An Interview with Andrzej Zulawski and Daniel Bird

Fantasia 2013

by Donato Totaro Volume 18, Issue 5 / May 2014 38 minutes (9361 words)

The great Polish director Andrzej Zulawski may have ‘only’ 14 films to his credit as director, but they form one of the most ferociously original canon’s of world cinema, marked by formal and thematic experimentation and a keen sense of humanity on the edge of social chaos. His films almost always focus on singular characters or love triangles but also reflect broader political and cultural concerns. Part of what has kept Zulawski from attaining the same critical accolades as some of his contemporary East European auteurs is that he has never been one to hone a particular visual or formal style that can be easily identified and labelled, preferring instead to let his story, character and sense of historical time and place dictate a film’s style. Rather than a continuous style, the one element most often referenced to Zulawski ‘s films is a sense of manic energy, hysteria or excessiveness, which is never down to an easily identifiable gesture, but a combination, such as mannered performance, frantic camera movement, non-linear editing , and psycho-sexually charged politics. The one film which, for most fans of Zulawski, typifies this hard to pin down style is Possession, a 1981 story about a young couple’s deteriorating marriage (played by Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill) which slowly builds to an ambiguous apocalyptic ending which casts the couple’s psychological dissolution in an uncertain yet vaguely politicized Cold War context. His 1975 film L’important c’est d’aimer (The Most Important Thing: Love), set within the film world of soft-core pornography, feels like a dry run for Possession, with Romy Schneider and Fabio Testi as the fiery lovers. While Zulawski’s later L’amour Braque, 1985, also features, like the above two films, torturous love triangles. Zulawski’s debut film was the impressive The Third Part of the Night, 1971, set partly during the German occupation of Poland during WW2 (and a possible metaphor for Communist Poland). After his wife is brutally killed by government henchmen a young man joins a vague Resistance group but spends the rest of the film reliving the horror of his wife’s murder as a type of living nightmare. He ends up in an experimental medical center where he becomes part of a test group to create a vaccine against typhus (based on real life events of Polish biologist Rudolf Stefan Weigl, whose courageous work helped to save Jewish lives). His sophomore film was The Devil (1971), an epic-styled allegory about youthful political expression of the late 1960s set during the 18th century witch hunting and demonology. Other works in the 1980s, made in his adopted home of France, include La femme publique (1984), and one of two films which screened (on 35mm) at the 2013 The Fantasia International Film Festival, L’amour braque (1985). The other film shown at Fantasia was Szamanka (1996), perhaps the one film which challenges Possession in terms of its well earned reputation as a notorious cult favorite. Like the majority of Zulawski’s films, Szamanka also features obsessive lovers, in this case a thirty-something anthropologist Michal (Boguslaw Linda) and a twenty-something student Wloszka (Iwona Petry). While Possession features a blob-like monster (designed by Carlo Rimbaldi) which functions as a projection of Adjani’s angry Id, Szamanka’s touch with the fantastic comes from the anthropologist’s obsession with a recently found 3000 year old mummified corpse of a female shaman. Zulawski was invited to Fantasia to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, which he graciously accepted. Zulawski was accompanied to the festival by writer, filmmaker, and East European film scholar Daniel Bird. I sat down with Daniel Bird and Andrzej Zulawski for a career spanning interview. I should preface the interview by saying that before I arranged the interview I had known about Zulawski’s notorious reputation for being a ‘difficult’ interview, and someone with little patience and who, as the adage goes, “doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” Contrary to this ‘announced notice’ I am glad to say that throughout the interview Zulawski was nothing but generous, kind, funny, and totally pleasant (as was Daniel Bird of course!). I would like to thank Fantasia’s Anna Phelan, Director of Communications, for helping to make this interview possible.

Author, Zulawski, Bird

Offscreen: Let’s start with a very general question; you’ve had the pleasure of working with Andrzej Wajda.

Andrzej Zulawski: Maybe pleasure is not the right word. At that time I had the privilege.

Offscreen: Is there anything that you take with you from that experience, or still keep with you in terms of how you set about making films or directing or is it more of a general thing?

Andrzej Zulawski: No it was much more than that because I was really young, about 19, when I first worked with him. Then I was his first assistant on two films some years later. What was important as a life lesson; why the hell do we do films or why do we want to make films. What kind of moral attitude can you have? What kind of will to remain honest to something; to what in fact…or not? And that was much more important, to make it short…lessons of cinema? Lessons of citizenship and morality? Yes.

Offscreen: Another very general question, relates to your research as well Daniel on East European directors in general; I find that East European directors that really stand out, they have this very expressive visual style that you can only really identify with that director, so you think of Miklos Jançso, you think of Andrei Tarkovsky, Dusan Makavejev. They are all East European but from a different context so I’m just wondering what is it about? The great schools? Is it the reaction to Socialist Realism? What is it that creates these amazing stylists in East European cinema?

Daniel Bird: I have not academically researched this, but this is something that is secondary. And I agree with you, there is a large number of these directors that interest me. There’s two conclusions which I’ve drawn and the first is that , a few years ago I did some teaching at a University, a former polytechnique, a practical school in England, and the interesting thing is that you have students who have just come from schools, sort of 18-19, and they’re all focused on being filmmakers, or actors or musicians or whatever, and the thing is that you can eventually learn a degree of technical proficiency but it’s not really possible at that age really to have something coherent to say whereas in that system, whether it were in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia in the case of Makavejev, usually it was post-graduate; you did something else first: in Andrzej’s case, Philosophy, Political Science and in the case of Tarkovsky, Oriental Studies….Skolimovsky, Ethnology….. Makavejev, Psychology and the fact that this was a very particular time and a lot of things were happening. So usually everybody had something to say, and you turned to cinema to express it….emotionally, visually; usually because you couldn’t say exactly what you wanted to say so it was all those factors kind of consolidated. I don’t think it was a plan or an intention of these institutions, I think it was just things lining up.

Andrzej Zulawski: Look, you’re mentioning 4 or 5 names, maybe we could add 4 or 5 more? But not much more. It was a time in the Soviet Union where you had like 300 practicing directors making a film from time to time; same story in Poland, less so in Hungary, it’s a small country…or Serbia, but I knew most of the people you mentioned. Tarkovsky wanted me even to play Jesus Christ…..I was very thin at that time. He liked my feet, he said: “Oh these are feet to my cross.” Perfect. OK, Makavejev was a friend and Jançso of course I know a bit. First of all, you’re talking about some sort of elite, and bizarrely even when they really fought by the authorities because of their films –our films if I may be arrogant enough to say it this way– they knew perfectly well that they are against this culture that they wanted to see, this system; but bizarrely all this talent was with this small group of people, and when we started to know each other, to meet, we got films done, so it wasn’t an Eastern European-Russian conspiracy. Remember that at the same time you had the best Post-War European cinema, there was also the best Italian, French, British. So it was not like an Island of savage expressionism, no…the cinema was interesting in itself and what you said Daniel was very right. Sorry to say, but a school can not teach you to be a genius. You can learn how to be a technician, then it’s up to you, to draw from your life, your eventual studies, and whatever is speaking to you to make films. I think the basic reason for this small explosion of talent, of striking something with visual sensitivity…it’s simply the fact that –and I can say this I think after so many years of being on this planet– to do something interesting in so called Art, you have to have an enemy. The more powerful the enemy the better, so you must hide what you really think; then you find the formula probably which squeezes between Scylla and Charybdis. The collapse of the Polish cinema today is because they have no enemy. There is no enemy politically now, they all want money therefore capitalism is not an enemy.

Offscreen: The book by Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie on Tarkovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, writes that from a Western vantage, it appears Tarkovsky really suffered under that Communism, but where else could he have made those four films [Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Mirror].

Daniel Bird: Well look at the films he made abroad. Look at Nostalghia, The Sacrifice; they’re indulgent and not really that interesting.

Offscreen: Oh, I like them too but…I agree they’re not quite at the level of Mirror or Andrei Rublev.

Andrzej Zulawski: Andrei Rublev was a pure masterpiece.

Offscreen: I saw that film so many times and only after about the 30th time [I first became aware of this after reading about it in a book by Robert Bird, Elements of Cinema], that in Rublev’s Christ fantasy or reverie, the landscape shots, where Christ is crucified, there are actually angels in there hidden in the mise-en-scène, because it is shot slightly overexposed, there are actors dressed in white walking along Christ and they are right there for your eyes to see but we don’t see them.

Daniel Bird: No I did not.

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes, white on white.

Offscreen: That to me was pure genius.

Daniel Bird: Genius or bad cinematography. [laughter]

Andrzej Zulawski: No, no.

Offscreen: I’d like to talk about one of your films that I’ve only seen recently, your first film, Third Part of the Night. I was taken by how incredible it was…one of the most impressive debut films since, maybe Ivan’s Childhood; seven years, eight years before but just amazing, somewhat controlled because of the political context. As I was watching it I was thinking about many different things….one that it actually might have been an indirect influence on Mirror. Like Mirror it has a very strong autobiographical feel, with this sense of not being able to distinguish real or unreal, the flashbacks to the dead sons; could Tarkovsky have had an occasion to see that film when he was studying?

Andrzej Zulawski: Look…when we met, we met in Moscow during Rublev, Third Part of the Night that was 1970. That was before….If anybody influenced anybody, it’s me being influenced by Tarkovsky, not the reverse.

Daniel Bird: He’s thinking about Mirror which was after.

Offscreen: Mirror was 1975 and it reminded me of your film in many respects; the autobiographical part, even the use of interior spaces.

Andrzej Zulawski: I’ll be honest…I’ve never seen it…

Daniel Bird: There’s one key difference though in as much as I understand, the concept of The Third Part of the Night is the structure…the flashback structure as I understand, was worked out at the script; it wasn’t creating during editing. But in the case of the Mirror it was a very protracted one and a half year period in which he was constantly hacking away, coming up with different titles, Martyrdom, A Bright Winter or whatever it was called. He was finding the film in editing, so I think that structure was after the shooting, whereas that structure in The Third Part of the Night was in the script.

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes, it was written in a very precise way for a simple reason, Poland is a poor country! In Russia you had directors making the same film for thirty years and still not finished. So you could, for instance, hack and cut for a months and it was a blessed time because nobody was controlling them at all. Fantastic, but we couldn’t…when I was making The Third Part of the Night, I was very lucky; they gave me Technicolor, Kodak. But just enough to shoot one take…of every shot; so one take which means a bit more for the start of the clap and the end…ONE; so it was a very tightly disciplined film, I couldn’t do otherwise.

Daniel Bird: But I think in hindsight, that’s something which…because I was on the set of Andrzej’s last film, La Fidelitee, and I’ve always said, at the time I was bored, I was a kid, but in hindsight as I’ve been and worked on lots of sets and some being chaos, which is exciting when it is chaos but not necessarily a good result, and in looking back that precision and control [of La Fidelitee]. I think this is the one thing which is important about these films for two reasons; first is that the editing is actually, as I understand, first in the writing and then on the set. So the concept of storytelling is done there. Now this has two practical consequences, first: it’s cheaper because you’re not repeating different set-ups and secondly: during post-production, there’s only one way to assemble the film; so no one can come in and re-cut it.

Andrzej Zulawski: But that…yes..the reason is exactly what you said. First, it stems from the fact that when you deal with any kind of real power upon your film, they can do whatever they want.

Offscreen: Ultimately, yes.

Andrzej Zulawski: Be it Communist or Capitalist, the re-cut Possession.

Daniel Bird: They tried but they couldn’t recut it.

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes well that is even worse. Well, there’s something more important to me and very personal, if I may….so I was born during the war and it was a….

Offscreen: Born during an apocalypse, isn’t that one of your quotes?

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes, but I was a kid, and my perception of it is not vague, it’s very precise but sketchy; it was a terrible time for my parents, I suppose. Any kind of power, especially violent power, frightens me. Having been through a difficult time, each time…each film I think it’s my last; even the first was my last. So it’s shot that way: OK if I die at the end, they can’t cut it otherwise. You can call whomever to cut it, but it will be as I die.

Offscreen: John Ford said that as well; he cut in a certain way so that the producers would have no way of cutting around the scene.

Daniel Bird: The joke about running behind schedule…..

Offscreen: Just rip out some pages….” [laughter]

Daniel Bird: Then you’re back on schedule.

Andrzej Zulawski: He asked “how many pages are we behind? Alright…” [laughter, while motioning tearing pages out of a script]

Daniel Bird: There is a broader question; it’s about the role of the producer and the role of the director today. Because, basically, I’ve noticed from experience….

Offscreen: The actor too….has become so powerful today.

Daniel Bird: Well, actor/producer, the fact that on the set, what is the editorial story telling decision if you’ve got a producer asking to shoot like a commercial with multiple camera set ups; it’s basically saying: look the question is still open; it’s resolved in the editing. It’s almost like a protection policy, in fact the job of the director is less important; they have less of a possibility to express the story visually.

Andrzej Zulawski: If they agree to that.

Daniel Bird: Exactly.

Offscreen: Yes but they’re so desperate to get a film done that they agree.

Andrzej Zulawski: That’s wrong policy to me. You can’t be desperate.

Offscreen: Like in Rosemary’s Baby, you’ll sell your soul to get that acting job. One more question about The Third Part of the Night, is that I watched it for the first time and the scene early on where the wife and child get attacked; maybe it was just by osmosis or indirect, but to me it looked like an homage to the Odessa steps sequence, specifically where you see the Cossack on a horse raising his rifle twice in two jump cuts and then you cut to the wife who has blood on her face; you don’t see the impact, the impact is achieved through the jump cut which is like the opening of the Odessa steps; that might just have been in your head somewhere?

Andrzej Zulawski: No; frankly no.

Daniel Bird: Montage is the language of cinema and Eisenstein was…well you know…the point is it’s a tool, a tool to get an effect.

Andrzej Zulawski: It says this precise thing and not another.

Offscreen: But it’s so much more effective when it’s the edit that achieves the violence rather than seeing the butt of the rifle hit the head; it has a more abrupt….

Daniel Bird: The cut is violent..

Andrzej Zulawski: I wouldn’t do that, I was in love with this young woman. [laughter]

Offscreen: Yes and you married her of course.

Andrzej Zulawski: No, but it’s very pertinent, it’s true sometimes not to show is better than showing.

Offscreen: Yes, so I loved your first film; I was really struck by how amazing it was then I saw your second film right after, The Devils I understood it as a completely different film; almost Brecthtian in a sense of it being this epic journey or maybe Voltaire’s Candide, this innocent thrust out into the world. But because of its epic structure, I was less involved in it than the first film. But again when I saw the scene where he torches the cottage and you get this huge fire, I thought of The Sacrifice. Did you really burn that cottage?

Influence on The Sacrifice?

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes. We built it in order to burn it.

Offscreen: I wonder whether Tarkovsky’s saw that film and maybe in his head somehow thought that this may be a way to end his film?

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes but very frank, whatever he did outside of Russia, I’m not a real fan of it. I think the films are, I’m sorry to say that, for me, for my temperament, are drenched in, for him metaphysics, for me it’s just orthodoxy as a religion and then very boring; specially the Italian one.

Offscreen: Nostalghia, but it’s a film about that, so the form becomes it.…..

Andrzej Zulawski: Easy does it!

Daniel Bird: There is an interesting paradox in the way that those two films, in particular in the West, have been received. I think there’s a fetish for this notion of Russian soul, Russian spirituality in New York and London you know? It’s something we’ve lost, you know? I mean Sokurov has got this now, and this way of people talking about this, that and the other; but the paradox is that if you speak to people who knew Tarkovsky in Russia at that point, they all remark on the same thing, about him being a dandy, about the way he dressed, his Western fetish; the literary references in his films. For example in Rome when he did an interview with Luciano Tovoli, the cinematographer, who was the first choice for Nostalghia, and he was working with Antonioni so Tarkovsky went:”Fuck you” and got someone else, but he said…Tarkovsky turned up on his doorstep, and “I was expecting a guy…tall guy, with big long beard with icicles in it” and this is the image he had of Tarkovsky. He opened the door…the first thing…he looked down…there’s a little man wearing like a Hawaiian shirt and shorts and what he said was completely the opposite of his mental impression; and I think that’s important because that’s where what Tarkovsky was looking West, he was interested in these things. But the irony is that in the West, we think he is the very essence of Russian spirituality.

Andrzej Zulawski: May I add one thing, that horrible true story behind it, that in the West he was really ill most of the time and then he died, so how does this affect one’s creative powers? I’m sure, profoundly, especially a guy like him, so highly intelligent and so highly sensitive too; for me still…the sequence of the balloon in Andrei Rublev is…this is IT. This idiotic guy, was he a peasant or a young Pope, I don’t remember, who builds this thing [laughter]…and he sees the beauty of Earth, the land, the horses,…up to today it’s one of THE moments in cinema.

Offscreen: Szamanka, which I saw theatrically the other night, did you stay for the screening or did you leave?

Andrzej Zulawski: I went to sleep, because we had such a long journey, and I was just tired. I’ve seen the film. [laughter]

Offscreen: Mr. Zulawski you said an interesting thing on one of the DVD supplements, I think it may have been on La Femme Publique, in 2008, that there’s never really ever been a strong female performance given, in a film directed by a female director; something to that effect. Did you mean by that that women aren’t as aggressive or mean to push a female actress?

Andrzej Zulawski: No I meant only that…….I love actresses when they can act and I love to push them into something because they are not men; which means they are not me. In my films, I guess, even if it may seem so, Man is never the real protagonist, because it would be about me. I’m not interesting enough for me, in the sense of a projection; but with women yes, and it is the opposite with women directors, they sometimes give very strong performances to men because it’s not ‘them’. Well…. two thirds of women directors or more are lesbian, it changes a bit the whole story.

Offscreen: Lina Wertmuller, I don’t know if she’s a lesbian or not.

Andrzej Zulawski: Who?

Offscreen: Lina Wertmuller, the Italian director of Swept Away.

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes, I think so…I met her in Venice.

Offscreen: She gets some powerful performances from Mariangelo Melato.

Daniel Bird: You could say for example in Eastern Europe, Vêra Chytilová, Larisa Shepitko, Kira Muratova, and the thing is that particularly….

Andrzej Zulawski: Agnieszska Holland?

Daniel Bird: This is different because the point in the case of Shipitka and Itilova, they were both extremely beautiful and they were able to use this, maybe towards men and look at The Ascent, you’ve got a film with all men directed by a woman with really great performances.

Offscreen: If you look at relationships between directors and actresses all through Chaplin and Fellini, Godard, Hitchcock and… I guess yourself, they each gravitate towards a particular physical look; with Hitchcock it was the icy blonde, you…it’s dark haired, powerful, fiery eyes, lithe and muscular; I’m just wondering why….is it a physical a sexual attraction? Or is it more the way they move on the screen or don’t move; the relationship between the camera and them?

Andrzej Zulawski: The question is why does talent hide in such, sometimes perfect bodies, but it’s not enough to say I’m an actor, I’m an actress to go on screen…of course you can and you provide the right performance, but I very much like the word “Star”. What’s stardom…what is a star? What kind of charisma must you have, sometimes less talent and more charisma. If somebody has strong acting talent and real beauty, this is the formula for stardom right up to today. Why do directors often choose, for the male protagonist, his own alter-ego? Roman Polanski, after so many years, found in Mathieu Amalric, his exact self. Look at them together; same size…same noses…same…you know…arrogance.

Offscreen: Sternberg did that with Lionel Atwill in the ‘30s.

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes. If…you allow me to say one thing about The Devil. The Third Part of the Night was extremely important being the first film of course, but also for the way it is written. The flashbacks, the cuts or whatever, and the essence of the story is essentially the story of my father. Starting with that I really wanted to say Hello, I know, we know…we remember…je me souviens…like in Quebec. Stylistically it was not for me any kind of breakthrough into a different way of filmmaking, and The Devil was. Wajda told me once, maybe one of the two things he said which I keep with me today, he said:”Look…be careful because the first day of the shooting of your new film, independently of the time which has passed between the two, will be the last day of the film which you just did before.” It’s so right, and so when we started The Devil, first day I remember, we started with this travelling shot, this elegant photography because Third Part of the Night is elegant visually, anyway for me; then I said “Oh God, something is radically wrong…forget the rails, take the camera in hand and let’s do the film like a documentary about a bloody dream in which the history of Poland collapsed, etc. etc.” We did the film almost entirely with hand-held camera so it was a radical departure stylistically from the first film. This break was most important to me than anything later on, in technique.

The Devil

Offscreen: Just to show that you could do that.

Andrzej Zulawski: No, I’m sorry…I never do things just to “show” anybody.

Daniel Bird: But I think there’s another issue; certainly when I was starting out writing about film, you’re looking, and that’s the legacy of auteur theory, you’re looking for stylistic consistency in a director, but I think as you…now I look at it differently, I look at….I think a good film…a director finds the style to support the story. The point is that basically, in a way, The Devil demanded a different style than The Third Part of the Night, and whereas the first was very precise, this one has a nervous energy which fits the story because it’s a fever dream therefore you need a feverish visual language.

Andrzej Zulawski: Otherwise it will probably be a fairytale with blood; psychic, demented but with a more elegant camera…like put icing sugar on the film, if it’s raw, the story becomes raw immediately and it fits, for me.

Offscreen: A lot of it takes place in the outdoors; the landscape reminded me of Jançso, but a completely different style.

Daniel Bird: But that, for me, is an example when Jançso falls in love with his formal trick and then it actually weakens the films as they get on and then it just becomes a mannerism. In the way that with Tarkovsky, it’s like this final sequence [in The Sacrifice], technically dazzling as it is, you suddenly forget about the burning building and you’re thinking “Isn’t it marvelous, this choreography, which is affected by thing.” Because you shouldn’t care about the technical proficiency, you should be thinking “Oh my God, the house is on fire…what’s happening?” That’s the problem for me with a lot of the Jançso films in the ‘70s; It’s just “look at me — look”.

Offscreen: “Can I do this in five takes instead of twelve?”

Andrzej Zulawski: What do you mean? ONE! [laughter] A long and circular…

Daniel Bird: Like a Sokurov film, Russian Ark. Which is an exact example of why we do editing.

Offscreen: could have been a stronger film.

Andrzej Zulawski: If I may add something in there, I was looking at the page in this huge catalogue here at Fantasia, there’s a page about me, and they’ve put the posters for all the films. I look at that and I said “Oh my God..” No film is, how to say, each film is so different but somehow, you can’t say it’s done by twelve directors, it’s done by one. By what miracle can you see that, looking at the film; I don’t know. It’s very mysterious…by the limitations, I think, more than the exuberance.

Offscreen: You’ve probably experienced it here now, having met Mitch David [festival programmer] and Karim Hussain [long-time friend of Fantasia and Canadian director/cinematographer]; I remember when they were a lot younger, the first time we met, we were just so passionate about Possession especially, we spoke inside out about that film; people that like your films are extremely passionate about Possession so I’m just curious in terms of what it is about your films that draws people to these extents, to be so passionate…..

Andrzej Zulawski: I’m not passionate about my films, I can’t say, but there’s something really wonderful about it. I had the impression that they want to defend this cinema; it’s defense against something, so they found their common enemy…and that’s good.

Daniel Bird: The funny thing for me is like all those years ago, it’s like, when you make tentative, nervous steps into practical filmmaking and you….I remember someone telling me …..I don’t know if it’s true…about the Thumb Rule; well the Thumb Rule is that when you write your script, you should be able to put your thumb over the block of dialogue, and if you can still see the words…it’s too long. That doesn’t apply to some of your films, and the point is, and this is the thing, is that by actually holding the film, you can say “Fuck you..this works” that rule is idiotic and in fact this is an idea of a producer, a producer wanting a certain cadence, a certain rhythm, a certain thing whatever it may be; and it’s bullshit. You have an embodiment of a set of things which “they” don’t want you to do in terms of the intensity of the performance, in terms of the verbose aspect of it. Not all the time, some other films are very quiet but the point is that, certainly in my case, it became like a little thing to hold up and say “No. Something like this, not like that.” And I think that’s a similar thing from conversations with people like Karim and Mitch, it’s similar. You know, something very bold visually, something with a direction with a precise idea of space, lighting is not arbitrary, it’s not mannered but it’s just precise and fits to the story. I think any technician, and Karim is now an established cinematographer, values that. He’s looking for that in terms of a director.

Offscreen: But again, back to how we relate to the screen, generally they say that, as a viewer, you relate more to your same sex, so I would relate more to a man, woman to a woman….

Daniel Bird: Who says that?

Offscreen: That seems to be theories of spectatorship and of authorship.

Daniel Bird: Sorry, this is the thing, the fact that my first degree was in psychology, and for my last year, I wanted to do something with cinema. There were two people in the 1960s who actually looked at the cognitive and perceptual aspect of cinema. Julian Hochberg, in New York, and J.J. Gibson “Ecological theory of perception”, and the interesting thing is with this, at the end of the 1960s, Hochberg had given up, and Gibson went somewhere else, so the point is, that there isn’t that scientific, cognitive perceptual research; and this is the funny thing, the fact that psychologists don’t really know how cinema works. What you have in film studies is things like psychoanalysis which isn’t really scientific; that’s not to say it’s not interesting, it is, but it’s not scientific. It’s a kind of alchemy and speculation, and the thing is, we don’t know and that’s incredible, the fact is, and this relates to what you were saying, the fact we don’t know exactly how but it works, it exists, but we don’t know.

Offscreen: In Szamanka, Ivana Petri was such a young actress.

Ivana Petri

Andrzej Zulawski: She wasn’t an actress at all.

Offscreen: Not as skillful as…

Andrzej Zulawski: No, no…she never acted before.

Offscreen: …but my eyes were on her, and I found her much more riveting, more interesting; I wanted to know more about her. The man, the anthropologist, seemed to be too much of a rationalist trying to look for answers; she didn’t look for answers, she just experienced; she was just wonderful.

Andrzej Zulawski: She was the answer.

Offscreen: The answer?

Andrzej Zulawski: She was the answer to the film.

Offscreen: Was she Italian?

Andrzej Zulawski: No, she’s Polish, I found her in a café; I saw every possible young actress in Poland in order to cast the film, and I was so really nervous and then happy to the point of saying “I won’t do the film” because they are trained young actresses in an obvious way; “I’m an actress, I can act” Yeah! You can act, but I don’t want to look at you acting, that’s the problem. She was a student at the University, extremely poor and she just entered into a café and she had these red hands because it was cold, and I was with the producer and I said “this is her”. He said “are you mad?” , and we…she…did it.

Offscreen: It’s like Bresson, he always wanted to have an actor, new and he would kind of use them, suck them of everything and then, bingo, on to the next film; another new ‘model’, as he referred to actors.

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes but he did a lot of harm to these young people because he wanted them to act like he would act, and he was not an actor. Therefore to be what he thought true…true to reality. He’s a fascinating director because it’s totally false; it’s a bit like the first films of Truffaut where everybody plays off…they’re so false…it becomes a style. It’s good in the end, being consistent with that.

Offscreen: You talked about actors pushing themselves to kind of play themselves, and I always thought that about method acting; that a method actor can only really be successful if they’re playing a large character; a character that has a kind of a mask, where it’s a physical mask: gaining weight or getting skinny; I remember Robert De Niro did this film with Meryl Streep, Falling in Love, he just played an average worker and there’s nothing on the screen, there’s no….nothing of De Niro. It’s a very flat performance but you see him in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver ….So it’s like they have to be able to adopt a kind of another skin.

Daniel Bird: It’s also a question of casting, I mean, Andrzej you told a story about a Malody…a script which you wrote but didn’t direct.

Andrzej Zulawski: Malady of Love [1987].

Daniel Bird: Yeah and you said that one of the producers wanted Isabelle Adjani, and you said “no one is going to believe Adjani playing a hairdresser.”

Andrzej Zulawski: Not a hairdresser…the girl who sweeps the floor.

Daniel Bird: Sweeps the floor…

Andrzej Zulawski: For France and the French speaking market, she was a princess; you can’t do that, everybody will laugh. Still…an extremely good actress.

Offscreen: In terms of the physical movement, it is very kinetic, everything about your films , especially the acting, do you actually do that with them? Or do you just tell them how to move or do you give them a certain space?

Andrzej Zulawski: You never say to people, you can do whatever you want; this is terrible…no. But, sorry, but for instance, when Adjani was doing the scene in the metro with this hysteria explosion etc.

Offscreen: OK, you said it; I didn’t want to say that word. You said it first: Hysteria. [laughter]

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes, Hysteria stems from the womb so it fits the woman performances; I’m joking but, so of course that you can’t control second by second, you wouldn’t want to because you ask your actress to go so deep, to places where religious beliefs, religious hysteria, voodoo, whatever, stems. So this is out of the reach of anybody who wants to control it; it’s not to be controlled. It’s good when it’s free, mad…OK? But it’s a film; you can’t suddenly go walking on the ceiling over there. So it’s like a ring, let’s say, this is for the cameraman, for the guy who pulls the focus, for the sound, for the crew; it must have some limits. It’s limited freedom, but that’s it. What she will do exactly, why is she doing this? What is in this story? Who is she? Therefore, a certain way of responding and then the surprise because at no moment of this is the character aware of what’s going on, she just does it. So this is the limit point with freedom of acting for me.

Offscreen: Do you remember how many takes you did of that [subway scene]?

Andrzej Zulawski: One.

Offscreen: Just one?

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes we did one but, not entirely but we did a take two, just in case anything happens with take one; protection. I immediately abandoned that, in fact it was not as good as the first one of course, but I always say it’s like when you shoot with children, do one take first and the second take will be like, you know…..

Offscreen: The fun is over for them.

Andrzej Zulawski: Yeah! They’re used to it and therefore not fresh, not responding, not interesting; the one take…yeah.

Offscreen: I wanted to ask you about Fabio Testi because he’s an actor I’ve admired in his Italian films, Gialli, Westerns and Crime films; when I saw him in your film, it almost didn’t seem right that he was in that film because I had this image of him in all these other films; what was he like as a person to work with?

Andrzej Zulawski: He was a pain in the ass.

Offscreen: That’s what I expected…. [laughter]

Andrzej Zulawski: Really, really…no because he started to be a real star in Italy, very physical…I won’t say stupid because at the end we discovered he’s not as stupid as he you might think, being in all these gangster movies etc. No but…he was the Italian Co-Production…I would never have finished the film without this money, so he was important, but I almost killed him twice. He came to Paris to play the savior of Romy Schneider, he was there to play Zorro. He never understood the film. He understood it when he was dubbing it in Rome, and he called me at one or two at the night, in tears, saying “I’m so sorry…now I understand.” It was six months later; it was difficult.

Offscreen: You would have to have seen the whole film to understand it I guess.

Offscreen: You were born in Ukraine [Lwów].

Andrzej Zulawski: No! I was born in Poland.

Offscreen: Oh yes, now it is referred to as Ukraine.

Andrzej Zulawski: It was Stalin that pushed us. But it was Poland.

Offscreen: The great Polish science-fiction writer was born there too, Stanislaw Lem. A word or two on the great Ukraine director Dovzhenko; do you like him as a director?

Andrzej Zulawski: Oh God, yes…yes.

Offscreen: OK, because there’s a lineage between him and Tarkovsky; a big influence on Tarkovsky.

Andrzej Zulawski: In Russia, they were always putting Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko together. A trio…the holy trinity.

Offscreen: Is this your first time in Montreal? I don’t think so right?

Andrzej Zulawski: Third.

Offscreen: Third time. Someone came asking for you after Szamanka, and I think you have a cousin in Montreal, is that right?

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes.

Offscreen: Is it a woman?

Andrzej Zulawski: No, she looks a woman but he’s a man. [laughter]

Offscreen: How is he in Montreal?

Andrzej Zulawski: Well, he left Poland thirty years ago and he was a chemist and he found very interesting work here so he stayed; but we have little in common.

Offscreen: So you are enjoying your stay in Montreal. How did the market thing go?

Andrzej Zulawski: Oh my God.

Offscreen: Maybe I shouldn’t ask.

Andrzej Zulawski: No.

Offscreen: Richard Stanley described your film to me a little bit, can you say a few words on what your new project is about, not a pitch!

Andrzej Zulawski: May I avoid this question please?

Offscreen: OK, no problem.

Andrzej Zulawski: Thank you.

Offscreen: So hopefully you’ll get something concrete from here…

Andrzej Zulawski: I don’t think so…

Offscreen: It’s a new market so it’s very hard….

Andrzej Zulawski: It’s the oldest market I’ve ever seen in my life, in terms of cinema, because they’re dealing with formulas, and you’ve seen these films ten thousand times and they want money to do it again. And again and again and again and again; so I looked at them and I was so surprised because they…well they’re young faces, and probably with enthusiasm and talent but in order to make this whorish cinema. I’m sorry if it’s a bit brutal and maybe unjust but ….my God.

Daniel Bird: There’s two thing I wish to say that connects Dovzhenko with this, is the one thing: the impression I get from Andrej’s films is something which Dovzhenko used to say to his students and that was “make very film as if it were your last”. This is interesting now when you’re in a market when films are talked of as part of a career trajectory, you know, it’s part of a grand plan; this project will open this door and that door. As opposed to thinking, well, OK…you got this little window, one and a half hours to say something to an audience; don’t squander it.

Andrzej Zulawski: That’s very true; I said that Wajda gave me some very simple thoughts, maybe two or three…the second one I will never forget, he said: “Be very much aware what kind of film you want to do as your first film; you’ll be marked for life.” Here, we encountered only people saying “Oh if I do this, you understand, it’s a step in order to do something better.” You will never do anything better….the reference will be the first film.

Offscreen: Tarkovsky said that as well; an artist can’t say, “I’ll give my soul for this”, “I’ll make a commercial film NOW for my next personal film.”

Daniel Bird: You look at the story with Scorsese, Cassavetes telling him [after he saw Boxcar Bertha] “What the fuck are you doing…what the fuck are you doing?” And that in fact Scorsese said that being told that by Cassavetes made him write Mean Streets, now what is your personal story. You kind of think well, what happened? I mean this is interesting because Cassavetes’ career was obviously at this point always struggling. To actually come out and say that…and for Scorsese to listen….

Offscreen: It’s art as industry, but it’s difficult for students who are studying cinema here; they’re thinking…how to get a job, the pragmatic side of it which kind of hits heads with the…

Daniel Bird: There’s a difference between…it’s like a broken record but, there’s a difference between being a filmmaker and making films. The fact is…what’s more important. Actually being seen, perceived as a filmmaker regardless of what films you make or the actual process; or the films themselves? I think that’s a distinction that has to be made; what do you place first? Cinema, or directing as a job, source of income. If you really, really care about cinema, you should really, probably be reluctant to reducing that “thing” into a paragraph in a market catalogue and believing it. I mean, if you put that in there, and you know that it’s not the film, it’s just a pragmatic step as you say, but the danger is when that paragraph actually becomes the film; what’s that film, that Japanese film, the story of the mask that sticks to the face; when the paragraph becomes the film, that’s the bad thing.

Offscreen: Onibaba, you mean.

Daniel Bird: Yes.

Andrzej Zulawski: Yes, Onibaba, yes but maybe to the difference of what you said, I think these people really enjoy doing that; they’re really in. It’s like……

Offscreen: Business people…

Andrzej Zulawski: No, no, no, no,…the directors, the guys, the monsters, the masks! They’re so excited by it, it’s so fantastic to do that. It’s like a chapel, and everybody not being in this chapel, we’re just morons, old farts, and because they have the key to how to struggle in this society, how to be, do whatever; it’s in the “GENRE” thing. They are so wrong.

Daniel Bird: It’s to sell it, like a monster movie. This is the thing to say, “I like monster movies,” which is idiotic. Alien or The Thing in fact, the genius of those films is to take something and through direction, through an eye….to go somewhere else. But to reduce this to just a mere monster movie is really not understanding that film.

Offscreen: Yes, like Godzilla, the original Japanese version, is not ‘just’ a monster movie.

Andrzej Zulawski: Again…technique, by technical jumps cinema changes not by anything else, mostly; because every technique finds the right talent that exploits it better than somebody else; technique and then transgressions.

Offscreen: Yes, transgressions is very important but , because Bazin said that in his big, grand evolution of the language of cinema is that everyone thinks that it’s form that leads to the next revolutionary step in cinema and it’s not form, it is content. He used the example of Neo-realism and the post-war period and having to struggle and daily life itself being a drama. That’s what triggered Neo-realism, not the camera or…

Andrzej Zulawski: They had no money and Cinecitta was destroyed and therefore they went to the street and they were angry about what happened; so you had four, five, six masterpieces and then it was over.

Daniel Bird: You see, you have no money, you have no actors or you’re unhappy with the actors.

Andrzej Zulawski: They were from the theatre or most of them at least.

Offscreen: I want to mention one thing that there’s a connection between you and Cronenberg which I don’t know if you’re aware of, but in terms of marital horror, because you said that with Possession, some of the inspiration was the breakup with your wife at the time that led to Possession. Cronenberg, when he made The Brood, exact same thing, he said “it was my Kramer vs. Kramer.” In The Brood there is this woman who has these offspring, these little monsters that come out of her, she sits there giving birth to these little monsters, they come out of blood sacks, they go out in the woods, killing people; it’s like her ID expressed. It was because he had a terrible divorce right before that, so The Brood was the result of this.

Andrzej Zulawski: At least a common point. The wives.

Offscreen: So one common point there.

Daniel Bird: I think there’s something I remember which relates to that is that I remember when Possession was released on VHS for the first time in a long time in the 1990’s, and Andrzej was in London when Sophie was making a James Bond film, you gave her the video and it had this text inside in which a guy said “Oh, Possession straddles between art-house and grind-house genre horror and you said “No…the real horror is when you have a couple that break up and neither know why.” And this is, I think, the difference between the Cronenberg film and this one was the fact that there is a mystery which relates to your pitch, there is an unknown…why did they break up? Is it just because of the other guy? No…because she’s fucking the monster so how does that figure? In fact, basically, none of that is resolved; but in the Cronenberg film, you got the Oliver Reed guy who’s explaining it to all, so in fact…that’s all of Cronenberg’s films, there is an element of closure, a mythology…a kind of science fiction mythology which explains these things. And there isn’t actually room for mystery in that context.

Offscreen: Parapsychology…no it’s true; Possession, you don’t know anything about the characters really; you don’t know what Sam Neil does…really.

Andrzej Zulawski: It’s interesting what you both are saying because in fact, for me, do you understand life? I’ll be very vague OK? Do you understand? No.

Offscreen: At my age, I still don’t understand…. [laughter]

Andrzej Zulawski: You are given some explanations of biology, of this and that, but do you understand it now? Therefore there is cinema because therefore there is art. It’s a mystery which asks an answer which is the right answer when the answer is mystery, and not whatever. Therefore, for instance, Avatar.

Offscreen: Which I haven’t seen so…I don’t know it.

Andrzej Zulawski: It makes you think because by the end, it’s totally silly and totally stupid because it has the answer. It has a morality and the answer. During the show, as it’s a rather impressive show, showing of techniques…it’s watchable; maybe reluctantly, but you can. By the end, it’s… (makes a vomiting noise impression).

Offscreen: It’s always nice to keep the wonder alive rather than explain things I guess.

Daniel Bird: It’s quite funny cause they’re stories of like….because I run into people in London who knew Tarkovsky when he was coming to London to direct Boris Godunov in Covent Garden, and they were all saying the same story, these stories of going to the cinema and being shocked by his choices; he wanted to see James Bond and Moonraker, somebody remembered. The reason was he was interested in the technique in the West; as a filmmaker, you’re interested in these things, but it’s not to say that he was actually enjoying watching these films.

Andrzej Zulawski: He was, we were old because it was….

Offscreen: Guilty pleasures come out…

Andrzej Zulawski: Go out from jail, you’ll be enjoying everything that is really colored, really colorful, really vulgar, really noisy, really…

Offscreen: Yes, you don’t want to think…

Andrzej Zulawski: No, you don’t want these four gray walls…..enough. So you go and the world is a circus…for a moment, and you enjoy it like a kid. And he was a kid…we were all kids independently of our age when we went out of these countries. I will never forget the faces when I was back in film school, IDEK, and we’re walking the streets with these two highly intelligent young guys, one with a doctorate already in his thirties, Italian. They had this profound discussion about Cesare Pavese, Il Mestiere di vivere (1935-1950) and then Cesare committed suicide etc. And I saw Sissi [1955, Ernst Marischka], remember? With Romy Schneider…this Austrian film.

Offscreen: No, I don’t know it.

Andrzej Zulawski: No? Come on…it’s important. It was about the Empress of Austria who was shot and murdered in Trieste, the wife of Franz Joseph the 1st, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, and you see her , Sissi was her name, her nickname. Have you seen Ludwig of Bavaria?

Offscreen: Yes, the Visconti film.

Andrzej Zulawski: She is the Empress with the very long hair, it’s her. She was famous for beauty, culture, talent. And Sissi by Ernst Marischka, I remember the name of the director; it’s a totally silly film about the young girl raised in a charming family in the countryside, a little noble family and she becomes Empress of Austria. So it was profoundly silly but that was the film I wanted to see, instead of talking about Il Mestiere di vivere, so I understand.

Daniel Bird: The funniest thing in the story is like I heard in Armenia, people saying that in the KGB office, they were always playing American films, that’s where you saw them, so everybody let’s look at this example of Western degeneration and conversely Stanislaw Rajkovic (?) tells this story about how The Devil was the favorite film for the kind of CIA or whatever…

Andrzej Zulawski: No, no…the Communist party Central Committee; the film was arrested and forbidden for how many years? Eighteen I believe…

Daniel Bird: Something like that…

Andrzej Zulawski: So when we recouped the copy from them, you couldn’t see it…it was run so many hundreds of times…and they were (sound of heavy panting) probably.

Offscreen: [laughter] Well apparently Hitler’s favorite film was King Kong, and all the dictators are huge cinema fans.

Daniel Bird: Or Volga Volga in the case of Stalin.

Offscreen: So it’s kind of scary that we’re following in these footsteps of these passionate dictators. [At this point I let Andrzej and Daniel run off for lunch before a 3:30pm presentation so I thanked them both ].

An Interview with Andrzej Zulawski and Daniel Bird

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 18, Issue 5 / May 2014 Festival Reports