Feature film directed by Lech J. Majewski, based on Pieter Bruegel's 16th Century painting The Procession to Calvary
The story is set in Flanders in the year 1563, depicting the day-to-day life of painter Pieter Bruegel. The artist wanders around the city collecting images and sketches for his painting, in the process observing the daily life of his neighbours and passersby. He calls attention to such details as a spider's web in order to examine its intricate design - and it is this web that inspires the arrangement of the painting. At its focal point is a man carrying a cross, headed for his own execution - the most important element of the piece, has been composed into a number of other events that play out on the canvas.
"I don't consider myself a filmmaker in the strictest sense", claims Majewski. The poet, painter, installation and video artist and sometime stage manager for the opera, has had his works exhibted in galleries all around the world. Films have always held a special place in his life. As he avers in March 2011 interview published on Culture.pl, he became a filmmaker in order to paint pictures. Indeed, his films are very much dominated by the careful composition of images that consciously reach back to the roots of art. This is already obvious in the black-and-white film Wojaczek (1999), which explores the phenomenon of the poet Rafał Wojaczek, a "stuntman of literature", who took his life in 1972 at the age of 26. Or in the extraordinary Angelus (2001), which tells the story of the painter Teofil Ociepka and his occult commune in Janów. The Mill and the Cross is an extension of these artistic experiments.
The Mill and the Cross is the title of an essay devoted to the Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Procession to Calvary, written by the American art historian and critic Michael F. Gibson. Gibson was so impressed by Majewski's Angelus that he published an enthusiastic review in the International Herald Tribune. When he met the director he brought up the possibility of making a film on Bruegel's piece. His vision for the film had the critic standing before the canvas, discussing its composition and individual sequences. "I replied that I had never made such a film and that I wanted to film a story. Gibson claimed this was madness, but we eventually managed to create something of a treatment," says Majewski, adding that he had read the book in one gulp:
Never before had I come across such a great style and precise analysis! As I read, I envisaged the film, or the crucial scene I should say: everyone stands frozen, and the camera penetrates the space around the characters. (...) we chose 12 figures, added an ante scriptum and post scriptum for the focal point, which was to be the afore-mentioned stillness of the figures. After all, this is where the strength and significance of the artist lies, in his ability to stop time in order to bring on the moment of kairos - a holy time. Today no one can do this, we limit ourselves to irony and jokes, we focus on local fables.
Nothing is known about the methods that Brugel used during his work. In The Mill and the Cross the art historian discusses his presumptions about the author's intentions. Gibson adds a commentary that touches upon the content of the piece, as well as the period in which it was created - Flanders under the rule of Spanish kings, guardians of Counter-Reformation leading a cruel war against the infidels. The man on his way to be crucified is not Christ, but his sacrifice is of similar significance and meaning…Equally important as the content of the film, gradually revealed to us by Majewski, is the form itself. The camerawork that explores the painting enables the reconstruction of the world created by this great artist, and allows us to witness the process of creation. Majewski used advanced computer technology to compose a Breugelian world form both the elements of his paintings, as well as different phenomena he considered compatible with the master's vision. This amounted to a unique piece of work - static on the surface ("At one point I was tempted to make a movie composed entirely of living images - nobody moves, you can only hear the internal voices of the characters" admits Majewski), but full of internal dynamics, drawing on the past with costumes, but at the same time, given the technology, thoroughly modern.
The Flemish artist was keen to "collect human types, their nature, physicality, gestures, their biological truth", notes Magdalena Lebecka in Kino (3/2011), adding:
The painter of cinema allows us to contemplate the rich gallery of images and forms of characters. Here the holy women, drenched in tears and pain, gather around Mary. They exist against the background composed of the representatives of different estates, in contrast with their thick, irregular features - repulsive, yet fascinating. As the bearded miller we see Marian Makula, who played the mad inventor Walter Goj in "Angelus". In his mature masculinity Rutger Hauer manages to blend strength, might and sensuality of Pieter the Strange - the peasant painter, making it easy to believe that Bruegel was the greatest philosopher among the artists. It is only Christ who, by a wise decision of the director, never shows his face.
Labecka sums up her review with the epitaph on Bruegel's tomb, written by his friend Abraham Ortels: "He painted a lot of things that cannot be painted" and compares Majewski's accomplishment to that of Bruegel in capturing "poetry, philosophical reflection, hermetic spirituality, metaphysical yearning and shaping them into visual representations. He also remains one of the few contemporary artists, who have the courage to defend the category of beauty with their work".
Konrad J. Zarębski, March 2011. Translated by Mateusz Jaworski, March 2011.
The Mill and the Cross (Poland-Sweden 2010). Directed by Lech Majewski. Screenplay: Lech Majewski, Józef Skrzek. Production designers: Katarzyna Sobańska, Marcel Sławiński. Costume designer: Dorota Roqueplo. Edited by: Eliot Ems, Norbert Rudzik. Sound designer: Marian Bogacki. Starring: Rutger Hauer (Pieter Bruegel), Michael York (Jonghelinck), Charlotte Rampling (Mary) and others. Produced by: Angelus Silesius and Telewizja Polska, Bokomotiv Filmproduktion, Odeon Studio, Silesia Film, 24 Media, Supra Film, Arkana Studio, Piramida Film. Co-funded by the Polish Film Institute. Runtime: 95 min.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2011. For international press reviews of the film, see: Praise for Majewski's The Mill and the Cross after Sundance. It also won the Grand Prix at the Cineast Festival in Luxembourg, with the President of the Jury Agnieszka Holland calling the film "a journey which we would never be able to take without Majewski (...) the most original film from this official selection and probably the most original film from European cinema this year".
Also see Konrad J. Zarębski's full interview on Culture.pl at From the Tree of Life to the Tree of Death - Interview with Lech Majewski.
The film debuted in Polish cinemas in March 2011 and in US theatres in September 2011.