Conjuring the Moving Image: The Films of Lech Majewski

The word visionary is often misapplied — recall the trailers last fall for Fur, from the “visionary [cough]” director of Secretary — but the Polish filmmaker/poet/painter Lech Majewski earns the distinction for his singularly transfixing cinema. The Katowice native, who first won acclaim as a student filmmaker in Poland in the late 1970s and moved to the U.S. in 1981, is probably best known on these shores for writing the story that inspired Julien Schnabel’s 1995 hit Basquiat. That arty portrait-of-the-artist effort got by on Jeffrey Wright’s charismatic lead performance, but Majewski’s subsequent solo foray into biopic territory is a more rewarding piece of work. Wojaczek (1999) literally starts with a bang, as its eponymous protagonist — the late postwar Polish poet Rafa Wojaczek, played by lithe real-life poet Kryzstof Siwczyk — stumbles blindly through a barroom window. His aimless, booze-fueled wanderings constitute a large portion of the film, shot in fetchingly glum black and white by Adam Sikora. The gloomy aesthetic doesn’t feel imposed so much as informed by the writer’s depressive worldview. The tousled, self-destructive genius has become something of a stock type in this subgenre, but Wojaczek is entirely cliché–free. The film gets inside a troubled head space without exalting it as a state of grace. A sullen young poet is also at the center of The Roes’ Room (1997), an apparently autobiographical video opera (music and libretto by Majewski himself) that unfolds almost entirely in the space of one family’s apartment. The cramped environs and deadened interactions between the principals — the brooding poet and his uncommunicative parents — seem to portend tedium, but the swells of the music, combined with the serene glide of Majewski’s camera, induce a wobbly, trancelike momentum. The gradual appearance of flora and fauna in the apartment tilts the action fully toward waking-dream territory, as fertile primal scenarios get punctuated by ghostly intrusions, all timed to the changing of the seasons. There is perhaps a hint of David Lynch (particularly his 1970 short The Grandmother) in a scene describing copulation through a black thicket of roots, but this spooky lo-fi wonder is totally sui generis — it has a continuity of incongruity all its own.

—Adam Nayman