Painting on Film: An Interview with Lech Majewski

Watching Lech Majewski's The Mill & The Cross (Kino, 9.14), one is immediately struck by the fact that it actually feels as if you are watching a painting on film. It was a theme that continually popped up in our interview this afternoon as we discussed the Polish filmmaker/painter/composer's new film, which opens tomorrow at the Film Forum in NYC.

Director Lech Majewski. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Majewski (who cites his greatest cinematic inspirations as Tarkovsky, Fellini, and Kubrick; the first of which is most clearly apparent here) likened his experience making the film to a chess game, painstakingly assembling the pieces of each shot as he recreated Peter Bruegel's painting, "The Way to Calvary." In the film, Rutger Hauer (who he says resembles Bruegel's self portrait, and interestingly enough, has Bruegel's "Way to Calvary" on his bedroom wall) plays Bruegel as he is painting his masterpiece, and the film dramatizes this by literally putting him inside his own painting. Majewski achieved this effect through extensive use of blue-screen. Each shot is composed of anywhere between 40 and 147 layers of action to achieve the look of the original artwork, each piece shot separately from the others. When asked if making the movie was akin to painting on film, Majewski responded that it very much was, and that he wanted to meet Bruegel on his territory.

Bruegel painted "The Way to Calvary" from seven different perspectives, and Majewski set out to recreate them as accurately as possible, but found in the beginning the results looked too much like film. After much tinkering and philosophical reflection about Brueger's approach, the result is the film we see today. The camera, Majewski says, is a false perspective. After all, humans have two eyes, while the camera only has one lens. The eye is alive, always moving and changing focus, and his goal was to somehow capture that, assembling the landscape so as to summarize our eye's perspective.

Peter Bruegel's "The Way to Calvary"

When asked how he came to direct this film, Majewski quickly replies that he has been fascinated with Bruegel since he was a teen, spending hours on end in Vienna sitting in front of his paintings. His work's visual power coupled with its philosophical nature drew Majewski to him. Bruegel had a way of hiding the subjects of his paintings. Whereas most painters put their subject right up front, Bruegel concealed them, suggesting that people often don't pay attention to the most important things. There is so much to look at one almost misses the main focus of the painting, in this case, Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary in a medieval setting, symbolically being guarded by Spanish soldiers.

The film is based on the book of the same title by art critic Michael Francis Gibson, who sent Majewski a copy of the book, inspiring him to make the film. It is essentially a 300 page essay on "The Way to Calvary," and not very cinematic. No one had ever done a film based on an art essay before, but as Majewski says, "real gentlemen do the impossible."

And indeed he has achieved the impossible. The Mill & The Cross is a lovely film, the kind of rich and expressive film that continues to offer rewards upon each viewing, much as the painting offered Majewski something new each time he looked at it, even as he was making the film. Even today he is still discovering new aspects of Bruegel's work, and through The Mill & The Cross he invites us to do the same.

The Mill & The Cross opens September 14 at the Film Forum in NYC.

Find out more about Lech Majewski and his work


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