Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 1
 Issue 7 
26 Nov
2001

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Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Quo vadis (2001)POLAND
God and country
(or maybe not)

Jerzy Kawalerowicz interviewed

Kawalerowicz's reputation for creating popular films on an epic scale is currently being consolidated by the success of Quo vadis. Ray Privett talks to him about his career.


Once upon a time, a man lived among people of many different backgrounds. Somehow, he was able to communicate with them all. He is the main character of the film Austeria, and he and his magical town no longer exist.

Released in 1983, Austeria (The Inn) is one of the most cherished projects of filmmaker Jerzy Kawalerowicz, who based the film on his own memories of growing up in a Ukrainian town with a profoundly mixed population, a town that was obliterated by the ravages of the 20th century.

For over fifty years, Jerzy Kawalerowicz has remained a major figure in Polish cinema. Like his colleagues Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda, Kawalerowicz is both a well-established director in his own right and the long-time artistic director of a film production unit, in his case Kadr Films, established in 1955.

Among other things, the films Kawalerowicz has directed are distinguished by bold, multi-faceted characterizations, subversive religious and political iconography and excellent camera set-ups and use of off-screen sound. Many are also adaptations of some of the Polish language's most celebrated novels.

Kinoeye caught up with Jerzy Kawalerowicz earlier this month at the Society for Polish Arts' Polish Film Festival in America. Quo vadis (2001), a Kawalerowicz-directed adaptation of Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz's internationally famous novel of the same name, opened the festival.

Kinoeye: Let's talk about your background.

Jerzy Kawalerowicz: I was born in the Ukraine, in a town called Gwozdziec, and I spent all my childhood there. Two or three weeks ago, I went to the very place where I was born. The house that I was born in still stands. I went to the cemetery. My family's graves are still there. So after fifty years, I found everything the same, but without people. That part of Ukraine is still Ukraine, though the whole family now lives in Poland. Almost no one lives there anymore, because so many people were killed.

On my father's side, I am Armenian. But this is really just an old tradition. My family wasn't part of the Armenian Church, though family traditions and legends always said that we were Armenian. Our Armenian name was Kavalarian, and Kawalerowicz is derived from that.

How did you become a filmmaker?

I studied art and painting in Kraków, in Poland, around the time a film institute opened. I attended classes there. That was the first time that I touched film in the process of production. After only a year—I guess I was just talented—they had me work as an assistant. I worked on a film about Auschwitz directed by Wanda Jakubowska, called Ostatni etap [The Last Stage, 1948]. It is about women in Auschwitz, working for the Germans, and the end of the war.

In the town where I was born, 60 percent of the people were Jewish, 30 percent were Ukrainian and 10 percent were Polish. It was a very typical Galician town, which was totally destroyed by the Holocaust. But because I lived with many people who died in the Holocaust, I remember everything about them. They were the basis for my film Austeria .

Austeria is set on the first day of World War I. It tells the story of the Jewish people in this small town. The main character is "Alt Tag," whose name means "old day" in German, who is a very strange Jewish man. He has a very liberal way of thinking for the Jewish community of the time. I used his character to explore psychological issues in Jewish society. In Judaism, the base for the religion is the home. It is not like in Catholicism, where you have the priest who prays in a church. In Judaism, you can be a rabbi without ever going to synagogue.

In Austeria, I tried to explore why Jewish people gave up so easily, and why the Holocaust was possible. I believe part of the answer comes from Judaism itself. Many Jewish people believed this was their destiny, their fate, that they would be killed. The Jewish uprising in Warsaw of 1944 was the exception. That was the only thing that happened like this. Millions of Jews went to their deaths, and they did not fight for themselves. I felt in part this was only possible because of their religious beliefs. This is a very complicated issue, of course, and if you wanted you could write a dissertation about it.

How was Austeria received?

Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Austeria (The Inn, 1983)
Pictures of a lost world
Not so well. Many Jewish people didn't want to be shown in the way they were shown in Austeria. The film was fairly well received by Jewish people in society, but not by people who themselves survived the Holocaust. It was too tragic for them to see that world again.

There is no Holocaust in Austeria. It is set on the first day of World War I, and some people are killed. But it has nothing directly to do with the Holocaust. Metaphorically, it is like the day before the Holocaust. The final scene, an abstract sequence with people dying in the water, puts these things together. The water is symbolic. It mixes with the blood of those who die, and comes to represent the blood of the millions and millions of Jews who would be killed. This is not explicit; it is a metaphor made through film technique.

You made many films before this. Let's talk about a few of these, such as Matka Joanna od aniołów (Mother Joan of the Angels, 1961), which won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes.

Matka Joanna od aniołów is a film against dogma. That is the universal message of the film. It is a love story about a man and a woman who wear church clothes, and whose religion does not allow them to love each other. They often talk about and teach about love—how to love God, how to love each other—and yet they cannot have the love of a man and a woman because of their religion. This dogma is itself inhuman. The devils that possess these characters are the external manifestations of their repressed love. The devils are like sins, opposite to their human nature. It is like the devils give the man and woman an excuse for their human love. Because of that excuse, they are able to love.

At many points in the film, characters directly address the camera. This is very striking. Why did you have them do this?

This is a way to make the film very subjective, and very individual. We are not just watching these people from the side. We become them. We are in them, and they are in us. The whole film is about this. I wanted people watching the film to alternate between being him and being her. I didn't want them just to witness the film, but to be in the film.

The setting and set are very remarkable.

Actually, we shot it in a dump. We built the set, including the church, within a dump. The ground was very uneven, and we wanted to use that. We had a very talented set designer, who built everything, even the church.

How was the film received by the Catholic Church?

At first, the Catholic Church was against the film. They forbade people from watching it. They put signs on church doors, saying that watching this film is a mortal sin. Today, that has completely changed. I talked to a bishop recently who said, at the time, he was against the film. Now, he is not. So even people in the Catholic Church can change.

Tell me about Śmierć Prezydenta (Death of the President, 1978).

Śmierć Prezydenta is a very typical political film. It is based on very precise and accurate documentation of political events [the election and assassination of the first president of Poland, the atheist and non-political Gabriel Narutowicz, in 1922]. In the dialogue, we even copied what people said in real life. So the history is shown day by day, exactly as it was.

The film is about the mechanisms of government. What can political fanaticism do? It can lead to crime. Niewiadomski, who kills the President, even says that he doesn't really care about the President. He wanted to kill the idea of the President. And that is sick.

Kennedy and Allende were both killed around that time [in which the film was made], and with this film we explored a similar political crime in Polish history. This was the first time that a leader was killed in Polish history. In Poland, these sorts of crimes never happen, as they do so frequently in, say, England. No one ever murdered a king in Poland. This was the first time. And the film was very against political fanaticism. In some ways I think it's very relevant today.

Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Quo vadis (2001)Tell me about the most recent film you've directed, Quo vadis (2001).

This is a film that will stay on cinema screens for a long time. It is about a growing religion in opposition to barbarianism. It humanized the barbarian world, and that is what the film is about. I am always looking for universal problems in my films.

You are well-known for adapting some of Poland's most celebrated novels for the films you direct. Why do you do this?

Novelists consider problems very deeply. They do a lot of very deep research. Scripts that are simply written because somebody is paid are usually not very good. They are made for the short term. Novelists tend to make the films much better.

Ray Privett

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Translator: Joanna Pawluskiewicz

Also of interest
About the author

Ray Privett works with Facets Video in Chicago, USA, a company with a strong central European film collection (including several works by Kawalerowicz).

Also by the author

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