Jan Komasa is a film director and screenwriter, born into an artistic family in Poznań in 1981.
Film director and screenwriter.
His father Wiesław is an acclaimed theatre actor. Although he avoided roles on film, his memorable performance in the Lincz (Lynching) earned him due recognition. He currently teaches at the Theatre Academy in Warsaw. His mother, Gina, was a singer in a spirituals and gospel singing group. She has also worked for an entertainment channel on TV, and as a music producer. Jan’s brother is an acclaimed bass-baritone classical singer. He has won many prestigious singing competitions, and studied in the Opera Studio of the New York Metropolitan Opera. Jan’s sister Maria, wife of composer Antoni Łazarkiewicz (the son of directors Magdalena and Piotr Łazarkiewicz), is also musically talented.
In 1988, the family left Poznań and moved to Warsaw, following the team of Janusz Wiśniewski – one of the founders of Polish Theatre. Here, Jan studied in Jerzy Grotowski’s private college. Jan’s father in an interview with Stefan Drajewski for Polska – Głos Wielkopolski observed:
He has always been potent and persistent . - He has always had that ease in creating his own world. I could sense the strength growing in him. And I have observed his immense attention and devotion to anything he got engaged with, whether it was drawing or listening to music. He gives himself over to whatever he is doing. I felt that his strength that was a promise of something, but I didn't foresee that he would be a film director.
Astute observer of young generation
Before attending Łódź Film School, he completed one year of philosophical studies. Quite early, he got married and became a father. As an astute observer, he quickly noted the apathy and boredom which engulfed the young generation. In an interview, when asked about his inspirations, he stated:
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One of the girls from the class of the boy who burst into the Colombine school with a gun, when asked why he did it, she replied: "I think just from a lack of excitement." This kind of boredom is just coming to Poland... I've already seen it in high schools and colleges. Normally, when I say that have I studied at film school, people inquire about my interests, my vision of the cinema or about famous artists I have met. Therefore, when I collect materials for a film, I do not flaunt my background and experience. However, when we went with my cinematographer to a prom in one of the reputable private schools in Warsaw, I didn’t have such a problem at all. People just shrugged their shoulders and went for another beer. We realized that it is really hard to impress those kids. They got flooded with boredom.
Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, 'young skin', 'high heels', supplement to 'Gazeta Wyborcza', 12.03.2011
Before he came into the spotlight as a co-author of Oda Do Radości (Ode to Joy, 2005) a film considered as the voice of his generation, Komasa conquered the Cannes festival. His short film Fajnie, Że jesteś, (Good, You’re Here) was submitted to the Cinéfondation student competition and won third place. Around this same time, Michał Kwieciński, head of Akson Studio, came up with the idea of Ode to Joy - a film made by the young about the young. The three directors, Jan Komasa - Anna Kazejak-Dawid and Maciej Migas - selected in a competition organized by Akson, had a chance to make a film about their peers who decided to emigrate to England. Each of the half-hour segments showed another region of the country and depicted the differing motivations of the protagonists. And it was this diversity that decided the success of the film. Ode to Joy received a Special Jury Prize at the film festival in Gdynia, and the authors received nominations for a Polityka Passport award. The film itself was invited - the first in the history of Polish cinema – to the festival in Rotterdam. Malwina Grochowska, a reviewer for Kino 4/2006 observes:
A rapper, Michał, the protagonist in Komasa's film, sings that 'all politicians are mother…rs' while at the same time he shows a lot of affection and kindness towards his grandmother (played by Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieslak). He is an exception among all the characters in the film, who seem utterly uninterested in anything outside their own backyard, and whose relationship with family could be described euphemistically as “poor”. They do not even go through a generational rebellion, at most, they manifest an indifference to the world of their parents. (...) Nevertheless, each of the characters is likeable: they have their drawbacks, but do not resemble Treliński’s Egoists, because unlike them they are not vicious, but confused. The only area in which the characters can achieve satisfaction, turns out to be the strictly private sphere: sensuality, which is sometimes combined with love (but not necessarily). (...) The pessimistic tone of the film is overcome by the simple and joyful fact that it is a good Polish film, and on top of that, it was created by young people who are neither frustrated nor lacking ideals. Moreover, in the final episode filmed together they relate directly to the master, Kieślowski.
The success of the film was also due to the great performance of its actors. Piotr Glowacki was nominated for the Zbigniew Cybulski Award, reactivated in 2005.
Filming for TV theatre
After graduating from film school, Jan Komasa faced the fundamental question: what next? On the one hand, Michal Kwiecinski, producer of Ode to Joy, urged him to create a film about the Warsaw Uprising, on the other hand, however, Komasa was more attracted to contemporary topics. He chose an indirect compromise. He realized a film version of a non-fiction theatre piece for TV titled Golgota Wrocław (Golgotha Wrocław,2008), which recounts the activities of Stalin's Security Office, whose officers staged the process of Henryk Szwejcer (a Silesian insurgent and patriot), that resulted in three death sentences in 1949. After years, the behind-the-scenes of this process was discovered by historian Krzysztof Szwagryzek, a porte-parole of the screenwriter. The dramatic, well-directed and well-acted play was the highlight of the Dwa Teatry (Two Theatres) festival in Sopot, where it was awarded the Grand Prix and numerous other awards.
Watching Golgotha Wrocław, we gain the impression that Komasa overexposed the souls of his characters to serve viewers a psychological masterpiece - reviewed Magdalena Rigamonti in Polish - Newspapers Opole (3.11.2008). – The historian is a guy that not everyone will like right away. He has his aim and he will do everything to realize it. Szwejcer, played brilliantly by Adam Ferency, is a serious and steadfast man, to a fault professing pre-war principles. It seems that you cannot break him. But he is facing an adversary who knows where his weak points are. It is Felix Rosenbaum (played by Adam Woronowicz), a prewar graduate in law of the Jagiellonian University, who in the '40s and '50s was considered the most effective security official in Wroclaw. Komasa makes him appear as a ghost drifting across the screen which looks more like a corpse than a warm-blooded creature. But when you starts hearing, he comes to life.
Reaching out to youth
A work which established the position of Jan Komasa in Polish cinema is the Sala Samobójców (Suicide Room) (2011) - a film that not only describes the contemporary youth, but attempts to reach out to it by means characteristic of the new media, for instance combining "live" image with computer animation. It is the story of a teenager, neglected by his parents who are busy building their careers, who looks for support in the dangerous and illusory world of the internet. The film has collected an audience nearly a million strong. This proves not only the importance of the problems undertaken, but also the cinematographic tools chosen by Komasa. It is unprecedented in the history of the Golden Duck – the poll of the magazine Film - a situation where the creators of the same film: director, screenwriter, cinematographer and two actors playing main roles win all won the prizes bestowed by readers. And yet, as noted by Piotr Śmiałowski, reviewer for Kino magazine (No. 3/2011):
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This is a film that can exhaust the viewer. The director may easily fall prey, suspected of banality, to a kitschy solution, but that's not important. What matters above all is that Jan Komasa made an important film. Suicide Room is a kind of labyrinth or patchwork of observations of a new form of addiction – to the Internet. The addiction itself is nothing new, but as a phenomenon that becomes the subject of Polish film – it definitely is.
The commercial and artistic success of Suicide Room, laureate of the festivals in Gdynia, Kraków and Wrocław and of international surveys, raises expectations more than the success of Ode to Joy. To the question of 'what next?', Jan Komasa responded to a journalist from the 'My City of Warsaw' portal (20.03.2011) about his current project, Miasto 44 (Warsaw 44):
I'm not an avid historian, the Warsaw Uprising was the only thing that fascinated me in school. I associate the uprising with a disaster, it is almost like a tsunami that suddenly falls on the city and people are trying to survive, to fight. It's a kind of a somewhat hopeless battle which took place in the largest Polish city ... Generally, the city is a symbol of the fact that man can build something. All of the American catastrophe movies reflect the fear that the heritage of humanity can easily be destroyed, whether by an earthquake, a tsunami, or a meteorite impact. And Warsaw 44 will be a film of this sort. A catastrophic war drama. It will tell a story about people who can do very little against the force which fell on the city as such a wave.
Komasa was offered the chance to direct Warsaw 44 when he was only in his 20s. The idea came from Michał Kwieciński, the head of Akson Studio production company. In an interview for Przekrój magazine Komasa said:
I read everything I could about the uprising. I spent hours on the internet. I went to the Warsaw Rising Museum, of course. I met insurgents. It was then that I created the script. The plot was based on a love triangle involving Sebastian, Biedronka, and Kama. The idea didn’t change much, expect for Sebastian being renamed to Stefan.
The actors playing the leading roles were chosen from nearly 7,000 candidates that came to the castings. Marian Prokop was the director of photography, Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz composed the score, and Dorota Roqueplo was responsible for the costumes. In order to reconstruct Poland’s capital as it was during World War II, the filmmakers used CGI. The special effects were handled by Richard Bain – a British artist who has collaborated with the greatest stars, including Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson. The film was shot within 63 days – which is also how long the Warsaw Uprising lasted.
Critic Barbara Hollender wrote for Rzeczpospolita daily:
Komasa reconstructed the insurgent Warsaw incredibly precisely. Everything in this film seems very accurate. At the same time, the director speaks a very modern language. The film contains numerous shocking scenes shot mercilessly. It depicts horror, but isn’t it the way war should be spoken of today?
Other critics have accused the film of excessive depiction of the horrors of war and the instrumentalisation of tragedy. Tadeusz Sobolewski wrote for Gazeta Wyborcza:
Let’s make a hugely spectacular flick and this way win a film about a lost uprising – this is how I more or less read Komasa’s intentions.
The critic Jakub Socha writing for Dwutygodnik was also critical of Warsaw 44:
Komasa shocks the viewer numerous times, but he does it mechanically, just for the sake of it. Some Grand Guignol here, some sentiments there. What we get a pouring rain of human body parts torn apart, faces crushed with bullets, bodies bouncing against the walls like puppets, death in all its forms… And then, right after we see smooth insurgents, love scenes shot in slow motion, naked lovers against flames and bullets. The film is trashy and excessively violent. It is also worth mentioning that all the Germans which appear in the film are basically depicted as psychopaths.
However, these critiques did not influence the box office too much. Over 1.7 million people saw the film in cinemas, making Warsaw 44 the second most popular film in Polish theatres (only Gods by Łukasz Palkowski had a better audience share with 2.1 million viewers).
This commercial success did not turn into too many awards at the 39th edition of Gdynia Film Festival, though. It won just three prizes: Vit Komrzy was awarded for special effects, Bartosz Putkiewicz got the prize for best sound, and Zofia Wichłacz, only 18 years old at the time, got the award for the best leading female role.
Komasa has also completed another project about the uprising. The young filmmaker was one of the originators of the documentary film Warsaw Uprising, commissioned by the Warsaw Rising Museum. It was composed of colourised and digitally restored newsreels recorded in August 1944. Complemented with dialogues that were written for the occasion, the film told the story of two brothers – cameramen who were filming the fights.
In 2014 Jan Komasa won a Paszport Polityki, an annual award presented by the weekly Polityka.
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In May 2018 Komasa started shooting Corpus Christi. The script, written by Mateusz Pacewicz, was inspired by a true story. The film tells a story of a young man who decides to become a priest after leaving a youth detention centre. Bartosz Bielenia played the leading role.
The film was talked about even before it came out in Polish cinemas. Its world premiere took place at the Venice Film Festival in the Giornate degli Autori section. It won two awards – a prize given by the Europa Cinemas label which guarantees help with distribution in European cinemas, and the Inclusive Award Edipo Re. Komasa also nearly got a prize for directing – eventually, however, it was given to Jayro Bustamente.
Corpus Christi had its Polish premiere at the 44th edition of Gdynia Film Festival. The film got ten awards, including the prize for directing for Komasa and the prize for script for Pacewicz. The film also won the journalists’ prize.
Corpus Christi was chosen to be the Polish candidate for the Oscars.
As Komasa said about the film and his influence on the script:
I like it when my character has to confront fate. […] I think my input was mostly making the film more blunt and putting forth our Polishness.
His co-operation with Pacewicz turned out to be so fruitful that Komasa decided to work with him once more, this time on a sequel of his debut which will bear the title Sala Samobójców: Hejter (Suicide Room: Hater, trans. NS) The film is still being produced.
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ode to joy
you are here
- 2002 - Łysy (Bold)
- 2003 - Projekt Rodzina (Project Family)
- 2004 - Fajnie, Że Jesteś (Good, You Are Here)
3rd place in the competition of film etudes organized by Cinéfondation at MFF in Cannes 2004.
- 2005 - Oda Do Radości (Ode to Joy) - Warsaw segment
Special Jury Prize at Polish Film Festival inGdynia 2005, Platinum Award at MFF in Houston 2007; nomination to Tiger Award at Rotterdam International Film Festival 2006, nomination to Grand Prize at Cottbus Film Festival of Young East European Cinema 2006, nomination to Gold Hugo at Chicago International Film Festival 2006
- 2011 - Sala Samobójców (Suicide Room)
Gdańsk Silver Lions, Arthouse Cinemas prize, awards for sound, costumes, and performance of Agata Kulesza at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia 2011, three awards at the International Festival of Films for Children and Youth in Giffoni Valle Piana 2011, Main Prize at the International Festival film in Geneva in 2011, the prize for best director at the International film Festival in Palic 2011, FIPRESCI Award at the International film Festival Off Plus Cinema in Kraków in 2011, the prize for the debut in the competition New Polish Cinema International Film Festival New Horizons Wroc ław 2011, Jury Prize in the Competition of Young Cinema International Film Festival in Cottbus 2011, Golden Duck from Film magazine in best film, best script, best cinematography (Radosław Ładczuk) and best actor Jakub Gierszał 2011.
- 2014 - Miasto 44 (Warsaw 44)
TV Teatre Spectacles:
- 2008 - Golgota Wrocławska (Golgotha Wrocław)
Grand Prix for direction, music, set design, editing, original dramaturgy, cinematography and actor's performance (Adam Ferency and Adam Woronowicz) and Krzysztof Zaleski's Award at Festival of Polish Radio and Television Theatre Dwa Teatry (Two Theatres) in Sopot 2009.
Author: Konrad J. Zarębski, December 2011, transl. GS, updated NS, November 2019.