Polish Oscar Contender's Directors on Breaking the Rules, Casting 'Stranger Things' Star Alec Utgoff

Polish Oscar film 'Never Gonna Snow Again'
Venice Film Festival

'Never Gonna Snow Again'

"We took the risk of making a film that's not based on some direct, straight-forward story," say directors Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert about 'Never Gonna Snow Again,' a social satire about an enigmatic masseur with mystical powers.

In the opening scene of Never Gonna Snow Again, Poland's contender for the 2021 international film Oscar, we see a muscular man step out of a mystical forest and make his way to a concrete, Soviet-style government building.

He's a foreigner — from Ukraine — and is there to secure a residency permit. There's no love coming from the face of the grey bureaucrat behind the desk but, with a wave of his hands, and some whispered words in Russian, the bureaucrat falls into a deep slumber. The muscular man stamps his own documents and walks out the door. As he does, the camera pans to a record player, which magically springs into action. Shostakovich.

In the next scene, we see the same man carrying a massage table through a gated suburb of identikit McMansions. He stops and rings a doorbell. Shostakovich again. The same tune but tinny, kitschy, and a bit off-key.

What follows is a story of the wealthy and shallow residents of this strange community and the comfort — physical and spiritual — they receive from this mysterious masseur from the East. It's part social satire, part intimate drama, and part sci-fi dystopia. The title refers to climate change and the masseur's mystic powers, it appears, may have been the result of being exposed to radiation as a child near Chernobyl. 

Never Gonna Snow Again is also unlike anything in this year's Oscar race.

"We took the risk to make a film that's based on enigma, not on some direct, straight-forward story," says Malgorzata Szumowska, who co-directed Never Gonna Snow Again with her long-time cameraman Michal Englert.

"The challenge was to find a new cinematic grammar where everything was nuanced and multi-layered. Where nothing fits into one specific genre."At last year's Academy Awards, South Korean auteur Boon Joon Ho mashed up genre conventions with Parasite —a social drama about the gap between rich and poor in Korea that is also a comic farce, a nail-biting thriller, and a few other things — to phenomenal success, scoring four Oscars, including a historic best picture win.

Poland's 2021 Oscar contender is one of a handful of unconventional films in the International Feature race that will test how far the Academy is willing to go to embrace, and reward, experimental cinema. 

The film premiered to critical acclaim at the Venice Film Festival last year and has been riding a wave of positive reviews ever since. It currently has a 100 percent approval rating on online review site RottenTomatoes.com.

All of which has come as a bit of a surprise to Szumowska, who said she had a hard enough time convincing the film's star, Alec Utgoff, to star as Zenia, the mysterious masseur. The British actor is best known for supporting roles in big action films like San Andreas (2015) or Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), and for playing Russian scientist Dr. Alexei in season 3 of Netflix's Stranger Things. Never Gonna Snow Again was his first arthouse role.

"At the beginning, when Alec read the script, he was lost, he didn't know how he could express this kind of character, where everything about him is ambiguous," says Szumowska. "Alec is a very technically skilled actor, but he was used to these big studio productions and was expecting very specific information about Zenia's behavior and motivations. But Zenia is very ambiguous. Thankfully, I was able to convince him to trust me and go with it."

Another another big challenge in preparing Never Gonna Snow Again was convincing the residents of the gated estate —a real pop-up suburb on the outskirts of Warsaw —to let them shoot on location. Initially, Szumowska and Englert posed as potential buyers.

"They'd be showing us identical house after identical house and saying how 'unique' each one was," Englert recalls."We were like: 'yes, so unique.'"

The cookie-cutter houses and their neurotic residents provide a comic backdrop to Never Gonna Snow Again — and the directors have plenty of fun pointing out the absurdity of Poland's self-absorbed, nouveau riche. One of the residents gets Zenia to massage her dog. Another brags about her son's independence: "He orders Uber Eats all by himself."

But behind the laughs, there's melancholy. The residents have embraced Western-style turbo-capitalism, but it hasn't made them feel happy. Or safe.

"Michal and I come from the same generation, the generation who were children under communism. I was 16 when the communist system fell down. He was 14," Szumowska notes. "It wasn't a safe period at all but for us, as children, it felt safe. After 1989, we had this period of wild capitalism, this crazy manic competition, which brought a lot of freedom but has made people feel less secure. In a gated community like the one in our film, it's all about trying to keep up with your neighbors, trying to prove you are better."

Part of the inspiration for Never Gonna Snow Again came when Englert visited Chernobyl, scouting for another film.

"It was surprising. I was shocked and impressed by this ghost city, but I always felt a strange calmness, it felt like I had moved back in time to my childhood," he says. 

This "strange calmness" is soaked into Englert's images in Never Gonna Snow Again, particularly the film's dream sequences, in which Zenia's clients are hypnotized by his Russian whispers. The misty forest scenes evoke classic Russian cinema, particularly the work of Andrei Tarkovsky.

"His cinema influenced us very strongly, we both went to the same film school in Poland [Lodz Film School) where we watched Tarkovsky over and over," says Szumowska. "His movies, which are less stories than poetry, or prayer, is something we grew up on. And it's a kind of cinema that was almost erased in Poland in the 1990s, when everyone tried to copy American films."

"I see a pretty clear connection between one of Tarkovsky's films, Stalker (1979), and our story in Never Gonna Snow Again," says Englert. "In both, we have a guide that comes from nowhere and who can lead our characters into a sort of magic zone where they confront their deepest desires."

"Our goal, really, was to make a film for cinema lovers," Szumowska concludes. "We wanted to get back to the roots of cinema, where there's something deeper going on. I know that I've been starved for this kind of film and, given the response to Never Gonna Snow Again, maybe I'm not alone."