'Communism's ideals don't match reality': Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi

His distinctive filmography over five decades has influenced many generations

68-Krzysztof-Zanussi God’s own auteur: Krzysztof Zanussi in Thiruvananthapuram to attend the IFFK | Nirmal Jovial

Even now, at 84, acclaimed Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi frequently gets inquiries about a nostalgic ‘unrequited first love’ from his early years. When pressed on the matter by this reporter, the auteur openly confessed his feelings. “I still love physics, though physics did not fall in love with me,” he said. “I was mediocre and I discovered it after studying the subject for four years [at the University of Warsaw]. But the whole field of ‘exact science’ is the basis of my life’s outlook and orientation.” His distinctive filmography over five decades―inspired by his own life, its dilemmas and anxieties―has influenced multiple generations.

‘‘Many ideals of communism―social justice, economic equality and so on―were positive. But they did not match reality.’’ ―Krzysztof Zanussi

Recently, Zanussi―who played an active role in the Solidarity Movement leading to the downfall of the communist dictatorship in Poland in the 1980s―was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). This is ironic, since the state is run by a communist government. Nevertheless, Zanussi is adept at navigating the ironies of life through filmmaking, employing wisdom tinged with dry wit.

But he is not hesitant to criticise when warranted. Twenty-five years ago, during an open forum session at IFFK, Zanussi engaged in a verbal altercation with the late CPI(M) ideologue P. Govindapillai. At that time, the filmmaker boldly declared, “I come from a country that was the victim of communism”, in response to P.G. ridiculing Poland for rejecting Marxism. That spat had attracted international media attention then.

During the recently concluded IFFK, P.G.’s children, M.G. Radhakrishnan and R. Parvathy Devi, presented the filmmaker with the English-translated version of Gramscian Chinthakal, a Malayalam book co-authored by P.G. and former Kerala chief minister E.M.S. Namboothiripad, about the ideas of the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. However, Zanussi revealed a little secret to THE WEEK: after the closing ceremony of the IFFK, he discovered that the book was missing from his belongings. Without hiding his frustration over the loss, he remarked, “Maybe it’s a sign.”

Zanussi attributes his openness and curiosity about the mysteries of the material world to his short but influential years in the company of people of science. “I believe that people of science are years ahead of the rest of society, because they understand the material world much better,” he said. “The material world is full of mysteries which are not explained. Maybe some of them will never be explained. The people of science know better about our limits, and I think the public in developed countries lost this sense of limitation in the 19th century itself.” A stint with philosophy following his physics days aided his filmmaking since 1969 on the limitations and imperfections of the human race and society.

Zanussi was born in 1939, the year Poland was invaded by the Nazis. He grew up in a country that was ruled by a puppet communist government under Stalinist dictatorship. Those early memories of living under an oppressive regime are most reflected in his tragicomedy At Full Gallop (1996), which is considered to be one of his most autobiographical works.

“The [Stalinist] period was really dramatic and is seen from the perspective of a child [in the film],” he says. “It was almost comical, and that is why I made the film a comedy. For instance, horse riding was [restricted in Poland] back then, could you believe that?” The regime considered it a hobby associated with the former aristocratic class. Interestingly, in At Full Gallop, Zanussi narrates the tale of a young boy sent to live with an ‘aunt’ (actually an old family friend) as his family falls under communist suspicion. This ‘aunt’, who shares her passion of horse riding with the boy, had many fake identities to survive the communist regime.

Zanussi said that this ‘aunt’ was based on a real-life eccentric woman who used to take care of him in his childhood. “After World War II, identification cards had to be reissued [for many] because many parishes and offices were destroyed in the war,” he said. “This ‘aunt’ had the crazy idea to create two identity cards instead of one, pretending to have a twin sister, because she knew that she would have to accept many moral and political compromises. So, she [made] this non-existing twin sister a party member. And in that crazy system it was possible to live [these fake lives]…. The whole idea of reality being not real is an essence of communism, or the essence of life under pressure or oppression.”

Zanussi recognised this disparity between communist ideals and reality at an early phase of his film career. And, that made him the pioneer of an influential Polish film movement of the late 1970s―the cinema of moral anxiety. A protagonist facing a conflict of values became the pivotal theme in his critically acclaimed films like Camouflage (1977) and The Constant Fear (1980). The movement abruptly ended in 1981 after martial law was introduced in Poland.

“Many of the ideals of communism―social justice, economic equality and so on―were positive,” said Zanussi. “But they did not match reality, and this whole discrepancy [created] the cinema of moral anxiety. [We were having] an absolutist government, so public debate was not possible. It was possible only through allusions in films, and that is what we were doing.”

The filmmaker faced enough communist censorship in his creative life. Interestingly, in 1981, when Zanussi worked on a biography of Pope John Paul II―whom he had known since the time he was a bishop―he had to deal with censorship from the Vatican, too. Around 30 objections were raised on his script, and Zanussi took a flight to the Vatican to say that if the church, too, wanted to impose censorship, he did not want to continue. As it happened, the Pope fell ill that day. Cancelling all appointments, he had the time to read the screenplay which an influential priest from Poland, coincidentally on the same flight as Zanussi, delivered to him. Consequently, all the “objections” disappeared.

Over the past five decades, Zanussi has helmed around 40 films, with the last one, Eter, releasing in 2018. Despite having opportunities to collaborate with prominent Hollywood stars and production houses, he opted for a “more sophisticated dialogue with a very demanding public”.

Today, with the dominance of social media and audiovisual content, Zanussi still believes that there is room for philosophical reflection. “As printed matter becomes less significant in our public life, with people reading less, we must find a way to convey more sophisticated ideas through audiovisuals,” he advises the younger generation of creators.