Konrad J. Zarębski talks to the film director about his latest undertaking - a historical epic about one of Poland's most important battles
Konrad J. Zarębski: The Battle of Warsaw from the year 1920 is considered to be one of the most important military events of the 20th century, yet no one has made a film about it since the 1990s. This is a job for Jerzy Hoffman!
Jerzy Hoffman: It is true that the subject remained unaddressed for many years, deliberately obscured even from the very beginning - in pre-communist times.We wouldn't be the little Polish hell we are today if we didn't try to take this victory away from Piłsudski. It was mainly the work of the National Democracy that called the Battle of Warsaw "Miracle at the Vistula", but others are not without blame. There were many different versions of the events out there, with names such as the military commander Tadeusz Rozwadowski, the French general Maxime Weygand and other officers. These controversies seem to be present even today. In my view, however, Józef Piłsudski is the author of the success on the outskirts of Warsaw. Only he was able to reunite the nation, overcome the three different post-partition traditions and silence all political disputes (for a time at least). And, what's most important, he gave hope to soldiers who had lost all faith in victory.
K.J.Z.: But that is not the only reason to make the movie.
J.H.: Those were some beautiful times in general. Bear in mind that all this happened barely a year and a half after Poland had regained its independence! And already we had a working government, an army, official institutions... The Nation is reuniting before our very eyes. Meanwhile, Trocki, Lenin and the whole Bolshevik Politburo firmly believed in the possibility of a worldwide revolution. That belief was rather justified, given the mood of labourers in Germany, Austria, France, England and Hungary. It was very tempting but Poland stood in the way of the Bolshevic revolution, separating it from the rest of Europe. This battle really decided about the fate of the continent – the whole world even. One more thing: the Battle of Warsaw was our first unassisted victory since the 16th century. Yes, there was the battle of Vienna, but Sobieski had commanded a military coalition.
K.J.Z.: What led to the movie?
J.H.: We were working on the script to "Syberiada" and we were having a hard time doing it. We decided to leave it alone for some time. It was then that Mariusz Gazda, the chairman of SKOK (bank) in Wołomin asked to meet with me. And right off the bat he said, "If you are willing to make a movie about the Battle of Warsaw 1920, I will put the first 10 million on the table". I have never been in a situation like that in my life. I hadn't even started thinking about a movie and already I had 10 million. We got down to work immediately.
Those times were always close to me historically. I was quite familiar with the subject matter of the Polish-Bolshevik war, but still I had to do a lot of reading under the guidance of our consultant - professor Janusz Ciska, director of the Polish Army Museum. Soon after, Jarosław Sokół and I wrote the first version of the script.
It turned out that what we wrote would suffice for four hours of film, and the longer the movie, the more money is needed. We started to narrow down the script. For example, we merged two male characters into one. Jerzy Michaluk took on the whole logistics and managed to get funds from Bank Zachodni WBK and the Polish Film Institute. He completed the budget.
K.J.Z.: When did you decide to make the movie in 3D?
J.H.: The battles in the movie are very impressive, but at the same time very difficult to shoot. We wanted cinematographer Sławomir Idziak (nominated for the Academy Award for "Black Hawk Down") to take on this task . He agreed but under one condition – that "Battle of Warsaw 1920" would be shot in 3D technology. And new technology means more money…
But 3D is the third revolution in cinema, after sound and colour, so it didn't take long for us to make the decision. People want to watch 3D and here we spotted our chance. If the market for 3D films is not full yet, "Battle of Warsaw" would be able to make it in places it wouldn't normally stand a chance. But how to get the money? Jerzy Michaluk took out a loan.
K.J.Z. Did you mortgage your house in Masuria?
J.H.: I didn't mortgage anything, I'm not the producer of "Battle of Warsaw 1920", I'm just the director and co-screenwriter. It was Jerzy Michaluk who took out the loan.
K.J.Z.: How many times did you mortgage your house in Sikory Jurskie?
J.H.: Twice. One time for "Ogniem i mieczem" / "With Fire and Sword" and the other for "Stara Baśn" / "An Ancient Tale". And my apartment in Warsaw as well. But I still live there
K.J.Z.: Historical cinema to me used to be synonymous with epic grandeur and the director's passion. Nowadays it seems to be mainly a presentation of modern cinema technology and a reflection of current historical policy.
J.H.: I have always made movies for the same reason. I believe that no movie should be a history book and shouldn't be treated as such. If a historian tells me that something hasn't been shown as it should have been, that I have forgotten about something, I politely reply: "Professor, I have no doubt that your course book includes all that, but my film, a fictional film let me stress, does not!". Because a fictional film, my film is about human passions, about people, about sharp conflicts and timeless issues. Only then will the audience come to the cinema. The rest - the costumes, battles - are all an accessory. A necessary one, indeed, but only an accessory. You can't expect to sell tickets without such attractions. And for me as a filmmaker an empty auditorium is a failure. Cinema is way too expensive to risk losing the viewer's interest. There is room for elite art in the theatre.
K.J.Z.: Does this mean that the artistic search rules out commercial success?
J.H.: My ideal of a director is Charlie Chaplin, whose movies attracted intellectuals as well as cooks - those in both circles cried. And of all of Fellini's movies - of which I praise "*8 1/2 the most, even though I should praise "Amarcord", because I lost an Oscar to that movie – my favourite one is "La Strada". Giulietta Masina is so Chaplin-like there, and the story is so true, so human.
K.J.Z.: Who do you address your "Battle of Warsaw 1920" to? To an audience who seeks the aforementioned attractions?
J.H.: First of all to those who live and remember: to the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the those who were there 90 years ago. But also to the youth, to whom we have already shown the movie in order to see their reaction. Well, if the girls and the boys, all emotional, got up from their seats a few moments after the screening, it means that the film got to them.
Because this is a film about great passion. About love and iniquity, but imparting some current truths at the same time. For example, Adam Ferency as commissioner Bykowski, a Polish Chekist, completely exposed the whole communist system. And Natasha Urbańska turned out to be not only a great dancer and singer, but also a very good actress. She carries the whole love plot and later on joins the fight. And of course, we also have Borys Szyc, who seems to have the same spark of madness as James Dean, Zbyszek Cybulski and Daniel Olbrychski once had.
K.J.Z.: Every super production is like war: it requires true commitment and sacrifice but it moves the technology forward.
J.H.: While shooting "With Fire and Sword" we brought specialists from England for the head cutting scene (they didn't make an effort, to be honest). The only computer graphics we used in "An Ancient Tall" is the lightning hitting Popiel's tower – it looks pathetic. The sound for "With Fire and Sword" had to be recorded in London. Now we can do all of that in Poland. We have a lot of CGI effects in "Battle of Warsaw 1920", highest quality each and every on of them.
3D technology is a different case. Without any experience in this matter, Sławomi Idziak gathered a team of about 50 people who can now compete with anyone, even the Americans. They have not only worked out new procedures. Robert Chaciński built new equipment, that has been improved during the shooting. This is a huge benefit from this production, but not the only one.
The editing of the movie took 7 months, partially due to the number of scenes and shots. We had such a huge amount of material because, apart from the main cameras, the operator created special teams with light equipment, dressed in uniforms of the two armies, and sent them to work among the extras. Young operators improvised their own etudes in the battles. This is why those scenes are so graphic and cruel, they show the very heart of the battle, the fate of a single soldier.
K.J.Z.: Which in term requires great precision with the details.
J.H.: We had re-enactment groups specialised in the year 1920. They came to the set in uniforms and with weapons, but what's most important, with great knowledge of the individual encounters, weaponry and military units. Thanks to them I had 350 horses on the set, that we could multiply using CGI. It wasn't just 350 computer generated horses and riders, but 350 horses with riders that I could turn into thousands. Close to a Hollywood standard!
Interview by Konrad J. Zarębski, July 2011.