‘Jerzy Skolimowski has said that he makes films to please himself. Between 1964 and 1984 he completed six semi-autobiographical features (Rysopis, Walkover, Barrier, Hands Up!, Moonlighting and Success is the Best Revenge), a segment (in Dialóg) and two other features (Le Départ and Deep End) based on his original screenplays. Given his filmmaking origins it was always likely that he would have difficulty reconciling the intuitions so central to his filmmaking with the demands of international production. While living and working in as many countries, however, he also completed another six relatively big budget productions, including four international co-productions, between 1970 and 1992 (The Adventures of Gerard, King, Queen, Knave, The Shout, The Lightship, Torrents of Spring and Ferdydurke), all literary adaptations to which he applied a range of strategies while leaving a distinctive signature on each.
‘His first feature film Walkover has often been described as Godardian, although up to that time Skolimowski had not seen any of Godard’s work. The Czech new wave of Forman, Kardar, Passer, Schorm et al, was a clearer influence. By the time he came to make Le Départ Skolimowski had seen Godard films, most notably Pierrot le Fou and Masculin-Féminin. After Barrier he left Poland to make Le Départ in Belgium in French (which he did not speak) with the two leads (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Catherine Duport) and the cameraman (Willy Kurant) from Masculin-Féminin but cast “because they were simply available”. A light film rather than a comedy, Le Départ, for Skolimowski, “does not have the serious layers that I like in my work”. There is not a great deal of substance in the satire on consumerism. The flamboyant visual style and the percussively jazzy score by Komeda keep the play on surfaces rather than evoking layers of meaning. It is, however, not without autobiographical elements, Skolimowski drawing upon some youthful experiences in the theme of the hero’s coming to maturity as he pursues his dream of becoming a champion rally driver. His obsessive drive for a high-powered car to play the ‘game’ masks his romantic feelings.
‘Skolimowski returned to Poland to make Hands Up!, the third film of the Andrzej trilogy and the fourth of his Polish sextet. A psychodrama following an ex-student reunion, it comes across something like a performance piece. The ‘happening’, as Skolimowski calls it, is staged in a railway cattle truck by four ex-students, now doctors in the grip of middle-aged conformity, with Skolimowski (as Andrzej, although continuity with Andrzej in the previous film is by no means exact) acting as a kind of master of ceremonies. If Barrier was a ‘polemic’ Hands Up! was, in the director’s words, “a silent scream…a provocation delivered to 32 million Poles about what is wrong” and, by implication, a ‘shout’ for change accusingly directed at Skolimowski’s generation. The strange ritual in the cattle truck, a location with obvious past associations and an uncertain destination, is filmed in sepia. Flashbacks to the participants’ student days are tinted green, signifying the contrast between early idealism and current disillusionment. Their conformity is a measure of how, in the Spring of 1967, the effects of Stalinism had seeped into their psyches.
‘After deploying relatively conventional shot duration in Barrier and Le Départ, Skolimowski here returned to the long take but, as appropriate for a theatrical ‘happening’, filmed in medium shot and close-up with a mostly stationary camera, movement confined to the panning camera and the shifting perspectives of the zoom lens.
‘Skolimowski has said that he was “fully aware that he was digging a hole in the system” when he made Hands Up! and knew that he was going too far. He was allowed to complete his film without any interference but then it was promptly banned. In 1980, at the height of Solidarity, Skolimowski was invited back to Poland to bring Hands Up! ‘more up-to-date’ with a view to releasing it. He removed more than a third of the footage and replaced it with film he had shot in London and Beirut (where he had been acting in Volker Schlöndorff’s Circle of Deceit) with intimations of a future military takeover in Poland. But the added footage does not particularly illuminate a film full of allusions, many of which would not be properly understood outside Poland. One can see, however, that a filmmaker’s normal reluctance to explain his film, combined with the poet in Skolimowski, meant that he would not likely have been satisfied with something so prosaic as an explanatory preamble locating the film in its time as an allegory on the effects of Stalinism.
‘In this form Hands Up! was shown at Cannes in 1981 reportedly running 90 minutes. It then disappeared from circulation to finally emerge in 1985 cut to 79 minutes including the new prologue of 25 minutes. What is left is a hybrid of 54 minutes of the historically resonant original and a prologue of fragments resembling a film diary combined with staged footage. This ‘political pamphlet’ (as a Variety reviewer called it) does not really live up to Skolimowski’s repeated claim that it is his best film. But, taking everything into account, it has strong claims, even in its present form, to be the most politically audacious film of a filmmaker given to risk taking and a key link in the chain that forms his Polish sextet.
‘Deep End (1970) was Skolimowski’s second non-Polish feature to be based on his own original screenplay. This connects it more to his personal Polish films than to his literary adaptations. Like those films the scenario was largely improvised on the set and the free use of the handheld camera adds further to the improvisatory feel. The coming of age storyline bears thematic similarities to Le Départ although the characters are quite different. Skolimowski’s blend of romanticism and a detachment bordering on cynicism, found especially in his first two features, coalesces around the figure of the naïve, questing adolescent hero (John Moulder-Brown), sexually obsessed with fellow employee (Jane Asher). Set in a run-down public swimming baths in London, it was actually filmed in Munich. The feeling of unreal impersonality is heightened to a surreal ambience, the comic edginess of frustrated sexual fantasy spilling over into unexpected tragedy as irrationality takes hold like the red liquid that washes across the frame arbitrarily at the beginning, precipitously at the end.
‘Of all Skolimowski’s films, Deep End most had the ingredients for a modest, or at least cult, success at the box office but was poorly handled by the studio. Frequently consigned to the bottom half of double bills, it soon disappeared from view. Coming on top of the failure of The Adventures of Gerard and the subsequent King, Queen, Knave (1972), both with mainstream budgets and stars, Skolimowski’s career as an international filmmaker went into eclipse until the critical success of The Shout (1978) then Moonlighting (1982), the fifth of his Polish sextet and critically and commercially his most successful film.
‘To look at Skolimowski’s work as a whole is to become aware of the limitations of applying labels to any or all of his films. Michel Ciment has compared him to a jazz musician, “all rhythm and improvisation”. He has most often described himself as a poet. As Skolimowski has acknowledged, the film that comes closest to ‘poetic’ is Barrier, narratively his most fragmented work and also his most symbolic. Yet he claims that he never thinks in symbols and that “everything emerges concretely and spontaneously without conscious interpretation”.
‘With the restlessness and resourcefulness of an accidental tourist that also brings Raul Ruiz to mind, Skolimowski has produced a body of work located on the margins between the surreal and the absurd. He evokes the often unsettling ambivalence of objects and, through improvisation and poetic association, seeks a layering of mood and meaning. His is a cinema of irony ambiguously played out, often in simulated performance spaces—a deserted boxing ring, an empty cattle truck, a drained swimming pool, a London bus, the claustrophobic lightship and a baroque city of Venice—located between reality and fantasy where the real shades into metaphor. Yet if the sense of paradox—of passive engagement and aggressive reticence—most often prevails, to adapt one of the key lines from his poetry, romantic impulses also manifest themselves, a measure of the continuing strength of his Polish inheritance.
‘Skolimowski’s place in the canon of Great Directors rests centrally on Walkover, Deep End, The Shout and Moonlighting. Of these, Walkover remains his most defiantly original work, resistant to labels other than perhaps the contemporaneous one of ‘new’ or ‘second wave’ cinema. In this it shares a seminal place with the likes of Before the Revolution (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1962), Yesterday Girl (Alexander Kluge, 1966) and The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Dusan Makavejev, 1967), films that ‘opened our eyes wider’ in a state of sublime surprise.’ — Bruce Hodsdon
Jerzy Skolimowski @ IMDb
Where to begin with Jerzy Skolimowski
Polish/English JS Website
To Be Aesthetic and Not Boring: An Interview with Jerzy Skolimowski
The Radical Visions of Jerzy Skolimowski
‘I had a wild life’
Jerzy Skolimowski: The Cinema of a Nonconformist
‘This Killing was nearly the death of me’
Diamonds in the snow: the bizarre beauty of Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s films
Jerzy Skolimowski’s Output as Essential Viewing
Le cinéma de Jerzy Skolimowski : l’art du plaquage polonais
21 Ridiculous Truths Of Jerzy Skolimowski
Ideology and the western in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man
THE VISUAL SONORITY OF FRANCIS BACON’S PAINTING IN JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI’S “THE SHOUT”
Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski discuss getting KNIFE IN THE WATER past the Polish censors
Interview – Jerzy Skolimowski (WALKOVER, 1975)
Jerzy Skolimowski in ‘The Avengers’
London Film Festival chat with Skolimowski about his film 11 Minutes
Jerzy Skolimowski Asks For More Films On Immigrants
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.
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.
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.
14 of Jerzy Skolimowski’s 23 films
The Menacing Eye (1960)
‘A man proves his masculinity at the cost of a woman. An important motif in the work of Skolimowski is born. Somewhere in a funfair, a man enters a small caravan wielding a knife. In the next scene, a man is practising throwing knives at a woman from a rocking horse. This short is no more than a student’s exercise or joke, but it reveals an important motif of Skolimowski’s work: a man demonstrating his maleness at the expense of a woman.’ — iffr
the entire film
‘Although the promise of the Nouvelle vague was never fulfilled in Poland, the early features of Jerzy Skolimowski showed how to cut the umbilical cord to literature-based cinema. While still a rookie at the Łódź Film School, Skolimowski was an amateur pugilist and a published poet, but it’s almost impossible to find any traces of literature even in his short student films. His first student film, Erotyk, is three minutes long and set in an anonymous space festooned with newspapers, seeming like a denigration of the art of literature. The news sheets used to make up the labyrinthine set are a mere obstacle to the stalker (Gustaw Holoubek) and his victim (Elżbieta Czyżewska). Described by the author as a cinematic divertissement, Erotyk intrigues with a surrealistic verve that is highly reminiscent of several Polański shorts.’ — Krakow Post
the entire film
‘While The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther criticised Walkover as “distractingly random and incoherent”, Michel Ciment, more sympathetic to Skolimowski’s love of jazz, argues that his films are made “in a manner very much like a jazz musician – all rhythm and improvisation”. The film’s use of cinematographic disjunctions, which are traditionally seen to encourage a critical awareness rather than a facile consumption of a narrative, is reminiscent of much European New Wave cinema. The crossing of the 180 degree line, the confusion between diegetic and non-diegetic sound created through Andrzej’s radio, and the setting of characters against abstract surfaces, is reminiscent of Godard, although Skolimowski has claimed that he had not seen any Godard films at the time of making his two first features. The long shots used to show Andrzej and Teresa, emphasising their disconnection from each other and alienation in industrial outskirts, recall Antonioni. According to Skolimowski, to see the film is to “open one’s eyes wider” to, presumably, not only the moral problems of contemporary Polish society, but also to the possibilities created through cinematic form for a filmmaker willing to “fight back” against artistic conformity.’ — Matilda Mroz
Le Départ (1967)
‘Leave it to Jerzy Skolimowski, an evocative young Polish outsider at the time, to royally skewer and subvert Truffaut’s aesthetic while also celebrating its lasting impact on cinema. Skolimowski’s masterful absurdist comedy Le Départ utilizes the manic hysteria and volatile outbursts of Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel himself) to burn down the formal artifice of a contradictory social system. Léaud plays Mark, a hyperactive automobile nut working at a high-end hair-salon to make ends meet, flirting with wealthy older women so he can drive their luxury cars. When Mark isn’t committing petty crimes to raise money for a high-profile racing competition, a process that often falls short because of chance or incompetence, he’s driving wildly down the Parisian streets like a man escaped. But what exactly is he so relentlessly seeking? Skolimowski is a filmmaker obsessed with extremes, and Le Départ initiates a heightened trajectory of opposing forces still evident in his latest film Essential Killing some four decades later. Mark’s need to continually depart situations for seemingly no rational reason becomes a thrilling wrinkle to the French New Wave’s canonical treatment of youth in flux. Truffaut gave these essential concerns a stunning humanism via a potent mug shot of a failing establishment. For Skolimowski, the same iconic face represents all the confusion, potential, and yearning that’s followed. Like Mark’s fruitless pursuit of happiness, social (and cinematic) evolution is a neverending departure from the norm.’ — Glenn Heath Jr.
Deep End (1971)
‘It’s not uncommon for movies to drop out of circulation and simply disappear, as fans of Deep End will attest. Barely seen since its release in 1971, the film concerns Mike (played by John Moulder-Brown), a floppy-fringed 15-year-old who becomes dangerously infatuated with Susan (Jane Asher), his co-worker at the public baths. What’s unusual about this prolonged absence is that it should have befallen a film so passionately admired. The influential critic Andrew Sarris thought it measured up to the best of Godard, Truffaut and Polanski. The New Yorker’s Penelope Gilliatt called it “a work of peculiar, cock-a-hoop gifts”. If something as venerated as Deep End can sink, what hope for the rest of cinema? After years of being mired in rights issues, this vivid, rapturous film is about to return in a restored print. It’s appropriate that such an elusive picture should transpire to not be quite what it seems. What could have been just another coming-of-age story is transformed by an absurdist sensibility, uninhibited performances and a heightened use of colour. Although considered a defining British work, as well as one of the most acute screen portraits of London, Deep End is actually a US/German co-production, written and directed by a Pole (Jerzy Skolimowski, best known then for co-scripting Polanski’s Knife in the Water), and shot largely in Munich.’ — Ryan Gilbey
the entire film
The Shout (1978)
‘A supernatural thriller shot with a non-linear narrative, “The Shout” uses a cricket match at a mental institution as its framing device. In the eerily scenic yards of the institution, we have Crossley (Alan Bates) a newly arrived mental patient who sits in a small shack besides a foppish, coiffed man named Robert (Tim Curry) who Crossley assists in scoring the match that features a team of loons. Shortly after Crossley’s ranting, we soon meet the charming young couple, Rachel and Anthony Fielding (Susannah York and John Hurt) who have domesticated themselves into an almost brother and sister relationship, devoid of any carnality. We first meet them at the nearby beach where they vividly imagine a man armed only with a sharp bone, coming towards him in a threatening manner. Somewhat flustered, the Fieldings saunter back to their idyllic country home in Devon, England where Richard composes experimental music by mostly capturing the sounds of nature and distorting them as he sees fit. Though Richard composes secular music, he is also the local church’s organist and despite his vicar’s plea for a resurgence of faith during Sunday services, Richard will leave the church for an illicit tryst with the wife of the local cobbler, but before he does, he will encounter Crossley.’ — Lily & Generous 4 Ever!
Hands Up! (1981)
‘Ręce do góry (known in its subitled English version as Hands Up!) is a Polish drama film directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. It is the fourth of a series of semi-autobiographical films in which Skolimowski himself plays his alter ego, Andrzej Leszczyc. At the time it was banned in Poland, under the Communist regime, for 18 years because it depicted the Stalinist past. The film was originally made in 1967 in monochrome by pl:Zespół Filmowy Syrena studio. In a twenty-minute section (filmed in colour) added by Skolimowski in 1981 he explains how the original was withheld by Polish censors of the time, and that this was a principal cause of his leaving his country; however following liberalisation in Poland, he was invited to resuscitate it. The introduction includes, apart from some fictional apocalyptic passages, shots of Beirut ruined by the civil wars of the 1970s, where Skolimowski is working as an actor on Volker Schloendorff’s German film Die Fälschung (Circle of Deceit), and also shots of London featuring demonstrations in favour of Solidarnosc, Speaker’s Corner, and an exhibition of Skolimowski’s own paintings. These sections include cameo roles by Bruno Ganz, David Essex, Mike Sarne and others. Some of the music in this introduction is from the 1970 choral work Kosmogonia by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.’ — collaged
the entire film
‘Moonlighting was mainly made by the exiled Jerzy Skolimowski in his house in West London. It is a film both prosaic and political but also savagely funny. As usual, autobiographical elements intrude. His house was in the process of renovation at the time, and three of the Polish builders featured in the film actually worked on it. Meanwhile Skolimowski makes a brief appearance as the shady house-owning diplomat who has hired the workers on a month’s starvation wages. (In flashback he appears sitting next to them and the foreman’s wife at a Tina Turner concert in Warsaw.) The Kensington home is thus a “character” in the film that saved studio costs and cut down on locations, a prime consideration for a director with little money who was responding immediately to the sudden imposition of Martial Law in Poland. A bigger expense was the inspired casting of Jeremy Irons as the foreman who has to react to this sudden catastrophe and the suppression of Polish Solidarity.’ — John Orr
Success Is The Best Revenge (1985)
‘Success Is the Best Revenge was Skolimowski’s follow-up and companion-piece to Moonlighting. Both films are London-set (indeed, both use Skolimowski’s own house as a major setting); both are explicit reactions to the political crisis in Poland and General Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law; and both feature quintessentially English actors playing Poles: whereas in Moonlighting it was Jeremy Irons playing construction foreman Nowak, here we have Michael York as exiled theatre director Alexander Rodak. In other respects, however, no two Skolimowski films could be further apart. You could say that on Moonlighting Skolimowski was on his best behaviour: it’s a perfectly controlled, evenly toned gem that achieves its aims with the minimum of effects and the maximum of effectiveness. Success is another beast entirely. It’s the one film of his international career that, stylistically and thematically, is fully in the spirit of his Polish films of the 1960s. This is Wild Jerzy, ready to run off the rails at any moment as a multitude of ideas, images, sounds, stories, and characters fizz and spark off one another. Chronology gets shuffled, any coherent driving narrative is deliberately fragmented, individual scenes can appear abstracted and disconnected from the film as a whole, and distorted and ambient sounds will be brought in and out to obscure snatches of explanatory dialogue. Because of this plenty of critics have complained that the film is a stylistic mess or even a failure—but don’t believe a word of it: Success Is the Best Revenge is thrilling cinema.’ — Ian Johnston
The Lightship (1985)
‘Taken from Siegfried Lenz’s dour allegorical novella about what you might do if Hitler arrived on your ship, Skolimowski’s adaptation mercifully junks the more overt political dimension, and concentrates successfully on the suspense element, with sufficient metaphysical undercurrent for those who want it. Brandauer is the pacifist captain of a rusting lightship, anchored off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia in the ’50s. When they rescue a drifting boat, the trio that come aboard prove to be a set of psychos, on the run to a rendezvous with their pickup boat. Their leader, a menacing dandy played by Duvall at his most wilfully extravagant, threatens to set the ship adrift, and backs it up with the cool logic that the devil always presents. Brandauer, however, continues in a kind of dumb, passive resistance. Fortunately, Skolimowski keeps the schematic struggle between good and evil sufficiently well submerged beneath an atmosphere of menace and increasing hostility, as the crew bicker and fall apart under ill-fated attempts at heroism, and Duvall enacts his increasingly bizarre übermensch tactics. If it puts you in mind of Key Largo, that is no bad thing.’ — CPea.
‘Little seen, Ferdydurke is the film that led to Jerzy Skolimowski’s seventeen-year silence as a director—a disappointed Skolimowski withdrew to his house in Malibu and devoted himself to painting1 and the occasional acting role (Mars Attacks!, Eastern Promises). You could say the film is doubly obscure. Firstly, its distribution was very different from Skolimowski’s other films. An essential film like Success Is the Best Revenge might be hard to see today, but in its day was widely seen, noted and written about on the international festival and arthouse circuit. This is very unlike the fate of Ferdydurke, which was only seen in Poland, France and Latin America. The second level of obscurity lies in the film’s source, a 1937 novel by Witold Gombrowicz. Gombrowicz (1904-1969) is regarded by many Poles as one of the greatest writers of his century but, viewed from outside Poland, “probably the most important twentieth-century novelist most Western readers have never heard of”3 seems a fair summation. (I confess: I’ve barely registered his name and never read anything by him.) The obscurity carries through right to the film’s very title, a meaningless nonsense word; even the alternative English title 30 Door Key – that’s what appears in the credits of the version I’ve seen – hardly seems that much clearer, although it is in fact a reference to the thirty years of age of the main character Joey. In any case, Skolimowski’s cinematic return to his homeland, an adaptation of a beloved and admired modern classic and at the same time his first film shot in Poland since the sixties, seems to have been a way for him to connect with Poland and the Poles that he had lived for so long in exile from. It’s an assertion of his own Polish identity but it’s an assertion which, in characteristic Skolimowskian style and in the spirit of Gombrowicz, he ironises, mocks, and calls into question. Still, it has to be said that the return-to-the-homeland nature of the enterprise is rather undermined by Skolimowski’s casting the film with a mixture of British, American, French and Polish actors and dubbing the non-native speakers into English.’ — Ian Johnston
Four nights with Anna (2008)
‘On the surface, the story of Four Nights with Anna seems familiar and straightforward, but Skolimowski is constantly working to slyly disrupt and undermine the narrative. There are the little surrealist touches — the severed hand, the floating cow, a shoe left in the fridge — that are eventually explained but that disconcert us when they appear. There are the odd incidents, such as the juxtaposition of Leon hiding his axe in his jacket with men pushing a broken-down car in the background, or the pedestrian he calmly observes from the attic window being knocked over by a car. Not germane to the plot, they create the sense of a story that’s never quite explicable, that at any time is subject to random shifts in direction. And above all there’s Skolimowski’s mixing of tone, the way the intense psychological study keeps slipping in and out of black comedy, principally in Leon’s pratfalls — he falls on his back in the mud outside Anna’s room, loses the ring he wants to leave for her in a crack between the floorboards, crashes onto the floor as he climbs through her window, gets caught up in her net curtains, and so on. All of this keeps us at a distance from Leon despite our perspective being only his. Leon is an obsessive, and there’s never a chance of this romance being anything more than one-sided. Skolimowski is no Kieslowski; he refuses to offer Leon any kind of release or redemption. In the final sequence, now out of prison for the second time, he again crosses the same field that separates his house from Anna’s — only now Anna’s building is gone. Skolimowski’s final image of Leon has him standing stock-still before an empty brick wall, locked into his obsession as he has been from the beginning, but now confronted in that wall with his unending solitude and pain.’ — Ian Johnston
the entire film
Essential Killing (2010)
‘Essential Killing is intriguing and disturbing, made with tremendous confidence and conviction. What is so startling about Essential Killing is that it is almost entirely silent. Vincent Gallo’s Mohammed does not say a single word throughout his ordeal, except some muffled, garbled phrases during flashback sequences. All we have is Gallo’s vivid presence and that extraordinary, hawk-like face, blazing with the determination to stay alive. Of course, in strict realist terms, his escape is not quite plausible, and the manner in which he appears to break the single chain connecting the cuffs on his wrists is not entirely believable. But Skolimowski’s sheer confidence, and the expertise with which he shapes the contours of this movie, are hypnotic. There is something compellingly real in Mohammed’s increasing cold and hunger, driving him almost insane, and leading him to an extraordinary scene when he chances upon a peasant woman nursing a baby. In these extraordinary moments, Essential Killing looks a like a forgotten chapter from the end of the second world war. The film is on the verge of delirium: a gripping metaphysical drama.’ — Peter Bradshaw
11 Minutes (2015)
‘Jerzy Skolimowski’s 11 Minutes belongs to the tradition of puzzle thriller that was briefly in vogue in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which offered a swath of narratives to the audience, requiring them to discern a common thread that would be confirmed at the climax. Mike Figgis’s formal experimentations appear to be a significant inspiration for Skolimowski, and there are bits and pieces of 11 Minutes that recall everything from Go to Run Lola Run to the Final Destination series. The hopeless, virtuosic punchline steals from, and damn near equals, the climax of Brian De Palma’s extraordinary Femme Fatale. But the references or signal points or thefts, whatever they truly are to the veteran filmmaker, never bog down 11 Minutes. Skolimowski’s formal control over the material is so masterful that the textual particulars are revealed to be beside the point, as this film is so intensely, confidently an “exercise” as to ironically transcend the superficial connotations of that term.’ — Chuck Bowen
p.s. Hey. ** Tomk, Hi, Tom! Awesome to see you as always. Thanks a bunch about the terrariums. I do highly recommend the Gladman novel and the trilogy its part of. Marie N’diaye … no, I haven’t read her. I just did a quick search to make sure, and, yes, she and her work look very interesting. I’ll find something of hers and get started. Much gratitude for the tip, man. I hope all is as great as possible with you. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Yes, it’s quite annoying to have to wait and wait for an answer on that TV series project since it’s kind of a whopper of a project, but our producer keeps saying they’re very into it, so we just have to be patient and keep hopeful smiles on our faces, I guess. Oh, cool that you have a friend who’s in the film biz and can give you advice. Hopefully your interest in playing male roles will only be a plus. I mean it would seem to be a good time what with the old, strict ideas about gender finally being revolutionized, and it’s kind of even trendy to play with the representation of what constitutes maleness or femaleness in films and music and media and stuff. Let me know what your friend says and how that quest goes in general, if you don’t mind. I’m interested and very supportive, of course. I will seek out ‘Eyewitness’ wherever I can find it. Yesterday was pretty uneventful on my end too, mostly just work. Oh, I’m not sure how long you’ve been looking at the blog, but every year come Xmas there’s this awesome thing in Paris where most of the top chefs and patisseries design and sell these super stylized and sometimes really crazy looking buches de noel (Xmas cakes). I get annually excited by that, and I make a yearly beauty pageant post featuring the most exciting looking cakes. Yesterday I started hunting for this year’s cakes both for the post and for possible purchase and eating, and there are some very cool ones, so that was fun. Otherwise, I met with Gisele to talk about projects and … not much else. Was your Wednesday more telling than your Tuesday? Have a great one! ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. Oh, that’s funny that you’ve never even been upstairs. It’s nice up there. The event I saw was a collab. between Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu) and the artist and book maker David Horvitz, and it was one of those things that probably wouldn’t have been able to work in a bookstore context. Oh, wow, about ‘Tea with Tosh’ having been digitized. I would love to see those episodes! Well, you could obviously put them on youtube or Vimeo. That would be swell for us out here. I would love to do a post featuring them if that’s any incentive to upload them. Man, that’s great news about their ‘salvaging’. Oh, and thank you again for mentioning Crevel the other day, I did just a post about one of his books that’s coming up on Monday that wouldn’t exist were it not for you. ** David Ehrenstein, Yeah, like a cross between a buche and a salad, ha ha. ** Bill, Hey, B-ster. Thank you re: terraria. I hope the nibbles pan out, obviously. Yeah, pray tell if they do. ** Jamie, Hi Jamie! Trying to act normal and seem so is basically the thing to do in a nutshell. Obviously, let me know what happens. Tenterhooks beneath me on your behalf. The delay in the decision on the TV series is supposedly something about them (ARTE) currently finalizing another TV series that was proposed before ours and them not wanting to do both finalizations at the same time. Which I don’t really understand, but that’s their reason. ‘Jerk’ is Gisele’s and my most successful piece. It was touring all over the world constantly for about five years, and then the solo performer in it, Jonathan Capdevielle, said he could take it anymore, and we reluctantly retired the piece, but he recently said he would do it again, so we’re back! It’s the one piece of ours that has played a fair amount in the UK, so I don’t know, but it’s the piece that venues are always asking for because, one, it’s really good if I don’t say so myself, ha ha, and, two, it’s our cheapeast piece to import since it’s just one performer and a chair whereas our other pieces tend to be pretty big, expensive things. So, anyway, blah blah, yeah, it might. Cool that the terrariums made you want to make one. Me too, man. High five. But I won’t, I’m sure. My Tuesday was kind of all right but not, like, great shakes or anything, but, yeah, all right. Try not to stress yourself out about the agent meeting. Just ready yourself, you know? How did that prep and everything else go? Love maxxed, Dennis ** H, Hi. I had that exact same dream when I made the post. Or almost. But then I realized terrariums are a lot of work to maintain, and then my books started looking really good again, ha ha. ** _Black_Acrylic, Ben, that is really, really great and very exciting news, my friend! All your hard and fantastic work is starting to pay off! That’s the thing, right, and you know this, but the best works very often begin their lives strangely and with difficulty, but you have to have faith, and to understand that works that are truly unique need to forge a unique path to acceptance, and, thus, Art101 is now securely on its special path, and hooray! And you get to travel to the festival! Man, that is the best and warmest news I’ve heard in ages! Congratulations, Ben, maestro! Whoo-hoo! I’m going to treat myself to some wacky French chocolate something or other today to celebrate! ** Steevee, Hi, Steve. I hope you’re enjoying your time at your folks’ place. I know of ‘At Swim, Two Boys’, and I’ve heard good things, but I haven’t read it. You recommend it? Zac did say that ‘Arrival’ is the best Villeneuve film in a while. He liked things about it. He said he thought it started really well, but he was disappointed that it ultimately dove into blockbuster/ genre tropes, and he said that pissed him off and made him turn on the film. I might still try it, though. ** Misanthrope, M! As in the Man! I’m an optimist too, and kind of a diehard, but shit looks pretty dangerous to me, and I think we all need to be very attentive to what that piece of shit is trying to implement from the top and remain as radical and combative in what we do as we can. Ha, funny jokes. Most of them. I still tell people that ‘how do you wake up Lady Gaga’ joke that I think you posted here ages ago. ** Jeff Jackson, Hi, Jeff. Yeah, the election’s horror is very tough to try to work through, for sure. Hm, it’s been long enough since I read ‘The Compassion Protocol’ that I think I’d need to revisit it to remember what it was in particular that impressed me so much. And I think my copy’s in LA. I’d like to. Are you managing to get work done? ** Hyperbolic_plain, Hey! Awesome! I’m glad you liked the Findleys. Yeah, right? You haven’t seen Huyghe’s work? It can be really, really good. I guess you must’ve missed his retrospective at the Pompidou. Let’s do coffee, maybe see some art? What’s your schedule? Do you have my email? I think you do, but it’s: email@example.com. ** Marc Vallée, Hi, Marc! Great to see you, man. You’re coming to the big P? Whoa! Cool. Interesting gig. I haven’t seen that film yet, no. Gosh, I would love to hook up for dinner on Friday. The only problem might be that I’ll be rehearsing a piece with Gisele Friday in the late afternoon. I’ll know tomorrow what my exact work hours are. But, yeah, I’d love to. Do you have new email address? If not, it’s just above these words at the end of my comment to Hyperbolic_plain. Let’s figure it out. ** Okay. The other day a friend of mine said he’d just seen Jerzy Skolimowski’s ‘The Shout’ and thought it was amazing, and that reminded me that I liked that film a lot too, which led to thoughts of Skolimowski in general, which lead to me making this post. And there you go. See you tomorrow.