The business of being away in a manger is not always as serene as the popular Christmas carol suggests. Just ask Jerzy Skolimowski. Several years ago the acclaimed Polish director and his producer-wife Ewa Piaskowska were visiting Italy at Christmas when they happened upon a (sadly still legal) live crib.
“We were fed up with the so-called traditional linear narration and how it develops the characters,” says the filmmaker. “Most of the time when I am in the cinema after 10 or 15 minutes, I can already predict what’s going to happen and how the whole story is going to end. We decided one of the tools we could use to break out of this would be to have an animal as a leading character. That would at least get rid of the dialogue, which is always the weaker part of a script. We were spending the winter in Sicily and in a village, they had a manger in a huge barn, full of animals, all making incredible noises. And in the middle of all these cows and chickens was the holy family. And then I noticed this solitary figure at the very end of the barn, who wasn’t involved in the whole commotion. That was a donkey. Almost motionless and totally silent. Looking with those enormous, melancholic eyes.”
Casting a donkey as lead is hardly a new idea. For many years, Tilda Swinton has insisted that the central equine turn in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar is “ ... the pre-eminent film performance” and the reason she got into acting.
Skolimowski was an early fan of the Bresson film. In 1966 the Polish director’s second feature, Walkover, was voted second best film of the year on Cahiers du Cinema’s annual list. He sought out the winner, Au Hasard Balthazar, and was profoundly moved by Bresson’s classic story of a beast of burden.
“When the lights went on I found out that I have tears in my eyes,” says Skolimowski. “One of the only times that has happened from being in a cinema. When the donkey dies there in that beautiful scene surrounded by sheep it really got me crying. It was a lesson from Bresson because I understood that the animal can move the audience much more than any human performance. Because subconsciously, we know that, whatever is performed by the actors on the screen, is performance. Sometimes they are skilful and incredible. But even a performance by the masters leaves some kind of doubt about the truth of it. We know that the director can say cut, the actor would go and drink coffee or talk or joke with his colleagues. We can’t doubt the performance of an animal because they don’t know what acting is.”
Watching Bresson’s masterpiece more than 50 years ago, Skolimowski never imagined that he’d remake the film. EO, his contemporary reworking of Balthazar, follows the animal of the title from the circus to the slaughterhouse, encountering football hooligans, wolves, hunters, a wealthy benefactor and his mother (Isabelle Huppert) in a wild subplot that immediately recalls The Thorn Birds. Now an Oscar nominee for Best International feature, the film won both the jury prize and the soundtrack award at Cannes, where the octogenarian was the oldest director in competition. In his acceptance speech at Cannes, the veteran director named the six Sardinian donkeys who play EO – Hola, Tako, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco and Mela – in the film.
“We tried to find similar as possible donkeys in order for the wellbeing of the animals,” says Skolimowski. “Because we were shooting this film in different countries and places. And we don’t want to transport them on long distances because that wouldn’t be very good for their health. We found donkeys of the same breed, which are called Sardinian donkeys. They are characterised by very light grey fur and black on the top of the head. They are very beautiful animals. The eyes are larger and more expressive.”
Donkey eyes are a key structural component of EO, which navigates a road trip across a troubled European landscape through the eyes and experiences of the animals on-screen. Each scenario in the episodic odyssey is punctuated by the donkey’s expression. Experimental use of colour and movement attempts to replicate animal consciousness and perception. In this spirit, Skolimowski whispered in animals’ ears between takes.
“We were negotiating with the donkeys and their handlers,” he says. “You know, like not to be afraid of crossing water. As we shot the film, we found we loved looking at the donkeys more than anything. From the very first day of shooting, when I look at the monitor, I think that the donkey’s gaze should follow every objective shot. It gave the film some added value. That became the pattern of EO.”
Skolimowski was born in Łódź in 1938. As a child in wartime Poland, he was rescued from the rubble of a bombed-out house in Warsaw. His architect father, a member of the Polish Resistance, was executed by the Nazis. He was already an established boxer, poet and author when he met Andrzej Wajda, the founding father of the emerging cinematic wave. Innocent Sorcerers, directed by Wajda and written by and starring Skolimowski, was released in 1960. Two years later he collaborated with Polański, writing the dialogue for the script of Knife in the Water. The pair recently reunited for Polanski’s incoming The Palace, starring Mickey Rourke and John Cleese; although enquiries about that collaboration are firmly and politely waved away.
During the 1960s he became a fixture at major festivals with a series of semi-autobiographical films in which Skolimowski himself plays his alter ego Andrzej Leszczyc. By the 1970s, set beside such idiosyncratic new Polish filmmakers as Grzegorz Królikiewicz, Marek Piwowski, and Andrzej Żuławski, Skolimowski found himself at the vanguard of a movement.
“As far as I remember I was the first one in Poland who started to make films of a type, so-called nouvelle vague,” recalls Skolimowski. “Because it was simultaneous in many, many countries. In Czechoslovakia at the time, it was Miloš Forman and Jiří Menzel and Jaromil Jireš; in Germany, Alexander Kluge and Volker Schlöndorff; in Hungary, Miklós Jancsó, in Italy, Bertolucci. We all met suddenly at a small festival called Pesaro and we discovered that we were all practically doing the same work, not knowing about each other at that time. I was the only person from Poland in that group. Then, of course, we had several slightly younger than myself filmmakers who followed with the same thing. It was a spontaneous thing.”
Skolimowski has taken several breaks from filmmaking, most notably the 16-year hiatus before Four Nights With Anna in 2009. Rather appropriately for the maker of Moonlighting – an affecting depiction of exiled Polish workers in London, starring Jeremy Irons – the filmmaker leads a double life as a successful painter.
“I’ve had plenty of exhibitions and, of course, I have to keep producing new pieces of work and not repeat the same stuff all the time,” says Skolimowski. “I love doing it, of course, that’s number one, and it’s a much easier job to paint than to make a film. Much more satisfying. I’m responsible for every square centimetre of my canvas. It’s fully mine. Nobody interferes.”
Despite having directed such admired films as thoughtful American thriller The Lightship and British horror classic The Shout, Skolimowski is almost as well known for his on-screen appearances. He was an adviser on Tim Burton’s starry Mars Attacks, a KGB colonel chasing Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Nights, a prickly Russian uncle in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, and the arms dealer who interrogates Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers.
“I am an amateur actor,” he smiles. “I never was trained as an actor and I only started acting in my own films of necessity. I couldn’t afford to hire an actor. Then some of my colleagues start to hire me but it was always in a very limited capacity. I cannot really create something which is completely out of my own character. Knowing my limits, I don’t really feel very serious about my acting. It’s an additional job which lets me observe my colleagues and how they work. Many times, I learnt solutions which I couldn’t probably find myself. The fact that I rarely act means it’s always a pleasure. And it is decently paid, so I don’t mind that.”
At the 2010 Venice film festival, when Essential Killing won the special jury prize, Skolimowski announced: “For those who like me – I’m back; and to those who don’t like me – I’m back.” He’s made only two films since: the partially Irish-shot 11 Minutes and EO. The latter is arguably the most radical and formally daring project of the 84 year old’s storied career.
“If human beings keep mistreating nature and animals, we will be left with robots instead of animals: just metal and scrapyards,” says the director. “I didn’t make a political manifesto or I didn’t act like a green activist, but I hope the message about animals is strong enough to change people’s attitudes. We cannot treat animals like objects. They are living creatures who deserve the same treatment as human beings because they have similar emotions. Instead, we are doing such barbarian macabre things as industrial meat production. We know the conditions those animals are being kept in. My wife and I have drastically reduced our meat consumption. Half of my crew completely stopped eating meat. Reducing meat consumption among viewers would be the greatest award. Better than the Palme d’Or or anything.”
EO opens on February 3rd