Lech J. Majewski is a film director, screenwriter, producer, poet, novelist, painter, and theatre and opera director, born in Katowice in 1953.
Film director, screenwriter, producer, poet, novelist, painter, and theatre and opera director. His artistic journey is truly characterised by diversity.
Today, Lech J. Majewski lives in Venice, however, he often visits the region of Silesia where he was born and grew up. He works as a lecturer at the Rutger Hauer Filmfactory in Rotterdam. He started his academic education as a student of graphics at the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice, a branch of the Academy in Kraków. In 1973 he entered the Directing Department at the Film School in Łódź, where he graduated in 1977. Majewski made his debut as a film director in 1978 with Zwiastowanie / Annunciation, the first part of the two-part feature film Zapowiedź ciszy / Harbinger of Silence. The first film that Majewski directed on his own was Rycerz / The Knight (1979). In 1980 the director left for England. In England, in 1982 he staged Homer's The Odyssey. Soon after, Majewski came into contact with an American producer, Michael Hausman, and moved to Hollywood. In 1985 he directed Lot świerkowej gęsi / The Flight of the Spruce Goose, his American debut. In 2011 he presented The Mill and the Cross at the Sundance Film Festival. The film brings The Procession to Calvary, Pieter Bruegel's 16th-century painting, to life.
Lech Majewski has received numerous film awards, such as the Wielki FeFe Prize awarded at the 9th Fefe Film Festival in Warsaw in recognition of his independent spirit. He won main awards at several film festivals, including the Polish Film Festival Award (Gdynia, 1999) for direction of Wojaczek. The director was also nominated to the Orzeł / Eagle Polish Film Award for his two films: Wojaczek and Angelus.
In the early 1990s, Lech Majewski also took up directing theatre and opera productions. He has created street art or performance as well. His theatre production of Czarny Jeździec / The Black Rider in Helbronn, Germany was given cult status and brought him the Kilianpreis award for best direction in the 1994/95 season. He was awarded the Golden Mask for visual effects of the opera production Pokój saren / The Roe's Room staged at the Silesian Opera in 1993. He has said that he sees his life as a journey through diverse countries, art fields, languages and modes of expression.
Lech Majewski's artistic journey is truly characterised by diversity, however, it distinguishes itself by consistency and loyalty towards the director's early fascinations. Some visions have been recurring in Majewski's works in various art forms depending on the genre in which this versatile artist creates at a given moment.
As early as in 1977, before his debut as a novelist, Lech Majewski published a well-received poem in Nowy Wyraz, a monthly journal devoted to rising writers. The surreal poetics of this poem, as well as the entire volume entitled Mieszkanie / Apartment, recurred years later in his opera and film with asimilar title (Pokój saren / The Roe's Room, 1997).
In his interviews with press, Majewski has often referred to events and situations from his childhood or adolescent years that have left him with a distinct impression and years later provided inspiration for his artistic projects. The artist's experiences were exceptional as for the Polish reality. He spent his childhood years in the gloomy, mining and industrial landscape of the Upper Silesia, which, as if in an unreal vision, was interwoven with the extraordinary scenery of Venice, where the future director of Ogród rozkoszy ziemskich / The Garden of Earthly Delights used to spend summer holidays at his uncle's. Thus, it is not hard to identify the source of suggestive imagery present first in Majewski's poems and subsequently in his films. In his works, the artist draws a picture of a human being as an integral element of nature, not privileged in any sense. He makes numerous cultural references to works which he had a chance to admire in Venice.
Majewski remarked that in Bosch's In The Garden of Earthly Delights a human being is depicted in a symbiotic relationship with plants and animals. The middle part of the triptych shows an uncanny union of naked figures with the surrounding world.
On many occasions, the artist's fascinations had developed in secret for years before they unexpectedly became the source of inspiration for a film. Such sources could be, for example, a Rafał Wojaczek poem, or press information about the robbery of the century and a photograph of Ronald Biggs, an escaped prisoner relaxing on the Copacabana beach. It could also be a conversation with a friend from an elementary school who worked hard as a coalminer and dreamed about living a different life. Wojaczek, Więzień z Rio / Prisoner of Rio, or Lot świerkowej gęsi / The Flight of a Spruce Goose were all inspired by such events. In his art, Majewski derives inspiration from more dramatic events, such as the death of a loved one which he experienced and managed to overcome, recalling that he realised that we treat death with an increasing superficiality, we push it aside in these days when the entertainment is the sole value (interview with Katarzyna Bielas, Gazeta Wyborcza, July 12, 2004).
Soon after this significant loss, the director created Wypadek / Accident, an exhibition-performance, in Katowice (1996). Majewski used personal belongings of the deceased in this exhibition:
I mummified them, said the artist in the above-mentioned interview for Gazeta Wyborcza, that is, I bandaged a mobile phone, post card, necklace, high heel shoes, and a coat. I paid tribute. At the same time, I exhibited all elements that constituted the body of this woman. There were two containers. The first one represented the amount of blood pumped within 24 hours, and the other one the amount of the pumped air. I displayed a body transformed into chemical elements in exactly the same proportions as in her body. There was an exact amount of coal, calcium, iron. Like in Metaphysics and The Garden.
A similar action was performed by the main protagonist of Majewski's novel Metafizyka / Metaphysics on which he based his film Ogród rozkoszy ziemskich / The Garden of Earthly Delights. However, before the novel and feature film had been created, Majewski filmed the exhibition in Katowice which lasted for 18 days and produced a film about art (Wypadek / Accident). Many Polish viewers, used to keeping the subject of death at a certain distance found it hard to accept the art form chosen by the artist. For the director however, the installation in Katowice was an important attempt to draw near the mystery. In an interview with Jerzy Wójcik, the director said:
For millennia, a human being has tried to solve the mysteries and 'describe' the world, or organise it in line with one's needs, but it becomes difficult to achieve it because even simplicity holds great mysteries. Each side of a square can be expressed in number 1, while its diagonal is incalculable. We know what a circle is, but we are not able to calculate Pi accurately.
As Jerzy Wójcik put it, Majewski balances between the mystery of metaphor and symbolism and the logic of numbers. With time Lech Majewski has continued to pose, in different ways, several fundamental questions regarding the mystery of existence. Thus, he populates his films with protagonists who ask similar questions. Beginning with The Knight, a film set in the Middle Ages, whose main protagonist embarks on a quest for a lost harp, just like many seekers of the Holy Grail; to Silesian naive painters, simple coalminers with their famous leader Teofil Ociepka, associated in an occult community portrayed in Angelus; to the protagonist of The Garden of Earthly Delights who tries to apply rationality and logics.
In many of his films, Majewski uses motifs from the tradition of esotericism aimed at penetrating metaphysical mysteries. Such as, in Lot świerkowej gęsi / The Flight of Spruce Goose and Ewangelia według Harry'ego / The Gospel According to Harry, the director highlights different aspects of existential quest. His interests lie in existential pain, which is an integral element of the extreme and reckless attitude of his protagonists, and can be found in such films as Wojaczek or Basquiat - Taniec ze śmiercią / Basquiat, a film about a legendary American graffiti artist (Majewski did not direct the film himself, however, it was based on his screenplay and his concept). Similarly to Wojaczek, the title protagonist of the film, Jean-Michel Basquiat, commits suicide at the peak of his career following his self-destructive instinct.
The most important thing both in art and life is mystery. We make all efforts to bring the mystery down to zero, we are afraid of it (…) Whereas I believe that this lack of knowledge is like air for our soul, said Majewski to Grzegorz Wojtowicz and he repeated similar ideas on numerous occasions.
Lech J. Majewski managed to find a niche for his artistic cinema in the West, which does not shy away from commercial projects. As the director admitted himself in a conversation with Tadeusz Sobolewski (Kino, no 12/1992), Więzień z Rio / Prisoner of Rio is the sole exception, or rather concession to popular cinema. And yet, Majewski's own vision of poetic and metaphysical cinema has gained him popularity among audiences. Wojaczek, Angelus, and The Garden of Earthly Delights were met with enthusiastic reception.
I am only trying to make films in line with my desires… Some of my films, e.g. The Gospel According to Harry, have not found their own audience, while others, like 'Wojaczek' have enjoyed great popularity all over the world.
-– interview by Dagmara Romanowska, Kino, November 5, 2001)
His next production was entitled The Mill and the Cross. It is a film adaptation of a book by the same title written by art critic Michael Gibson, which is devoted to Peter Bruegel's painting Procession to Calvary. However, the film is more than an adaptation. It is a precise and detailed reconstruction of the painting itself which literally revives before the viewers' very eyes. The film, starring such acclaimed actors as Michael York and Rutger Hauer, is set in the director's hometown, Katowice, Kraków-Częstochowa Upland and Wieliczka. The production has already been completed. The computer technology made it possible for clouds filmed in New Zealand to roll over the Polish landscape, which imitates Flanders from Bruegel's painting. The Mill and the Cross has been a challenge for Lech Majewski in terms of technology. The film requires the usage of complex computer technologies and 3D animation. Dagmara Drzazga's documentary film Lech Majewski świat według Bruegla / Lech Majewski's World According to Bruegel (2009) unveils part of the mystery behind the film's production. In the documentary, Majewski also discusses the motive for his work: it is an attempt to reinterpret the painting from the contemporary perspective. The suffering of crucified Christ is juxtaposed with the suffering of Flanders oppressed by Spain in the 16th century. (A few years earlier, in 2006, Drzazga devoted her other documentary to Lech Majewski entitled Lecha Majewskiego podróże w głąb siebie / Lech Majewski's Inner Journeys).
Majewski’s next film is an attempt at a dialogue with an age-old masterpiece, too. His Onirica, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, is the story of a thirty-year-old man trying to come to terms with the death of his best friend and beloved girlfriend. As the only survivor of the accident, Adam uses every opportunity to fall asleep, even for a little while. Dreams are his way of escaping – they’re a cure for his psyche damaged by the accident and the only possibility for Adam to meet his deceased loved ones – his girlfriend, father and friend.
This film, woven with oneiric visions, is a narrative about searching for meaning in a world bereft of hope. When Onirica was first presented on Gdynia Film Festival, the critics appreciated the power of the vivid imagery, but reproved Majewski for pretentious dialogues and intellectual kitschiness. The director created highly metaphorical and multifaceted images, bringing the classics of painting and philosophy to mind. The Biblical motifs and references to Heidegger’s works became a part of the story about getting accustomed to despair, and among the historic events the director alludes to, the viewer can find the Smoleńsk tragedy of 2010.
In 2016 Majewski will start shooting another film – Valley of the Gods, which is going to tell the story of the richest man in the world.
In an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza Majewski said:
I call this film a contemporary fairy tale for grown-ups. Everything started with the Hittite legend about Ullikummi, according to which two mountains begot a rock – half man, half god. This legend’s paraphrase occurs in many cultures, including the beliefs of the Navajo Indians. But there’s also another thread to this film, namely the story of the richest man in the world, for whom money is an abstraction. In some sense it’s a contemporary version of Citizen Kane.
Filming will take place in Poland, the US, and Italy. The international cast involves many great cinema stars and actors known from outstanding films, including Charlotte Rampling, the British actress shortlisted for an Oscar for a leading role in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, Josh Hartnett (known from Pearl Harbor), John Rhys-Davies (who starred in Lord of the Rings), Keir Dullea – the unforgettable David Bowman in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Bérénice Marlohe (known from Skyfall directed by Sam Mendes).
Read Culture.pl's exclusive interview with the director: From the Tree of Life to the Tree of Death
Études and short films:
- 1976 - Święto / Holiday - documentary étude directed jointly with Grażyna Kędzielawska, screenplay by Grażyna Kędzielawska,
- 1976 - Dom starców / Nursing Home - documentary etude,
- 1975 - Grand Hotel - documentary étude,
- 1975 - Bisowanie / Encore - feature étude,
- 1998 - Wypadek / Accident - short film, record of an exhibition-performance.
Feature films - direction:
- 1978 - Zwiastowanie / Annunciation, direction and screenplay (the first part of a two-part film Zapowiedź ciszy / The Harbinger of Silence, the second part Dom / Home was directed by Krzysztof Sowiński); production: Poland.
The main protagonist, a young man who lives in a village, cannot come to terms with the fact that a factory is to be constructed where his house is located. Thus, he chooses to die in his bulldozed house.
- 1979 - Rycerz / The Knight (screenplay) production: Poland.
Called a film poem, this production set in the Middle Ages features a tale of a knight who embarks on a quest for the lost harp believed to bring salvation to the world in danger.
- 1985 - Lot świerkowej gęsi / Flight of the Spruce Goose (screenplay by Lech J. Majewski and Chris Burdza based on the director's novel Kasztanaja), Lech J. Majewski was an executive producer of the film; production: USA.
The Polish reality of the mining region of Silesia was replaced with the American reality. Distance between reality and dream is the same everywhere. … This is a story about impossible dreams, the director said in a conversation with Tadeusz Sobolewski. The main protagonist of the film, a young coalminer, falls in love with a beautiful girl and takes her to Hollywood hoping for their dreams to come true. The title of the film corresponds with the name of a famous plane - here symbolising the power of dreams – constructed exclusively of wood by a renowned constructor and filmmaker Howard Hughes.
- 1988 - Więzień z Rio / Prisoner of Rio (screenplay jointly with Ronald Biggs).
The film is based on a true story of Ronald Biggs, organiser of the legendary robbery of the century in England, who, is convicted and charged with 30 years of imprisonment, but escapes to Brazil where he enjoyed great popularity and made a living on his legend. The film focuses on an unsuccessful attempt by the British secret service to capture Biggs.
- 1992 - Ewangelia według Harry'ego / Gospel According to Harry (aka: Pustynny lunch / Desert Lunch) also screenwriter and producer, production: Poland, USA.
In a surreal desert landscape, an ordinary married couple live their life and unexpectedly experience a drama reminiscent of Christ's crucifixion. A metaphorical picture about the triviality of life. These people wither emotionally and physically. Their words are shallow. They express themselves in trivial clusters, the director commented on his film in an interview by Tadeusz Sobolewski.
- 1997 - Pokój saren. Opera autobiograficzna / The Roe's Room. Autobiographical Opera, a television film, screenplay, libretto and set design by Lech J. Majewski, music co-written with Józef Skrzek; production: Poland.
Father, mother and a son, an average family performing everyday activities. They do not live their life in an ordinary setting, but in an apartment where all elements of nature (plants and animals) coexist and enjoy the same rights.
- 1999 - Wojaczek (screenplay jointly with Maciej Melecki and musical setting) production: Poland.
The film features the final days of a poet Rafał Wojaczek before he committed a suicide. It draws a portrayal of both: a restless artist and Poland at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. The stylish black-and-white pictures distinguished by a carefully composed frames recall the reality of those times and a specific mood of Wojaczek's poetry.
- 2001 - Angelus (screenplay jointly with Bronisław Maj and Ireneusz Siwiński, music and screenplay: Lech J. Majewski) production: Poland.
The film presents a phenomenon which occurred in Poland, namely a formation of the Rosicrucian community in Silesia, which lasted for three decades until the 1960s. The occult community was led by Teofil Ociepka and consisted of naive painters who created art filled with fantastic qualities and believed in metaphysical significance of their paintings. The plot features a story of the Silesian occultists trying to save the world from an annihilation approaching from Saturn. In 'Angelus' I have shown the Silesian occult painters as students of Bosch, who also want to describe the universe: cosmos, Hitler and Stalin's life. And they search for possibilities to redeem the sins committed by humans in the 20th century, said the director in a conversation with Jerzy Wójcik. Beautiful visual effects of the film in which the realism intermingles with elements of visionary imagination.
- 2003 - Ogród rozkoszy ziemskich / The Garden of Earthly Delights based on Majewski's novel Metafizyka / Metaphysics (also screenplay, cinematography, set design, music and co-production) production: Poland, Great Britain, Italy.
Visually tasteful and filled with numerous cultural references, this story about love and death features metaphysical explorations of two protagonist, one of whom faces the approaching death. Claudia, who suffers from cancer, contemplates Hieronymus Bosch's painting and searches for guidance on how to gain paradise on earth. Chris, her beloved, a ship engineer by profession, films Claudia in order to record their final happy days which they spend in Venice waiting for the inevitable end. The director created an aura of exceptional intimacy by means of letting the actors film each other. The handheld shots filmed with a digital camera are austere and wobbly. For his own purposes, Majewski called this technique a digital neorealism. To make the story even more realistic, the director named the protagonists after the performing actors.
- 2007 - Szklane Usta / Glass Lips (aka: Krew Poety / Blood of a Poet) a film based on a previously shown video installation Blood of a Poet. It is a poetic and non-linear composition of oniric visions of the main protagonist, a poet who stays in a psychiatric hospital.
- 2011 - Młyn i krzyż / The Mill and the Cross (screenplay, cinematography, production).
- 2014 - Onirica (aka: Field of Dogs), inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, is a story about a thirty year old man trying to come to terms with the death of his best friend and beloved girlfriend.
- 1999 - Polish Film Festival Gdynia: award for direction; Lubuskie Film Summer in Łagów: the Bronze Grapes.
- 2000 - nomination to the Orzeł / Eagle Polish Film Award in the category of best screenplay and direction in 1999; Tarnów Film Award in Tarnów: the Bronze Leliwita Statuette - the Main Award; Barcelona Independent Cinema Festival: Don Quixote Prize; MFF Trencianske Teplice: the Golden Key; Festival of European Cinema, Corato: main award.
- 2001 - Lubuskie Film Summer in Łagów, the Silver Grapes.
- 2002 - nomination to the Orzeł / Eagle Polish Film Award in the category of best screenplay, best direction and best set design in 2001.
- 2011 - Polish Film Festival Gdynia: award for sound, special jury prize; Lubuskie Film Summer in Łagów: the Bronze Grapes; Popoli e Religioni film festival: main prize; Tofifest Festival in Toruń: best Polish picture
- 2012 - nomination to the Orzeł / Eagle Polish Film Award in two categories: best music and best cinematography.
In addition, Lech J. Majewski produced the film Basquiat - Taniec ze śmiercią / Basquiat (1996, dir. Julian Schnabel) and co-wrote the film's screenplay jointly with the film's director (interviewed by Tadeusz Sobolewski, Majewski also mentions his wife Julia as a co-author of the screenplay). Majewski also produced Radosław Markiewicz's film entitled Złom / Junk (2003). As an opera director, he staged: Król Ubu / Ubu King (1993), Carmen (1995), and his own Pokój saren / The Roe's Room (1996). His theatre productions include: Odyseja / The Odyssey (1982), Czarny jeździec / The Black Rider (1995), Sen nocy letniej / A Midsummer Night's Dream ( 1997), Opera za trzy grosze / Three Penny Opera (2002) and a street performance-happening Tramwaj / Tramway (in Katowice - 1998 and Düsseldorf - 2002).
Majewski has also published a number of literary texts and collections of poetry (Baśnie z tysiąca nocy i jednego miasta / Tales of One Thousand Nights and One Town, Poszukiwanie raju / In Search of Paradise, Mieszkanie / Apartment, Muzeum mojej nędzy / Museum of My Misery, Święty Sebastian / Saint Sebastian) and novels (Kasztanaja, Basquiat: nowojorska opowieść filmowa / Basquiat: New York Film Story, Aszan Blues, Autobus na Golgotę / A Bus to Golgotha, Szczury Manhattanu / The Rats of Manhattan, Metafizyka / Metaphysics, Pielgrzymka do grobu Brigitte Bardot Cudownej / Pilgrimage to the Tomb of Brigitte Bardot, the Wonderful, Hipnotyzer / Hypnotiser) as well as film sketches (Asa Nisi Masa - Magia w '8 i ½' Felliniego / Asa Nisi Masa - Magic in Fellini's 8 and ½') and essays devoted to America (Oficjalne centrum świata / The Official Centre of the World).
Author: Ewa Nawój, August 2004; updated: May 2016 NS