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Polish Social Dystopia: Bodo Kox on The Man with the Magic Box

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By Martin Kudláč.

Writer, director and actor Bodo Kox (né Bartosz Koszalka) introduced at Warsaw Film Festival his latest feature work, The Man with the Magic Box, shortly after its world premiere at Gdynia Film festival, a Polish showcase of domestic production. He garnered fair recognition and a following as an independent filmmaker and achieved mainstream breakthrough with professional feature-length debut The Girl from a Wardrobe in 2013. His latest project bends the time-space continuum to attach past to future in a not so far and slightly dystopian version of Warsaw, where Kox re-imagines the city, the country, and society subjected to new kind of totality and class division. A romance between the two central characters bridging the class gap constitutes the central plotline as the protagonist untangles the mystique of time-traveling. The Man with the Magic Box has already reaped accolades for Best Score, by Sandro di Stefano, at Polish Film Festival and as the Best International Science Fiction Film at Trieste Science-Fiction Festival. Film International spoke with Bodo Kox during the Warsaw Film Festival to discuss his conversion towards mainstreamish cinema, genre filmmaking, and the current situation in Poland.

You frequently hailed as “the off icon” and celebrated as an alternative filmmaker. Can you please elaborate more on what does it mean to be an alternative filmmaker in the context of Polish cinema and film industry?

I started my career in “cinema off” meaning in an amateur independent cinema outside the mainstream. I won a lot of awards that´s why I’m called “icon of independent cinema”. It does not really matter though. Now, when I have become more professional and make films with budgets my style remains still distant from the typical Polish style in the mainstream. These are the qualities of independent cinema. For many, I am still freaking….

You have made a move from fringes/underground to “mainstream” with The Girl from the Wardrobe (2012). What were the motifs or stimulus behind this decision?

Independent cinema was actually amateur cinema. Without money. I wanted to do “normal” movies. With professional equipment and professional crew. For normal money. To go out with the underground. To make my films more reachable. I am an ambitious person.

What were the major changes you encountered since moving from alternative to mainstream? What is the main difference between the two modes and status and how do you personally perceive them?

When you spent public funds or someone else’s money, the responsibility is greater. But thanks to money, I can make better films in terms of realism. Film reaches a wider audience. In general, everything is bigger but independence is decreasing. It does not decide on many important things like promotion. Sometimes you put your movie in the hands of morons and you see how they destroy it. This is the worse side of the mainstream. It´s something for something.

Based on the quantity of domestic, exported and co-produced projects, it might seem to an outsider that Polish film industry is in good shape, regarding the funding. What would be the reasons for being active in the alternative film scene?

I started in the independent cinema because I had no other choice. In Poland, there is a definite scheme. Filmmakers who have not finished a film school are looked at from a distance. They are considered worse. Since as I was so loud in the amateur cinema, they simply had to pay attention to me. It became too tight for me in the independent cinema. It´s a small audience. I had to go to the mainstream to pursue my ambitions.

You had pretty wide portfolio of works as a filmmaker before you began your studies at Lodz. Why did you decide to enroll?

Man 03I did not have the money to make movies. And at a film school, you get money for movies and you have to do them. Perfect layout for me.

How the studies changed you approach toward film?

I attended film schools, Lodz Film School and Wajda School, when I was a 33-year-old filmmaker so I could not change the schools. I went there because of money to make movies and make contacts. Suck the system. Use it. Thanks to my tutor in Lodz Film School, Professor Robert Glinski, I could make a professional debut The Girl From the Wardrobe.

You were labeled as “the most-often debuting Polish filmmaker” by domestic critics. Does it mean that with every new film, a new Bodo Kox – the filmmaker emerges?

No, it’s a joke. I just had a full-length debut in independent cinema and later in the mainstream. Some journalist noticed this and joked about it and it caught in the public space. I’m sure that I’m changing from film to film. I am shedding skin like a snake. But I’m still a snake.

Imagination plays a crucial role in your film The Girl from the Wardrobe and in your latest, The Man with the Magic Box as well. What lies behind your penchant for imaginative and fairy-tale like stories?

I don’t know. I just don’t care about ordinary stories. I’m not interested in making movies that imitate life in ratio one to one. I like to enter the heroes’ head and show them the imagination. I personally believe that the world has many dimensions. I like to improvise on this subject. Actually, films that imitate reality are appreciated in Poland. It’s fucking boring.

Genres such as sci-fi is not a staple of Polish cinema despite for Poland being the home of the cult satire Sexmission. What is you relation to genre and why do you gravitate towards it, especially sci-fi in The Man with the Magic Box?

Movies imitating life dominate Poland. Movies of a particular genre are on the margins. I do not know why. That is why it is hard to break into something that is not so obvious. To me, this kind of science-fiction itself came. Just the story I had in my head had to be in this genre. I was not interested in it before but now it became interested in me. I am interested in the future of the human race.

The Man with the Magic Box is a speculative fiction set into the near-future and in dystopian Warsaw? Does your choice to depict the near future in this way reflects the current political climate in Poland?

The film reflects the acrobatic climate around the world and in Poland. I think my country is going the wrong way. I’m not saying that previous governments were much better…. Unfortunately we don´t have luck with politicians. Democracy is not a good system. Cretins are voting for morons. And the best feed for morons devoid of individualism are the nationalistic slogans. Slowly, the situation in Europe is starting to resemble 1930s.

Are you in any way mirroring what is happening in Poland now in you film? Is there contained any socio-political commentary in your latest film? You refer to the setting as “Middle Ages of the 21st century”.

Of course the film is a bit of a caricature of the present but if nothing stops them from reassembling their grand plan, we can wake up in the North Korea one day. I do not know if you know but some time ago Jesus Christ became the King of Poland. Can you feel it? 21st century. The center of Europe … So what are we talking about?

While the film was in development and before it’s unveiling at festivals, the synopsis put the emphasis in the time-traveling aspect. However, the story´s backbone is really a romance between the two characters. Did anything change during the production process or was the story conceived as a romance framed by sci-fi from the beginning? The story is a bit different that the one pitched at ScripTeast.

"I hope the system will come to find a job for each individual. The Polish government wants everyone to be born. Even a broken fetus."

“I hope the system will come to find a job for each individual. The Polish government wants everyone to be born. Even a broken fetus.”

When I started writing the script, the world looked different. There has been no crisis with immigrants yet in Europe. The president was Obama in the States. In Poland, liberal party ruled. I already wrote a dystopian vision. But suddenly everything changed and reality caught up with my script. I thought I do not want to serve the audience a depressive movie. That I will rather focus on the bright side of human existence. On love. For only love can save us from the last dehumanization. This is the message.

A Greek director preparing a sci-fi of her own told me that she had to re-do the fictional world where a story was set because before they could start working on the film, some of the things she imagined became into existence and thus lost their futuristic appeal. Did you have any struggles or obstacles regarding the world-building in The Man with the Magic Box?

Yes. A small budget.

The Man with the Magic Box oscillates between retro- and futuro-setting. Is there any particular reason for that?

In the prehistory of this project, the film was supposed to be a film noir. Black and white. So it’s a retro feeling. I really wanted to make a movie in a classic way, American but for Polish money.

It appears there are several riffs in well-known writers in The Man with Magic Box such as George Orwell or Philip K. Dick. Can you confirm any such influence?

I am ashamed to admit it but I do not know any of Dick’s books. However, I really like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I appreciate his genius of precognition. In his honor, I used the name “prole” for the inhabitants of the poor part of Warsaw.

There is a scene in a café where the personnel is played by Down-syndrome actors. This is a nice inclusive gesture. Belgian filmmaker Jaco van Dormael casts Down-syndrome actors in his every film. Why did you decide for this?

I hope the system will come to find a job for each individual. The Polish government wants everyone to be born. Even a broken fetus. So they definitely have an idea for their employment, probably.

I believe it is still unknown whether you will direct Adam Mickiewicz´s adaptation of Forefathers you co-wrote with Alessandro Leone. What is the status of the project? And what other projects are you working on?

At this moment, Adam Mickiewicz is far too difficult for me. I’m still the weak director to take up this subject. I’m working on a few things. Arthouse and comedy. I’m also open to suggestions from outside. I like to work.

Martin Kudláč is a freelance film journalist and independent scholar contributing regularly to a variety of outlets. He holds PhD in Aesthetics and is an external lecturer and researcher at The Institute of Literary and Art Communication at Constantine the Philosopher University at Nitra, Slovakia; a film industry reporter; and co-author of the upcoming book Images of the Hero in the Cultural Memory (Constantine the Philosopher University Press).

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