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Poland

Maciej Barczewski • Director of The Champion

"For his fellow inmates, he was a symbol of hope for victory over Nazi terror"

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- Cineuropa chatted to Maciej Barczewski, whose first film The Champion premiered in Main Competition at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia

Maciej Barczewski  • Director of The Champion
(© Robert Pałka)

The Champion [+see also:
interview: Maciej Barczewski
film profile
]
, the feature debut from Polish director Maciej Barczewski, is based on real-life character Tadeusz ‘Teddy’ Pietrzykowski, a bantamweight boxer, who fought his most important fights in concentration camps.

Cineuropa: There are many films picturing the Holocaust. Weren’t you afraid that there might not be anything artistically new to add to the subject?
Maciej Barczewski:
I was aware that I dealt with themes that are commonly associated with Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, Roman Polański's The Pianist or Laszlo Nemes's Son of Saul [+see also:
film review
trailer
Q&A: László Nemes
interview: László Rajk
film profile
]
. At the same time, I knew that I should not duplicate the clues or stylistics of other Holocaust films, but try to tell this story in my own way, through my eyes, in a way that is accessible to contemporary audience. I felt that I could add something to that canon. In particular, I was fascinated by the contrast between the camp as a factory of death, and the place where sports were practiced as an expression of life and hope for victory.

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How did you learn about Tadeusz ‘Teddy’ Pietrzykowski? He was famous in 1930s Warsaw, but after WWII he vanished from the public eye, so to speak.
Tadeusz Borowski, the Polish writer, on the basis of whose stories Andrzej Wajda made Landscape after the Battle, wrote in one of his novels: "There is still the memory of the number 77, which used to box the Germans as he wanted, taking revenge in the ring for what others got in the field". This one sentence intrigued me so much that I started researching the fate of the prisoners of the very first transport to the Auschwitz camp, and in particular of the number 77 – Tadeusz ‘Teddy’ Pietrzykowski. I was captivated by the fact that, for his fellow inmates, he was a symbol of hope for victory over Nazi terror. At the same time, it turned out that today he is a relatively unknown man, although due to the place and circumstances in which he had to fight his duels, his fights took on an almost mythical character. For his contemporaries, he was what some today would call a superhero.

What was the research process you mentioned like? I assume there might not be much information or visual materials about those early days at the death camp.
Only a few photographs of the first transport to Auschwitz have survived, and only one shows the arrival of prisoners to the camp. Gathering information, I reached out to the sources – statements from former prisoners collected in the archives of the Auschwitz Museum, as well as some personal notes and memories of Tadeusz Pietrzykowski made available by his daughter. She supported us with stories about her father, which allowed us to better portray his on-screen personality.

Your leading actor is Piotr Głowacki. He is very talented and versatile, but directors usually cast him in comedies. Why did you pick him for your film?
Teddy Pietrzykowski's strength did not lay in his muscles, but in his masterful technique and fortitude. I knew that to build a persuasive character I would need an actor who, at first glance, would be the opposite of the boxer archetype. Someone who looks inconspicuous, even harmless, but in whose eyes you can see two clenched fists. At the same time, he had to be an actor who, for the role of an Auschwitz prisoner, would be willing to undergo a radical physical transformation, and also to master the boxing technique to the extent that allows fighting without any cuts and without the participation of a stunt double. Piotr was my first and only choice, and he more than met these expectations. I am convinced that, for many years, there has not been a role in Polish cinema that required such a far-reaching physical and artistic commitment from an actor.

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