Set against the idyllic backdrop of a university summer camp in the Polish countryside, Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1977 film Camouflage shows a young teaching assistant, Jaroslaw Kruszynski (Piotra Garlicki) struggling to come to terms with the politics of Polish academia. As students vie for the top prize in a linguistics competition, debate bubbles between Jaroslaw and his superior, Jakub Szelestowski (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz): should a late entry from the poorly-regarded University of Toruń be accepted? Students also rail against the decision not to invite a professor from Toruń to sit on the judging panel, while the host university’s Provost arrives unforgiveably late to the camp. The double standards operating between students and academic staff are clear. Meanwhile, the tension of camp politics is offset by Jaroslaw’s unsteady relationship with English student Nelly Livingston-Pawluk (Christina Paul-Podlasky).
Zapasiewicz gives a brilliant performance as the Machiavellian Jakub. He manipulates those around him with subtlety, precision and more than a hint of humour. The relationship between Jaroslaw – young, idealistic, free-thinking – and Jakub – cold and calculating – plays out on screen beautifully as Jakub pushes Jaroslaw to his breaking point. Jakub, embodying the system of which he’s a part, believes in a Darwinian survival of the fittest, irrespective of “fairness” or honesty: “It’s time you grasped something”, he tells Jaroslaw, “your career is in the hands of the Provost.”
The cinematography, too, is beautiful: long shots of the countryside surrounding the camp and the wildlife that inhabits it. Zanussi pointedly contrasts these languid nature panoramas with the strict (and unjust) hierarchy operating in the camp. As Jakub says to Jaroslaw early on in the film, “Nature forms a whole, so to speak. You can learn a lot by watching it – especially about ourselves.” Images of the hunter and the hunted are woven into the narrative, with birds frequently appearing both alive and dead, stalked by the local stray cat. The motif throws the difference between the two men’s world-views into sharp relief: this is an environment in which “it’s not what said that counts, but who said it, and where.
The choice of linguistics as a subject matter for the essay competition is by no means arbitrary, and Zanussi plays with the fluidity of language throughout. It’s rigidly monitored inside the classroom: the student from Toruń is criticised for his “nativistic” take on language that contradicts accepted Marxist views, while a “mediocre” but orthodox essay is chosen as the prize-winner. Outside of the classroom, however, we see a different story. Nelly seamlessly switches between English, Polish and, at times, German in order to make herself understood. Italian’s also thrown into the mix with the presence of an Italian tourist camping nearby. Set against the rigid hierarchies of the camp, Nelly’s intrusion into that world provides a welcome contrast. She’s a rule-breaker and a free spirit, and a pleasure to watch.
It’s been suggested that Zanussi’s depiction of academic hierarchies stands as a microcosm for wider Polish society in the 1970s. The lived reality of everyday life was one where your success was dependent not on merit but your ability to submit to those in authority. Filmed just over a decade before European communism fell, Camouflage provides us with tantalising hints of freedom and rebellion: students swimming naked in the late; birds flying over the camp; a participant lashing out at the Provost.
Though filmed and set in 1977, Camouflage is clearly a work that has stood the test of time: its sharp critique of the hypocrisies of 1970s Poland remains fascinating today. And even if political or academic satire isn’t your cup of tea, the film’s still worth watching for the beauty of the cinematography alone.
Krzysztof Zanussi’s Camouflage shows at the BFI Southbank on 8th & 14th April as part of the 2015 Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, hosted by the Polish Cultural Institute.