Director, screenwriter, set designer, born 5th August 1931 in Lviv (now Ukraine).
After theWorld War II Majewski's family moved to Kraków. It was there that Majewski, by then a secondary school student, got to know Sławomir Mrożek, the future writer. Majewski's intellectual development took place in the milieu of Kraków's intelligentsia and in particular of the weekly Przekrój, where he evolved from an avid reader to a member of a group of friends and acquaintances of Marian Eile, the magazine's editor-in-chief and the champion of Kraków's cultural life. Having passed his baccalaureate exams, Majewski, who had caught the filmmaking bug at the age of seven after he had received a children's film projector for Christmas and for whom photography was a continuing fascination (he took part in a number of photo competitions), wanted to go a film school. His parents, however, persuaded him not to because of the limited employment opportunities in filmmaking in the early 1950s. As a result he enrolled as an architecture student at the Kraków Technical University, from which he graduated in 1955. His diploma work was a design of a feature film production studio, a project which he consulted with Stanisław Wohl, noted cinematographer and lecturer at the National Film, Television and Theatre School. Majewski remembers that his choice of the consultant was not accidental: his dream of film studies intensified and Wohl was not only to persuade him but also to back him up. The story goes that he got accepted to the Department of Cinematography almost by chance, as a result of Antoni Bohdziewicz wanting to know his tailor's address.
Majewski was regarded as arbiter elegantiarum at the Łódź School - and more. He was friends with Roman Polański and Witold Leszczyński, and partook of the School's boisterous social life. Valued for his good taste, he started his filmmaker's career as a set designer on films directed by Antoni Bohdziewicz: Szkice węglem (Charcoal Sketches), Kalosze szczęścia (Lucky Galoshes) and Rzeczywistość (Reality). The political thaw of October 1956 prompted Majewski to give up his political activities (for twenty-five years, as it would be) and opened for him the literature by Kafka, Schulz, Gombrowicz and others who had been out of reach in Stalinist Poland.
His fascination with absurd humour and fashionable existential topics gave him an idea to make Rondo (1958), a visually sophisticated surrealist grotesque with Sławomir Mrożek and Stefan Szlachtycz. Alongside Polański's Dwóch ludzi z szafą / Two Men with a Wardrobe and Leszczyński's Portret mężczyzny z medalionem, Rondo became a hallmark of the Łódź School Film and was recognized and admired all over the world.
After Majewski graduated as director from the Łódź School in 1961, Jan Rybkowski offered him a place in his team at the production studio Zespół Filmowy Rytm. Majewski declined, choosing a more creative, if not any shorter, path in preference to painstaking learning from working on films by other directors. He took a job with the Warsaw documentary studio, Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych, and within five years achieved the status of a master of short film. He drew attention to himself with Róża (The Rose, 1962), the Cracow Festival award winning reminiscence of Holocaust, and Album Fleischera (Fleischer's Album, 1962), an account of Poland at the time of World War II from the occupier's perspective, based on an album of photographs which came Majewski's way. Album Fleischera won awards at home and abroad, and initiated a whole new trend in Polish documentary filmmaking. Equally popular was Majewski's Pojedynek (The Duel, 1964), showing a competition of two shot-putters, David Davis and Alfred Sosgórnik, in slow motion and freeze-frame and making it look like a ballet dance.
Although Majewski never made a secret of short films being his gate to full-length features, his path there went via television films and genres previously unknown in Polish filmmaking. Of his first feature attempts of special note is Awatar, czyli zamiana dusz (Avatar, or Exchange of Souls, 1964) after Theophile Gautier, a film which testifies to Majewski's superb grasp of the convention of horror films and his artistic sensitivity. Lokis (1970), after a novel by Prosper Mérimée, reveals Majewski's interest in science fiction and can be interpreted as a conscious escape from contemporary times with their mandatory affirmation of the system and the ideology. In fact, Majewski had already denied such affirmation six years earlier with his first full length feature, Sublokator (The Lodger). This is how he remembers it in his memoires Ostatni klaps, published in Warsaw in 2006:
I constructed a little story which could be read as a metaphor of the situation of my generation within the society at that time. Here is a thirty-something intellectual who moves into a house inhabited only by women. The youngest of them is a secondary school student posing as a vamp and ostentatiously causeless; the second one is a communist and an ardent community leader; and the third one is a widow of a pre-war cavalry colonel, a classic 'reactionary', as people of ancien régime were then called. ... The metaphor was clear: the society includes a generation which was too young to take part in the war, did not want to participate in social revolution and cannot come to an understanding with the new and rising idea-less generation.
With a bravado role of Jan Machulski and an excellent team of ladies of different ages, Sublokator has invariably been praised by audiences, though more as a virtuoso comedy about a conflict of sexes than a satire on the system. Likewise, Zbrodniarz, który ukradł zbrodnię (The Criminal Who Stole His Crime, 1969) after a novel by the acclaimed reporter Krzysztof Kąkolewski remains a successful go at the police film genre rather than a critique of the system whose façade hides social pathology.
The acceptance of the offer to complete (after the death of Antoni Bohdziewicz) the screen adaptation of Michał Choromański's novel Zazdrość i medycyna (Jealousy and Medicine) opened a new chapter in Majewski's career, one which would define not only his position in the filmmaking circles, but also his place in the history of Polish cinema. The immersion in the complicated relationships between men and women - the subject-matter of Choromański's novel - made Majewski take a new look at their background, which involved reaching into a world which is basically not there any more, though its vestiges still remain. And so Majewski sought to re-create the esthetic and general atmosphere of the 1930s, and to rescue from oblivion the times bygone which remain a perfect setting for a discourse on values which, though universal, acquire a new significance. Its plot moved from Zakopane to Krynica to revive the spirit of a pre-war spa, Zazdrość i medycyna (1973) was Majewski's first step on a new road - a step which was elegant and appropriate for the retro cinema while delineating huge opportunities of creating, or rather reviving, the past world. This is how Majewski explained it many years later when interviewed by Katarzyna Taras (Kino no. 4/2006):
I reach for literature of the inter-war period to look for my roots, for the things which were taken away from me, to assuage the sense of disinheritance. I was born in Lvov and found myself in Cracow at the age of fourteen, after the war. I lost my roots. I did realize, though not at once, that something had been taken away from me: the past, the beauty, the elegance of those times. There remained in my head some pictures to which I would return, some reminiscences which would later appear in my films. ... I wanted to re-create that world of mine and I did manage to recover some things.
Majewski went on to make films which rediscovered the times between the two world wars. Zaklęte rewiry (The Enchanted Stations, also known as Hotel Pacific, 1975) after a novel by Henryk Worcell was an enthusiastically received show-off of two actors, the experienced Roman Wilhelmi and the debuting Marek Kondrat; both proved that they were mature actors. Next Majewski chose to do an almost semi-documentary reconstruction of the hotly debated 1930s murder case which had divided the public into two groups: those who defended Rita Gorgonowa, accused of murdering her lover's daughter, and the guardians of morality who condemned her. While some critics found Majewski's stylish film set in Lvov just an example of his mastery of the retro cinema, for him it was a sentimental journey to the centre of Mitteleuropa, the cultural mix characteristic of that part of Europe.
That area was given a special description - one flavoured with a bitter awareness of passing - in Lekcja martwego języka (Lesson of a Dead Language, 1979) after a story by Andrzej Kuśniewicz. Set in some small town at the eastern edges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this is a story about an Austrian officer preparing for death of tuberculosis on one hand and a metaphor of dying of a certain age and culture and of the approach of a new age of mass murder, characteristic of the times of World War II, on the other hand. This journey into the recent past and tradition - an intellectual fuel for Majewski - was made again in C.K. Dezerterzy (Imperial-and-Royal Deserters ,1985), a comedy reminiscent in character of the Good Soldier Svejk. A hit of the 1980s, it remains popular with new generations of audiences.
Majewski says in his memoires that he chose to make the films he made to avoid getting entangled with current politics. This, however, proved impossible, as when he interceded for the world-famous Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondřiček when he was banned from working in Czechoslovakia, so that he could work on Zaklęte rewiry, or when the Polish Filmmakers' Association (SFP) under the management of Andrzej Wajda was threatened with dissolution when the martial law was imposed in 1981. When Wajda stepped down, Majewski, who got elected chairman, not only saved the Association, but led it safely through the difficult 1980s. In 2006 he was made SFP's Honorary Chairman in recognition of his contribution to the filmmaking community.
There is another chapter in Majewski's directing work, and that is the television theatre. When he started to do plays for television, few other TV theatre directors had filmmaking experience and so Majewski can be credited to a large extent for TV theatre starting to look for its own, middle way between performances transferred from theatre stages and films and, finally, in the 1990s, making the genre film-like. Majewski put on some forty premieres, some of them of genres previously absent from Polish stages. His productions have revealed a high degree of mastery of theatrical conventions on the one hand and a skill of working with actors - to the mutual satisfaction of both actors and viewers - on the other hand.
Majewski liked to spend time with his wife, the photographer Zofia Nasierowska (who died in 2011), in Stare Juchy in the Mazury Lakeland. It is there that he has madetwo films, the series Siedlisko and Po sezonie. The latter, a family project starring, among others, Magdalena Cielecka and Leon Niemczyk (whose story inspired the screenplay), was intended as Majewski's goodbye to the cinema. However, the cinema bug prevailed, and he has announced that he would start making Mała matura 1947, a film with references to his own life.
Mała Matura 1947 is based on the director's novel, which tells the story of a boy born in Lviv before the II World War, who comes to Kraków with his family right before the end of the war. The story takes place between 1945 and 1947 and the young protagonist witnesses how the new system is being shaped, of repressions agains the Home Army members and the resistance movement. One of the oppressed soldiers is a boy who fought in the Warsaw Uprising and will become young Ludwik's friend.
I haven't invented this film, it's my own life. The protagonist has a different name, but was born on the same day – said the director after a screening in 2010. - I reached a point in my life, when I felt I needed to tell the story, before I forget it. At the time I believed Poland will be a democratic country. Only later it was subdued to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which turned out to be a dictatorship of a foreign empire. Our experience of a failed conspiracy and an attempt at organising ourselves, woke up the need to tell the story of those times through a movie – explained the director.
Mała Matura 1947 won the Special Award of the Jury at the 35. Polish Film Festival in Gdynia in 2010, the audience award at the International Regiofun Festival in Katowice and the award for best producer at the Prowincjonalia 2011 festival in Września.
Five years later Janusz Majewski came back with another film and right away was honoured with the Silver Lion award at the Gdynia Polish Film Festival, where Wojciech Pszoniak also received the prize for besst supporting actor. In 2016 The Eccentrics: The Sunny Side of the Street were also nominated for the Orzeł Awards in seven categories.
The Eccentrics... based on the novel by Włodzimierz Kowalewski, is a story about Fabian (Maciej Stuhr) who returns to Poland from England in the 1950s. He's a musician and a dancer who forms a swing big band with a group of local weirdos in the deteriorating health resort of Ciechocinek. Soon he meets the talented and beautiful Modesta (Natalia Rybicka), who hides a dark secret.
Showing the late 1950s Majewski takes the audience on a journey to the world of jazz. A sentimental story of the PRL era is only a pretext for an hommage to the director's beloved music.
Music expresses the desire for freedom, a happier and sunnier life than the one offered by Gomułka's Poland with its militia, Ministry of Public Security, forced quartering, tea served in glasses and impolite waiters – wrote Jakub Majmurek for Filmweb.
Aside from the great soundtrack, Majewski's film offers also a number of breathtaking performances. Maciej Stuhr is joined by Anna Dymna, playing the role of a vulgar, elderly dame and Wojciech Pszoniak playing mister Zuppe, a piano tuner, erudite and gay-homophobe, who traces „fags in Polish poetry”, at the same time hiding his own homosexuality from the world.
Author: Konrad J. Zarębski, June 2009, updated by NMR, June 2016.
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