He received the Best Cinematography award for Lasting at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and for 33 Scenes from Life at the Golden Lion Festival in Gdynia, and was cinematographer for The Congress by Ari Folman, which premieres at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Michał Englert continues as one of the most interesting Polish cinematographers.
Michał Englert is one of the most sought-after Polish cinematographers, despite his young age. He tries to follow the style of a film's director, rather than impose his own. In recent films, he seeks a fresh perspective and a new means of expression. He's involved in a number of projects, but he doesn't allow himself to fall into a routine.
In an interview with Culture.pl, he likened his approach to film as "thinking out of the box":
When I work, I am mostly guided by intuition. It gives me adrenaline and an inspiring uncertainty. We can come up with lots of ideas in the months before the shoot – knowing what we want to achieve and how to achieve it. Then comes that one day, when an actor is sick, you have a hangover, it's raining, and the sun wouldn't shine. These moments require concentration and strength. It is an important skill, to cope with difficult times.
Open heart, open mind
His father, Maciej Englert, is an acclaimed theatre director and actor. Meanwhile, his mother, Marta Lipińska, has played over a hundred roles in Polish films and TV series. Michał's uncle, Jan Englert
, is a film buff, and one of the most popular Polish actors in recent decades.
The fact that Michał comes from an artistic family had its pros and cons. On the one hand, from an early age he had the opportunity to observe the work of prominent actors, observing how theatre and films come to life. On the other hand, he had to deal with gossip, suggessting that it was easier for him because of his connections. "It was completely different," Englert confessed. "I often had the feeling that for me, expectations were higher".
Englert began taking pictures in his teens,
When in high school, I realised that I will not be an athlete or a fireman, I knew that I would be a camera operator. It would be nice to say that my mentors were Vittorio Storaro [cinematographer for Bertolucci, Saura and Coppola] and Sven Nykvist [Bergman's DP], that I watched their films and decided to become a filmmaker. But this is not true. Inspiration is everywhere. I did not even realise how many things make us think. Everything is a matter of an open mind. Professor Witold Sobociński, who has quite a few grey hairs on his head, always impressed me by the fact that he still possesses the curiosity of a child. I think this is a key feature of any artist.
Michał Englert met the famous professor at the Łódź Film School. Many of the teachers there were legendary filmmakers. These included, Jerzy Wójcik
, a visual philosopher who examined his own work precisely and that of others, and Prof. Sobociński, a jazzman, erudite and intuitive. "At school I did not belong to either the Sobociński or Wójcik fractions, but I owe a lot to both of both them".
The 'Szumowska' period
At Film School, he met Małgorzata Szumowska
, with whom he has made 12 films to date. In 2001, the two were married, and although the couple divorced a few years later, they still collaborate on artistic projects. Despite the breakup, they are still connected, Englert told Culture.pl,
When you are in your early 20s, you are susceptible to various influences, forming opinions and tastes. With Małgorzata, we were fascinated about the same things, because we had such a good rapport. We still do today.
In 1997, the two completed a documentary short, Cisza / Silence
– a portrait of a family living in a village in the Polish region of Mazury. The impressionistic film spoke about the passing of everyday life in the monotony and silence that is so natural, it's unrealistic. Englert's long camera pans highlighted the idyllic views of the regions revered landscape. Cisza
won many awards at documentary film festivals. At a festival in Mexico in 1999, Michał Englert received the award for Best Cinematography.
He worked with Szumowska on their feature debut, Szczęśliwy człowiek / Happy Man
(2000). In the years which followed, they made several other films together: some documentaries Dokument
(2001) and features Ono / Stranger
and Wizje Europy / Visions of Europe
(both in 2004). Seven years later they collaborated on Elles
(2001), which starred Juliette Binoche.
The greatest achievement of the two artists is still 33 sceny z życia / 33 Scenes from Life
(2008), a moving story about death, God and spiritual deadness. The film won six awards at the Golden Lion Festival in Gdynia, including Best Polish Cinematographer. Critic Tadeusz Sobolewski wrote in the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper,
This "film about death" [...] cannot be categorised in any banal, pathetic or sentimental formula. Seemingly flat, devoid of metaphysics – which it was accused of – it has its depth. [...] We look at reality here, not directly, but through a mirror, from a distance. It is like the heroine is at the same time within and outside of the events taking place: watching herself .
Points of view
"I was lucky enough to work with different artists", Englert says, "so that I can look at film and the world from different directions. I think life experience translates into artistic maturity."
Before he set foot on the set of 33 Scenes From Life
, Englert took part in one of the most interesting projects in his career so far. One day, Karl Baumgartner, a famous producer from Italy, invited Englert to a meeting with Pan Nalin, a director of Indian descent residing in Paris. The principal photography of Valley of Flowers
was to start in a few weeks, and Nalin still did not have a cinematographer. "We looked into each others eyes, and decided that we will go along this path. Fate decided: Two people met and found that you need to trust each other and make a film".
A few weeks later Englert flew to India. For five months he worked on the film set in the Himalayas, then spent another month in Tokyo. The result of this collaboration was Valley of Flowers
, a spectacular melodrama in which adventure cinema is coupled with a mystical tale of love, passion and reincarnation.
This was a good period in Englert's career, as he told Culture.pl,
In retrospect, I believe that work of Valley of Flowers was an interesting life experience. I have a few reservations about the film, but the opportunity to learn a new culture and work with an international team was an amazing experience.
After that, the success of 33 Scenes From Life
made Englert one of the hottest names among Polish cinematographers. Work proposals poured in. In 2009, Jacek Borcuch
offered him a job on Wszystko, co kocham / All That I Love
, a nostalgic story of youth in the communist-era People's Republic of Poland.
The two filmmakers worked again on the set of Borcuch's Nieulotne / Lasting
in 2011. The cinematographic vision, colour and light saturation were an integral part of the narration. Englert often teetered on the verge of overexposing the negative, thus showing the emotional intensity of the characters. In the second part of the film, he portrayed the breakdown of interpersonal relationships through a grim portrayal of Kraków landmarks bathed in sullen greys and rotten greens.
The film won Englert the Best Cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival 2013, the most prestigious independent film festival in the world. "I was certainly glad that someone appreciated my work, but I myself have not changed by the fact that I got the award. I am the same man", Englert said.
His films are currently enjoying enormous popularity at some of the world's biggest festivals. The Congress
directed by Ari Folman opened one of the most esteemed sections at the Cannes Film Festival 2013 – Directors' Fortnight.
Based on stories by Polish science-fiction writer Stanisław Lem
, the film provided Englert with a new hurdle. Directed by Folman (who made the César-award-winning Waltz with Bashir
) is a feature combining classic cinema and animation. Englert told Culture.pl that there was a lot of brainstorming involved to come up with the desired effect:
We wanted a language that would combine the real and animated world. I hope that you will see that many elements of the animation were invented in real life. Our tools and staging ideas were transferred to animation.
Asked by Culture.pl if there is anything he hates about his job, his reply was quick: "Of course. Camera! Action!" Working on a film, he said, is more than a way to make money: "This passion requires dedication, but it also provides some excitement and opens one to new possibilities".
Plays well with others
Despite this dedication, he does not limit his career to cinematography. While still a student he co-wrote some of Szumowska's documentaries, short films and her Wniebowstąpienie / Ascension
(2000). He also wrote for Visions of Europe
(2004), and helped write W imię… / In the name of …,
which was nominated for the top prize at the 2013 Berlinale Film Festival. Englert told Culture.pl that the film was a labour of love:
Małgorzata said that it would be fair to show the world we are both responsible for this film. Our work is a constant replenishment and coming together of many things. I really like this kind of cooperation, because what arises is then much more personal. This translates into the cinemagraphy, because I know how emotional it each scene should be.
In the name of... tells the story of a priest of a little Parish in Mazury, who opens a refuge for young people with problems. The parson hides his past from his parishioners and is forced to cope with his unfulfillment, a secret passion and crisis of faith by himself.
It would be easy to make a strong film on the subject: to push and crush. To show a pedophile priest and shoot a journalistic film. But we were inerested in the psychological drama of a man who is trapped - said the cinematographer.
Everyone praised Englert's cinematography after the Berlin festival:
'In the name of...' is beautifully shot, through a fog of warm sunrises and a shimmering light, it recalls the majesty of creation, which - in a way - perfectly reflects the film's spiritual background - wrote Patrick Gamble in his review for Cine Vue.
Deborah Young of 'The Hollywood Reporter' noticed that: 'The lighting in scenes shot outside (...) attracts attention especially in showing a forest of trees higher than any cathedral' and Jonathan Romney of Screen Daily wrote that 'Clearly improvised and energetic scenes with teenagers and Englert's camera, as well as clear, naturalistic cinematography give the film a certain something that distinguishes it from others'.
He's made films about football fans and about students-prostitutes in Paris. He's worked on psychological dramas, science-fiction films and romantic comedies. In 2013 such diverse films as The Congress, In the name of... and Jacek Bromski's Ticket to the Moon hit the screens. His next collaboration with Szumowska, Body (2015), awarded for Best Director in Berlin, was a great success. Englert was both the cinematographer and the co-writer of the film.
He travels from one movie set to the next. He keeps on searching and growing. Lately he's been working more and more on international productions. In 2016 Alexandros Avranas's True Crimes with Jim Carrey, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Agata Kulesza premiered at the Warsaw Film Festival. Englert is also responsible for cinematography in Marie Noëlle's Marie Curie, a biography of the Polish Nobel Prize winner played by Karolina Gruszka, which will premiere in February 2017. Today Michał Englert is already a brand and one of the most important artists of new Polish cinema.
Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by RG, updated by NMR, October 2016.
- 1999 - Silence: award for Best Cinematography at the Mexico International Film Festival
- 2008 - 33 scenes from life: Best Cinematography at the Gdynia Polish Film Festival
- 2013 - Lasting: Best Cinematography in the International Competition at the Sundance Film Festival
- 2016 - Body: Polish Film Prize Orzeł - nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Screenplay