Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 5 
4 Mar

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Jerzy Stuhr in Juliusz Machulski's Kingsajz (King Size, 1983) POLAND
More than education
Jerzy Stuhr interviewed

Stuhr is best known as a Polish film actor and director. Here, though, he speaks to Andrew James Horton about his role of teacher at the Katowice film school and why learning the art of directing is more than learning about film.

"It all began in 1975 with Krzysztof Kieślowski," says Jerzy Stuhr talking about his film career. And since then his name has been intimately linked with that of the late great Polish director. As well as appearing in a total of five of Kieślowski's films, Stuhr also was mentored by the older director when he moved from working in front of the camera to behind it. Moreover, he has drawn inspiration from Kieślowski's style and obsession with "moral concern." Stuhr's second film, Historie miłosnie (Love Stories, 1997), was dedicated to Kieślowski, and his latest feature, Duże zwierzę (The Big Animal, 2000), even employs an early, previously unshot Kieślowski screenplay.

Jerzy Stuhr's Duze zwierze (The Big Animal, 2000)
Stuhr adapting Kieślowski in Duże zwierzę

A less-frequently commented on connection, however, is that Stuhr teaches directing at the Wydział Radia i Telewizja im. Krzysztofa Kieslowśkego, more informally know as the Katowice film school. The Katowice school was recently the focus of a regular film school sidebar at the Trieste film festival of "Alpe Adria cinema," and Jerzy Stuhr (who, having worked in Italy as an actor, is a known face in the country) was on hand to present recent student work.

Working together

The school, actually a faculty of the University of Silesia, has three departments: production, cinematography and directing, with Stuhr teaching in the latter and departments of video editing and photography scheduled to be added very shortly. Founded in 1978, the school had Kieślowski as one of its teachers in the early days, leading to it taking his name after his death.

Jerzy Stuhr's Tydzien z zycie mezczyzny (A Week in the Life of a Man, 1999
Stuhr playing the moral man in
Tydzień z życie mężczyzny

None of the three current departments act in isolation. "They collaborate," Stuhr explains, "for example, the students of the directing faculty get together with the camermen. They make their graduation films together and they combine their separate budgets [provided by the school]. And the production is done by their colleagues in the production department."

Furthermore, to give the student's a broader perspective on life, course on art, literature, sociology and philosophy, among other things, are on offer.

From all over

There are some 150 students at the Katowice school, split over the three faculties. Most of them, obviously, are Polish, but around ten percent are from abroad. "It's a great opportunity for the school to make money," Stuhr chuckles before turning straight-faced and emphasising that money isn't the primary entrance qualification and students who don't pass the entrance tests simply won't get in. Nevertheless, international interest in Poland as a place to learn film-making is growing and the percentage of foreign students at the school is increasing. (Stuhr is also confident that this is true at Poland's other state-run film school in Łódż.) As Stuhr explains:

It's very interesting for them. They tell me that it's not very expensive for them—2000 dollars—but most important is the possibility to have at the end of the course three films—two on betacam and one 35 mm. It's a very good opportunity to make a CV, a practical, artistic CV.

The presence of foreign students creates complications, as their screenplays (the school always uses the students' own screenplays) must be translated in Polish. But there are also distinct advantages that come from such a cultural mix:

I see that the foreign students, for example, are very much more open than the Polish students, because they have the possibility to be present at European festivals, have seen more films and are educated more in the contempory film situation in the West. On the other hand, our education is very much connected with literature. Now I have one Mexican student, and he's completely out of literature, but he's very close to metaphysics and the imagination. It's very stimulating for our Polish students—a complete divergence in experience and tradition.
Jerzy Stuhr's Historie milosnia (Love Stories, 1997)
Stuhr in one of four roles in Historie miłosnie

For a man who has made a point of adding so many strings to his bow, Stuhr is surprisingly unconcerned about the need for students to take up the courses on literature and philosophy on offer:

It's not necessary. It's better when young people study literature. But it's more important to be clever at changing my ideas and the ideas of young people.
Star-studded staff

When I ask Stuhr about Łódż, the more famous of Poland's film schools. Stuhr explains the difference as being that:

Łódż is now famous for directors of photography. It's faculty is very high on the world level. Katowice is very well-known for the faculty of directing, because fortunately we have very known directors teaching in the department. Krzysztof Zanussi's the first, Filip Bajon, Wojciech Marczewski. Marczewski has great experience as he was teaching in Holland with Dogme directors.

And, of course, the school basks in the reputation of former teacher Kieślowski. The regular roster of Polish directing greats is also augmented by guest lecturers, occassionally from abroad ("Zanussi's been able to invite some [guest lectureres from other countries] because he's well-known and has the contacts"). However, these guest directors are usually only available for a week or two, and Stuhr is a great believer in time:

When I'm teaching the actors [in Kraków], I start from the first year and go through to the third year. It's my course. I'm responsible for this course. It's more than education. I'm teaching my sense of understanding the art, the morality and the ethics. You must have the time for this. And Katowice is the same. To explain the style, you must have a long time. One year, two years. To explain the style, the poetics.
Jerzy Stuhr's Historie milosnia (Love Stories, 1997)
Stuhr in another guise in Historie miłosnie

Stuhr makes a point of saying that since his early days in cinema, he has dealt with contemporary themes and has avoided costume drama. It's this concern for the present that underlines his view of film. But this is not, concretely, what he trying to instil in his students. Indeed, Stuhr feels his primary qualification to be a teacher of directing (something that he has never formally studied himself) is his experience and understanding of what happens on both sides of the camera:

[Teaching] is a very agreeable venture for me. Because I've discovered my experience is very great practical experience. And I can to be helpful to these young people, with only my experience. It's not mystical work. I can explain the practical connections between the director and the actor, because I can understand the two parts of this work. I was an actor and I am director. I know what a problem it is to explain my idea as a director clearly to the actor.
For example, in these etudes here [the graduation films being screened at Trieste] all the actors are my colleagues. My colleauges from theatre, from the set, from the [Kraków] school. They accepted to play in the students' short films, and we worked together, the students directing my colleagues. And I suggest, for example, this actor now can't understand you because you've used language completely at odds with the way an actor thinks.

When I suggest that one of the most difficult things for the students must be directing older and far more experienced directors, Stuhr is in complete agreement, commenting that the difficulty between the two is "not the language, it's the expression." He adds, "The director's role is to be understood."

Uninviting prospects

Poland's cinema industry is not, however, in the best of shape. Given that production levels are at an all-time high, it is, perhaps, best to say that it is out of equilibrium rather than in a state of crisis. Nevertheless, there is a funding crisis, with the main funders in Poland hit by massive slashes in both state-run and private TV station budgets for feature film. This means that even Stuhr, whose previous films have been received well both at home and on the international festival circuit, is having trouble finding the money for his latest feature.

What, then, is becoming of all the graduate directors that Katowice is churning out? Stuhr admits that the Polish film industry is not big enough to accomadate them all in the capacity they aimed for. "From five or six graduates," he sighes, "two may three find work as directors. And the others go to, say, publicity. Yes, they are not employed as directors, but they are employed in the cinema industry." Some of them do go abroad to work, following in the footsteps of Roman Polanski, Agnieszka Holland and Jerzy Skolimowski, but for Stuhr choosing to work in an another country is not the main issue: "It's difficult. It's another kind of decision. It's a decision to go to live abroad. Not only to work."

The lucky two or three are likely to first get jobs as assistant directors, and Stuhr himself is a source of employment. "Now, for example, in my future film," Stuhr says with some pride,

Marcin Wrona's Czlowiek Magnes (The Magnet Man, 2001)
Marcin Wrona's Człowiek mages (Magnet Man, 2001)
Wrona will be an assistant on Stuhr's next film
"two of my students will be my assistants, and one was co-writer of the screenplay."

With the collapse of TV as a reliable funding source, Polish producers are needing to become increasingly wily in finding money. Stuhr, however, in this respect is very much a director whose ideas about film have been shaped by the old system of state subsidies. He stresses things are very difficult for "artistic productions" and insists that "private producers do not exist in Poland." From this spoon-fed perspective, there is certainly cause for pessimism.

However, not all is gloom, as the recent swell in Polish film production is partly the result of independent production companies who manage to scrape money by what to the old-guard are unconventional means. If Katowice's students can rise to the challenge of the new production conditions in Poland, maybe equilibrium in the industry can be restored. If we're lucky, while they're doing their financial juggling acts, they'll still find time to remember morals and poetics.

Andrew James Horton

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Also of interest
About the author

Andrew James HortonAndrew James Horton is Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye and Culture Editor of Central Europe Review. He also writes on central European culture for other journals, has edited the e-book The Celluloid Tinderbox and is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust to research the restructuring of central and southeast European image markets.

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