One Murder + Two Films = Things Go Amok

***Update***The film opens in Poland on Friday March 24th 2017

WARSAW, POLAND—Krystian Bala’s murder trial in 2007 had all the ingredients for a blockbuster whodunit crime film.  The 34-year-old good looking, educated, best-selling Polish novelist was on the stand,  accused of being involved in the grisly murder in 2000 of a Wroclaw businessman, Dariusz Janiszewski, whose body was discovered in the Oder River with a cord binding his hands behind his back and looped around to his neck forming a noose.

What was so compelling about the case was that Mr. Bala’s debut novel “Amok” describes the torture and murder of a young woman, also killed with her hands bound behind her and the cord used as a noose.  Published in 2003, “Amok” –which was about a group of sadists who recount their exploits and taunt police –helped revive speculation about the unsolved murder, which had been relegated to the cold case files. In 2005, Wroclaw’s Chief Inspector Jacek Wroblewski was given an anonymous tip to read the novel and during the trial, he described his amazement of the parallels between the novel and the real-life crime.

The reason Mr. Bala—who maintained his innocence throughout the trial and still does to this day—was said to have wanted  Mr. Janiszewski dead was because he was jealous that the businessman was dating the novelist’s ex-wife. Prosecutors also used the plot of “Amok” against him during the trial, stating that the main character, Chris, had several similarities to the author, including the fact that Mr. Bala used that name when sending emails and travelling abroad. In another twist, the victim’s phone had been sold on an Internet auction site to an account registered to Mr. Bala, four days after he disappeared.

Investigators also stated that a phone card had been used to place calls to Mr. Janiszewski, as well as to Mr. Bala’s parents and girlfriend on the day of his disappearance. So when the novelist was sentenced to 25 years for the murder, global publications from TIME to Der Spiegel and the New Yorker published pieces about the case, extrapolating on how life had imitated art.

And here is where the plot thickens even more.

In 2009, Polish film producer Beata Pisula—who at the time was working on the television film “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” starring Anna Paquin and Goran Visnjic— was sent an article by a friend about Mr. Bala. The friend felt his trial could make for an interesting film project. “So I sent a letter to Krystian’s lawyer, asking if he would pass it along,” said Ms. Pisula. “I told him I did not want to make a movie leaning towards whether he was guilty or not guilty but leaving it for the audience to decide.”

Mr. Bala agreed to work with Ms. Bala and she paid him not only for his life rights but also for the film rights to “Amok.” Polish- American screenwriter Richard Karpala came on board to write the script and Ms. Pisula began the process of getting financing for the film. (The film will be a co-production between Poland, Germany and the U.K).

0006F4O09CXON99L-C122Then in 2010, she read an article that Brett Ratner, a Hollywood producer and director known for movies like “The X-Men” and “Rush Hour 2”, was also planning on making a movie about Mr. Bala. He was basing his film on a 2008 investigative piece entitled “True Crime,” which ran in the New Yorker.  The article also stated that Polish film director Roman Polanski would be involved in the project. (Mr. Polanski has never confirmed whether this is true).

“I was surprised when I read this because in Europe, if you are doing a film about a living person, it is obvious that you are talking about rights with that person,” Ms. Pisula told me. “And this story, how can you tell this story without using parts from “Amok”, which only I have the rights to?”

Ms. Pistula’s lawyer sent a letter to Mr. Ratner’s people, detailing their legal rights to make the film and though they never heard a direct response back, the project— entitled “True Crime” after the New Yorker piece—was taken off the IMDB database. Mr. Bala—concerned that a film was being made without his permission—contacted Poland’s Public Prosecutor General to see about stopping production of Mr. Ratner’s film. The Public Prosecutor—at the time part of the Ministry of Justice—replied that until the production actually started, there was nothing that could be done.

And that was where the story stood for a few years, until The Hollywood Reporter last month, revealed that Oscar winner Christoph Waltz would be starring as the policeman, Mr. Wroblewski, in Mr. Ratner’s film. “Ratner has no rights for that production,” Mr. Bala told me via an emailed interview from prison. “From what I know, he wants to base his movie on the New Yorker article, which I found as pure vilification. There are many mistakes in that article, lies, incorrect translations and fake portraits of some people. Even though I [sent a letter] to the New Yorker, giving them a long list of their lies, they never apologized or corrected the text.”

Mr. Bala stated that Jeremy Brock, who has drafted Mr. Ratner’s screenplay, had visited Mr. Bala in prison back in 2007 and also spend time with his family. “They never asked me for my rights,” he wrote in the email. “I was asked if I would be interested in some movie production dedicated to my case and I answered that of course I would be, but it would be depend on the conditions. Ratner and his people, as we may see, don’t care about such things. I don’t want to work with such guys.” Repeated attempts  were made by me to get comment for this story, but neither Mr. Ratner’s publicist nor Mr. Waltz’s publicist ever returned my calls or emails.

Despite what Ms. Pisula sees as passive/aggressive bullying in the press from Mr. Ratner’s side, they are forging ahead with their English-language production of “Amok.”  Casting will begin next week and the filming will likely begin next June in Wroclaw. Kasia Adamik—who has worked on films and television in both Poland and the US and is the daughter of Polish Academy Award-nominated director Agnieszka Holland—will be the director. “What got me wanting to do this film was the different points of view of the story,” said Ms. Adamik. “I got excited to meet Mr. Bala and was drawn to the ambiguity about what actually happened. It reminds me of [Japanese director] Akira Kurosawa films, where you get different points of view.”

Ms. Adamik—who came on board three months ago—said that when she read last month that Mr. Waltz was involved in a film about Mr. Bala, she was confused at first. “Of course it is a bit upsetting,” she said. “You have seen other competing films come out around the same time, like Robin Hood, Alexander the Great, Truman Capote. So while Mr. Bala’s story is fascinating, I do not know what anyone could gain from having the same story told as somebody else. While I know our project is not as big as a project as Mr. Ratner is planning, we have the advantage of being much closer to the protagonist and the country where it happened. We have something more intriguing to say.”

Mr. Bala agreed, stating that Ms. Pisula’s production team has been given all the documents and materials they need to make an unbiased film. “We have been working on this project for awhile and I [can confirm] they are devoted to it,” Mr. Bala wrote. “I feel I will be able to give my point of view and –what is most important—it will be respected as much as it could be. I gladly invite Mr. Waltz to [do] our movie. He could be really good in it.”

1st photo, Krystian Bala; 2nd photo, Amok cover, 3rd photo of Christoph Waltz