Magdalena Łazarkiewicz is a film and theatre director. She was born on 6th June, 1954, in Warsaw.
In 1976, she graduated from Cultural Anthropology at the University of Wrocław. In 1982, she received a diploma from the University of Silesia’s Faculty of Radio and Television.
Initially, she worked on documentary films. She shot Nostalgia, a meditative reportage about Greek immigrants in Poland (1983), Staff – a film about a lonely railwaywoman working on Warsaw's suburban railways (1983), and Miracle – an impressionistic picture about the miracle in Puławy, where local residents saw the Virgin Mary in a poplar tree (1984).
In 1979, while still a student, she worked as an assistant to Andrzej Wajda on the set of The Maids of Wilko. She shot her feature début under the supervision of Krzysztof Kieślowski. By Touch, set in a hospital, is a touching story about two women who, despite their misgivings and various obstacles, establish a special connection. Teresa (Maria Ciunelis) is suffering from cancer. Marred and devastated by the illness, and having gone through traumatic experiences, she doesn’t want to live anymore. The beautiful Anna (Grażyna Szapołowska), mother and wife, is expecting a second child, resists illness with all her power, she doesn’t want to give up. The film – quiet, extreme, imbued with explicit biologism, and yet poignant – received numerous awards. Magdalena Łazarkiewicz’s cinematic entrance was a powerful one. In her own words:
I treat my profession as a very personal means of expression and communication. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s done through a comedy of manners or through drama. In my opinion, a film is valuable and meaningful if it is in some way provocative – through form or content, when it incites sharp reactions. For me, a radical rejection of my film or a praise for it are equally valuable responses.
Film no. 25 (1986)
It nevertheless took several years for her next film to appear. In 1989, the director made a film with completely different poetics, containing social and political themes. The Last School Bell was about the senior class of a rural high school, the last generation of the old political system, and about youth growing up and rebelling. Tadeusz Sobolewski wrote:
The Last School Bell is several films in one: it is a story of a generation’s initiation, but also a musical and a manifesto of the video culture. One type of cinema crosses into another. It could have been an aesthetic mess – the final effect is however interesting and pleasing.
Gazeta Wyborcza no. 129 (1989)
In 1991, she realised, together with her husband Piotr Łazarkiewicz, the film Departure, with which she returned to intimate, psychological, reflexive cinema which strives to capture complex human relationships. Departure paints a portrait of two women from Masuria – Hilda and Augusta, mother and daughter. The daughter identifies herself as a Pole, whereas her mother – as a German citizen. They are stuck with one another as they live together in an old people’s home in Masuria.
I keep going back and forth between those two themes. The first one is related to self-expression and associated with quiet cinema, oscillates around female psychology. Then, an interest in social life, the external world, takes lead.
– Łazarkiewicz said about her interests in cinema, Kino no. 4 (1993)
In 1992, she made White Marriage based on Tadeusz Różewicz’s play. In this beautifully composed film, Łazarkiewicz tackled Polish hypocrisy, stereotypes pertaining to Polish social life and culture, and, most of all, the fallacy concerned with eroticism. And the atmosphere of a typical noble manor, where the plot, taking place before World War One, is set, almost respires with eroticism. This is where the drama of Bianka, who is afraid of eroticism and is being set up for a marriage against her will, plays out. As Elżbieta Baniewicz wrote about the film:
Its main merit lies in the sophisticated polemic with the emotional and social stereotypes formed by our culture – which, to quote Brzozowski, is childish and piggish, distorted by a grimace of perversion and grotesque, or otherwise by a hysterical and graphomaniac emotional pathos, immature and sclerotic, everything but normal.
Twórczość no. 7 (1993)
Łazarkiewicz’s next film, To the End of the World (1999) was an attempt at reflecting Polish history of the end of the 19th century. The historical events serve as a background to the tumultuous, melodramatic story. The film’s plot is set in the exotic scenery of Manchuria. Among the Chinese and Russians, there is also a group of Poles working on the railway construction site. The film’s protagonist, Teresa (played by the Polish music star Justyna Steczowska), arrives there with her newly married husband Kamil. Soon, however, she meets a fascinating painter from Russia – Wiktor (Aleksandr Domogarov), who enters into an affair with Teresa, dragging her into an erotic game.
In the 1990s, Łazarkiewicz also returned to documentaries. She made the biopic Without the Key: The Portrait of Hanna Suchocka (1993), as well as Gravel Yard – a story about antisemitism and religious fanaticism, focusing on the cross placed in a gravel pit in Brzeznika which triggered extreme emotions on both Polish and Jewish sides (1999).
Łazarkiewicz also directs theatre performances. In 1986, she showed Three Tall Women by Edward Albee at the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw. She returned to American drama in 2004 with The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, performed first at the theatre in Gorzów, and one year later at the Nowy Praga Theatre in Warsaw. In 2002, she realised Wit by Margaret Edson, with a great role by Teresa Budzisz-Krzyżanowska (Studio Theatre in Warsaw) and the premiere performance of the lyrical, grotesque play by Lidia Amejko, Nondum (Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków). Jacek Sieradzki wrote about the show:
Glory to the Cracovians, who approached this play with piety. Magdalena Łazarkiewicz has managed to animate its discourse, ‘feed the words into bodies’ in a subtle and appropriate way.
Polityka no. 15 (2002)
One of her most interesting shows is The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen, realised at the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków (2007).
Łazarkiewicz created her first television show in 1987. It was House of Women by Zofia Nałkowska. Just like on theatre stages, in Television Theatre Łazarkiewicz showed predominantly contemporary plays, such as When She Danced by Isadora Duncan (1997) and Klara’s Relationships by Dea Lohrer (2003), as well as Climats, based on André Maurois’s interwar psychological novel (1995). In 2014, as part of the Jan Karski year, she realised a docudrama – a half documentary, half fiction show titled Karski.
Our goal is to filter Karski’s figure through the sensitivity of a contemporary spectator, present it from the perspective of young people – the makers of the film about Karski, who join this project for various reasons, and it increasingly begins to overlap with their own life choices, while the contemporary dilemmas grow dangerously close to the reality of those times.
– she said.
The director also shot the TV series Marzenia do spełnienia / Dreams to Fulfill* (2001-2002) and the political Prime Minister, co-created together with Agnieszka Holland, Kasia Adamik, and Borys Lankosz (2007). The series Into Deep Water, which received Prix Italia, turned out to be a big success. The production, which stars Marcin Dorociński in the main role and tells a story of a Social Welfare Centre, was appreciated for both its artistic and social achievements: it was co-financed by the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, as it was deemed to coincide with the Polish Television’s mission statement, which focused on integrating and helping out those in need.
Magdalena Łazarkiewicz’s most recent feature film Dance Marathon (2010) is a story about a dance competition in Lower Silesia, whose participants include local residents living on the edge of poverty. The story, which references the classic film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, saw mixed reactions from the critics (the criticism mostly addressed the fairy tale-like fragments inserted into the realistic narrative), however the artful portrayal of the Polish province met with appreciation.
In 2014, she realised a documentary about her deceased husband. Absence is an intimate portrait of her loved one, as well as a story about facing his death and coping with the mourning. This film mosaic comprises excerpts from his school shorts, feature and documentary films, television and theatre shows, complemented by testimonies from the director’s family members and friends (such as Agnieszka Holland, Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz, Zbigniew Hołdys, and Maria Seweryn). Magdalena Łazarkiewicz commented on the idea behind the film:
Piotr was always surrounded by people, especially young ones. He had the ability to get excited about people, he loved ‘his’ actors. He was genuinely happy about others’ achievements. He called, gave advice, helped, supported. Sometimes I was even cross about that. I thought that this way he was spreading himself too thin, didn’t pay enough attention to his own work and life. But after he passed away, I realised that this was the greatest source of fulfillment for him. Perhaps he didn’t possess enough egotism, which an artist needs in order to attain his goal. But he had a special talent for building relationships with people. The energy which he shared with others was returned to me after his death – in the form of specific help, conversations, sometimes beautiful gestures. And I thought that it would be worth documenting this phenomenon in a film.
- 1986 – Grand Prix for the film By Touch at Festival International du Film de Femmes in Créteil; award from the Revista Mulheres magazine for the film By Touch at the Figueira da Foz International Film Festival; first prize for a feature film for By Touch at the Young Polish Cinema Festival in Gdańsk; Prof. Bolesław Lewicki Award from the participants of a teaching seminar, Audience Award and award for Best Directing Début for the film By Touch at the Young & Film Koszalin Film Meetings; Stanisław Wyspiański Artistic Award for the Young for the film By Touch;
- 1987 – Award of the Chairman of the Radio and Television Committee for the film By Touch;
- 1989 – Great Amber Grand Prix and award from the Walka Młodych magazine for the film The Last School Bell at the Young & Film Koszalin Film Meetings;
- 1990 – Poznań Goats for Best Feature Film in the Youth Film Category for the film The Last School Bell at the Poznań Film Festival for Youth and Children;
- 1992 – Special Jury Award for the film Departure at the Gdynia Film Festival;
- 1993 – Warsaw Mermaid – Award from the Film Critics of the Association of Journalists of the Republic of Poland for the film White Marriage;
- 1998 – Best Director Award for the film The Other Shore at the International Television Theatre Festival in Plovdiv, Bulgaria;
- 2012 – Prix Italia for Best TV Series for Into Deep Water.
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, February 2008, update: NMR, May 2016, transl. AM, July 2016.