Jan Jakub Kolski is a film director, cinematographer, and screen- and prose writer. He was born in Wrocław in 1956.
Film director, cinematographer, screenwriter, and prose writer.
As a youth, Jan Jakub Kolski held a menial job at the state film studio in Wrocław. Between 1977 and 1981 he worked as an assistant cameraman at the Wrocław regional branch of Polish State Television. In 1985 he graduated from the cinematography department of the State Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź. Though cinematography was not his first interest, Kolski focused on this art form after failing the entrance exams into the directing programme at the Łódź Film School several times. Obtaining a degree in cinematography, he went on to make numerous short films, documentaries, and art and educational films. He also made a number of nature films, most of them focusing on cave exploration and mountain climbing.
He debuted as a director of feature films in 1990 with the intriguing Pogrzeb kartofla (The Burial of the Potato). Since then, Kolski has almost exclusively made full-length features and is considered one of Poland's most original filmmakers. His film Jańcio Wodnik (Johnnie Aquarius) in 1993 proved a spectacular success. Jan Jakub Kolski occasionally makes documentaries.
He has proven himself an extraordinarily well-rounded artist, composing and writing nearly all of the songs that have been featured in his films and publishing a number of novels and short story collections. The latter have included Jańcio Wodnik i inne opowiadania (Johnnie Aquarius and Other Stories), Kulka z chleba (The Bread Ball), Mikroświaty: opowiadania (Microworlds: Stories) and Jadzia i małoludki (Jadzia and the Little Men). Kolski later adapted some of these onto the screen. In 1999 the director moved from Wrocław to Łódź, where he founded the Kolski & Partners Film and Advertising Agency, a production company that was spun off of the UNI-FILM publishing and advertising firm.
Since 2000 Jan Jakub Kolski has been a member of the European Film Academy. He received numerous distinctions for his film work, including a Special Jury Prize for his film Jańcio Wodnik at the Festival of Polish Feature Films held in Gdynia in 1993, and a Polityka Passport Award for cinematic originality and for rediscovering the charm of the Polish provinces. Kolski garnered the Golden Lions at the FPFF in Gdynia in 1998 for his film Historia kina w Popielawach (The History of the Cinema in Popielawy). In 1999 he received the Silesian Cultural Award for lifetime achievement and the Wielki FeFe (Great FeFe), a prize bestowed during the FeFe Felliniada Festival upon those who insist on doing their own thing in cinema.
The central character from one of Kolski's most renowned films, the healer Johnnie Aquarius, inspired a statuette of the same name that has for years been a coveted prize among filmmakers participating in the Prowincjonalia Festivals, organised annually in the towns of Słupca and Września.
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Kolski's magical world
As a director of auteur films, Jan Jakub Kolski creates magical, surrealistic worlds that film critics and audiences refer to as Jańcioland / Johnnieland - a name that derives from one of Kolski's film heroes, but one that also clearly references the director's first name. Earlier, the artist had an altogether different moniker: he was called the Polish short film stuntman, a nickname he acquired in making a series of short documentaries and quasi-documentaries that required exceptional physical ability from him and his crew. These films almost invariably focused on mountain climbing and speleology (e.g. Najpiękniejsza jaskinia świata [The Most Beautiful Cave in the World]) or survival schools (e.g. Szkoła przetrwania [Survival School], Pałkiewicz ma rację [Pałkiewicz is Right]). Kolski himself was an avid mountain climber and cave explorer for twelve years.
The director often emphasizes in interviews that though he always dreamed of making feature films, the experience he gained in making documentaries proved invaluable. While awaiting an opportunity to make his first feature, he acquired many skills and simultaneously spent a significant amount of time thinking about his path in life.
Nothing can be compared to the perfect silence and darkness that reigns in caves, he once said in an interview. The human body begins behaving differently under those conditions. The light that is lacking in the cave begins to burn beneath your ribs. You begin to radiate light from inside; there appears within you a brightness that illuminates your inner space. (...) Given the lack of any external light, in caves you have the chance to see who you really are. While I was a cave explorer I formulated my fundamental question about the meaning of life beyond caves; now, through my creative work, I seek an answer to that question.
Among Jan Jakub Kolski's short films, critics assign special significance to Ładny dzień [A Nice Day], the story of two elderly people who spend their time taking care of their old horse. This film is perceived as a harbinger of the unique sensitivity that would come to characterise the world which the director would create in his full-length features.
Kolski's feature films are considered by some to be part of the 'rural' style in cinema, but limiting their description to this term hardly reflects their most important aspect.
His filmic countryside, wrote Grażyna Stachówna of Kolski's films, combines the authentic landscapes of the Mazovian countryside with the sophisticated beauty of visual creativity, realistic stories with entirely imagined ones, literary and film inspirations with historical facts, miracles and magic with the director's talent and imagination.
This beautifully filmed reality is enriched by a magical world derived in equal amounts from the realms of religion and pagan lore. In this world,
God is a good farmer who rules his little field, the Saints watch over the lives of people, while lamias and dwarves scurry around in the corners.
The protagonists of this world, born from a combination of the director's imagination and his camera skills, are often odd, imperfect people, or individuals who are condemned to being different. This is true of Kuśtyczka (Limpette) of Pograbek, the dwarf Janka and the literally two-faced Morka of Grający z talerza (The Man Who Read Music From Plates). Yet Kolski's characters are also different because they possess unusual talents and skills. The title character of Johnnie Aquarius, for instance, has the power to heal for a time, the main character of Magneto attracts metal objects, while Grażynka, a girl of ill repute in the film Cudowne miejsce (A Miraculous Place), proves a stigmatic. Kolski is often asked why he deems this menagerie necessary and if he needs this collection of odd characters. In response, the director invariably speaks of his protagonists as he did in an interview with Jerzy Wójcik:
I call them Children of God. Why? They are an oversensitive bunch, various 'scarecrows'. Their perception of daily life, life in general, is far more intense, involving every nerve. Their suffering is deeper as well. It is at them that the general aggression present in any environment is directed.
Although the originality of Jan Jakub Kolski's film world is undeniable, his method can be seen as reflecting certain models or containing evidence of his fascinations. Critics agree that Kolski's stylistic inspirations derive from the 'Fantastic Realism' of Iberia and Latin America. As Grażyna Stachówna once noted, this literary style,
allows descriptions of the world to combine harmoniously the real and the true with the fantastic and miraculous.
Kolski, born in the mid 1950s, was from the generation of young Poles who in 1970s became enchanted with Iberian and Latin American literature. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude is the title most frequently cited in connection to Kolski's films, and the director has confirmed his admiration for the Columbian writer in numerous interviews. Of course, the world this Polish director creates is hardly a facsimile of Marquez's 'Macondo'. Kolski has pointed out that the source of his imagined world can be found much closer to home:
I was a city child, he told Jerzy Wójcik, but I wound up in the country. I began living a rural life with my grandfather around the time I was in fourth grade. Everything was new and enchanting to me. My grandfather was a harness maker and all kinds of people would visit him. I listened to their stories. My secrets and my interests, reside in the education I received from them.
Popielawy, the village where Kolski spent those few important years of his childhood between the ages of 11 and 15, appears in each of his films, almost as if it were a trademark. This is even true of Pornografia (Pornography), which is otherwise unrelated to the director's life and biography.
The world that Jan Jakub Kolski has created in such films as Pograbek, Johnnie Aquarius, Cudowne miejsce (A Miraculous Place), Szabla od komendanta (The Sword from the Commander) or Grający z talerza (The Man Who Read Music from Plates) has its devoted admirers. As Grażyna Stachówna has stated, Johnnieland for them is
a separate and unusual place, one that is somewhat terrifying and mysterious, somewhat humorous and infantile, but one which they always seek out and hold dear.
Viewers and critics praised The Burial of the Potato, they liked Pograbek, and with Johnnie Aquarius, which features an exquisite performance by Franciszek Pieczka, Kolski cast a spell on almost everyone without exception. Humans, however, desire novelty, and Kolski's subsequent films in fact lacked any aura thereof and encountered much criticism. According to Anita Piotrowska, to name but one detractor, The Miraculous Place or The Man Who Read Music from Plates
offered us what was fundamentally the same fare: the immortal menagerie of rural oddballs inhabiting the same 'colorful bazaars' of the strongly mythologised Polish provinces.
As the director said in an interview for Rzeczpospolita:
Popular opinion has it that my films are similar to each other. They seem similar because my handwriting remains the same: I set up similar camera angles, I stage shots so that multiple situations happen in the frame, the same actors reappear in generally rural settings. I write my own screenplays, so the dialogues also probably have the same melody. Could I have dreamed merely five years ago that someone would be able to recognise the film they are watching as one of my own after a few initial sequences?
Jan Jakub Kolski's films, which are similar to each other in terms of storyline and aesthetic, are exceptional in contemporary Polish cinema. Specifically, they are exceptional examples of works in which there is an evident presence of a real author, a creator of a filmic universe and a distinct style, an artist who incorporates elements of his own biography and family history in his works, which manifest a private topography, an original imagination and autonomous moral judgments, wrote Grażyna Stachówna.
It would be an oversimplification to see Kolski's films solely as featuring an enchanting, poetic style, a gallery of characters that are a mere collection of eccentrics and beautiful photography. It should be underlined that autonomous moral judgments - deriving in the most general terms from the spirit of Manicheanism - are essential to the creative message inscribed in Kolski's films. Incessant analysis of the relationship between good and evil, which Kolski pursues in practically every film, renders each of them a kind of morality tale. Of course, these efforts need not be acceptable to everyone, as they were not to Jan Olszewski, who took an ethical position and published a highly critical review of Kolski's The Miraculous Place.
With Historia kina w Popielawach (The History of the Cinema in Popielawy), a film that differed somewhat from his previous works, Kolski proved capable once again of gratifying those members of the audience who had become somewhat bored with his consistency.
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In speaking about his earlier films, Kolski stated that they grew out of a rural tradition he came to know through members of his mother's family. For The History of the Cinema in Popielawy he drew on his father's side of the family, on a family tradition that was linked to the cinema since the early years of the 20th century. Jan Jakub Kolski's great grandmother opened one of the first movie theatres in the city of Łódź in 1907, while his grandfather was a film producer and distributor for big American studios. Both Kolski's father and older sister are editors. In The History of the Cinema in Popielawy Kolski did not, of course, retell the story of his own family. Rather, the director's aim was to explore tradition in its more symbolic form, to explore the fascination one can have for cinema. He would not be himself if his History of the Cinema... were a realistic film, as a result of which this picture, marked by the fairy-tale style of his previous films, tells the story of the Polish craftsman Andryszek, who half a century before Edison and the Lumiere brothers built a machine for projecting moving pictures. As Grażyna Stachówna wrote about The History of the Cinema in Popielawy:
Kolski has proven capable of matching three modes of cinematic visualisation to the three levels of memory delineated in his film. The story of Andryszek Pierwszy (Andryszek the First) has the aura of a nostalgic reminiscence of a time long past. It features sepia images, visual patterns reminiscent of those we see in the paintings of the Impressionists and of Artur Grottger, and a mood typical of old cinema. The story of 'Stas and Szustek' is an impressive exercise in the style of Kolski's earlier films: reality blends with fairy tale, rural landscapes acquire sacral features, human matters vibrate with the passions concealed within them. Kolski achieved cinematic self-awareness, on the other hand, by using a handheld camera. This manner of filming underlines the camera's subjective gaze, the presence of a medium, the technical side of recording images. The film process is unveiled: the picture shakes, rolls, is technically imperfect, actors look straight into the lens and speak directly to the camera, crewmembers appear in certain shots and the director's voice can be heard off camera.
Kolski's film would have been an excellent way of marking the centenary of cinema in 1995, however the director was unable to gather the required production resources in time and made the film two years later. A constant shortage of funds has in recent years plagued not only the career of Jan Jakub Kolski, but the entire Polish film industry. In another interview for Rzeczpospolita daily, Kolski complained:
For three years I made no films. 'There is no money', I was told incessantly. I had to focus my energies on something, I had to do something to prevent myself from going mad, so I directed a handful of television theatre productions and I wrote a novel.
Kolski's more recent works were adaptations. They include Daleko od okna (Keep Away from the Window), produced using very modest means from a screenplay by Cezary Harasimowicz which in turn was based on a short story by Hanna Krall, and Pornografia (Pornography), based on the novel of the same title by Witold Gombrowicz.
The latter film represented Poland at the Venice Film Festival. During the Festival of Polish Feature Films in Gdynia, Kolski's film had to concede to Dariusz Gajewski's Warszawa (Warsaw) in the rivalry for the Grand Prix. Under the circumstances, however, it is hard to determine objectively if the verdict derived from strictly artistic assessment and to what degree the jury may have been decisively influenced by the fact that Kolski's film was produced by Lew Rywin, who was the infamous central figure of an unsavory political and business scandal.
Keep Away from the Window was Kolski's first film from an existing literary work and someone else's screen adaptation, supplementing these to a degree with his own authorship. For Pornography, he also drew on an existing literary work but did not accept the screen adaptations he was offered. Instead, Kolski produced his own adaptation (with contributions from Krzysztof Majchrzak, the actor who portrayed the main character), that seems similar to the original, yet introduces a series of changes that fundamentally affect the meaning of the work. One might even say that Kolski's version offers a view of the world and people that differs from that of Gombrowicz. Kolski also decided not to use the novel's highly singular language. In an interview with Barbara Hollender the director said:
While working on 'Pornography', I came to understand that one must be audacious in adapting Gombrowicz's works. One must almost be impudent, said the director in an interview with Barbara Hollender.
Kolski rejected many sections of the novel that he considered simply too literary:
When I cut out those sections, very little was left, as a result of which I 'dressed up' the heroes in new events and above all gave them motivations that Gombrowicz had denied them.
Through Kolski's handiwork, the literary characters acquired biographies, and this is especially true of Fryderyk, who proves to be a tragic figure in the film.
Yes, I gave him a more ruined life than did Gombrowicz, explained Kolski. But I also gave him more opportunities at salvation. I dreamt of viewers leaving the cinema, their hearts broken but filled with hope.
Fryderyk as shaped by Kolski is both interesting and rich, but completely un-Gombrowicz-like. It appears that Gombrowicz saw people as much more cynical than does Kolski. Thus, Gombrowicz required no complicated psychological motivations to show how someone might toy with the lives of other human beings.
Jan Jakub Kolski remains a creator of his own variety of auteur cinema, and we can only assume that he has failed in recent years to fully express his creative independence for non-artistic reasons. Apart from Pornography, his recent directing credits have included a television series and a number of stage plays. He has published a number of new novels in which he describes a world very much akin to the one he created in his most renowned films. Kolski has also made a number of travel documentaries.
Between the dark and the bright side of life
The director's next feature film concepts were very much in the vein of his brand of auteur cinema. In the following years, he created Jasminum (2006) and Afonia i pszczoły (Afonia and the Bees, 2009). At first glance these two films seem to be a return to Kolski’s fairy tale Johnnieland. As Tomasz Jopkiewicz wrote in Kino monthly:
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The strength of Kolski’s latest film comes from its lack of philosophical pretence. He tries to turn the limits of his work into a force, without mannerism or repetition. (…) Kolski’s world must be hermetic, so that it can open up and bloom during the screening. Both the triumphs and the failures of the director came from this. His cinema is a finely balanced cinema which can be easily distorted by the artist himself. When obtrusive symbolism and his inclination to multiply marvels triumphed and the lyricism spun out of control, he failed. When these alchemic ingredients reach a balance – he wins. Like he won this time.
It’s easy to notice that Jasminum is different from Jańcio Wodnik or Grający z talerza in its style, its aura, and its humorous distance, which is evident in the fact that the narrator is a little girl, Gienia. A generous dose of warm, delicate humour is what makes this film different from other movies about “Jonnieland”. Paweł T. Felis from Gazeta Wyborcza noticed this shift:
After adaptations of Hanna Krall (Keep Away from the Window) and Witold Gombrowicz (Pornography) in this world, this “Jonnieland”, a change has occurred. There are miracles in Jasminum, but they are put in quotation marks: the whole story, a bit pretentious and naïve, is told by a child. Afonia and the Bees is lacking in miracles. It’s a reverse of Jasminum – hoarse, husky, broken cinema (Paweł T. Felis, Duży Format, 04.06.2009).
This change was noticed by the critics, especially writing about Afonia and the Bees, a parable about dangerous passion, in which they saw a farewell to the idyllic and an unprecedented rapacity. The director agrees:
Once I tried very hard to make the viewer believe in the miracles. Now I don’t anymore. I feel like this “gentle land”, that wants me to make seductive, beautiful cinema is exploited for now. It was replaced by something laced with fear. I’ve grown up. Or maybe I’m getting old? I’m not holding on to the childish notion that you can separate good and evil anymore. I’ve always shown that the sacred and the profane exist at the same time, but in my movies I boasted that I can tell them apart. Now I know it was naïve.
– he admitted in an interview with Paweł T. Felis.
In 2010 he once again spoke about the dark side of a human being. His Wenecja (Venice, 2010), an adaptation of the short story Sezon w Wenecji (A Season in Venice) by Włodzimierz Odojewski, tells a story of an 11-year-old boy, Marek, who dreams about going to Venice. When the outbreak of World War II makes this scenario impossible, he tries to arrange a substitute for the Italian city in an old village mansion.
Kolski’s film was one of the great successes of the year. In his description of the Gdynia festival, Michał Walkiewicz wrote for Filmweb:
Thanks to Włodzimierz Odojewski’s prose, Kolski was able to impose beneficiary restrictions onto his auteur cinema. And thanks to Kolski’s technical abilities, the literary world came to life on the screen in a shape that can’t really be faulted.
Janusz Wróblewski also praised Kolski’s movie in Polityka:
Venice is most of all Artur Reinhart’s tour de force. A coming-of-age tale, based on Włodzimierz Odojewski’s short story, who waits through the nightmare of the occupation in a mansion by the San river, startles with a picturesque, sensual beauty in almost every scene. In his romantic, bitterly lyrical photography, Reinhart found the right tone for a poetic, impressionistic tale about the clash between a child sensitivity and the horrors and disloyalty of the grown-up world.
But Kolski’s next film, Zabić bobra (To Kill a Beaver, 2012), produced over a long time and with scarce funds, met a cold reception. The director told the story of Eryk (Eryk Lubos), a soldier coming back from the war and trying to regain some mental balance. This austere, hoarse story was different from everything Kolski’s audience had gotten used to. Instead of refined, polished stills, he offered dirty, shaky photography and instead of a fairy-tale-like narrative they received a neurotic story about the character's dark side.
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Even though Eryk Lubos received an award at the Karlove Vary Film Festival and Michał Pikulski was honoured for cinematography at the Camerimage Film Festival, after the premiere, the director was widely criticised. The film was seen as a continuation of half-personal settlements of the artist, who, in his novel Egzamin z oddychania (Breathing Exam), told the story of a writer struggling with writer’s block, forbidden love and his mother’s death.
After a series of dark, sad stories, in 2014 the director once again returned to the brighter side of life. Serce, Serduszko (The Heart and the Sweetheart, 2014) was a cheerful road movie about a little girl from an orphanage who decides to travel to the seaside to take part in an exam for ballet school. Her only companion is an outsider and social worker (Julia Kijowska), who finds some similarities between herself and this stubborn child.
In this film, as in few others, I went on a journey towards the light and the pleasure of being with people whom I like, in a place where I can breathe – in Bieszczady. For the last time I had felt such happiness when I was shooting Jańcio Wodnik.Then I felt like I was the right man in the right place, doing the right job. And then it somehow got lost.
– said the director to Onet's Paweł Piotrowicz.
Kolski's return to cinema after a personal tragedy, was a personal film, based on his own novel, entitled Las, 4 rano (Forest, 4 in the Morning), which premiered at the Shanghai Film Festival and in Poland at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia in 2016.
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In 2018 Pardon premiered at Gdynia Film Festival. The film – a personal one, inspired by the story of the director's grandparents – is set in the 1940s, a period of Polish history whose presence in the mass consciousness of Poles is not too prominent. Kolski tells a story of a couple (Grażyna Błęcka-Kolska, Jan Jankowski) embarking on a long journey to bury their son, killed by the Stalinist police. Pardon was awarded thrice at Gdynia Film Festival: Kolski received the prize for the best screenplay, Grażyna Błęcka-Kolska was dubbed the best female leading actress, and Monika Onoszko was awarded for the costumes.
Author: Ewa Nawój, April 2004, updated by NMR, October 2016, NS May 2019