“People are afraid of everything they don’t know,” says filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska of her native Poland, the setting of her based-on-a-true-story satirical drama “Mug” (Twarz), in competition at the Berlinale. Jacek is a young construction worker who undergoes a face transplant following a grisly accident working on a giant statue of Jesus. When he returns to his provincial hometown with an unrecognizable new face, the locals treat his strangeness with contempt.
“I found it interesting as a metaphor: how they treat the guy after the face transplant,” she says. “I wanted to tell a story about a man losing his identity, and society rejecting him because they can’t recognize him anymore, and they are not open-minded.”
Throughout “Mug,” the images appears sharp in the middle, diffused at the edges, its focus mimicking the limits of a human eye. “What we wanted to do is a kind of deformation of the world; he’s deformed, and the world around him is deformed,” she says of the film’s unusual lensing, which she conceptualized with cinematographer and co-writer Michal Englert.
Like Claire Denis’ rather more esoteric “L’Intrus” (2004), which centered on a heart transplant, “Mug,” which Szumowska describes as “a fairytale for adults,” trades the medical drama of replacing one’s body parts for psychological spectacle. Yet Szumowska’s colorful sensibility remains her own: fiercely political in outlook while playfully cartoonish in form. The film’s sense of humor dips into the absurd, ribbing the Polish town of Świebodzin’s famous monument Christ the King (“We really have the biggest statue of Christ in the world”) and opening with a surreal scene of shoppers stripping down to their underwear in order to make a dash to buy discounted TVs in a store’s promotion.
“I travel a lot and I have this outsider perspective on my own country,” Szumowska says. She explains that as Poland’s economy begins to grow, Polish people have become, as she puts it, “comfortable.” It is this complacency that her films question. “There are no refugees and it’s a recognizable environment — a Catholic environment.”
The Catholic Church is familiar terrain for Szumowska, who was raised in the faith and looked at the life of a gay priest in rural Poland in 2013’s “In the Name Of.” She describes her own experience of the church as “something that can really [make you] close your eyes to many, many aspects of the world.” She continues: “It locks you off from the sexual experience, locks you off from different people, from Europe. At the same time, I have tenderness towards it because I remember all the rituals. The Catholic Church creates a huge tension in society, but also paradoxically, it creates a tension in me as an artist. It’s something I’m fighting with, all my life.
“I think it’s dangerous that people feel comfortable surrounded by this extremely conservative and, in my opinion, very old-fashioned, narrow way of thinking,” she says. “I’m very curious to see what kind of reception the film will have in Poland.”
In her home country, Szumowska’s female filmmaking colleagues are far and few between. She cites Agnieszka Smoczyńska and Jagoda Szelc as up-and-comers, and director Agnieszka Holland as her “one hero.” “Besides her, there’s not so many. Only her, actually. She’s a friend, and a woman who is, for me, extremely strong. She’s involved in politics in Poland; she’s very brave. I can do it because she can do it.
“We have the #MeToo revolution going on in the world, but in Poland women still have to fight for the basic things, like the right to abortion. We are in a different moment,” she says on the subject of industry change, with the caveat that Poland’s political landscape is also “changing constantly.” As for her own political motivation? “I used to feel that it’s more my responsibility to be an artist. I never think about my responsibility as a ‘female director.’ But over the last couple of months, something has changed a little bit. Because I’m the mother of a 5-year-old daughter, because of everything that’s going on in the world, I’ve started to feel a kind of responsibility I’d never felt before.”
Szumowska is editing her next project, “All-Inclusive,” “the first Polish-Moroccan co-production in history,” she says. Produced by Szumowska and Lamia Charibi, on a budget of €300,000 ($371,720), it’s a return to her student roots, she says. “It’s only about women,” she says. “I promise it’s very cool.”