Before Magdalena Chmielewska came to the Austrian State Film & TV School Filmakademie Wien, she did research on the German film director and writer Alexander Kluge and devoted herself passionately to contemporary dance. “The physical approach has always been important to me,” says Magdalena. “I try to put this into practice in my work with the actors as well as in my film-making.”
When she moved to Vienna, Magdalena regularly attended dance training courses at the Center of Contemporary Dance and Physical Thearer Tanzquartier Wien. “The trainings were primarily about finding a connection between time, space and body”, says Magdalena. “In other words, how to create a tension with these three dimensions, how to sharpen the feeling for it.” Today, she says, this is the most important thing for her directing work in film. Also Pina Bausch’s mantra “Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost” remains one of her most important references in this respect. “This also refers to my thoughts about life models of all kinds,” says Magdalena. “It is about this need to make visible the inner emotional movements within us in the face of our own desolation about a world threatened by social grievances and ecological catastrophes. It is about this search for humanity in the face of crisis, a search that must not stop.” Magdalena Chmielewska was born in Szczecin in the 1980s. When she came to Vienna, she first studied film and theater studies, among other things, and then made Alexander Kluge the subject of her phd. Inspired by Kluge’s montage principle, Magdalena broke off her doctoral studies after two years to apply to the Film Academy. Vienna has now been her adopted home for 15 years. “I am a person who exists in the in-between”, says Magdalena. She has only found a “cross-border home” in film. The search for the question “how to live” in films by Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes made clear to her at the time: “You want to make films, you want to go into this depth. And the second half, that was my family, society and their doubts: ‘How will you survive? It was these uncertainties: Everyone else had nine-to-five jobs, and I just decided to go back to school. Then you realize that the whole drama, this Chekhov, this monkey chatter in your head, is actually unhealthy. The inner urge to keep searching, to stay curious and to film is stronger.” The first direction Magdalena applied for at the film academy was film editing, later she was also accepted for the directing class. The principle of montage fascinated her ever since, also in life, “how to put things and the world together and how to connect them”. Just as subjective human experience does not obey any dramaturgical laws, Magdalena also works in montage. It is mysterious, she says, “how I understand being human. It’s not that I give a reason in one scene that the character then follows a logic in the next scene.” The search for spaces for my characters is equally important to me,” explains Magdalena. “It always occupies me for quite some time where I can concretely locate this cosmos, what the textures and lines are that determine the outer world.” For the short feature film Gretchen am Spinnrade (2016, 7 min) she first found the right motif (see photo above) at the German Baltic Sea, where the tension of the character and the story could be told. “It was over 1000 kilometres that I let my team travel. Because I found this house simply perfect. I remember Michael Haneke, who was our script advisor on this project, telling me it’s a crazy idea.” Magdalena prepares meticulously for her work on the set, but when she is on set, she says she is not one of those directors who is afraid of the actors. “I feel a pact that I’m making with my team and I’m not afraid to go on an intensive search right away. After all, it is a force field full of fears, uncertainties and technical problems. And there is my approach: What kind of gift is hiding behind the challenge? If I allow this second voice inside me instead of doubts, then that is a higher form of film making and not a drill of the script, where everyone moves like soldiers. “The inspiration for my characters is fed by my observations, newspaper articles, stories from my surroundings, my experience as a human being. From this I piece together these roles that reflect this mosaic of human experiences; in other words, what moves me and what I believe we – that is, I and my viewers – could have in common. The idea that the spectators with their own world of experience find a connection to the world of experience of my characters always goes with them. “Only that which contains a contradiction in itself is really alive”, Magdalena continues to describe her figure drawing. “The inner tension of the figures drives them and they always remain in motion.” And even when there are only two women in the picture – as in the beach scene in Am Himmel (2018, 30 min), Magdalena’s graduation film at the Film Academy – other, invisible forces, fears resulting from forced relationships, a latent pressure to prove oneself, are mixed into this relationship. All this is always physically negotiated in Magdalena’s films: “They are bodies full of longings, full of dreams and memories,” says Magdalena. With Am Himmel Magdalena won the most important new comers film prize in the German-speaking world in 2018: the FIRST STEPS Award. The journalist Anna Katharina Laggner writes about the film: Two women sit on a blue blanket on an empty beach, you can see them from behind, next to them lies a tattered fishing net. “I want to go home to Vienna”, says one of them. It’s warmer there. She doesn’t just mean the weather. “But the swimsuit stays,” the other one gives it back to her. She doesn’t just mean a piece of cloth that hasn’t kept its promise. The promise: “Beach, sea, sun. And not thinking of anything else anymore”, as one of the others announced in Vienna before she bought her swimsuit. The swimsuit is printed with a beach scene. Concretely: beach, sea, sun, people. Before you see this colossal garment in its entirety, the film gives you the illusion of seeing people on a beach in a close-up. Then you see a butt that is stuck in a swimsuit. How little the reality and the image we have of the (ideal) reality correlate is shown by this beach scene from Am Himmel: There the two women in their new swimsuits are sitting on a blanket in the sand and far and wide there is nothing more than a piece of fabric that could make the illusion of beach-sea-sun-and-on-you-think-more real. Am Himmel begins on a summer night. You can hear it on the crickets. You see close-ups of a woman’s skin lying in a meadow. In the background, the headlights of a car being started and driving away. The woman runs home. Am Himmel plays directly in the first days after a sexual abuse, about which the main character does not talk. She decides to go to her boyfriend in Italy and persuades a friend to come along. It is often said about films in which little is said that only the most necessary things are said. But the opposite is true: what there is to say, what is necessary to be said, remains unsaid. This (anti-)dialogic art form is known from Jean-Luc Godard as well as from Barbara Albert and Jessica Hausner. Magdalena Chmielewska pushes this form with great skill and always at the edge of the fence to total affectation. It is a talking to each other, which is actually a talking against each other, dialogues that are about meta-level instead of exchange. Figures in a straightjacket, (unintentionally) impaling themselves with words. The place where most of Am Himmel takes place is first seen from above: A house with a flat roof, perched alone on a cliff above the sea. Although the house is white, the reference to the Casa Malaparte from Le Mépris (FR/IT 1963) is unmistakable. And cunning. Where the Casa Malaparte has its famous staircase, two tin ladders lean against the house in Am Himmel. All the other references to Le Mépris, even a film full of references to unruly cinema and to the unruly nature of interpersonal (love) relationships, are also clear and broken. In Am Himmel the sea is not blue but grey-green, stirred up by the storm, the sun never shines, the sky is always overcast. And Maria Spanring, who plays the leading role, has an androgynous, bony body. But even 50 years after Le Mépris, there is still no simple solution to how a woman maintains or recovers her integrity, how she deals with covetousness towards and exploitation of her body.
“What attracted me to film, to film as a medium,” says Magdalena, “was to find visible images and actions for the invisible that this woman carries around with her, this darkness. For her, it’s about regaining the lost dignity. Her approach is intuitive, instinctive, abrupt and rough.” This characteristic runs like a red thread through all the characters in Magdalena’s films: Am Himmel (2018), Gretchen on the Spinning Wheel (2016), Spring Miracle (2014, 15 min) and the projects Olka and Allotment, which are currently under development.