In The Mill And The Cross, directed by Lech J. Majewski, we witness a translation of Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 epic masterpiece The Procession to Calvary into cinema. Lech J. Majewski mischievously invites the viewer to live inside the aesthetic universe of the painting as we watch its creation. As various lives unfold within the film frame, Bruegel, too, appears as a character—capturing shards of their desperate stories on his canvas-in-the-making. A vibrant meditation on art and religion as ongoing, layered processes of collective storytelling and reinterpretation, The Mill And The Cross is also a feast of stunning visual effects and a provocative allegory.
The Mill And The Cross will be screened as part of the 13th Annual Polish Film Festival, LA on Friday, October 12 at the CSUN Cinematheque with the director attending for a Q&A.
Bijan Tehrani: What initially motivated you to make The Mill And The Cross?
Lech Majewski: Well, it was my absolute love for Pieter Bruegel and for his paintings and his life story, which is the most important for me. His paintings are very important in terms of what they say, because they have all an unusual message. Bruegel paints his main characters that are almost forgotten or nonexistent on his canvas; so when you have a painting like The Fall of Icarus by Bruegel, you don’t see Icarus, you see a serene landscape populated by people doing their daily routines, plowing the fields or a shepherd pending the flock of sheep or a fisherman fishing and if it was not for the title of the painting, you would not even notice that there was a leg sticking out of the water on the right and that it belongs to Icarus. Any other painter in the world, when they paint the fall of Icarus, Icarus is in the foreground; there is a young beautiful boy falling from the heavens, wings flapping and wax melting, and he is basically falling to his death in a very dramatic fashion—but not with Bruegel. Bruegel does the opposite, the same goes for The Way to Calvary. You would imagine that Christ would be in the foreground and he would be the main character of the piece, but Bruegel has many characters in the daily life of the people, and this heroic act becomes almost non-existent, and it is a great truth about how many important things are happening in the world that go unseen. Even if Icarus would fall next to you and Christ behind you, you would not notice it because you are concentrating on the end of your nose. This was the shocking philosophy of Bruegel paintings, besides the absolute artistry that brought me to respect and admire this artist.
BT: How did you come up with the visual style of The Mill And The Cross?
LM: By trial and error, and this was a very complicated procedure. When I decided to make the movie, one of the most important—or maybe the most important—aspects of the movie was that I would tell it in the language of Bruegel. Initially I thought that I would find a similar landscape with protruding rocks and I would place people dressed up in costume, more than 500 of them, in the landscape and somehow they would mesh together and become a Bruegel painting in a motion picture. But when I did a number of attempts, it did not look like a Bruegel painting, it just looked like a TV-movie with a bunch of people in a landscape. So I got a very good reproduction from a museum in Vienna, where the painting is hanging, and I painted out this reproduction of the characters and I started to study the landscape. I discovered that I can’t focus on a single-point perspective and that I had to look at the story from every angle; in order to reach this place in cinema, we have to do it beat by beat and shot by shot until we get it right.
BT: The use of color and shades in the film is just like a Bruegel’s painting. How did you pull that off?
LM: That’s right, because we used a number of devices to produce the Bruegel colors and the shadows. This was the alchemy of the digital process which, in this case, was very complicated. Every shot consists of layers and layers of footage, so the minimum we have is 40 layers in 1 shot, and the maximum is 147 layers in 1 shot. There is a very good article on the process of making this film. An American cinematographer has great piece on how we came to achieve the colors and the space in the film. I have to say that American cinematographer made and exception for this film because usually they cover big American movies, and they acknowledged that we are producing a new visual language.
BT: How did you go about castingThe Mill And The Cross?
LM: The casting of the stars was not hard for me because I envisioned Rutger Hauer in the lead right away, and Charlotte Rampling was someone that I admired and I wanted her to play the part. Michael York as well, he is one of my favorite actors of all time and I liked him very much; I wanted to work with. So the selection came naturally, and I was fortunate enough to hear right away that they were happy to be in the film. As far as the various characters that appear as peasant people, Dorota Lis was the casting director who really spent 8 months looking for these special faces around Poland and the Czech Republic, and we made a library of these faces—real peasants’ faces.
BT: Great to hear that you’ll be present for the screening of The Mill And The Cross at Cal State University Northridge on October 12th!
LM: Yes, of course! I want to come and talk to the people; I hope that they will enjoy the film.
BT: Do you have any new projects lined up?
LM: Yes. I am working on a new film right now; it is called The Field of Dogs.
BT: Excellent; good luck!