CEEL contributor Alison Miller met Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi just before the screening of his latest film, Ether (2018), at the 17th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in London.
A.M.: How did you direct your actors to portray ideas as well as come across as real people?
K.Z.:The most important thing is always the cast – when the cast is correct then it works.You don’t need to spend so much energy. I wrote the leading part for an actor who was already in my previous films. We are strong antagonists in our ideas, but what matters is that we understand each other artistically. And I had this Hungarian actor who was a gift of the co-production – who had a mysterious smile and a deep understanding of what he was talking about. It was a delightful discovery to work with him in our first cooperation. The rest of the actors weren’t just from regular castings. They were in my previous films or my students, I collect the people and then I make the film.
A.M.: If an actor challenges an aspect of the script, as a director are you possessive about your own writing?
K.Z.:Well, if you can improve it – my ego now isn’t as bad as it was when I was younger.When I was younger, I was always defending myself. I was afraid that I’d be pushed and wouldn’t be speaking on behalf of myself. I don’t have this problem anymore. I can accept whatever other people can contribute to my film and I’m grateful that they have initiative. Sometimes I use that well-known trick that all directors know – you have to try to convince your actor that he invented something and then they’re happy.
A.M.: The use of light and the white and grey tones in the film successfully generate a mystical quality. Was this a reference to the cinema of moral anxiety?
K.Z.: The cinema of moral anxiety was more united by the approach to the basic discrepancy between Marxist teaching and Marxist reality. Aesthetically, it was very varied. I’d rather make reference to Bresson, who I admired as a beginner. Also, I liked the whole idea that you don’t serve the public on the plate, like you’re pressed by advertisement. All this means that expression’s often overdone. We are fighting for the attention of the spectator. Gradually the spectator becomes immune when something isn’t given to him on a plate – he may not notice. I also deliberately didn’t put the camera on the actor talking at that moment but showed something else. There was one danger – to avoid any reference to Viennese operetta. If you have 19thcentury scenes that are colourful there’s already this bad association. I didn’t want to show it as a shrine of love, I wanted to show it as a garbage can.
A.M.: What is your connection with the European Film Academy and what does it mean to you?
K.Z.: The European Academy of film was founded by Ingmar Bergman, who picked up 40 directors in Europe whose work was known outside the boundaries of their own country and culture. I was very flattered that I was one of them. We met in Berlin in a bar and I had a great reverence for him – he was such a great master for us. Very intelligent and lucid, he spoke very poorly about himself. This wasn’t modesty – it was a moral judgement. ‘You may like me but I have a terrible character.’ I think he was right when you read his biography – he had great problems to overcome. That’s why he was such a great artist.
Unfortunately, Europe today has no idea about what unites us. We are more defensive, we want to keep values which we realise were achieved, there’s a lack of a European dream. The American dream today is rather old fashioned but it’s still mobilising people. People go to America because they want to have an American life. In some aspects, European life might be much better without this comparison, without this race of rats that America is offering. But we can’t formulate what kind of life, what kind of society, we want to have. We only don’t want to lose the life that we have. Millions of potential immigrants want us to share our wealth with them, but we aren’t willing to do it. We aren’t ready to confront this problem. What’s our answer? There are hundreds and millions of Africans who watch our advertisements on their cell phones and see how rich and how happy we are. They want to be the same and we have no answer or proposal. I’m afraid if we don’t move, they will move, and this maybe the end of our civilisation.
A.M.: I’d like to turn to more general questions about your career. You studied Physics followed by a PhD in Philosophy. How have these disciplines contributed to your career has a filmmaker?
K.Z.: Definitely they did. My confrontations with Physics confirmed all my intuitions about spirituality because this ambience, this circle of physicists is very sensitive to our own mystery or what is supernatural. Physicists are immune to superstitions but they’re very open – unlike most aspects of humanistic science which are very opinionated, not ready to admit things that we don’t know and will never know. Physics teaches us that there are things that we will never know. That’s a great lesson. I met many outstanding people in physics. In Krakow, non-Marxist philosophy was taught in the state university. I underline this because many people believe whoever was studying philosophy under Marxism was studying Marxist philosophy. I was studying a regular course like in France or Germany. There was some accent on Husserl and phenomenology, as my professor Roman Ingarden was Husserl’s pupil and a friend of Edith Stein. They both studied together with Husserl. Stein was the first woman professor of philosophy in Germany and a martyr at Auschwitz concentration camp. She went there of her own free will in solidarity with her own nation. For us to know someone who was so close to her was a great lesson of philosophy.
A. M.: You’ve had a prolific and successful career in film – what keeps you going?
Z.: Jokingly – I have nothing better to do. I think I feel this kind of debt that I’m not given life for nothing, I have to justify my existence. This is serious even though it sounds pompous, but I think I mean it. Once I’m healthy, once I can get up and do something I must do it. There’s a feeling of obligation to my audience. Wherever they want me I go. I’ll never ask if it makes sense or not. I’ve been proven many times. When I thought something was a total waste of time, it turns out that one person was influenced by what I’ve said or shown – that justifies it all. So better not ask the question and just go and do and don’t regret – even if it wasn’t a spectacular event. Even after great events, the next day nobody remembers.
A.M.: As a professor of European film, what’s the most important advice you would give to aspiring filmmakers?
K. Z.: Insist on analysing deeply why they want to make films. Don’t exclude the red carpet or if you want to be rich and famous – admit it. Think also if that’s it, or if there’s some other motivation. Second – don’t lie. Truth is a very important factor of creation. If you’re not true to yourself, you’ll have the wrong relationship with people, a poor marriage or many marriages. It’s all because of the lie. Evil and the devil are renowned for being a liar.
KINOTEKA Polish Film Festival runs until April 18 in London. For tickets and more information please visit: https://kinoteka.org.uk