Marian Marzynski has spent more than 40 years working in the media. He began in his native Poland as a journalist and popular television show host, then moved to the United States where he pursued his enduring passion for documentary film. A wry observer of life, Marzynski has worked alongside fellow Polish director Roman Polanski and taught young American filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant at the Rhode Island School of Design. His FRONTLINE documentaries include Shtetl, A Jew Among the Germans and My Retirement Dreams. Marzynski spoke by phone with FRONTLINE/World senior associate producer Sachi Cunningham about his approach to filmmaking and the delight of his latest project -- making a story about music and about Poland’s most illustrious son.
You have done two other films for FRONTLINE/World -- Rich in Russia, with reporter Sabrina Tavernise, and My Old Haunts, in Romania with commentator Andrei Codrescu. But this is your first time reporting in front of the camera. Was the experience any different?
No. It is very natural for me. From an early age, I was on camera. But it is always very difficult to be the director and on camera at the same time. It is a burden. But with many, many years’ experience, you somehow know what you can and cannot do, how you should move, how you pace yourself. Especially in a film like this, when we are discovering Chopin, I have to show why I am excited and make this contagious to the viewer. But I should tell you also, music for me is something I had not been filming enough in my life. This is my first film that is built around music. And I would love to make more films like this because I think music and film are a very good marriage.
Are there any specific memories of Poland that Chopin’s music conjures up for you?
Every child in Poland in my generation is completely overcontaminated with Chopin’s “Funeral March” being played at every state funeral. In my day, you could walk the neighborhood in Poland and hear people listening to Chopin because the radio was continuously playing. Chopin is an obsession for Poland. So this music is part of me. When I say Chopin is woven into Polish culture and politics, it is something I tried to -- but didn’t fully -- explain in the film. He had a split personality, French by father, Polish by mother, born in Poland. And the French do not claim him. He was an immigrant in France. He spent most of his life in France. But he was also unhappy in France. So in Poland he became more than a great composer. He became a symbol for Polish nationalism. Poland does not want to be lost among the many countries of Europe and wants to have some cultural identity. This piano competition is the highest cultural event in Poland. It is like a Miss America. The winner goes around, travels the world, then five years later, someone else wins.
Why do you think classical music like Chopin’s has lasted throughout the years?
Of course, Chopin was a genius. And Chopin is this guy whose life, joys, sorrows and tragedies -- he was sick with tuberculosis, and he was homesick -- all those emotions are in his piano. Those keys and those sounds are trying to say, “I’m happy, I’m in pain, I feel this, I feel that. I’m looking around, the seasons are changing, I’m affected by it.” So then how do you translate this into the sound of one instrument? It’s fascinating. I think that Chopin and other brilliant composers were doing it every day, every minute, all their life, so religiously and with so much obsession that they left great work. Today it’s a different world, where things are faster, machines are helping, things are collective, and carried by all those elements of promotion or marketing. We’ve created a different kind of world.
Some pianists in the competition you filmed are so obsessed with Chopin that they have moved to Poland to study him -- like Takashi Yamamoto from Japan. What do you think they can pick up that outsiders cannot?
Certainly the Japanese interest is to study Western culture. Japan links the world from East to West. Poland lives on the border between East and West. Somehow, between Poland and Japan there is some mystery. Maybe it is the drama of being confused about who you are. Maybe it is the drama of being influenced by different cultures.
I guess those young people that come to Poland would like to be somehow influenced by the same influences as Chopin -- the landscape, the folk songs in this country. Or they may just want a specific teacher that created a winner.
Yet nobody knows what it takes. Everybody is puzzled about what kind of sensitivity there is behind the pianist’s decision to hit the keyboard with a specific force, to apply a certain tempo, to control the quality of this irresistible music that feels the joy of love and fear, pain and sorrow. But do you play this better because you know all the facts about the composer? Of course not.
In the film you say the best musicians do not always play technically well but with inspiration. What is your creative inspiration?
I try to make documentaries about things that excite me. I think that it’s every documentary maker’s dream. Film is an emotional vehicle. It is like music -- you like it or you don’t. Why? Because you are emotionally involved. If the maker has this emotion to begin with and is able to transfer this to the viewer, then you have Bingo.
I understand you knew Roman Polanski?
Yes, I worked with him almost at the same time in the film studio in Poland. I actually was trained as a broadcast journalist. But I very quickly went to film studio and made documentaries, so I came very close to the same crowd.
So did you ever consider incorporating into your film Polanski’s story of The Pianist who studied in Warsaw at the Chopin School of Music?
His feature film has nothing to do with music. I actually knew him, Wladyslaw Szpilman, the pianist, the actual person who survived the war. When I worked with the Polish radio, he was head of the music department. I consider Polanski a very gifted filmmaker but his film was not about music.
What was it that made you switch from broadcast reporting to film?
When you start as a reporter, you just collect facts and information. When you become more experienced and more mature, you realize that there’s something more interesting beyond everyday reporting that you try to interpret. And this is how I found my interest in film. I thought: “I can have a dialogue with the whole public.” Also, very often, images speak more than words. At one point, I was very excited about radio, then I went to television. I found in the editing room that when you combine all those things, you have a very powerful vehicle.
Have you ever wanted to move toward fiction?
No. For me, being able to operate with documentary material is the highest level of communication. First of all, fiction is a very risky business because you have to imitate. And fiction comes from documentary anyway. All the fictional ideas come from experiences, from facts, from documentation. For me it’s much more rewarding to start with the real and to sound like fiction. Of course, with fiction you have control. You can write and film anything you want. A documentary filmmaker is at the mercy of what is happening in front of his eyes.
Do you think your talent in capturing some of these moments comes from the anticipation of danger that you carry with you from your childhood experiences of surviving the Holocaust?
I have a sense of drama, yes. There’s no doubt that a child who survived the war may have an anticipation of drama. I have probably all the qualities that feature filmmakers have or writers who write feature films have, where you create the drama. But I am looking for drama in everyday life. Probably I have an instinct, a nose, to tell me where I should be.
What is your filmmaking process?
I don’t want to be surprised with the editing. In other words, I don’t want to make a different film in the editing process than I was planning to make. So I start to edit the very first time I start to film. Of course, you shoot much more than you use -- in this case, 50 times more -- but somehow you film elements that are good bricks for your editing. Yesterday I was watching a film about an architect, and he was asked the same question. What is the secret of good architecture? And he says, “Site.” When they bring him to the site, there is nothing. But there is a moment where he connects the site with whatever building construction he would like to do. You have to have this imagination. My film is basically in my head, especially when you do a 20-minute film. When you go over 20 minutes, 30 minutes, it’s hard for the mind to function, to operate like this. This is why I was brought up on shorter films in Poland. That’s why I like this FRONTLINE/World format because it allows me to concentrate on a shorter form and imagine it early.
What do you do when you’ve missed one of these building blocks?
I think you are in trouble. [laughs] And I know exactly how it feels because I taught filmmaking for many years, and I work with students, and I know that this is about those missing blocks. Everybody does it. You can be lost very easy. You are at the mercy of opportunities. You are at the mercy of the performance of people. You should be able to make instant switches if your strategy does not work and go to another. When I say that I see editing from the very beginning, what I wanted to say is that I see a possibility of editing, but many times my concept collapses and I don’t gather enough material. Then I switch to another concept of editing. You have a certain amount of days, in my case 10 or 11, and you plan your day. You can be here, you can be there … that’s what is amazing about documentary. Shooting is a life experience. And you are really never bored. Whereas in the feature film, it’s a factory. You go to work, you have crews, it’s a collective effort. It’s factory made.
I hear that you train your camera operators and editors through an apprentice model.
Yes, I do not work with established cameramen. They become established, but with a cameraman I usually work for three to four years, and then he’s on his own. The cameramen I work with are usually between the ages of 25 and 30. The same thing with editors, but it’s very hard for the editors to stay with one person as an apprentice for more than one year these days. In my day, it took five to seven years to become an editor. Cameramen have more excitement. They can go to other places, work for other people, they’re mobile. But editing is a tedious apprenticeship. I went through this myself. Of course, editing is the key, actually. Film is editing. It starts with editing and it ends with editing. I educated a few great filmmakers, when I taught. Gus Van Sant was one of my students. I have probably graduated about 100 filmmakers in school when I taught at Rhode Island School of Design. An independent film that I’m making now is called My Film Class 70, where I’m making a reunion with my former RISD students. It’s a big film that I’m in the middle of.
Where do you see documentary filmmaking going?
We are living really in the renaissance of documentary filmmaking. I have never imagined that I would live to see these days. Remember I come from the time 40 years ago when documentary was big, when it was called cinema verité and cinema direct in America. I was doing documentary all those years, but only in the last 10 years has the audience actually discovered documentary. It’s amazing what’s going on. I mean 90 percent of films that I’m watching are documentaries. There definitely is a revival because the audience is sophisticated, and they don’t want to listen again and again to the same story. The problem with a fictional film is that it is a factory and made from an existing product. Once in a big while there’s something fresh. But with documentary, it’s always fresh. There’s no such thing as bad documentary, in my opinion.