Janusz Majewski (1931-2024): King of Bittersweet Nostalgia

An interview with the celebrated film director

Janusz Majewski, who died on 10th January aged 92, was one of the last of the old guard of Polish directors who emerged in the 1950s. He was part of a generation of filmmakers that put Poland firmly on the cinematic map.

‘He was the warm-hearted soul of Polish cinema,’ said Anna Wróblewska of the Polish Filmmakers Association, quoted by the Polish Press Agency on the day of the director’s funeral.

‘The public adored him.’

Born in 1931 in Lviv (then Lwów, part of the 2nd Polish Republic), he had a comfortable childhood until the outbreak of war in September 1939, with the Soviet occupation beginning just a few weeks after his eighth birthday. In 1941, the Germans conquered Lviv as part of Operation Barbarossa.

The Majewski family had managed to avoid deportation by the Soviets in the first phase of the war, and the future director’s abiding memory of the period was the daily struggle to find fuel for the stove, and food to put on the table. The war would remerge in his early work, with the documentary Rose (1962), about the Holocaust.

After the war, with Poland’s borders set along the Curzon Line, the Majewskis ended up in Kraków, mirroring another young talent from his home city, the science fiction writer Stanisław Lem.

Majewski finished secondary school in Kraków, then took a degree in architecture at the city’s polytechnic, before winning a place at the newly established film school in Łódż.

The school was a springboard for many budding directors, including Andrzej Wajda, Wojciech Has, Andrzej Munk, and Roman Polański, and it has continued to provide a steady stream of talent until today.

During the 1960s, many young directors in the West looked to Polish cinema as a source of inspiration. When Martin Scorsese received an honorary doctorate at the Łódż school in 2014, he joked that ‘actually I feel like I’m a part of this school, and that I attended it’.

Majewski first made waves with his short film Rondo (1958), which he shot while still a student. The Pythonesque caper (made ten years before the British comedy troupe burst onto the scene) sent up the absurdities of customer service in communist Poland, focusing on an infuriating waiter. The film’s fans included the British director Lindsay Anderson.

Majewski’s breakthrough feature was the 1966 comedy The Lodger, but it was his 1975 movie Hotel Pacific that made him a household name in Poland, likewise winning him invitations from around the globe. Here he returned to the fertile world of the waiter, but skipped back a generation to the pre-war era.

The script was based on the scandalous 1936 novel Zaklęte Rewiry (Charmed Circles in loose translation), which had been penned by a former waiter at the Grand Hotel in Kraków. Shortly before the original book was published, author Henryk Worcell (real name Tadeusz Kurtyka) had been urged by his mentor the writer Michał Choromanski to flee Kraków for his own safety. Worcell sagely took this advice, and holed himself up in the Tatra Mountains until the storm had passed. That way ‘I avoided the furious attacks of dozens of waiters,’ he later recalled.

Like Hotel Pacific, Majewski’s many other films were typically set in the past, including the award-winning folk horror Lokis (1970), in which the action takes place in the 1860s, psychological thriller Jealousy and Medicine (1973), courtroom drama The Gorgon Case (1977), and H.M. Deserters (1986), a comedy set in Habsburg times, which Poland’s then dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski felt was a thinly-veiled jab at the communist Polish People’s Army.

Other works with a Galician dimension included Lessons of a Dead Language (1979), which focuses on an ailing cavalry officer in a remote garrison town during the final weeks of the First World War. He also made The Last Klezmer (2017), a documentary devoted to a fellow Lvivian, the musician Leopold Kozłowski (1918-2019).

Besides his work behind the camera, Janusz Majewski gave lectures at his alma mater in Łódż from 1969 to 1991, and he ultimately became rector of the Warsaw Film School, which was founded in 2004. He continued to make films into his nineties. His later works included the experimental musical The Eccentrics: The Sunny Side of the Street (2015), which won the Silver Lions at the Polish Film Festival, the country’s main showcase of new movies, held annually in Gdynia. The film is set during the ‘Thaw’ that followed Stalin’s death, and it was a playful tribute to the jazz scene of the ’50s and ’60s, when the new-fangled music was synonymous with counterculture in Poland.  It was a subject close to the director’s heart.

Janusz Majewski was awarded the Platinum Lions for Lifetime Achievement at the Polish Film Festival in 2016, and three years later, he was given the Polish Filmmakers’ Association’s Prize for Outstanding Artistic Achievement.

He was married for 51 years to the noted photographer Zofia Nasierowska, who pre-deceased him 2011, and he is survived by a son and a daughter.

In this interview, which was carried out at the director’s home in 2020, just before the first Covid lockdown, the filmmaker reflected on his long career, and the contradictions of making movies in communist Poland. He also revealed that his first cinematic hero was Galician-born Hollywood giant Billy Wilder, and how the award-winning Hotel Pacific had links with his own childhood in Lviv.

Janusz Majewski in his study with posters of Zaklęte Rewiry (Hotel Pacific) and Lokis: Rękips Profesora Wittembacha (Lokis: A Manuscript of Professor Wittembach). Photo: N. Hodge


1956 was a critical year for Poland – the end of the Stalinist period, and the beginning of the Thaw. You were just beginning your studies at the Film School in Łódż. Even though the system was as it was, do you remember a positive feeling among the students at that time – that new opportunities were opening up?

Janusz Majewski: It certainly was a critical year – the so-called Thaw – it seemed that this was going to be the end of all the repression, and the domination of an idea that had completely failed to win us over. The models that had been forced upon us were alien, and we’d rejected them.

Suddenly, there was this illusion that we were on the brink of freedom. We were over the moon. And I think this is visible in what we were doing at the school.

I made a short film called Rondo, which was quite unusual for those times, as it was a surrealistic story with a rather unusual sense of humour. Then Polanski made Two Men and a Wardrobe. And then those films and others went out into the world, and people started to talk about our school. They were a kind of signal that there were young people who thought a bit differently, and wanted to make a different kind of film.

So it was an optimistic time for students at the school?

Yes, yes, absolutely. We embraced it all with enthusiasm. I also remember going to Budapest in the same high spirits, and I met some young Hungarians, and they were also filled with hope that we were returning to a free Europe, and that we wouldn’t be stuck in this cauldron. And then of course it all went in the opposite direction.

Returning to Rondo. On the one hand, it’s a surreal comedy, but on the other, waiters in communist Poland really were famous – or rather infamous – for insulting their customers and treating them like thin air. A writer who visited Poland in 1958 noted that getting the bill was almost impossible, as in your film.

JM: Yes, that’s surely how the whole idea took root: the waiter was already a symbolic figure by then, the protagonist of satirical articles, jokes – I simply took a banal, everyday situation to the limits of the absurd, with a tango, the escape from the restaurant, some literary allusions and so on.

Two of my friends took the main roles in the film. Sławomir Mrożek [who played the frustrated customer] was already on the brink of fame, and he went on to be an outstanding playwright, the author of many dramas, including Tango, which was written after he acted in the film. And the second part was taken by Stefan Szlachtycz [the waiter]. He was an architect, but after the experience of being in the film, he applied to the Film School and ended up becoming a director.

You wrote in your book Ostatni Klaps [The last take] about how the school had special access to foreign films that had been offered to Poland by foreign distributors.

Yes, some of them never even had a chance of getting past the censor. But they were sent to us from Warsaw for one day, for just one screening, so that we had continuous access to these films – mainly French and English.

And you mentioned that American and British films had a strong influence on you. But you didn’t mention any names. I’m curious as to who they were.

Well, I can tell you the names of some of the directors – Billy Wilder.

From Galicia.

Yes – born in Galicia! His father ran a restaurant at the railway station in Sucha Beskidzka. [Interviewer’s note: Wilder’s father went on to run the Hotel City in Kraków, where young Billy infuriated waiters by stealing their tips].

And you were also keen on British comedies.

Yes, I was searching for a type of British humour that I’d always liked. You could say that in some ways, I grew up on this kind of humour. I read Dickens’ Pickwick Papers as a child. I was very young when I first heard an English joke – and I can still remember it: ‘Someone accidentally dialled 666 instead of 999, and the police came upside down.’

Looking at other Polish films from the ’60s and ’70s, they often seem to be the fruit of completely different tastes.

In some ways, those were also my tactics. I didn’t want to be a member of any group. I wanted to do my own thing. In the end, it worked out for me, because when looking back at the films I made in those days, there’s no way that anyone can say that those movies either supported the political system, or took up typical themes by grappling with the problems of people living under communism.

Rather, they were depictions of the past. I tried to show a relationship with this past – that there was something that appealed to me in it, something that was important for me. They were done with nostalgia – with a sense that something had been lost.

I always like to do each film in a different genre: crime thrillers, psychological dramas, comedies, and so on, so as not to be pigeon-holed.

The Łódż School gained cult status. Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Mike Newell, Michael Radford, Steven Spielberg and many others were captivated by Polish films of the late ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. What qualities do you think distinguished Polish cinema in that period?

I think that in those years, in spite of the political system, we had fantastic conditions for making films. Because they – the communists who were running the country – came up with the principle that if they accepted a script, they would then provide the necessary funds. First there was the screenplay, and if the review committee accepted it, the producer would then calculate how much was necessary to make the film, and that amount of money would be provided. By today’s standards this would be utopian!

Today, you might get half of what is needed. Of course, commercial films that look like they will make a lot of money may get the rest of the funding. But if you want to make an ambitious film that may not reach a mass audience, then the director is faced with a difficult situation. But before, it was different.

Polish films won a lot of awards at festivals during those times. The prestige was enticing to the communist authorities, who wanted to present the country as a progressive place that supported talent. But there was a sort of strange dance going on between the regime and the artists. Sometimes the Party felt uncomfortable with the final product – there was the famous case of the government trying to block Wojciech Has’s The Hourglass Sanatorium from going to Cannes. And there was Żuławski’s The Devil (1972), which was banned outright. I heard that General Jaruzelski even thought your comedy H.M. Deserters, set in the Habsburg Empire, was a satire on the Polish People’s Army. What do you think the authorities really felt about filmmakers at that time?

JM: In the entrance hall of the Łódż film school there was a marble plaque with a relief of Lenin, accompanied by his words: ‘Film is the most important of the arts’. Of course, he was thinking about propaganda and the political potential of film. But for the communists, Lenin’s ideas were a religion, and religion is blind faith. Perhaps they thought he meant that every film was ‘the most important,’ and so they had to tiptoe around us. It’s a joke of course. In fact, the relations between the authorities and artists (because this affected all types of art) were very stormy: full of lies, tricks, hypocrisy and deceit. But they were also full of triumphs, when artists managed to outsmart the authorities, and then a film, book, or play finally reached the public.

Returning to your memories of Łódz…

Well, that school was on a high level at that time. On the one hand, we could watch films from the West, so that we were orientated in what was happening. But above all, we were taught the classics. So, in terms of form, there was Eisenstein, and from America, Orson Welles. This was a kind of basic schooling for us.

We also absolutely understood – maybe not everyone – but some of us understood, that film is not just telling some story or other. A story is just the beginning. But if you know how to tell it, you can make a film.

Finding your own personal style, where no cut or take is random – that’s an entirely different matter. That means, if I add a detail to the foreground or middle ground, then it’s because I know it must be there, and nowhere else. It’s about the rhythm and flow, the aesthetic satisfaction. If you love making films, it’s not just because you’re telling a nice or nasty story, but because you’re providing an aesthetic experience. And it doesn’t matter whether the viewer knows about directing, or the craft of film-making, because he’ll subconsciously grasp the significance of a detail.

Many of your films are set in exotic, bygone worlds. But there’s often an element of understatement, too.

I can’t stand ostentation – the mentality of: ‘Look – I’m a great artist and I’m making artistic films!’ That doesn’t suit me at all. I want to make films that feel true. Because a film speaks to people when they have the feeling that there is truth in it. For example, when they feel that perhaps those are real people onscreen – not actors.

So, a very important thing for me is casting. I always look for people who the viewer will feel really look like the characters they are supposed to play. When I made the film The Gorgon Case, set in Lviv in the 1930s, there had to be a whole range of people, yet these types simply didn’t exist anymore. So, we had to do a lot of searching to find suitable actors and extras.

Times change, people change. If you want to recreate the atmosphere of those times, then casting is the most important factor. So that the actors look like the people they’re supposed to play.

Hotel Pacific is based on a real-life story from Kraków’s Hotel Grand, during the early 1930s. Did your childhood in Lviv before the war influence you in terms of the atmosphere you created in the film?

Very much, very much. For those of us who were born there, the city was a sort paradise. I had a happy childhood.

I remember many cafes and sweet shops that I used to visit with my mother, for cakes or ice cream. I often went to Zalewski’s. It was very popular with children as they had the very best chocolates and ice cream in Lviv. Once, I had to have my tonsils out, and to help the throat heal, I had to eat as much ice cream as possible. So it was a great time for me. My nanny went to the confectionery twice a day, while I was lying in bed, and she brought back all these different flavours like hazelnut, strawberry and vanilla.

Adults and children looking at the display window of Ludwik Zalewski’s confectionery shop in Lviv, 1933. Source: National Digital Archive, Poland

I remember going with my parents for lunch once or twice to the Hotel George – the most elegant hotel in Lviv, although it was not really a place for children. I also remember the atmosphere of my home, and the homes of my parents’ friends. And those memories probably helped me to create the atmosphere in Hotel Pacific. Sometimes, when my parents had gone out to balls during the carnival, and my nanny was looking after me, I would lie in bed, waiting for them to come home, as they would bring back treats. I can remember them coming into my bedroom – there was the smell of my mother’s perfume, the cold snowflakes on her coat, the confetti on their shoulders. For me, this all represented a kind of hidden world that belonged to adults, one which is full of mystery and secrets – this is probably a feeling that all children have.

But my uncle – the husband of my father’s sister – had a very popular restaurant in Lviv. It was called Masełko – after the surname of his business partner Mr. Masełko [masełko literally means ‘tiptop butter’]. It was right opposite the grand building of the Lviv Polytechnic.

My uncle was fanatical about good wine. He travelled to France, Spain and Italy, to find new varieties. And the main customers of this restaurant were the professors from the Polytechnic. But students too! There was always a sign that said: ‘Bread and gravy free!’ So, some students might come in and say: ‘Just bread and gravy please!’ It was a kind of joke of course. But it gave the place a sort of legendary status.

So sometimes I visited the restaurant with my parents. And I remember that I noticed that there were two separate worlds. There was the front, meaning the entrance hall and the restaurant, and then there was the kitchen. Completely different.

In the first world, there were elegant waiters and beautifully laid tables. I remember that the head waiter was a very elderly, distinguished-looking man. He looked like the Master of the Royal Household of some European court. His name was Florian – a very rare, old-fashioned name. For me, he was like a person from another world.

And sometimes, I had a chance to see inside the kitchen, too. It was like Hell. Fires blazing. Very hot. Always very steamy. Perhaps it planted a seed in my imagination, and that’s why the book Zakłete Rewiry [Charmed circles] interested me so much when I read it, later in life.

What appealed to you most in Henryk Worcell’s novel?

This is a very important question, because my colleagues who made films during the same period had a different approach. They usually tried to make so-called ‘important’ films. I hate that – a film should be interesting! If someone wants to influence society, they should write articles, go into politics, be a priest, why do it by making movies?

My first degree was in architecture. In a sense, it taught me some principles: that a house must have strong foundations. On top of these, there must be a solid structure. Then you have to cover it with a roof. It all has to combine aesthetically. It has to have a good structure and a good form.

During my whole cinematic career, I only ever adapted literature if it had such qualities. Not to agitate for or against something – that’s not the job of film.

I first read Worcell’s book many, many years ago, before I went to film school. It was a pre-war edition. The book was in a very bad state, but it fascinated me. I found a very interesting closed world in the novel, telling a realistic story about a boy who came from a village and started to be a waiter. Of course, I knew it was Worcell’s real-life story.

At the same time, it’s like a metaphor for the fate of everybody, all over the world. The story seems very universal to me. Every young person has the same problems in life. Step by step, you have to go towards some target that’s important and necessary to reach, so as to become an adult.

After the film came out, I was invited to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for a screening. They have a sort of club where they show films from all over the world, with the directors as guests. After the screening there was a discussion with the public.

For example, a young woman said: ‘I’m not a waiter, I’m an architect working in a studio, but my career path has been very similar to that of the boy in the film.’

Then a young man said: ‘I’m a waiter here in New York, and this is the story of my life!’

That was very nice for me to hear. And proof that the story itself was universal. But the most important thing for me when I was making the movie was creating the atmosphere of that hotel. And bringing the characters to life – the waiters and the guests.

The fictional Hotel Pacific of the novel was modelled on the Grand Hotel in Kraków, where the author started working in the late 1920s. Did you visit the hotel when you were studying in Kraków during the 1950s? I heard that it was impossible to film there in 1975.

The first time I went into the Hotel Grand was in the early 1970s. It was a ruin. So, my initial idea for a place to film the movie was Budapest, and we went on a trip to scout for locations. For some reason, we decided to go to Hungary via Prague. And on our very first walk around Prague I saw a young lad – a waiter – emerge from a restaurant on the other side of the street. He was wearing a long apron and carrying a tray with six large beers. And then he disappeared into an office building, as someone must have ordered the drinks by telephone. And I thought: ‘OK, this is the place for me – some of this old culture of city life has survived here.’

Restaurant hall in the Grand Hotel in Kraków, 1928. Source: National Digital Archive, Poland

I heard that Hotel Pacific is very popular with waiters.

Well, I can tell you a story. In the early 1990s, many years after the film was released, I received an unexpected letter. It was from a man who said that he was relaunching the pre-war Union of Polish Waiters, and that they would like to make myself and Marek Kondrat – the main actor in the film – the honorary presidents of the association.

And they invited us to Lublin, as they were organising a meeting with delegates from all over the country. They also organised some special sports: races with beer glasses and that kind of thing. These had been very popular all over Europe before the war.

Waiters at the start of a race in Kraków, 1939. Source: National Digital Archive, Poland

And Marek Kondrat told me that in the years after the film came out, he was so admired by waiters in every restaurant that they actually paid for him – they presented him with the best drinks and so on and so forth.

Even just three or four years ago, I was in Kraków with family and friends, and we went for dinner at a restaurant on the corner of the Main Market Square, Szara. And they told me that during high season, when extra staff are needed, many untrained students join the team. But before they start work at the restaurant, they are told that they have to watch Hotel Pacific as a kind of training manual on how to behave with customers.

One last thing. The man who invited us to Lublin and gave us diplomas making us honorary presidents of the Waiters Union, his name is Grzegorz Górnik. Well, he has now written a book. It’s a novel called Black Chameleon. It tells the story of his life as a waiter. He said that my movie – and the book, which he read later – changed his life. So it’s a kind of full circle…

The interview was carried out in 2020 by Nicholas Hodge, an editor and translator. He recently worked on Jan K. Ostrowski’s Portraiture in Old Poland, which he co-translated with Sabina Potaczek-Jasionowicz. The book, which features several Galician themes, was co-published by Wawel Royal Castle, IRSA, and the Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów.

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