Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi must be one of the smartest people ever to make movies. A child prodigy, he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a PhD in physics by the time he was in his mid-20s. While in school he also found time to teach himself filmmaking and produced more than a dozen shorts, several of which won prizes at amateur film festivals; on the strength of their success he was accepted into the world-renowned Lodz Film Academy, where he earned his third degree, in directing. By the time he made his first full-length narrative film, The Structure of Crystal (1969), he had already developed a worldview all his own, informed in roughly equal measure by hard science and metaphysics. Crystal kicked off a remarkably prolific period; before slowing down in the mid-80s, Zanussi would direct at least one feature every year, several of which are ranked among the best Polish films of their time.
Alas, few of them are available on Region 1 DVD, which makes the Gene Siskel Film Center's upcoming revivals of The Illumination (1973), Camouflage (1977), and The Constant Factor (1980)—part of the invaluable touring series "Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema"—major events. There aren't many films quite like the ones Zanussi made in his prime; their distinctive intellectual bent can be so bracing as to overshadow his exquisite direction of actors and the refined literary ironies of his scripts. His work suggests an improbable hybrid of Eric Rohmer's humane comedies of self-examination (My Night at Maud's, Chloe in the Afternoon) and Otto Preminger's clinical studies of complex behavior (Bonjour Tristesse, Bunny Lake Is Missing). Zanussi often approaches the subject of enlightenment from a scientific point of view, and in so doing he gives form to a primary struggle of modern life—finding a satisfying balance between reason and spirituality.
The Illumination, his third theatrical feature, employs a novel structure to approach this issue head-on. Throughout the film Zanussi cuts away from the drama—about a physics student named Franciszek who searches for higher wisdom—to graphs and printed statistics that present quantifiable aspects of the hero's life (intellectual capacity, social status) in comparison to other people like him (those born around the same time, or with a similar biological makeup, or who also began studying physics in their early 20s). Zanussi also incorporates his own interviews with real-life professors about the ideas considered in the narrative. In the first of these segments, which opens the film, philosopher Wladislaw Tatarkiewicz introduces Saint Augustine's concept of illumination—an epiphany in which "the mind sees the truth directly"—and asserts that the only way to achieve this intellectual breakthrough is, ironically, through "purity of heart." His words serve as a hypothesis that The Illumination sets out to test, with his every-physicist Franciszek as guinea pig: Does this man's life provide the necessary conditions for enlightenment?
Jonathan Rosenbaum once likened the jump cuts in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless to "a needle skipping gaily across a record"; the editing of The Illumination evokes cold fingers rifling through a stack of research papers. As if summarizing the results of an experiment, Zanussi omits any material that doesn't directly concern the stated theme. We never learn how Franciszek met the woman who became his wife; she simply materializes after a sudden flash-forward, already in love with him. When Franciszek abandons her later, along with his job and his studies, to join a monastery, we don't know whether he even told her he was leaving or how she responded. Zanussi takes us from a scene of domestic contentment to one of ascetic devotion without any marked change in tone. Here are two paths to self-actualization, he seems to be saying; let's calculate the costs of each.
The Constant Factor (1980) covers similar territory, hinting at grand metaphysical themes that clash with a story of everyday disappointment; Zanussi makes no attempt to reconcile them, and his stubborn refusal to do so gives the film an eerie opacity. As in The Illumination, the main character is a scientifically inclined young man searching for personal fulfillment. Witold idolizes his father, who died in a climbing accident in the Himalayas when Witold was only 12. (Stanislaw Latallo, star of The Illumination, had died in 1974 while ascending the Himalayas.) Witold dreams of someday climbing the mountain range himself, but apart from that he has no life goals. After finishing his military service, he passes up a chance to study mathematics and takes a job as an electrical engineer, since it will allow him to save money and travel to other countries on contracting assignments. When he discovers rampant corruption at the company where he works, he pours all his idealism into fighting it, but this alienates him from his peers and eventually costs him his job. At the end of the film he's working as a window washer, completely uncertain of his future.
Zanussi cuts away from Witold to recount the father's fateful expedition, and these sequences, along with a subplot in which Witold's mother dies slowly from cancer, give The Constant Factor an epic sweep. Like the mountains, death towers over the action, yet it doesn't seem to propel Witold towards greater wisdom. Near the end of the film he attempts to resume his studies, sitting in on a university mathematics course. The professor takes a liking to Witold but discourages him from pursuing a degree. The beautiful logic of mathematics has nothing to do with real life, the teacher says. It will not aid you in your soul-searching. The constant factor of the film is Witold's stubborn belief that destiny will sort out his life for him, a worldview Zanussi neither endorses nor condemns.
One interesting thing about Camouflage (1977) is that it employs this same philosophical style in executing a modest comedy of manners. Like The Illumination and The Constant Factor, it weighs the merits of idealism versus pragmatism, though on a much smaller scale; here Zanussi's intellectual rigor registers as an ironic joke. The film takes place at a weekend retreat for linguistics students. The hero, Jaroslaw, is an assistant professor who aims to make meaningful connections with his students—and seduce a beautiful visiting scholar from England. His mentor, an older, tenured professor named Jakub, spends the weekend trying to dispel Jaroslaw's ideals, insisting that, in academia, the only thing that matters is keeping your superiors happy. Jakub is clearly bitter about the course his life has taken; he grows increasingly malicious toward Jaroslaw, ultimately provoking him into a violent rage. Zanussi lets the viewer decide whether Jakub acts out of contempt or perverse sympathy for his protege, since he sees so much of himself in the younger man.
Camouflage became one of Zanussi's biggest popular successes in Poland because viewers interpreted it as a veiled satire of the corruption and cronyism pervasive in the communist government. In the mid-70s the Polish authorities tried unsuccessfully to distract the population from food shortages and increased checks on civil liberties with "the propaganda of success," an ad campaign celebrating the country's nonexistent prosperity. In a rare instance of audiences identifying completely with a Zanussi hero, many Poles saw Jaroslaw's struggle against hypocrisy as a reflection of their own. Numerous critics cite Camouflage as having inaugurated the so-called "cinema of moral concern," a cycle of Polish films from the late 70s and early 80s that used allegorical stories to critique societal problems (Felik Falk's Top Dog, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Camera Buff). How ironic that a director so purposely ambiguous would inspire such clear-cut metaphorical filmmaking in others.
The few late-period Zanussi works I've seen—the TV miniseries Weekend Stories (1996) and the theatrical features And a Warm Heart (2008) and Persona Non Grata (2005)—come closer to the pronounced allegories of the "cinema of moral concern" than to Zanussi's own enigmatic masterpieces. I'm not sure if he simply lost his mojo after the mid-80s or he's always been an inconsistent filmmaker. Regardless, Zanussi raises more meaningful questions about the modern world in The Illumination, The Constant Factor, and Camouflage than many directors do in their entire careers. Maintaining a deliberately unsteady balance between realism and spiritualism, these films force us to acknowledge which mode we find more compelling—and, by extension, how we regard life in general.