CEEL contributor Alison Miller met Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi before the screening of his latest film, Ether (2018), at the 17th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in London.
Alison Miller: What I found fascinating about Ether was the way the philosophical questions were posed along-side a powerful historical drama – emotion was infused from one scene to the next. So my objective for this interview is to find out how you did it.
Krzysztof Zanussi: I made this film as a central European co-production. I was very keen in mounting it as a producer not as an author and constructing this co-production like my previous production directed by Agnieszka Holland, my great friend and now heading up the European Film Academy. Holland’s film was a very Central European composition including various producers from Sweden via Germany to Slovakia and Czech Republic.
So this was a similar model I was trying to evolve, involving Lithuania, Ukraine and Hungary. I think we have something in common and the fact that we were shooting in Trieste is very significant because this is a very mittelEuropean city and there’s a spirit that is unique. This was justified by this script because it plays in this era of Monarchy that practically was a kind of premonition of united Europe, a concept that failed due to the First World War – it could have evolved. It’s interesting to imagine what it would have happened if there’d been no World War One. All these nations would probably have emancipated but some unity may have been conserved – maybe because we had common enemies during centuries at the borders of Europe. The Ottoman Empire menaced Europe very seriously and the vicinity of the Mongols was also very frightening, which now could be translated into Chinese power that is approaching Europe in a very decisive way.
So that’s why I wanted to do it in cooperation with other countries and with their actors then to distribute to these countries. This gives me access to a market that is usually completely blocked by blockbusters from America. We can only show our local films. So this film is local for Ukraine, for Hungary and Lithuania – it’s regarded as a local national film and has all the privileges. From the legal and commercial point of view it’s a great advantage when we cooperate. Even if individually we feel weak, finally together we mean something more in the market and for our culture.
A.M.: Questions about death, judgement and the final destiny of the soul and humanity run through Ether and your previous films. What draws you to this theme of eschatology?
K.Z.: Probably my life experience because I’m a child of the war and my instinctive approach is different from my contemporaries now. Life for me is a gift, it’s something exceptional. It was not guaranteed, people were dying next to me, there was bombing, people were shot on the street. If I survived it was miracle, it’s not my right, a right to live – it’s a privilege, which makes the whole attitude different. I’m always instinctively asking, ‘what is my obligation?’ I’ve got this gift and others were deprived of it – so what am I supposed to do – it’s not just a right to do whatever I want. I think it’s wrong to call it old fashioned, because the current state of mind in developed countries is something very exceptional. And completely new – it’s only 80 years that we don’t have war in Central Europe. People have no experience of bombing and attacks. There’s some terrorism but it doesn’t touch that many people. During previous centuries violence was a rule, hunger was a rule, epidemics, diseases, all kinds of disasters were happening. So we have memory of other definitions of the human condition that was more dramatic and eschatology was unavoidable.
We’re absolutely bound to think about the sense of our existence and our civilisation which were built on the Judeo-Christian tradition. I think it brought us to this liberation of mind that made technology possible. Why was China, as old as we are, unable to develop these kinds of skills with so many talented people? Because there was no concept of the human person or human individual – this was developed in this one stream of mind which we now call Judaeo-Christian. I think it’s worthwhile to observe it and to see what comes next.
A.M.: Do you see the way religion is portrayed in the film as a provocation?
K.Z.: Not really because while religion is present, it’s not in the centre. Putting the Faustian reference aside, there’s one character who’s almost a saint. It’s this Ukrainian boy for whom evil does not penetrate. He’s ready to offer his life to save his benefactor out of gratitude. This is something that to me is a triumph of the human mind. However, talking to my Ukrainian partners from the Byzantine Orthodox mind, they regretted that he was in uniform, even if he was a medic. When I look at Dostoevsky, whoever is pure – like Prince Myshkin –has to become a holy madman because there’s no way to be pure in this material world. It’s a very eastern Christian concept to be more open to compromise, compared to the Mediterranean, Roman, Latin. There, things are more lenient towards human weakness, saying it’s worthwhile to improve life on this earth before we think about the next life. In the east there’s a greater accent on the view that this life will never be pure so maybe not worth the effort. And I think that this is reflected in my story and I want people to reflect about this.
There’s an innate conflict between a concept of justice, which is very much a biblical concept attached to Jewishness, and the concept of mercy which is contradicting justice. How could people not be punished for what they did? As I travel to India with the film, this will be the first point of surprise for audiences. How is it possible that someone who’s guilty isn’t going to be punished? Only because he regrets for a moment before his execution and then because somebody prays for him? As a consequence, we may have some doubts. There would be some difficulty to accept that, maybe, in paradise we’ll meet Hitler and Stalin. Then I’m very much attached to the Jewish concept that there must be justice. I’ve been very often asked about this concept of justice and how essential it is for our civilisation that we believe that evil isn’t going to be pardoned totally. Also, what the nature of evil is. I have to dispute the interpretation of the words of Hannah Arendt who spoke about the banality of evil – I think she spoke about something else. She said that Eichmann as a criminal was banal but what he did had a colossal impact and meaning, so this isn’t banal at all – this was devilish. Eichmann is one who proves that the devil is real and existing, not imaginary. It’s not just a lack of goodness. It’s great admiration of evil and delight in the suffering of others. For me, today we think in a very bucolic way – life’s like a garden. My suggestion is the opposite – life’s like being in a jungle. One wrong step and you’re lost.
KINOTEKA Polish Film Festival runs until April 18 in London. For tickets and more information please visit: https://kinoteka.org.uk