The First Three Feature Films by Krzysztof Zanussi: The Structure of Crystals (1969), Family Life (1971) and Illumination (1973)

Of course, the big release this Friday in the UK is a very belated one for South Korean film Parasite which has been picking up all the awards, and indeed I probably have enough South Korean films to do another themed week, though I’ve already done one a few months ago, so I’ll hold off on that for now. However, there’s also a small release for a new Agnieszka Holland film (Mr. Jones, which looks to be an odd little number, made largely in English but set in the 1930s in the USSR). She of course has a long history in Polish cinema, and I’ve just reviewed Andrzej Wajda’s seminal war film trilogy as part of my Criterion Sunday series, so herewith a themed week around Polish cinema. I’ll start with the under-heralded auteur Krzysztof Zanussi. If I don’t love his work, the posters are at least all excellent, as you expect from a country with such fine traditions of poster art


Struktura kryształu (The Structure of Crystals, 1969) [black-and-white]

Krzysztof Zanussi is an interesting director I’d never before seen a film by, but his education in physics means that he likes to use characters who are scientists (which is itself unusual in filmmaking) — so one should expect lots of thick spectacles and fetching cardigans. His debut film sets itself in the countryside, beautifully and crisply shot in black-and-white. Two school friends reunite, Marek (Andrzej Żarnecki) travelling from the city where he has a fairly high-powered job, somewhat baffled at his friend Jan’s (Jan Mysłowicz) placement out in the middle of nowhere. But his friend is happy, not least in playful scenes with his wife Anna (Barbara Wrzesińska). This is how the film goes, and it’s a nicely observed little piece, compact and sympathetic.

The Structure of Crystals film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Krzysztof Zanussi; Cinematographer Stefan Matyjaszkiewicz; Starring Andrzej Żarnecki, Jan Mysłowicz, Barbara Wrzesińska; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 18 January 2018.


Życie rodzinne (Family Life, 1971) [certificate 15]

Zanussi’s second film deserves someone attentive and in tune with his generational critiques of the family to write this up more positively, but I’m afraid it won’t be me. The stark monochrome of his debut is replaced here by a dour colour palette, as a young engineer (Daniel Olbrychski) is called back to his upper-class-fallen-on-hard-times family at a dilapidated pile slowly being encroached upon by new developments. His sister (Maja Komorowska) is a bundle of manic energy, his father a dissipated alcoholic former factory owner, and his work friend who has driven him there finds himself caught up in the family’s psychodrama. I think it’s making points about generational change in Poland, and a not-entirely-rosy view of political movement away from capitalism, but it didn’t grip me.

Family Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Krzysztof Zanussi; Cinematographer Witold Sobociński; Starring Daniel Olbrychski, Maja Komorowska; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Wednesday 31 January 2018.


Iluminacja (Illumination, 1973) [certificate 15]

I like slow cinema, I like the way of unfolding narrative through longueurs, through silence, through movements and reflection, sometimes not unfolding very much narrative at all, just a sense of existence in the world… but at length. Well, this is the opposite of slow cinema. There’s a decade of lived experience chopped down to a brisk 90 minutes. It moves past so quickly — in such bursts of frenzy and with little added bursts of harp music — that it jars the viewer, in a typically 70s European high modernist style, out of any moments of reverie as might accrue. And it’s great that so many people have latched onto Zanussi’s style and love it. If I don’t entirely do so, I appreciate that not all filmmaking is for everyone. Zanussi’s central character, another physicist called Franciszek (Stanisław Latałło), has his arc, has emotional times with his wife and child, with his career, with mortality, but the film is just so telegraphed that I felt it was all I could do to keep up, and maybe, ultimately, I need to accept that my brain just works more slowly.

Illumination film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Krzysztof Zanussi; Cinematographer Edward Kłosiński; Starring Stanisław Latałło, Monika Dzienisiewicz-Olbrychska; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 1 March 2018.

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