The year is 1977. David Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece, Eraserhead, hits American cinemas. In one scene, Spencer, the main character, donning a black suit and flamboyant hairstyle, both resemblant of Lynch’s own guise in his later years, strolls through an empty factory in downtown Los Angeles. He moves clumsily and nervously, but with obvious interest in the murky, albeit captivating industrial surroundings.
Some 23 years later a similar scene was likely enacted again – this time with David Lynch in the shoes of Spencer and the Polish city of Łódź starring as the City of Angels. The director fell in love with the ‘world’s old textile capital’ after visiting it during the first Łódź edition of Camerimage Film Festival and seeing its abandoned factories, architecture, dazzling winter lights, low-hanging grey clouds and bare trees. One thing led to another and David Lynch became a frequent guest to Poland, often collaborating with Polish artists and even planning to build a cultural centre in Łódź. Since then traces of Poland have been often visible in his work: as a central motif, a source of inspiration, or just a funny tidbit.
It started with a film festival
Although pinpointing Lynch’s first contact with Poland is difficult (he did travel to the nearby Austria to attend Art School in the 1960s, but quickly came back), we can say for sure that at least two people played a part in it. Coincidentally, they were both named Marek: Marek Żydowicz, the director of Camerimage Film Festival and Marek Żebrowski, a Polish-American composer.
Marek Żydowicz, spurred by German director Volker Schlöndorff, wanted to organise a cinematography-focussed Polish film festival, an event which could become Poland’s calling card in the film industry. Today, with the 25th edition around the corner, we can say he succeeded: during its history, Camerimage has been visited by cinematography masters such as Vittorio Storaro, Sven Nykvist and Dick Pope (best known for their work with Bernardo Bertolucci, Ingmar Bergman and Mike Leigh), as well as Hollywood superstars, including Keanu Reeves and Ang Lee. The Hollywood Reporter recently dubbed Camerimage ‘the bellwether for Oscar season’. David Lynch first visited the festival in 2000. Marek Żydowicz recounts:
When I first came to Los Angeles, I phoned Lynch right away. I wasn’t sure if it was his number. He answered my call and invited me to drop by – I couldn’t believe it! After a two-hour-long conversation he agreed to come to Poland and said that I’m his older brother. […] However, he did it under one condition: he heard of old factories in Łódź and wanted to do a photo shoot there.
Lynch’s eerie photos of naked women posing in Łódź factories were later exhibited in Poland and England. The director befriended Żydowicz, along with many prominent Polish artists, and became a regular at Camerimage and in Łódź.
As for Marek Żebrowski, they met in Los Angeles while working in film, but got a chance to get to know each other better in 2000, at Camerimage. What allowed them to form a connection was their shared interest in… meteorology.
Żebrowski recounts in a Polish interview from 2006:
David was intrigued by the fact that I was an amateur meteorologist. Together we do weather forecasts on his web site. Every week, on Monday, a weekly forecast for Los Angeles and Łódź. Every week David calls me at 9:15 AM sharp.
The first thing born from their uncommon mutual fascination was a (now discontinued) series of bizarre daily weather forecast videos starring the director himself, which still baffle Lynch’s fans. But it was not their only joint collaboration – David Lynch and Marek Żebrowski understood each other on artistic grounds as well and worked together on later film and music projects.
The fight for a cultural centre in Łódź
After several visits to Camerimage, Lynch decided that Łódź was indeed his special sweetheart and wanted to finally put a ring on it. He did not move there, but in 2005 the director announced plans to build a cultural centre / film studio with Marek Żydowicz (with whom he established the Poland-based World Art Foundation in 2006) and Polish entrepreneur Andrzej Walczak. He disclosed his plans in a Newsweek interview:
We want to create a fantastic place. The old EC1 power plant will become a space for sculpture, theatre, all kinds of music, cinema, dance, photography, painting and even metallurgic work. Artists will inspire each other, exchange ideas and experience. We will show their art in gallery halls and sell it. It will allow them to earn money and the studio to sustain itself. We will try to find a sweet spot in-between unfettered creativity and the market.
Lynch and Żydowicz convinced the city to donate a 100-year-old power plant and to help fund the project. World-renowned architect Frank Gehry, acquainted with Lynch, was supposed to design the centre, which raised hopes for a so-called ‘Bilbao effect’ in Łódź.
Unfortunately, the city backed out after a change in local government, citing insufficient control over the project and financial difficulties as its reasons. Lynch did not try to hide resentment in multiple interviews for the Polish press, which led to a verbal jousting with Donald Tusk, Poland’s Prime Minister at the time, who exclaimed that ‘Lynch doesn’t live in Łódź, as far as I remember’, thus refusing him his say in the matter. Although the director’s love affair with Poland was put to a difficult test, ultimately it lived on in his other projects.
During his third visit to Poland in 2004, Lynch was sitting at a table with Marek Żydowicz, Kazimierz Suwała and Peter Lucas. While looking at the latter, a scene crossed his mind. He wrote it down on the same day and soon found himself filming it with Polish actors recommended by Żydowicz. Their performance was excellent and Lynch began to see the bigger picture – this one scene was just a part of a bigger whole. He invited the Polish actors to Los Angeles and continued the project. In 2006, Inland Empire was released – Lynch’s most puzzling film to date and the first one shot exclusively with a digital camera. It divided the audience like none of his previous work. Some dubbed it the director’s nightmarish magnum opus, while other called it an incoherent mess.
Aside from big names such as Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons and Harry Dean Stanton, the film starred mostly Polish actors, such as Karolina Gruszka as the Lost Girl and Krzysztof Majchrzak as the Phantom. In an interview for the Polish press, Lynch praised them:
They’re much more mature than their colleagues from across the ocean. They’re devoid of fear, more conscious of what they’re doing. […] And there’s that curiosity… Specifically Krzysztof Majchrzak wanted to know everything and I didn’t tell him. He’s a great actor, not appreciated enough in Polish cinema. […] Karolina Gruszka is still very young, I bode her an international career. […] I consider her one of the best young actresses I’ve met.
There is no sense in trying to recap Inland Empire’s story as it does not follow a classical film narrative. The director said himself: Inland Empire is about ‘a woman in trouble, and it's a mystery, and that's all I want to say about it’.
However, it is worth noting the many Polish motifs Lynch introduced in the film: aside from the Polish language being all over the place, there is also talk of an old Polish Gypsy folk tale and of an old unrealised Polish film, which was cancelled due to a murder on set. Also, a Polish circus appears in the film, which is actually a real circus – Poland’s oldest and most famous Cyrk Zalewski. It seems as though Inland Empire is – among other things – a collection of curiosities Lynch found fascinating in Poland during his many visits.
For the first time since 1984’s Dune, Angelo Badalamenti was not taken on board to supervise music in a Lynch film. Instead, the director invited Marek Żebrowski (who was originally supposed to only work as a translator during the shooting) to collaborate on the soundtrack as a writer and music consultant. Several pieces by Polish composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki, Witold Lutosławski and Bogusław Schaeffer were featured, adding to Inland Empire’s eerie atmosphere.
Polish Night Music
Working with Marek Żebrowski on Inland Empire led to another collaboration between the artists. When the director learned of Żebrowski’s interest in experimental music and free improvisation, they met in Lynch’s studio in Los Angeles to record an album inspired by their unique connections to Poland and Łódź. The images and narratives they wanted to explore were ‘barren train stations, Polish factories at night and silent hotels where lonely travellers meet.’
The 4-part Polish Night Music (2007) could be best classified as an ambient or minimalist record. It introduces the listener to a murky and cryptic sonic landscape, which draws its appeal from Żebrowski’s careful and thrifty piano alongside Lynch’s synthesizer’s ominous presence looming in the background.
Marek Żebrowski shared his thoughts on the themes introduced on the album:
[Poland] is a landscape that continues to remain at once familiar and completely alien to me. […] Every time I am there, I am surprised by something, and I think for David, Poland certainly represents the process of discovery.
Polish Night Music was the second full-length recording Lynch collaborated on. What followed it were two critically acclaimed solo projects, Crazy Clown Time (2011) and The Big Dream (2013), on which he furthered his musical experiments, but this time opted for more approachable rock and electronic sounds.
Twin Peaks & Krzysztof Penderecki
Small traces of Lynch’s connection to Poland can also be found in the recent, long-awaited Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). The original seasons, aired on Polish TV for the first time in 1991, were a big hit and gathered a big following. Poles were fascinated and intrigued not only by the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death and vibrant characters trying to solve it, but also by the depiction of small city life, so different from the one in post-transformation Poland.
The most prominent trace of Polish culture in The Return was the use of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima – a truly haunting score written solely for 52 strings. Episode 8, in which the piece appeared, was the closest thing to BOB’s (the main villain’s) origin story that Lynch has ever given the fans. In the highly experimental episode, Penderecki’s music portrayed an apocalyptic nuclear blast scene. Use of the piece was surprisingly literal – something Lynch does not do often. Perhaps it was his way of paying respect to the people who lost their lives during the catastrophe.
Twin Peaks was not the only work in which Lynch used Penderecki’s music – it was also featured in Wild at Heart (1990) and Inland Empire. Although, as far as we know, Lynch and Penderecki have never met personally, they did discuss the use of the latter’s music.
There are a few other Polish tidbits in The Return (such as a cafe named ‘Szymon’s’), but the most peculiar one is the character of the ‘Polish accountant’ (Jonny Coyne) going by the name of Zawaski – a bald, sturdy fellow speaking broken English. In episode 16 he is encountered by Hutch (Tim Roth) and Chantal (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Their characters, played by actors affiliated with Quentin Tarantino, die in a truly Tarantinoesque way when they get involved in a preposterous parking dispute with the Pole – an unexpected and bloody shoot-out. What might have inspired Lynch to write this scene? Well, the Poles have never been known as the most patient of drivers…
Poles inspired by Lynch
Poles love Lynch’s art as much as he loves Poland and often take inspiration from his work. In an article for the Polish film magazine EKRANy (2/2016), Aleksandra Idczak lists numerous Polish films inspired by the American director: Konrad Niewolski’s Palimpset (2006), Łukasz Barczyk’s The Unmoved Mover (2008) and Sławomir Shuty’s and Barbara Kurzaj’s Panopticon (2010) to name three. She writes about numerous similarities between the video works of Wilhelm and Anka Sasnal and Lynch’s films:
Although fully personal and original, they are intuitively close to the ‘Lynchness’ category, as if the artists shared a similar world view. The very title of It Looks Pretty from a Distance (2011) corresponds with the contrast between the deceptive semblance of the façade scenery often used by the American director and the dark instincts dwelling underneath and the evil pent up inside. Both the Sasnals and Lynch think in images, which are not only echoes of their artistic education, but also of their love for graphic stories. […] Common elements are especially visible in Sasnals’ second feature – Parasite (2013). Primarily, it is the fascination for the grandeur and dread of the industrial landscape […]. The camerawork and sound play an important role as well, because the industrial hums transform the scenography into a living, aggressive organism […].
But inspiration happens not only in the field of art. In 2016, the Catholic Bethlehem Community from the Polish town Jaworzno organised an unusual pilgrimage inspired by the true story of Alvin Straight, as popularised by David Lynch in his wonderfully relaxed road film The Straight Story (1999). In 1994, the 73-year-old American unable to drive a car wanted to make amends with his ill brother, so he went on a journey from Iowa to Wisconsin on a lawn mower. Some 22 years later, following his example and having seen the film, 22 Poles embarked on small tractors on a five-week pilgrimage from Jaworzno to Lisieux in France. David Lynch was delighted by the idea and decided to hold patronage over their journey. In a special message to the pilgrims, he showed his support and wished them best of luck.
Silence and Dynamism
David Lynch is coming back to Poland soon – his biggest art exhibition to date, Silence and Dynamism, will open on 12th November in the Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu in Toruń as a part of the 25th Camerimage Film Festival (now moved to Bydgoszcz, a city which made Lynch its honorary citizen). It will consist of over 400 of his works: oil paintings, watercolours, drawings, lithographs, photographs, music pieces, adverts, short films and music videos. Additionally, a special meeting with Lynch, dedicated to transcendental meditation, will be held in Toruń.
Something tells us it will not be his last visit to Poland.