Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 6 
18 Mar

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Krystyna Janda POLAND
The female face of moral concern
Krystyna Janda interviewed

Janda was a pioneering actress in her depiction of women as active and assertive agents of moral enquiry. Andrew James Horton asks her about her career.

Communism had always preached equality for women, but somehow things never turned out as in the ideological rhetoric. In film, for example, the vast majority of directors were male and depictions of women frequently reduced them to mere romantic interests. In Poland, this was all changed in the mid-1970s by Krystyna Janda. She played a different sort of "heroine"—gutsy, restless, outspoken and an active agent of moral enquiry, if not change.

Her first major role was in Człowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble, 1976), directed by Andrzej Wajda and a seminal work of the kino moralnego niepokoju (cinema of moral concern) tendency in Polish film. The Citizen Kane-style narrative has student documentarist Agnieszka (played by Janda) trying to piece together the story of a Stakhanovite bricklayer who was idolised by the regime in the 1950s but soon vanished when he started to question the society he lived in. The film, the first direct depiction of the realities of Stalinism in Polish cinema, was a sensation when it was released.

Films with a strong element of moral debate were to become a feature of her career. She appeared in three other Wajda films—Bez znieczulenia (Without Anaesthetic / Rough Treatment, 1978) Dyrygent (The Conductor, 1980) and the Palme d'Or-winning sequel to Człowiek z marmuru, Człowiek z żeleza (Man of Iron, 1981)—and was a regular fixture in the distopian allegories of societal decay by Piotr Szulkin in the 1980s. She has also appeared in films by other "morally concerned" directors, such as Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Zanussi, and has often worked abroad, including appearing in István Szabó's Mephisto (1981).

Ryszard Bugajski's Przesluchanie (The Interogation, 1982)The role which she considers the best, however, is that of Antonina Dziwisz in Przesłuchanie (The Interogation, 1982), directed by Ryszard Bugajski. Another critique of Stalinism, the film is the story of an innocent woman who gets picked up and jailed by the secret police. Her stay in prison is extended indefinitely, as she refuses to yield to the brutal pressures placed on her. The film was too politically sensitive to be shown at the time of its production (the early years of martial law) and was not released until December 1989.

In the 1990s, she turned her hand to directing in Pestka (The Pip, 1995), an adaptation of Anka Kowalska's cult romantic novel. As well as directing, Janda collaborated on the script and took the lead role. The film was recently shown in London as part of the Polish Cultural Institute's "20 million Polish women" season.[1] Janda was present to introduce the screening and Kinoeye met her there to quiz her about her career.

Kinoeye: How did you get into acting?

Krystyna Janda: By accident! Until recently you could be an actor only after finishing studies. Nowadays, it's completely different because you can have a model playing a part. I was studying at the time at art college, and I took a friend to an interview for film school, and two famous actors there said that I should be entering and not my friend. We were quarrelling about something, and I made a fuss about it—we had been waiting too long or something. And two old specialists saw me and said that definitely I should be entering. So it was pure coincidence.

And you were interested in film at the time?

Not particularly. I am the first generation of my family to enter acting, my father was an engineer and my mother an accountant. I studied in art college and also some courses at a ballet school. My luck came when I took a role in Człowiek z marmuru. Andrzej came with Edward Kłosiński to a rehearsal for a television play and saw me and offered me the role. It was pure luck. I was also offered two roles in the theatre, one in Phaedra and one in an Osborne play. All these three roles were offered to me in one month.

It's a very interesting role, especially in the context of its time, because it was very new for audiences to see a woman playing such an assertive character. Do you think it gave Polish women more confidence?

Basically, yes. Before that role the women were very decorative in film and Andrzej challenged that. Andrzej came to me and said, "Would you like to play a boy?" And I said yes. And that's the basis of the role.

Your collaboration with Andrzej Wajda was such a fruitful collaboration. Why did it stop?

Because he doesn't offer me any roles any more! We still work in theatre together, but for 25 years he's been saying that he's been looking for a role for me in a film. After each film he says, "Now I would like to do something with Krystyna." But it doesn't mean anything. Andrzej thinks that he's put me on a pedestal and that he can't give me anything that would be good enough for me.

I read an interview with you, I think done in the 1980s, when Przesłuchanie was still banned, and you said you thought it was your best role. Is that still how you feel?

Definitely, I've never worked with such material before.

You've worked a lot abroad. One of the first big films you made in another country was with István Szabó. How did that come about?

István Szabó was a friend of Andrzej Wajda. He saw me in a film by Andrzej, and he offered me a role.

Do you like working abroad? Do you do it for creative reasons, or is it just another practical opportunity to work?

I like working with good directors. Directors who know what they want, because then everything is clear.

You made three films with Piotr Szulkin. I presume that means that you had an affinity for his vision.

Basically, Szulkin offered a different kind of cinema. He was also a colleague from the art college. But, basically, there was nobody else in Poland at the time doing this kind of film. He was always interested in something different. And it was science fiction, which was something new and different.

Szulkin's films aren't remembered so well now. Why do you think that is?

In Poland, yes, they are remembered. But after all this time they have a different meaning to when the films were made. They were metaphors for our reality at the time; there was always a comparison with the totalitarian system in all his films.

Now, they are repeated on the television and the younger generation is interested in them to some extent. Golem [1981] is the most popular. But they are not really speaking to people in the way they originally did and they don't comment on the current situation.

You've had a lot of roles in films that have annoyed the regime. With the imposition of martial law in 1981, did things become very difficult for you personally? Were you harrassed by the authorities in any way?

Obviously, I was only an actor. It was really the directors who paid for it. For example, Bugajski was banished from the country.

Moving forward to the 1990s, you made the film which is showing here, Pestka. There have been lots of actors who have moved into directing, Jerzy Stuhr, Bogusław Linda, Olaf Lubaszenko. What is it that attracts an actor to move into directing?

It's the same thing for all the actors in the world: they want to tell the story their own way. With Pestka, I asked about 15 colleague directors to do this film, because I loved the book. But they weren't interested; after reading several pages or so they got bored. So eventually, a producer said to me "Forget them, do it yourself." So, I did it.

How easy was it for you to get the money together for the film? On the one hand, you are a very famous name in Poland and on the other you had no directing experience or training.

Now please, I'd already appeared in over 70 films and I'd had more experience than a lot of directors because I always stood next to the director. I wasn't sitting in the dressing room all the time. I know all the combinations, of lenses, lighting, everything. No director has had training like I've had.

In Poland, when you had a script that was something for the authorities to approve. But the reality was happening on the set. There was always improvisation, and I was very active in the group doing this. So, I was always on the set to be part of that.

I'd also directed two films for Polish television, Hedda Gabler and Tristan and Isolde. Maybe they were not perfect, but they were very successful. I'd also directed in the theatre as well.

It was very safe for me to work on Pestka. I was working with my husband [director of photography Edward Kłosiński], and he has all sorts of experience in how to tell a story. It's a very small-scale film. A psychological chamber drama. Also, a script about love is always given money, as nobody wants to make these films. Everybody wants to make American films.

You said that you were used to adapting the script on the set. Did that process continue when you made Pestka?

For Pestka, everything was strictly written down. I had it all in my head, and I knew exactly what I wanted, but by playing a role in it I was trying to combine all the separate working processes together.

This season brings together work by Polish female directors. But really there aren't that many women working in film these days. I saw an article in a Polish magazine recently profiling around 30 recent films and none of them were by women. Why is that?

This year there haven't been many, but the year before there were a lot more. There are about ten names who are active in feature film-making. There's also a kind of sub-genre developing in Poland of making films for television as it's so difficult to get money for feature films. It's very difficult to move from one to the other, though. You make a film out of hunger.

Recently, you've had a couple of roles with Krzysztof Zanussi.

Zanussi enjoys putting me in bad character roles. Of course, it was a pleasure for Zanussi to employ me, as this symbol created by Wajda. And he likes playing with that reputation and treating me like a toy. Recently he cast me as a censor.

There's been a lot of criticism of Polish cinema since 1989, and unfavourable comparisons with film made before then. Is a new generation of directors emerging?

Yes, there is a new generation with a new attitude to the new reality. Theatre takes texts from plays, but in cinema you have to talk about the real story, and we don't yet know what stories to take. A film director now has to think about money and worry about how many people will come to the cinema. A good example is [Robert Gliński's] Cześć Tereska, which is a very important film.

Would it be possible to make a film that has the same impact on contemporary society that Człowiek z marmuru had on its time?

It could, but really it isn't likely. Nobody actually does anything as nobody really cares anymore. There's no enemy.

Does Polish cinema need an enemy, then?

Of course!

Andrew James Horton

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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.


1. The season "20 million Polish women" (the title was inspired by historian Norman Davies's response to a query about what Poland's most significant contribution to the EU would be) was organised by the London Polish Cultural Institute. Visit their website for more details of Polish cultural events in London and the UK.return to text

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