Jerzy Skolimowski

On the eve of his retrospective at the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, director Jerzy Skolimowski talks six decades of filmmaking

Film history has a habit of creating pathways through the oeuvres of its greatest directors. With Godard, you start at Breathless, and only the perverse would watch L’Eclisse before L’Avventura.

But I realised I was a mediocre poet, a mediocre boxer and a lousy drummer

Yet Jerzy Skolimowski is a director whose work is so multifarious that there’s no such route in. I came to Skolimowski’s through Deep End (1970), his exquisitely shot tale of sexual awakening and maniacal lust in a London swimming baths.

For others, it’s the heartfelt Moonlighting (1982), about Polish immigrants trapped in London, which sees Jeremy Irons give one of his finest – and least characteristic – performances. Some would choose The Shout (1978), a horror story in which Alan Bates’s mysterious traveler terrorizes John Hurt’s avant-garde electronic composer.

Then there are his 60s Polish films such as Barrier (1966), films that served as vital depictions of burgeoning individualism in post-war youth; the Belgian-produced The Departure (1967), which adds a comic spin to the contemporaneous French New Wave; and the three generically disparate films he has written and produced since returning to filmmaking in 2008. Heterogeneous in subject, Skolimowski’s films are unified by their meticulous sense of style. He can turn a public pool into a frescoed temple of desire.

Skolimowski was born in Łódź in 1938, on the cusp of the Second World War. During his infancy, the Nazis executed his father, a member of the Polish resistance. His mother concealed a Jewish family in the house. On one occasion he had to be rescued from a bombed-out ruin. After the conflict, aged 10, he moved with his mother to Prague, where he attended school with poet and future Czech president Václav Havel and filmmaker Milos Forman.

Skolimowski returned to Poland to study at the University of Warsaw, during which time he decided to become a poet. After seeing the director Andrzej Wadja’s script for the youth-based Innocent Sorcerers (1960) and declaring it inaccurate, Wadja challenged him to edit it. Wadja was so impressed with the results that he suggested Skolimowski apply to the National Film School in Łódź. While there, he created a series of semi-autobiographical shorts that were cut together to create his first feature, Identification Marks: None (1964), and co-wrote the script for Roman Polanski’s now-classic Knife in the Water (1962). Three more Polish films followed, each exploring the self-definition of youth.

The fourth, Hands Up! (1967), mocked Stalinist values and was subsequently censored. Skolimowski was politely asked to leave the country. He settled in London and resumed his career in English. Hamstrung by a need to take on the work offered to him, the next 25 years saw his work range from the brilliant to the banal. After the creative failure of Ferdydurke (1991), an adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s seminal modernist novel, he took a break from filmmaking and decided to spend some time painting in California. This sojourn into visual art blossomed into a second career; Skolimowski the director seemed to have vanished.

Even in my worst films, there are certain signs of a talent for filmmaking

Then, in 2008, he returned. Four Nights with Anna (2008) was a striking comeback: an ambiguous, poetic tale in the lineage of Eric Rohmer. The bold Essential Killing (2010) was next, starring Vincent Gallo as a silent terrorist subjected to extreme torture. Most recently, there is 11 Minutes (2015), which follows a series of seemingly disconnected stories in contemporary Warsaw. After 17 years, Skolimowski had re-emerged with his creativity in full pelt.

I met Skolimowski in the Barbican Centre, where 11 Minutes was screening for the launch of this year’s Kinoteka Polish Film Festival. We talked in the Osteria restaurant, Skolimowski over a succession of salads. Suave in manner and generous in conversation, he spoke with a disarming level of candor.

What impacted your decision to become a filmmaker?

Before I started to think about filmmaking, I tried out many other things. I wrote poetry, I was into boxing, and I played drums in a jazz combo. But I realised I was a mediocre poet, a mediocre boxer and a lousy drummer. I wanted to prove myself, to prove my creativity.

Many of your early films had an autobiographical angle...

They were very Polish, very true to the Polish reality of the time. Because they included many scenes which really happened in real life. Sometimes I was just copying my life.

My first few films were kind of autobiographical, but when I made Hands Up!, and it became a subject of the censorship, it was hard. I was told that not only would this film not be at the cinema, but that I would not be welcome in the country. After leaving, I had to accept proposals to make films that were offered me.

After leaving Poland, you made several literary adaptations. How does the process differ to writing from scratch?

I much prefer to make films out of my own scripts, because those are my real inspirations, things that have come out of my own inspiration. When I’m making a movie based on a book, I have to adjust my imagination to fit that of others.

How has your approach to filmmaking changed over your career to date?

I believe I have my own style, regardless of whether they were my films in Poland or made for purely economical reasons. I was also keen on certain stylistic and certain visual ideas. Even in my worst films, there are certain signs of a talent for filmmaking. I believe that making the movies, I’ve learnt the process, I’ve learnt more and more about the workshop, the tools I’m using. I can play my cards much more easily.

You’ve often been described as a “stylistic” director. Do you think this is true?

The style is very important for me, because besides being a filmmaker I’m a painter. I hate to see ugly things on the screen. There is no sign of any vulgarisms. I’m keen on harmony, on a beautiful flow of images and sound. That’s basically what I turn to stylistically.

You stepped back from directing in 1991, and didn’t make another film for 17 years. Why did you stop?

‘I was very unhappy with my film on Ferdydurke. I think I went too far in compromising my ideas with what would be expected of me. I made several unfortunate decisions. I decided to shoot in English; for co-production reasons I decided to have an international cast. It became a mess, a Euro pudding. Everyone was speaking in a different accent.

Seventeen years is a very long time

I thought it would take me maybe three, maybe four years. But I started painting, and I was selling paintings. I had my exhibitions. I kind of rejuvenated my so-called career. I was able to restart my career as an artist, to begin again.

11 Minutes interweaves the stories of disparate characters, before they all collide at its conclusion. How did you go about writing such a structurally complex narrative? And what inspired its climax?

11 Minutes is a result of certain tragic events in my life. People close to my heart have died. And of course I had very dark feelings, dark thoughts and dark dreams. And in of one of these dreams I saw the final scene. So I thought, well, this is such a great end for a film. So I was working backwards, trying to assemble a bunch of characters that would meet at the very end.

You’ve worked with a remarkable array of actors, from Jean-Pierre Léaud to Jane Asher. Who did you enjoy working with?

Actors are a specific kind of people; some of them are nicer than others. But for a while I had a reputation as a specialist of difficult people: Gina Lollobrigida, Karl Maria Brandauer... but on the other hand, I had the pleasure of working with such nice people as Alan Bates, David Niven, Robert Duvall, Jeremy Irons. The people I name now were really helpful, and I owe them all a lot for their participation.

Since Four Nights with Anna, you’ve had a remarkable flourish of activity. Do you have plans for any further films?

I’m trying to get in the mood for painting now, because I can’t do the two at the same time. I finished 11 Minutes a year ago, and I still have to get into the mood for painting. I have to reset my mind. It’s completely different.