For the love of goddesses
Writing for DQ, director Borys Lankosz reveals why he took a chance to create Polish drama Erinyes, a series based on the crime novels by Marek Krajewski for TVP (Telewizja Polska) and distributor GoQuest Media.
‘Nothing is written.’ That famous phrase uttered by Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia rang in my ears as I hung up the phone. I had just received an offer to create a series based on Marek Krajewski’s crime novels.
Although I asked the producer for time to think, I made my decision almost immediately. Where did this classic movie quote come from in my head? To understand the answer to this question, let me first provide some context.
Krajewski’s prose has been the object of Polish filmmakers’ efforts for nearly a quarter of a century. During this time, the author has become a living legend. The first proof of this is the fact that one of the beautiful old townhouses in Wroclaw has been decorated with a mural depicting the characteristic physiognomy and bald head of its eminent citizen.
Krajewski is today commonly referred to as the godfather of Polish crime fiction. And yet there has long been a kind of fate hovering over his work. That’s what my fellow filmmakers said, or at least those most sensitive to chance. Perhaps it was just bad luck? The fact is, however, that over the past 25 years, many great filmmakers have tried to adapt the master’s novels for the screen. Some of these plans were well advanced, but something always stood in the way of their fulfilment. It was even believed that this work was impossible to film. And so when this offer came, I did not hesitate. I decided to accept the challenge.
Why was it chosen for me? The producers knew my previous film. Dark, Almost Night was an adaptation of a novel that won the most important literary award in Poland. I think this choice of source material said two things about me: first, that I managed to film a novel that was commonly said to be impossible to adapt; and, second, that by making such a choice, I presented myself as a person who is drawn to the dark. (It’s true, I like to peer into the abyss and let it peer into our hearts and minds exposed to the broadcast of cinema and television screens). In the eyes of the producers, both of these reasons predestined me to direct Erinyes.
We managed to solve the first problem very quickly. After reading the scripts that were sent to me, I asked if it was OK for me to write the adaptations from scratch. They agreed, on one condition: that the author of the previous version would be credited. So I accepted this solution and sat down to work with my wife, Magdalena, with whom I also wrote Dark, Almost Night. I had no idea then that much bigger challenges awaited me, including tragedy. The Erinyes hadn’t yet woken up.
The four novels to which the producer had the rights were linked by the same character, Edward Popielski. A fascinating person, he is a detective suffering from photogenic epilepsy who uses the surreal visions that appear in his head during attacks to push his investigations forward.
Played by Marcin Dorociński, Popielski is a very unusual hero. He’s the intellectual type. Earlier, before his disease started, he worked as an academic lecturer. His specialty was classical philology, and his bald head and this scientific specialisation clearly connect him with Krajewski, who also devoted many years of his life to Ancient Greece before he became a full-time writer.
The character knows Greek mythology perfectly well, and therefore he can confidently say he is a follower of the Erinyes, the goddesses of vengeance. His life philosophy is based on a very specific understanding of justice. The detective is sure we are all moving from darkness to light. We are evolving from being a naked ape to a cosmic consciousness that is full of harmony. However, there are obstacles along the way in the shape of evil, committed by depraved individuals.
Popielski is certain humanity will reach a space of shared happiness one way or another, regardless of whether he manages to catch the villains. He feels that his actions make measurable sense, believing that the time when humanity will reach this bright future depends on whether he manages to administer justice (and not necessarily within the legal system). Therefore, his mission becomes revenge against those who try to escape justice. With the same bloodthirsty passion as the Greek goddesses, he throws himself into a whirlwind of crazy nightlife, where vice and sins abound.
The first thing Magdalena and I agreed on when we started the adaptation work was to condense the action time. In the four novels, this is a period of nearly two decades. We decided to fit most of it in the years 1938 to 1939. And so the eighth episode of the 12-part series ends on September 1, on the day of the outbreak of the Second World War. Throughout these episodes, we sense the approaching cataclysm, with clear warning signals.
However, both Popielski and his antagonists disregard them. They are so caught up in their own game, in the hierarchy of evil, in the desire to win, that everything else ceases to matter. The era is colourful, decadent and vibrant – it’s like a party on the Titanic.
The action takes place in Lviv. Today, the city lies in Ukraine, brutally attacked by Russian barbarians, but before 1939 it was on Polish territory. For many of my compatriots, this city remains a legend. Its multi-ethnic character, magnificent architecture and outstanding intellectual and cultural life are the object of memories and testimonies of people who have lost it forever.
I was familiar with this space. A few years ago, I made a documentary about Stanislaw Lem, the sci-fi novelist behind works including Solaris, who was from Lviv. In 1945, like tens of thousands of other Poles, Lem was forced to leave his hometown, which, as a result of the Yalta Conference, found itself part of Soviet Union territory. In my film, Lem said words that have sunk deep into my memory: “Lviv was like sky to us. Can you give up on sky?” He never returned there.
Popielski’s experience is somehow similar and we can see it in the last four episodes of the series, which take place after the Second World War in Wroclaw. The detective, forcibly evicted, finds himself in a new space. Wroclaw before 1939 was called Breslau and was a German city. Now the Germans have been expelled and the empty space after them is populated with newcomers from the East. It’s a post-apocalyptic world. The city has been practically razed to the ground through bombing, and Popielski, as an anti-communist, must hide. He is depressed after losing the only person he loved. And yet, by a twist of fate, he mobilises. In the new world, he finds old enemies and takes revenge on them.
The tone of the last few episodes is completely different. Before, I was playing around with the noir convention. Lviv, despite the nighttime focus, was colourful and attractive. In Wroclaw, we are in a post-apocalyptic world; everything is grey and broken. War is in people, although no one mentions it. Stylistically, we are closer to a drama film, with the character’s psychology now becoming much more important than before. We’re much closer to Popielski.
The stakes of the drama also change. It becomes about correctly understanding a sophisticated philosophical concept – and saving the souls of innocent youth depends on it.
Regarding the tragic events that happened to us during the realisation of Erinyes, the pandemic stopped our production for several months, knocking us out of our rhythm and putting the future of the project into question. This obstacle was finally successfully overcome, but the goddesses of vengeance showed up in a different, much more terrifying way the day before filming began.
It was then that Malgorzata Jochan, our production designer, died in a car accident. She was a young, wonderfully talented person for whom our series was the first big project in a brilliantly developing career. It’s easy to say the show must go on, but experiencing it first-hand is a real shock, and I felt it all too clearly at the time.
It was a decisive moment, as it was up to me to decide whether, despite the tragedy, we would all embark on this journey. I agreed, still sore and in shock, quite intuitively. I remember that I wanted people to see how beautifully Malgorzata invented this non-existent world. I do not regret that decision. The series is dedicated to Malgorzata’s memory.
When I wonder what makes Erinyes a show that may be interesting for an international viewer, this is the answer that comes to mind: I believe there are adults everywhere in the world. By this, I mean not the fact of turning 18, but the state of mind. Our story is not for people who want infantile entertainment, full of safe clichés and mental prostheses. It requires the viewer to pay attention and to focus. Then it opens up to them and repays them with a truly deep stirring of mind and heart. Erinyes doesn’t fawn and court you, but when appreciated, it offers quite a poignant experience in return.