Michal Marczak’s new feature All These Sleepless Nights opens by gliding across a night skyline dominated by Warsaw’s Palace of Culture. Few landmarks of European capitals have been more resented by their citizens than this spired high-rise, Stalin’s “gift” to the city’s people in Soviet times and a constant reminder to them of their oppressor.
Poland’s cinema is preoccupied with the nation’s troubled history, and other young directors (Tomasz Wasilewski in his Berlinale-awarded United States of Love, for instance) have brought fresh, inventive approaches to this ongoing reckoning with the past. But as fireworks go off around the gargantuan skyscraper to Joe Meek’s spaced-out pop track I Hear A New World we’re transported into a mood more akin to a sci-fi movie — and a new horizon entirely. Warsaw through Marczak’s eyes is not weighed down by history’s inescapability, as we follow two art school friends Krzysztof (Krzysztof Baginski) and Michal (Michał Huszcza) through a fever-drift haze of parties in a city buoyant with youthful, strange possibility. We spoke to the director about his vision for the film, which won him a Best Directing Award at Sundance and which will have its European premiere in competition in July at prestigious Czech festival Karlovy Vary.
“I was never really into teen movies or coming-of-age films and I never thought I would make one,” says Marczak. “But at a certain point walking around Warsaw I got annoyed. I saw so much beauty around me, and so much creativity sparking up. Early 90s Warsaw was more looking towards Berlin, but now people are developing their own style. It’s an identity that goes back to the Romantic period of Poland’s literary tradition, but it’s also something quite unique. It’s not portrayed at all in cinema, which is very heavy, with these grim tales. Young people are portrayed as wanting nothing from life and as being lost in consumption and globalisation, without any spark at the end of their journey, whereas I think it’s the complete opposite.”
What raises All These Sleepless Nights above the pretensions of so many other films intent on capturing a partying lifestyle is its disarming sincerity and disregard for hyperbole. The friends’ faces hold more than the often inconsequential conversation between them, as they struggle to move on from break-ups with a quiet, underlying melancholy. Tension bubbles as Krzysztof takes an interest in Michal’s ex Eva (Eva Lebuef), but it’s as dramatic as events get in a film with a nonchalant atmospheric drift reminiscent of an American indie (Marczak’s time studying at CalArts in LA probably had a hand in this). Yet there’s a feeling for the beauty that suddenly flares in ordinary moments. “I hate most coming-of-age movies because it’s so easy to turn up the thermostat, put four characters in bed and give them harder drugs to make things more interesting, in the bad sense of that word, because most of the time life’s not like that,” says Marczak. “I wanted this film to be close to a reality that exists.”
It was important for him that the characters didn’t have a defining family trauma or rape in their past as is the case with so many Polish films. “The drama is literally about the little things in life, which are the big problems of today’s world because we think about them all the time,” he says. “Things such as whether we have enough courage to become who we want to become are super-important, just as much as fighting communism. People say that’s the big problem of today’s youth, that before we had a main enemy that gave us direction in life and reason to live, and now that we have nothing to fight for we’re lost. But we have ourselves to fight for.”
Walking the line between documentary and fiction, the film has an intimate, raw charge which is distinctive of Marczak’s work. He already proved this gift for immersive filmmaking with his prior festival success Fuck For Forest, a documentary that took us inside the workings of a Berlin-based activist NGO that raises money for rainforest rescue through internet porn. Marczak was 31 when he started to make All These Sleepless Nights and spent half a year searching for the right protagonists before meeting Krzysztof and Michał at a party. “The most important thing about a movie like this is authenticity, to live through a moment and film it at the same time,” he says. “I love working this way and there is no way to do it with actors. I knew from the start it had to be real people.”
His camera nimbly and with intuitive rhythm weaves through Warsaw with the characters on their nocturnal wanderings, capturing the energy of the city’s lived spaces, from outdoor raves to house parties and green parks. “Warsaw’s a small city; we know most of the bar owners and people that run the parties, so it was always friends and friends of friends. At a certain point we felt like all of Warsaw was making this film.”
Marczak’s affection for his home city is obvious. He avoids overt references to societal forces in All These Sleepless Nights, but is by no means impervious to history or the new wave of conservatism sweeping Poland since last October’s elections. “It really annoys me with all the politics because actually I don’t think the hostility between people is very high — I don’t see a problem of connection when I walk the streets,” he says. “People who are scared or lonely are being exploited to funnel that into something they have no clue about really, just to feel a part of something.”
He says his next film will be a naturalistic sci-fi about an alien in human form sent to study humanity and report back to his planet on how we’re doing here — so an existential health-check of sorts is on the cards. He aims to shoot in Katowice, a former mining town in southwestern Poland with a futuristic sports stadium that resembles a flying saucer. “It really does feel like it’s built by someone from another planet, so I want to toy with that idea,” he says. Whether or not Poland loops back on its past, it can find a light spirit in Marczak’s cinema, with its boundless faith in big dreams.