Diamonds in the snow: the bizarre beauty of Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s films

The Kinoteka Polish Film Festival screens the highlights of the eclectic director’s work, which is as diverse as his life has been.

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The 14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival is already underway, providing a chance for audiences to acquaint themselves with recent Polish cinema. But there is also a welcome retrospective of films by the great, eclectic director Jerzy Skolimowski, who is 77 years old and still going strong. His most recent picture, 11 Minutes, opened the festival last week. He is a painter and former boxer; he co-wrote Polanski’s first film, Knife in the Water; he was once an aspirant jazz musician and in recent times he might pop up in acting roles in anything from David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises to Avengers Assemble of all things.

His movies are as diverse as his life has been. Deep End, from 1970, concerns a teenage boy (John Moulder-Brown) who becomes infatuated with a female co-worker (Jane Asher) at a London swimming pool. It was inspired by a news story Skolimowksi heard about a precious diamond that had been lost in the snow.

“It couldn’t be found,” he told me when we met in 2011 to discuss the restoration of Deep End, which had long been out of circulation due to rights issues. “My immediate reaction was ‘Why didn’t they collect the snow and melt it?’ What a simple idea. But no one had thought of that. And I realised at that moment that this was the seed for a good story – diamonds in the snow. Around that little episode I built the whole film.”

Deep End promises to be a Swinging Sixties love story, only to develop into something far weirder. How weird? Put it this way: one of the most memorable sequences involves the boy visiting the boudoir of a prostitute whose leg is in a cast, before purchasing an excessive quantity of hot dogs from Burt Kwouk, who played Cato in the Pink Panther films. All to the sound of “Mother Sky” by Can.

“We were looking for more German elements because it was a German co-production. I think I heard a demo of the Can song, and I told them ‘It’s good but I need to extend it. Can you make it more repetitive?’ So they re-recorded it for the film.” There’s something rather perverse about the idea of Can being asked to make one of their songs even more repetitive. But if anyone could do it, it would be Skolimowksi.

His innate curiosity, combined with his sense of the absurd and his eye for colour, has resulted in some of the most peculiar and illuminating films made by an outsider in Britain. Among these is The Shout, a bizarre psychological thriller from 1978 starring Alan Bates as a man who can kill with the power of his voice alone, and Moonlighting, an evocative 1982 comedy-drama about Polish immigrants (including Jeremy Irons, splendid and cast extravagantly against type) working as labourers in London.

These films, along with other highlights from the director’s work, are being screened as part of the festival. Each one is a diamond.

The Kinoteka 14th Polish Film Festival runs until 28 April.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.