Film director, script writer, actor. He is also a poet and painter, and was a boxer in his youth. He was born in 1938 (some sources quote documents, which the director says are forged, giving 1936 as his year of birth).
He graduated in ethnography from Warsaw University in 1959, and in directing from the National Film and Theatre School (today's PWSFTviT) in Łódź in 1963. His short film Boks / Boxing won the Grand Prix at the International Sport Film Festival in Budapest in 1962. He debuted as a script writer in 1960 with the film Niewinni czarodzieje / Innocent Sorcerers, directed by Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polański's Knife in the Water. His feature directing debut came in 1964 with Rysopis / Identification Marks: None. This film was made in an unusual way, as it was compiled from several of the director's student films made over a period of time. Jerzy Skolimowski has lived and worked abroad since 1967, in Italy, Britain and the United States, spending the last two decades in California.
Jerzy Skolimowski has received numerous awards, including the Grand Prix at the International Art Film Festival in Bergamo in 1966 for the film Bariera / Barrier, a Golden Bear for Start / Le Départ in 1967 at the IFF in Berlin, the Jury Prize for Moonlighting in Cannes in 1982. For Ręce do góry / Hands Up!, a film the censors banned for a long time, he received the journalists' prize at the 1981 Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdańsk. In 2003 he received an Eagle, an award presented to him for 'the independent stance of a Polish creator of cinema of global dimensions, demonstrated in Poland and as an émigré, and for regular ties to Poland'. In 2010 he received the Special Jury Prize at the 67th Venice International Film Festival for his film Essential Killing, starring Vincent Gallo.
The mid-1960s saw the beginnings of a trend in Polish cinema that was dubbed - perhaps arbitrarily and rather mechanically - 'the third Polish cinema'. After the first film efforts after the war, which maintained the pre-war style and following the account-settling 'Polish school of films' made by people who had taken part in World War II, young artists entered the scene. They had been brought up after the war and their main experience was post-war reality. They matured in the 1960s, a time called 'the little stabilisation'. Documentary filmmakers were among the first of them to deal with the reality as experienced by Poles at the time. Soon after, similar themes started appearing in feature films.
This third cinema, searches for the truth about itself, i.e. about the time of the communist stabilization which gave rise to moral problems related to settling down in life, and required people to define their attitude towards the world around them and its ethical norms (Historia filmu dla każdego / A History of Film for Everyone, Warsaw 1977).
Jerzy Skolimowski deserves to be called the leading representative of this generation in Polish cinema. The protagonist of his first films did not gain the approval of those critics who expected films - in accordance with the expectations of the authorities - to present their subject matter in a social perspective, and who thought any individualism to be inappropriate. This was a hero, as Konrad Eberhardt put it, 'who pushes maturity away', 'who runs away from convention'.
There is a sizable degree of contrariness involved, wrote Konrad Eberhardt about Skolimowski's characters, and anxiety as to how to save one's individuality, one's face, fear of melding into a community subordinated to overriding purposes. Hence a series of inconsistencies - aspirations on the one hand, laziness on the other, a desire to do something unusual and wasted university years, time lost doing nothing, opportunities thrown away (Kino 13/1967).
Luckily, today there is no need for such a verbal balancing act, aimed at throwing off the censors, to write well about Skolimowski's films from that time. The suspiciousness of some of the critics at the time, writes Tomasz Jopkiewicz - is understandable. After all, this was an obvious attempt to escape the social rules while appearing to be ostentatiously surrendering to them. The most important thing was to preserve the imperfect 'sense of yourself', a stubborn and quiet refusal to recognise the uncomfortable primacy of the group (Kino 7-8/2004).
And from the same article:
Escaping, wandering at a loss, searching. Donning various faces and masks. Seeking one's own form. At the same time, there is fear of irrevocably losing what is one's own, of it being taken away. Never giving up. A struggle for the right to err, to find and then lose anchorage, something relatively stable. These are the dilemmas torturing the heroes of Skolimowski's films. They were not new, and quite widespread in 1960's cinema. But it was this director, thanks to his personal style, who was best at extracting them. He turned to all that was unique, blurring the boundaries between biography and his hero, creating a kind of lyrical, strongly self-mocking diary.
The term 'diary' is entirely justified here. The plots of Skolimowski's films were largely autobiographical; the script writer and director rolled into one identified with the hero, and himself played the part of Andrzej Leszczyc in the first two films. He had to give this up in Barrier, upon a firm request from a decision-making official.
His hero, spitefully and sometimes almost tenderly called 'a mooner', was sometimes compared to characters from Godard's films, and similarities were also sought in the narration method. The 'third cinema', its leading representative being Skolimowski, was sometimes called the 'Polish New Wave', a reference to the French New Wave.
The year 1966. The festival in Bergamo. This self-respecting festival, which also wanted to safely emphasize its solidarity with the avant-garde, could not have found a better candidate for its Grand Prix than Jerzy Skolimowski's 'Barrier'. This film was very much in the spirit of 'new cinema', already widely recognized at the time. It is not easy to specify the features of this trend. Roughly speaking, they were compatible with the output of Jean-Luc Godard, where observed reality was mixed with the director's own 'biased' statements - about himself, the world, and cinema', wrote Aleksander Jackiewicz. (My Film Library. Polish Cinema, Warszawa 1983)
In Skolimowski's films, Jackiewicz valued the same 'faithfulness to the real world' that he found in Godard, but which the Polish director achieved - as Jackiewicz stressed - in his own unique way. Other critics also analysed Skolimowski's films in the context of the work of French directors.
What links Skolimowski to the 'New Wave' style is his perception - an everyday, stern, documentary-style view that discovers the extraordinary, discovers poetry in the most ordinary moments of life, and imparts a previously unknown climate to any old chattels and situations. (Zygmunt Kałużyński, Polityka 51/1965)
Though still a part of the same trend, Barrier, Skolimowski's third film after Identification Marks: None and Walkover, presents a degree of moving away from filming with the aim of portraying reality towards the language of symbols. This is also a less personal film, perhaps because the director did not play the main role, a fact owed to political factors.
Skolimowski faced even greater problems with his next film, Hands Up!. The authorities did not like the presented image of the generation of the Union of Polish Youth (ZMP, a youth organization closely affiliated with the Communist party). They took the greatest offence at a scene in which students put up a poster with a huge picture of Stalin and give it two pairs of eyes by mistake.
The film Hands Up! made in spring 1967 was banned by the censors for many years, only to be released, ironically enough, just before martial law was imposed (in 1981). The problems Skolimowski had with this film became the main reason why he emigrated. Years later, he said: 'I feel an aversion towards it because it ruined my life. If it weren't for Hands Up!, I would probably still be a New Wave artist. Necessity forced me off that road', he said in an interview with Joanna Pogorzelska, Gazeta Wyborcza, February 8, 2001).
Two films that Jerzy Skolimowski made during his first years abroad, Le Départ and Deep End, seemed to define a new road for the director. Critic Tomasz Jopkiewicz described the latter as possibly Skolimowski's 'most disciplined work though it was free in tone at the same time'. The director's search was not as fruitful in subsequent films, however. Liberated from the political whip he had to consider in Poland, in the West he came against a different barrier. This was the necessity of considering - as Tomasz Jopkiewicz put it - the rules of the film industry, in an artist who performed best as the maker of intimate pictures. 'Despite all their faults, the most personal ones are the best, like Moonlighting (1982) and Success Is the Best Revenge (1984), which mark an attempt - in a different formula - to return to the intimate stories and experiences from the first period of his work', wrote Jopkiewicz.
In his interviews Jerzy Skolimowski appears as someone very critical about his own work, who dislikes some of his films rather strongly, sometimes too strongly, to mention the adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke / 30 Door Key. The struggle Jan Jakub Kolski had with another novel by the same writer, whose work is not really translatable into film, where he moved quite substantially away from the literary original in order not to ruin the film completely, just goes to show that the failure of Skolimowski, who was more faithful to Gombrowicz, is not all that obvious.
After a period of silence as a filmmaker, acting in other people's films, in 2008 Skolimowski directed Four Nights with Anna, about a man who is wrongly accused of rape, he sneaks into her house while she is asleep to help around the house.
In 2010, Skolimowski's film Essential Killing, starring Vincent Gallo and co-written by long-term colleague Ewa Piaskowska, won the Special Jury Prize at the 67th Venice International Film Festival. Vincent Gallo won the festival's Volpi Cup.
The win was a surprise for the cast and crew of the film, as the picture is a controversial one. It tells the story of Mohammed (Vincent Gallo), a Taliban member captured in the desert by American forces, who finds himself transported to a nameless Eastern European country. He manages to escape into the vast frozen woodland, a world away from the desert home he knew. Forced into extreme survival mode, he must kill anyone who strays into his path. The film's stark treatment of the subject matter has a visceral effect on the viewer, challenging one's most deeply ingrained moral code and convictions about what is right and what is wrong.
Gallo's character Mohammed is treated like an animal - humiliated and beaten, hunted by dogs, hunted like wild game - he gradually becomes an animal, feeding on what he can scavenge in the snowy woods, killing all who stand in his way. On the other hand he is human enough to show humanity to once again become a man - a stranger, thrown in an unknown land, forced into contact with a foreign culture, but still human. The title of the film carries a double meaning, both referring to the 'essence' - the most primitive and primary basis of killing - and the 'essential' nature of killing in this context - whereupon killing is imperative to survival. There is an underlying reference too, to the fanatical killing of religious extremists.
The film, released just after the CIA was suspected of transporting Taliban militants to Eastern Europe, was greeted with mixed reviews from critics and audiences alike. Aware of the political overtones of the film, Skolimowski initially nearly dismissed it as being 'too political', he strove to make it non-political and is deliberately non-specific as to locations (despite being partly shot in Poland). 'I don't even say whether the film starts in Afghanistan, Iraq or maybe some other place, whether it's an American military base, where the prisoners are kept, whether it's situated in any of those countries. I don't say whether the plane which is landing somewhere in Europe is really landing in Szymany, in Poland.' The Szymany airport in the Masurian district of Poland was suspected to have held Taliban prisoners including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
The political dimensions of the film are evident, however, according to Skolimowski, nature and the unbending laws of nature are also quite tangible elements of the film, as he explains:
Nature in this film is important for our hero and his alien status in the new, unfamiliar environment, which is the snow-covered forests of Europe. The landscape has a hand in creating the character and create his complex personality. It makes dialogue redundant. (...) Nature is an integral part of the film. The forest, animals which need to satisfy their hunger and compulsion to kill in the beautiful landscape. This is a story about man and nature. Wildlife is shown without sentimentality, but with all its splendor. It is an existential outsider journey to nowhere. But even if Mohammed were able to escape from his pursuers, how would he ever get home? Especially important for me is the scene in which Mohammed is woken by deer. His first instinct is to reach for his weapon, to kill. The animals are not afraid of him, however. They look at him with the same curiosity with which he looks at them. If they had belonged to the same species, shared the same fate, the same laws of nature would apply to both of them. It is a moment in which the hero realizes that he is part of a larger whole. He knows that he has failed to survive, but just then he sees the beauty of nature.
At the 2010 edition of the Camerimage Festival (Bydgosz, November 27 - December 4, 2010), Skolimowski was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Even though he is seventy, Jurek Skolimowski makes films which are much more brave and youthful than the majority of thirty and forty year olds. – Joanna Kos Krauze said in an interview with Culture.pl
The author of Identification Marks (Rysopis) never slows down. Despite directing his own projects he accepts acting roles (such as in The Avengers by Joss Whedon, and September Eleven 1683 /Bitwa pod Wiedniem by Renzo Martinelly, as well as writing screenplays.
In 2015 Jerzy Skolimowski turned 77, but he made a film which proves that he is one of the youngest directors in Polish cinema – still hungry, ready to experiment, and searching for innovative forms. 11 Minutes is a film close to formal perfection and proof of the director of Essential Killing's fluency in the craft.
1960 Hamleś / Little Hamlet. A film joke referring to William Shakespeare's "Hamlet".
1960 Oko wykol / The Menacing Eye. A man rocking on a horse throws knives at a woman standing against the wall. He misses. He tries again - and hits her wig.
1961 Erotyk / Erotique. A girl wipes the mirror and suddenly notices the reflection of a man who then speaks to her. The girl backs away, afraid.
1961 Pieniądze albo życie / Your Money or Your Life. Based on Stanisław Dygat's short story "Pięć tysięcy złotych" (S. Dygat plays one of the parts). The plot is set during the war. Two men at a shooting range; during an argument one of them confesses he is a Jew. The military police observe the scene from a distance.
1961 Rzeźba / The Sculpture
1961 Druga Taryfa / Tariff Two (script with Michał Elsner)
1961 Boks / Boxing (Awards: 1962 - Budapest, International Sport Film Festival - Grand Prix)
1962 Akt / The Nude
Jerzy Skolimowski has acted in his own films: Identification Marks: None, Walkover, Hands Up!, Deep End, The Shout, Torrents of Springs, 30 Door Key.
He has appeared in the films of other directors: Sposób bycia / A Frame of Mind (1965), dir. Jan Rybkowski, A Slip-Up (1972), dir. Jan Łomnicki, Die Fulschung (1981), dir. Volker Schlöndorff, White Nights (1985), dir. Taylor Hackford, Big Shots (1987), dir. Robert Mandel, Mars Attacks! (1996), dir. Tim Burton, L.A. Without a Map (1998), dir. Mika Kaurismaki, Operacja Samum (1999), dir. Władysław Pasikowski, Before Night Falls (2000), dir. Julian Schnabel.
He was the producer of Moonlighting and Success is the Best Revenge, and a co-producer of 30 Door Key and The Hollow Men (directed by his sons Michal and Jerzy, who were credited under pseudonyms).
At the Teatr Studio in Warsaw Jerzy Skolimowski directed Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden (1992) and acted in it as well.
Jerzy Skolimowski has been the subject of documentaries: Rysopis Skolimowskiego (Skolimowski's Identification Marks) (1992), dir. Jerzy Kolat, and Introwizje. Jerzy Skolimowski (Introvisions. Jerzy Skolimowski) (2005), dir. Leszek Orlewicz.
Author: Ewa Nawój, April 2006, Updated Nov 2015