I fought hard and I have it

Through emotions of an adolescent boy we are trying to show the world reflected in a mirror of fables. Who is the Erlprince? He is a metaphor of reality, that is the answer I would give today  – says Kuba Czekaj on his feature debut The Erlprince.

Who is the Erlprince?

The protagonist of the film is a teenage boy. We see him at a unique moment, when his childhood is coming to an end. It is a critical, crucial moment in every teenager’s life. Our film is a ballad in the style of Romanticism about an end of youth and entering the new and undiscovered territory. It portrays the beginning of the journey, a moment when we have to redefine ourselves, our needs, the way we perceive the world and our loved ones, especially mother. 

That is a very good question indeed; just who is the Erlprince? Not what is he like, but who is he? An observer, surprised with the macrocosm? A phantom snatching the soul of a child from his father’s arms? Or perhaps the inner, hardening voice of the main character? It should remain a kind of a puzzle to be solved. I should not reveal its solution and I do not intend to (now I am smiling). 

How important is it to know Goethe’s The Erlking in order to fully understand the film?

I found inspiration in this work of course, it forms the narrative spine of the story. However, the viewer does not have to remember the verses to be able to understand the film. People who have read The Erlking might be able to see some more at the beginning, but not necessarily. The film is a paraphrase of Goethe’s work, devoid of that contemporary context, all the circumstances, the war. Some time ago, I thought up a slogan for the film which sums up my interpretation of it: death of a boy – birth of a young man.  

The Erlprince is first and foremost a rite of passage story. The protagonist encounters first important questions in his life, about existence, whether there is something beyond us, whether God exists. The boy who turns fourteen has to face something that usually surpasses the capabilities of grown-up minds. His attitude is extreme, infantile, emotional, naïve. And the issues he is dealing with are huge, crucial, fundamental perhaps, because they will define the protagonist for years to come.  

Through emotions of an adolescent boy we are trying to show the world reflected in a mirror of fables. Who is the Erlprince? He is a metaphor of reality, that is the answer I would give today. 

What else inspired you, other than Goethe’s work?   

Certainly myths. We were trying to show archetypal characters. These are the main characters: a gifted boy, a Mother who needs to change her attitude towards her son, a Man who starts to accompany them at one point. 

You are presenting a family in a shape of a triangle.

The triangle is significant. Three characters have great influence on one another. Three forces fuel and balance each other out, determining the way we see the world. Not only children change under their parents’ influence, the parents undergo various transformations because of their children as well. This goes on throughout a lifetime. I am concentrating above all on a unique relationship between mother and son. It is a high-octane relation, always played on high notes. At some point it has to change. And someone needs to help them with that...

So let’s talk about each of these characters. What roles do they play in this family triangle? 

The main character has a very rich inner world consisting of conjecture and juvenile interpretation. He is looking for real sensations, although he is not fully capable of functioning well in the outside world. He begins to test the limits of freedom, but he wants to do that himself and on his own terms. He is trying to break free from the influence of the grownups and renounces values they cherish. We are trying to explore where that would take him… 

Mother represents the worldly goods. She keeps her feet on the ground, her goals and priorities are clear. We see them both for the first time when they arrive in a new city, starting a new life, with a new challenge ahead of them.

There is a third strong character in this story, a Man. It is a character who remains in the background and symbolises nature, bravery, strength and a sort of danger… I tried to form that man into a figure of a contemporary knight.   

The triangle we are talking about is a very important shape, used as an example in order to portray a modern-day family. We are trying to show what it looks like today, what it means if it is a single-parent family, where the father’s place is, where the mother’s. It is a story portraying the fight for independence, for a sense of autonomy, the battle of a romantic with the classics. And in a sense, this battle has to be fought by each of the characters, regardless of which “epoch” they represent.  

And the most important issue: what to do with the gained independence?

That is true. Being able to successfully fight for independence is one thing, another is using it properly. A crucial aspect of the boy’s quest is a recurring question concerning what determines our fate. Do we decide it ourselves and give our actions meaning, or is there some other additional force that is leading us?  

In the film we are dealing with the time when a young man begins to realise that he is a separate entity. He defines himself independently from his parents, family, home, values he learned there. We are also posing the question about manhood, particularly important nowadays. What does it mean to be a man today? Where is a man’s place in the family? For the first time in his life, our protagonist begins to think what or who defines him, or whether he is already capable of doing that himself?  

The adolescence of the main character is also a special time for his parents, especially for his mother. 

I think very few people realise what they had put their parents through during adolescence. But our film is also a signal to the adults: respect your children, their independence, freedom, autonomy. They are separate beings and you should remind yourself of that every day.  

In the film we are trying to verify the values and attitudes we know from our own experience. Does being a mother mean the same as 20 or 30 years ago? I think that statues of mother and father that we know from literature, cinema or our own experience are undergoing transformation today. We are showing a non-typical family, perhaps even a disintegrating one, though it does not mean it is in any way dysfunctional. It is a different type of a community, which is working as a duet for some time and later in the form of a triangle. There are a lot of changes going on in the society every day, although we do not notice them, and they have great impact on the identities of young people. 

The Erlprince is frequently discussed together with your other film Baby Bump. 

I might have provoked the attempt to compare the two films. I created an unofficial diptych. To put things as simply as possible, The Erlprince deals with spiritual growing up, whereas Baby Bump is about physical growing up. But if you are asking me about my debut, I consider The Erlprince my debut, although Baby Bump was shown in cinemas first.   

Why is that?

I regard The Erlprince as my maiden speech. I no longer toddle around in shorts, but instead I put on trousers, perhaps even formal ones, and make one big step, the biggest yet. It is my first film. The film which has been a great lesson and the record of my entering the job of director. Its theme of budding independence is especially dear to me, I have fought a similar battle while making The Erlprince. I had to prove that I know what I want to say and how to achieve that. It is extraordinary how our routes, mine and the protagonist’s, became convergent. While filming, I also had to define and assert my independence, autonomy, freedom. I had to learn to speak loudly about what I wanted. That was a period of taking full responsibility for my actions and decisions for the first time, without protection or support from any third party. This does not mean I did not receive that support, just the opposite. But for the first time I experienced the feeling that everything, truly everything, depends on me; at least when it comes to the final shape of the film. I fought hard and I have it. Here is the film. This has made me stronger but it also required strength in order to handle the magnitude of my own ambitions and expectations.     

Do you feel you met those expectations?

I did everything I could at the time. The film cost me a lot, but it also gave me a lot. I started filming it with a great longing for something I had irretrievably lost a long time ago. When I finished the shooting I thought to myself that I was reconciled with all that. I feel good about the place I am in right now. There is no better spot, „an ideal world” where I could be. It is funny, we always tend to think this way about life, we have different projections and longings, but a better, more suitable place or position in the world simply does not exist. There is nothing like that at all. We live once, here and now. And even if it is not the case, I will tell you about it next time, as soon as I have experienced it. 

Interview by: Anna Serdiukow