The camera moves slowly forward out of the darkness, revealing the windowed facade of a building. Suddenly something crashes through. It is Rafal Wojaczek, the Polish poet who jumps through windows when he wants to exit a building, played by Krzysztof Siwczyk in the dark, brooding new film Wojaczek, (aka Life Hurts), directed by Lech Majewski from a script he wrote with Maciej Melecki, which screened at the Raindance Festival in London, England. Since then, the film won a Special Mention at the European Film Forum.
Rafal Wojaczek was born in Mikolow in 1945. He studied briefly in Krakow before moving to Wroclaw, where he worked at various jobs, drank a lot, wrote a lot of poetry, and spent a fair amount of time in hospitals, before committing suicide at the age of 26. He only published a few books of poetry during his lifetime, though a posthumous collection joined these with a diary from an internment in a psychiatric clinic, a novel, and other assorted writings. Lech Majewski was born in 1953 in Katowice. He studied film in Lodz in the mid-1970s, before emigrating to the United States in 1981. In addition to writing and directing numerous films, including, The Knight (1980) and The Gospel According to Harry (1992), Majewski has developed the script for Basquiat, published several books of poetry, staged plays, written operas, and created museum installations.
Ray Privett spoke with Majewski at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic in July 2000, where Wojaczek was screening in the Independents' Forum. They sat in an empty, windowed café overlooking the beautiful area where the festival takes place. While Majewski did express fondness for Wojaczek, and in some ways clearly identified with him, he did not jump out the window when the interview was finished.
Ray Privett: Let's talk about your background.
Lech Majewski: I consider myself primarily a painter and a poet. This is the source of everything I do, but I work in many media, such as theatre and opera as well as film. I have published five volumes of poetry. Painting is important for my work in other fields, because vision comes first, and from sequences of images I derive words, or scenes for films, or staging ideas, or whatever. Sometimes it is more suitable to write a book, because some things cannot be expressed in cinema. Things have their own language. If you just tune into your images, they will tell you what to do. This is a good way to work, because it keeps me away from the most horrible disease for directors, which is waiting. This is a cancer that eats away at many brains, waiting for money from powerful idiots who decide your future. The more idiotic someone is, the more powerful he is. Very rarely wisdom is rewarded with power, instead it is stupidity and being instrumental for other people that brings power. Of course there are exceptions, but this is the rule.
Where did Wojaczek come from? The program notes suggest it is a twin project of Basquiat.
Very much so. My youthful fascination with Rafal Wojaczek was crucial for the project on Basquiat. When I heard about Basquiat's death, I instantly realized he was a soul brother of Wojaczek. Wojaczek died when I was in high school, and like Basquiat he was very young. He wrote beautiful poetry, like Basquiat painted beautiful pictures. Wojaczek was brave in his times, as a wild poet in Poland in the 1970s, and Basquiat was fearless as the only black artist who made it in the white-dominated art world in the 1980s. And of course they both killed themselves. They became like kamikazes that crashed. It's like the American movie Vanishing Point. A driver named Kowalski wants to drive free across the USA, but he has all sorts of conflicts with the authorities, and with the rules of the roads. He crashes through a steel barrier in the end.
This kind of person fascinates me. Maybe this is because I grew up in Poland where fear was very prevalent. I feared a lot, as everyone did. My parents feared, and they taught me to fear the authorities: don't say this, don't say the truth, hide. If you go out into the open and criticize these people, they will arrest you. They will punish you. You will never come out of prison. And as much as it sounds like a fairy tale, it was pretty much the truth at the time. So reading about Wojaczek, who didn't care about anything, who would walk out of second story windows and fall to the ground completely regardless of pain, was like gasping for air.
That doesn't mean I see this as a prescription for life, but it was such an opposite way of life for someone who lived in Poland at that time that it hit me very hard. It woke me up to what it means to stand up for your beliefs. And then I moved to the United States. For everyone who goes there, America is a dream. It's not a real country. Whether you want to or not, at the beginning you idealize whatever you see. You watch America from your knees. Most people who come at first are gasping, and they are on their knees. Then you enter the society, and learn the rules of the game.
Gradually I have come to recognize more fear in America than I had known in Poland. And it is a particularly dangerous fear, a fear that pretends nothing is wrong: a fear of failure. Everyone wants to hear that you are doing something that has been proven and that has a successful track record, despite the fact that those things themselves once were new. You have to prove you are following in someone's footsteps, not that you are in the forefront of something. It's like the proverbial "I am doing Pretty Woman mixed with Terminator, with an ending from Titanic." You do that and then you are in the game. If you come and say this is a film that no one has ever done before, and I am trying something on the boundaries of filmmaking, everyone reaches for the gun. These are the worst words to use. You are sentencing yourself to death.
Now I am a dual American and Polish citizen, so I can say it is terrible that it has come to that. America is doing so many brave things in other fields, but in terms of art and thinking, it doesn't want anything new. When Basquiat died in 1988, I connected the two, and I realized that a film about him would be a way to pay tribute to Wojaczek. That made me go around and find material about Basquiat, interviewing all sorts of people who knew him. One person I met was the painter Julian Schnabel, who became involved as someone to write dialogue. English is not my native tongue, so I cannot pretend to write specific dialogue, though I can help with context and so forth. We had meetings in Hollywood, with people who said, oh this is terrific, and we are very interested. They respected the script very much, but we couldn't get arrested.
After three years I left the Basquiat project with Julian, believing it was not going to go anywhere. I had other things to do. But thanks to Julian's stubbornness and stamina and will-power, four years later, in part through his own financial backing and his own decision to direct it himself, the film was made. By this time, I had gone back to my original project on Wojaczek. But I then realized that Poland was following the United States in terms of absolute commercialism in cinema. Ten years before it would have been easy to convince the authorities to give us the money, but now it was extremely difficult. It was not commercial; a poet kills himself at the age of 26. It was a downer. They said, Who wants to watch this film?
They gave me an amount of money that was prohibitive, believing that I would say: no thank you, for this money, I cannot do the project. But I took it, and we made the film in very difficult conditions. The ratio of material shot to material used in the film was 3:1. Every take had to be the right take. We shot the entire 90-minute feature in 14 shooting days. I believe this is a film made by a poet about a poet for poets. Someone said it belongs in the Republic of Poets. We didn't think it was going to be shown in the cinemas. It was going to be shown at midnight on television, and that would have been it. The audience was seen as writers, poets, and others who knew about Wojaczek. But to the surprise of myself and everyone else, it broke into the box office in Poland, and became a very successful independent film. It is still going. People are seeing the film ten times and writing letters to me. As a consequence, the film is traveling from festival to festival, and opening elsewhere. In Germany, they have opened Wojaczek as the first Polish film in years, and it has a very good audience.
As you've pointed out, Wojaczek goes out and does whatever he wants, what he believes in, what he thinks is important, no matter what is happening around him. This seems to be reinforced by the visual style of the film, where he is a disheveled figure who moves very strangely in front of a flat background. The background compositions are very rectangular, and he stands out very strikingly against them.
I love film language, and I believe very few people use film language. Mostly I deal with people who use the camera to capture the obvious. It is more or less mechanical with better or worse results. But there is something in film language that only belongs to film language. Maybe this is easier for me to see because I use other media as well. Camera movement, for example, is very important, and we used very few camera movements in Wojaczek. There are only two times in the film when the camera moves forward or backward.
At the beginning and the end.
Yes. For me the beginning is like a birth. You come from a tunnel, and the character is born as if through a uterus. The glass breaks and he crashes through. In the end, he dies, and someone fixes the window he had crashed through at the beginning. The camera goes backward in almost exactly the same way. For me this is the visual aspect of dying, going backwards into the tunnel we came from.
These are the two forward and backward camera movements. But there are some other camera movements, though these, too, are very sparse.
Lateral tracking shots are used at only three points in the film. There are some pans as well. But the lateral tracks take place at moments when something very important is happening to Wojaczek, when he moves to another stage. As for the compositions, I always avoided coming close to Wojaczek. I tried to respect his space. When I see the camera coming close to someone's face, it is too much for me. I feel like it is a vampirism of watching. It becomes like cosmetic surgery. The camera strips people of an aura they carry. For me, a person is a mystery. I read people not through the face, but through movements, steps, gestures, and through contact or lack of contact with the surroundings. The person's language is more complete that way. In Wojaczek, I build characters through these aspects. Everyone has his own little idiosyncracies and movements: his way of touching space, of touching other people, and so forth. I also like to shoot through open doors, to give the sense that this person is there, and we are here, and there is an impenetrable border, because we can never connect fully to another person. We can never do that. And that is okay. This is how we are constructed and designed. Sometimes this breaks a little, and we fall in love with each other, but these are special cases.
For the end, I wanted to do something like the chess game with Death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Wojaczek died by taking a lot of pills, so I asked the actor to put the pills in a line like in a chess game. I know from theatre that through silence and doing little things, you can point interest in certain directions, even if the audience doesn't realize what is happening. It is a meta-language - an atavistic language. This is the most important language we have, which we abuse with gestural clichés. You can connect to the audience through this language, though people usually cannot understand what is happening. I love that language, and what you can do with it. I thought we were using this language when Wojaczek puts these two lines of pills in front of him. It was like starting the chess game with Death. And it also was like he was playing with toy soldiers, setting up a firing squad.
Then I wanted to show the funeral of his poems. He is going to die, and his poems need to be buried. So I used the tablecloth as a sort of shroud in which he wraps up his poems. Before doing that he taps the folder against the desk, trying to make the papers even. Usually when you do this, you do it three times. But I asked him to do it seven times. Then I gave that the sound of a harmonic drum. It's a sound from Chinese theatre, and from Handel's Messiah, where you knock on Heaven's door. You knock, because you are going to die. But the best thing at the end came completely by chance. I was using a darkness and light motif. I once read a Persian proverb that says darkness is the source of light. And as simple as that sounds, it helped me a lot. I wanted to incorporate this filmically into the scene where he commits suicide, and I was confronted by the question of how to change light into darkness. Suddenly, completely by chance, the actor lay down on the bed, and his face vanished behind the lamp's shade. The only source of light in his room became completely black on the monitor. He lost his face, and became a black hole. It's like an eclipse.
Tell me about the actor who played Wojaczek.
He is not an actor. I looked at many actors, and I saw them as rather shallow. They didn't have what was needed. The worst thing that can happen to a young actor is that he becomes stripped of his own personality. He becomes like a plastic thing that can go and do anything. But he cannot be his own persona. During casting, I looked at many beautiful young people, but they didn't have any personality. The man who would ultimately play the role just showed up on the set while we were doing screen tests. He happened to be a poet, and someone who had known Wojaczek said they were very similar physically. Immediately I gave him a screen test. He was horrible. He is a student of philosophy and a poet. But as handsome as he is, he was paralyzed in front of the camera. He froze like an iceberg and lost his voice. So I said, no, he's no good. I went through more actors, but then came back to him. The second time was the same. But I said, okay, maybe this is good, because he is extreme. And extremities are usually on a wheel. I often think people are circular, because when you are on one extreme, you are closer to the other extreme than to the middle. With that thought, I asked him for another screen test. Again it was very bad, and in the middle I stopped it. But I knew I had to break him somehow. So I said, let's talk about your fear of the camera. He said, I constantly fear the camera looking at me; I like my privacy. Okay, I said, but do you want the part? Yes, he said, because I love the poet. So do me a favor and install a video camera in your apartment, and whatever movement you do, film it, and tell the camera what you are doing: now I am smoking a cigarette, now I am extinguishing a cigarette. Have the camera be a witness of everything. When you go to the lavatory, film yourself. And he did it. After four days, he was the freest person in the world in front of the camera. He became so self-conscious and so concentrated on himself that his fear broke. It's like the Tao Te Ching: when you bring things to the extreme, they will break into the opposite. After that he was free to do anything.
Tell me a little about the sequences where you quickly jump cut, and there is a sound like a metal rod hitting against a basin.
I wanted to smack the film. I wanted to whip the film. And I didn't know how to do it, so I made this noise. I wanted to hurt the film. I don't know how else to explain it. When this happens in the middle of the sex scene, it is very strange, because there is sex, and suddenly there is all this pain.