“I loved physics but it didn’t love me back, so I turned to cinema.”
“The world just fascinates me so much. I think it comes from a longing for a better life, for better people. Not to make it sound too romantic, but I’m always overwhelmed when I see a beautiful human being—by which I mean when I see somebody act beautifully. This gives me such a strong impulse to be present in the dialogue with humanity.”
Born: 17 June 1939, Warsaw, Poland.
Directing Career: 1969 –
Movement: The 2nd Generation Polish New Wave, The ‘Third Polish Cinema’.
Traits: His films are visually unadorned but compelling dramas, which with their philosophical and intellectual debates, and existential themes of moral and life choices, attest to his background studying philosophy and physics at postgraduate level. His character archetype has come to be called the ‘Zanussoid’, typically young intellectuals (often scientists or academics) on journeys of self-examination.
Collaborators: Maja Komorowska (actress), Zbigniew Zapasiewicz (actor), Daniel Olbrychski (actor), Wojciech Kilar (composer), Slawomir Idziak (cinematographer), Edward Klosinski (cinematographer), Edward Żebrowski (co-writer).
The Structure of Crystal (1969)
We open with a winter Polish countryside in black-and-white. Jan, and his wife Anna, are waiting for the visit of his old friend and former university colleague Marek, recently returned from Harvard and otherwise living far away, in Warsaw — a world apart from Jan’s quiet provincial life. Jan and Marek haven’t met in many years, and as they catch up and the ice melts between them, we discover how their once parallel lives have diverged. Marek, urban and urbane, has become a successful scientist with publications of international import. Jan on the other hand, for whom a similar career once seemed a certainty, is willingly and it seems quite happily perched in a countryside outpost, doing modest meteorological research.
Marek, considering this work a laughably banal waste of his erstwhile academic equal’s time, reacts with frosty disbelief. Why doesn’t Jan come back to the university in Warsaw and do ‘real’ research, he asks. “I don’t understand what a man like you is doing here”. Frustrated and puzzled, Marek attempts to shake a lack of ambition out of his friend. But Jan is unflappable. He takes his friend’s incredulous pleas with good humour and patience, insisting he is happy with his life, content right here in the country, no matter if it be far from the career and social ladders of Warsaw.
A gap undeniably exists between the two men now. Zanussi’s debut feature stages this existential tête-à-tête, a clash between two mutually opposed ways of living your life, through a series of Socratic dialogues and slow tracking shots of walks through the snow accompanied by a tender piano soundtrack. Scientific and philosophical discussions between Jan and Marek, again highlighting their very different characters and attitudes towards how to best make use of their time, flash past thanks to snappy editing and the occasional insert of an equation or diagram (just hinting at the far more frenzied, mosaic essay-film Zanussi would make in Illumination four years later). Importantly these conversations have the ring of truth, largely thanks to Zanussi himself being a physics and philosophy graduate.
As well as about a friendship, The Structure of Crystal is, like Illumination would be, a film about alternative lives, different ways of finding meaning to what you do on this planet. In a way, Jan and Marek are two composites of one divided whole, each having tested a different direction on the forking path of life, in order to convene on this weekend reunion and compare notes. As exemplified by his enthusiasm discussing abstract concepts like infinity or his simple awe looking at a memento mori inscribed on a gravestone during one of their walks, Jan lives a monastic sort of life, reflecting on the big questions. Marek is far more short-sightedly, and materialistically, set on the immediate here and now.
Marek criticises Jan for wasting his own time, yet ironically Jan is the one who still has the time and inclination for learning about a wide range of topics. However, Marek gruffly, and perhaps with begrudging envy, dismisses this, “I barely have time to read a third of the material relating to my field, man. We don’t live in the Renaissance”. Time is never enough, and there is the impossibility of doing all we wish we could, exploring all the possibilities and potentials of our life — an existential dilemma the protagonist of Illumination will also grapple with.
Furthermore, Jan also has, in his relaxed, contented relationship with Anna, something that the divorced Marek has never been able to acquire. It does seem Zanussi sides towards Jan’s view of things — Jan’s key line of the film, his retort “Has it ever occurred to you that catching your breath may be the right way to live?” to Marek, is essentially the killer punch — but there are also ways in which Marek is used to examine Jan’s life choices. He may be at peace, with Anna and his daily routine in his countryside haven, living the life of someone who’s quasi-retired, dedicating time to unambitious work which only he seems to find interesting, but is there something selfish in his refusal to have made more of his vocation? If he really does have the potential and talent which Marek says he had, does Jan owe it to Poland, the world, or even mankind, to make the most of it? What if that potential could have led to scientific breakthroughs of great magnitude?
In his astonishing debut, Zanussi already deals with the moral questions and existential meditations closest to his heart. The central analogy of the order and symmetry of the fundamental structure of crystals, mirroring the attempt to find a perfect balance and equilibrium in one’s life, is pure Zanussi. Physics aside, the basic premise has shades of Intimate Lighting (1965, Ivan Passer), and its minimal plot, gentle pace and mostly unshowy observational style — all to be expected of course since we are on Jan’s home turf, the film of the reverse visit had it ever happened would have been quite different — has something of the Czech New Wave to it. But Zanussi is always in total control of what he wants to achieve, thematically, and visually with the gorgeous black and white cinematography capturing the winter landscapes as arena for Jan and Marek’s life lessons. In the final shots, it is this beautiful nature which Jan returns to, content in his simple life surrounded by an infinity of invisible mysteries. (March 2018)
Family Life (1971)
Wit, another ‘Zanussoid’, is a young engineer in Warsaw. One day, at work he receives an urgent-toned telegram stating that his father is unwell. It’s been six years since he last saw him or set foot in his family home. So, somewhat reluctantly, he makes the trip by car to the family estate in the countryside, accompanied by Marek, a work colleague.
Wit’s once affluent industrialist family have, to say the least, fallen under hard times in Socialist Poland. Whatever mystery ailment was behind the telegram seems to have been more a ruse to lure Wit back than anything else. His alcoholic father, his eccentric and manic depressive sister Bella (a wonderful performance by Maja Komorowska), his nagging old maid of an aunt, and his strangely absent mother form a cast of relatives worthy of a Faulknerian saga of dynastic decay, and reminiscent of dysfunctional film families as varied as The Magnificent Ambersons, the Dupeas in Five Easy Pieces, and The Royal Tenenbaums.
Certain similarities between Zanussi’s second feature and his debut do arise. Like in the earlier film, there’s a reunion between two parties after many years. There’s the theme of different possibilities in how to live one’s life — Wit wishes for an independent life, but is restricted by a psychologically complex sense of filial guilt, which pulls at him all the stronger, like a magnetic field, now he’s back in the old house. There’s also the tension between life in the city and in the country, albeit with a totally different dynamic this time: the overexposed luminous setting of Wit’s office in the film’s opening sets up a contrast with the darkly illuminated, dilapidated family house.
But Family Life is different in many ways. It is less formally rigorous than Structure while also quieter and less minimalistic. It is more interior, more of a domestic chamber drama, with the large majority of scenes being inside the house. Necessarily, it becomes a character in and of itself, a strangely Gothic presence, a place in which the ghosts of the past, the filial pressures and intimate violences only relatives can do to each other, still haunt. Zanussi’s camera navigates around it, preferring staccato handheld takes rather than analytical cuts, and keeping it darkly coloured with a palate of browns and shadowy ochres.
Daniel Olbrychski, one of Zanussi’s preferred actors, gives an assured performance of subtle turmoil as Wit. Unable to reconcile these two separate aspects of his life, he will have to dig deep to find the strength to leave behind, once and for all, the oppression of his genetic background. Family life here, just as in Ken Loach’s film of the same name and same year, is a cesspool of bitterness and hostility. But on another layer, there is clearly a historical allegory at play as well. Wit represents a younger, more modern Poland; his family an ossified, toxic past; and Wit’s dilemma is simultaneously the necessity and impossibility of fully breaking free from the past, be it personal or national. (March 2018)
Illumination, Krzysztof Zanussi’s third feature, has as its main protagonist Franciszek (Stanislaw Latallo), an idealistic physics student in search of absolute truth and knowledge, returning us to some of the territory Zanussi had touched on in his debut The Structure of Crystal. The film covers roughly a decade of Franciszek’s life, through which its principal themes are no less than the nature of knowledge and life, and the physical and temporal limitations Man is subjected to.
Right from the opening, as Franciszek undergoes a physical examination before graduating with his high school diploma, there’s a frontal shot of him wearing nothing but his boxers, standing before us like a slightly more bookish, less self-confident, 1970s version of Leonardo’s Vitruvian man. This is how Zanussi embarks us onto his odyssey. In a collage style that feels very much of its time (not a bad thing in my book, filmmakers as varied and prodigious as Godard, Makavejev, Oshima and Matsumoto also experimented with similar hybrid styles in this fantastically creative period of world cinema), he fuses together at least three different categories of footage: firstly, the acted narrative, Franciszek’s ten-year quest and search for illumination before realising absolute answers don’t come as easily as he’d hoped; secondly, actual documentary interviews with real scientists and physics students discussing their fields, their lives, their hopes, which chime and echo with the fictional Franciszek’s own predicament; thirdly Zanussi includes scientific explanations (Franciszek delivers one on the Big Bang theory as an aside, for example), illustrations, diagrams and graphs. Sure Franciszek struggles along the way, but all these inserts also remind us that for a relatively insignificant species in the Universe, we’ve not done too badly in uncovering some of the mysteries of Nature.
Add to this the often atonal, hyperkinetic soundtrack and the occasional ultra-rapid impressionistic montage, and certainly we have a film made in a kind of filmic language that we don’t quite see anymore today. It is loose, often improvised, and, as Zanussi admits, made without reliance on a screenplay. Art is not as rigid and fixed as science, so Illumination does not have to make sense in the way mathematical equations do. It takes us along into its flow, and there is so much any of us should be able to relate to in Franciszek’s story that we are absorbed into its mosaic of images, sounds, insights and interviews.
Franciszek soon realises that, despite his lofty poetic ideals of truth and knowledge, he is bound to material laws like the rest of us. The spirit, the soul, the extra-physical realm, whatever one wants to call it, may well exist but there is no mind without matter. When he takes up employment doing psychiatric research in a hospital, he observes the fine invisible line that makes seemingly healthy bodies cease functioning mentally. One scene in which he witnesses an open brain surgery patient’s moods altered by electrodes touching his cerebrum hits home the inextricable link between the physical and the spiritual. The physical always blocks the way. Whenever Franciszek longs to be elevated towards illumination, he is soon brought back down to earth and its everyday worries of bills and timekeeping. When his girlfriend becomes pregnant and he convinces her to keep the baby, that doesn’t soothe matters either, as his futile attempts at night-time studying turn into sleepless nights looking after their young son. This turning point is also one of the many big decisions Franciszek must make in his life, throughout the film, and which only reinforce the irreversibility of time, and the tyranny of choice.
He had to choose a topic of study for university, even though his grades at high school were good all round. For his final year of university study, he is then forced to choose one narrow field to specialise in, even though he does not yet feel ready to know which direction he wants to orient himself in. And these choices build up incrementally until with each choice he has burrowed deeper into the one-way-trail that will make up what he calls his life, no going back. As one of the scientific asides about the peculiarities of the time dimension reminds us, time goes in one direction only. No wonder then that by the end, after a confrontation with death as a mathematician friend loses his life due to a brain tumour, and a spell away from science seeking answers in a remote monastery, Franciszek feels trapped by time. “I need to make up the time I lost. I need to live intensely and do what would take 5-6 years in the next 3-4” he tells his doctor.
In quantum physics, one of the more offbeat ideas that follows from the theory’s mathematics is the so-called ‘multiverse theory’, the idea that every choice we make branches out into a parallel universe for each of the potential outcomes. We flick a coin, there’s one universe where we get heads, and an alternate parallel one where it’s tails. A similar principle was exhibited by Erwin Schrödinger in his famous thought experiment where a cat is simultaneously alive and dead until we check. It’s the act of actually carrying out the observation (or of making a choice) that collapses all the many, even infinite, possibilities into one definite outcome. Franciszek could have chosen to do anything. Any of us have an infinitude of possible options at our disposal, but the Arrow of Time forces into making unique choices. Franciszek discovers this not just in the decisions he has to make in his scientific career, but also in his love-life. He loses one potential girlfriend, and all the alternate parallel life he may have lived with her, and goes down another path. He is obliged to orient himself in one specific direction, when an infinity of others were also possible, and this because of the never-changing direction of Time’s arrow. (Interestingly this is a notion Zanussi’s friend and contemporary Krzysztof Kieślowski would explore a few times, albeit in a more metaphysical way).
But one of Franciszek’s colleagues succinctly suggests a more fruitful approach of looking at it. Ignore the infinity of possibilities lost and all the regrets that may come with staying up all night thinking about that, and cherish the individual choices you make. After much soul-searching it seems at the end Franciszek is closer to applying this lesson, which is easier said than done. A clearly highly gifted young man in a repressive society, he is hopefully that bit closer to having found a productive place within the world. Illumination may tell us that pure enlightenment may be out of reach but all the myriad of thoughts, ideas, and truths it resonates in just one hour and a half remind us that we as humans are capable of much too. (April 2015)