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An Interview with Daniel Bird

This is the concluding entry in a four part series on director Andrzej Żuławski’s recently restored early Polish films — Trzecia częśc nocy (1971) aka The Third Part of the NightDiabel (1972) aka The Devil, and Na srebrnym globie (1988) aka On the Silver Globe — which I recently had the pleasure to see at the Lincoln Center in New York. The retrospective’s co-curator, writer and Żuławski collaborator Daniel Bird, was kind enough to sit down and talk about the process of restoring these films, their place in Polish culture, and the future of Żuławski’s cinematic legacy.

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The Third Part of the Night (1971)

Diabolique: How did the restorations for The Third Part of the Night, The Devil, and On the Silver Globe come about and what was your involvement with them?

Daniel Bird: The Third Part of the Night was in the process of being restored, my only involvement in that was asking if Żuławski could approve it. Witold Sobocinski, the director of photography, did an excellent job, and I understand that work on that title went smoothly. As for The Devil and On the Silver Globe, Florence Almozini (associate director of programmer at the Film Society at the Lincoln Center) and myself wanted to present all three titles together with Cosmos. I approached The Polish Film Institute about funding the restoration of the remaining two titles.

Apart from the financing, I was not actively involved in the restoration of The Devil. However, Żuławski got sick around the same time we started work on On the Silver Globe, so I was left with no choice but to take a more active role. Andrzej Jaroszewicz did an excellent job with the grading, and Gosia Grzyb is a brilliant colourist. I am extremely proud to have played a part in this project.

Diabolique: The first two films, in particular, seem to involve a lot of familiar faces, like Żuławski’s first wife, Małgorzata Braunek, and the cinematographer, Andrzej Jaroszewicz, and composer, Andrzej Korzynski. Plenty of directors seem to work with a core cast and crew group, but can you talk about how Żuławski chose collaborators for these early films?

DB: Korzynski was Żuławski’s friend since his school days. Braunek, at the time, was arguably the biggest star in Polish cinema, however, I don’t think it was Żuławski’s intention to cast her in The Devil. She had just given birth to their son, Xawery, but the casting didn’t work out so she had to put a pillow under her dress and pretend to be pregnant.

It’s worth noting that a lot of those actors are very young, often in their first film roles, and fresh from theatre school. Żuławski prided himself on sniffing out new talent. If Dark Matter [a planned but not realized project] had happened, it would have been the first big role for Marine Vacth, as she was attached. Most of the cast for both The Third Part of the Night and The Devil are fresh from theatre school, and Jonathan Genet in Cosmos is no different. I think it’s a question of recognising talent, managing egos and, ultimately, exerting control.

As for Jaroszewicz, he was the camera operator for Maciej Kijowski, who had been the operator for Witold Sobociński on The Third Part of the Night. Jaroszewicz was as much interested in moving the camera as he was lighting, but of course the two things are connected. If you are going to move the camera about, you have to think about lighting differently. Between them they really pushed this mobile camera to an extreme with On the Silver Globe.

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On the Silver Globe (1988)

Diabolique: It seems to me that these first three Polish films are also his most overtly political. Would you agree or disagree with that and, if so, do you think there are any reasons for this outside of simply being created in a repressive political environment?

DB: I would disagree! First, I don’t think any of Żuławski’s films are overtly political. I just read an interview he did in Locarno and he says quite explicitly that there is nothing worse than a filmmaker with a cause. Second, I think they are all, in one way or another, political. Sure, everything is political, but in his case, politics were necessary. Take Possession, when Heinrich says, “I believe no one has the right to impose his will on anybody.” Marc say, “How long have you been fucking me over?” I think that sums up Żuławski’s feelings about Communism; i.e. people who abolish power structures always turn out to be tyrants themselves. Heinrich’s bullshit “liberates” Anna, but leaves her feeling suffocated in a different way.

The commercial market place is just as repressive, but in a different way. Sure, The Devil was banned and On the Silver Globe was shut down, but look what happened to Possession in the US – it got mangled beyond belief and it took 30 years before anyone got to see it properly. Just as careerists rose up the communist system by taking “control” of rogue film projects — like the guy who shut down On the Silver Globe — so do their Hollywood counterparts – how many Hollywood films have been butchered?

Possession is, of course, a problem. Take that line of Anna’s, “No one is good or bad.” In most horror films it is quite obvious who the bad guy is – Jason, Freddy, etc. Hollywood genre cinema is predicated on the good guys versus bad guys, just as Communist cinema is or was, but Żuławski wasn’t a moralist. 

Diabolique: What was the Polish reaction — both in terms of film criticism and the censorship office — to these first three films?

DB: All three encountered problems of varying severity. The problematic aspect of The Third Part of the Night is that it focuses on the role of the Armia Krajowa, or the Home Army. They are not workers, but intellectuals – writers, mathematicians, musicians. Of course, it is this officer class, these intellectuals, which the Soviet did their best to get rid of, during WWII (for example, in the Katyn massacre), immediately afterwards, and during the early 1950s at the height of Stalinism in Poland. So, by merely presenting this class, and the role they played in the War, it was considered an issue.

The situation with The Devil was more severe, as the film was banned in 1972 and was not released until the 1980s. Officially, the film was banned for upsetting Catholics. Unofficially, it was because the film alludes to the role of the minister of the interior in the student riots of March ’68 which resulted in a purge of Jews from the Polish Communist Party.

In the case of On the Silver Globe, the film was shut down towards the end of shooting, ostensibly for budgetary reasons. There are many reasons for the halting of On the Silver Globe. First, this happened before the visit of John Paul II, before the formation of Solidarity. Second, the head of cinematography, Janusz Wilhelmi, used the production problems of On the Silver Globe to take the place of Jozef Tejchma as Minister of Culture. Third, the Polish economy was in crisis during the second half of the ‘70s. Żuławski got very angry whenever anyone described On the Silver Globe as an extravagance. For me, the “unmaking” of On the Silver Globe is really about the cracks appearing in the Eastern Bloc.

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The Devil (1972)

Diabolique: It’s an interesting parallel that you’re drawing between Communism’s insistence on clear morality in art and Hollywood’s determination to have the same. It seems to me that the most interesting — or at least my favorite — filmmakers often explore moral gray areas. Why do you think this is such a constant theme in Żuławski’s films?

DB: I think it has something to do with his generation. He was born in 1940 in Lwow. This means that, for his first four years, he was watching people die. Żuławski had a sister but she starved to death. Remember, existentialism as a philosophical and literary movement flourished as a consequence of the Second World War. Żuławski was very critical of Sartre, as you can tell from the dialogue in Cosmos, but he had more time for Heidegger, which he discusses at length in one of his novels, Infidelity. His hero was Conrad, and I think the way he looked at the world was very similar: man against a godless universe. He was fascinated by religion, but was not at all religious. If you don’t believe in God does that mean you have moral carte blanche? He was interested in the heart of darkness… He disliked horror as a genre, but was obviously very much interested in “the horror, the horror.” At the same time he rated The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, The Shining, and Carpenter’s The Thing very highly indeed.

Diabolique: The majority of Zuławski’s subsequent films were set in present day, while these first three Polish films are set in either the past or a fictional world. Do you think this has anything to do with the fact that they were made in Poland and funded by the government?

DB: Well, period dramas were, as a rule, deemed “safer.” The problems were films which were period dramas about “now,” like The Devil or Ryszard Bugajski’s Interrogation. On the other hand, the films Żuławski made outside of Poland were usually subject to budgetary pressures. I think he often turned this restraint to his advantage; take Cosmos, for example. On the one hand, I don’t think there was ever a question of the film being set during the time it is set, simply from an economic point of view. On the other hand, like L’amour braque and La fidélité, I think the strength of Cosmos is how Żuławski transposes the novel to the present day.

Diabolique: You mentioned that Joseph Conrad was a major influence. Considering the other adaptations he did over the years, why didn’t he ever use Conrad’s work? Secret Agent is a personal favorite that I would have loved to see adapted by Żuławski. It also seems like subject matter that certainly would have been popular in Poland and I know a few other directors, like Wajda, did adapt some of his material.

DB: Actually, he did write a script based on Heart of Darkness for Wajda to direct during the ‘60s. It was to be produced by Paramount. He changes the sex of one of the key characters, which makes sense in the context of Żuławski’s work as a whole. It was to be produced by one of Selznick’s sons.

Of course, Conrad is deceptively tricky when it comes to making film adaptations. Welles reached the same conclusion. What do you film? What Marlow says? Or, do you film Marlow telling the story? In his proposed version of Heart of Darkness, which in turn was based on his radio play, Welles tried to have his cake and eat it. Marlow, Conrad’s infamously unreliable narrator, is arguably the defining characteristic of Conrad’s modernism, but it does present problems for cinema.

Of course, you can do something like Rashomon, but the effect is not the same as when you read the book — although Żuławski does something brilliant at the end of Cosmos which has nothing to do with the book. Conrad figures a lot in Zulawski’s novels. As for The Secret Agent, I think that book is as much an influence on La femme publique as Dostoevsky’s Demons.

Żuławski himself was very critical of Apocalypse Now. For him, Coppola or Milius misunderstood the book. “The horror, the horror” was unbound by place, it was something that could be brought home so to speak. For a while I worked with Żuławski on a script that touched upon the French-Indochina War, and we talked a lot about this. He was very keen on De Niro’s character in The Deer Hunter. Żuławski thought there was a lot more Conrad in Cimino’s film than there was in Coppola’s.

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On the Silver Globe (1988)

Diabolique: Though you mention that you don’t think any of Żuławski’s films are specifically political, On the Silver Globe seems at least historically bound up with a lot of changes in Polish politics. His uncle’s novel was written in the politically tumultuous first decade of the 20th century and the film was shot during a period of unrest in the mid-’70s. Do you think the film’s subject matter reflects these uniquely Polish historical events?

DB: First, Żuławski’s film of his great uncle’s book is in no way a straight adaptation. The female characters are pretty useless and the astronauts even bring dogs with them to the moon. This is understandable for a book written a hundred years ago, but it was obviously going to be a problem for audiences in the 1970s. Second, in terms of its message so to speak, there is nothing about On the Silver Globe which is “against” communism as such.

It is not a “spiritual” film like, for example, the work of Tarkovsky. Rather, its subject is spirituality, or our predisposition towards religion, and where that leads us, namely acting and politics.

Both the book and the film are awfully bleak, and like you say, this has something to do with the times they were written. Spengler’s Decline of the West, while largely forgotten today, made a big impact during the first couple of decades of the last century, i.e. immediately after the First World War.

Żuławski’s film has that great scene with the girl on the beach just questioning basic ethical principles upon which to live: Is it right to do this? Is it wrong to do that? On what or whose authority? There is nothing anti-Communist about that. Like Communism, it presents religion as an essentially social development. A good communist sci-fi would present religion as a stage one overcomes to reach some socialist Utopian goal (this is implied in the book of Hard to be a God, i.e. “why is this idiot planet stuck in the dark ages?”).

On the Silver Globe, on the other hand, presents the astronaut as the victim of a religion, which is acting politically — which is arguably something it has in common with German’s film of Hard to Be a God.

Diabolique: Why do you think Żuławski wanted to return to Poland and resume making movies there after so many years in France?

DB: Because of the collapse of Communism. He returned to Poland in the early ‘90s. It is important to remember that Szamanka is generally considered by Polish critics to be one of the worst films ever made. This says a lot about Polish film critics. One thing which is important to remember is that when the script was refused funding by Polish television, Żuławski turned to private investors both in Poland and from abroad. Whatever anyone thinks of Szamanka, I think this is an important gesture.

Milos Forman said that the difference between filmmaking under Communism and in Hollywood was that the fate of your film depended on the opinion of one fart in the case of the former and the public in the case of the latter. 

Diabolique: What would you like to see happen with his legacy?

DB: Żuławski’s legacy is thirteen incredible films. There is not one dud. Sure, some are more interesting than others, but none, I think, are failures. Personally, I think he is up there with, Lynch or Aleksei German. Of his generation in Poland, he stands alongside Polanski and Skolimowski. Frankly, for me, with one or two exceptions, Kieslowski’s films are generally overrated. Agnieszka Holland is a safe pair of hands, which is why she excels in US TV, where the writer is king or queen. I don’t think Zanussi has made a good film in almost forty years.

In Poland, Żuławski’s reputation suffered because of the scandals surrounding his private life and his non too subtle opinions expressed in his books. However, now that he is no longer with us I hope Polish audiences in particular actually look at his films and learn to appreciate what a talent he was.

Andrzej Wajda runs a film school in Warsaw. On the walls are inspirational quotes from Paulo Coelho. Żuławski once said that if he ever ran a film school he would force students to watch Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. I know which school I would have picked.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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