Film director, born in 1973 in Kraków.
Film director, born in 1973 in Kraków.
Małgorzata Szumowska is the daughter of journalist and writer Dorota Terakowska and journalist and filmmaker Maciej Szumowski, sister of documentary director Wojciech Szumowski. She graduated from the National Film, Television and Theatre School in Łódź in 1998. Prior to her film studies, she read art history at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She became a member of the European Film Academy in 2001.
Małgorzata Szumowska has received numerous awards at international and Polish film festivals. Her film etude Cisza (Silence, trans. NS) made it onto the list of the 14 best films in the history of the Łódź film school, while Robert Redford's Sundance Institute recognized the script for the feature film Stranger as one of the three best texts from Europe.
What sets Małgorzata Szumowska's work apart from that of other filmmakers is primarily a private approach to her projects, and a serious tone which lends importance to issues and people that are not headline news for color magazines, that are not reported on the front pages of crime columns nor shown on prime-time television.
This is a conscious choice. She invokes her maestro, Wojciech Has, who worked with her on her first film, remarking that he
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hated [...] shallow realism. [...] He demanded that we set ourselves free of the banality of journalism, not cling to realism like a mother's apron, not be afraid of metaphors, and treat narrative as 'a secondary consideration'.
source: Tygodnik Powszechny, 24/2003
Iwona Cegiełkówna wrote that Szumowska divided cinema into two categories:
the kind which is a deep experience and leaves a lasting trace in the viewer's mind, and entertainment which provides a thrill but is forgotten as soon as you leave the cinema.
source: Kino (2/2002)
Of course Szumowska favours the former type of cinema. In fact, she has spoken many times of her fascination with Andrei Tarkovsky, and emphasized her admiration for literature which she considers a deeper art than film.
In the earlier-mentioned conversation with Jan Strzałka, she said that in Happy Man, she hadn't been interested in
emotions, psyche, but in the character's state of mind and that unnamed something 'in between' which sometimes appears to us for five seconds.
She believes those five seconds can reveal the meaning of life. In an interview for Grzegorz Wójtowicz for stopklatka.pl, she said she was interested in 'that something which dreams inside' herself, 'spiritual regions almost inaccessible to cinema'.
Happy Man, set in the gloomy scenery of Kraków's tenement houses, telling the story of an unusual triangle in which each character has been damaged by life, has a reference point in something that concerns every human being - death. This is a theme not very typical for young film directors, but one which is present in many of Małgorzata Szumowska's projects, both those – like Happy Man – made before and those – like Stranger and Nothing to be Afraid of (2006) – made after both her parents passed away. She seeks the meaning of death in her films, trying to tame it, inscribe it somehow into the lives of those who are left behind.
Even Stranger, the theme of which is maturing to motherhood, the birth of life, and which many critics accused of superficiality and touching on banality, rises above itself in the scenes related to the death of the heroine's father. Lech Kurpiewski even called Stranger 'a poignant story about dying'. His view is that the film speaks of death without hysteria and in the most ordinary way possible. As he wrote in the magazine Film:
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It was meant to be a film about the beauty of life; what we get is a mature film about passing.
The theme of death, the seriousness with which issues such as love, life, feelings are treated, is not the only distinctive feature of Szumowska's work. Talking about her much-publicized documentary debut, Silence, she said: 'I don't feel like running at all, I prefer to stop and look at a tree...'
Whether intentionally or not, it is not clear, but the maker of Silence clearly refers (and this is also true of Nothing to be Afraid of) to Polish documentaries of the 1960s, to mention the work of Władysław Ślesicki (Płyną tratwy / Boy And Waves, Góra / Mountain, or Rodzina człowiecza / Family of Man, made in 1966 and bearing the greatest similarity to Szumowska's Silence). Her story about the life of a Mazurian family, its everyday activities portrayed in a way that gives them value and importance, is reminiscent of that cinema.
All this is a little outdated, but constitutes an element of a clear programme. 'I always try to see beauty in apparent monotony, ugliness, greyness', Szumowska said in an interview for Magda Lebecka. But, as she added, she herself seeks out 'ultimate themes' (Reżyser, 1/2001). Bożena Janicka wrote in Kino that
in the person of Małgorzata Szumowska, Polish cinema has gained a filmmaker who can be expected to produce non-commercial films, seeking topics not on life's surface but in the stories of people often unnoticed by cinema today: those who are incapable of fighting for their rights, losers.
That's all true, but it does not cover all the exploring the maker of Happy Man has done as a director. Her productions also include some very personal films about her father, or rather her own perception of her father (the documentary My Father, Maciek, 2005, and the short feature film The Father, 2005, in the Solidarity, Solidarity... series), a film which speaks for her generation but is also very private – Documentary (2001) - about the impossibility of showing the truth in a documentary but also about the lack of a truth worth telling, or another generation project, One Day in the Life of Tomek Karat (1997).
It is easy to find fault with Szumowska's feature films and some of her documentaries, and the critics have been merciless sometimes, probably criticizing her debut (Happy Man) too harshly, justly pointing out the shallowness of her second feature (Stranger), but offering excessive praise to the average ethnographic reportage Nothing to be Afraid of.
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Even though Szumowska had been quite a successful documentary filmmaker, it was fiction that brought her artistic fulfilment. Her 33 Scenes from Life (2008) was one of the most important Polish films of the 2000s. The personal, half-biographical story about a young artist confronted with the death of both her parents was striking. Janusz Wróblewski wrote for the weekly Polityka:
What Małgorzata Szumowska did is create something that definitely diverges from a typical story about dying. Her film is not a conventional elegy contemplating the pain of loss, but rather a confession of emotional helplessness resulting from the inadequacy of societal norms regarding grief, fear, solitude and mourning.
Tadeusz Sobolewski, reviewing the film for Gazeta Wyborcza, was equally enthusiastic about the work:
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The autobiographical aspect of the film was quite well-known because of the numerous interviews the director gave – this could make you suspect that the film was going to scandalous and exhibitionistic. However, it is quite the opposite – in fact, nothing is shocking or scandalous here, although it might seem like it to a voyeur. […] Szumowska shows life as a psychodrama, improvised theatre, and people as helpless in the face of grave affairs.
In 2008 Szumowska was awarded with a staggering six Golden Lions at the Gdynia Polish Feature Film Festival, including an award for directing. 33 Scenes from Life also got a Special Jury Prize at the Locarno Film Festival and four Eagles (the annual film awards granted by the Polish Film Academy).
The success of the film drew European's artists and producers attention. In May 2009 Szumowska was among 15 young directors whose projects were supported by the Cannes Festival. Her work, compared to Dogma and co-produced by Zentropa, was the beginning of Szumowska's co-operation with the production company established by Lars von Trier. Szumowska became a co-producer of von Trier's Antichrist and was responsible for opening the Polish branch of Zentropa.
Zentropa International Poland co-produced Elles, Szumowska's next feature film. The drama, shot in 2011 in France, told the story of Anne (Juliette Binoche), a journalist writing an article about sex work among students in Paris. The protagonists meets two girls – Charlotte (Anais Demoustïer) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), who tell her about their profession.
After the premiere at Berlinale the critics were divided. Although the appreciation for Joanna Kulig in the supporting role of a Polish student was unanimous, the film itself sparked controversy. Zdzisław Pietrasik wrote for Polityka:
Szumowska made a powerful, touching film which bravely reveals the secrets of masculine and feminine sexuality. After the first screenings, Elles divided the audience – some liked it a lot, others rejected it completely. But this was also the case with Szumowska's previous film. […] Her next film is most likely going to give rise to similar reactions.
Indeed, some Polish critics were unfavourable. Michał Oleszczyk wrote for Dwutygodnik:
Instead of exploring the dark sides of eroticism, Szumowska shot banal scenes of sanitised perversion presented as if she was discovering some new erotic continent for cinema. The Polish director seems to believe that she is dancing the absolutely first tango Paris has ever seen – in this sense she is similar to the character played by Krystyna Janda in Elles. Janda plays a Polish mom coming to France to visit, who confuses a chrome dildo for a thermos and, perplexed, shrieks: 'What the fu** is going on here?!'
Elles established Szumowska's reputation as a director who is not afraid to take up difficult topics and break taboos. Her next film, In the Name of, was considered scandalous before it was even released. It is the story of a Catholic priest who is consumed by passion for a young man. The film made it to the main competition of the Berlinale in 2013, gathering approving opinions amongst both Polish and foreign critics.
Tadeusz Sobolewski, reporting on the Berlinale for Gazeta Wyborcza, wrote:
The screenings of new films by Gus Van Sant and Ulrich Seidl are already behind us. Yet after the first three days of the Berlinale, Małgorzata Szumowska's In the Name of remains the most interesting film of the competition.
Barbara Hollender agreed, writing for Rzeczpospolita:
During the first days none of the films made such an impression as Małgorzata Szumowska's In the Name of. Szumowska directs with intuition and talks about feelings with great tenderness.
Obviously, critical voices also appeared. Jakub Socha wrote for Dwutygodnik:
In the Name of is really calculated – yes, it is up to date, but even more so, it is simply trendy. A little something for everyone: some righteous opinion journalism, some pretty shots, some sun, some fog, one or two visual metaphors, and last but not least, Szumowska sneaking a documentary peek at the tense, wild faces of autochthons.
Jonathan Romney noted in Screen International:
What makes the film most impressive is the impressionistic handling of its milieu, in particular the tensions between the centre and its rural surroundings, with locals often hurling anti-Semitic taunts at the boys. […] Apparently improvised ensemble scenes with the teenagers bristle with energy, and Englert’s energetic camera and often luminous naturalistic photography provide a distinctive signature.
Deborah Young of The Holywood Reporter praised Andrzej Chyra, the leading actor:
Gay priests hardly raise an eyebrow anymore in Western films, but it is rare that their sexual angst is portrayed as sensitively as in Poland’s Berlin competition entry In the Name of, which hovers in an interesting middle ground between Gothic expressionism and psychological drama, heightened by a fine cast and outstanding performances. […] Chyra never stumbles in his tough but engaging portrait of a sincerely devout priest with human failings, establishing a close bond with the viewer from the first scenes.
In the Name of premiered in cinemas in 2013. Szumowska left the Berlinale with the Teddy prize – awarded to the creators of the best films with LGBT topics.
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Two years later the Polish director returned to Berlin with her next work. Her Body (2015) was a story about different ways of looking at corporeality and the tension between psyche and soma. The film is a black comedy about the clash between cynicism and naivety.
The main protagonists of the film are an alcoholic prosecutor (Janusz Gajos), his daughter suffering from anorexia (Justyna Suwała), and a therapist (Maja Ostaszewska) who discovers an ability for supernatural communication after her son dies. Their paths cross when Olga is admitted to a psychiatric hospital and starts her therapy. Soon the therapist offers her a seance so that Olga can communicate with her late mother.
At the 65th Berlin International Film Festival Szumowska was awarded with a Silver Bear for best director. Body delighted the critics: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung dubbed the film ‘the dark pearl of the festival and a motion picture that introduces a new genre’, and the prestigious Screen Daily wrote that Body is reminiscent of Krzysztof Kieślowski's works.
Szumowska's film was indeed an ironic reference to the tradition of cinematic mysticism, whose symbols are later films of Kieślowski – The Double Life of Véronique, The Decalogue, Three Colours. Szumowska distanced herself from this kind of narration: she mixed gravity with humour, and mystical drama was mingled with the grotesque. Body is a black comedy about contemporary Poland, an essay about the body as the prison of the soul, and a bitter story about the search for hope.
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Corporeality and transgression were also the subject matter of Szumowska's subsequent film – Mug (2017), awarded with the Silver Bear at the 68th Berlinale. The starting point for the story was two events that took place in Poland in the preceding years – the construction of the 36-metre high Christ the King statue in Świebodzin and the first face transplant in Poland, done by the doctors of the Maria Sklodowska-Curie National Research Institute of Oncology in Gliwice. These two seemingly unrelated facts became a base for a caricatural story about contemporary Poland haunted by the demons of envy, aversion and xenophobia.
Barbara Hollender wrote for Rzeczpospolita:
Szumowska's film is immersed in reality – drastic images of everyday life, backwardness, vulgar language, aggression and greed that makes shoppers fight to death over discounted items and children brawl over heirloom while their father's body is still warm. The director shows a dysfunctional society that is unsure about its own identity; a society in which the old communist mentality is mixed with new capitalist avarice.
Mug sparked a lot of controversy. Szumowska painted a caricature – she simplified the vision of the world and exaggerated the bad sides of her characters to create a strong portrait of the Polish public. However, while hunting for impressive scenes and strong message, the director lost the truth, presenting an untrue and incredibly banal image. Tadeusz Sobolewski wrote:
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The film has great cinematography, juicy dialogue, and blunt statements. Nonetheless, after the initial bedazzlement is gone, the story as such is not fulfilling.
In 2019 Szumowska made her first English-language film: The Other Lamb. The world premiere took place at the Toronto International Film Festival. As Szumowska said about the creation of the work in an interview for the Polish version of Vogue:
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I was quite fed up with making arthouse and writing personal scripts. […] I came across the right people and good producers. They didn't force me to servilely interpret the script. I cut out roughly 40% of the text. I had a lot to say, and so did the cinematographer, Michał Englert.
In 2020, two short films directed by Szumowska were released. The Polish director took part in the project Women's Tales created by the high-fashion brand Miu Miu. Her short, Nightwalk, was shot in Warsaw in the middle of winter and tells a story about gender fluidity without the use of words. Szumowska revealed her inspiration came from her friend Filip Rutkowski, who appears in the film. Rutkowski is non-binary and performs as Filipka (his pseudonym is a wordplay in Polish – 'Filipka' is a feminine and diminutive version of the name 'Filip'). His persona is a connoisseur of make-up and beautiful feminine clothing. The Polish actresses Maja Ostaszewska and Magdalena Walach appear alongside Rutkowski in the short, as well as Raffey Cassidy – who starred in Szumowska’s The Other Lamb.
Miu Miu Women's Tales #19 - Nightwalk
Polish HBO, similarly to other European branches of HBO, ordered a short film anthology called At Home from Polish directors. The series was a cinematic commentary on the global pandemic and the resulting quarantine. Szumowska and Michał Englert directed a segment titled Chłopiec z Widokiem (Boy with a View) – a five-minute-long picture about isolation and nature.
In August 2020, Never Gonna Snow Again – Szumowska's and Englert's subsequent film – was announced as the Polish candidate for the 2021 Academy Awards. The film is going to premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. It tells the story of Zhenia, a Ukrainian who moves to Poland to work as a masseur. His clients are rich and separated from reality by the gates of their luxurious housing developments. The Ukrainian actor Alec Utgoff plays the lead, accompanied by Poland's most renowned film actors, including Maja Ostaszewska, Katarzyna Figura, Łukasz Simlat, Agata Kulesza and Weronika Rosati.
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in the name of
33 scenes from life
faces of Culture.pl
Originally written in Polish by Jan Strękowski, May 2006. Updated by BS, 2018. Latest update & translation: NS, Aug 2020.