Eyes Wide Open
Jerzy Skolimowski has said that he makes films to please himself. (1) Between 1964 and 1984 he completed six semi-autobiographical features (Rysopis, Walkover, Barrier, Hands Up!, Moonlighting and Success is the Best Revenge), a segment (in Dialóg) and two other features (Le Départ and Deep End) based on his original screenplays. Given his filmmaking origins it was always likely that he would have difficulty reconciling the intuitions so central to his filmmaking with the demands of international production. While living and working in as many countries, however, he also completed another six relatively big budget productions, including four international co-productions, between 1970 and 1992 (The Adventures of Gerard, King, Queen, Knave, The Shout, The Lightship, Torrents of Spring and Ferdydurke), all literary adaptations to which he applied a range of strategies while leaving a distinctive signature on each.
What follows divides discussion of Skolimowski’s films chronologically into the two separate streams as indicated above beginning with his most ‘personal’ films—the Polish sextet plus Le Départ, Dialóg and Deep End.
Skolimowski has attributed tendencies in his work to a childhood indelibly marked by the War. As a small child he was pulled from the rubble of a bombed out house in Warsaw. His father, a member of the Polish Resistance, was executed by the Nazis. (2) His mother hid a Jewish family in the house and Skolimowski recalls being required to take candy from the Nazis to maintain appearances. At school he preferred practical jokes to study and was expelled more than once. (3)
Skolimowski entered college to avoid military service, studied ethnography, history and literature and took up boxing, which was also the subject of a feature-length documentary, his first notable film. Skolimowski’s interest in jazz (he was an accomplished jazz drummer) and association with composer Krzysztof Komeda brought him into contact with Zbigniew Cybulski (who played the lead in Ashes and Diamonds [Andrzej Wajda, 1958]), Andrzej Munk (the director of Eroica  and Bad Luck ) and Roman Polanski. In his early twenties Skolimowski was already a credentialled writer with several published books of poems, short stories and a play to his credit. He met Andrzej Wajda, the leading director of the then dominant ‘Polish school’ and twelve years Skolimowski’s senior, who showed him a script for a film about youth written by Jerzy Andrzejewski, the author of the novel Ashes and Diamonds. Following his curt dismissal of the script, in response to a challenge by Wajda, he produced his own version which became a basis for the finished film, The Innocent Sorcerers (1960), directed by Wajda with Skolimowski also playing a boxer. (4) He then collaborated with Polanski, writing the dialogue for the script of Knife in the Water (1962) (5) that broke with the didacticism and literariness of the Polish School in its spare, ironic treatment of of inter-generational conflict, subsequently given fuller expression by Skolimowski, especially in Barrier (1966). Knife and later Le Départ (1967), Barrier and Hands Up! (completed 1967, released 1981) also had distinctively spare jazz scores composed by Komeda.
Skolimowski enrolled in the Lódz Film School with the intention of bypassing the long apprenticeship normally required before graduating to feature film direction. Skolimowski used the film stock available to him for student exercises and with initial advice from Andrzej Munk, his friend and “patron” (as Skolimowski described him), he filmed over several years in such a way that the sequences cut together into a feature. While scoring poorly in course work Skolimowski had a finished feature (on a 3:1 shooting ratio) in the can by the end of the course. (6) Released in 1964, the title Rysopis means ‘identification marks’. The central character, Andrzej Leszezyc, is something of a surrogate for Skolimowski who also plays him here and in his reappearances in Walkover (1965) and Hands Up! The film spans the last few hours before Andrzej’s departure for military service. When he appears before the draft board early in the film he is asked for identification marks. His answer is ‘none’. The rest of the film is a picaresque stripping away of identity through a series of encounters. He loses his only valued possession—his dog—to Rabies and reveals few ‘identification marks’ to his wife (she is unaware, for example, that he has been expelled from university), to his friends and even his mother (on the phone). Andrzej comes out something like Skolimowski’s own ‘take’ on the student in Knife in the Water. The recurring theme of lost innocence—the hesitant walking away from youthful dreams into a hostile world—is alluded to rather than spelt out. Andrzej bears comparison with the central character played by Cybulski in Ashes and Diamonds, Skolimowski’s reticence contrasting with Cybulski’s expressively stylised performance. Long takes (an average shot length of around two minutes) with a mobile camera combine a kind of desperate objectivity with subjective point-of-view shots. In his next film, his first ‘official’ feature, Skolimowski had the resources (his shooting ratio of 10:1 was more than three times that of Rysopis) to deploy the sequence shot with even greater assurance. (7)
In Walkover six years have passed since Andrzej Leszezyc enlisted in the army. Although the continuity is not exact it is clearly the same character—an outsider now about to turn thirty, his reticence turning to cynicism. Andrzej has been travelling around the country hustling for a living while participating in boxing matches. Skolimowski’s marriage with Elzbieta Czyzewska, who played Andrzej’s wife in Rysopis, was breaking up by the time Walkover was in production. The three characters she played in Rysopis are suggestive of three different stages of the one life. (8) Czyzewska reappears at the beginning of Walkover as the girl on the platform whom Andrzej appears to recognise. She throws herself under a train just after Andrzej’s train has pulled into the station. To fill a seeming void he forms a relationship with Teresa who was apparently responsible for his expulsion from university as an ‘enemy of the people’. As a former Stalinist with a convent education she carries connotations for Andrzej of a journey into the past.
Andrzej’s non-conformity, although personal, acts as an implicit critique of then prevailing social attitudes. Sequence shots are punctuated by brief soliloquies as Skolimowski faces the camera whilst lines from his poems are heard from a transistor. One of them, repeated as a song sung by a charlady in Barrier, he regards as “containing the story ideas of my entire life—a talisman or handrail”. (9) It tells of a man who arrives “after the first flush of youth has gone” wanting to change everything by “applying a hand to the throat but then merely adjusting his tie”. Skolimowski’s most original film is also the fullest expression of this theme. At the end Andrzej ceases running away and returns to face his opponent, a kind of victory in defeat. The mix of irony and paradox is a paradigm for Skolimowski’s cinema.
Rather than aggressively or apprehensively dissecting space, as is often the case in the era of the Steadicam, Skolimowski scans it, fresco-like, in lateral tracks consistent with his objective-subjective dialectic. We move with Andrzej’s onward rush—his subjective journey—while observing, with some detachment, his place in the urban landscape where the new Poland is replacing the old but the heritage of the past is still lingering.
This dialectic between the objective and the subjective, between the naturalistic and the personal-poetic, amounts to what Skolimowski has aptly described as ‘the mental landscape of the hero’. In this, its nearest relative may be Arthur Penn’s underrated Mickey One (1965). “To see Walkover”, Skolimowski has said, “is to open one’s eyes wider”, an expression of intent that underscores his work. (10)
Although Barrier is not a sequel to Rysopis and Walkover—Skolimowski was not allowed to follow his original intention of playing Andrzej—it forms a loose trilogy with them. Less singular in its mise en scène, Barrier remains a strikingly original integration of theatrical and cinematic effect in the metaphorical treatment of the barriers between the generations. Skolimowski was obliged to use Jan Nowicki in the lead role as the medical student abroad in the world, (11) his persona bringing a dreaminess to ‘the man with a suitcase’ in place of the more desperate reticence of Andrzej. As in Walkover a line of poetry encapsulates the theme: “in this cynical and unidealistic generation romantic impulses manifest themselves”. The dialogue was even more improvised than previously. There was apparently no completed script but intense preparation for each scene in which dialogue was developed with the actors and then pared down. (12) The resultant mosaic structure with recurring images of resurrection and rebirth is movingly poetic and often ironic, informed immeasurably by Komeda’s jazz score locating the metaphysical dimension of the film on the frontier between romanticism and surrealism. The warm and responsive persona of Skolimowski’s then new wife, Joanna Szerbic, as the girl, displaces the bitter romanticism of the earlier works from the personal story onto a fierce polemic with the older generation whose values remain frozen in the past
Walkover has often been described as Godardian, although up to that time Skolimowski had not seen any of Godard’s work. (13) The Czech new wave of Forman, Kardar, Passer, Schorm et al, was a clearer influence. (14) By the time he came to make Le Départ Skolimowski had seen Godard films, most notably Pierrot le Fou and Masculin-Féminin. After Barrier he left Poland to make Le Départ in Belgium in French (which he did not speak) with the two leads (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Catherine Duport) and the cameraman (Willy Kurant) from Masculin-Féminin but cast “because they were simply available”. A light film rather than a comedy, Le Départ, for Skolimowski, “does not have the serious layers that I like in my work”. (15) There is not a great deal of substance in the satire on consumerism. The flamboyant visual style and the percussively jazzy score by Komeda keep the play on surfaces rather than evoking layers of meaning. It is, however, not without autobiographical elements, Skolimowski drawing upon some youthful experiences in the theme of the hero’s coming to maturity as he pursues his dream of becoming a champion rally driver. His obsessive drive for a high-powered car to play the ‘game’ masks his romantic feelings.
Skolimowski returned to Poland to make Hands Up!, the third film of the Andrzej trilogy and the fourth of his Polish sextet. A psychodrama following an ex-student reunion, it comes across something like a performance piece. The ‘happening’, as Skolimowski calls it, (16) is staged in a railway cattle truck by four ex-students, now doctors in the grip of middle-aged conformity, with Skolimowski (as Andrzej, although continuity with Andrzej in the previous film is by no means exact) acting as a kind of master of ceremonies. If Barrier was a ‘polemic’ Hands Up! was, in the director’s words, “a silent scream…a provocation delivered to 32 million Poles about what is wrong” and, by implication, a ‘shout’ for change accusingly directed at Skolimowski’s generation. (17) The strange ritual in the cattle truck, a location with obvious past associations and an uncertain destination, is filmed in sepia. Flashbacks to the participants’ student days are tinted green, signifying the contrast between early idealism and current disillusionment. Their conformity is a measure of how, in the Spring of 1967, the effects of Stalinism had seeped into their psyches.
After deploying relatively conventional shot duration in Barrier and Le Départ, Skolimowski here returned to the long take but, as appropriate for a theatrical ‘happening’, filmed in medium shot and close-up with a mostly stationary camera, movement confined to the panning camera and the shifting perspectives of the zoom lens.
Skolimowski has said that he was “fully aware that he was digging a hole in the system” when he made Hands Up! and knew that he was going too far. (18) He was allowed to complete his film without any interference but then it was promptly banned. In 1980, at the height of Solidarity, Skolimowski was invited back to Poland to bring Hands Up! ‘more up-to-date’ with a view to releasing it. He removed more than a third of the footage and replaced it with film he had shot in London and Beirut (where he had been acting in Volker Schlöndorff’s Circle of Deceit) with intimations of a future military takeover in Poland. But the added footage does not particularly illuminate a film full of allusions, many of which would not be properly understood outside Poland. One can see, however, that a filmmaker’s normal reluctance to explain his film, combined with the poet in Skolimowski, meant that he would not likely have been satisfied with something so prosaic as an explanatory preamble locating the film in its time as an allegory on the effects of Stalinism.
In this form Hands Up! was shown at Cannes in 1981 reportedly running 90 minutes. It then disappeared from circulation to finally emerge in 1985 cut to 79 minutes including the new prologue of 25 minutes. What is left is a hybrid of 54 minutes of the historically resonant original and a prologue of fragments resembling a film diary combined with staged footage. This ‘political pamphlet’ (as a Variety reviewer called it) does not really live up to Skolimowski’s repeated claim that it is his best film. But, taking everything into account, it has strong claims, even in its present form, to be the most politically audacious film of a filmmaker given to risk taking and a key link in the chain that forms his Polish sextet.
Between Hands Up! and his next feature (The Adventures of Gerard ), Skolimowski contributed a story to a Czech-produced portmanteau film, Dialóg 20-40-60 (1968), in which three different directors (the others were Czechs Zbynek Brynych and Peter Solan) each devised their own story using identical dialogue even though the central characters are separated in age from those in the other stories by twenty years. Skolimowski’s segment, titled The Twenty Year Olds, would seem to be an extension of Le Départ with Leaud playing opposite Skolimowski’s wife Joanna Szcerbic.
Deep End (1970) was Skolimowski’s second non-Polish feature to be based on his own original screenplay. This connects it more to his personal Polish films than to his literary adaptations. Like those films the scenario was largely improvised on the set and the free use of the handheld camera adds further to the improvisatory feel. The coming of age storyline bears thematic similarities to Le Départ although the characters are quite different. Skolimowski’s blend of romanticism and a detachment bordering on cynicism, found especially in his first two features, coalesces around the figure of the naïve, questing adolescent hero (John Moulder-Brown), sexually obsessed with fellow employee (Jane Asher). Set in a run-down public swimming baths in London, it was actually filmed in Munich. The feeling of unreal impersonality is heightened to a surreal ambience, the comic edginess of frustrated sexual fantasy spilling over into unexpected tragedy as irrationality takes hold like the red liquid that washes across the frame arbitrarily at the beginning, precipitously at the end.
Of all Skolimowski’s films, Deep End most had the ingredients for a modest, or at least cult, success at the box office but was poorly handled by the studio. Frequently consigned to the bottom half of double bills, it soon disappeared from view. Coming on top of the failure of The Adventures of Gerard and the subsequent King, Queen, Knave (1972), both with mainstream budgets and stars, Skolimowski’s career as an international filmmaker went into eclipse until the critical success of The Shout (1978) then Moonlighting (1982), the fifth of his Polish sextet and critically and commercially his most successful film.
Moonlighting is a tribute to Skolimowski’s resourcefulness and flexibility of mind, his ability not only to find the resources but to devise stylistic responses to the content and to the changed circumstances of each production. There was little more than a month between the film’s conception and production, something of a record for a mainstream feature. The birth of the idea was Skolimowski’s experience of renovating his own house in London, which became the film’s main location. He linked this to the theme of stealing inspired by Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). For the central character, Nowak (Jeremy Irons), stealing “becomes a kind of art, a game he played to confirm the ability to survive”. (19) The third thematic strand was provided when, one week into the script, martial law was imposed in Poland.
The parable of four Poles stranded in London renovating a house on a shoestring for a fellow Pole thus arose out of this confluence of elements and circumstances reflected in Skolimowski’s stylistic response. The ironic observation of a man devising strategies for survival; the affectionate but sharply observed cameos of the English character; foreigners’ responses to alien speech and manners; a dense soundtrack marked by ‘little attacks’ of ambient sound (20) and a subtle yet unsettling use of electronic scoring; the contingent, improvised feel casually endowed with a poetic sense of metaphor; these elements combine into the dense layering characteristic of his oeuvre, each layer here synthesised into an accessible whole.
Skolimowski’s stylistic restlessness is fully evident in the ironically titled follow-up to Moonlighting. The relative classicism of the earlier film which maintains a subtle balance between naturalism and formalism gives way, in Success is the Best Revenge (1984), to a more fragmented style. A primary location is again Skolimowski’s London home. The autobiographical element of the first films in the sextet is again brought strongly to the fore. The genesis was apparently the story written by Skolimowski’s son (Michael Lyndon) about his desire to return to Poland to find his roots. (21) In comparison with the indirect way he spoke through Nowak in Moonlighting to express some of his feelings as a Pole far from home, about the Solidarity crisis, Skolimowski, in Success, speaks more directly through the character of a famous Polish theatre director Rodak (Michael York) struggling to stage a theatrical event as a political statement. The bitter tone of the film is relieved by ironic humour, the relative optimism of Lyndon’s story and more than a touch of implied self-criticism. As such it becomes something of a testament of Skolimowski’s ambiguous but vital relationship with his homeland.
Formally Success matches the audacity of the first four films of the sextet. Skolimowski’s layering of the narrative tests, without exceeding, its naturalistic boundaries in a form of encoded surrealism until Rodak’s staging of his theatrical happening breaks out of realistic logistics into unrestrained metaphor.
The sense of performance is rarely far from the surface layer of Skolimowski’s films. More metaphorical than theatrical, it burst through into more overt cinematic theatre in three of his Polish sextet—Barrier, Hands Up! and Success is the Best Revenge. In a discussion of Barrier, Skolimowski referred to “a certain artificial contrivance in my films which makes people think of theatre”. He then goes on to say that in his films “artificial convention is often disturbed by pieces of truth, of realism”. (22) For him realism is the “fact of not being able to seize everything (which) should lead to a certain edginess on the part of the spectator”. (23)
The Polish sextet plus Le Départ, Deep End and the segment for Dialóg constitute Skolimowski’s “8 1/2” on which his critical reputation mainly rests. Of the literary adaptations only The Shout could be said to have been a critical success although the others have had their supporters. All were clearly Skolimowski projects based on his close involvement with adapting the original work. In four cases he shares a credit for the screenplay and by his own account had a major hand in the final script for The Lightship (1985). (24)
Hands Up! was Skolimowski’s final film in Poland until he made Ferdydurke more than 25 years later. After Le Départ and Dialóg he moved into multi-million dollar international co-production with The Adventures of Gerard, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about a dim-witted hero of the Napoleonic wars. The first of Skolimowski’s six literary adaptations starred Peter McEnery (as Gerard), Claudia Cardinale, Eli Wallach and Jack Hawkins. Skolimowski’s early apprehension about such a move evident in his substitution of Yurek (“little Jerzy” in Polish) for Jerzy in the credits, turned to disillusion (“the worst fourteen months of my life”) when the film received a sparse European release and failed at the box office. The Conan Doyle stories provide a framework in which Skolimowski gives free reign to fantasy in mocking military glory. An amalgam of Godard-style soliloquies to the camera, accelerated movement and sound and disjunctive inserts provide something like filmic dimension to the point of the original stories. (25)
Skolimowski dismisses his surreal black comedy, King, Queen, Knave, (26) filmed in Munich, and another venture into international co-production with stars. The attraction to Nabokov of setting the novel in Germany, for him “an unknown milieu in which he could give full reign to a fairytale freedom of pure invention”, (27) would probably have struck a chord with Skolimowski’s own feelings of liberation from the weight of his Polish inheritance, already evident in the films he had made to this time away from his homeland. Nevertheless, it seems ultimately to have been an unpleasant experience for him, doubly so following the failure of Gerard. The few critics familiar with Nabokov’s novel about a triangle with overtones of obsession and subversion were more inclined to recognise the merits in Skolimowski’s attempt to translate the novel’s “tricky word play, ironic nostalgia and interplay of love” into film. (28) He sought to simplify things, giving inanimate objects a life of their own in a dehumanised form of comedy “closer to farce or burlesque” which recalls the work of Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis, although he appears not to have been familiar with their films. (29) As Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, the hysterical adolescent humour of John Moulder-Brown is also reminiscent of Lewis. (30) This is a mode of comedy unlikely to have found ready acceptance in art houses at the time. In releasing the film in English with two stars (David Niven and Gina Lollobrigida) the producers clearly hoped for more general distribution, which did not eventuate.
After King, Queen, Knave there was a lapse of several years before Skolimowski returned with The Shout, an adaptation of Robert Graves’ short story—a British production that is Skolimowski’s most openly surrealist work. He says that he was attracted to Graves’ story for its “ambiguities and sense of the absurd”. (31) The quasi-realistic adherence to traits of national character and regional authenticity is imaginatively undermined by absurdities, dislocations and non-sequiturs. Devon landscapes and local life assume unsettling proportions. Ambiguity pervades the bizarre central triangle formed by the husband and wife (John Hurt and Susannah York) and Crossley (Alan Bates), the mad stranger cunningly insinuating himself into their relationship while claiming to possess supernatural powers learned from the Aboriginals. The sense of absurdity memorably undermines the cricket match which provides the enclosing framework for Crossley’s telling of his story of the encounter with Fielding and his wife.
In response to a comment that The Shout gives the impression of being precisely shaped, Skolimowski replied that the pattern of working was actually “quite chaotic” although very much to his liking, with an atmosphere that wasn’t coolly calculating but more like “a kind of volcano”. (32) His experiments with sound came to full fruition here—The Shout was one of the first films to make full use of Dolby—notably in the expressionistic achievement, spread over forty tracks, of the lethal shout without the aid of special effects. (33)
Skolimowski found that his liking for improvisation was shared by Robert Duvall, one of the two leads in his next film. That it has been called “an absurdist action picture in a chamber setting” illustrates the difficulty of applying labels to his films even when it is as ostensibly genre-oriented as this one. The Lightship, his first US production, is adapted from a novella by the German writer Siegfried Lenz. Set on a US coastguard ship it was filmed in the North Sea. It is suspended between psychological duel with a doppelganger theme and a pure performance piece within the stage-like confines of the lightship. (34) The ‘duellists’ are the Captain (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a man with a past, and Caspary (Duvall) who lays siege of the ship with two offsiders after being rescued. This is observed by the Captain’s alienated son (Michael Lyndon), torn between observer and participant . The doppelganger theme is made explicit by Caspary’s assertion that “each man resembles his enemy”. What especially appealed to Skolimowski was the Conradian setting where moral issues could be clearly delineated (35) (he has had an attachment to Conrad including a long-standing project to film Secret Agent). While remaining within the parameters of Lenz’s novella he gave greater edge to both the moral and ‘double’ play.
Despite receiving the best film award at the Venice Film Festival, The Lightship had only a very limited release. Skolimowski’s proclivity for layering his narratives likely worked against its success as a mainstream action-suspense piece while the strong genre elements probably worked against art house acceptance.
With Torrents of Spring (1989), a lavishly mounted European co-production starring Timothy Hutton, Nastassja Kinski and Valeria Golino, Skolimowski returned to the same general terrain that he had tried unsuccessfully to traverse in the early 1970s with The Adventures of Gerard and King, Queen, Knave. Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novella by the Russian Ivan Turgenev in which Sarin, a young Russian aristocrat travelling abroad, is left cruelly exposed by his own folly—an affair of the heart with a wealthy, amoral and volatile fellow Russian at the expense of his new Italian fiancée. Skolimowski replaces Turgenev’s coolly ironic analysis lacking a clear resolution with romantic tragedy as Sarin searches fruitlessly for his lost love amidst a dream-like carnival in Venice which cuts to what is, in effect, a floating stage upon which Sarin contemplates, many years later, the ruins of his life. This resolution was one of several changes Skolimowski’s adaptation made to the Turgenev story including an improvised scene in a gypsy camp, the prelude to Sarin’s seduction by the Russian, and a confrontation between the two women. (36)
Torrents would seem to be Skolimowski’s most impersonal ‘generic’ film, the only real departure from his expressed interest in making films only to please himself. But then again this is only relative. There is a personal link to the original material in that he had been attracted to Turgenev as a young student in Poland. Somewhat paradoxically, identifying with Russian culture was a way of resisting Soviet influence. He also identified with Sarin whom he saw as “the kind of person I might have been at 20 or 22…the typical vulnerability of a young man who is not yet sure of the traps of life”. (37) Further cause for identification was Skolimowski’s position as “a man in between”. The overall effect, however, is of an aestheticism otherwise absent from Skolimowski’s work—a series of often strikingly staged set pieces lacking the sense of “chaotic improvisation” which spills over, in his best films, into layered narrative.
It is now more than ten years since Skolimowski directed a film. On the face of it, his last film, Ferdydurke (1992), a long-standing project, would seem to bring together the two main strands of his work—a return to Poland to adapt, for the international market, an uncategorisable 1937 cult novel by his favourite Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, first brought to his attention at film school by Polanski. After initial difficulties with the novel Skolimowski found a growing affinity with Gombrowicz who sought a renewal of language, unsettling his readers with lethal humour aimed at a destruction of existing forms, both cultural and literary. (38)
Gombrowicz, like Skolimowski, saw himself as an outsider. He lived in self-imposed exile for more than twenty years. The novel has recently been published in English in a new translation and adapted to the stage. Ferdydurke (pronounced ‘ferdy-dork-eh’) is a Polish nonsense word which means something like ‘fiddle faddle’. (39) The recurring Skolimowski coming-of-age theme receives a new twist in Ferdydurke which begins with a repressed thirty-year-old writer (Gombriewicz’s alter-ego in the novel) being sent back by a diabolical professor to re-experience the adolescent terrors and pleasures of his schooldays. The novel is really “a series of fantastic short stories blending elements of nonsense, the absurd, irony, social satire and the grotesque in a highly unconventional way”, (40) constituting an outrageous sexual commentary ridiculing authority and class distinctions in a chaotic world on the edge of collapse. By shifting the novel from its 1937 setting to 1939, Skolimowski substituted World War II for Gombrowicz’s invented conflagration.
Although a Franco-Polish production, it was decided to make Ferdydurke in English to reach a wider audience, with Iain Glen, Crispin Glover and Robert Stephens in lead roles. Skolimowski employed two young Polish-American writers, John Yorick and Joseph Kay, whom he felt would not be intimidated by the novel and make it more accessible. (41) The task of finding visual equivalents for Gombrowicz’s challenging use of language resembles the problems the adaptation of Nabokov presented for King, Queen, Knave. Ferdydurke would seem to have met a similar fate at the box office apparently being released outside Poland only in France and possibly Latin America where Gombrowicz’s work is well-known (he spent many years in Argentina).
Skolimowski has now lived in Los Angeles for some years where he paints in a figurative, expressionist mode (42) and acts occasionally in films.
To look at Skolimowski’s work as a whole is to become aware of the limitations of applying labels to any or all of his films. Michel Ciment has compared him to a jazz musician, “all rhythm and improvisation”. (43) He has most often described himself as a poet. As Skolimowski has acknowledged, the film that comes closest to ‘poetic’ is Barrier, narratively his most fragmented work and also his most symbolic. Yet he claims that he never thinks in symbols and that “everything emerges concretely and spontaneously without conscious interpretation”.
As a poet my mind is trained along the path of poetic associations—I’m not afraid to wander away from direct narrative—I feel safe with a story that tempts you to believe or disbelieve. (44)
With the restlessness and resourcefulness of an accidental tourist that also brings Raul Ruiz to mind, Skolimowski has produced a body of work located on the margins between the surreal and the absurd. He evokes the often unsettling ambivalence of objects and, through improvisation and poetic association, seeks a layering of mood and meaning. His is a cinema of irony ambiguously played out, often in simulated performance spaces—a deserted boxing ring, an empty cattle truck, a drained swimming pool, a London bus, the claustrophobic lightship and a baroque city of Venice—located between reality and fantasy where the real shades into metaphor. Yet if the sense of paradox—of passive engagement and aggressive reticence—most often prevails, to adapt one of the key lines from his poetry, romantic impulses also manifest themselves, a measure of the continuing strength of his Polish inheritance.
Skolimowski’s place in the canon of Great Directors rests centrally on Walkover, Deep End, The Shout and Moonlighting. Of these, Walkover remains his most defiantly original work, resistant to labels other than perhaps the contemporaneous one of ‘new’ or ‘second wave’ cinema. In this it shares a seminal place with the likes of Before the Revolution (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1962), Yesterday Girl (Alexander Kluge, 1966) and The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Dusan Makavejev, 1967), films that ‘opened our eyes wider’ in a state of sublime surprise.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Chris Maudson who brought Walkover to my attention back in 1966 and was the first in Australia to write about the New Cinema (Annotations On Film, Melbourne University Film Society, Terms 3–4, 1966)
Thanks to Irene and Michel Sourgnes and David Stratton for their advice and assistance.
Films as director:
+ also script or co-script
* also actor
all films produced in Poland, unless noted otherwise
Oko wykol (The Menacing Eye) (1960) student short
Hamles (Little Hamlet) (1960) student short
Erotyk (Erotic) (1960) student short
Oieniadze albo zycie (Your Money or Your Life) (1961) student short
Boks (Boxing) (1961) + student documentary
Akt (Nude) (1961) student documentary short
Rysopis (Identification Marks None) (1964) + *
Walkower (Walkover) (1965) + *
Bariera (Barrier) (1966) + *
Le Départ (1967) + Belgium
The Twenty Year Olds (1968) segment of Dialóg 20-40-60 + Czechoslovakia
The Adventures of Gerard (1970) + Britain/Italy/Switzerland
Deep End (1970) + *(cameo) West Germany/USA
King, Queen, Knave (1972) West Germany/USA
The Shout (1978) + Britain
Hands Up! (Rece do gory) (1981) original film completed in 1967 + *
Moonlighting (1982) + also producer Britain
Success is the Best Revenge (1984) + also producer Britain/France
The Lightship (1985) + (uncredited) USA
Torrents of Spring (Acque di primavera) (1989) + * (cameo) Italy/France
Ferdydurke (1992) + *(cameo) France/Poland, also known as 30 Door Key
Four Nights with Anna (2008)
Essential Killing (2010)
11 Minutes (2015)
The Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni Czarodzieje) (Andrzej Wajda, 1960) writer, actor (boxer)
Knife in the Water (Nóz w Wodzie) (Roman Polanski, 1962) writer
Frame of Mind (Sposob Bycia) (Jan Rybkowski, 1966) actor (Leopold)
Slip-Up (Poslizq) (Jan Lomnicki, 1972) writer, actor (cameo)
Circle of Deceit (Die Fälshung) (Volker Schlöndorff, 1981) actor (Hoffman)
White Nights (Taylor Hackford, 1985) actor (Col. Chaiko)
Mesmerized/Shocked (Michael Laughlin, 1986) story
Big Shots (Robert Mandel, 1987) actor (Doc)
Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton, 1996) actor (Dr. Zeigler)
L.A. Without a Map (Mika Kaurismaki, 1998) actor (the minister)
Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000) actor (the professor)
Produced The Hollow Men (1993) which was co-scripted, co-directed and starred Skolimowski’s son Michael Lyndon. The co-scriptwriter and co-director was Joseph Kay who also co-scripted Ferdydurke.
Articles and Reviews:
Peter Blum, “A conversation with the Young Polish Director and biography”, Film Comment, Fall 1968
Michel Ciment, essay in Christopher Lyon (ed.), International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 2, St James Press, London, 1984
Mitchell S. Cohen, “Deep End: Passion in a Public Bath”, Velvet Light Trap, no. 14, Winter 1975
Richard Combs, “Under Western Eyes: Skolimowski’s Conradian Progress”, interview, Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1986
Richard Combs, The Lightship, review, Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1986
Richard Combs, King, Queen, Knave, review, Sight and Sound, Winter 1973/4
Richard Combs, “Hearts Like a Wheel”, an interview with Skolimowski about Torrents of Spring, The Listener, 24 May, 1990
Richard Combs, Success is the Best Revenge, review, Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1984
Peter Cowie, Skolimowski, one of the five Directors of the Year, International Film Guide, 1970
Michael Delahaye, interview, Cahiers du cinema, no. 192, July–August 1967, translated in Cahiers du cinema in English, no. 12, December 1967
Jean-André Fieschi et al., “The Twenty First”, interview, Cahiers du cinema, no. 177, April 1966, translated in Cahiers du cinema in English, no. 7, January 1967
John Griffiths, “Jerzy Made”, Movieline, April 1990
William Johnson, The Shout, review, Film Quarterly, Fall 1979
Mira and A.J. Liehm, “Polish Cinema Since the War” in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Viking Press, 1980
Adrian Martin, “The Artificial Night: Surrealism and the Cinema” in Surrealism: Revolution By Night, National Gallery of Australia, 1993
George Mendelsohn, “An Introduction to Jerzy Skolimowski”, Annotations On Film, Melbourne University Film Society, Terms 3–4, 1967
Tom Milne, The Adventures of Gerard, review, Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1971.
Tom Milne, King, Queen, Knave, review, Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1973
Tom Milne, Moonlighting, review, Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1982
Tom Milne, Torrents of Spring, review, Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1990
Simon Mizrahi, “La Porte de la maturité”, interview with Skolimowski about Ferdydurke, Positif, March 1992
David Paul, The Lightship, review, Film Quarterly, Fall 1986
Frédéric Richard, “Ferdydurke: Zut a celui qui le verra!”, review, Positif, January 1994
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Tashlinesque” in Roger Garcia and Bernard Eisenschitz (eds), Frank Tashlin, Locarno Film Festival/BFI, 1994
Martin Seymour-Smith, Guide To World Literature, vol. 4, Hodder & Stoughton, 1974
Mark Shivas, “Au Clair de la lune”, interview with Skolimowski about Moonlighting, Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1982
David Stratton, interview, Sydney Film Festival Bulletin, no. 4, 1971
Philip Strick, “Skolimowski’s Cricket Match”, Sight and Sound, Summer 1978
Christian Braad Thomson, “Skolimowski”, interview, Sight and Sound, Summer 1968
Krzysztof-Teodor Toeplitz, “Jerzy Skolimowski: Portrait of a Debutant Director”, Film Quarterly, Fall 1967
John Wakeman (ed.), essay in World Film Directors vol. 2 1945–85, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988
Michael Walker, essay in Ian Cameron (ed.), Second Wave, Studio Vista, 1970
David Wilson, Barrier, review, Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1967
David Wilson, Le Départ, review, Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1968
Dan Yakir, “Polestar”, Film Comment, November–December 1982
C.W.E. Bigsby, Dada and Surrealism, The Critical Idiom, no. 23, Methuen, 1972
David Bordwell, On the History of Film Style, Harvard University Press, 1997
E.J. Czerwinski (ed.), Dictionary of Polish Literature, Greenwood Press, 1994
Barbara Leaming, Polanski: His Life and Films, Hamish Hamilton, 1982
J.H. Matthews, Surrealism and Film, University of Michigan Press, 1971
Boleslaw Michatek, The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda, Tantivy Press, 1973
Boleslaw Michatek and Frank Turaj, The Modern Cinema in Poland, Indiana University Press, 1988
David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, revised edition, Andre Deutsch, 1994
Articles in Senses of Cinema
An Essential Comeback : Jerzy Skolimowski’s 11 Minutes(2015) by Bruce Hodsdon
Bergman, Skolimowski and European Modernism: Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence: Pictures in the Typewriter, Writers on the Screen by Maaret Koskinen Jerzy Skolimowski: The Cinema of a Nonconformist by Ewa Mazierska review by John Orr
The Way We Were: Jerzy Skolimowski’s Hands Up! by Adam Bingham
Optimism Unfulfilled: Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End and the “Swinging Sixties” by Christopher Weedman
A few films can be purchased here.
Click here to search for Jerzy Skolimowski DVDs, videos and books at
- Dan Yakir, “Polestar”, Film Comment, November–December 1982
- John Griffiths, “Jerzy Made”, Movieline, April 1990
- Yakir, ibid.
- Varying accounts of Skolimowski’s contribution to The Innocent Sorcerers in Leaming, Michatek, Stratton, Walker, Wakeman, all bib., op. cit.
- David Stratton, interview, Sydney Film Festival Bulletin, no. 4, 1971
- Jean-André Fieschi et al., “The Twenty First”, interview, Cahiers du cinema, no. 177, April 1966, translated in Cahiers du cinema in English, no. 7, January 1967
- Stratton, ibid.
- Fieschi, ibid.
- Michael Delahaye, interview, Cahiers du cinema, no. 192, July–August 1967, translated in Cahiers du cinema in English, no. 12, December 1967
- Stratton, ibid. Skolimowski wanted to play Andrzej in Barrier. He signifies this in the film by, at one point, having Nowicki wrap his face in a poster of Skolimowski’s face. Officials at Film Polski thought Rysopis and Walkover “too black, too pessimistic, too double-meaning…” Yet two years later they let him return as Andrzej in Hands Up!.
- Delahaye, ibid.
- Christian Braad Thomson, “Skolimowski”, interview, Sight and Sound, Summer 1968
- Krzysztof-Teodor Toeplitz, “Jerzy Skolimowski: Portrait of a Debutant Director”, Film Quarterly, Fall 1967
- Yakir, ibid.
- Peter Blum, “A conversation with the Young Polish Director and biography”, Film Comment, Fall 1968
- Quoted in programme note for Success, Sydney Film Festival catalogue, 1985
- Yakir, ibid.
- Mark Shivas, “Au Clair de la lune”, interview with Skolimowski about Moonlighting, Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1982
- Note for Moonlighting, Sydney Film Festival catalogue, 1982
- Delahaye, ibid.
- Fieschi, ibid.
- Richard Combs, “Under Western Eyes: Skolimowski’s Conradian Progress”, interview, Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1986
- I have not been able to view Gerard. My comments are based on a review by Milne of Gerard, bib., op.cit.
- John Wakeman (ed.), essay in World Film Directors vol. 2 1945–85, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988, where Skolimowski is quoted as
describing King Queen Knave as “a dreadful film. An atrocity”.
- Milne review, King, Queen, Knave
- Variety, 1 January, 1972
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Tashlinesque” in Roger Garcia and Bernard Eisenschitz (eds), Frank Tashlin, Locarno Film Festival/BFI, 1994
- Richard Combs, The Lightship, review, Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1986
- Combs, “Under Western Eyes”, ibid.
- Richard Combs, “Hearts Like a Wheel”, an interview with Skolimowski about Torrents of Spring, The Listener, 24 May, 1990
- Simon Mizrahi, “La Porte de la maturité”, interview with Skolimowski about Ferdydurke, Positif, March 1992
- 30 Door Key, the alternative English title is also semantically nonsensical but phonetically resembles Ferdydurke, a Gombriewicz invention which apparently refers to Freddy Durkee, an anti-social character who appears in chapter 6 of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbit.
- Martin Seymour-Smith, Guide To World Literature, vol. 4, Hodder & Stoughton, 1974
- Mizrahi, ibid.
- Skolimowski’s paintings have been exhibited in the USA, Italy (including the Venice Film festival), France and several Eastern European countries. They were also exhibited at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, 2001.
- Michel Ciment, essay in Christopher Lyon (ed.), International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 2, St James Press, London, 1984
- Christian Braad Thomson, ibid.