Double Sword-Edge: Lech Majewski by Alec Meacham

Alec Meacham talks to Polish filmmaker, painter, and poet Lech Majewski about his new film, The Mill and the Cross, inspired by 16th-century Flemish master Pieter Bruegel’s panoramic painting, The Way to Calvary.

The Mill and the Cross

Still from The Mill and the Cross. Courtesy of Film Forum.

I think it’s a testament to the vast depth and detail of filmmaker Lech Majewski’s work that before learning about and seeing his most recent film, The Mill and the Cross, I had never learned of the religious persecution of the people of Flanders under the dark and violent piety of the Spanish Inquisition. I had never heard the names Michael Francis Gibson or Pieter Bruegel, or seen or read their groundbreaking works. However, you are not struck by the pulsing intellect of Majewski’s film on first viewing. Rather, you cannot help but be overwhelmed by the lush visual feast before you.

The native of Poland is an aesthete of the highest sort, and it seems clear that only someone possessed of his artistic intuition could attempt to elucidate and narrativize the work of a painter like Bruegel. As Michael Francis Gibson, author of the exploratory book The Mill and the Cross has said, Majewski is indeed gifted with a Brueglian mind. And his film—more than any other to which is applied the slapdash moniker of “experimental”—not only crosses, but leaps the bounds between “visual art” and film, presenting an amalgam that at once is radically novel and naturally familiar. I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the artist before the opening of his work at the Film Forum. If nothing else, after this chat I found myself with a well-earned sense of humility.

Alec Meacham Initially, I’m curious about what drew you to the film. I know you met Michael Francis Gibson. What was your reaction to his book, The Mill and the Cross?

Lech Majewski Well, what drew me to the movie is my youth. Basically, you know, the life of an artist is playing in homage to the youth’s fascination, that’s how I feel. When I was a teenager I very often traveled from Katowice where I lived and I was born—at the that time it was rather a black and white, grim coal-miner’s city like Pittsburgh used to be here—and I traveled to Venice where my uncle was teaching at the conservatory. And I switched trains in Vienna. And there was always this ten-hour waiting period. During this ten hours I always went to see the Kunsthistorisches Museum… there also there is ten, a room number ten, the room where you have all the major Bruegel paintings. So I must say I was drawn immensely inside the paintings. I basically lived inside those paintings. Initially I was fascinated by these characters. I painted, so my first vocation was being a painter and poet.

So, I watched the master—the master on many levels. First of all his craft, his aesthetics. Second of all, and maybe more important, his capturing of the human beings, in their variety, in their incredible kind of range. I felt this was very close to my fascination with Fellini, since I imagined Bruegel collecting these faces, these unbelievable physiognomies of people. I imagined there were hundreds of thousands of sketches by Bruegel of those faces. And these people caught impromptu, red-handed in situations, in sort of idiosyncratic situations where they are caught off-guard completely. Therefore these people were not posing in front of you. Most of them have their back turned on you, so you just have to look over their shoulders and find out what they’re doing. They’re enrapt in their own activities. They’re not showing off in front of you. They’re not falsifying their presence, I would say. It’s most likely that you are in the position of a peeping tom. And at the same time if you travel with your eyeball, with the glances that one group is looking at another, you travel through the dense painting and you discover these micro-situations and relationships. There is another filmmaker who comes to mind, who tried to capture the simultaneity of the life experience, and that’s Altman, obviously.

So I felt a little like in a Fellini-Altman movie in front of a Bruegel painting, except I consider Bruegel also a fantastic philosopher. The pictorial aspect is one thing. The human comedia or human drama, capturing the way he did the tragicomedy, is another level. This characterization of the people. But the most important, the deepest aspect of it is his being a philosopher, the way he has put his heroes in a complete and shocking depiction. Nobody did it before him and very few did it after him. He’s so original and so unique, in that he presents his heroes as not present.

AM They’re hidden.

LM They’re hidden or not present. If you have The Fall of Icarus, you have various things happening. First of all, the instant recognition is a big drama in the air, and any painter who could take on the subject would portray a beautiful body of a young man who is falling, crashing down, breaking wings, feathers flying around him and wax melting, and God knows what. But you would see this convoluted body falling out of the sky. In Bruegel, you have right away a sense of serenity. There’s no drama. He says, So what? Look at it. The world didn’t recognize it. Or the world doesn’t care.


Pieter Bruegel; Landscape with the Fall of Icarus; oil on panel; 1558.

(click images to enlarge)

What do you have up front? You have a peasant who is plowing the soil. To the left you have a shepherd with a flock of sheep. To the right you have a fisherman who is just angling some fish. And you have a big boat coming into the sea or the bay. And only because of the title, you start to say, ‘Where is this Icarus?’ And on the right of the painting you see this plump plumage of splashed water. And then two legs sticking out. You don’t see the man, he’s already submerged. He’s gone. He’s dissolved into this sort of primordial water. He fell of the map.

The same with The Way to Calvary. You have a landscape populated by 500 characters. Believe me, a lot of them are much more important than the main character, Jesus Christ, who has fallen under the cross. And… what is the name of this children’s game where you look for the character among the other characters.

AM Where’s Waldo?

LM Waldo, yes. It’s a Waldo case, because basically you have to look through these characters to discover where’s Jesus Christ. And then you finally spot him, but he’s so unimportant, and people’s heads are turning to some other direction, and the attention is taken by an unimportant incident to the left of the painting. So, in all this he says, ‘Look, the world doesn’t care.’ God has given up. He didn’t send the second deluge, he just saw that the first one didn’t produce anything. You know, burning Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t do anything. But on the other hand, that’s the complexity of his message. And that’s beyond words. I’m using it in words, but it is beyond words, and therefore it is a perfect paradox and the utter wisdom. Because I believe the wisdom and philosophy in life are just a coexistent of paradox, of oxymorons, of excluding its subjects or ideas at the same time.

And the second lesson, for the contemporaries of Bruegel, is that if Jesus Christ doesn’t appear today, you wouldn’t notice it, because your eyes are turning to your little daily routines, and you don’t see the most important things.

AM And he’s saying that the truth is always hidden.

LM Yeah, and then there’s a sub-level, that he says, Look, I’m showing my heroes almost at the nadir of their physical situation. They’re basically gone. They’re basically fallen. They’re basically obliterated by the physical burden of the cross, by the gravity, just drowning. But yet they are the salt of our civilization. How come their fate became so important, that it became a major subject of religion and of mythology and various narratives that are creating our civilization? How come they would not even notice when it was happening? Yet, Icarus has fallen into the sea that would later become the Icarian Sea. And his body was washed out of the island that’s called Icaria. So it’s all from one incident that most likely nobody had seen.

And there are various other interpretations. If you scratch deeper then one can say that in the story of Icarus you have a prefiguration of certain Christian themes. Because the man who plows, and the man who tends a flock of sheep, and the man who fishes, are all three prefigurations of Jesus Christ in symbolic language. But at the same time [Bruegel] portrays Catholic soldiers of Spain as the ones who are the oppressors of the Protestants. Because this is not Jesus Christ. That was in Flanders.

AM And it’s the same as the Romans in Christ’s time.

LM Well but Romans were not Catholics. And here you have a Spanish militia performing the same torture that was inflicted upon their god. So, you know, the levels of complications—it’s like looking into a very deep well. And well, compare it to any of the painters of the 20th century. This art is idiotic, mostly. It’s just a put-on, it’s a ridiculous joke. And the joke is fine, providing it’s done by Duchamp or something. But it’s going on and on and on for a hundred years and there’s nothing new in it. And if you just meet a giant like Bruegel, basically you’re knees give out.

AM And I had watched The Garden of Earthly Delights (2004), so I know you had maybe an affinity for Bosch and those kind of old-world painters.

LM Well I respect their immense take on the world. And also I respect all these artists who manage to capture the universal, that most of their paintings, in one painting, capture the story of their country. It’s like the Divine Comedy. You have a relatively thin book comparing with Michener’s and other authors, who write 7,000 pages of nothingness. And yet, this is the essence. You can make many, many, many drinks out of this essence. And the literature that came after it that deals with the subject of the Divine Comedy is enormous. So this man essentialized the entire universe that was his day’s universe. And the open question that I am pondering upon nowadays is whether the present times are capturable.

AM Is it possible to come up with that essence?

LM Yes, or is it various pieces of a sea of sculptures that show kind of an explosion, a torn-to-bits world. And I was joking that, like today’s artists, I would just take my shirt off, tear it to two pieces, and then hang it on a hanger in a gallery, and some critic will come and say, Well, that’s a depiction of the Twin Towers. You can subtitle any nonsense the way you want. And there are those masters of empty language that can write on and on and on and on about a shitty painting that depicts nothing but the emptiness of its so-called creator, who just figures out that this is a nice way to go through life because you can call yourself an artist.

AM I’m curious about the way that you collaborated with Michael Francis Gibson on the film.

LM Yes, well, Gibson saw my movie called Angelus, and he wrote a very good review, wrote that I have a Brueglian mind, which was strange because many times I was inspired by Bruegel in my stagings. He sent me the book, The Mill and the Cross. And I read a lot of books on art. A lot of them are very boring. I’m looking for keys to read the hidden meanings, the symbols that are hidden in those paintings. And there are fantastic lexicons of those. You just have to select it, from a big book you get three or four. So maybe I’ll write in the end some really big vocabulary of this hidden language of paintings. Actually I was in universities giving various lectures on the hidden language of symbols in art, based on paintings, architecture and films. And I was touring New Zealand with this lecture at the universities when I saw this cloud formation that I filmed and ended up using in The Mill and the Cross.

But anyhow, Michael Gibson’s book was a feast. It was a fantastic text. And it read like a novel full of suspense. I knew the painting, but I knew it only on the surface basically. The Gibson text probed it so deeply that I was in awe of his insightfulness and precision and a kind of clarity. And I got images right when I read that book, and I saw those images. And when we met in Paris for lunch, I said to Michael, Listen, I see a movie here, a feature film. He said I am crazy, because no one made a movie based on an artist. But then he said after a while, Well, you know, only the real gentlemen do the impossible. And that’s how we started to collaborate.

Pieter Bruegel

Pieter Bruegel; Landscape with the Fall of Icarus; oil on panel; 1558.

And it was fast work. I had these initial images. I usually start with an image that bugs me, that either it has a contradiction in itself or it reappears in my mind, or I just cannot find an easy description. It starts to produce the child images. It grows on you. Usually when I have that feeling, there is the fruit of it, of a film.

AM So you painted the backdrops for the film.

LM I painted and painted and painted under the critical eye of Pieter Bruegel, who is very much alive, because he constantly told me where to go and where not to go. (laughter) I mean when I see people copying paintings in museums, and they’re not using postcards or reproductions, there is a very strange feeling in it. You literally become one with the artist. At a certain point you connect on this spectral level of wavelengths of light.

AM So you really were living inside the painting.

LM Very much so, yes. And I was studying and discovering. And that was the weirdest thing, that I would keep discovering things when you’d think that you couldn’t discover any more. I got a very good reproduction from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, very heavy in terms of digital weight. And I could zoom into all the details at a very fine quality on this huge screen. And I saw things that you cannot see in a museum, but they’re there. And you have to have a magnifying glass to notice that.

AM And that’s almost what it feels like when you watch the film, because you’re right inside it. Can you tell me a bit about the process of layering, because there’s so much going on?

LM My role was the aesthetic role, I don’t know those processes that well. I was supervising at an aesthetic level. I was a supervisor of the work of many talented computer graphic people building all these layers. And in order to recreate the space of Bruegel, because I thought, We are going to meet Bruegel in his own territory, and I have to learn about this territory first. The initial idea was that I would find a landscape similar to Bruegel, with this protruding rock, and I would populate this landscape with 500 characters in costumes. And I will travel among those motionless characters and sort of eavesdrop on their inner thoughts. That was my initial idea.

But when I did the camera tests and I had about a hundred and twenty extras in a similar landscape, and I looked at it later on in the lab, I saw idiotic stuff that had nothing to do with Bruegel. It was just like a postcard, and only about 20 people were recognizable; the rest could be just anybody. What I did then is that I painted over those characters on the reproduction from Kunsthistorisches, and I looked at the space, and I realized that my eyes are starting to swing back and forth, with a certain illusion I don’t understand. And we analyzed it with the computer, and we found out that this is not a singular Renaissance perspective that you would imagine from the Renaissance artists. This was actually seven different perspectives combined in one painting. And those stitches, the connecting lines between the various pieces, were hidden behind the groups of people. So only when you remove the people out of there, you realize he’s combining seven different sketches, again contradicting each other—one is looking from above, one is looking from below, one from the left, right, center, what have you. But it’s a twisted world. Like in geometry, it’s not a Euclidean, straightforward space.

And I started to think, Why is that? Obviously the first reason is that he had selected various sketches and combined them together. That obviously was the method he had used. But also, what became clear to me is that his perspective is much closer to our human perspective. Because the perspective of a single point, which is the point of view in the Renaissance perspective, is completely false. It’s completely inhuman—it’s a dead perspective. It’s not a perspective of the human eye, which is in constant movement. First of all, it is stereoscopic—the vision of the world is stereoscopic. So we have two pyramids that actually interfere, one with the other, and produce all sorts of illusions and effects. Second of all, the human eye is very active. It blinks, it changes the focal points, it does it very softly, without your physically noticing, or being conscious that you’re changing the focal point. So amorphically, you just observe the world, and your brain is always late behind your eye. And all the neuroscientists, they found out that ten times more information comes down from the brain to the eye than the eye to the brain. So, in other words, you see a preconceived and pre-learned world. You only adjust it with the eye, but your vision of the world is predetermined by the sum of your visual experience, amassed over the years.

What I’m saying is that Bruegel has produced an amorphic space which corresponds with the human acquirement of visual 3D dimensions that are summarized in your head. So you don’t have the feeling that—for instance, I’m looking at you and this [pointing] is out of focus. Because at a certain point I look there and I notice it in focus. So this is something that Bruegel was doing. And I realized in order to do that, we really have to slice this painting. If you look at it as a loaf of bread, and the camera is at the tip of this loaf, you have to slice, and each slice has to be dealt differently. So the first slice would be the actors on the blue screens, the main characters. The second slice would be the lesser characters. The third slice would be the background characters. Then it would be the elements of landscape. We were looking for similar landscapes. And then in post-production we were assembling one landscape that doesn’t exist.

AM So it’s very much mirroring his process—

LM His process of creation, yes. And also it’s combining with the elements of his landscape, so there are certain places where the landscape of Bruegel is over the real landscape, or is extending the real landscape. And then the sky is a different story because I had found the sky, the cloud formations, in New Zealand and I shot it. And you get eighty percent of the New Zealand clouds and twenty percent are the Bruegel clouds. But in order to hook up the New Zealand clouds to Bruegel clouds, in order to stitch it together, I had to cut out the Bruegel clouds from the existing painting them to the left and right. For example, you know the rock obscures part of the sky—I had to paint the connection between what is a cutout.

AM And it’s pretty amazing that despite all these different perspectives and layers going on, as you said there’s this serenity when you see it, and it strikes you as being this complete piece, and I think that’s true of both the painting and the film, because there’s so much that’s subdued in both.

And I don’t know if this is just my being crazy reading into the film, but those scenes in the mill… There are some amazing shots when you the huge wheels are going around, and you see the light coming in—

LM The cog wheels, yes.

AM And it looks so much like a projection room.

LM (laughter) That’s interesting, that’s an image of the world and the universe. Perpetuum mobile.

AM So there is this theme of religious persecution that’s ongoing—the conflation between Calvary and Flanders. Was the religious aspect something that interested you, or was it just so much part of Bruegel’s work that it just comes through?

LM Well yes, I mean this is double sword-edged. Double-edged sword. (Pause.) That’s actually nice, double sword-edge. (laughter) That’s actually better.

AM I like that.

LM (laughter) That should be the title of your article.

The Mill and the Cross

Still from The Mill and the Cross. Courtesy of Film Forum.

So yes, on the one hand you have Christ’s passion, but when you look closer at it, it’s the Spanish militia, inflicting the suffering of Christ on some Protestant guy. That’s the real essence. And for Bruegel it was the fate of Flanders. They were a happy people, and then the Spaniards came in and they were extremely cruel. Spaniards are well-known for their cruelty. And this is done in the name of religion. And the irony of this is that you use the Christ’s passion in order to turn Protestants into Catholics. (laughter)

You see these many meanings collapsing into one. You look at Christ’s passion, and a lot of people have this religious feeling that is inspiring, elevating them. But at the same time, when you scratch deeper, you realize that these people just never learn. They’ll just repeat the same tortures in the name of this man who suffered these tortures. It’s like as I said at the beginning, that God is not sending another deluge because he saw the first one and it didn’t produce anything. (laughter)

AM Symmetry is a big part of Bruegel’s work, and you see that with the artist in the film, his idea of the spider-web and that kind of creation. Is that something you had in mind in your creation of the film?

LM No, it breaks symmetry always. I find he has a composition, but it’s always off-center. Even the rock in the painting is more to the left. You know, the painting reads from life to death, because on the left side you have a circle of life. You have a city, you have the tree—and you only see a quarter of this tree—and that’s the tree that I had to extend to its full length. Then there is this protruding rock, and then to the right you have the fields of death, the killing fields, the forest of gallows and the Golgotha and barren soil. And now you see also how the sky changes. On the left side the sky is bright and happy and on the right you see these looming clouds of darkness overhanging the Golgotha. In any aspect, he sort of produces the direction there in that painting from life to death. And Bruegel himself, leaning against this barren, naked tree, which is a dead tree, crowned with this wheel that you use to put the dead body on, or you tortured people on them. On the left side you have the tree of life and on the right side you have the tree of death. And when you look closer to the right edge of the painting, you notice a very young sapling growing up, like the cycle of life is sort of starting again. And the wisdom of Bruegel, doing all these things, and it’s there. We come and we look so superficially on these paintings. And the immensity of the messages and his cueing you into certain things. I cannot tell you how rich these people were, compared with contemporary bullshit nonsense.

AM I think it’s Michael York’s character who says, “If only time could be stayed.” I’m interested in the way this painting captures this moment in time, and yet at the same time, it’s a moment that’s happened again and again and will continue to happen. What was your sense of the way that time worked in the painting, and then translated into your film?

LM This is the power of an artist, or the artist at those times. That somehow they could stop the time. And you know, it’s a motionless world. Again if I’m talking about the Divine Comedy, there is no action. They repeat the same actions, but it’s not a progress. He’s moving from one part to the other. He’s stepping down to the inferno, he comes back to purgatory, he goes up to paradise. But it’s a static situation. And this is what is called a vertical time, the holy time. The time that stops or is stretched vertically. It’s the artist’s time, somebody who can capture a moment, like in these motionless figures in the paintings. And yet even today, we have many films. We are just swimming in the sea of moving images. We constantly see things on computers and television, but basically what makes up our civilization are stills, because they somehow beat the ephemeral aspect of time. They just heroically beat up the time, so to say. It’s the incredible power of stillness, which I am fascinated with, because if you’ve seen my movies there’s always this moment of stillness which to me is kind of a holy time. It’s a time of khaos, it is called in Greek. So then the movement suspends or ceases, and when your consciousness heightens, you can capture or go deeper into reality and get these connections between things.

And today’s culture is a speed culture. It’s a culture that tries to obliterate the object. Look at any film, let’s say Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They’re beating and kicking and beating and punching and beating and punching and running and jumping. And that’s it. And that’s a loving couple! That’s a sense of romance. There is no lyricism at all in it. They just… the stronger the kicking of the balls, the more they look like commando guys or robots, who can jump from the 7th floor onto a moving train and their ankles are okay. Actually she’s in high heels, and she doesn’t even break a high heel. And everybody buys that! That’s the weird thing. This is the utmost escape. I don’t want to have a sharp vision of what’s around me, I want to have a zooming, zinging kind of a sensation that I’m really moving fast, and yet they all stay in the same place.

AM And it seems like today, as opposed to Bruegel’s time, it’s just such a different notion of story or what a narrative should be.

LM But look, this film was bought by 49 countries. And out of that, 45 countries have bought it for cinema. This is shocking for me! Because initially, I was going to show this movie only in a few museums. So there is maybe some kind of nostalgia for that.

The Mill and the Cross is currently running a two-week engagement at New York’s Film Forum

Visit the film’s official website here for more info.

Alec Meacham is a writer and critic living in Manhattan and Baltimore.

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