Says he’s Polish and Swiss to the same degree. Admits to a fascination with Bergman, but gladly recalls the impression The Empire Strikes Back made on him. Compared to Kieślowski for Courage, he drifts toward David Lynch in Animals. And on top of all that, he’s hoping to make comedies! Greg Zglinski: impossible to pigeonhole
He arrived in Switzerland when he was 10 and lived near Zurich for the next 15 years. Spending most of his time there, he gradually put down roots in the country that was becoming his own. It was there that he shot his first feature film, All Winter Without Fire. Switzerland would also become the destination of the protagonists of his latest production, Animals: heading to a country advertised as an oasis of capitalist serenity, they find it far from idyllic. Zglinski admits that his adult consciousness was developed in Baden near Zurich. Asked about the mentality of the Swiss, he emphasizes that their typical calm is cracking ever more: long used to prosperity, they live in fear of losing it. Western European countries felt the impact of crisis and recession; Switzerland is no exception. The protagonists of Animals bear the marks of this growing uncertainty.
Zglinski’s ties to his second homeland remain strong. In recent years the author of Courage sat on a committee evaluating screenplays and awarding funding for film projects. That’s where he came across the story depicted in Animals – the work of Joerg Kalt, one of the best-known Swiss filmmakers. The screenplay made a tremendous impression on Zglinski, but he learned about Kalt’s death soon afterwards. Some years later Zglinski’s producers got in touch with Kalt’s brother, who gave them the green light to proceed.
After the launch of Animals at the Berlinale critics praised Zglinski for his ability to craft a nightmarish mood, a blend of Kubrick and Lynch
Animals were co-produced by Switzerland, Austria, and Poland (with the participation of Opus Film and the Polish Film Institute). Remarkably, Zglinski peopled the set with a cast of up-and-coming actors from the German cultural territory. All theater aficionados know Birgit Minichmayer from the Viennesse Burgtheather; she also starred in Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon and Maren Ade’s Everyone Else. We saw her in Poland during the Burg’s guest tour with Knives in Hens and, more recently, Platonov beautifully interpreted by Alvis Hermanis.
Screened in the Berlinale’s Forum section, Animals garnered rave reviews. Critics praised Zglinski’s ability to craft a nightmarish atmosphere onscreen, as if Kubrick met David Lynch and invited Roman Polański along. Yes, Animals owe him a lot, particularly with regard to building an oppressive mood that touches both the protagonists and the audience. The film starts out as a seemingly banal tale about a Viennesse couple, Nick and Anna, trying to reinvigorate their marriage by moving to Switzerland for six months. He’s planning to discover local cuisine for inspiration for his restaurant; she intends to throw herself fully into writing a long-postponed book. As they set off, however, animals literally get in the way: a sheep wanders into the road and Nick can’t brake in time. At this point the atmosphere turns stiflingly dense and the whole film becomes a puzzle, difficult to grasp and solve. It doesn’t offer answers to the mounting questions right up until the finale.
“I think film is an amazing medium for retelling dreams,” says Zglinski. “I’m fascinated by the blurring of boundaries between fantasy and reality. I touched upon this phenomenon in several projects realized before I went to film school, as well as in my graduate production.”
These projects were filmed before Greg’s return to Poland. Barely 20, Zglinski won two awards at the Grand Prix Objectiv festival in 1987 for his short films Rummel and Outtime. Two years later he repeated that victory with Confusion, while Sputnik (1992) was very well received at the festival in Lucerne. The artistic community of Zurich already knew Zglinski as the bass and guitar player in several rock bands.
His debut All Winter Without Fire shows his exceptional ability to succintly depict phenomena that sociologists need reams of paper to describe.
It was in Switzerland that he worked on his feature debut, All Winter Without Fire: the story of Jean and Laura Rochard, a couple living on a mountain farm, unable to overcome the trauma of their 5-year-old daughter’s death in a fire. Jean finds a factory job, where he meets Labinota (Gabriela Muskała), an immigrant from Kosovo. All Winter Without Fire shows Greg Zglinski’s exceptional ability to succintly depict phenomena that sociologists need reams of paper to describe. Tellingly, he always states that his broad and diverse interests show him the way along his creative trail. Zglinski admits to a fascination with Bergman and equally gladly recounts the powerful impression Empire Strikes Back, the darkest part of the original Star Wars saga, had made on him. The list of eminent filmmakers he learned from includes the author of Indiana Jones: Courage contained direct references to Duel, one of Steven Spielberg’s early works.
In the film community Zglinski is known both as a director and screenwriter, but Mariusz Grzegorzek utilized his talent for building soundscapes and unusual effects in The Queen of Angels. It shines through in Courage, whose soundtrack tells a parallel story.
Zglinski’s fascination with documentaries might stem from his desire to constantly redefine himself. It was noticeable in his student films shot in the Lodz Film School, and – most prominently – in the documentary portrait of Tadeusz Łaukajtys, a Polish mountaineer active in the 1960s and 70s, who lost all his fingers and toes on a Himalayan expedition. He returned to climbing after a long, grueling recuperation and suffered another dramatic accident while climbing in the Tatra mountains with his son. His life was the embodiment of the myth of Sisyphus in the young filmmaker’s eyes.
The author of All Winter Without Fire intends to return to documentaries. Together with Rafał Skalski, he’s planning a film about Piotr Chmieliński, the first man to kayak down the entire length of the Amazon from the source to the Atlantic.
Zglinski is drawn to authentic characters and true stories. It’s possible that he owes this to Krzysztof Kieślowski, whom he’d met in film school. Kieślowski had a particularly strong influence on Zglinski; the author of Animals claims to feel it to this day. Tadeusz Sobolewski considers Courage the most important Polish film on the subject of evil after A Short Film About Killing: everyday accidents reach symbolic proportions in the movie, looming over brothers Alfred (Robert Więckiewicz) and Jurek (Łukasz Simlat) like the hand of fate in a Greek tragedy. Jurek stands up for a girl assaulted by bandits on a suburban train while Alfred is unable to react to their aggression. Thrown out of the moving train, Jurek ends up in the hospital with permanent injuries; Alfred constructs his own version of the events to make himself look better in the eyes of family and friends.
Courage won three awards at the Gdynia festival (best screenplay; best debut or second film; and best supporting actress for Gabriela Muskała’s performance). It was one of Robert Więckiewicz’s most accomplished roles, very well received at the Warsaw Film Festival. Though Courage made Greg Zglinski into one of the most interesting personalities of new Polish cinema, he didn’t feel chained to the yoke of expectations. Zglinski delved into TV series – a medium he grew to like during his earlier stint on Pitbull and Londyńczycy. He went on to direct the first six episodes of crime mystery Paradoks, which, as he says, had the nicest set he ever stepped on. He also shot the first three-episode season of AXN’s Zbrodnia.
Reiterating that TV series are an excellent lesson in practical filmmaking, as well as a source of satisfaction and challenges in working with multiple actors, Zglinski nevertheless warns that their typically rushed pace can imperil creativity. Since creativity is his top priority, he chose feature films and doesn’t intend to stop surprising us. Now, believe it or not, he dreams about a comedy – and promises to make his dream come true.