Piotr Sobociński was a cinematographer, born on 3rd February 1958 in Łódź, and died 26th March 2001 in Vancouver.
Cinematographer, born 3rd February 1958 in Łódź, died 26th March in Vancouver.
He was one of the most prominent Polish cinematographers of his generation, but passed away at the age of 43, having hardly let his talent flourish. He was, however, appreciated by the film industry, and numerous distinctions go to prove it – an Academy Award nomination, the Golden Frog award at the Camerimage festival, and the award for best cinematography at the Kraków Film Festival. After the success of Red by Krzysztof Kieślowski, Sobociński moved to Hollywood, where he joined the ‘Polish mafia’ of cinematographers (Andrzej Bartkowiak, Janusz Kamiński, Sławomir Idziak), becoming a sought-after artist, hired in multi-million productions. His death came as a surprise to everyone. Hollywood honoured him by dedicating the two last films that he worked on to him – Hearts in Atlantis and Trapped (which he was filming when he died). In Poland, he was posthumously awarded a special Golden Frog at the Camerimage festival and a star on the Star Alley in Łódź, a gesture that symbolically made him a legend of Polish cinema.
His father was Witold Sobociński – an icon in Polish cinematography – so he became fascinated with cinema from a very young age. One of his first memories was from the set of Hands Up! by Jerzy Skolimowski – a train wagon covered in flour. He took part in filming Everything for Sale, The Wedding and The Promised Land by Andrzej Wajda, The Hourglass Sanatorium by Wojciech Has, and was taken by the world of film, recreating his father’s view of it. He decided to abandon his former plan, which was to enrol in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts, choosing cinematography at Łódź Film School instead. He finished there in 1982, but didn’t earn his diploma until 1998.
His professional debut came when he was still a student – in Feliks Falk’s And All That Jazz, about the beginning of jazz in Poland under the communist regime, among which was the band Melomani (editor’s translation: music lovers), where his father played the drums and trombone. Right after school he took part in making documentaries, like Andrzej Czarnecki’s legendary and awarded The Rat-Catcher (1986) – a portrait of the only specialist at non-toxic rat trapping in Poland. The film was a presentation of the protagonist’s skills, but also of the mechanisms one uses to subordinate a group (even when it comes to human beings). Czarnecki’s film was interpreted as a metaphor of the communist system, and the jury of the Kraków Film Festival awarded it with the Grand Prix, with a distinction to its cinematographers: Piotr Sobociński, Marcin Isajewicz, and Mieczysław Herba.
A year earlier Sobociński and Isajewicz, working together on The Magnate (1986), were in a serious car accident when returning from shooting: Isajewicz and interior decorator Krystyna Krasińska died on the spot, while Sobociński was transported to the hospital. His recovery took a few months. Before the accident, the young cinematographer had already worked on three feature films, among others Miłość z Listy Przebojów (editor’s translation: Love from the Hit List), 1984, by Marek Nowicki. The grandeur of The Magnate – a huge costume production about the history of the von Pless (von Teuss) family proves the trust that Filip Bajon bestowed upon the young artist, as the film required shooting in various conditions and was extremely stylised.
Sobociński returned to work after meeting with Krzysztof Kieślowski. Every episode of the Decalogue was to have its own view of the world, but Sobociński was the only cinematographer to be offered two parts of the series – the third and ninth. The first takes place on Christmas Eve and is mainly about human possessiveness. The second is often called a ‘short film about jealousy’. Is it possible then, that Kieślowski considered possessiveness and jealousy to be two shades of the same emotion?
But the turning point in both Sobociński’s and Kieślowski’s careers was their next movie: Red (1994) from the Three Colours series. This is how Piotr Sobociński described working on Red to Tadeusz Sobolewski for Kino (Film) magazine (no.9/1993):
Krzysztof and I sat down with the script of Red and tried to logically justify all the formal exertions we planned to use in it. In most movies, it’s the chronological timeline and turning points that matter; in Red it’s the hidden action. (…) I proposed an equivalent to action: it based on skilful management of two basic emotions that the scenario triggered. Both of them are unknown: the first is the impossibility of August and Valentine’s meeting, the second – an assumption that the young August and the old Judge have something in common. To carry out these two thoughts (or rather, emotions), we had to plan the smallest elements of the movie.
We’re filming chance – and chance can’t be shown if we film it by chance. The world must be under total control, so that chance can emerge. We built an entire net of associations, based on a different rule than in most films: usually details are shown to announce what will happen. Here, it’s the opposite. The subsequent scenes reveal that elements hidden in the ones before were relevant. The conclusion is made, and the following, random events only complete the finished plan. (…)
The cinema can create everything. (…) We, however, didn’t succumb to that option. The condition of making a movie for us is maximum credibility, starting with the light, which in this movie is extremely soft, without shadows, giving it a very natural feeling. (…) The script of Red can’t really be described, but with the right film tools, one can build a mystery on it. We set traps for the viewer, teaching them to understand the world we’ve created, without having to point to the crucial elements. If the viewer accepts the proposed way of interpreting the book – sorry, film, we can count on a positive, perhaps even emotionally positive, reception overall.
Red was named one of the possible winners in Cannes in 1994, but – to the surprise of the critics and Quentin Tarantino himself – the jury awarded Pulp Fiction instead. The enthusiastically greeted final of Three Colours made not only Krzysztof Kieślowski and his co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz household names, but also Piotr Sobociński. In the eyes of the public, Sobociński was as much the author of the film as Kieślowski – an Oscar nomination for the three of them only goes to prove it. Kieślowski encouraged Sobociński to work in Hollywood, and his American success came very quickly: his first movie overseas was Marvin’s Room (1996) by Jerry Zaks, which was awarded in Moscow. A few weeks earlier Ransom (1996) by Ron Howard appeared on screens – a thriller with an $80 million budget. Sobociński’s transition to the American film industry was very smooth. This is what he told Kino magazine after being named the most notable cinematographer in Poland:
In the States, I feel more of a technician than an artist. Of course, there are moments when the cinematographer and the director find common ground and discuss their work (which is what happened with me and Robert Benton). Here, the freedom that is given to the cinematographer depends on the director. If the former is lucky, he might get a chance of artistic expression. If not, his task will be to obey the commands of the director. (…) To be honest, moving to the States was never a life goal for me. I wasn’t sure if it was the place for me, if I’d be satisfied with my work. Unfortunately, the latter is the hardest thing to achieve here…
He was a man of extreme sensitivity and wrote poems (published in 2002, after his death). He missed Poland, his family (both sons, Piotr junior and Michał studied cinematography at Łódź Film School) and his work in Europe, where he was very successful. Nevertheless, he worked hard in the States – at the time of his death, filming Trapped
(2002) by Luis Mandoki, two other films that he worked on were waiting for their premiere. His passing came as a surprise to everyone. George Spiro Dibie, president of the IATSE International Cinematographers Guild, said farewell to Sobociński in The Hollywood Reporter: He was a talented young artist, who managed to achieve quite a lot, to mention pictures such as Red, Ransom, or Marvin’s Room. How unfortunate that we won’t be able to see how his career might have evolved, what movies he might have made. (27th
- 1980 - Drugi Oddech (editor’s translation: Second Breath)
- 1980 - Pierwsza Miłość (editor’s translation: First Love)
- 1980 - Usta Pełne Ziemi (editor’s translation: Mouth Full of Dirt)
- 1980 - Wyspa (editor’s translation: Island)
- 1981 - Ptaki (editor’s translation: Birds) also direction
- 1982 - Epilog (editor’s translation: Epilogue)
- 1979 - Arena Życia (editor’s translation: Scene of Life)
- 1983 - Milczenie (editor’s translation: Silence)
- 1983 - Norwid
- 1986 - The Rat-Catcher, awarded at the Kraków Film Festival, 1986
- 1984 - Miłość z Listy Przebojów (editor’s translation: Love from the Hit List)
- 1984 - Remis (editor’s translation: Tie)
- 1985 – Cheap Money
- 1986 – The Magnate
- 1986 – Biała Wizytówka (editor’s translation: White Card)
- 1988 – The Decalogue – TV series; Decalogue Three, Decalogue Nine
- 1988 – Koniec, short film (editor’s translation: The End)
- 1989 – The Ball at the Koluszki Junction
- 1990 – Forefathers
- 1990 – Pasażerowie na Gapę (editor’s translation: Stowaways)
- 1990 – Pension Sunshine, TV movie, prod. Germany
- 1992 – A Nagy Postarablas, prod. Hungary
- 1993 – Die Wildnis, prod. Germany
- 1994 – Three Colors: Red, filmed in Switzerland; Golden Frog at the Camerimage Festival in 1994, Oscar nomination for Best Pictures in 1995
- 1995 – The Seventh Room, prod. Italy, Golden Frog at the Camerimage Festival in 1995
- 1996 – Marvin’s Room, prod. USA
- 1996 – Ransom, prod. USA
- 1998 – Twilight, prod. USA
- 2001 – Angel Eyes, prod. USA
- 2001 – Hearts in Atlantis, prod. USA, Golden Frog at the Camerimage Festival in 2001
- 2002 – Trapped, prod. USA
Article originally written by Konrad Zarębski, Aug 2009, translated by WF, Nov 2017