There comes a point, late in the new film The Mill and the Cross by the Polish director Lech Majewski, when a dramatic question is asked (and fumbled) by a character who represents us. He is the urbane patron of the sixteenth-century Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525–69), and like the artist he sees a reign of terror being visited on his countrymen by the invading forces of the Spanish king, Philip II.
The film opens with a living tableau of Brueghel’s great panoramic painting The Way to Calvary (1564), now housed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. At first the filmgoer doesn’t know what to make of the director’s decision to recreate the painting and its five hundred characters with live actors standing in place, or how to respond. One feels like a photographer trying to capture the whole panoply of late-medieval Flemish society, hoping no one in the portrait will sneeze. In fact, no one appears to breathe, except, of course, for the horses. And then you notice that the flags are rippling and that the birds have refused to curtail their flight.
With this recognition, the film begins in earnest, the director following the daily lives of a dozen or so people from the painting: a mill operator in his majestic windmill, atop a towering outcropping; a young couple making love before setting out for market; children roughhousing; a woman repeatedly scrubbing a doorstep; a priest escorting two condemned prisoners; a woodsman finishing the crossbeam for what will become the holy rood; and Brueghel himself, sketching his subjects and explaining to his patron the painting’s perspective and concept. The artist intends to portray the political and religious upheavals in Flanders, including the Spanish troops and inquisitors who hold the Lowlands under their boot.
Brueghel was a master at depicting everyday scenes, particularly the seasons and how people live in them. But he also painted mythic stories, where no one seems aware of the drama playing out near them. Both W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams noted this in their poetry, how all the characters in Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558) turn away in apparent leisure from the sudden drowning of the young boy. A deadly splash, Williams writes, “quite unnoticed.” Yet Brueghel himself, Williams says in another poem, “saw it all / and with his grim / humor faithfully / recorded / it.” In his The Adoration of the Kings (1654), no one but Mary seems to look at the Christ Child. Everyone else is interested in the gifts the kings present.
In Majewski’s film, Brueghel explains how the center point and axis of the painting will be Jesus, stumbling beneath his cross. Yet everyone else in this vast painting gazes elsewhere. When the director early on performed a computer analysis of the painting, he found that Jesus was indeed the center, but that Brueghel had employed seven perspectives in the work—including from the left and from the right, from above and from below.
Taking his inspiration from Brueghel and using computer-generated images, Majewski developed the stories of his protagonists, inventing some like the miller, while incorporating others from different Brueghel paintings. He further enriched the scenes by attending to costume and to symbols. Peter is there with a cock that is sure to announce his betrayal; Judas fingers his silver pieces. But through it all, the director heightens the question: What might we have seen and done?
In fact, the film’s most powerful moment is when it comes to a complete stop. Brueghel’s patron, lamenting the torture he is witnessing and despairing at his inability to stop it, tells the artist that if only time could be stopped, something could be done. In response, the director’s God-like miller—surveying the world from his tower—brings the blades of his giant windmill to a standstill. For a moment, time and the world simply do not turn.
But instead of taking this opportunity to reconsider their course, the protagonists continue as before, prisoners of habit and place. The critical moment passes, and the miller instructs the great sails to begin turning again. After all, men need grain for their daily bread. Off in another corner of the painting Brueghel has painted Golgotha, being readied for an execution. In the film, the Crucifixion is played out in full, and the place of Christ’s tomb is hinted at by a cleft in the giant stone mount that forms the base of the miller’s tower.
Twice a year, at least—in Advent and Lent—we are given a liturgical opportunity to stop, listen, see, and act. We are asked to locate the Christ in our midst. Can we find the road to Golgotha and provide those on the way with a cup of water? Can we help break their bonds? What will our answer be when we are asked: What were you thinking when you saw me there, struggling beneath my cross?