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Two Paths, Little Glory For This Polish Director

June 14, 2011

By Anthony Paletta

In his short story “An Outpost of Progress,” Joseph Conrad wrote that “few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.” If we take this word as true, then there have been few filmmakers more preternaturally comfortable than fellow Pole and expatriate Jerzy Skolimowski, whose penetrating multinational output is being shown now at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y., with other summer screenings at the Harvard Film Archives in Cambridge, Mass., the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and several other cities from Los Angeles to Chicago.

Despite having garnered numerous accolades on the festival circuit, including five films in competition for the Palme d’Or, a best-screenplay award and two Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes—as well as the Golden Bear at Berlin and two Special Jury prizes at Venice—Mr. Skolimowski has failed to win the widespread recognition enjoyed by other Eastern European filmmakers such as Miloš Forman, Roman Polanski or Andrej Wajda. While both a pioneer of the Polish New Wave, like Mr. Wajda, and an accomplished international filmmaker like Messrs. Forman and Polanski, Mr. Skolimowski seemed, in leaping between the national and the cosmopolitan, to miss rightful renown in both. Barely any of Mr. Skolimowski’s output is available on DVD in the U.S., and is rare in much of Europe. Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archives, who co-organized the series with David Schwartz of the Museum of the Moving Image, was motivated by the “belief that audiences need to see these films.” Seize your opportunity now.

Mr. Skolimowski, born in 1938 the son of a Resistance fighter executed by the Nazis, charted a Zelig-like passage through East European cinema. While living in Prague, he attended grade school with Mr. Forman, Vaclav Havel and Ivan Passer. He met Mr. Wajda shortly after his acceptance into the Polish Union of Writers at the age of 18, and overhauled Mr. Wajda’s script for “Innocent Sorcerers.” With Mr. Wajda’s encouragement, Mr. Skolimowski entered the Lodz Film School, slowly filming his first project, “Identification Marks: None” (1965), in short segments for assorted courses.

“Identification Marks: None” began a series of four semiautobiographical films, in three of which the director starred. These films, which include “Walkover” (1965), “Barrier” (1966) and “Hands Up!” (1981)—the latter was filmed in 1967 but banned in Poland and not released for 14 years—have drawn more than one critical comparison to François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, and span milestones of aimlessness and obligation. They’re a bold and increasingly experimental catalogue of the frustrations of youth in postwar communist Poland, with youthful anomie soon building to a more palpable political dissatisfaction. When asked by his conscription board why he failed to report for service, Mr. Skolimowski’s character replies: “I had to figure out how to live.”

At the time that “Hands Up!” was banned, it’s unclear if Mr. Skolimowski had figured out how to live, but he had certainly figured out how to make films—he had, amid this quartet, also directed his first foreign film, “Le Départ” (1967), in Belgium with a cast including Jean-Pierre Léaud, and upon his censorship in Poland embarked upon a decades-long series of foreign productions.

“The Deep End” (1970), filmed largely in Munich but set in London, is one of Mr. Skolimowski’s most-acclaimed films, praised by noted critic David Thomson as “another of those British films made by a foreigner . . . that ought to shame the British cinema.” It is a startlingly vivid coming-of-age tale about a virginal bathhouse attendant’s infatuation with a lazily lascivious co-worker (Jane Asher); her flirtation is as much a shock to his bleak life as her mod attire is to the film’s drab color palate. While the film’s incongruous filming location, driving experimental score by the German band Can and slo-motion underwater sequences introduce a certain disorientation, the only sense of exile is that of the eternal alienation of youth.

“The Shout” (1978), filmed in rural South England, featured Alan Bates as an ominous stranger appearing at the home of electronic-music composer John Hurt and his wife Susannah York, with tales of a deadly “terror shout” acquired in the Australian Outback that would kill anyone within earshot. The innovative scoring and sound design that characterizes all of Mr. Skolimowski’s work in the series finds amplification here within the plot as Bates’s stranger reveals primal and deadly depth to Mr. Hurt’s postmodern playing field of sonic experimentation. In this and countless other ways, Mr. Skolimowski maps a heavy sense of uncanny dread over his proven métier of psychosexual threat, creating a cult horror favorite in the vein of Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” or Robin Hardy’s “Wicker Man.”

In 1982, Mr. Skolimowski used the occasion of ongoing renovations at his own London house to set his film, “Moonlighting,” a moving yet darkly comic tale about four Polish construction workers hired to perform a cheap and illegal home restoration. Jeremy Irons stars as the lone English-speaker among them in a world of blinking lights and store cameras that seem almost borrowed from science-fiction cinema. Operating in a world of lies and forged documents from the start, Mr. Iron’s contractor soon faces a doubled burden of dissimulation as he works to conceal news of the 1981 Polish military coup from the other workers, imposes his own domestic regime of censorship, institutes draconian work hours, removes the house’s television and rips down neighborhood Solidarity posters. All throughout, it’s no surprise, in Mr. Skolimowski’s reliably innovative catalog, that even his most direct address of the theme of exile is resolutely framed in English, with the other Polish workers nearly silent throughout, and a square focus on Mr. Irons’s navigation between these two worlds.

Mr. Skolimowski returned to Poland and cinema with “Four Nights With Anna” (2008), and his latest, “Essential Killing.” Also a nearly wordless film, the latter features Vincent Gallo as an Islamic militant fleeing across an unspecified winter landscape. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Skolimowski has disavowed any political statement and presents almost no back story, focusing acutely on the mechanics of flight and attendant pain, cold and death.

Whether in the Middle East, Warsaw or London, Mr. Skolimowski’s works cannot help but seem unsettling yet instantly identifiable. “Essential Killing” will be released in theaters this September; for the rest of the director’s vital and unfairly hard-to-find oeuvre, look to the Museum of the Moving Image for unparalleled opportunities.

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304259304576373991303566636.html

 

 
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