Blog post

Open Access Open Access 7295 view(s) 7295 view(s) 7295

Documenting Kantor


Tadeusz Kantor Cricot 2 Polish theatre film documentation DVD Cricoteka mannequins Wielopole directing archives

Andrzej Sapija is a film director who graduated from the Department of Philosophy and History at Wrocław University, and trained at the State Higher School of Fine Arts in Wrocław, and at the State Higher School of Film, Television, and Theatre in Łódź. He has directed numerous documentary films about modern art and literature, recent Polish history, and major figures in Polish culture, including Tadeusz Kantor and Tadeusz Różewicz. He currently teaches at the Film School in Łódź.

Krzysztof Dużyński graduated in theatre studies from the State Higher Theatre School (PWST) in Warsaw. He is author of the monographic study Akademia Ruchu 1972-1987. For many years a press, radio, and television journalist, he currently directs a PR company that specialises in promoting films. Among other projects, he initiated the film adaptation of Śluby panieńskie (Maidens’ Vows) by Aleksander Fredro, directed by Filip Bajon (2010).

Andrzej Sapija is a long-time documenter of Kantor’s work and the director of eight of the films included in the DVD series published by Cricoteka from 2006 to 2008.[1]

This interview took place in May 1990, seven months prior to Kantor’s death, and shortly before Sapija’s recordings of the rehearsals for Kantor’s final performance, Today is My Birthday.[2]



Rehearsals, Only Rehearsals: a film by Andrzej Sapija in the Cricoteka DVD series, 2006 to 2008.

Krzysztof Dużyński:
What is the starting point for a documentary filmmaker who works with theatre?

Andrzej Sapija: A documentary about art compels us to question the extent to which an artist who creates a film about another artist should observe the boundaries of the other’s autonomy. You should always give your own answer, and the answers can vary. My interest in art comes from the fact that, before becoming a film director, I used to be a visual artist, having graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Wrocław, where I was also connected with the centre of post-conceptual art.[3] This influences my choices and perhaps makes me more careful with regard to other artists. Sometimes I even reproach myself for not being radical enough – although this can be perceived in different ways. After I’d made the film Wielopole, Wielopole (1984), Tadeusz Kantor claimed that it was no longer his Wielopole, but my own. My attempts in the film to make the meaning of the performance more accessible – by adding archival footage, for instance – he considered to be a breach of his work. However, I believed very strongly – and I still do – that what I’d produced was in keeping with the essential idea of this performance.

A film about art is the result of two viewpoints: that of a work of art or its creator, and my own perspective and interpretation. I always strive to be compliant towards the work, and through the language of film I try to convey the essence of the art that I take as my subject. [My mark as the director] comes through in the means of expression, the composition, the through-line, and the dramaturgy. In these respects I am the author, but I don’t try to make myself the author of something that’s already been created by someone else.

Dużyński: However, it may happen that your directorial intervention will be so significant that some spatial and scenographic arrangements in the performance itself will become altered.

Sapija: A theatrical performance is an immediate encounter between the actors and the spectators. You watch theatre without that ‘mediating’ medium: the camera. Film has its own rules when it comes to storytelling; it requires its own principles and conventions. It has to have – in a different way from a theatrical performance – a purposeful dramaturgy, it has to be interesting, gripping. It uses elements of mystery and suggestion in a different way. With film, you have to activate all this by other means. This is always accompanied by certain choices, which are constantly conditioned by my response to the question: what is the story that I’m telling?

Dużyński: Filming the creative process is one of the greatest opportunities presented to a documentarist. The creative act is by its nature closed, mysterious…

Sapija: ...and intensely intimate. On top of that there’s an incredibly high level of engagement and uncertainty [from those involved], which requires a lot of courage to show. The spectators watch the end result and can’t see the effort it took to make it – the searching and the mistakes that took place.

This is why it’s so interesting for the film to follow the process of how the work is created. This process involves a struggle, overcoming obstacles – and this is perfect material, simply made for film. It all develops over time; the subject of the film engages with their work in a natural way. During my film encounters with Kantor, I always dreamed of recording a scene of him painting, and I never managed to do this. I only came close to it once – in Mannequins by Tadeusz Kantor (1984). When he paints the hands and faces of the mannequins onscreen, this acquires the quality of a metaphor.[4] There was also a similar opportunity during the filming of ‘The Return of Odysseus’ by Tadeusz Kantor: Notes from Rehearsals (1989). We discovered that Kantor was supposed to do a painting for the opening of the Home Army Museum.[5] He’d told me about this before, had shown me the sketches, and had said that he would do the painting. Later, it turned out he was strenuously avoiding this. My crew couldn’t wait any longer and had to leave Kraków. Only then did he finish the painting.

Theatre rehearsals are just as interesting. Almost all of my films are based on them. Through the rehearsals I tried to tell the story of this man and his company. Kantor’s actors are my ‘unrealised subject’. However, right to this day I don’t believe they’ll say very much. On one occasion, Kantor couldn’t be present at a shoot, and we wanted to do a scene anyway – to convince the actors to come in on their own. No one showed up. Without him, nothing could happen.

Essentially, all those films about Tadeusz Kantor are failures – that is, I have the feeling that I haven’t yet been able to express in them what I know and what I would still like to say about him.

Dużyński: What is it that’s missing, in your opinion?

Sapija: First of all, Kantor himself creates difficulties. This is a man with an incredibly fascinating and complex personality. At the same time, he’s a man who puts up barriers against being observed, against people getting past the surface. He does this through fits of rage or some euphoric state of ecstasy... When he’s quiet, and when he struggles with his theatre, scores of contradictions mill around in him. I’m not able to portray that. The performances themselves are full of characters from his personal, theatrical, and artistic past. I know what they mean, and why a certain person plays a particular character, not another. But there’s no way of this becoming clear for the spectator... Either I would have to indicate it directly – but I feel I can’t; or Kantor would have to explain it – but he doesn’t talk about it.

Some time ago, I noticed that in many interviews he was using answers that had been prepared and written down in advance, and that very often he would read them out when replying. Even for things not connected with art: he’d read about death, about hate, about the nature of memories. I often wondered about that. Why was he reading...? This creates some kind of form, and when he reads aloud it’s difficult to enter into it, to elaborate on it, because it’s something closed. He doesn’t want to communicate anything more than that. The ideal situation for shooting Wielopole, Wielopole in Wielopole would be to expand on what lies beyond the performance itself, and that which is connected to the theme of the old man’s return to his birthplace.[6] I know, although he never said it publicly, that he was no longer moved by anything there [in the town]. He prepared himself to undertake this confrontation [with his past], but he was disappointed. The place was more interesting as it existed within him; he had idealised it. Once again there is this question: how much am I, the filmmaker, allowed to reveal if he doesn’t want to reveal it? One approach, which I used in [the film] ‘The Return of Odysseus’..., is to quote from his notes and writings. This came about from his promise to allow me access to his personal journal. In the end, I didn’t receive it and I had to make do with a substitute. All your intentions as a filmmaker are left in pieces, like in the wrapping scene from the rehearsal of Where are the Snows of Yesteryear?, where you can see Kantor’s cruelty and ruthlessness towards the actors;[7] or in the closing scene of ‘The Return of Odysseus’..., when he forgets what he wanted to say, what was apparently ‘the most important thing’…[8] There are some things I can construct on film – the atmosphere that accompanies the themes of old age and passing away. I can pose the question of where his obsessions with the past and with memories come from, and I try to get close to that in my films. But I know I’m only conveying a small percentage of what is really going on there, where there is an accumulation of all these great passions, great emotions…

From the left: Kantor’s father Marian, his mother Helena, and Uncle Stanisław (Staś) Berger, circa 1914. Photograph courtesy of Cricoteka.

From the left: Kantor’s father Marian, his mother Helena, and Uncle Stanisław (Staś) Berger, circa 1914. Photograph courtesy of Cricoteka.

Wielopole Skrzyńskie, main square, circa 1910. Foreground, from the left: Stanisław Berger, and Helena and Marian Kantor. Photograph courtesy of Cricoteka.

Wielopole Skrzyńskie, main square, circa 1910. Foreground, from the left: Stanisław Berger, and Helena and Marian Kantor. Photograph courtesy of Cricoteka.

Perhaps the fact that I didn’t get there comes from me not being audacious enough to ask him certain questions. Maybe if I get the chance to do something on Kantor again, I’ll pluck up the courage to do so then.[9]

Dużyński: Perhaps if you asked that one question too many, a return would be impossible? I’m surprised by Kantor’s acceptance of your work.

Sapija: I think it started after the first film, Mannequins by Tadeusz Kantor, when he stated: ‘No one before has said so much about me in such a short film’. He simply realised that the work we were doing about him was serious, that it went beyond the surface, and that it was very expressive. The subject of these films was to be the story of this person. A film always requires a particular theme, and this resides with the film’s subject. I try to tell the story about the psychology, about the personality of this artist – an artist of genius. His obsessive returning turns out to be a universal theme. Once Kantor told me that when he’s creating a performance he searches for that basic element that can generate, as he called it, ‘the highest possible level of emotional affect’. This element is, for example, the need to return to one’s childhood. When I tell his story, I’m talking about a man who expresses his fears, his ambitions, his discord. Through all this we finally arrive at something universal: the mother, love, fear of death – things that are present within every one of us. Only his genius allows him to turn this into something that moves us all.

Stanisław Rychlicki (left) with Tadeusz Kantor, rehearsing the wrapping scene for Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear? Photograph: Jerzy Borowski, courtesy of Cricoteka.

Stanisław Rychlicki (left) with Tadeusz Kantor, rehearsing the wrapping scene for Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear? Photograph: Jerzy Borowski, courtesy of Cricoteka.

Dużyński: The value of [your] films on Kantor also lies in the fact that his personality is so strong, and that you don’t hide your fascination with it…

Sapija: At one of the closed screenings [kolaudacja], I was accused of ‘bowing down’ to Kantor in the making of one of my films.[10] Indeed, I do make these films with a certain positive affirmation of his personality. I don’t make them ‘against’ him. Even though he gives us a hard time and doesn’t accept everything we do...

Every film I’ve made has been on the side of my protagonists. I couldn’t make a film against the artist – against Kantor. I even cut many of the scenes we filmed that contained the arguments and fits of rage. Moments like that happen in every creative process, when you can no longer put up with the inner tension. They’re not the essence of this man’s personality. I could cite many other films about him that I’ve seen. In an extremely superficial way they recorded the outer image of him running around the stage shouting. Besides, there also really needs to be an element of fascination, because if I’m not fascinated by my subject, then how can the viewers be?

Dużyński: How did you come across the Cricot 2 theatre and Tadeusz Kantor?

Sapija: All these films came about by chance. I never assumed that I’d be particularly interested in this subject. The first film (Mannequins by Tadeusz Kantor) was commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I went to Kraków and explained to Kantor that we were planning a short film about him. He laughed at that, and said: ‘Yes, it’s very curious that here, in Poland, they want to make one lasting twenty-minutes, while at the same time the Japanese are finishing a two-hour film about me’. I thought to myself: that’s not good; but I had a look around those theatre places, around Cricoteka – the underground, darkened halls, the abandoned props. It was so fascinating that I couldn’t see how all this could be put across [on film] in a short time. I came to the conclusion that I could only try to portray my state of mind during that journey. A ‘film-essay’: not explaining anything completely, but presenting a certain mystery, the aura of the place. This is what happened, and it turned out that this allusiveness, this lack of information, somehow made the film more expressive.

Dużyński: How do you go about working with your protagonist? I’m asking because in some scenes Kantor seems to be incredibly quiet, peaceful…

Sapija: Some things are just a matter of chance, which can be as valuable as it is stressful. I witnessed some scenes when I really regretted not having a camera with me. Once for example, Kantor was watching on a television screen a video recording of a rehearsal for his latest performance. This is how it looked: he was watching himself directing on the screen, and he started to correct what he was doing – adding comments and telling himself to get out of the way, because he was in the shot. It was an amazing scene. At times we’d get lucky with certain moments. We managed to record some such situations. Once, a situation emerged which later became the main motif of the biographical film Kantor (1985). I was getting ready for a shoot in which I was to have a conversation with Kantor, when all of a sudden someone came in unexpectedly – a photographer with a case full of archival photographs, including wartime pictures. And then Kantor, delighted to have the photos there, cried out: ‘How wonderful that we’ve got these! Just a minute... What have we got here? Oh look at this one – I’m completely drunk here. Lila is holding me up. There’s Tadzio [Tadeusz] Brzozowski.[11] That’s [Mieczysław] Porębski’.[12] I was very lucky – we recorded it all.[13] This never would have happened if I’d tried to prearrange it. Most importantly, you need to take some time with your subject, so that the conversation flows naturally and nothing is forced. We are there to listen to him.

Dużyński: You recently prepared the televised version of I Shall Never Return (1990). Where do you draw the limits in taking a creative approach to preparing the film version of a theatrical performance?

Sapija: It’s true – that recording caused certain controversies. As a starting point, I took it that I wasn’t looking for a ‘neutral’ recording, but a subjective one. The idea behind the performance lies in the summoning of characters from Kantor’s past. On the one hand, I took into account the perspective of those who participated in the performance; on the other – through a particular means of presentation – I defined the nature of the characters onstage, [that is, whether they seemed] real or not real. Thus, in the film they appeared and disappeared, they faded into the blackness and emerged from it, they merged together. I produced the film in this way at the expense of showing the topography of the stage, and how the whole frame was composed onstage. This was a significant decision, because of course the recording of this performance has the status of a document, and it remains for future audiences. However, I chose to see it from a participant’s point of view, as if from ‘inside’ – and therefore from the perspective of Kantor himself.[14] I preferred to delve into the emotions that the performance provoked, rather than content myself with ‘pure documentation’.

Dużyński: Finally, a broader question about documentarists and the art of theatre: should we record theatre on film or not?

Sapija: Of course we should, since it’s difficult to assess the usefulness that particular archival materials will have in the future. A document is a part of the material culture. I only came to understand this fully when I was at a film festival in Leipzig, when I saw what German culture has at its disposal. In their archives they have materials from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s on almost every subject: everyday life, politics, art. All of this constitutes a part of their past. In Poland, we have only documented all this to a small extent.

I don’t make films about Kantor out of my responsibility as a documentarist. I don’t believe in such motivations. I do it because I’m curious about this man. There are theatrical phenomena so great that it’s impossible to record them only for future generations. Tadeusz Kantor’s Cricot 2 theatre, or Jerzy Grotowski’s [Teatr] Laboratorium – these are such different phenomena, and yet they are linked by something else. They are…

Dużyński: ...something more than theatre?

Sapija: Yes, something more than theatre.

Translated from Polish by Dorota Kultys, with Duncan Jamieson and Adela Karsznia.


  1. ^ The following films by Sapija were released on DVD in 2006: Wielopole, Wielopole (1984); Mannequins by Tadeusz Kantor, Where are the Snows of Yesteryear? and Only That What You See – Exists... (1984, 1985, 1992; collected together on one disc); Kantor (1985); ‘The Return of Odysseus’ by Tadeusz Kantor: Notes from Rehearsals (1989); and Rehearsals, Only Rehearsals (1992). I Shall Never Return (1990) was released on DVD in 2008. Each DVD was published by Cricoteka in Kraków. This interview with Sapija was published as ‘Dokumentalista i teatr’, Teatr, 7 (1990), 38-40. All footnotes are by the PTP editors.
  2. ^ Selections from the documentation of the rehearsal process for Today is My Birthday were published in Sapija’s film Rehearsals, Only Rehearsals.
  3. ^ Sapija is not referring to a formal institution, but rather an informal collective focused on post-conceptual art. In his student years Sapija became interested in this movement, which was brought to Wrocław by Zbigniew Sosnowski and his group Galeria Sztuki Aktualnej (the Gallery of Current Art; 1970-1974). The group gathered together artists such as Dobrosław Bagiński, Janusz Haka, and Jolanta Marcolla.
  4. ^ See the DVD of Mannequins by Tadeusz Kantor, (6:20 – 7:05mins) and (21:45 – 22:17).
  5. ^ The Home Army Museum in Kraków houses archival materials documenting the military and civil efforts of the Polish Underground State during the Second World War. Commemoration of these activities was restricted during the period of the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL); however, during the late 1980s, plans were drawn up to establish the museum and an initial exhibition was organised for April 1990.
  6. ^ Sapija’s film of the performance Wielopole, Wielopole features several cutaways, including shots of Wielopole Skrzyńskie and archival footage of marching soldiers. Such additions do not feature in the version of Wielopole, Wielopole filmed by Stanisław Zajączkowski (1983; on DVD 2008), whose film depicts only Kantor’s theatrical performance.
  7. ^ See the DVD of Kantor (36:19 – 41:29). The actor in this scene is Stanisław Rychlicki.
  8. ^ See the DVD of ‘The Return of Odysseus’ by Tadeusz Kantor: Notes from Rehearsals, from 56:58. See also: Katarzyna Tokarska-Stangret, ‘A Commentary on Andrzej Sapija's “The Return of Odysseus”  by Tadeusz Kantor: Notes from Rehearsals’, trans. by Duncan Jamieson, Adela Karsznia, and Paul Vickers, Polish Theatre Perspectives, 1 (2015) (pp. 335-42 in the print edition). 
  9. ^ Following this interview, Sapija made two further films about Kantor that have been produced on DVD: Only That What You See – Exists... and Rehearsals, Only Rehearsals (both 1992; on DVD 2006).
  10. ^ The kolaudacja is an official review by a commissioning board, which during the communist period was accompanied by a formal evaluation of a film’s ideological and political impact. Changes were often demanded, and in certain cases films were prevented from being distributed; for example, Ryszard Bugajski’s critically acclaimed film Przesłuchanie (The Interrogation) was completed in 1982 but officially premiered at the end of 1989.
  11. ^ Tadeusz Brzozowski (1918-1987) was an artist, set designer, and member of the Grupa Krakowska artistic collective. He graduated from Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts and from the Szkoła Rzemiosł Artystycznych (School of Artistic Crafts – known as the Kunstgewerbeschule during the Nazi occupation).
  12. ^ Mieczysław Porębski (born 1921) is a critic, theorist, and art historian, who collaborated with Kantor in the Independent Theatre during the Nazi occupation of Poland. He studied at the Jagiellonian University and at the School of Artistic Crafts in Kraków.
  13. ^ See the DVD of Kantor, from 3:58.
  14. ^ Sapija is referring in part to Kantor’s position as an onstage observer-participant during this performance.

Next article: ‘A Commentary on Andrzej Sapijas “The Return of Odysseus”  by Tadeusz Kantor: Notes from Rehearsals’, by Katarzyna Tokarska-Stangret →

Return to contents page: PTP 1 (2015) →