Having established himself as a director interested in humans as social beings, he is an artist who analyses ideas to the point of obsession, exploring such themes as the evil that influences an individual’s behavior in society - portrayed as a kind of imprisonment or incapacitation.
A director and screenwriter, novelist, and theatrical director. Occasionally, a stage designer, actor and photographer. He was born in Gdańsk in 1950. He graduated from the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw in 1970, then from the directing department of the State Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź in 1975. Szulkin has lectured at his alma mater since 1993, educating future directors and screenwriters.
He started his career with animation, then became recognised as a creator of short documentaries, poetic and musical impressions, feature films with his own scripts, and stage and Television Theatre productions. He rose to fame with his "tetralogy"of science fiction films that includes his feature debut Golem (1979) and Wojna światów - Następne stulecie,O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji and Ga, ga. Chwała bohaterom.
Szulkin was awarded the Brown Lions of Gdańsk at the 7th Film Festival in 1980 for Golem, which also took the Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI award at the International Film Festival in Madrid. At that festival in 1982, he was awarded the Grand Prix and awards for best director and screenplay for Wojna światów - Następne stulecie, which also received the Special Jury Award at the International Film Festival in Trieste that year.
Szulkin, now almost exclusively known as a director of science-fiction films, had looked for inspiration in the Polish medieval literature earlier in his career. In the short films Narodziny i Dziewcę z ciortem and Oczy uroczne, the director made use of folk themes, ceremonial songs, and tales and ballads dating back as far as pagan times, found in the Lud collection by Oskar Kolberg, as well as written records by Kazimierz Władysław Wójcicki, another 19th-century collector of folk literature. Szulkin also created visual conceptions based on medieval paintings and drawings for these formally sophisticated films.
Critics describing initial stages in the director’s work often highlight his fascination with evil, including Hanna Samsonowska in Kino magazine, 12/1977 and Jan Słodowski in Literature, 7/1985. The theme is also found in his later full-length films, maintained in different poetics - the films, starting with Golem, that by which Szulkin is identified with Polish science-fiction cinema.
His is a very specific genre of science-fiction, characterised by unquestionably original traits. Individuals might be close to one another, but society as a whole is always hostile toward an individual. It is also, one might add, a stronger enemy, against which an individual stands no chance. The scripts of his films are like miniatures that form the basis of his famed tetralogy. Most have been published as a collection and as individual pieces. The edition issued in 2006 consisted of the four works and bears a significant title: Socjopatia / Sociopath.
Mirosław Przylipiak, the author of an essay on Szulkin’s artistic legacy, points out the director’s early film Życie codzienne as an initial indication of the theme that came to dominate his creative work – the divergence between the needs of an individual and the rules that govern society. That film depicts the life of a married couple, filled with unbearable repetition of daily activities.
"Życie codzienne" is outwardly a portrayal of the uniformed ritual of commonness, but its deeper layer holds an individual’s relation social life, to social norms and customs. The married couple in the film was deprived of individuality and privacy, completely let themselves be taken by the order external to them, internalised the rigour of supposedly voluntary activities of daily life. (Kino, 2/1988)
Tadeusz Sobolewski, a film critic and co-screenwriter of one Szulkin’s films, sees the objectification of people in the film Kobiety pracujące. Szulkin portrays the ritual of performed activities that leads to people "moving like programmed machines."(Gazeta Wyborcza, 15.09.2003). As Mirosław Przylipiak wrote of "exteriority and privacy" in Szulkin’s tetralogy, "In each film there is a scene or two, but no more, in which a thread of true understanding forms between the characters."
Szulkin has created six full-length feature films. It is not much, but the work is sufficiently integrated to speak of it in terms of auteur theory. The director uses many known and sometimes schematic solutions of the science fiction genre, but enriches the techniques characteristic to the genre with artistic visionary aspects, while using elements of grotesque, balancing between comedy and seriousness. There is a reason one occasionally hears peals of laughter during the screenings of Szulkin’s film, none of which was intended to be funny.
"Is Szulkin a humorist?," asks Tadeusz Sobolewski, who offers a prompt diagnosis: "He seems to lack this kind of humour that lets the world’s imperfections go forgiven. He [...] expresses his maximalism in a parodic disguise of fairy tales. His films are lined with deep seriousness." (Gazeta Wyborcza, 15.09.2003)
Szulkin found in science-fiction the kind of imagination he could use to portray the future, the present and universal issues. The language of the grotesque allows him to make his films "digestible" for a wider audience without depriving them of their seriousness. This method made his tetralogy a success, especially the most famed and frequently analysed of Szulkin’s film, Wojna światów - Następne stulecie.
The success of Wojna światów was also caused by something else. That wide audience – the Polish viewers of the time – could find themselves and their everyday lives in Szulkin’s film. In their eyes, Wojna światów was not an apocalyptic vision of the future but of the present.
In a review of Szulkin’s filmmaking in Autorzy kina polskiego / Authors of Polish cinema, edited by Grażyna Stachowna and Joanna Wojnicka,, (Krakow, 2004) Krzysztof Loska wrote that "the apocalyptic imagination is first and foremost derived from experience of the present. It is not only a prediction of the future but also a diagnosis of the present state of affairs".
Wojna światów, produced in 1981 and distributed in 1983, was a sensation as the"diagnosis of the present state of affairs". Polish reality during martial law consisted of a system of control of citizens’ lives, visible even in the street. Inspections of workplaces, rationing of necessary goods and many other small, deliberately contrived nuisances afflicted the daily lives of Polish people.
Mirosław Przylipiak wrote about the independent spirit of Szulkin’s earlier feature films: "He created his own, specific style, although inextricably bound to anti-totalitarian themes" (Kino, 4/1992). In an interview after his last film, Ubu król / Ubu Roi, with Ewa Likowska (Przegląd, 38/2003) the director said,
Almost all my films were perceived as political in nature. I often thought them to be odd comedies of sorts, maybe sociological essays… I never produced ‘directly’ political films. [...] Generalisation, metaphor…that’s what I’m closer to.
Some who perceived Szulkin's films as treatises against the communist regime disguised as science-fiction were disappointed by Femina, made right after the political transformation in Poland. This time, Szulkin did not operate with the language of science fiction but with the elements of reality made grotesque. Here, the blade of irony reaches everyone. Persecutors and victims earned the director’s mockery, and he poked fun at communism and clericalism.
Both Femina and the short Mięso were attempts at finding oneself on the new Poland by means of ridiculing the behavior, both old and new, which enslaves us. The director mercilessly pokes fun at martyrology and national symbols, and tarnishes holiness because in his opinion devotional attitude towards that holiness deprives people - in this case the Poles - of the ability to think independently.
Addressing the viewer with this new language, Szulkin trivializes the nation's history. "Irony is inextricably linked to the latest history of Poland" are the words appearing at the beginning of Mięso. The director tells a short version of the latest history of Poland in an ironic way, making deficiencies on the market a crucial matter - with some measure of fairness and basing it on facts. Tadeusz Sobolewski said of the film that,
Szulkin achieved an outstanding heroiconic effect. That which we see and listen to is a colloquial notion of logic of history. (Kino, 11/1993)
The director spent a decade making a film based on Ubu the King by Alfred Jarry. In the grotesque characters of King Ubu and his subjects, he saw a mirror image of stupidity of today’s Poles. Sobolewski wrote of Ubu król (Gazeta Wyborcza, 16.01.2004):
Szulkin’s film is lined with seriousness, pervaded with – as all of his works – disappointment, fear, disgust. Ubu król is neither surrealistic fun, nor immediate satire of the political class – it is a caricatured image of our world at the moment of disillusion.
Piotr Szulkin is a natural provocateur, his films aim at stimulating thinking, taking action, to changing the world we live in, through provocation.
- 1972 - Raz, dwa, trzy
- 1972 – Wszystko
- 1973 - Szkic do sześciu części
Documentaries and short films - written and directed:
- 1974 - Przed kamerą SBB
- 1975 - Dziewcę z ciortem
- 1975 – Narodziny
- 1976 - Copyright by Film Polski MCMLXXVI
- 1976 - Życie codzienne
- 1978 - Kobiety pracujące
- 1994 - MFR – Notacja
Feature films - written and directed:
- 1976 - Oczy uroczne
- 1979 - Golem
- 1981 - Wojna światów - Następne stulecie
- 1984 - O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji
- 1985 - Ga, ga. Chwała bohaterom
- 1990 - Femina
- 1993 - Mięso (Ironica)
- 2003 - Ubu król
Television Theatre – Directing
- 1977 - Krzyżówka (Robert F. Lane)
- 1978 - Opinia (Lech Borski)
- 1979 - Maszynistki (Murray Schisgal)
- 1991 - Pępowina (Krystyna Kofta)
- 1992 - Tango (Sławomir Mrożek)
- 1995 - To był skowronek (Ephraim Kishon)
- 1996 - Czapa (Janusz Krasiński)
- 1997 - Kariera Arturo Ui (Bertolt Brecht)
Szulkin had parts in a few feature films, including Szpital przemienienia (1978) by Edward Żebrowski, A Lullaby (1986) by Ephraim J. Sevel, Lawa (1989) by Tadeusz Konwicki, Kiedy rozum śpi (1992) by Marcin Ziębiński, as well as in a TV series Najdłuższa wojna nowoczesnej Europy (1981) by Jerzy Sztwiertnia.
He directed theatre productions including Samoobsługa (1974) by Harold Pinter, Ubu król (1986) by Alfred Jarry at the Institute of French Culture, and Zimno mi w twoim łóżku (1996) by Bill Manhoff at the Syrena theatre.
Piotr Szuklin is the subject of a documentary Kim Pan jest, Panie Szulkin? (1994) directed by Katarzyna Kotula and Urszula Sochacka.
Author: Ewa Nawój, September 2007. Translated by Roberto Galea, November 2012.