Culture.pl's Konrad J. Zarębski talks with Wojciech Smarzowski about his latest film Róża - a weighty film that takes a painful trip back through the tumultuous political history of Poland's Masuria region
Wojciech Smarzowski's latest film didn't garner any awards at the 36th edition of Poland's prestigious Film Festival in Gdynia in early June, however it did bring home the special Journalists' Prize. With Jerzy Skolimowski's blockbuster thriller Essential Killing taking home most of the major awards at the gala ceremony on June 10, many burgeoning filmmakers lost out on a chance to shine at Poland's most important cinematic event. The verdict for the alternative Journalists' Prize singled out one of the most significant pictures in that group. The latest picture from the director of the critically-acclaimed film Dom Zły / The Dark House was celebrated by the award jury as a moving story that restores faith in love in spite of fate, a true picture of an important part of Central European history.
Rose is set in the district of Mazury (Masuria), located along the former Polish-Prussian border, between 1945-46. After World War II, the region - which had been previously subject to strident Gemanification - is handed over to Poland. Those residents of German roots leave for Germany. If they want to remain, they have to learn Polish and get along with new Polish settlers. In the summer of 1945, Tadeusz Mazur (played by Martin Dorociński), a former Army soldier who lost everything in the war, arrives in the area. The man comes to a house owned by a woman named Rose (Agata Kulesza). She speaks German and Polish as the widow of a German soldier. Tadeusz learns the dramatic story of the woman's life - she was brutally raped by soldiers and forced into prostitution by the Soviets. Rose is treated with contempt by new settlers in Mazury, who look upon her as a German. An emotional tie flourishes between the soldier and Rose.
Konrad J. Zarębski: Your previous film Dom zły / The Dark House (2009) can be understood as an attempt to question the image of the Polish People's Republic shown in the films of Stanisław Bareja, as an expression of the need to restore appropriate balance. Following this trail The Rose (2011) can be interpreted as a challenge to one of the founding myths of the Polish People's Republic: the historic justice of returning the Western and Northern Territories, that is the Regained Territories to the Motherland.
Wojciech Smarzowski: Comparing films is the task of critics; I don't compare these. I didn't make The Dark House out of rebellion against the images of the Polish People's Republic shown in films at the time, nor did I make The Rose against 'founding myths', as you put it.
K.J.Z.: Why did you use a Masurian theme? Until now Polish cinema rarely touched the history of Masuria and the Masurians, even in the tough 1940s. In fact there is only one such film, Waldemar Podgórski's western-style Południk zero / Meridian Null with Ryszard Filipski playing the part of a Polish People's Republic army officer, the only just man who defends the indigenous people. The Rose is the first truly insightful take on the history of Masuria, if you don't count a number of short German films, including those made by Schlöndorff and von Trotta. Still, you can find motifs from other films, such as Kazimierz Kutz's Nikt nie woła / Nobody's Calling. Instead of going to Lower Silesia the main character could just as well end up in Masuria, searching for his own place and trying to run away from the trauma of war.
W.S.: I wasn't looking for film references. The western-style motif in Podgórski's film and the situation of Kutz's film character are universal themes which can be played out in any place and in any era. I landed in Masuria by coincidence. I became interested in a script written by Michał Szczerbic because I read a story I wouldn't have thought of myself; a story from a different world. Besides, I always wanted to make a film about love. This was the time I really immersed myself in the history of the Masurians, a nation which fell victim to two instances of renationalisation and was later destroyed.
K.J.Z.: Is The Rose a historical film or rather a melodrama?
W.S.: The film's basic plot is a story about love - tough and built on ruins. She is a Masurian, German, Polish perhaps. The term is relative and depends on political manipulation, which was particularly severe at that time. Nonetheless, above all she is a woman who suffered from the Russians and later from the Poles; who experienced tragedy and the worst of humiliations. She is a Pole whose life was ruined by Russians and Germans, by war and occupation. She is a human wreck. A ghost.
They become connected through a biological impulse of survival, but it soon turns out that their mutual closeness makes it possible for them to be reborn. They are mutilated. You don't see hope or prospects for the future. This is why initially it looks more as a chance to live than to love. Love comes last, at the very last moment.
K.J.Z.: Yet it is the historical background which makes the story so moving…
W.S.: Despite the drastic nature of the events which influence the fate of the characters, the historical layer of this story serves only as a background. The film's plot takes place in the old Polish-Prussian borderlands, on a territory given to Poland after the Second World War, at the end of 1945 and beginning of 1946. The plot is framed by the four seasons: summer is scorched, autumn foretells death, winter is hibernation, and spring brings hope. Other events which took place between 1939 and 1956 - an epoch in which History totally crushed the fates of people, nations and states - are also mirrored in the film.
K.J.Z.: Do you see the fate of the Masurians as a synecdoche of the fate of Poles after 1945?
W.S.: No. This is a story about two shipwrecked individuals who found each other at the end of the turmoil of war. The story about Masurians, a nation which fell victim to two nationalisms and was later destroyed, takes place as if in passing.
Who were the Masurians in mid-20th century, what sets them apart? Polish origins, German education, Slavonic customs, German tradition, Polish surnames, German first names, Polish language, German writing, Slavonic religiousness, evangelical faith, political neutrality… All this is mentioned in our film.
I would like Rose to be a commentary on how national, cultural, religious and ethnic minorities' differences are perceived and accepted.
K.J.Z.: You could notice a discussion about rape as wartime weapon in the Polish press after the film A Woman in Berlin – what the reality was, why Russians raped, where they were allowed to do it, and where rape was punished by death. There was a time when a director's refusal to delete a rape scene from his film (and the novel's author to erase it from his book), blocked The Tin Drum, Günter Grass's book and Volker Schlöndorff's film, for twenty years. In your film rape is shown with naturalist brutality every five or fifteen minutes. Is your film's audience ready for this?
W.S.: These are different times. It's not that a viewer deprived of monstrosities for breakfast has poor digestion all day, but the cinema has radically shifted the borders between realism and naturalism.
I like to provoke, nonetheless I also hope that, apart from a few hard scenes, the audience will find a lot of different emotions in Rose. That aside from sensing horror and shock they will be moved. The Rose, let me say it again, is a film about love. About love on the ruins. Love in an inhuman era.
K.J.Z.: How did working with actors look like? I am thinking particularly about the part played by Agata Kulesza.
W.S.: I always work in a similar way with actors. It is important to analyse the text, the characters and their motivations. Hundreds of questions are asked to be able to name the emotions and states felt by a character in a given moment, in a given scene. After that my role on the set boils down to controlling the previous arrangements or appropriately reacting to changes, all done to navigate the actors through the story. You have to remember that the story was written in a strict, simple style, I mean this in the best sense. It had to be filmed in the same way; by subtracting rather than by adding, by concentrating on the actors, on the emotions.
These were the guidelines: actors should play realistically and organically. From the belly, so it would hurt and move. And since I work with exceptional actors, there are times when you can watch brilliant performances.
Interview by Konrad J. Zarębski, May 2011.
Translated by: Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer