The United States of Emotions

“I was having a terrible day, waiting on the stoplights, thinking about my life. I felt that what I was going through was the most important thing possible, then I turned my head and saw this woman in the car next to me and started looking at her, and I realized I had no clue what she was going through,” Tomasz Wasilewski says when he remembers the origins of his new film, The United States of Love, which won him the Silver Bear for best screenplay at the Berlinale. “I wanted to build this kind of world around those situations that happen so often in real life. We actually have no access to other people most of the time. We know someone, we cross our lives with some other lives, but in fact, we know nothing about them.”

United States of Love is a story of four women, who are all struggling with a lack of love and a lack of meaningful communication in the Poland of 1990, a year after the fall of communism. Wasilewski’s last film, Floating Skyscrapers, dealt with a forbidden love between two men – why does he focus on four women this time?

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“I remember that time, 1990, from the perspective of women. I was nine at the time and communism collapsed and my father went for a couple of years to New York to work. Just like one of the character‘s husband‘s actually, the beauty queen‘s husband. I don‘t know if you remembered the scene, where she watches the videotape – this is my father, this is an original video that he recorded for my family, without the porn though – I added the porn,” he says mischievously.

“But when he left I stayed at home with my mother and my older sister and I was surrounded with them and their friends. So the lack of father made me look at those years of transformation through women‘s eyes. That‘s why I chose women as characters, because this is what I remember.”

But despite the political upheaval he doesn’t consider it a political movie. “When I create a film I don‘t choose political subjects, it‘s not my thing. I wanted to make this movie through my memory. I was nine so I was too little to experience any kind of political issues, so it was very natural for me to choose this kind of social background and try to focus on the emotional side of those women. And all of this could happen nowadays, I believe this movie from the emotional side could be now and could be one hundred years ago as well. But I also think the choices of those people were different in 1990 than they would be now. I remember that when I was sixteen [seven years later], for the first time in my life I met a person from a divorced family. So I was almost grown then, it just wasn’t done … the environment and the tradition meant that the choice itself, leaving your husband, taking a chance, was hardly there … I‘m not saying Agata would do it, but if she would like to, it was so much harder back then than now.”

The Camera inside the Head

Perhaps the biggest name on the film is Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who shot films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. “It was always my dream to work with Oleg. I remember, years before I started making movies, when I saw 4-3-2 … I left the cinema, I was stunned and I promised myself I was going to work with him one day. So before this film I got his number, called him and said; this is Tomek from Warsaw, I want to make a movie with you,” Wasilewski remembers. He sent Mutu the script and a week later they talked again. “He was very impressed with the script and we were talking for an hour and all of a sudden we realized that we were interested in the same things in films, we are looking for the same stuff.”

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And what is that? “Human beings. It‘s very simple, this is what Oleg does. He goes with his camera inside of the head of the actor and it‘s amazing. He‘s 100 % my partner, we visualized this film together, we made this film together. It was a great honour to work with him.”

The visuals that first strike you are the colours. In the first scene only a handful of things in the frame are in colour, the rest is in black & white. As the film progresses everything is in colour – sort of. “I grew up in communism, and it was very important for me that Oleg grew up in communism as well. We didn‘t want to put a country to communism, but just the feeling of that time, to somehow sense it from the film, and when we started talking about the colours in the film, we went back to our memory and we realized we had no colours in our mind from that time. This is how we remembered that period of time, in a split second we understood it had to be those colours. Almost non-colours – because there are colours, but they‘re very saturated. This is how we remember that time and this is how we wanted to show it.”

A Naked Lack of Nostalgia

One of the ways the camera finds its way into a person’s head is actually through the naked body. “Bodies are important in my movies, it‘s something intimate to the character but at the same time something very normal. This is life, this is a human being, and when I come to the body with the camera and show the body, it‘s like I bring the audience to the most intimate scenes or moments, we‘re usually alone in those moments, with ourselves, so I trust those scenes will destroy the wall between the film and the audience, there is no screen anymore. The camera is the eye of the audience, that‘s also why I use master shots. Because to me, a cut in a film is always illusion. I don‘t want illusions in my movies. Illusion for me is something that tells me it didn‘t happen for real. What I try to do is to touch the deepest feelings of the characters, but at the same time of the audience. And to do it I can‘t put an illusion on film.”

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But how was entering that world again? “You know, it was very nice to see those buildings again. Because I grew up in those buildings, we don‘t really have them anymore. I still see them here in Berlin actually, which I love. Here, they are left like that and it‘s part of the history. In Poland they colour them in pink, yellow and an ugly green colour. But we still found the right kind of place, but going back there I didn‘t feel nostalgic. Because before this movie I already forgot that there was communism, you know? We got used to better days, to freedom, very easily. Most Poles did, my generation did, the younger generation doesn‘t even know anything about communism. But making this movie I went back to the history of Poland and it made me very sad, the fact that this happened. For me, communism is one of the worst things to happen to the world, the lack of freedom is something I disagree with. It wasn‘t nostalgia, it was more like anger this that really happened. Poland lost so many years through that.”

Finding the way

Wasilewski’s movies might make the audience rather sad; he hardly ever ends them on an upbeat note. Does that never tempt him? “No,” is the simple answer.

“I don‘t know why, it‘s hard to explain, this is the way I see cinema, my cinema. I try to do everything to touch the audience‘s soul, this is my way of storytelling, it‘s really hard for me to explain why. I‘m not doing comedies, I‘m just doing drama, I don‘t know why I‘m not doing comedies, I just do drama, that‘s what I feel. I work with my intuition. I don‘t have a concept for a movie. When I start to write I have to feel it. I don‘t write treatments, I just start to write and go further and further until I find the character. But broken people with broken souls are the people whom I can touch the most, I feel I can reach the deepest parts of their soul, that‘s why I choose such characters. But then, in every movie, I leave them without any answer or destination, because I want the audience to choose their own destination for my characters.”

From Kieslowski to Sofia Coppola

Some critics have compared Wasilewski to the late Polish great Krzysztof Kieslowski. He’s flattered by the comparison. “I only saw the whole Dekalog after making this film though. But what I love about Kieslowski‘s cinema is that he‘s so human, it was amazing, he was looking at people and he was touching them. That‘s what interests me the most in cinema, to portray emotions, look at what‘s happening with my characters. Also, the time, the 1990s, that‘s when Kieslowski was making his major movies. So it‘s very easy to compare, it‘s the same buildings, the same hair, the same costumes, the same everything. I think it‘s that sense of time and this sense of looking at people [that we might have in common].”

From Kieslowski he drifts on to other favourite directors. “I have a couple which are like my masters, one of them is Michael Haneke and the other is Ulrich Seidl. I love their films with pure love, but I also totally admire Sofia Coppola‘s films, which are totally different, Darren Aronofsky‘s cinema I really like, there are a lot of movies that are very close to me, and probably I have them somewhere in my head, but while making movies I never have direct references, because this movie has to be my movie. As I said before, I work with intuition, so I trust myself fully when I work, when I write and then direct actors and work with DOPs, maybe it goes somehow through me, but I never try to make a film, thinking it‘s going to look like that, I never know how it will look like, even though I always know what I want, yet at the end it‘s always a surprise to me when I see it.”

This is Wasilewski’s third feature film, after In the Bedroom and Floating Skyscrapers, which came out in 2012 and 2013. But this is the first one he wrote. “I wrote the film ten years ago, than it changed, of course. “I tried to make this movie before, but it was too hard to finance it, so I decided to make a totally independent movie. So I did In the Bedroom, with a budget of 20,000 Euros, and it became really successful outside of Poland, but in Poland as well, somehow … then I did Floating Skyscrapers the next year. When I couldn‘t make the film I was writing the next script, I wanted to make this movie earlier, but it had to wait.”

But what is waiting now?

“I‘m writing a script for my next film, now I feel I‘m done with United States of Love, I‘ve been working on it for two and a half years, every day, yesterday was the premiere of the film and for the first time I felt I was done with it, now I give it to audiences so I can go back to work on my next project,” he says and somehow sums up the irony of major film festivals; where journalists like me come to bring news from all those new films nobody has heard of to the world, while the film-makers are here to say goodbye to them. But before we say our goodbyes, what about that title, what are the United States of Love?

“The love in the title is not only love, but all the emotions in the film, which you could attach to all those characters, from love to pain, despair, desire, lust, this is all love for me and all those emotions are united by my characters, even if they do not know about it, those emotions unite them, and this is how I want to unite audiences, with the emotions of the characters, that‘s how I chose this title, United States of Love.”

Interview: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson

Photos: Marcin Oliva Soto / Film stills

If you prefer Icelandic, the Icelandic version can be found on Klapptré.

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