by Ben Sachs
Krzysztof Zanussi: My personal preoccupation now is the question that Dostoevsky posed over a century ago, saying it's the only relevant question that humanity has: Does God exist or not? Is there any other intelligence than ours? And then, if there is immortality, is it beyond time and space or is it in another time and space? All religions have some vague intuition about divinity—and it is vague, because if there is divinity, it must have another dimension than that of our life experience, so we don't know how to put it into words. We have parables and some approximations.
And now, a new perspective has opened. Parallel worlds may be something real. Maybe we're having this same conversation somewhere else and it's going differently—between another person like you and another person like me.
Ben Sachs: The recent films of yours that I've seen feature explicit discussions of Catholic theology, which don't factor into the 70s and 80s films of yours that I know.
Well, the censorship was very tough [in Soviet bloc countries] on that subject matter. In The Constant Factor, the censors wanted to cut the story about the death of the [hero's] mother [from cancer], because she was pronouncing a concept that is in fact only Christian, that suffering might make sense. In other religions, people think about how to avoid suffering. So, I'm more free to approach this now. Also because the world has become more lay [since then], I'm provoked to be more religious.
Do you see the religious content of your recent films as a form of provocation, then?
In a way, it is a provocation even to think about it at all. We built our civilization [in the west] on some Judeo-Christian fundament, which made our civilization totally different from all other civilizations on this planet. And no other civilization was ever as dynamic as this one, because the concept of human beings selected by God is something absolutely unique. I think that we created all this technology because we have felt more free to do so. I wouldn't want to abandon this source of inspiration, though I'm never sure if it's right. But I try to open the question.
Do you consider yourself more religious now than you were as a younger man?
No, not at all. I have all the same doubts that I had then. Today I can pronounce them in my films more clearly, but the conclusions are similar. In my latest film [Foreign Body], the protagonist is losing his faith, however much he tries to keep it. And I blame him for being too assertive.
The main female character of the film is his opposite. She's self-consciously immoral, and her transgressive behavior seems to stem from her rejection of God.
Yes, but at the same time, her final confession is that she had been looking for something spiritual but didn't find it. She's also the heir of a Stalinist criminal—who had been moral in a way, because she really believed in that ideology. She thought that there must be a sacrifice of innocent people [to implement it]. So, this somehow passes from one generation to another.
Do you believe that immorality can be inherited?
No, but one person can be contaminated by another. We're all bound to immoral at some point.
I'd like to talk about how you work with actors. You've worked with some very famous ones, like Leslie Caron and Max von Sydow. But in some of your other films, like The Illumination, the star . . .
He was not an actor, no. He was my student.
How do you decide whether to work with a trained actor or an inexperienced one?
The script has to be written differently if I'm working with nonprofessionals. I have to take them as they are—they must not pretend anything. They should be put in a situation where they'd act like they do in real life. That gives you a touch of truth, but at the same time, it limits you very much. I love professional actors. They can also be convincing, even though their acting is in a way conventional. It's not identical to life, but we forget it when we see someone onscreen or onstage.
The characters in your films often seem to represent philosophical questions. Even if they have specific traits and histories, they function on this other level as well.
Right, but I try to make them psychologically credible. Having characters represent ideas is possible sometimes onstage, but film doesn't like it. Pasolini could do it—Teorema is a film where characters represent ideas, but for some reason I buy it.
Jean-Luc Godard also employs characters in this way.
Yes, but Godard doesn't seem all that human to me. Pasolini does.
How do you coach your actors, then, so that they come across as both ideas and real people?
I'll give you the answer that I give to my students, so it may sound didactic: the first thing is that you have to love actors, however terrible they are. You have to love them, because then they open up to you. They must be admired, they have to feel that. It can be difficult, because if you don't like someone's performance, then you have to like him as a person even more, hoping that his performance will become better. Love is instrumental—which is morally dubious, I know. Also the choice of an actor is far more important than your work with the actor. If you've chosen correctly, then you don't need to work much at all.
There's an old saying in Hollywood that 90 percent of directing is casting.
I totally endorse this opinion. That's why I often write scripts for given actors, if I have their consent and the production is likely to happen. I do this whenever it is possible. I'm now writing a film with particular actors in mind, but I have no financing yet. I'm taking a risk, but I'll be most unhappy if it doesn't happen.
Could you speak a bit about working with Leslie Caron? You made a few films with her.
Yes, three films [The Contract (1980), The Unapproachable, and Imperative (both 1982)] and one stage play.
What was that like, to go from working with Polish actors to working with a big international star?
Well, when Leslie was working in Poland, nobody knew of her, because her films from the 50s had not been shown there.
How did you come to work together?
We met on the jury of the San Sebastian Film Festival. When we were judging films together, we got the feeling that we had many ideas in common. She's a very intelligent woman. It's easy to talk to her about abstract concepts—not what you might expect from a singer and dancer. I asked her, "Would you take a risk and appear in one of my films?" She said yes, and I wrote a part for her.
What was your working relationship like?
Most big actors are easy to work with—when they have talent. The problem comes when somebody is famous and not very talented. But when an actor has talent, he or she feels that what he or she does works. Then, they are far more cooperative.
Would you say that the films you made with Caron achieve something different than the others?
I think that her performances [in my films] achieve a certain balance. She has a tendency to be a comical actress, and I was happy about the balance between comical and dramatic that she achieved in Contract. She looks like a funny character, but then suddenly there's this tragedy that she reveals. She can't believe that she's offstage, that she's too old to perform as a dancer. When an actor does something that touches you, that's the best.
Since almost none of your films are on DVD in the United States, I think most American moviegoers my age first became aware of you from your cameo in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Camera Buff (1979), where you play yourself.
I produced that film, in fact. I produced all of Kieslowski's Polish films, since he made them all with the participation of [Tor, the national film studio of which Zanussi became artistic director in 1980]. It didn't mean very much to me at the time, because he was my deputy. He produced them as well.
You know, Camera Buff was unsellable for many years. Before his other films were recognized, this one was considered totally local and of no interest to Western audiences—which shows you how unstable opinions are.
Could you talk a bit about your relationship with Kieslowski?
We were very close friends. It's difficult to talk about him, because of his early death [in 1996, at 54] and his traumatic—and, to me, erroneous—decision to withdraw [from filmmaking] at his peak. [Kieslowski announced his retirement from filmmaking at the Cannes premiere of Red in 1994.] He was so bitter about his career, because he knew he was good but not recognized. He felt humiliated that so many festivals did not want his films, that they repeatedly said he wasn't a good filmmaker. When things changed and he suddenly became very famous, it made him bitter. Fame must come at the right time—not too early and not too late. I kept telling him that it's not our choice [to withdraw from making films]. We have to succumb to the circumstances. If they want us to continue, we have to continue until they boo.
Do you know if Kieslowski was aware when he announced his retirement that he wouldn't be alive for much longer?
He knew that his health was poor, and he refused the heart transplant that was offered to him. He wanted to have only bypasses, until it was too late. When he decided to have the operation, many doctors told him that it would not be successful. He was very much aware of what it means to be waiting for some accident. . . . And sometimes it can be a big burden to have an imagination.