photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la Dubă
There was a time when mornings in Paris would catch him alongside Samuel Beckett, after countless hours spent talking and drinking whiskey, another time when he would build with Krzysztof Kieślowski three legendary films: Red, White, Blue, and there were those years when he would return to his home country, with Lucian Pintilie, to produce some of the great Romanian director’s films.
We met Marin Karmitz in his office from MK2 in Paris, the film empire he founded in France, with cinemas, production, distribution and film restoring.
we were brought together by Romania and the interest for stories worth telling, whether regarding the world of cinema, or those that marked our history.
As a director and film producer, Marin Karmitz has received over 150 awards and nominations in major film festivals, including three Palme d’Or awards, three Golden Lions at Venice, a Golden Bear in Berlin, three Oscar nominations and no less than 25 Cesar Awards.
He openly greets us for an interview spanning several hours, during which we hear the names of the huge personalities with which he has worked : Marguerite Duras, Jean-Luc Godard, Theo Angelopoulos, Louis Malle or Claude Chabrol.
This story is not only about films and important names in universal culture, it is about a Romanian Jewish child, who lived in Bucharest in fear of the legionnaires, who was deprived of his right to attend a school and who was forced to flee in a foreign country.
That child is 84 today and has an incomparable career.
“I returned to Romania for the first time in the ’90’s for the production of one of Lucian Pintilie’s films (An Unforgettable Summer).
I was staying at a hotel next to the Royal Palace and wanted to find the house in which I was born, where I spent my childhood.”
“Back then there were no maps of Bucharest and I went by foot and managed to find my house by myself. It was on the Dumbrava Roșie street.
It was almost night and I managed to find the house, I was surprised to find myself reliving memories that I couldn’t describe.”
Marin was born into a Jewish family from Bucharest and bares hos grandfather’s name, Marin Karmitz, who ran a profitable dairy business.
His father and uncle owned an important chemical and pharmaceutical products and were some of the first targets of the rebel legionnaire movement, led by Horia Sima.
Marin was only 3 years old when the ultra-fascist rebels came into their house and terrorized his mother. The child was then held at gunpoint, as a method of intimidation of his mother.
“They came to our house searching for my father and his brother. They were there for three days and tried to make my mother say where they were hiding. That I remember very well, the terror we were living in.
Fear is something that you cannot forget it is always there. For example I can’t stand someone putting a gun to my head, figurately speaking, because I had a gun to my head, literally speaking, as a child.
I could not stand feeling pressure in any relation ship. I am known for that in the world of cinema.”
His memories of Romania pendulate now between terror and nostalgia.
“I had a very free childhood, because, as a Jew, I didn’t have the right to go to school. I only learned to read and write when I got to France. And I remember spending a lot of time with the other children in The Icoanei Garden, I would fool around, nobody would watch me. I had no obligations.”
Marin was 9 years old when he left Romania for good. Rid of the fascist terror, Romanian Jews who survived were oppressed by communists, who took all their belongings. So, left with barely anything, the Karmitz family embarked on a ship leaving from Constanța, without a destination.
After several stops in Istanbul, Beirut, Haifa or Naples, in which the Jews were not allowed to get off, the only city they were allowed in was Marseille.
It was only two years after the end on World War II, and Marin Karmitz’s life restarted in France.
“It was the only country that had Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité written on buildings. The only one that would take us.”
He went to a public school close to Nice and later went to Paris. His father wanted him to chose a profession such as law, but he was attracted to the arts.
“Ever since I discovered reading, I became passionate with books, I used to read a lot as a teenager, I didn’t have any friends because we used to move around a lot. We were living migrant lives.
I would have loved to be a writer, but I was no good. I would also have liked to become an architect, I had architect cousins, but I wasn’t good at this either. I couldn’t draw, I had no ear for music. I would have loved to lead an orchestra, but I wasn’t so good at it either.
All I was left was my passion for the world of cinema.
Another explanation is that, for may years, I had an immigrant passport. You needed a visa to go anywhere, we would spend countless hours in customs, getting checked, it was awful. I used to dream of having a diplomatic passport, to cross borders without any problem.
The I realized pretty quickly that cinema was a way in which I could cross any border without leaving my office, only with my imagination. You could travel the whole world without a passport or with an immaterial passport – film.”
“When I made films, produced or distributed them, I became such a traveler, without borders”
He studied cinematography at the L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris and graduated to be a camera operator, but he wanted to be a director.
So he first worked as an assistant director, but not with anybody.
“I had the opportunity to work with Agnes Varda, with Jean Luc Goddard.”
He then produced a short film for a young director using money borrowed from his father.
“There was this director that had already worked with all the great producers of the Nouvelle Vague period. And he had this project that all of them turned down. He told me about it and I said that I would try to produce his film.
I did that film with him and a wonderful actor, who recently passed away, Jean-Louis Trintignant.”
The short film was a success, and he earned money to direct his first short film, from a script written by Marguerite Duras.
“This didn’t have any success, but I had the opportunity to work with one of the most well-known woman authors in the world, at the moment. And, among other things, the film features Peter Brook’s wife, Natasha Perry and an actor who gave birth to a whole generation of actors, called Garrel, Louis Garrel’s grandfather.”
The film was, nevertheless, well received among intellectuals. And hos courage and non-conformism opened doors to great cultural creators, becoming one of them himself.
“Working on another project, for a year and a half I had the chance to drink whiskey with Samuel Beckett from 13:00 until 5 a.m. I was profoundly marked by that encounter.”
“I also met Ionesco in the time I was meeting Beckett.”
In 1972, the feature film “Coup pour coup”, which he directed and produced, has marked his career definitely. The story of the film was centered around a strike of a group of working women who could not stand the working conditions in their working place anymore. They seized the owner and demanded their rights. And the reactions from the French working class were impressive.
“The film triggered a terrible scandal. In the cities that showed the film, factory workers would go on strike. At the owner’s pressure, cinemas removed the film.”
Being closely watched by a government that wasn’t so acceptive to such artistic manifestations, Karmitz decided to open his own cinema and carry on bringing to the public films that matter.
“In 1974 I opened the first cinema close to Place Bastille. There wasn’t anything like that in the area. There was a karate cinema and a porno cinema.”
Today, the MK2 film empire means 75 screens in France and 64 in Spain.
In his 40 year career, Marin Karmitz has produced 108 films and has distributed over 350 in his cinemas.
Among the great director with which he has worked, there is also Lucian Pintilie.
“I had heard of Lucian Pintilie, he was well-known in France as a theater director. One day, a producer who had just produced a film, The Oak, told me that the film wasn’t finished, that he didn’t know exactly how to finish it, and asked if I wanted to join the team.
I watched the film, I thought it was wonderful, but very long. I said “yes” immediately, on the condition that we cut it, because, otherwise nobody will see it, and the whole point is that the world watches your film.
That is how I started working with Lucian Pintilie.
– Did he agree to cut the film?
– Yes, that is something typical to all the great directors with whom I have worked. They have always agreed to cut the film, if convinced with arguments. Only small, weak directors don’t agree to cut their films, they don’t accept criticism from others.
Then we made An Unforgettable Summer, Terminus Paradis and Too Late.
I loved Lucian Pintilie, a very cultivated, unforgettable person. As a filmmaker he had an extraordinary talent and a strong personality, he would speak about political and social realities, but with a very personal touch.
There are some directors that show a story, but don’t add to it. Like a news story. He didn’t. He took reality and transformed it through his writing, his style, his dialogues, the way he directed actors.
I have wonderful memories of our working together, because it was a labor in a place of intelligence, a profound exchange in which each would say what he agrees on, what he doesn’t agree on, and why. Dialogue was one of questions, not of statements.
That is something rare.
I had the opportunity to work with such directors in my career. The ones with which I didn’t develop such a relation ship, I stopped working with them.”
Another unforgettable collaboration in Marin Karmitz was with the Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski. An admirer of Kieślowski’s Decalogue, Karmitz asked to meet with the director.
“I had produced the film Au revoir Les Enfants, by Louis Malle, which he loved. So he accepted to meet me.
We spent the entire afternoon talking about ethic, morals, life, philosophy. And at some point I told him that I would love to make a film with him. And I asked if he had any projects.
He told me that he was working on a project, what would become The double life of Veronique, and that there would be something else. He said “It’s a difficult project, I don’t know if you would be interested. I want to make a film about the three colors – red, white, blue. Liberté, egalité, fraternité.”
I said “We’ll do it tomorrow.”
Kieślowski’s trilogy, inspired by the colors of the French flag and the history of the three principles of liberté, egalité, fraternité made film history and brought the two filmmakers three Oscar nominations, The Golden Lion in Venice and numerous other nominations and awards.
In the producer’s office there is a framed photograph from the set of Blue, in which he stands next to the actress Juliette Binoche and the famous French photographer Robert Doisneau.
“Kieślowski was someone who, the same as Samuel Beckett, had an immense influence on me. Someone truly exceptional.”
“The relation ships I had with close directors were of intellectual intimacy.
At the core of this relation ship is the mutual respect, I am the producer, you are the director, each does his job and respects the others job. The goal is to remain together the best cake.
The death of Kieślowski was a great hit for me. The same for Pintilie, Charbron. Those were great losses for me.”
The many losses have determined, in the end, Marin Karmitz, to stop producing films. He has passed on his knowledge to his sons, who have taken over the MK2 business almost entirely.
The producer now dedicates his time to his passion for photography and contemporary art, having an impressive collection of photographs in the headquarters of the company. In recent years, he has organized several art shows in many countries, including works of art owned by him.
In fact, his work as a director and a producer is shown at the great museums of the world, such as MoMA or Centre Pompidou.
In all his biographies he is labeled a Romanian-French filmmaker and business man, although, to be fair, he has small ties to Romania.
There are still, nevertheless, some bonds that cannot be explained other than through his own feelings, sometimes even to his own surprise.
“I was in Cluj a while ago, at TIFF, to receive an award. I took my two sons because I wanted to show the Romania. It was mid-june and in Paris I had always been attracted to linden, I would always look for them and smell them, I didn’k know why.
So I was in Romania, I went to a park and was simply overwhelmed by the smell of linden. It was the smell of my childhood. Only then I realized why all my life I had been attracted to this smell.
The linden trees in Romania have a stronger smell than the ones in Paris.
All in all, my childhood memories make me nostalgic. I was strongly marked by my childhood, that’s a fact.”
On the other hand, the history that he experienced first hand, will not be forgotten.
“I will be honest, if it weren’t for my childhood memories, which create a very personal universe, I would not feel any affinity towards Romania. Romanians have killed 350.000 Jews. I was shocked to see that when I mentioned this in Romania, people would turn their heads.
When I mentioned Ceaușescu, they turned their heads again.
I was troubled for a long time by this silence and I believe that it is bad that a country isn’t able to acknowledge it’s history and it’s mistakes. All countries committed atrocities, but some acknowledged them and evolved differently. Romania, not so much.”
“A people cannot find it’s identity unless it sees it’s past correctly. This acknowledgement is necessary for all the peoples of the world.”
The reality of the current state of the world does not make the filmmaker hopeful. Even film does not bring him great satisfaction anymore, not financially, but artistically and human-wise.
He walks us out of the giant MK2 headquarters and I ask what good films he has seen lately. He confesses that he doesn’t go to the cinema anymore because he feels disappointed by recent films, so he prefers to spend most of his time in art galleries.
He recalls, however, that the last film that he liked was Drive my Car (Japan, 2021).
He still appreciates Romanian filmmakers who touch on social and political realities in their films and calls them “Pintilie’s students”. He believes that artists have a social responsibility and that their art should contribute to a better world.
“In all history, we had always had the option of choosing between humanity and barbarism, between building or destroying the world.
Now I think that we have entered a time of limitless destruction. We have forgotten our history and have disconnected from it.
For that, among others, it is also our fault, the artists.
In French cinema and others, except Romanian, filmmakers have disconnected from history or have gone to the extreme banalization of violence, which they have taken from American cinema. Violence for a show. It has become pleasurable in film to kill someone. And some spectators take pleasure in seeing someone kill somebody else. It’s awful, it’s bad.
We doubt the human being, human integrity.
The content has degraded a lot, it is filled with stereotypes, and images are selling like hot pastry. In this context, the one who makes the most sales has the biggest shop.
We should reflect more on the content that we make, not necessarily upon where it is shown – platforms, televisions.
If we still believe in human’s capacity to act human, then we will have the desire to see films in human conditions, quality content in the cinema.”
***This story is part of the “France Week” series, a Cultura la Dubă project supported by BNP Paribas.