From the Tree of Life to the Tree of Death - Interview with Lech Majewski
Konrad J. Zarębski talks to Lech Majewski, director of the feature film "The Mill and the Cross"
KZ: You are involved in so many fields of art. Do you still consider yourself a filmmaker?
LM: I never considered myself strictly a filmmaker. I began with painting and poetry, but I chose film school when I was standing before Giorgione's The Tempest, I understood that today a painter such as Giorgione would surely have taken up filmmaking. At a certain point very human being, through the influence of an aesthetic or religious experience, attains a level of spirituality. For me painting created this impulse. My uncle lectured at the conservatorium in Venice and every year I traveled there with my mother. First it was Vienna, and then the night train to Venice. I had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time looking at Pieter Bruegel's paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and later at those of Giorgione in Venice. Suddenly I realised that the sort of atmosphere I saw in his paintings could only be matched in the present by Antonioni's Blow-Up. This was the spark that led to my decision. I went to film school in order to paint. My debut film The Knight was a nod towards Renaissance painting. When I showed it at the festival in Cambridge, John Boorman - who was filming Excalibur at the time - immediately uncovered this relatitivity. Within the massive Hollywood productions he was making, he wasn't able to take such liberties.
KZ: Painting with a video camera: is it a challenge?
LM: I went into filmmaking in order to paint, but when I began to make films, I felt as if I'd betrayed painting. As a young buck I'd run to all the Biennale in Venice, I devoured paintings, I collected autographs from the most accomplished artists. From the moment I entered film school, I stopped going to the Biennale, even though I was constantly traveling to Venice on holiday. And it wasn't until the end of the '90s that I met Laurence Kardish, curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In Buenos Aires he had taken note of my installation The Roe's Room and invited me to New York. During the conversation about my work and sources of inspiration, he asked, "Lech, do you realise that you are the avant garde of everything that is happening in the Visual Arts right now?" Indeed, many artists connected with the arts today are reaching for the video camera.
KZ: The art of contemporary filmmaking has ceased to be free, it has become a slave to technology, the screenplay and storyboard. There's no room for improvisation because every digression from the established plan not only has the ability to break up a precise production schedule, but the entire undertaking. The Mill and the Cross, a film about Pieter Bruegel's The Road to Calvary, opens a different area of cinematic freedom. It doesn't venture beyond the frame of the painting, you open up a whole array of meanings, providing a great deal of knowledge about the painting and its maker, as well as the times in which it was painted.
LM: I discovered Bruegel as a child. His paintings drew my attention in Vienna, I spent a great deal of time in the 10th hall of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The Road to Calvary wasn't my main interest then, I was more attracted by Hunters in the Snow and The Tower of Babel. The essence of these paintings was based on the fact that you can delve into them, you want to touch these people, walk among them. When I look at Hunters in the Snow I hear the crunch of the snow, I can feel it in my gums. I can hear the snap of the fire, the yells of people on frozen lakes, crows and ravens, I can feel the icy air.
KZ: How did your meeting with Michael Gibson come about?
LM: I met Michael as an art historian and critic at the International Herald Tribune. He wrote a review of my Angelus which suggested that I think in the same sorts of categories as Pieter Bruegel. He sent me the review, along with a copy of the The Mill and the Cross, dedicated to The Road to Calvary. I read it in one gulp. I'd never encountered such a wonderful style of writing and such a precise analysis. As I read, I envisioned the film, or, rather a key scene: everyone stood motionless as the camera penetrated the space around the figures. During our meetings Gibson admitted that he'd like to make a film about the painting. It should appear as though the critic were standing before the canvas and telling its story and explaining each individual sequence, indicating each section with his finger. I replied that I didn't make such films, I wanted to make a feature film. Gibson believed that to be a crazy idea, but in time we were able to put together something along the lines of a treatment: we chose 12 figures, added an ante scriptum and post scriptum for the focal point, which was to be the afore-mentioned stillness of the figures. After all, this is where the strength and significance of the artist lies, in his ability to stop time in order to bring on the moment of kairos - a holy time. Today no one can do this, we limit ourselves to irony and jokes, we focus on local fables. And so the basis of our vision was the holy suspension of time. There was a point when I was open to making a film made up solely of living paintings: no one moves, the only sound is the interior voice of each figure. And so forth for an hour and a half - with no movement, just the figures and their thoughts.
KZ: You invite people into the interior of the painting, allowing them to participate in the very process of creation.
LM: In order to bring the viewer into this labyrinth of meanings, we reached for the poetics of, I would venture to say, a crime novel. We observe certain facts, but Bruegel endows them with meaning much later. There are elements that appear incidental. And yet in retrospect it becomes clear that everything is meaningful, the concept of the whole is developed gradually. In spite of appearances, the construction of the painting is remarkably precise - it traces a path from the tree of life to the tree of death. We have the focal point, the vertical axis of the film screen, and two scenes of sacrifice on either side. On the one hand it is a scene depicting the "hanging up" of an anonymous victim left for the birds to devour, on the other is a similar scene depicting an anonymous crucifixion. It's obvious that this is not Christ, after all, it's 1563, there's a church and numerous crucifixes. This isn't that particular person, but all the elements, the type of punishment, are replicas of that initial event. As a result the two victims have an entirely different meaning for us: one execution appears as plain cruelty, the other has the spirit of sacrifice and penance.
KZ: What is the source of the information on Bruegel's work on the painting? Is there any documentation about his creative method?
LM: The only witness to Bruegel himself are his works. All other information is limited to public records, documentation of guilds or the words of such people as Nicholas Jonghelinck (played by Michael York in the film) - a merchant from Antwerp who possessed the most significant of Bruegel's paintings. It's remarkable because at the time Bruegel was quite a well-regarded artist, his etchings, inspired by Bosch, sold quite well. His workshop was a prosperous establishment and it seemed that there should be a bit more information available about him. Perhaps the Dutch were not particularly fond of their masters, or perhaps they did not have their own Vasari, who would set down the biographies of great painters in writing.
KZ: Did the film come about just in the studio?
LM: We filmed a number of scenes in Olsztyn, near Częstochowa, and in the Polish Jurassic Highland where Wojciech Jerzy Has filmed The Saragossa Manuscript. It had a broad range of associations for me as I was a student at the time when Has, right after finishing the The Hour Glass Sanatorium, began working at the film school and became my artistic advisor.
KZ: But the outdoor sets aren't all there is...
LM: For all the scenes filmed on outdoor sets and in the studio there had to be various layers of Bruegel's work carefully built up around them and joined with other elements, such as shots of clouds taken in New Zealand.
KZ: Clouds from New Zealand?
LM:This was entirely an accident, although Leibnitz believes that there are no accidents, there are just rules that we aren't familiar with. At the time of my retrospective exhibition in New Zealand, I visited the South Island, which the native Maori called the Land of the Long White Cloud. I really couldn't take my eyes off the sky. A perpetual cloud hangs over the island, pummeled and crushed by the wind, a strange, inimitable construction that I'd never seen anywhere else. It arranges itself in uncanny, absurd forms, as if sculped out of transparent marble - truly extraordinary! I got in touch with some colleagues from WETA Productions about the location of Lord of the Rings and together with cinematographer John Kristoffels we filmed a sequence of these clouds. They really do have a Bruegel-esque character.
KZ: Work on the film lasted three years, of which two years were spent in front of the computer.
LM: It wasn't really me, rather it was Studio Odeon's designers. I supervised the aesthetic aspect, but the technical side was all theirs. They performed a tireless task, creating all the necessary layers and seaming them together as one whole.
KZ: I have doubts as to whether The Mill and the Cross is a film in the traditional sense of the word. Manipulating images in such a way suggests rather an intellectual game with a viewer who is conscious of the digital technology involved. For me, it's a sort of audio-visual installation, although I don't know if that's the right term either.
LM: For me it's actually a film told through the medium of cinematic technology. Within a month of the first public screening at the Sundance Festival, the film rights were bought - by cinemas - across half the world - USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India, Austria, Germany, Holland, France, Spain and Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America.
KZ: At the museum one tends to look at paintings and experience works of art - aside from a few exceptions - as an independent activity. Cinema denotes a collective experience. And a film is experienced differently when there are two people in the room and when there are a hundred plus.
LM: That's how it was at the artistic premiere of the film at the Louvre in February. There was a great deal more people than the 550-seat screening room could accomodate so people sat on the stairs, in the aisles. Such active interest was not anticipated. A fireman appeared and announced that this was not a cinema, but the Louvre, and everyone who didn't have a seat had to leave. The Director of the Museum had to intervene. It turned out that experiencing The Mill and the Cross in a group setting can be an intriguing experience. There was quite an emotional reception at the Louvre. I didn't believe that it would happen on this very level - aesthetically, yes, intellectually, certainly - but I didn't suspect that it would carry such emotional force.
KZ: I was drawn to the windmill standing at the top of a rocky slope. I hadn't imagined that this slope could be hollowed out and replaced with a windmill or a dwelling.
LM: This wasn't my idea, only Bruegel's. Standing in front of the painting in the museum in Vienna, it's impossible to notice every detail. I learned a great deal by setting a wide lens camera in front of the painting and filming the details. Furthermore, the museum's director provided us with an exceptionally detailed laser reproduction of the painting. We could project the painting on a large screen and zoom in on certain fragments - just as in Antonioni's Blow-Up. That's when it was discovered that there are two windows etched into the rock. And so the miller doesn't live in the mill, but inside the rocky hill. This construction is a gift from Bruegel! I myself don't quite have that sort of imagination.
KZ: The Mill and the Cross brings in more than a few surprises. You welcome viewers to watch a film produced using today's standards of cinemotography, but created in 1563.
LM:This is true. My role is terribly modest, I'm a medium of sorts. In principle, the directorial credit for the film should go to Pieter Bruegel.
Lech J. Majewski was interviewed by Konrad J. Zarębski for Culture.pl in March 2011. Translated by Agnieszka Le Nart.
More information on the film: The Mill and the Cross.