We wanted to show the spiritual path of Adam Chmielowski. An interview with Witold Ludwig, director of the film “Poverty and Madame” by Fr. Adam Chmielowski – St. Brother Albert.
From many of your statements, it can be inferred that “pauper and madame” is the crowning achievement of your long-term interest in the figure of Adam Chmielowski- St. Albert’s Brother. Why him?
There are several reasons. First, I read the statement of St. John Paul II in the book “Gift and Mystery”, published on the jubilee of his priesthood that in the years of shaping his vocation Adam Chmielowski played a decisive role. For me this statement – so clear and simple – was very inspiring because it allowed me to ask the question: who was Adam Chmielowski, commonly known as Brother Albert, that for this degree influenced John Paul II? Karol Wojtyła abandoned the theatre which he was passionate about and Polish studies, which he studied at the Jagiellonian University for the priesthood. He did so, in fact, on an example of Adam Chmielowski, who abandoned painting.
What were the other reasons?
At that time, the Year of Brother Albert was coming in the Polish church … Besides, he is a character for whom life itself has written a script, full of cinematic twists. What he lived through and what he experienced could be summed up in many biographies. There was tsarist captivity, escape in a coffin, loss of a leg. We see him as a rebel and a rebellious artist and painter against the various backgrounds. There are also Jesuit fathers, there is the psychiatric facility, etc. All this made him a very cinematic character. And as an academic community of Redemptorist Fathers, we were able to get to know this person, creating our youthful performance in Toruń. I was born in 1989, the year of Brother Albert’s canonization. It so happened that it fell on my name day, which makes him very close to me personally.
Your painting is hagiographic in nature, but it is not the image of a sugar-coated hero, monumental. Some critics say bluntly: it is far from Catholic cliché. Was that the assumption?
Yes, we really wanted Adam Chmielowski to be a hero of flesh and blood to show all this complexity, avoiding the kitsch that often appears in Western European art. I think I would compare it to Caravaggio’s painting, who is called the “painter of dirty feet” and who after the Renaissance introduced a new poetics of presenting the saints of the Church – not deprived of wrinkles, devoid of halos, and showing their human face which makes them close to us. Secondly, Western European art as opposed to the art of Islam, which is forbidden from figurativeness, is fossilized and geometric, giving freedom to creators. Its extreme form, however, is kitsch and trash. The greatest harm ever we could do to this image, is to twist it. We didn’t want it; hence our idea was to make this image as real as possible and even veristic. We wanted to show the spiritual path of Adam Chmielowski.
In the plot, it is a story about a painter and a January insurgent who abandons painting and, as Brother Albert, he puts himself at the service of the poor. However, you focus mainly on his young years and although I know a film is governed by its own rules, it remains a certain dissatisfaction. Would you change anything in the script today?
The shape of the script at the literary level and the shape of the script already at the level of the finished work fully reflects our idea, it was a deliberate procedure. Of course, his life was not exhausted in the film, and in that sense, he deserves a historical series. It was impossible for a two-hour session to fit the second half of his life. Adam Chmielowski joined the Jesuits at the age of 35, and he founded the habit at the age of 42 but lived 71 years. Even about the first part of his life, we were condemned to some synthesis. Of course, we could show behind the scenes of his charity and the difficulties associated with it, analogous to those that accompanied the creation of Radio Maryja. However, I had to decide on perspective, and this one seemed to be the most universal.
The film is beautifully shot and very painterly. Marek’s scenography is astonishing and great music by Krzysztof Jańczak. And Piotr Zajączkowski gives back a very suggestive figure of Chmielowski. However, you were not afraid – to put it bluntly – that actors like him or Magdalena Michalik playing Helena Modrzejewska, who do not play professionally on a daily basis, may not carry those roles?
This fear always accompanies and concerns every creator, including me. Happens that as humans we fail, but we also can exceed our limits. As it was in this case. About Piotr and Magdalena, I can say that they are not qualified actors, but they do act professionally. It was neither their first appearance nor their second, counting from “Broken ear “. They studied journalism and had classes with actors, opera singers, they performed in numerous performances. The cinema model focuses on charisma and talent and does not require actors to graduate from drama schools. In this case, I have no doubt it was a very good choice.
In “Poverty and Madame” you can see many painting inspirations, for example, artistic references to the paintings of Malczewski or Chełmoński. How important was this symbolism and showing it in the film for you?
Indeed, the film is about a painter, and more broadly about painters and artists, and we wanted it to be also a painting on the visual level. This applied to all the open-air locations and the careful selection of them, costumes and scenery designs so that they could be painted at the level of colours or chiaroscuro. But considering the spirituality of Adam Chmielowski, the sum of all experiences of Helena Modrzejewska, Józef Chełmoński, father Wojciech Maria Baudiss or Władysław Czartoryski, we wanted to place them in a historical, cultural, social and even sociological context and to individualize their language. That is why this film provoked to saturate it with vanitas symbols, such as the skull motif, or the pelican motif pecking out its own heart, with evangelical motives such as the fisherman, or painting motives full of associations with the cultural context. We wanted this film to have many levels and many meanings, that it would connect generations and different characteristics of viewers. I think it meets these criteria, it connects believers and seekers. People who have a very in-depth view of culture and those who are just deepening it. And in this sense, we wanted it to be as mature as possible.
To the question: “What is the motto of the film”, you eagerly replied that it meant to show the heroic love of the neighbour. It is no coincidence that the subtitle “Little Spark, Big Flame” was found here?
This subtitle is probably the most evangelical. The figure of Chmielowski shows the way of maturing to freedom. Her affirmation was expressed in his aspirations for independence towards the Fatherland, or in his painting aspirations because he was choking in the shackles of academism. In addition to the Promethean feature of a small spark and a great flame, here is this love of freedom, showing that the Pole is free like the wind. In short, this movie is about inner freedom.
We have been waiting for the film for several years since you declared that you were working on it. What was the most difficult part of its creation?
This is probably the most difficult question. Life shows that it is the most difficult to live up to this hero, he sets the Olympic bar for us. And in this sense, staging is easier, but on a purely human level, literary work brought other challenges, and scientific research or work on a script brought another challenge. The lens through which to look at this hero was important here. On the other hand, there was the logistic dimension of the recordings throughout all seasons: from the Biebrza National Park to Żagań, from the Baltic Sea to historical objects such as the Słowacki Theater. Hundreds of extras, the end credits alone prove that this movie was made by thousands of people.
Do you already have a new idea for a movie?
I think it is too early for any declarations, although it is not too early for dreams. We’ll see what time shows.
Interviewed by Piotr Czartoryski-Sziler