Berlin Q&A: Director Malgorzata Szumowska

Malgoska Szumowska - H 2013

Malgorzata Szumowska works as an artistic supervisor at the production companies Zentropa International Poland (co-producing Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist”) and Polish producer Agnieszka Kurzydlo’s Mental Disorder 4, which produced her Berlinale main competition entry this year – “In the Name of…”

Malgorzata Szumowska was born in Krakow. She graduated from the renowned Lodz Film School and began her career making short feature films. Her short Ascension was presented at Cinefondation in Cannes. Her previous feature Elles, starring Juliette Binoche, opened the Panorama at Berlinale 2012 and was sold to more than 40 countries. She also works as an artistic supervisor at the production companies Zentropa International Poland (co-producing Lars von Trier’s Antichrist) and Polish producer Agnieszka Kurzydlo’s Mental Disorder 4, which produced her Berlinale main competition entry this year – In the Name of…starring renowned Polish actor Andrzej Chyra (The Collector, Berlinale Panorama 2006) as a handsome Catholic priest in rural Poland who is troubled by his homosexual desire for a young local outcast.

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THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: How did you come to work with these particular actors in the leads?

Malgorzata Szumowska: Andrzej Chyra played in couple of my films, in small parts. Nevertheless, I always admired him, especially for his theater work in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s plays and for his performance in Krzysztof Krauze’s The Debt. When an idea of a film about a priest came to mind, I began to write for Andrzej, because I finally had found a part in a film of mine for this actor. Mateusz Kosciukiewicz has played some leading roles and he received the Best Actor award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival for The Mother Theresa of Cats. Despite his young age, he is a well-known and respected actor. This duo sprang into my head instantly when I started writing.

THR: You have stated that you wanted to make a film about yearning for love, affection, closeness. Why the homosexual aspect? Is it the most “forbidden” kind of love that makes this yearning the most dramatic?

Szumowska:Yes, it’s the most dramatic yearning, because, this affection is felt by a priest, for whom any form of passion would be a sin. The attitude of the Catholic Church towards homosexuality is well known – it is treated as something unnatural, even as a disease, so it’s a very dramatic combination. I come from a Catholic country and I wanted to tell a story that touches upon a subject that concerns me. I used to be Catholic and I was acquainted with many priests, so I got fascinated by the subject.

THR: Playing homosexual characters is obviously a big step for actors. How did your lead actors react when you offered them the part? Are these their first homosexual roles?

Szumowska: In Poland, there have been no films thus far that deal specifically with homosexuality. It’s one of the first films about the topic. Andrzej played many times in theater, in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s plays, and Mateusz did as well. Warlikowski is well known in France, and his plays often touch upon the theme of homosexuality, in an exquisite and courageous way. So neither Andrzej nor Mateusz was afraid of this challenge.

THR: How did you come to work with cinematographer Michal Englert and what is your mode of working like?

Szumowska:I have worked with Michal Englert for 16 years now, from the very beginning. We’ve made films together starting with my student films. Michal is not only a cinematographer, but a cinematographer in the Lodz Film School tradition – a partner in collaboration on every stage of the project. Michal does staging and he works on the script with me. In the Name of... is his writing debut, but truth be told, he was always helping me write my films. Jacek Drosio, my editor, is a similar case. He edited all my films and the three of us are a kind of film group. We are also planning to work together on our next project. 

THR: Given that the subject matter is controversial, how difficult was it to find funding for this film in Poland?

Szumowska:I suspect that if it were not for the Polish Film Institute, it would be very hard to finance such a film. The PFI Director General Agnieszka Odorowicz has courage and she is not afraid of other people’s opinions and attacks. She was supportive of this project from the very beginning, as was Beata Ryczkowska from Canal plus. Poland is a democratic country and everybody can express themselves as they want. The film won’t be released in Poland until October. I think that’s good for us that the film won’t premiere in Poland, because of its very sensitive subject matter. Poland probably needs such a film, and I hope that it will cause wise public debate.

THR: How did you come to work internationally, i.e. outside of Poland?

Szumowska:It just came to me step by step, not by design. I traveled to many international film festivals with Silence, one of my first shorts from film school, received some awards, and with my next short, I was selected for the Cinefondation competition in Cannes. After my first feature Happy Man, Karl Baumgarnter from Pandora Film proposed that I make my second feature with him and Michael Schmid-Ospach, the head of Filmstiftung NRW, who was interested in making a Polish-German coproduction. That's how Ono happened.

We continued working with Pandora and made 33 Scenes from Life, with Julia Jentsch as lead actress. It was a great experience to work in such an international crew, especially since Zentropa had also a part in the project. The mixture of cultures, people, and languages had a very strong impact on me

After winning the Silver Leopard in Locarno for 33 Scenes, I met Marianne Slot from Slot Machine France, she was looking for a female Eastern European director to make a film about student prostitution. The film was completed after two years of work, and the whole film is in French. I don't speak French, but somehow it was great to concentrate on the emotion in the acting, not the words. And now I’ve made a 100% Polish film, with only Polish money and Polish subject matter.

THR: Do you see yourself working more in Polish film industry in the future? How important is working on an international level and outside of Poland to you?

Szumowska:Poland and my roots are very important for me. That’s why I decided to make a feature film in Poland, and with only Polish money. It's so great to have all this international experience behind me – I now feel freer in my own country. My horizons are also broadened by working with so many people around Europe. They taught me what I never would have learned just staying in my own country. This mixture of Polish, not Polish, of being European, gives me a perspective to see Poland through “new eyes” – paradoxically, more closely... because it’s from a kind of distance.