Though a hit on the festival circuit – culminating in a UK release – Malgorzata Szumowska’s Mug wasn’t quite so well-received back on home turf, which comes as a great surprise and disappointment to the woman at the helm. When in London promoting the film’s release, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Szumowska as she discusses exactly why she believes this to have been the case, and how it makes her feel. She also goes on to explain why she sees Mug as a fairytale, the film’s political and religious undercurrent, and her own future, and why perhaps this whole ordeal may be what pushes her into making her first English language production.
Where the idea for Mug originate from?
It came from the original story, which really happened in Poland, I think about four years ago, a guy lost his face in an accident and then the a very famous Polish surgeon gave him a new face. We found it very inspired, a changing of face and not being recognised by society felt metaphorical and very connected to Polish history, to the problems of Polish society. We created an unrealistic story, it’s not based on real facts, only the story that we used. We created a whole dimension of rural provinces, that part of Poland, more treated as a fairytale I would say.
It’s steeped in realism but there is a surreal, almost fantastic edge prevalent. Was that a difficult balance?
It’s very fantastical. But this is why we decided to use a strange lens, the picture is deformed, we wanted to show to the audience it’s almost a fantasy. It’s not a documentary film. At the Berlinale the film critics and the audience really got it, and we were very happy, they got the black humour and the absurdity, and the fantasy, fairytale. But in Poland people didn’t get this. It was very frustrating to me, it’s quite distressing. People started, on the internet, to compare this film to the real story, saying that I was blaming Polish people, and they’re real people who helped the guy so much, and that I pictured them as stupid animals, like I was simplifying everything. But it’s so funny because if you can pull off each element, like the exorcism, or the behaviour of the mother who doesn’t believe he’s her son anymore, these things are happening in deep villages in Poland, that’s what people think about transplantations. All of these elements are real, but probably when they are put together it looks absurd. In Poland they really didn’t get it.
That must be quite sad for you?
Yes it is.
I think your portrayal of Poland has always been very affectionate.
I think so too. And tender. That’s my feeling. I was talking about the reaction on the internet, but also in many film reviews the people say that I’m snobby. Like I treat myself as someone who is laughing at poor people. But what is extremely funny, is that the right wing and the left wing, both didn’t like the film, because the left wing felt like I treated those people wrong in their opinion, and then the right wing felt I was making jokes about the Polish nation and religion. So nobody was satisfied [laughs]. I was disappointed. But maybe that’s why it’s important, because people are facing something in the film that disturbs them so much, and it’s good, no?
I suppose any reaction is better than no reaction.
Yeah and it was a strong reaction. People felt really frustrated by this, like what I was saying is not true.
There’s been a real, and worrying right-wing resurgence in Europe of late, and this felt like a subtle but vital backdrop to this movie.
Yes it’s connected to that, but at the same time it isn’t. It’s also a love story. I didn’t want to make a big political statement to say big things about the right or the left or whatever, because it’s sometimes a cliché. For me it was more important to tell an absurd, very crazy comedy. I remember on the posters when the film was in cinemas in Poland, it called the film a black comedy, and people were asking me in Polish Q&As why we called it a comedy, they couldn’t understand, because they didn’t find it funny [laughs]. But I think this really shows the different perspectives.
So would you define the film as a comedy?
To me, yes, it’s a comedy. It’s definitely a black comedy. I laugh when I watch it, I think it’s edgy, it’s crazy, and that’s what I wanted to do.
It’s your first comedy, and with comedies come an instant audience reaction through laughter. That must be new for you, and nerve-wracking too, because for the first time you can gage on the spot if its working?
I was extremely nervous before about if the audience would laugh, of course. But then they were laughing all the time in Berlin so I was really happy. I found the audience extremely reactive in the right moments, I was so happy. I remember somebody told me that at the Polish premiere, nobody laughed.
Does the reaction from Polish audiences push you into wanting to make movies outside of Poland?
Yes, yes. I can tell you yes. I can’t say this in a Polish newspaper probably but I can see it here! That’s exactly what I’m now trying to do, I’m receiving after Berlinale some interesting scripts and I’m thinking to make my first English speaking film. Why not? Try something very different. But of course I am planning to make another film in Poland and the budget is already closed, it’s a Polish-German co-production and it’s going to be shooting in ten or 11 months. It’s a black comedy about the Polish middle class, [Laughs] Maybe after this I really will have to go to the UK! They’ll want me the fuck out of there!
Having said all this, as one of the most renowned Polish filmmakers out there, there must be some sense of duty to stay at home and make films and help the Polish film industry? Do you ever feel that?
Of course. Most of my films are in Polish, they are taking place in Poland and speaking about Polish provinces. I know them very well, I used to spend a lot of holidays in the provinces, since I was a little kid, in the small villages. I also made some documentaries there, so of course, I feel a kind of duty to want to share my feelings about Polish mentality and history with the world. Yes, absolutely, I feel this duty. But at some point you might be tired by this fact, and maybe it’s good to do something absolutely without this on your back, it’s heavy to feel this duty to a nation. Especially a nation with a difficult history where everything is so complicated, and so heavy, so maybe that’s why I wanted to make a comedy. But anyway, I’ll try and do another comedy, so let’s see.
Even though we mentioned the comedic aspects, this is a film about identity in many ways, which feels very relevant at the moment.
Yes, there’s a lot in here about that. Now in the time of social media, people are trying to find an identity through social media, for example Instagram. The fact he’s lost his face, he’s lost his identity, and if he had an Instagram account, can you imagine it after? It’s all about identity. But at the same time I wanted to show that he’s not changing inside, which is interesting. I spoke to the real man and he said that he didn’t change, the way he looked changed but he didn’t. It’s very much a film about identity.
There’s a big Hollywood blockbuster coming out called Mortal Engines, based on a series of books, and in the books one of the lead roles has a facial disfigurement, whereas in the movie the actress playing that character just has a small scar. It still shows that Hollywood is still afraid of having a lead role that has a disfigured face.
Totally. But I can tell you, maybe that’s why it wasn’t so easy with this film in Poland because it’s not easy to like that kind of character, right? Someone who looks that way. In Hollywood it wouldn’t be possible.
But when saying you want to make films in the English language, are you prepared for the fact that things like that could get blocked? You may not have the exact same freedom to tell the story as you want to.
Yes, I’m prepared, but I’m not saying I want to make a Hollywood blockbuster, I’m not saying that my aim is to make a studio film. There is also a niche of independent cinema, with budgets of three million, and in there you have more freedom, definitely. I think it depends on the budget what kind of freedom you have.
What is the significance in having Jesus as a real character in this movie?
Of course, Jesus is an extremely important person in Poland. When we started to shoot the film he was crowned, officially, the King of Poland. By parliament! Can you imagine this? They crowned him the King of Poland. Before that they crowned Santa Maria as the Queen of Poland. They are doing these things very seriously in the Polish parliament. It shows how much religion is connected with society, and shows that people really believe that Jesus and Santa Maria are real characters, people who exist, which is probably why they are creating so many statues, to feel close to them. The statue in Poland is the biggest in the world which I find extremely funny, and I knew we had to use it in the film because it also shows this kind of Polish obsession that we are the best, the biggest, the most powerful, the most important, centre of the world, which is absolutely not true. This shows a kind of paradox.
You’ve mentioned the Polish reaction, but when you have a movie on the festival circuit, is it interesting to you to see how different nations and different audiences respond to the film? And have there been any that have surprised you.
Definitely. Usually I’m surprised by UK audiences, because they really have this black sense of humour, but paradoxically, not with Mug. But usually UK audiences are similar to the Polish audiences, really. We also have this very brutal way of depicting black humour, which is why it’s even more of a paradox that they didn’t laugh at Mug. But maybe the most difficult thing is to laugh at ourselves, to face the problem.