Krzysztof Zanussi

Krzysztof Zanussi

Zanussi's first feature film, "The Structure of Crystals" (1969), set like many of his works in the scientific community, concerns the divergent paths taken by two school friends pursuing their scientific careers. It received the best picture award from Polish film critics that year. "Family Life" (1971) is a meditative study of a young technocrat whose return to his family roots precipitates an emotional and intellectual crisis, while "Behind The Wall" (also 1971) further analyzes the conflict between professional duty and personal emotion, a major theme in all of the director's work. These issues may be most directly addressed in his acclaimed 1973 effort, "Illumination," a compelling, almost clinical account of a physics student as he matures and faces life's inevitable compromises. Zanussi also found time to make a number of short films for Polish and West German television, and in 1974, he further expanded his horizons with "The Catamount Killing," shot in the US with an American and West German cast. By this point he had also established longstanding collaborations with composer Wojciech Kilar and actress Maja Komorowska, both of which would last into the 1990s. Zanussi's concern with the conflict between public and private morality, official corruption and the delicate balance between intellect and intuition are further explored in "A Woman's Decision" (1977), "Camouflage" (1977), and "Spirale/Spiral/Quarterly Balance," 1978). In a cameo appearance as himself in Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Camera Buff" (1979), Zanussi expresses his interest in the workings of corruption and compromise. This philosophical and moral dilemma is fully explored in "Ways In The Night" (1979), in which a basically decent German officer is called on to uphold the policies of National Socialism, and in the splendid "The Constant Factor" (1980). One of Zanussi's finest films, the latter further complicates the moral issues by the workings of chance: the young protagonist loses his opportunities for a successful career because of his refusal to compromise his ideals, only to become the unwitting cause of a tragedy.In 1980, Zanussi turned to black comedy, and back to a recurring interest in generational differences, in another of his best films, "Contract," the first of several films he made with actress Leslie Caron. A merciless depiction of the Polish ruling class set amid a wedding party held after a ceremony from which the bride has bolted, "Contract" finally offers a son, disgusted by his family's decadent, materialistic lifestyle, burns down the family home. In the same year, he also turned his talents to quite another kind of project when he was chosen to direct "From a Far Country," a British-Polish made-for-TV biography of Pope John Paul II which aired on US TV in 1981. Although a staunch supporter of the Solidarity movement, Zanussi would seem to be philosophically far from the conservative Catholic orthodoxy of the Polish Pope, but his customary objectivity and sharp eye for various social forces at work yield an enlightening portrait of Polish society in transition.After the temporary defeat of the Solidarity movement in the mid-1980s, Zanussi worked abroad, mostly for German television. Alongside his typically quirky take on "Bluebeard" (1984) and a melodramatic consideration of "The Power of Evil" (1985), Zanussi created the US-Polish-West German romance, "The Year of the Quiet Sun" (1984), a typically meditative effort which, as with many of his films, features a generational difference, as a post-WWII American soldier emotionally unable to return home becomes involved with a Polish war widow. He also examined the war's legacy in "Life for Life--Maximilian Kolbe" (1991), in which an Auschwitz escapee is haunted by the thoughts of the prisoners who were killed as a result of his act.Despite the downbeat, reflective nature of many of Zanussi's films and his refusal to sweeten his character's unsavory dimensions, he does not neglect their social and political context, and many of them are filled not only with quiet humor but also a sense of uplift. His talent with actors was showcased by Max Von Sydow's work in "The Silent Touch" (1992), an intimate chamber drama in which an aging composer's creative block is ended by a talented young musicologist. Zanussi has worked more as a producer of features than a director of them since the 80s, but his style and outlook have maintained their consistency. Although very occasionally prone to flashy stylistics with his editing and camera, Zanussi has generally kept a lean, spare style and an equally measured tone to his work; he has always been an artist more likely to pose questions than to propose answers, and he has continued to challenge his audiences. This was even true in one of his less provocative, most autobiographical films, "Cwal/At Full Gallop" (1996), with his recurring muse Komorowska in fine form as a free-spirited aunt who shelters her young nephew during the Stalinist repression of the Poland of the 50s.