Jerzy Stuhr is often mentioned in the same sentence as Krzysztof Kieslowski. The two were friends, and Stuhr starred in many of Kieslowski’s films. Stuhr started directing at around the same time as Kieslowski’s death. In fact, one of his more recent films, Big Animal, is based on a screenplay of Kieslowski’s that was never filmed.
But Stuhr has been on his own long enough to deserve his own story, his own profile, which he is now beginning to get. He was saluted at this year’s Starz Denver International Film Festival. Two of Stuhr’s films were shown: Love Stories, from the late 1990s, and Tomorrow’s Weather, his most recent film, which had its second and third U.S. showings at the 27th DIFF.
Part of the theme at this year’s DIFF is German cinema, which has been dealing lately with the post-communist blues. Movies like The Other Woman (at this year’s DIFF) and Good Bye, Lenin! (released in theaters this summer) use the transition from communism to democracy as fodder for filmed conflicts. Tomorrow’s Weather, though Polish and not German, has many of the same themes.
I took this opportunity to ask Jerzy Stuhr (pronounced, roughly, YAIR-zheh Shtoor), a Polish filmmaker, teacher, and intellectual, about the changes in Poland since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Stuhr speaks English and took my questions in English, but answered through interpreter Joanna Iwanicka.
Marty Mapes: I hear you had a great reaction to Tomorrow’s Weather last night.
Jerzy Stuhr: There are two factors. You can judge the movie through the problems it deals with, and the other factor is the sense of humor. The sense of humor transfers to different cultures. Russians will laugh at different things in this movie and Americans will laugh at different aspects. The very great satisfaction is achieved when you can combine the senses of humor to relate to all the audiences. Some nations have better sense of absurd and other nations are more realistic.
MM: What is America’s reaction?
JS: This movie had only three showings in U.S. so far, and two of them were last night, so it’s too early to say. The other one was in a Seattle film festival. I think that American audiences react very well to the ending of the movie. I create my movies so the endings aren’t necessarily happy endings, but they give hope; there is an uplifting moment at the end when American audiences see the hero that strives to be free. That’s what American audiences react best to, which is a little bit different than European tendencies nowadays. Europeans tend to see everything in dark colors. The French movie we saw last night, Nathalie, that movie did not give human nature a chance, really. It doomed it, and it’s very foreign to my perceiving of the world.
MM: There are some other films, along with Tomorrow’s Weather, that deal with changes from communist to post-communist countries, and how that change affects everyday life. Can you talk about that?
JS: One of the critics in Poland called the film Hospital Polonia (Hospital Poland). And the title would be okay by me. The society is still in a process of curing itself from a disease. It’s a very long process. It’s easier to change the political system — it’s one parliament’s decision, one change in constitution — but the mentality of people.... Two generations of Polish people grew up in a totalitarian system — even though in Poland it was a pretty mild totalitarian system. It will be a long process.
That’s what I try to talk about in my movies — that it’s not easy, how even the ethics of people change because of the change of the system. When wild capitalism enters, it’s the wrong idea of freedom, a misconception of freedom, that everything is allowed. And that’s not true. Democracy requires discipline. It seems to a lot of Poles that we are free completely, disregardig the discipline that democracy requires.
Even the Polish Catholic church, which bears a lot of power in Poland, can’t stop that. They can’t influence the people. It seems like a huge paradox. On one hand everybody attends church and is a practicing Catholic. However nobody really pays attention what the Pope says.
That’s the current situation in Poland. It’s been 15 years since the change and it turns out that it’s too short of a time. Democracy will take much longer to learn. It’s more of an individual understanding of democracy, but it will take a long time.
MM: I think it will take a generation.
JS: I have 2 kids. My son is 28 and my daughter is 22, and you can even see a difference between the older son’s mentality and the younger daughter’s. The older son can remember the communist era, the absurd aspect of that life in a communist regime, and a sort of double morality. But the daughter doesn’t remember that. She was too little
MM: What do you mean by “double morality”?
JS: For example, my grandfather was killed by Russians in the beginning of the Second World War. Stalin decreed to take over 11,000 Polish officers. It was the height of Polish intelligentsia. And they killed them all. So my parents, the officer’s children, knew about it. However, in school I was taught that it was Germans who did that. So that’s a perfect example of knowing the facts, learning something different, and not being able to say it in public.
Another example is regarding my son. In the ’80s there was a (stamvoyin?), which means “military awareness.” A lot of my friends who belonged to the Solidarity movement were hiding, and often the place of their refuge was my house. So I had to make a point to tell my son not to mention who was spending the night at the house. He could not say the truth, at a very early age. That’s a good example of double morality.
MM: In a post-communist country, to what extent can moral failings be blamed on the political system, versus how much responsibility is on the individual.
JS: It’s mixed, in my opinion. Love Stories deals with problems in a more direct way — the sickness of an ill soul, a soul that’s been marked by totalitarianism. You could put up a fight. Each person could put up a fight. Personally, I was raised in a family that was able to find its own area of freedom, regardless of the system.
The more important thing was not to use the system for your own benefit. The communist regime was very fond of artists. They were always trying to buy them by giving them cars, apartments, money. In exchange they wanted to force the artist to create art for their purposes, and that’s the point where you had to be really careful. It was very important not to want too much of material things, and if you could do that, you could defend yourself from the system.
MM: There’s a strong generational component to the movie. There’s a conflict there as well.
JS: It’s even more than a conflict. It’s a vast misunderstanding. It’s more of a sad fact. A lot of my personal experiences — all the ones that I gathered living, reading Hemingway, Salinger, Capote, Faulkner — all of these experiences seem unnecessary, not useful to the younger generation. They gather their knowledge about the world in a totally different way. So the question is how can you still be an authority to your children? That’s the biggest effort that needs to be made by the older generation.
MM: Hasn’t that always been true, in every generation?
JS: Probably. But the biggest contrast is seen now. It’s always been the fact. But it’s only now when people have such access to information — (gestures at my computer) even through a laptop Internet — the difference is huge. In one of the points of the movie, my screen daughter personifies exactly that worry — of doubting that her father can giver her what she can’t find on the Net.
And the other point is made by my screen son. He says that it would be better for a father to raise his children, versus fighting for his country. It was my generation who was involved in Solidarity, fighting for freedom, fighting for the Berlin Wall to fall down, and we forgot that there are kids around us who witnessed that. There is a tagline for the movie, “Let’s start to fix the world, starting with our children.”
MM: Is the generation gap bigger in post-communist countries than in stable countries?
JS: Yes. For example, I think I have a complex of the Western world. For me to go to a foreign country was to cross the Iron Curtain. It wasn’t just a trip, it was being exposed to a whole different world. Even now, even though I travel all over the world, there is a still an underlying fear of the other, of the strange. It’s deeply rooted. It’s still present
MM: And your son?
JS: The younger generation doesn’t have that. No complex.
MM: You and your son acted in the movie together. Does that relationship on-screen reflect your relationship outside of the movie?
JS: Absolutely not. When I was writing the script for the movie, and when I was writing a part for my son, it made me laugh that the character I created was so vastly different than my son actually is. He doesn’t want to get involved in politics. He’s a very delicate, fragile, family-loving person, introverted. So all my son showed in the movie are his professional skills as an actor. He constructed a character, totally different than his own personality.
MM: You’ve been an actor for a long time, and now you’re directing. What was the appeal of directing?
JS: It was more like growing up, growing into the role. The responsibility of an actor, especially in a movie, is very limited. In theater, the importance of an actor is much greater. When you start a show, nobody can enter and say ‘you are doing it wrong.’ As an actor, you are the king on stage. And in the movie you are inferior to everybody around you. They can shorten your part, edit your part, change your voice, cut you totally out of the movie.
And with age, I had much more to say as a person. I wanted to take much more responsibility for what I was saying in the movie than just being an actor. And therefore I became a director, to sign my work completely. That was the main reason.