For one of Poland’s most exciting new filmmakers, Jan Matuszyński has few influences from his native country. In describing political thriller Leave No Traces (‘Żeby nie było śladów’), he cites the likes of Frances Ford Coppola’s espionage masterpiece The Conversation and the Coen’s espionage disasterpiece Burn After Reading. That’s part mission statement, part truth. Leave No Traces follows the real-life case of Grzegorz Przemyk, an 18-year-old aspiring poet and victim of police brutality whose cruel killing in 1983 became an anti-Communist touchstone. It also shone a light on the ineptitude of government investigators, who sought to blame each other as the case became a national scandal.
Despite playing down the impacts of seminal (and Oscar-winning) Polish filmmakers like Andrzej Wajda and Krszysztof Kieślowski – whose namesake Katowice film school Matuszyński graduated from in 2012 – the stylish social realism of his nation’s cinema is impossible to miss. Since Kieślowski’s Dekalog inspired filmmakers and cinematographers worldwide in the late-80s, Poland has never looked the same onscreen. Leave No Traces is no different, leaning into its visual and moral graininess much like Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’s iconic and tonally related documentary about state injustice.
We caught up with Matuszyński at the Venice Film Festival, where Leave No Traces played in Competition.
Adam Solomons: Thanks for speaking to us. Congratulations on the honour of your film becoming Poland’s official entry to the Oscars this year. What do you hope for American audiences to get from your movie?
Jan Matuszyński: I think everyone will connect with it, more or less, because cases of police brutality happen in all places. The George Floyd situation last year became one of the most famous, but it’s easy to name many more. This [Oscars] decision means I will go and find out if there is a connection between foreign audiences and my film. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that there will be a connection, because the irony of this story is very sad. People will understand it.
AS: In a way, it sounds like you don’t want your film to be a success, because that would say this social problem is even bigger than we think.
JM: You know, this film probably came from a place of fear. I didn’t think like this when I was making the film, but now I have time to let go and relax because I can’t change anything anymore. And fear is what I keep coming back to.
AS: What about this case do you think resonates so strongly?
JM: It’s remarkable because there was an eyewitness who survived. (Grzegorz’s friend, Jurek, is really the protagonist.) There were many more of these cases in Poland, and not only in Poland, where there were not. I’m not being ironic, but I have to say with this one we were lucky, because there was somebody who could report most of it.
The other big question I was asking – and I still don’t have an answer for this – is: What is the whole truth? We like to say ‘I’ve seen it all’ – and I love the [Björk] song – but it’s never really true. We only ever really see things from our own perspective. I think that’s cinematic. It made me think of [Antonioni’s] Blow-Up, or that scene in Blade Runner.
AS: The “computer enhance” bit?
JM: Yes, when he’s zooming in on the image. I can hear the sound now in my head. And we were thinking about The Conversation, too. All those were the foundation of this film. And in showing the incompetence of state institutions, I was also thinking about Burn After Reading.
AS: I did get that connection!
JM: Really? That’s wonderful.
AS: What made you want to insert those earlier New Hollywood thrillers like The Conversation into the Polish setting?
JM: In my gut, I just felt this was the kind of film that could use those tools. When I think about cinema, I don’t divide it between national, international. Films don’t have borders. A good one can be understood by anyone.
AS: Tomasz Kot plays, I feel, the most interesting character in the movie. Like us, he has to learn about the case very quickly and come to his own conclusion. What sort of conversations were you having with him on set?
JM: Tomasz is a very funny man and a funny actor. There was a lot of comedy we had to cut, because he was too humorous. That’s just his way.
Again, we were thinking about Burn After Reading a lot. He’s playing a guy who’s like one of the CIA people. Our thinking from his perspective was a conversation like:
‘Okay, what happened?’
‘There was a beating at the police station.’
‘Was it us?’
‘We don’t know.’
‘Why did it happen?’
‘We don’t know’.
‘What do we do?’
‘Blame the people who did it.’
Photo credit: Klapi