Devil capitalising on us all

Poland’s greatest natural resource is… history. Our western and eastern neighbours have been trying for centuries and with great care to make our history rich, varied, complicated, tragic and shocking – says Robert Gliński, director of the film “Figurant” (“Strawman”).

TVP WEEKLY: The script for “Figurant” (“Strawman”) was written 20 years ago by Andrzej Gołda and apparently there have been several preliminary attempts to adapt this material but it was only you who managed to make the film. How did that happen, and what did you find in this script that others might not have noticed?

Robert Gliński
: I was raised in communist Poland. I have a great feeling for that era. It shaped me. The Polish People’s Republic was full of secrets. Grey and hard everyday life. And a wonderful, extraordinary flowering of culture and art. Exceptional theatre performances, fascinating films, touching songs, excellent exhibitions in Zachęta. Belles-lettres really “belles”! Poetry turned me on and I mean it: Białoszewski, Herbert, Miłosz, Grochowiak, Lipska. And somewhere behind this glorious world of art lay the secret intrigues of the secret police. There was the Church where everyone would run – from the right, from the left, from the centre… The atmosphere of that time was clearly depicted in the script for “Fgurant”.

When the text reached me, I started looking for an idea of how to visualise it, how to show it on the screen. I knew I wanted to make a “Cracovian” film and set it firmly in the communist era. But I didn’t know how to do it. How to structure the narrative, what convention to choose, what image to create, how to pace the story, what music to use? There was a great deal of open questions. After a few years, when I had found answers to these questions, the producer, i.e. the Documentary and Feature Film Studios, and I began to look for financing. It also took a lot of time and wasn’t easy.

How did you make it that the world you wanted to show was authentic for the audience? Was it difficult to recreate that reality?

The concept of showing that era in the film was based on combining old archive footage with contemporary feature film footage that we shot. A kind of refrain developed, i.e. scenes constructed from old newsreels, which imperceptibly move on to the creative story. These scenes appear in the film every 10-15 minutes.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE For example – the first entry in the sequence showing the cabaret “Piwnica pod Baranami” (Cellar under the Rams). At the beginning we see a documentary shot from the cabaret’s performance in the 1960s, then we see the second shot with the spectators watching the cabaret (also an archive shot). Subsequently, the cabaret continues its performance, but that it is filmed in the present day, with a documentary cut of the audience from the 1960s. And suddenly we see a shot of the film’s protagonist sitting in the audience – this is, of course, a shot taken now. The set, costumes, light, contrast and grain of the image are the same in old archive footage as in modern material. In the end – this was my assumption – the viewer gets lost and does not know what is archival material and what is not.

You don’t shun historical topics. Let’s mention, among others, films such as “Niedzielne igraszki” (Sunday Pranks 1983), „Rośliny trujące” (Poisonous Plants 1985), „Wszystko, co najważniejsze” (All That Really Matters 1992), but also „Kamienie na szaniec” (Stones for the Rampart 2014) and the recent „Zieja” (2020). And there are also Television Theatre plays, such as “Mein Kampf” (1993) and “Maria Stuart” (1994). All these productions show that you are eager to return to the past. What is the biggest advantage of the costume? And why are many Polish directors afraid of history?

Poland’s greatest natural resource is… history. Our western and eastern neighbours have been trying for centuries and with great care to make our history rich, varied, complicated, tragic and shocking. Poland, caught between a rock and a hard place, i.e. between Germany and Russia, has had a hard life. We never became a rich country.

The poor economy is the subject of ridicule by our Western neighbours – the term “Polnische Wirtschaft” has had an ironic and mocking connotation there for years. [It literally means “Polish management” – a stereotypical, pejorative term used in Germany regarding Polish society. “Polnische Wirtschaft” is a synonym for “unimaginable disorder”, it means extreme extravagance, disregard for realities, lack of planning and good manners – M.M.]. Backward agriculture has groaned with inefficiency for centuries.
Director Robert Gliński at the première of his “Strawman”. Photo: TVP/Arsen Petrovych
Instead of creating a state of eternal prosperity, the natural gold mine of coal became a source of problems. Tourism, a sector with huge potential, failed to develop, ostensibly because of poor roads and a lack of hotels, but in reality because of Polish mediocrity. That is why we did not experience the economic miracle of Germany, the agricultural boom of France, and we did not become another Norway or Portugal. Instead of wonderful factories, profitable mines, beautiful buildings, we have... rich graveyards.

In response to the “rich graveyards”, the popular slogan “let’s choose the future” was formulated not so long ago. Meanwhile, it turns out that the past that has never spoiled us can be the perfect recipe for an interesting, good film...

Of course it can, but it doesn’t have to. It all depends on whether someone has a good idea, and the film will hit its due date and is understood. And as we know, things vary. But to be honest, the treasure trove of history is a real paradise for a film director. Wars, occupations, uprisings – everything that our neighbours have given us in recent centuries – are great material for a film. Because the most interesting film hero is an ordinary person entangled in a tragic series of events, a person with strong conflicts, faced with a difficult choice. And the great history of Poland has not spared us from such situations. As Alexander Wat used to say, “History is a devil”, capitalising on ordinary people, on each and every one of us.

The main character of “Strawman” is a young secret service officer, Bronisław Budny (Mateusz Więcławek), who is very committed to surveillance of Karol Wojtyła (Maciej Mikołajczyk, voice: Mateusz Grydlik). It is from his perspective that we get to know the priest many years before the beginning of his pontificate. Probably for the first time since the famous role of Franz Maurer played by Bogusław Linda in “Psy” (Pigs 1992), we have such a hero in Polish cinema. Although, just like in films by Władysław Pasikowski, you can like this hero – what distinguishes him from Maurer is that he is a kind of Mephistopheles. What was the key to this character?

Bronek Budny is a young, nice boy. He falls in love, wants to have a family, children, an apartment. He is very dutiful, so he devotes himself completely to his work. He follows Bishop Wojtyła, records, photographs, and sets traps. He wants to find materials compromising the bishop at all costs. He plays hardball to get what he wants and, suddenly we see that there is a devil inside this nice boy. His life begins to fall apart, his wife and child leave him. When the lonely hero has reached his moral nadir, there is a “light at the end of the tunnel”, a chance for the prodigal son to return to his father. Will the hero change? VISIT OUR WEBSITE AND GIVE US A LIKE I wonder about the young secret service agent’s motivation, because his task of “exposing” Wojtyła goes far beyond the normal performance of his duties. What’s more, this particular rivalry will become an obsession for him, which – as you said – will destroy his private life. However, we do not know the sources of this obsession, we do not know why Budny is so interested in Wojtyła?

Wojtyła is someone. He is intelligent. He has authority and charisma, people like him and trust him. He impresses Budny, although he doesn’t admit it. Maybe he envies him? In the secret service, Budny is a strawman. A puppet who is manipulated. He is a nobody, a complete zero. That’s why he wants to hunt down a distinguished and intelligent bishop and destroy him. Maybe it’s revenge for a failed life?

You insist that Budny is basically “pure evil”, but at the same time he is a tender and loving husband. Were you not afraid of the accusation that you were casually warming up the communist apparatus of violence?

At the beginning of the film, Budny is tender and loving. Then he forgets about his wife. He wants to discredit Bishop Wojtyła at all costs. This is the meaning of his life. A monster comes out of Budny. Ruthless, cold bastard. A man without feelings. We see this, for example, in the scene when Budny films bodies after the fights in Nowa Huta. Or when he threatens his wife: “If you baptise your child, you will go back to the asylum”.

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Wojtyła in “Strawman” is not an autonomous character, but only a target of the Security Service. For this reason, it is difficult to understand from the film’s plot why the new Metropolitan of Krakow is such a unique character that he is considered more dangerous than Primate Wyszyński. Were you not tempted to show us Wojtyła himself in the film, at least a little? Be it on the example of the construction of the church in Nowa Huta?

The hero of the film is Bronek Budny. Wojtyła is a dramatic pretext to talk about the young secret service. I didn’t want to make a film about Karol Wojtyła. For my generation, he was an icon of the true Church, open to everyone, where truth, moral values and love for people were important. Then Wojtyła, as Pope John Paul II, led our country out of communism. What vexes me now are those who take advantage of his greatness and contradict his system of values. A certain Redemptorist from Toruń excels at this and is building a museum named after John Paul II. At the same time, he talks terrible nonsense on his radio, which proves that he has not read any of John Paul II’s encyclical letters.

Is “Strawman” just a historical film? For me, it is also a morality play with a universal message. I have the impression that with this motion picture you are, in a sense, returning to the old style of “cinema of moral anxiety”.

What does the word “strawman” mean in everyday language? [in the nomenclature of the secret services there is one word – “figurant” – for a strawman and a target, i.e. a person under surveillance – trans.] It is someone who holds a high position and thinks he has power, but in fact he is a nobody and means nothing. A strawman is a pushover, a puppet. This description fits the hero of the film – Bronek Budny. He believes in himself, has a sense of strength, and ruthlessly pursues his goal, regardless of the consequences. Evil, good, guilt, conscience – these are categories that do not exist for him. In this context, you are right – it is a contemporary film, because people like Budny have always been, are and will be. “Budnis” were once heroes of the “cinema of moral anxiety”, we can often see them on screens today. I am sure that they will also be important characters in the films to be made in the future.

Finally, I would like to ask about the actors. There are some very good performances in “Strawman”, including: Marianna Zydek or Zbigniew Stryj, Krzysztof Szczepaniak is seen in a smaller role. Of course, Mateusz Więcławek shines. This is his fourth time with you and the third time in a row that he plays the leading role. Is he your favourite actor of the young generation? What was the process of assembling the cast?

It’s true, Mateusz Więcławek is my favorite actor of the young generation. However, in “Strawman”, the main role was initially supposed to be played by someone else. I was only preparing a small episode for Mateusz. We had test photos, Mateusz came and said that he would like to play Budny, the main character in the film. We rehearsed several scenes from the script in front of the camera. It turned out to be great. Budny, played by Matusz, is a nice, warm boy, and only after a while do we see that underneath this nice mask there is a ruthless devil.

Mateusz got the lead. Then I assembled the rest of the cast around him. I had met Marianna Zydek before, when she was studying at the Drama Faculty in Łódź. I knew that she was a great actress. Zbigniew Stryj played in my film “Benek”, where he created a wonderful character of Brother Benek, the main character of this film. I knew Krzysztof Szczepaniak from his excellent theatre roles.

Building a cast is a very important element of a director’s work. As Andrzej Wajda used to say, there are two most important moments when working on a film, when the director must receive a flash of grace from God – when he chooses the script and when he creates the cast. The rest is “cutting plywood with a saw”. That is, the tedious day-to-day work.

– Interviewed by Mikołaj Mirowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: A young secret service officer Bronisław Budny keeps Karol Wojtyła under surveillance. He’s a nice boy. He falls in love, wants to have a family, children, an apartment. Photo: TVP
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