Examined Lives: The Films of Krzysztof Zanussi

A new retrospective showcases one of the most important Polish filmmakers.
Ben Nicholson
MUBI's retrospective The Films of Krzysztof Zanussi is showing from January 18 - March 23 in most countries in the world.
Krzysztof Zanussi
"[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." 
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up 
"Many know much, but do not know themselves." 
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, The Meditations 
Despite not being an immediately recognizable name to many modern filmgoers, Krzysztof Zanussi is one of the most important Polish filmmakers. He gave a speech with Andrzej Wajda at the Filmmakers Forum in Gdańsk in 1975 that paved the way for the famous ‘cinema of moral anxiety.’ Although he is often overlooked by modern cinephiles—particularly in comparison to contemporaries like Kieślowski or Wajda—he is a fascinating director whose vast cinematic output followed a degree in philosophy and a PhD in physics. His films are austere but compelling dramas unsurprisingly laced with intellectual, metaphysical and existential discourse. “It is rare enough for a physicist to become a filmmaker,” wrote Annette Insdorf in the New York Times in 1983, “even more remarkable when he achieves worldwide acclaim for making 20 compelling dramatic films within 11 years.” 
Alas, his star has waned somewhat since winning the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1980 and the Golden Lion at Venice in 1984. While he was never the most visually inventive filmmaker—he told Film magazine in 1992 that "the idea of visual cinema has always raised my doubts"— the dialogues of his early work, in particular, remain tremendously exciting even several decades later. The season currently unfolding on MUBI takes in five films from the period Insdorf describes, and one later work in a similar vein; all of them follow, to some extent, similar characters who came to be known as ‘zannusoids.’ These are (usually young) intellectuals on a journey of self-examination, ruminating on themes from fractured family to political landscapes, from the thirst for knowledge to impending mortality.
Zanussi’s first feature film, The Structure of Crystal (1969), seems a perfect distillation of his life to date, combining philosophical dialogue with dramatic structure and scientifically-inclined characters. At its center are two ‘zannusoids’ in the form of Jan (Jan Myslowicz) and his old university friend, Marek (Andrzej Zarnecki). Throughout the film, they engage in a Platonic dialogue, in which Marek accuses Jan of “wasting [his] potential” and tries to convince him to return to academia. The title would appear, however, to refer to the perfectly ordered state in which Jan’s rural life at a snowy state-run meteorological station exists. It’s a life of metronomic regularity and enjoyed isolation. There are jazz-infused interludes, like the odes of Greek drama, in which both characters enjoy elements of the others’ lifestyle—from slides of a trip to the USA to sliding on a frozen pond—but despite some regrets, Jan never seems tempted to abandon his family.
1971’s Family Life follows quite the opposite trajectory, observing a young engineer, Wit (Daniel Olbrychski), returning to his family home after a lengthy, contentious absence. Unlike the reflected daylight and open landscapes of The Structure of Crystal, this is an intentionally dark film, set in a decaying mansion and shot with mostly natural light. In many ways, this is Zanussi’s attempt at the horror genre, from its ‘haunted house’ setting and murky aesthetic through to its protagonist unable to escape the ghosts of his family. Once again a film driven by lengthy dialogues, this is a much more psychologically complex portrait with the excellent Olbrychski, perfect in the lead, torn between a desire to live his own life, and his obligation to his openly hostile relatives. Its final shot, of Wit boarding a train and suddenly beginning to affect his cantankerous father’s distinctive facial tic, is a brilliantly unnerving denouement to a film that can sometimes sag but retains its oppressive atmosphere.
Many of Zanussi’s films could arguably fall under this category, but none are quite as convincing as his febrile, essayistic tour de force, Illumination (1973). Following the life of the ever-curious physicist Franciszek (Stanislaw Latallo), Zanussi is at his most formally dazzling as he captures a life lived at a hundred miles per hour. Vérité-style drama is constructed from scenes that last mere seconds, miniature stories told in a single moment, compiled alongside photographs, lectures, interviews and scientific diagrams. It’s a phenomenal achievement that the film can carry such emotional weight, but ultimately it is a film about insatiable thirst for knowledge. Zanussi once told the Chicago Reader that “Physics deals with mystery. In examining matter, we prove that we know very little and that we're surrounded by fascinating and unexplainable facts.” The wonder in that statement seeps from every edit of Illumination. The title is defined at the film’s beginning as being “not ecstasy, rapture but heightening of thought”—the film arguably delivers all three.
The political life is lived in various ways throughout Zanussi’s oeuvre, and this is something that critical discourse often concentrates on given his work under Communist rule. There are political tendrils that creep into his earliest films. In The Structure of Crystal, Jan’s acceptance of a state job is never explicitly criticized by Marek, but it lingers unspoken and there is clear contrast between Marek’s travels in the West, or his glossy magazines, and Jan’s more reserved lifestyle. In Family Life, Daniel’s job in a new state-owned car factory sees him effectively betraying his family, who were stripped of their fortune by the state. The need to live life politically is most evident in Camouflage (1977) and The Constant Factor (1980). 
Both films portray the corruptions of the Communist state and the best path to negotiating the way through them. In Camouflage this is seen more allegorically, in the form of an ongoing debate between an idealistic young academic, Jarek (Piotr Garlicki), and his cynical supervisor, Jakub (a fabulous Zbigniew Zapasiewicz). They are ostensibly debating their subject, linguistics, but in fact come to discuss the politics of academia—and, in turn, Poland. Jakub prods and provokes Jarek, questioning whether he has the courage of his convictions, and chiding that their students are “conformists—like you and me.” 
In The Constant Factor, Witold (Tadeusz Bradecki) is an equally idealistic young mathematician who must navigate his way through the stark reality of a world he considered theoretically to be ordered and logical. “What you can compute ceases to be a mystery,” he claims, ignoring the lessons learned by Franciszek in Illumination. The two films have a tragic connection in that The Constant Factor was Zanussi’s way of paying tribute to Illumination’s lead actor, Stanislaw Latallo, who sadly died in a mountaineering accident a year after the earlier film was made (somewhat eerily, mountaineering accidents also crop up in Illumination itself, and The Structure of Crystal). Perhaps like Latallo, Witold sees the world straightforwardly but it transpires to be far more labyrinthine, from dealing with his superiors to the doctor in charge of his mother’s medical care.  
It is perhaps the case that death is, in fact, the ‘constant factor’ in the indecipherable equation of Witold’s life—he is confronted by it on several occasions—and some 20 years later it would be the all-consuming motif of Life As a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease (2000). Working again with regular collaborator Zbigniew Zapasiewicz (Jakub in Camouflage), it follows Dr. Tomasz Berg as he reconsiders his (lack of) faith in the face of terminal illness. Consulting on the set of a film, Tomasz watches as Saint Bernard requests a short reprieve for a thief who is to be hanged so that he can make peace before he dies. This inspires Tomasz to go on his own journey; first in search of a more long-term reprieve via experimental surgery, then in search of impish personal satisfaction, and finally in search of his own peace. It’s a deeply humanist confrontation of the ending life, both sad and uplifting, and anchored by a beautifully nuanced performance by Zapasiewicz. Life As a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease is a much more overtly emotive film that Zanussi’s earlier works, but Berg acts as an older, wiser ‘zannusoid’ questioning the ideologies by which he’s lived his life, and, perhaps, discovering that final illumination that so many of Zanussi’s protagonists have been in search of.
“I believe that one cannot appreciate life without appreciating death.” 
—Krzysztof Zanussi


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