Emerging as one of the most original voices of the Polish New Wave that took form during the Sixties, Jerzy Skolimowski (b. 1938) channeled his prodigious talents – as an actor, poet, writer, director, painter and art designer – into a series of visually intense and poetically structured films that capture the restless imagination of the postwar generation of filmmakers and filmgoers. In early works such as Rysopis, made while he was a student at the legendary Lodz film school, and Walkover, Skolimowski crafted iconic portraits of aimless youth and failed ambition that cut with a sharp satiric edge and garnered him international acclaim and invitations to direct abroad. Eventually choosing to leave Poland in 1967 after the draconian censorship of his politically outspoken Hands Up!, Skolimowski quickly established himself as a pioneering artist of the postwar European art cinema, creating such iconic films as The Shout and Deep End whose inventive approach to image and narrative are only just beginning to be fully appreciated. After abandoning cinema in the early 1990s, Skolimowski made an incredible, unexpected return to cinema and to full form with Four Nights With Anna, a meditative and wry study of loneliness and longing. Together with his latest and wildly daring film, Essential Killing, Skolimowski has reasserted himself as one of the very few still active and still innovative members of the heroic group of great transnational directors that includes Raúl Ruiz and fellow countryman Roman Polanski.
The HFA is thrilled to welcome Jerzy Skolimowski, together with his wife and screenwriting partner, Ewa Piaskowska, for a rare visit and opportunity to discuss his visionary work.
The Radical Visions of Jerzy Skolimowski is presented in collaboration with the Museum of the Moving Image and the Polish Cultural Institute in New York. Additional support comes from the Polish National Film Archive in Poland.
Special thanks: Todd Wiener—UCLA Film and Television Archive, and Natalia Babinski— Polish Cultural Institute.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. With Jane Asher, John Moulder-Brown, Karl Michael Vogler
Germany/UK 1971, 35mm, color 90 min.
Skolimowski wrote Deep End’s sexually charged and fable-like coming of age story of a young high school drop-out working in a decrepit London bath house. Expressionistically lurid colors and a celebrated soundtrack of early Cat Stevens and the avant-garde German rock group Can contribute to Deep End’s trance like qualities and feverish intensity. The little known John Moulder-Brown brings a fascinating ambiguity to his portrayal of the naïve young man who becomes the driving force for the film’s exploration of sexual perversity and desire. Skolimowski’s black humor and oblique mode of socio-cultural critique shapes the film’s depiction of the seedy, fetid underbelly of Swinging London and its casting of Fifties bombshell Diana Dors as a nightmare, yet also strangely comic, vision of unfettered lust.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. With Joanna Szczerbic, Jan Nowicki, Tadeusz Lomnicki
Poland 1966, 35mm, b/w, 77 min. Polish with English subtitles
A floating, dream-like film, Barrier embraces bizarre and surrealist-inspired imagery to tell the story of a former medical student trying to diagnosis his own gradual detachment from the world. Barrier reveals Skolimowski’s more romantic side in its depiction of love as a willfully illogical force and in its touching, vivid portrayals of the young women in the hero’s life. For Skolimowski the eponymous barrier is most clearly inter-generational – embodied in the distance between the young man and his elderly pensioner father who remains far closer to his memories of the war than to the realities of Sixties Poland. Barrier’s striking expression of the emergent new current in postwar Polish cinema and its break with more traditional narrative conventions, is made clear by its unexpected use of abrupt slap-stick to satirize corporate and military culture, as well as by the improvised feel of the dialogue and the innovative jazz score by the legendary Krzysztof Komeda.
Preceded by: Erotique / Erotyk (1960, b/w, 35mm, 3 min.), an early film by Skolimowski made while a student at Lodz Film School.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. With Jerzy Skolimowski, Elzbieta Czyzewska, Tadeusz Minc
Poland 1965, 35mm, b/w, 73 min. Polish with English subtitles
Skolimowski’s melancholy and visually-striking feature debut follows a day and a half in the life of a restless former ichthyology student faced with the specter of the compulsory military service he has until now assiduously avoided. A twenty-five-year-old Skolimowski wrote the film’s partially autobiographical script and cast himself in the role of the restless young man reexamining his aimless life and loves and weighing a momentous decision. Rysopis’ instant critical and popular success in Poland and abroad transformed Skolimowski into a spokesman of sorts for the emerging generation of postwar filmmakers and announced his talents as an energetic visual stylist. Made while he was enrolled at Lódz, Skolimowski subverted the school’s rigid apprenticeship system by carefully using each of his annual allotments of film stock, strictly designated for assigned projects, to direct Rysopis in four carefully planned segments.
Preceded by: The Menacing Eye / Oko wykol (1960, b/w, 35mm, 2 min.), an early film by Skolimowski made while a student at Lodz Film School.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. With Aleksandra Zawieruszanka, Krzysztof Chamiec
Poland 1965, 35mm, b/w, 77 min. Polish with English subtitles
Skolimowski wrote and stars again in this follow-up and loose sequel to Rysopis, which also follows a day and a half in the life of a disaffected hero, now a middle-weight boxer drifting across Poland hustling his way into amateur tournaments. A brooding farewell to youth, Walkover also delivers a satiric critique of Polish bureaucratic paternalism that depicts Church and State as strangely theatrical and alienating realms. Set against the ominous background of massive State-run factories, Walkover makes dramatic use of the moving camera to choreograph movement across and within the frame and to give a symbolic charge and complexity to its mise-en-scene.
Preceded by: Little Hamlet / Hamles (1960, b/w, 35mm, 8 min.), an early film by Skolimowski made while a student at Lodz Film School.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. With Jean-Pierre Léaud, Catherine-Isabelle Duport, Jacqueline Bir
Belgium 1967, 35mm, b/w, 93 min. French with English subtitles
By making his first non-Polish film in Belgium with nouvelle vague icon Jean-Pierre Léaud and his Masculin-Féminin co-star Catherine Duport, Skolimowski engaged in an open dialogue with the French New Wave to which his films had been compared from the very beginning. In his irrepressible portrayal of a hairdresser obsessed with race cars and his dream of entering the fastest model Porsche in a weekend rally, Léaud offers an energized and eccentric variation of the drifting young men in Skolimowski’s early films. Le Départ’s zany story of racing and intrigue is fascinating for its vision of a postwar Europe obsessed with speed and modernization, a theme infused with a gentle melancholy by Komeda’s haunting, jazz inflected score..
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. With Urszula Bartos-Gesikowska, Malgorzata Buczkowska, Pawl Czajor
Poland/France 2008, 35mm, color, 87 min. Polish with English subtitles
Returning to directing after a seventeen year hiatus devoted to painting, Skolimowski won instant and near unanimous praise for his deliberately and provocatively “minor” film – a dream-like meditation on guilt and frustrated desire focused on a lonely mortician’s assistant. Skolimowski returned to his earliest filmmaking roots by setting his story in small town Poland and allowing the film, co-written with Ewa Piaskowska, to follow an oneiric logic and to challenge viewers with its delicate, almost uneasy, balance between pathos and comedy. Stylistically rich and accomplished, Four Nights With Anna conjures a dank shadow world that is Kafkaesque in the best sense, a world of numbing bureaucracy that animates secret, furtive desires in those trapped within its cold and elusive labyrinths.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. With Jeremy Irons, Eugene Lipinski, Jirí Stanislav
UK 1982, 35mm, color, 97 min. English and Polish with English subtitles
Skolimowski was still living in self-imposed exile in London when Martial Law was suddenly imposed on Poland in December 1981 and the rising Solidarity movement was dramatically shackled and silenced. The swift turn of events inspired Skolimowski to create one of his most explicitly political yet also remarkably nuanced films – and to cast a young Jeremy Irons in one of his first major film roles as a Polish contractor brought to England on a tourist visa, together with three workers, to oversee the renovation of a corrupt fellow Pole’s London flat. In an autobiographical and cost-saving flourish, Skolimowski’s own London apartment served as the stage and symbol for Moonlighting’s taut drama and moving political allegory which transforms the illegal renovation and the workers’ strange limbo status into a quietly potent emblem of exile and alienation.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. With Jerzy Skolimowski, Joanna Szczerbic, Tadeusz Lomnicki
Poland 1985, 35 mm, color, 76 min. Polish with English subtitles
Skolimowski returned to Poland to direct and star in the film that would join Walkover and Rysopis to complete and extend his autobiographically refracted portrait of the postwar generation with a radical and sharply political third part. When almost completed Hands Up! encountered serious resistance from the Polish censors who objected to the film’s satiric critique of Stalinist tendencies at work in Poland and banned its release when Skolimowski refused to remove the controversially absurdist image a Stalin billboard with double eyes. The banning of Hands Up! led Skolimowski to leave Poland and abandon his place at the forefront of the new cinema. In 1980, Skolimowski seized upon the abrupt relaxation of censorship to direct a fascinating first person prologue, shot in London and Lebanon, that comments upon his career and life outside and after Poland, wondering what would have happened if he had given in and bowed to censorship.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. With Vincent Gallo, Emmanuelle Seigner, Zach Cohen
Poland/Norway/Ireland/Hungary 2010, 35mm, color 83 min. English and Polish with English subtitles
Returning to the mode of intensely image-driven and enigmatically political filmmaking of his early works, Skolimowski’s latest film follows the fantastical and harrowing adventures of a man caught in the overzealous cross-hairs of the American “war against terrorism.” Skolimowski’s great talent with actors is showcased in Vincent Gallo’s unmannered, mature and almost wordless performance as either an Afghan fighter or an innocent man pulled into the silent, omnipresent and international apparatus of war – in any case, captured as a suspect and taken to Guantanamo and then to Eastern Europe. A study in sensorially electric “pure” cinema, Essential Killing begins like a conventional action film, only to radically dissolve the testosterone rhetoric of Hollywood blockbusters in a series of increasingly bizarre and bewitching turn of events. As the hero moves through eastern Poland’s dark snow the imagery and narrative becomes increasingly abstract, in a dizzying intertwining of Breughel and Brakhage.
A free screening of Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski 1962, 35mm, b/w, 94 min.) will follow at 9pm.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. With Alan Bates, Susannah York, John Hurt
UK 1978, 35mm, color 86 min
One of Skolimowski’s most arresting, enigmatic and brilliant films, The Shout features a mesmerizing Alan Bates as a mysterious, otherwordly stranger who arrives in a small English town to unsettle the lives and inexplicably tense marriage of a young couple. Working with famed art-cinema producer Jeremy Thomas, Skolimowski transformed Robert Graves’ story into a dark fantasy about masculinity, marriage and the dream life. The Shout makes remarkable use of sound to suggest a terrifyingly fragile and unstable world embodied in the polar figures of John Hurt as a cocksure sound artist trying to capture the soundscapes hidden in the everyday and Bates as a beautiful monster whose sonorous voice conceals a terrible gift.
A free screening of Torrents of Spring (Jerzy Skolimowski 1989, 35mm, color, 101 min.) will follow at 9pm.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. With David Niven, Gina Lollobrigida, John Moulder-Brown
Germany/USA 1977, 35mm, color, 94 min.
Skolimowski’s rarely screened adaptation of Nabokov’s eponymous novel offers a pitch black vision of a deceptive love triangle with a dazzling international cast led by David Niven and Gina Lollobrigida. King, Queen, Knave’s surreal slapstick energy has drawn compared to Frank Tashlin with its use of the absurd to propel a trenchant satire of modern manners.