Two Films by Krzysztof Zanussi

Alan Pavelin

Talking Pictures alias






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I have just caught up with an early and a late film of Krzysztof Zanussi, for many years one of the leading Polish directors who deserves to be much better known in the U.K. Camouflage (1976) is perhaps the archetypal Zanussi film, Persona non Grata (2004) is his latest to be completed.

Zanussi, born in 1939, trained as a physicist before joining the famous Lodz Film School, a background probably unique among directors. Many of his films are set among the academic community, and often involve intellectual arguments about ethical and other matters. Camouflage was released in Poland at the same time as Wajda’s much more famous Man of Marble, and both ran into trouble with the Communist authorities, Wajda’s film because of the explicit political content and Zanussi’s because it was seen as a far more subtle comment on the political situation. Unlike Wajda, who has nearly always adapted well-known literary works, nearly all Zanussi’s films are original screenplays, written by himself.

Set in a summer camp for linguistics students, Camouflage centres on the conflict between two members of the academic staff, an idealistic 26-year-old and a world-weary and cynical older colleague. The older man, a keen observer of nature, is an exponent of the “survival of the fittest” philosophy, and tries to convince the younger that life is just a matter of “playing by the rules” to maximise one’s own advancement. The younger man believes that ethical principles may sometimes override one’s personal self-interest. Several incidents serve to stoke their arguments, such as an issue of academic fraud and the treatment of a student which the younger man considers unjust. In the end the younger man is so infuriated by the attitude of his colleague that he is driven to physical attack, in defiance of his own professed morality.

The setting and themes of Camouflage are refreshingly unusual, but I could not help feeling that the characters are a little one-dimensional, and therefore predictable (though the storyline is not). The acting of the two leads, however, is excellent, and Zbigniew Zapasiewicz (a Zanussi regular) won an award at Venice for his portrayal of the older man. As much as any film, Camouflage is representative of the so-called “cinema of moral concern” in Poland, Zanussi being the director most closely associated with it. As far as I know no recent prints are available, so the film can only be seen with faded colours, scratchy images, and old-fashioned typeface for the subtitles.

Persona non Grata is naturally in far more pristine condition. Zanussi has moved from the world of academia to the world of diplomacy, the central character Victor (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz again) being the Polish ambassador to Uruguay, where much of the film is shot. He meets up with Oleg (Russian actor-director Nikita Mikhalkov), a Russian diplomat who had sympathised with the Solidarity movement in the 1980s. Victor suspects Oleg of having been a secret Soviet infiltrator, and also of having had an affair with his late wife; further complications ensue with a drug-trafficking scandal and with the arrival of a young consul with his beautiful Russian wife, whom Victor comes to suspect of feeding trade secrets to the Russian government.

All this makes for a meaty plot-line, but the essence of the film is the personal relationships, Victor and Oleg corresponding to the idealist and the cynic of Camouflage. The well-known actors Jerzy Stuhr (from Kieslowski’s Camera Buff, Decalogue 10, and Three Colours White) and Daniel Olbrychski (from countless films by Wajda) are in lesser roles. Consummate acting and some fairly stunning scenery make Persona non Grata a highly satisfying experience.
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