema. So whatever you exactly mean by that: If you are a spiritual man, don't go into a church! It would be like going into the army as a pacifist.

NOTEBOOK: La fidélité (2000) has a stunning opening shot: a point-of-view from a moving train reminiscent of early cinema, then followed by a backwards camera movement through a compartment, past other people, to the protagonist. It gives a feeling that a story is picked out of many happening simultaneously.

ŻUŁAWSKI: You're eluding me there: Because to my mind stories that tend to interest me in filmmaking are never beginning with a preface, with something before. It must start right...

NOTEBOOK: ...Right in the beginning?

ŻUŁAWSKI: Not even that! More like ten minutes after the beginning! And that was my way of doing it. As an anecdotal aside, we shot that whole train sequence with a train standing in the station in Paris: It remained absolutely immobile. But the overall concept is true of all the films I did. The Third Part of the Night begins with the apocalypse of St. John read by an actress—it is right in the middle of something, not the beginning! Beginnings are useless. You know how today every French film starts with a girl riding her bicycle. While she rides and rides, you have all the credits, and when she arrives you forget the bicycle, which is of no use anymore, and only then something starts. I don't want to use that bicycle!

NOTEBOOK: When you put it this way, that reminds us that the ending of The Third Part of the Night is also not really an ending: You see the four riders that evoke the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and it is clear something will continue from there. So not only you have no use for beginnings, but also for what would conventionally be considered closure.

ŻUŁAWSKI: Yes, in old times this was called a frame. So you start with the apocalypse of St. John being told to you and you finish with something of it being shown to you: So it materializes.

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