Finding Zen in Poland: An Interview with Jerzy Skolimowski

An interview with the Polish director of "Essential Killing".
Ben Sachs

The Jerzy Skolimowski retrospective currently touring the United States is re-introducing American audiences to one of the most free-spirited directors the movies have ever produced. His first features, made in Poland in his mid-twenties, presented an exuberant sensibility shaped by both jazz and poetry; more than 40 years old, they still feel more youthful than most contemporary films. Skolimowski’s fourth feature, Hands Up (1967), was too free-spirited for Communist Poland, as State authorities banned the movie and pressured Skolimowski to leave the country. Working as a nomadic director, he produced an unpredictable but often inspired run of films, though the frustrations of making movies led him increasingly to take solace in painting. At 73, Skolimowski seems to have reconciled the great dilemmas of his life: He returned to Poland in 2008, and he seems to have struck a balance between painting and filmmaking. Last week, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and I called Skolimowski in Poland to discuss his two careers, his life as a “Gypsy,” and the two films that he has the strongest feelings about, Hands Up and his latest feature, Essential Killing.


Above: Skolimowski's painting "Untitled 36" (2000, acrylic on woodboards) and a still from Essential Killing.

NOTEBOOK: Where are you right now?

JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI: I’m at my retreat in the wild forests of Masuria, which is the northern part of Poland... Hopefully, I’ll finally be able to paint something. Painting is my other passion. For two years now, I did not paint a single painting.

NOTEBOOK: We thought that Essential Killing felt more like paintings than any of your other films did. Was that a conscious decision on your part?  

SKOLIMOWSKI: Actually, I believe those are two completely different matters... Making a movie is kind of like working in a factory, with an ensemble of people, and everybody having some input. The director coordinates the efforts and takes what’s best from other people... And I feel responsible for the budget, for the return of the investors’ money. When I’m painting it’s more of a “Zen” experience... Here, I’m the real artist.

NOTEBOOK: You wrote poetry before you made films. We were wondering whether poetry was an influence on your early work and whether there were any poets in particular that you admired.

SKOLIMOWSKI: I’ve always admired T.S. Eliot. He is my favorite poet of the whole history of poetry. The poetry which I was writing in my youth taught me the use of metaphor. That’s visible in my films, and in my paintings as well. 

Above: Skolimowski's "Her Majesty's Seasons" (2000, painting, acrylic on Woodboard,) alongside the four-eyed Stalin for Hands Up.

NOTEBOOK: The idea that you mentioned earlier, about having complete creative control in painting, reminded me of Hands Up. In the prologue of that movie [shot in 1981 —ed.], painting seems to offer you a sense of liberty that you can’t get from politics. Is that something you still feel?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Yes, but as I said before, somehow I separate painting from the filmmaking. It’s a completely different process. I wouldn’t say that my framing in films is mirroring my images in painting. 

NOTEBOOK: How long does it take you to paint a picture?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Sometimes the work goes very fast. My way of painting is that I improvise all the time. When I wake up in the morning and I feel like I have an appetite for painting, an appetite for a certain color or technique, I simply go for it. I start throwing some colors on the canvas and get submerged in the process. I’m not trying to fulfill any rigors, any pre-conceptions. It’s all happening in real time. And it’s actually almost out of the control of my consciousness. The only important thing is knowing when to stop.... When I film, I know exactly what I want and I am executing it to my best knowledge. When I’m painting, I let it go.  

NOTEBOOK: Do you prefer painting to filmmaking? 

SKOLIMOWSKI: Painting suits my psychological needs better. I don’t like to command people. I don’t like to execute my privileged position as a director. I don’t like to manipulate people, and, unfortunately, when you’re making a movie, you often have to manipulate people. You have to find a way to get the best from them. 

NOTEBOOK: If you’ve found that you prefer painting to filmmaking, then why make films?   

SKOLIMOWSKI: It’s difficult to make a living out of painting, and since I paint large-sized [canvases], there are not too many of them. Working on a film is economically much more rewarding. And also, I know that I have a certain talent for filmmaking, and I shouldn’t be wasting it. [jokingly] I prefer painting, but from time to time I have to suffer and go make a movie.

NOTEBOOK: I’m curious as to what’s drawn you to the subjects of your films. Because your focus seems to shift over the course of your career. In the films you made in Poland in the Sixties, they seemed to be tapping into your experience as a young man... Later on, you start adapting novels, and your stories don’t seem as autobiographical.

SKOLIMOWSKI: That’s true. Usually, my best films are based on original scripts. I must say I’m not particularly fond of my adaptations, which were always work for hire. 

NOTEBOOK: Which ones aren’t you fond of?

SKOLIMOWSKI: My adaptation of a Turgenev’s story, Torrents of Spring (1989) for example, or Nabokov’s novel King Queen Knave (1972). I’m not fond of the film I made nearly twenty years ago, which actually stopped me from making films for another 17 years, a film called Ferdydurke (1991). It was an adaptation of the Polish writer [Witold] Gombrowicz. I was making too many compromises. This film was a Euro-pudding: a linguistically complex Polish novel shot in English with a cast of French ladies, English men, Scottish men, even one American actor, Crispin Glover. It isn’t a bad movie, but it didn’t really satisfy me artistically. I decided I had to take a break and devoted my time entirely to painting. I thought it would take me three or four years, but it ended up taking 17 years, because I started to make a career as a painter. My work started to be exhibited all around the world; some museums were buying my paintings, as well as some private collectors. It was quite satisfying and it kind of allowed me to regain ground as an artist. With that feeling I was able to come back to filmmaking, and I returned to Poland to make a film called Four Nights with Anna (2008).

NOTEBOOK: I like that film very much.

SKOLIMOWSKI: I like it, too. What was quite peculiar about this film was that I shot it all around my house. I [had] spent nearly twenty years in Malibu. I had a very beautiful house there which I decided to sell a couple of years ago to buy this 19th century hunting lodge deep in the forest in the north of Poland. I’m completely isolated from civilization here.

NOTEBOOK: Are you enjoying that?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Yes! Can you hear the silence? I’m sitting on the porch outside, and you can’t hear anything but wild birds! The nearest town is more than 40 kilometers away. Anyway, I managed to shoot Four Nights with Anna around the house, and it was very convenient because I could spend the nights in my own bed. I didn’t need to be driven a couple of hours in the early morning to reach the location where we were shooting—I was just stepping out of the house and making a movie. I really don’t like hotels, or wasting time in traffic, so I was looking for a subject that would be suitable for another film in the forest around my house.

NOTEBOOK: That’s where Essential Killing came from?

SKOLIMOWSKI: I knew about the CIA planes landing in a nearby military airport from the press, and that prisoners from the Middle East were allegedly being brought into this secret base not very far away from my house. Instinctively, I refused to think of this as a subject of my next film because of its political context, as I don’t consider myself a political activist. Until one night in the winter, when I was driving back home on a forest road—very slippery—and I nearly fell into a kind of ravine. I stopped at the very last moment, and I realized that I was right next to the airport, and on the only road connecting the airport with the secret base. And I thought, “Damn, this is the road! If the prisoners were really here, they would’ve been traveling this exact way.” And since I nearly fell into the ravine, it could just as well happen to a vehicle in the convoy. And if that happened, there would be a great possibility that a prisoner could have escaped. At that moment, I thought, “This is it. This is the story I want to tell.” A man who has no idea which part of the world he’s been thrown into, who is facing the snow for the first time in his life, handcuffed and shackled, wearing a thin orange uniform fit for the desert, trying to escape into this wild, desolate landscape which he doesn’t know anything about. So everything that’s before that moment, the political context which is compressed to about 10 minutes in the film, I treat as a background for the story. It doesn’t matter if it’s this or that war, if it takes place in Afghanistan or Iraq or on the border of Pakistan. And it doesn’t even matter if this guy is a terrorist or a completely innocent man, because if you watch carefully [at] the beginning of the film, you will find a possibility that he is just a wrong man in a wrong place at the wrong time. What interests me is that this guy gets caught in these dramatic circumstances and is brought into this snowy landscape that is as far away from all he’s known as possible. By a strange turn of luck—or rather ultimate misfortune, as he will soon find out—he manages to escape. The film is about his struggle to survive. 

NOTEBOOK:  At this point, you’ve made more films outside of Poland than in Poland. You talked about being able to separate filmmaking from painting: are you able separate countries the same way? Or are you always Polish, regardless of where you are?

SKOLIMOWSKI: [With] my British films, especially Deep End (1971)…some critics wrote that it’s one of the most acute portraits of London of the time. Perhaps the eye of an outsider can sometimes see clearer. In fact, I’ve always had difficulties in belonging to any groups, organizations or movements. I’ve never felt an urge to become part of any herd.

Above: Side-by-side, the 1981 and 1967 sections of Hands Up.

NOTEBOOK: There's something similar going on in Hands Up, where the 1967 footage feels pointedly from 1967 since you make it clear that you're looking at them from the point-of-view of 1981. How do you feel about it now that even more time has passed since 1967?

SKOLIMOWSKI: The film was stopped by the censorship for many, many years—from 1967 to 1981, when Solidarity came to power. In 1981, when I had a chance to finally show the film to the public, I decided to shoot a prologue, half-an-hour long, which explains what happened in between, what were the reasons the release of the film was cancelled, how I was interrogated by the Communist secret service in Poland, and how I was forced to emigrate and lead a Gypsy life, going from one country to the other, trying to make films in Italy, Germany, England and eventually in Hollywood. I didn’t speak any language besides Polish when I left. My English at the time was non-existent. [jokingly] It’s still not good enough, as you can hear, but at least I can somehow express myself… In the prologue I wanted to show that process of alienation, and the frustration over having your creative work result in such a dramatic way on your entire life.

NOTEBOOK: Which films of yours do you feel most positively about today?

SKOLIMOWSKI: I feel very positively about Essential Killing, because I feel I managed to execute all of my skills, all my experiences [in it]—and also the fact that I took a risk of working with Vincent Gallo, and that the result of our work was so successful. I was the producer, I was the director, the screenwriter… Every choice was my own. Of course I owe a lot to my collaborators—my wife Ewa, who is my co-writer and co-producer; my D.P., my composer, my editors—but I think I kept it very strongly in my hands.

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