magdalena petryna: Is death part of life?

małgorzata szumowska: I believe so. Death is definitely part of life. Perhaps it is difficult to get used to it, but for me, in fact the two are one and the same thing.

mp: Why is it so difficult to get used to the thought?

msz: I had never realized it… Death featured in literature, in art, it was the subject of my films, but I had never seen it, and it was not something real to me. I could say, from philosophical point of view, that it is part of life, but truly it never had been until the moment I experienced it myself, that is, when my parents died. Only meeting with death, but truly, face to face, rendered life and death inseparable to me. While looking at a man dying, looking at that slow decay – because my mother was dying for several months – I understood that death concerns everyone, and that it is not something abstract. Unfortunately for most young people it is completely abstract and so it will remain for as long as they have not experienced death by themselves. On the other hand, rituals we find in the countryside allow people to take part in dying from an early age. There is the custom of viewing the body, the whole family is brought there, and five-year-olds, even three-year-olds are forced in the presence of the deceased. There is talk, whether the body keeps well or not, whether it will decompose, and children listen to this kind of talk. And so in this way life and death become integrally bound – they are integral from the very beginning. It is actually funny, when someone asks such a question, because it is so tangible.

mp: You started talking about the countryside, let us dwell for a moment on these folk customs. When death arrives there, it changes the functioning of the community – in what way?

msz: Paradoxically, it changes the life of the community outside, in such a way, that it prevents boredom.

mp: Death is an event?

msz: Yes, an event like a christening or a wedding. You also have to prepare the food, invite the guests, and celebrate. As far as I know, a funeral in the village gives rise to huge emotions, but that is mostly the excitement of how it is going to be: how many people will come to sing, from how many villages, will there be sweets to eat – because if you serve sweets, this is good for the departed, how many days it will last, will the body keep. Funeral is accompanied by excitement.

mp: And what about other emotions?

msz: Of course death is an emotional event. Particularly in the cases of a sudden, tragic death, but we are not speaking now of such extreme situations. People in the countryside believe that starting from the age of 50, it is alright to die. Also they approach infant death quite differently from us – because the baby is closer to the moment of birth, that sort of death seems more natural to them. From what I have seen, in the country nobody approaches death the way we do in the city. There is no brooding, what the person has left, what he or she will do no more – this aspect flashes for a moment, but it is not significant. Very soon, acceptance sets in. And the funeral is a holiday, a celebration, such as in the city is the little that has remained of the Christmas celebrations: preparations starting a week in advance, and so forth.

mp: Does the space get reorganised as well?

msz: Of course, because the drawing room, the largest room in the cottage, must be given to the deceased. The coffin is usually placed on a bench, although these days there are these modern methods – cold beds from the mortuary, but not everyone can afford that. Under the bench, a bowl of water is placed, while some people throw bread crumbs on the plate, or some washing powder. Of course that’s not true, but they believe that it helps to keep the body in a good condition. However, there must be some truth in it… Placing a bowl of vinegar under the dead body has been practised for years, people say that vinegar collects odours – and perhaps this is really the case? But there are also strange customs, such as placing an axe on the dead man’s chest, and after all, metal is a heat conductor, so this cannot be helping.

mp: A dead body, lying in the middle of the home – doesn’t it provoke any fear?

msz: But what fear? On the contrary – they get excited about this dead body.

mp: What about the taboo of a corpse?

msz: Taboo of a corpse exists only in the city, in the country there is no taboo of a corpse. The whole idea for the movie [What’s there to be afraid of?] arose because my neighbour in the Masuria died, and I took part in his funeral celebrations. The moment he died, his wife ran outside and called out to me to let me know. She wanted me to come and see him, and take his photograph. I was to come at once, not later when he would have been all dressed and ready, and so I went. I had to look, which was quite a shock to me… But they all gathered there immediately. Only the children were a little afraid, grownups were not. They simply love looking at dead bodies. There is some sort of perversity in this… By the same token they adore talking about death, about how someone died, how old he was … They also delight in talking about cancer, about how someone has it and how it was taken out, and the blood was poisoned, and he will soon die. They are wondering how they shall place him in the coffin, when he is missing both legs…

mp: Such purely biological aspect of dying?

msz: Yes, that is atavistic. The biological aspect is very important. All these macabre themes, I should say, are much-loved. I think that this is a way of “taming” the corpse, making it more familiar. When you talk about these macabre final things – that false teeth must be removed, that legs swell and you need three pairs of shoes, and you wonder whether the body puffs up, whether it bloats with water or not – these things help to tame death. At least for me, these conversations were therapeutic.

mp: I am wondering about one more thing in connection with the body: when does the human being, with whom you lived all those years, turn into a corpse?

msz: After the removal from the house, or actually, after the hole in the ground at the cemetery is filled again.

mp: Is it only then? During all those rites the dead body is still treated as a person?

msz: Yes, he is always treated as if he were present at home. This is precisely why there is a feast, this is why he has to look good, be well-dressed, that’s why people sing for him. This does not have just the religious aspect, in fact, if there is a religious aspect, it is of very little importance, because all these customs are clearly pagan. All this time the dead body is treated like a living person, present in the house.

mp: After the body is brought out from the house and buried, everyday order of things is restored. How does that happen?

msz: When the removal takes place, people must lament loudly, but not before – before that, they should not, as not to frighten the soul. Women throw themselves upon the coffin, they shout, pull their hair, cry. This is natural, although sometimes they’re only acting … The coffin is brought to the yard in the presence of a priest. After the removal, all chairs and tables are knocked to the side, so that the spirit has no place to sit down – to help and let him go, because if he does not leave, that would not be good. Then everything is back to normal, chairs are picked up and set straight again, and so forth. But not entirely, because for another week women meet for one hour’s prayer and singing in the room where the man died. This is an extension of a sort…

mp: A rite of passage?

msz: Yes, the passage from the funeral time to the normal life.

mp: Perhaps the most puzzling and difficult to understand is the custom of having one’s photo taken with the dead body. What is the motivation for this?

msz: They think that the dead person looks nice. Although when they don’t look nice, photos are taken just as well … This is strange. I do not know, I guess an anthropologist or an ethnographer might answer that. In my opinion, there is something natural in wanting to perpetuate the final moment. It is understandable that we want to remember what someone looked like in the last instant of his attendance on earth. When I was burying my parents, the staff in the funeral parlour told me that many people feel it is important to see the body just before the burial. This is why in the old days the coffin was opened once in the cemetery; now this cannot be done any more, because sanitary authorities forbid it.

mp: You said this was so natural. But you also stated in one of the interviews that death is a rather absurd event. Can natural actions be undertaken in the face of the absurd? Isn’t it so, that whatever you work out, develop, it will still be improper?

msz: It is certainly true that whatever you work out, it will still be artificial. But you see, I had a wholly different attitude towards death before I made this film. I was afraid of dead bodies, I could not bring myself to go and identify my parents’. While I was shooting the movie, I looked at lots of dead bodies, one was already in the condition… well, in quite a serious condition, somewhat blackened… and I noticed that I was less afraid of this biological aspect. In my view this is very important. I no longer have the sentimental, hysterical reaction to death, the typical – „O Jesus, it’s terrible!”. My reaction is more along the lines of: alas, he died, so be it. Each death is something you can snap out of, recover, because death is precisely something as natural as eating. You cannot argue otherwise. It is so.

mp: And what about the individual perspective? All the behaviours we have discussed are more community-oriented.

msz: One’s own death is terrifying, just as the death of the loved ones. Here lie the strongest fears, not much has changed, and neither it is likely to. I doubt whether it is possible to “tame” and familiarise one’s own death, although in the country, people manage to do that …

mp: Does this concern only the elderly?

msz: No, younger people as well. It seems to me that the approach they take is, well, if you passed forty, you’re near the old age. They believe that whatever will be, will be; they don’t go the doctor, they don’t take tests.

mp: What determines this approach of theirs? After all, they are part of a broader culture, in which the attitude towards death is decidedly different.

msz: There is no such impact at all. Of course they have television, they have cable, and they watch everything, but at the same time, they are shut out against it. They are not part of this culture. Religious devotion is not extremely high either, it is rather of a traditional kind, meaning that every now and then one goes to church. Their approach to everything is so… roots, that’s a good word. Their attitude to everything is very much commonsensical. They have their opinions, for generations they have been brought up in a certain way, and this is very much “down to earth.” They have a child with cerebral palsy and they would never give him away to a home; so they take care of the child, but at the same time all this is, I would say, brutal. I don’t know if you get my meaning – these are simply the rules of life: we have a child who has cerebral palsy, so we have to take care of him. A thing which for me is a problem, for them is ridiculous. Life out there is wholly different – and I do not note this with admiration, don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of primitivism, too. I guess that simply it is a case of either-or.

mp:. According to tradition, people in Masuria die at home. When death occurs at the hospital, the whole system of taming, familiarising death falls to pieces.

msz: Yes, it does. They really hate it when someone dies at the hospital. They go there, want to dress the body, keep wake at the hospital chapel – that is not allowed, so they do not want to die at the hospital, they fear that. They want to die at home, surrounded by their grandchildren. They know what they want to look like. They want musicians.

mp: At the point, when medicine enters the scene, this sort of approach becomes a little inadequate.

msz: Well, yes… but they simply are not at the hospital. Even when they’re sick, they do not want to be hospitalized.

mp: Do you not think that some traditions could be reformulated in such a way, which would make it possible to incorporate them into the changing reality?

msz: No, I doubt that. This is outside the conscious. This is like a spontaneous response – this is what we do when someone dies, these are the traditions. It cannot be artificially changed into something else.

mp: A question arises as to the consequences of our attitude towards death, of pushing it away, to the margin, and when it comes, we are at a complete loss what to do.

msz: I think that in affairs such as death, illness, dying, there is a gap, a mental void between the town and country. The manner in which people in the city address all this – sentimental and maudlin – is simply hopeless. It only makes life harder, not easier. When death comes, we have no idea whatsoever what to do. The consequences are what they are… People are running away from death, they want to run as far as possible, but really, this is impossible.

mp: On the other hand, in the media, we have countless images of death, often very graphic ones.

msz: Oh, but we don’t. Where? In the movies?

mp: For instance at the World Press Photo.

msz: The World Press Photo is an elitist business. I recently spoke to “Gazeta Wyborcza” about the fact that today, death is practically missing from the media.

mp: I think it is there, but what’s present is rather the sudden, violent death …

msz: This is some sort of an abstract, this is not death. It is not real, it does not concern you. It is an image, an art form. There is no simple talking about death.

mp: Was the movie What’s there to be afraid of? meant to counter that?

msz: In my opinion, when you are making a movie, you do not think about what it is meant to be. You get attracted to a theme and you make the movie, and the rest is added by the movie critics. I do not know what it was meant to be. I saw the situation with the neighbour and it made such a strong impression on me that I immediately grabbed my camera. I am not an anthropologist or an ethnographer. Neither am I an intellectual, I approach things rather emotionally. I was making the movie and there was no agenda behind it. While I was working, when I started looking at the photographs of dead people, I noticed that I slowly started getting used to the fact that a person dies, decomposes, stinks, and that is calculated into the life all-inclusive. I understood that one cannot live all the time in the fear of death. It certainly helped me personally and I know that many people also perceive this movie so. It has a sort of a therapeutic function. I am now able to talk about my parents’ death not just as a trauma. I even remembered a lot of funny things from that period, because you do find them when you wonder into a funeral parlour.

mp: Funeral parlours seem a separate, demoniac world on their own.

msz: But it is a terribly funny one! It is such an incredible world that it would provide a theme for a great movie. We’d better not talk about this, or someone will steal my idea… The people I met there!… Jokes are in abundance. Now we were making my next movie, a full-length feature – 33 scenes from the life, which is also partly about death. We were shooting in one of the funeral parlours in Kraków. The gentleman who is the boss there is one of the most colourful personae I have ever met in my life. We have cried all our tears there, but they were tears of laughter.

mp: So we have two extremes here – black humour and sentimentality.

msz: In the face of death, sentimentality is neither here nor there.

mp: And black humour more so?

msz: But of course. You need to mourn death with tears, and then distance yourself from it. And tell to yourself: so he died, so be it.

Translated from Polish by Dorota Wąsik