It has been said of Jerzy Skolimowski that making films turned him into a nomad. Forced by principle to leave his native Poland after the repressive government shelved his surreal, semi-autobiographical and politically incendiary 1967 film “Hands Up!,” the director moved first to the U.K. and then to the U.S. before finally returning to Poland in the early 2000s.
The journey home also resulted in Skolimowski’s first film in 17 years. After suffering a personal and financial failure with 1991’s “30 Door Key,” the director took time out to explore his talents as a painter. The success of his comeback film, 2008’s “Four Nights With Anna,” encouraged him to return to cinema, and 2010’s “Essential Killing” claimed acting and directing prizes at that year’s Venice Film Festival.
Now 78, Skolimowksi comes to the 2016 festival to collect the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, a celebration of a career that has spanned almost six decades and numerous cities, and perhaps marking a spiritual homecoming of sorts for the wandering artist. “I feel blessed and honored to be placed among Orson Welles, Fellini, Antonioni, Buñuel, Kubrick, and magnificent others,” he says of the award. He adds with typical self-deprecating modesty, “but I still have to prove to myself that I really deserve it.”
Skolimowski came to the festival for the first time in 1971 with his sexually intense London-set drama “Deep End.” “I don’t remember why no awards were given [to it] that year,” he says, “but it was very frustrating at the time. Judging by the reaction to my film, I had an impression it could have been one of the winners.”
The Golden Lion puts a rare spotlight on a director whose interests took him from jazz and boxing in his teens to enrolling in the Lodz Film School in his early 20s. His contemporaries at the school included Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda.
Unusually for an auteur director, Skolimowski’s films defy categorization even by the many periods of his life defined by émigré status, and he’s not precious about the work. “To tell you the truth,” he says, “I don’t look back at my films at all. I know well what is good in some of them. I know what’s bad in others. And I know I cannot change any part of them — what is done is done.”
Tellingly, Skolimowski does not indulge in nostalgia when pressed for personal favorites from his expansive back catalog. “I like those that were done with a lot of passion,” naming such films as “Deep End,” “The Shout,” “Moonlighting,” “Essential Killing,” and “11 Minutes.”
Even now, it is hard to see a pattern to the director’s life, since he is the first to admit that very little of it was pre-determined or in any way planned. “I led a gypsy existence for most of my life,” he says. “From film to film, from country to country. I was a ‘bloody foreigner’ in England and a ‘legal alien’ in the U.S. There were also Belgium, Germany, Italy, and France. None of them, unfortunately, felt like home. When I was able to return to Poland, I came back.”
Similarly, his films are unusual in that they are either very political — like the provocative “Hands Up!” or 1982’s “Moonlighting,” about Polish laborers working illegally in the U.K., or “Essential Killing,” which dealt with America’s treatment of Middle Eastern terror subjects — or straight genre pieces, like 1978’s psychological horror “The Shout” and last year’s thriller “11 Minutes.”
“When the world I was living in was very political, like Communist Poland, I was making political references in my films,” he says. “Of course I went too far with ‘Hands Up’ — the regime could not swallow the image I used of Stalin with four eyes. And I was punished for my provocation and forced to emigrate.”
Thankfully, Skolimowski is a director who has not been thwarted by either his occasional crisis of confidence or his mistreatment at the hands of the authorities (the director revisited “Hands Up!” in 1981, showing it in out of competition in that year’s Cannes film festival). Indeed, his filmography is even beginning to gather pace again. Asked about this newfound vigor so late in life, he replies, quite casually, “by the standards established by Manuel de Oliveira I’m still a young filmmaker.”
Skolimowski comes to Venice with very few regrets. Looking back, would he do anything differently?
“Perhaps choose a couple of projects more carefully,” he says, with more than a little irony.