In a country stocked with passionate cinematic masters, upstart Jan Jakub Kolski stands out, reimagining Poland as a dangerous fairy tale, clotted with shadowy unknowns.
By Michael Atkinson
Polish cinema, to go by a global view, seems to have boiled down to three phenomena in the past two decades or so: the very visible autumn years of national treasure Andrzej Wajda, the erratic but passionate Bruegelian nuttiness of Lech Majewski, and the disarmingly primitivist, Grimmesque voice of young upstart Jan Jakub Kolski. Wajda hardly requires introduction; the first official New Waver (with 1955’s A Generation) has roared in his autumnal phase, ripping the scabs off of 20th-century Polish history with global hits like Korczak (1990), Katyn (2007) and Tatarak (2009). Majewski is a far less known voice and a filmmaker who occupies the fuzzy no man’s land between mainstream filmmaking and experimental art; The Roe’s Room (1997), The Garden of Earthly Delights (2004) and the extraordinary The Mill and the Cross (2011) all explore in often oblique terms the meaning of classical painting and cinema as a way to commingle art and life.
Kolski has his strange little vanguard all to himself. He has never had a film released to English-speaking audiences, and only one film of his, the Witold Gombrowicz-adapted 2003 film Pornographia, has been made available on video. But Kolski’s unique and impetuous fantasias have had a way of sneaking into museum retros and festival sidebars, and as a result a nascent cult of Kolski has been forming, around a brace of films as unhip as they are uninterested in technology and contemporaneity.
Kolski is, first and perhaps exclusively, a folklore ironist, and he has been credited for igniting a new kind of “Polish magical realism” at home, although whether a trend is actually forming in his footsteps remains to be seen. The man might stand utterly alone. The Kolski universe, whatever the story’s ostensible time frame, is a lush, overgrown, rundown agrarian wilderness, where weedy meadows stretch forever, barns have stood for centuries, domesticated and wild animals proliferate as if out of Kenneth Grahame, and the dirty farmyards and country roads are littered with ghosts, angels and everyday monsters. Perhaps what is remarkable about Kolski is that, given the evocation I just offered, his films are not for children. Nor are they willfully transgressive; the man simply makes films about a Poland reimagined as a dangerous fairy tale, clotted with shadowy unknowns, mythic apparitions, fecund wildlife, and incipient doom. He made his first film, The Burial of the Potato (1990), immediately after the Communists’ fall, but Kolski was not one waiting for political liberation; the bewitching vocabulary of his films hearken backward only, to the Mitteleuropa heyday of fairy-tale absurdism.
The Kolski universe, whatever the story’s ostensible time frame, is a lush, overgrown, rundown agrarian wilderness, where weedy meadows stretch forever, barns have stood for centuries, domesticated and wild animals proliferate and dirty farmyards and country roads are littered with ghosts, angels and everyday monsters.
A priest’s travail, A Miraculous Place (1994), excoriates the religious impulse even as it posits a pagan world-view where miracles are as natural as sun, rain and snow. (Kolski shoots evening and morning light as I see it, and haven’t seen it in movies for over 25 years.) This distinctive gutterfunk animism blooms best in Playing from Plates (1995), retitled for some festivals The Man Who Read Music from Plates, an irrepressible ballad that weaves together a reluctant-to-negotiate Angel of Death, a well-dwelling two-faced mutant hero, suicidal dwarf maidens that grow in proportion to their feelings of love, and more. Unpretentious and arresting, the film’s an old-fashioned wonder, unrolling matter-of-factly in the Western Polish hills, mostly at dusk and always without the benefit of newfangled artifice of any kind.
Legacy of Steel (1996), a.k.a. The Commander’s Sword, carried on in this vein toward a kind of bawdy remake of Powell and Pressburger’s Stairway to Heaven, in which an elderly WWI vet resists dying so he can marry off his nerdy son and thereby have a grandson to whom he could leave his war sword. But Pornographia marked a departure for Kolski, as he ramped up his own career stakes with the adaptation of a very famous and very difficult Modernist novel (first published in 1960) and left his fable iconography, if not its mood of quiet crisis, behind. Certainly, the film unfurls in the same distinctly Kolskian landscape, which might be best described as moldy but exuberant clutter. The setting is the busy country-house farm of a well-off family waiting out the Nazi occupation, where a grizzled, mysterious interloping intellectual named Fryderyk (the oozingly unsavory Krzysztof Majchrzak, who immediately got cast by David Lynch in Inland Empire) is hiding out from the war and, as a kind of Nietzschean game, decides to control the romantic lives of his host’s nubile and white-blonde daughter (Sandra Samos) and the various young men around her. Home Army war-making gets commingled with the increasingly perverse ideas about the necessary damnation of youthful innocence, and the tale eventually includes the question of a runaway Resistance fighter, which brings the war to the farm’s doorstep.
Of course, Gombrowicz would be no celebrated modernist if his narrative made complete, progressive sense. It’s telling that any five online synopses of the film read like the tales and themes of five different films. Who exactly is Fryderyk, what does he have in his suitcase (which is both “nothing” and “everything” to him), and what does he get out of his sadistic machinations? Co-written by Gerard Brach, the prolific comrade of Roman Polanski and adaptor of Umberto Eco and Marguerite Duras, Kolski’s film is a daring Rorschach blot, a rumination that, like the characters, attempts to live moment to moment in self-indulgent suspension, before the war’s scorched earth–past and present–insists on being felt. Kolski applies little narrative pressure: It’s a languid, nostalgic daydream full of Rousseauvian poeticisms and only suggestions of the calamity to come, a strategy that echoes Gombrowicz’s ardor for anti-rational “incompleteness.” As with Kolski’s other films, natural light is perfectly captured, and the film acquires a rueful grieving.
Some day, the world will catch up with Kolski (just as it has for Gombrowicz). His new film, Venice (2010), is set in 1939, following an 11-year-old sent to his aunt’s country estate, where he waits out the first years of the war in classic coming-of-age style, dreaming of someday going to Venice and ending up happily recreating the City of Bridges in the mansion’s flooded basement. Peppered with glimpses of the forgotten things lost in the floodwaters, the movie is a paperweight-globe mini-world filled with other mini-worlds, all fashioned as escapes from the world of warcraft gradually impinging from the foggy landscape beyond the lawns and leafy country roads. Kolski films all have this narrative form (including Pornographia), as mythos are spun like webs and then destroyed by reality. Kind of like movies.
Michael Atkinson writes regularly for The Village Voice, Sight & Sound, In These Times, Moving Image Source and Alt Screen; his books include Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat, both from St. Martin’s Press.