The Room of the Dream:
A Conversation with MaĹ‚gorzata Szumowska and MichaĹ‚ Englert
By Katherine Connell
For the more than 20 years they have collaborated, Polish filmmakers MaĹ‚gorzata Szumowska and MichaĹ‚ Englert have evinced a recurring compassionate curiosity towards transgressive relationships. The best-known films they conceptualized and wroteâ€”In the Name of (2013), Body (2015), and Mug (2018)â€”are as recognizably theirs as those theyâ€™ve helmed for other screenwriters, such as the French film Elles (2011) and the recent English-language The Other Lamb (2019).
Through Szumowska and Englertâ€™s grounded observations of everyday people and communities runs a current of intensity that erupts in moments where the regular brushes up against the otherworldly. This predilection for the metaphysical is often expressed in moments where narrative progression breaks to make way for visual experimentation and surprising, confrontational imagery. Their latest film, Never Gonna Snow Againâ€”in which Englert, for the first time, is listed as co-director as well as DPâ€”plunges even further into surrealism. In it, we encounter Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), a mysterious man walking through a dark forest with a massage table slung over his shoulder. He arrives at an immigration office in an unnamed Polish city, claiming to speak every language, and holding paperwork that records a significant birthplace and time: Pripyat, a Ukrainian ghost town in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where he was born seven years before the disaster on the exact same day. The officer processing Zheniaâ€™s paperwork wonders if heâ€™s radioactive. â€śI feel quite strange around you,â€ť he muses before Zhenia massages him to sleep.
Sure enough, strangeness follows. Zhenia wanders into a gated community, offering massages and, eventually, hypnosis to the wealthy homeowners. These sessions are inflected with a supernatural magic. Under hypnosis, Zheniaâ€™s clients are transported to a forest dream space in which reconnection with nature, memory, and the self provides momentary respite from lives defined by artifice and ennui. As the film fluctuates between Zheniaâ€™s encounters within this community and his memories of Chernobyl, Never Gonna Snow Again emerges less as a linear story than a contemplative, sometimes abstract patchwork of episodes loosely connected by an uncanny and unsettling atmosphere. The titleâ€”a repeated line of dialogueâ€”subtly connects the film to the climate crisis, under which the same ineffable feelings of disquiet are potently felt.
Reverse Shot: Something that I really like about your films is the originality of how your narratives approach broader social, historical, and political issues. In Never Gonna Snow Again youâ€™re tying together a lot of them: climate change, migration, class dynamics. Where did the idea for this particular story start, and how did you develop it together?
MaĹ‚gorzata Szumowska: The idea, like always, came from reality. Itâ€™s very often that we see a situation or we hear something on the radioâ€”and then we share it. We have this real masseuse, a guy whose name is Wojciech and he gives massages to us but also to other friends. Heâ€™s a very funny guy, very specific. At some point MichaĹ‚ said, â€śI think this is a great idea for the movie, to have this guy who walks with the bag from one house to another and hears peopleâ€”what they are saying, their thoughts, and their secrets.â€ť Thatâ€™s how it started, and then on top of that, of course, we used some other ideas like, for instance, this gated community, which is so popular right now in Poland. Many middle-class people want to gate and [send their children to] private schools. Itâ€™s our observation that the people who live in these gated areas feel, kind of, more worth. From those elements we built that world. And of course, thereâ€™s the spirituality but thatâ€™s another thing.
MichaĹ‚ Englert: Thereâ€™s another layer, which is more connected to our past; the world of Zheniaâ€™s memories and, letâ€™s call it, â€śthe dream part of Chernobyl,â€ť which is something more metaphysical and something we also wanted to use as an important element in this story.
RS: The film references specific historical events but frequently seems out of time and space. Your two most recent films The Other Lamb and Never Gonna Snow Again are more explicitly surreal and dreamlike than your other work. Iâ€™m wondering if this move towards surrealism is something youâ€™ve decided on consciously and what surrealism allows you to accomplish as filmmakers?
ME: Itâ€™s interesting that you find a link between these two last titles, because The Other Lamb is not our script, but maybe there are some similarities in the â€śhandwritingâ€ť or something we can connect. We have the feeling, maybe more, that this one is probably completing the period of our previous two movies, Body and Mug.
MS: I think that with surrealism, there is this kind of direction. I would call it more â€śdreamâ€ť or â€śdreaming sequenceâ€ťâ€”trying to enter the room of the dream in film. Nowadays, everything is so direct, like [for example] TV series. Even if they are crazy, theyâ€™re based on the same format and there is no room for something more abstract. So, I have a feeling that Never Gonna Snow Again is that kind of film because itâ€™s more like a puzzle; itâ€™s more like feelings; itâ€™s more like poetryâ€”sometimes funny. I would say thatâ€™s the direction, because there are two directions: you can either do the storytelling or you can do these abstract connections on the screen, and this is Never Gonna Snow Again. This is part of the surrealism of this film and probably is something which weâ€™re going to continue in our work. To just tell the story is always difficult and requires a lot of skills; but, on the other hand, trying to enter something that is very unknownâ€”like a dreamy, surrealistic, abstract worldâ€”is tempting. You can try to achieve the whole [of] life and probably it wonâ€™t work always perfectly, but to go into this direction is something exciting.
RS: Youâ€™re a big fan of the frontal look in your films, where characters stare directly at the camera for extended periods, even if theyâ€™re technically looking at other characters. I noticed it in the hypnosis scenes especially. Can you talk about this particular kind of close-up, and what it allows you to express in this film?
MS: I think it has roots in Tarkovskyâ€™s cinema. We grew up on that cinema, and he uses that kind of look into the camera, because it came from the Russian icon paintings.
ME: You can look through the history of art and itâ€™s there quite often. But looking exactly into the camera sometimes betrays a beat, and it shows the machinery of filmmaking because youâ€™re somehow killing the relation between the lens and the actors. If [the camera is placed] somewhere around where weâ€™re mostly using [it], I think it can build a very strong narration or tension. I think it creates some connection between the characters and the viewers.
MS: Mystery, I think it also creates a kind of mystery.
ME: I think this is very delicate, this particular tool of using eyelines quite close to the lens. In general, if you look at our movies, itâ€™s a very important element: the distance between the camera and the characters. The decision of how you angle your camera brings specific emotions to the narration. For example, we shot Body with one lens because we thought we should have this perspective of the human eye. We are very intuitive with our work, even if we have some kind of philosophy behind it. I think this is what itâ€™s all about, these very delicate and subtle and gentle decisions about the height and the angling, which can take you somewhere with the story or just connect you.
RS: The relationship between small, close-knit communities and an outsider who is marked as different or is alienated within them is a recurrent theme for you both. What interests you about this dynamic?
MS: When a newcomer enters an isolated world it always creates tension, desire, or longingâ€”and also, always, [the members of] this closed society can mirror themselves in the person who is outside. People start to feel different kinds of craving and are taken by cravings, by desiresâ€¦ like in Teorema by Pasolini.
ME: In general, I think filmmakers are seduced by contrasts. I think, maybe, in the film with the people from the gated community, itâ€™s a bit about something that is quite connected with our generation: people who have one leg in the very modern world but at the same time we remember our past, which was totally different, because we had communism, the Soviet regime, and all of this. But also it gave us something. We grew up with our parents in a totally different world, but even [with] most of the tragic sides of this there were some good sides. As we remember, we trace through our childhood, through early days as teenagers, and maybe even [to our days as] filmmakers. So maybe this had some kind of impact for [Zheniaâ€™s] character and the community.
RS: A couple of things youâ€™ve said so far have made me think about the link between this film and Wim Wendersâ€™s Wings of Desire, in the sense that Zhenia passes through this community as an observer and has a sort of supernatural window into the inner worlds of these characters. In another scene, when Zhenia watches erotic dancers though a set of windows the composition is reminiscent of Paris, Texas. Were his films on your minds at all when making this?
MS: Yes! Of course.
ME: Weronikaâ€™s [Rosatiâ€™s] character was inspired a bit by Nastassja Kinski.
RS: Watching it, I thought they looked alike!
MS: Itâ€™s interesting you [thought that]. Of course we had many interesting traces from [film history] in this film. For someone who knows cinema, itâ€™s probably easier to read the traces and inspirations and references. I think when youâ€™re doing a film like this, you have to be cautious, and you have to understand and be conscious of the fact that there is a whole history of cinema behind you. You have to use it in a smart way.
RS: In a lesser film the members of this gated community would be caricatures, and while you poke fun at their privilege you retain a bit of tenderness for them. In your films characters can make harmful decisions or their actions cause others to suffer, but they are shown with a lot of empathy. How do you negotiate this balance in your filmmaking?
MS: I must say something: in Poland, people think we donâ€™t have any tenderness and that we are super judgmental. Even in Never Gonna Snow Again, which is strange, because I think it is a film full of empathy. We are also these kinds of people [like the characters in the gated community]. If we have to place ourselves in the society, we are rich people in Poland because we are filmmakers, and our children are at private schools. So, I have a feeling that when I look at these people, I look at myself; so Iâ€™m portraying them with passion, with a very radical, critical eyeâ€”but also with love. The same way I look at myself, my family, and my children and MichaĹ‚â€™s family. To me being critical of society is very needed.It can heal a society. But the problem in Poland is that they donâ€™t treat criticism as something that is healingâ€¦ this is very much in the Polish mentality to feel imminently judged by someone and insecure. So, from our perspective, we are very focused on being tender and not judgmental to the characters; but always in our own country peopleâ€”including even journalistsâ€”feel judged by our work. Outside of Poland, never. This is a very interesting gap, when Variety or The Guardian is writing about Mug and [they say that] the film is full of tenderness to the Polish people in provinces and we are, like, viciously attacked in Poland for being rude to the Polish suburban, provincial people. The dynamic is very interesting, thatâ€™s why your question is very interesting to me, because thatâ€™s the answer: that thereâ€™s two different worlds.
RS: Thinking about climate change can involve thinking about our relationship to the non-human or to animals. In the film, we often see one womanâ€™s dogs comically arranged in her home and then running loose in the community, frolicking in an abandoned pool, and even in the dreamy forest space produced by Zheniaâ€™s hypnosis. What do the dogs represent for you here?
MS: These dogs are very vulnerable. They are strange creatures, especially English bulldogs. They are very much created by people [and as a result] are kind of genetic mutants. I consider these particular dogs very sensitive because they are changed by people to become funny, nice puppiesâ€”but they have problems with the breed and their breathing: they donâ€™t live very long. So, I found them sweet in that sense: super hopeless, kind of! These dogs, to me, they are [being used] to fill the gap in the loneliness of this woman, but they are [also] victims of people and thatâ€™s why we see them in this magical forest, because then theyâ€™re probably free and not sick anymore, not ill, not changed into very strange creatures.
ME: Thereâ€™s a story behind the shot of the dogs in the swimming pool. After Chernobyl there were hundreds of abandoned dogs left by the owners because they had to leave the town, and there were army soldiers just shooting these dogs because they were radioactive. I think we looked for this kind of shot when the dogs are kind of caged in the empty swimming pool. For us, itâ€™s symbolic without explaining too much in words. This kind of symbolism is a way we sometimes want to spread information, which you can interpret in your own way [about] the state of animals is in the modern world and how theyâ€™re treated by people. It was very important to us.
RS: I have kind of a weird question to wrap this up. In In the Name Of the priestâ€™s sister Skypes in from Toronto and the funeral procession scene a character is wearing a Vancouver hockey jacket. Were these choices intentional? Iâ€™m speaking to you from Toronto. Do you have a relationship with either city?
ME: It was on purpose!
MS: I have a relationship with the city because each time Iâ€™m there with our films. MichaĹ‚ is always busy, so he cannot join me, but I feel connected to Toronto because Iâ€™ve been there almost every year since I was 26 with Happy Man, my first movie. The city is, to me, a symbol of somethingâ€¦ I donâ€™t know what to call it. There is something very calm in the city, I remember always very good food and something very safe but thereâ€™s a hidden agendaâ€”I donâ€™t know what it is! Thereâ€™s something strange in Toronto, in general. I am fascinated by it, but itâ€™s very hard for me to say what it is. Thereâ€™s something very calm and something very dangerous at the same timeâ€”something strange.