Lech Majewski Meets Bruegel on the Way to Calvary

Bruegel's Way to Calvary
Bruegel's Way to Calvary


According to art historians Giovanni Arpino and Piero Bianconi, there are more than 500 figures in the painting — that is, in addition to 40 horses, 20 birds and at least eight dogs. The oil panel is not small; Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s second largest work, Way to Calvary, measures about 4’ by 5½’. That’s a lot of life to cram onto a wooden board. Yet, except for a few clusters of silhouetted figures in the deep distance, every one of Bruegel’s people is an individual, and every expression, gesture and activity its own cog in the great mill wheel of life.

Bruegel painted Way to Calvary in 1542. Only 30 years earlier, Martin Luther had posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, the opening salvo of  what became the Protestant Reformation. The movement spread rapidly through Germany and the Netherlands, including Flanders, where Bruegel lived with his wife and two sons (soon to be painters as well). Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Catholic Spain, occupied Flanders with his mercenaries, and under the ruthless control of the Duke of Alba, Flanders’ Protestant heretics and political dissenters were hunted down, burned, buried alive or crucified on the wheel.

Detail: The circle of death/Golgotha
Detail: The circle of death/Golgotha

The soldiers’ red tunics symbolized the fearsome and hated Spanish occupiers, with Bruegel’s complex painting serving as an allegory of the Flemish people’s oppression under Spanish rule. Bruegel paints Way to Calvary as a cri de coeur, equating the persecution of the Flemish with that of the Jews under Rome at the time of Christ.

Detail: Mercenary with banner
A shot from the film: Mercenary with banner

The Flemish man, fallen while bearing the cross on the way to his death, is a stand-in for the suffering Christ. Clearly, had Bruegel not cloaked his painting in this metaphor for Christ’s passion, he could have likewise been put to the sword or tied to the wheel and hoisted into the air to be pecked to death by marauding crows.

Detail: The fallen Christ.
Detail: The fallen Christ

This is necessary background to understand the political and religious landscape of both Bruegel’s magisterial painting and the 2011 film made about its creation by Polish director Lech Wajewski.

One morning in 1995, Michael Francis Gibson sat in Gallery 10 of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, a room commonly called the Bruegel Room. It displays the museum’s 14 paintings by Bruegel and his sons. Gibson sat only a few inches from the surface of Way to Calvary, using a magnifying glass to examine every figure, every tree and shrub, every detail of the mill atop the rocky crag. The museum had given him unprecedented access to the painting. Almost at the horizon line in the painting, just left of the crucifixion site, he spotted a tiny solitary figure leaning into the wind against a rainsquall on the moor. A promise of relief, a sliver of sun, lay at the horizon. Gibson wrote:

This little rain has been falling for nearly 450 years, and I may be the first person to have noticed it …. I was dazzled by this discovery (and by countless others, too), but also distressed that very few people would ever be allowed close enough to the painting to appreciate Bruegel’s surprisingly expressionistic brush stroke and, with it, the virtuosity, wit and humanistic scope of an artist whom I have come to regard as the true Shakespeare of Flanders.

Detail: Rain on the moor.
Detail: Rain on the moor

The following year, Gibson published The Mill and the Cross, an examination of the painting featuring 130 details from files the museum had sent him. It was the world of Bruegel as it had never before been seen.

In December 2004, Gibson met Polish director Lech Majewski in Paris, after a screening of Majewski’s film Angelus. Gibson gave the director a copy of his book and explained how he hoped to make a film about Way to Calvary, easily the most complex of Bruegel’s works. Gibson envisioned the film as a documentary in which he would talk in front of the painting, highlighting its aesthetics, iconography and socio-political ethos. Majewski replied simply, “Not a documentary. A feature film.” So began their venture. The shooting of The Mill & The Cross began in 2008, with Majewski directing in Poland and Silesia, and even capturing cloudscapes in New Zealand that matched Bruegel’s scudding, stormy skies. Several years of intensely focused digital compositing followed, not in an attempt to create a seamless, realistic landscape, but to duplicate the painter’s techniques and, especially, the multiple (up to seven) perspectives in the painting.

Rutger Hauer was engaged to portray the painter, with Michael York playing his patron, the merchant Nicolaes Jongelinck, and Charlotte Rampling the grieving mother, Mary.

Rutger Hauer as Bruegel
Rutger Hauer as Bruegel
Michael York as Bruegel's patron
Michael York as Bruegel's patron, Jongelinck
Charlotte Rampling as Mary
Charlotte Rampling as Mary

The movie highlights these three characters, as well as the miller on the rampart of his windmill, inscrutably viewing the drama below, a quasi-deific figure both inside and outside the march of fate and its procession toward violent death. Here is the trailer for the movie:

The film’s distributor, Kino Lorber, released several clips that afford glimpses into the film’s rhythm and deep emotional center. Here is Rampling in a soliloquy about the mother’s fate:

Here is a young woman’s rejection of a suitor:

And, finally, here are Calvary and the crucifixion:

It is clear from these scenes that Majewski and cinematographer Adam Sikora’s shot selection and pacing embraces “slow cinema,” a deliberate and methodical decision to create each shot as its own moment in time and space, a technique that draws you into the scene rather than holding you off with a barrage of quick cuts and intensely active camera movement. This camera style supports the schema of the painting itself, a complex cavalcade of life that demands the viewer inhabit the action. In the movie, Majewski focuses on several characters and their relationships to each other and to the larger unfolding drama. It is as though someone has focused a laser pointer at a section of the painting to direct your attention. The questions that might arise in your mind as a deep viewer of the painting are the very ones that the filmmakers follow in the movie’s narrative.

Detail: Two thieves
Detail: Two thieves
Detail: Mary and St. John
Detail: Mary and St. John

For me, one of the significant features of The Mill & The Cross is how Majewski uses cutting-edge digital tools to create the multilayered world of Bruegel, almost as if we are watching the painting being built. This is made apparent near the end of the making-of featurette that shows the compositing steps as multiple layers are placed behind a single figure. Majewski and Sikora also are interviewed on the exterior set and on the bluescreen stage with principal actors. (Majewski has said that he decided to use bluescreen rather than green because of the significant number of plants, shrubs and trees that populate Bruegel’s surreal space.)

Here is an excerpt from the 45-minute featurette, which is included on the DVD.

In a 2012 interview with Laura Allsop of CNN, Majewski spoke about the way he used a meticulous approach to costume design in conjunction with the very contemporary technology of visual effects and CGI.

"I started as a painter and as a poet, and I went to make movies strictly because I believed that the painters I was fascinated with would be making movies if they were still alive.”

Costumes were hand-sewn by Polish seamstresses and dyed with tints made from boiled onions, beetroots and apples, as they would have been in Bruegel's day; the "right" color black was achieved by burning a candle against a pane of glass, rather than relying on computers to recreate the exact hue; and Majewski himself had to take up Bruegel's brush and complete a partially visible tree in the top left corner of the painting to extend the field of vision for the camera to pan across.

But some of the more complex scenes, such as the motions of the mill on the rock, required the use of 3-D and CGI. "Many times I felt that we were doing a digital tapestry thread by thread," said Majewski.

"We were extremely lucky in that we were riding the crest of wave in technological advancements, because literally every week, the guys in the computer department were discovering new plug-ins and new developments in the field and employing it for what I wanted to achieve.”

The film, he explained, was composed of layers because the Flanders of the painting is a surreal figment of the artist's imagination. Obtaining the "key" to this aesthetic was hard work, said Majewski, because "Bruegel is a magician in creating these illusory kinds of funnels in the painting." He added: "His landscapes are like funnels that your eye is dipped into and goes to naturally; he knows how to keep your eye employed and moving."

Detail: The mill
Detail: The mill

An in-depth examination of the technical construction of the film by Patricia Thomson was published in the June 2011 issue of American Cinematographer. (Access the excerpt here.)


A few months ago, Judy Doherty, Director of Marketing and Communications at Panavision Woodland Hills, expressed interest in reviving the company’s "Masters Screening Series" with cinematographers, open to industry and students alike. Some years ago, in an earlier incarnation of the series, I had heard Steve Burum present a riveting look at Billy Wilder’s World War II drama Five Graves to Cairo, photographed by John Seitz, ASC. Judy asked me what film I would like to present and discuss. After several weeks of deliberation, I chose The Mill & The Cross, which had received very limited American distribution, a film as far removed from Hollywood product as you can imagine. (Well, maybe Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse is even more “foreign” to an American audience.) I told Judy I was convinced that the Majewski film would spark great discussion following the screening.


To begin, I put up a high-resolution photo of the Bruegel painting, pointing out a few of the vignettes that are dramatized in the movie: the grieving family in the lower right (wardrobed like a Van Eyck or a Van der Leyden painting of the previous century, and with the family in a distinct perspective), the fallen Christ, the trees of life and of death framing the extreme edges of the painting, the rocks in the lower left that echo the family group on the opposite side of the work.

I referred to a recent article in the New York Times by Stephanie Rosenbloom, who wrote a fascinating article about not trying to “do” a museum, browsing only masterpieces, but instead, carefully selecting a few works to concentrate on with each visit. She noted that most visitors spend less than half a minute at a work, and referred to an experiment in which a teacher had his art students spend half an hour studying a single painting of their choice. I thought of my visit several years ago to the Musee d’Orsay. I was looking at a George Seurat pointillist work (Le Cirque) when a young American boy and his father walked past.

Le Cirque
Seurat's Le Cirque

The boy came back and stopped in front of the painting, mesmerized by the thousands of tiny globs of paint mingling in a riot of color. Realizing his son had not followed him, the father doubled back and took the boy’s arm. As he led him away, he said, “Bobby, we already have a poster of that one at home.”

The Bruegel Room
The Bruegel Room, Gallery 10 at Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

Majewski is a master of the tradition of “slow cinema” so antithetical to the American style (Gus Van Sant and Jim Jarmusch excepted) and so favored by Central and Eastern European directors like Jansco and Tarr. Majewski and Gibson spent many hours studying Breugel’s masterpiece as it became a movie. Is there a lesson for the rest of us the next time we visit an art museum?

Lech Majewski
Lech Majewski

Here is an interview with Majewski from the Rotterdam Film Festival, courtesy of the program Big Talk. After an introduction by Marlies Harting and a partial reprise of the trailer, Majewski explains (in English) his background as a painter, his abiding love for Bruegel, and how he came to make the film. When asked if the film is more Bruegel or more Majewski, he looks genuinely non-plussed and replies, “He is the host; I am the guest.” Majewski is a soft-spoken, modest man with a whimsical turn of phrase; the interview is enlightening and makes you want to throw in your lot with whatever he decides to do next.


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