Magdalena Lazarkiewicz talks about her films KARSKI and DISAPPEARANCE screened at Polish Film Festival Los Angeles


Magdalena Lazarkiewicz, screenwriter and film director is one of the guests of Polish Film Festival Los Angeles that two of her films will be screened at the festival: KARSKI and DISAPPEARANCE. Magdalena studied cultural knowledge at the University of Wroclaw (graduated in 1976). In 1977-1978, she was the literary director of the Jaracz Theatre in Olsztyn. In 1982 she graduated from the Faculty of Radio and Television University of Silesia in Katowice. During her film studies she worked as assistant to Andrzej Wajda and her film debut came from under her Professor Krzysztof Kieslowski’s patronage and since then has been drawn to various social topics. Since 2011 artistic director of IFF “Jewish Motives” in Warsaw.

She won the Grand Prix at the 1986 Creteil International Women’s Film Festival for BY TOUCH (Przez dotyk) and special Jury Prize at the 1992 Gdynia Polish Film Festival for DEPARTURE (Odjazd) shared with her husband Piotr Lazarkiewicz.

Jan Karski, the subject of KARSKI (24 June 1914 – 13 July 2000) was a Polish World War II resistance movement fighter and later a courier for the Polish Underground resistance.  In 1942 and 1943 Karski reported to the Polish government in exile and the Western Allies, in particular British and U.S. governments, on the situation in German-occupied Poland, especially the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the secretive German-Nazi extermination camps.

The film KARSKI include several levels of a narrative: contemporary, with a story about two young people, who are rushing to create a docu-fiction about Karski; historic, telling a story of Karski’s life during World War II; discourse about Karski’s dilemmas and moral choices, as well as their significance for young people in forming their attitude towards the modern world; and archival footage as well as current media coverage.

DISAPPEARANCE  is a film impression about director Piotr Lazarkiewicz, who passed away in 2008 (heart attack). This isn’t a strictly biographical story, nor is it a summary of his artistic career – it’s a mosaic composed of fragments of school shorts, feature films and documentaries, television as well as theatre performances and brief comments and the “significant presence” of the people with whom Piotr was closely related in the film – his family members Magdalena and Gabriela Lazarkiewicz, Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewic, Agnieszka Holland, mother Cecylia and his friends and colleagues.

Bijan Tehrani: How did you find your amazing way of telling KARSKI’s story?
Magdalena Lazarkiewicz: In filmmaking, limitations encourage creativity. In my opinion, Jan Karski, the heroic emissary of the Polish Underground State during the 2nd World War, deserved to be portrayed in a full length feature film, or a TV series. Unfortunately, all we had at our disposal were very limited resources, which made us search for a different form: we had to find a smart, creative way to convey his story through modest means.
Our main imperative was to speak to younger viewers. We wanted to show to them that there is a clear link between Karski’s mission and what can be done in our current situation: we, people living in privileged countries, free of war, should do everything in our power to inform the world and awaken empathy and action about the atrocities committed against people from all over the world. Karski, who travelled the world the raise awareness about the dreadful reality of the Holocaust, should be an inspiration to us all. Nowadays it is not easy to make people care about the fate of millions of people who escape from war-torn countries and seek refuge in Europe.

BT: Did you had a complete script for KARSKI?
ML: We prepared a couple of versions, but the final draft came to life during rehearsals with actors. Their improvisation had great influence on the final shape of dialogues and scenes, which were then written down as the final version of our script.

BT: What I love about KARSKI is that the film is not limited to tell an old story of a war hero, but look beyond that and to the present time and even future. Making a film that has different layers of stories is very challenging, how did you manage to keep the balance and keep the audience involved?
ML: Thank you for this opinion. It is not for me to judge if we succeeded, but if we have, then, largely, it is thanks to the extraordinary work of the actors, as well as other members of the creative team. I would especially like to mention the DOP, Wojciech Todorow, whose input in this work was truly extraordinary.

BT: Analyzing KARSKI character in your film is also very interesting, it allows us to go beyond cliché of dealing with war heroes. How did you come up with these sections in your film?
ML: Jan Karski was an exceptional figure. He was definitely a hero, and yet he considered his most important mission a failure. In his own words: “My goal was to save millions, and I could not save even a single human being”. This notion cast a shadow on his whole life (although modern historians have a very different understanding of his role). He lived as an outsider, occupying a modest teaching post. Very few of his students even knew of his past. He impersonated the bitterness of knowing that the wealthy will never understand the poor, that people are usually indifferent to the suffering of others, if it doesn’t touch them personally. He posed a fundamental question: Is all attempt to awake compassion doomed to failure? Does it mean that we should abandon any action when faced with human indifference towards evil?
Karski never gave a clear answer to this question. His voice is an important testimony to his era, and can be read as an accusation against the ignorance and conformism of politicians, and societies as a whole.

BT:  How did you cast your film and was there any room for actors’ improvisations?
ML: As I said before, during the shoot we kept very close to the final version of the script, which had been created during the improvised rehearsal sessions. All the principal cast are actors, with which I’ve collaborated on many projects. We communicate very well, both as artists and as human beings.

BT: Please tell us about visual style of KARSKI.
ML: Our story is constructed as a film within a film. We used certain methods to distinguish different levels of the story from each other. For the historical sequences, we changed the aspect ratio to 4:3, reduced the color, and limited the camera movement to the minimum, as opposed to the more dynamic, hand-held camera, used in the modern plot, telling the story of two contemporary filmmakers shooting a film about Karski.

BT:  I think making DISAPPEARANCE should have been very difficult for you as it deals with a personal tragedy in your own life.
ML: To some extent, I was forced to do this film. Piotr was very generous in sharing his creative and human energy with other people, and after his passing, this energy started generating new events and initiatives, for example an award bearing his name for best young filmmaker during the Los Angeles Polish Film Festival. Another commemoration of Piotr is an annual workshop for young filmmakers, held in the Polish town of Jarocin, at the movie theatre named after Piotr. This year was already the sixth edition of the workshop, this time with students from Poland and Norway.

One of Piotr’s friends said soon after his death: it is weird (or maybe not at all) that so many of our friends pass away, and yet Piotr REMAINS PRESENT and it is impossible to forget him.
This film is my attempt to keep his memory alive, to show him the way he was, without becoming sentimental.

BT:  What makes DISAPPEARANCE an exceptional film is that you manage to distance yourself from the personal issues and film becomes more than being just about losing Piotr Lazarkiewicz, audience easily make an emotional connection to  DISAPPEARANCE.
ML: It is a very interesting experience for me. During many screenings of this film, I’m listening to opinions from the audience. I often hear that even people who haven’t known Piotr personally, have a very emotional reception of this film. They say that they were drawn very close to him through this story, as if he was their close friend.

BT: How did you write the screenplay for DISAPPEARANCE? Did you had a solid script before you start shooting the film?
ML: I did not want to make a biographic, conventional film about Piotr, consisting of “talking heads” and fragments of his works. I just felt this wouldn’t convey his personality. Thinking about the form, I came up with the concept of creating a mosaic, an impression. Piotr’s life didn’t come to fulfillment, it was interrupted much too early to be “complete”. It was an open form, a sketch, from which something firm emerges: not a final picture, but rather a trace, emotion, a PATH in other people’s lives.
We are constantly confronted with the passing of our friends. We stop, we contemplate, and then we return to our everyday lives. But there are those deaths, which leave a void impossible to fill, something deeper, a scar in our souls. In many of our friends’ words, he was so much “present, a part of our reality, that death just didn’t suit him. He died in movement”.
It is the phenomenon of “Dis-appearance”, of being in two contradictory states at once, which I wanted to convey through this film.

BT: To me, parts of the puzzle of Piotr’s life that makes the film has picked very carefully and the order of their appearance in the film if changed will not have the same effect, how did you decide on the sequence of the footage you used in the film, did you make a lot of changes during editing of the film?
ML: It took me 9 months to edit this film. The most difficult part was to select material from the endless reservoir of footage we had at our disposal. I had to learn to keep the medium cool, to be able to make decisions, what to keep and what to throw out. I felt Piotr’s presence in the editing room. He was the last instance I considered when making any decisions. I wanted this film to be true to him.
I could count on the support of our children. Antoni created the soundtrack for the film, and Gabriela made the English subtitles. Piotr’s favorite editor, Daniel Sokołowski, patiently accompanied me on this path. I also have to mention the institutions which supported us along the way: NINA (Polish National Audiovisual Institute), TVP 2 (Polish Public Broadcast Company), and the production company Mediabrigade. They all gave me the full creative freedom, as well as all the necessary resources to complete this film. This attitude is exceptional and I must say, not very common nowadays.

BT: You are surrounded by filmmakers and artist in your family, has that effected your work?
ML: Yes, of course. They are my first viewers and advisers. I trust their opinions the most. We like working together.

BT: What is your next project?
ML: I am currently working on a television play for Polish TV, based on a text by Cezary Harasimowicz, who recently won a script-writing competition. I am also preparing the third season of my TV series “The Deep End”. My feature film project is in the middle of the decision process at the Polish Film Institute. I am really looking forward to this one, as I’ve missed being behind the camera on a movie set.

BT: Do you think Polish Film Festival Los Angeles could help promoting Polish cinema in US?
ML: Yes, absolutely. It is an important and prestigious event, which allows us to confront English-speaking, as well as expatriate Polish audiences. It creates an interesting perspective, raising our awareness of the necessity to look, through cinema, for a more universal language to communicate our, often too hermetical, stories.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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