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18 August, 2011  ▪  Olena Chekan

Heart in His Hand

Krzysztof Zanussi on the self-restriction of successful democracies, the imperfection of tolerance, and art as a quest for mystery

He has never tried to please the audience and has never been afraid of making elite films. His prize-winning Constant Factor (the Jury Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, Cannes Film Festival, 1980) culminated the European film-making of the 1980s, alongside with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia and Wim Wenders’ Heavens over Berlin.


U. W.: It looks like the world is a bit tired of the problems of post-Soviet countries. But what you say in the media suggests that you are still interested in our lives. Why?

You know, when I show my guests around the Royal Castle in Warsaw, I always emphasize that it was built not only with Polish money, but also with that of Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. Ukraine is our closest neighbor, it covers a huge territory. We are bound by a common history and age-long struggle for freedom and independence. When it comes to Russia, we all ponder about the future that awaits it. This country is one huge mystery for the whole world. Now it is losing on many fronts, and that’s where I see a threat. The world has become more modern, but Russia is lagging behind, and it’s dangerous. The collapse of great empires always menaces their neighbors. Russia has so far never been able to create a viable state project, but I hope it will have the potential to do so.

U. W.: Is the notion of colonial legacy familiar to the Polish mind?

Yes, of course, but with opposite signs. Poland was divided among three empires: Austria, Prussia, and Russia. In terms of the development of civilization, society, civic institutions, education, medicine, etc., the parts ruled by the former two were on a much higher level than the part under the latter. You are also lucky that half of Ukraine was under Austria. There are two distinct mentalities in Ukraine, two sides, two distinct experiences – and this enriches the nation and creates a situation when you do not depend on a single opinion. There is something to compare and to choose from – and at home at that, not elsewhere.

U. W.: What do you think of the final departure from democratic principles in Ukraine?

You have already proved that you can resist violence. And when non-democratic practices persist, you always have the chance of confrontation — this depends on the people. I think that in Ukraine this prospect is always open.

A lack of democracy chokes the economy first of all. And when the common people begin to understand that corruption, bribery and dishonest tenders all mean a lack of democracy, opposition, and public opinion, then it’s clear that the people will stay poor until a truly open society arises.

If the incumbent Ukrainian government has no desire to join the EU, the West is helpless. I will only say that it is our egoistic interest that Ukraine should upgrade and not slide into a crisis. Sometimes it requires sacrifice which, in its turn, takes courage. The boundary of sacrifice, what man will or won’t do, is a complicated thing. History knows winners who were prepared to sacrifice as much as possible to achieve the future goal, whatever it may be. This applies both to an individual human life and a life of a nation.

Look at Finland, for example. This country made great sacrifice in order to survive and hold out, after it had stopped being a link between the West and Russia. They bet on education, and now Finland’s middle name is Nokia. It doesn’t matter whose idea it was, but the people made a conscious choice. All parties agreed to rescue the country and the nation in this way. This is the correct way to upgrade.

U. W.: Ukrainian and Polish historians keep convening more and more often to discuss the painful moment of our common past. Isn’t it about time society did the same?

There have been attempts to bury history at different times. You must know the truth and learn to live with it. We all should be aware we not only suffered, but inflicted suffering as well. Awareness and acknowledgement make men and nations free, this is the only way to go on. This is how France and Germany dealt with their age-long enmity and got rid of it. Now we are also arriving at such mutual understanding with the Germans, although they have done us a lot more harm than we have to them. Yet we will not hush down the cases of revenge and sadism in 1945, albeit they were not numerous. And today we are prepared to say, Please forgive us for this. The Germans, as you know, have been asking for forgiveness for half a century already, and thus the mutual hate passes away.

And I am very proud that Poland has learned to repent. Only a free nation can afford repentance and admit its historical guilt. We admit that we did a lot of harm to you and we will be happy if Ukrainians understand and admit their guilt against Poles. As for our guilt, let’s take the 1920s, when Poland came to possess a part of Ukraine. Everyone knows of the policy of Polonization, with its stark disregard for Ukrainian culture. We are ashamed of this.

“Besides, at a certain moment in the past Poland was supposed to be a state of three nations, but in effect it turned out to be a state of Poles and Lithuanians. There was no equality, Cossacks were not granted nobility, and so the Cossack uprisings began. Now, perusing Henryk Sienkiewicz, we can see how much untruth and 19th century pro-Polish propaganda there is. When Jerzy Gofman made a screen version of his novels, he already had a different view of many things there. And his Bohdan Khmelnytsky is quite different from Sienkiewicz’s.


U. W.: What is happening to this world? Crowds of people took to streets in the cities of the Middle East and North Africa, and now there is unrest in Europe, too. Before, starting conflicts or settling them was the prerogative of the elite, while now the little man is coming into the limelight. Is this the beginning of a new civilization?

This is a colossal step forward in human history. We have forgotten that for long centuries most individuals didn’t have the right to speak for themselves. Now, huge numbers of people worldwide can take an active part in the life of the planet. This is a fascinating, but dangerous phenomenon. We should try to find ways to deal with this complicated reality. These people used to be totally ignored, but now public opinion influences history more and more. And although the masses don’t have a high level of responsibility and understanding of history, it is still higher than before. In general, I’m quite optimistic about this.

U. W.: How do you perceive the notion of tolerance?

Tolerance isn’t my word. Culture does not know it. Good doesn’t need it, and with evil tolerance is useless. A cultured man who aspires to understand and thus love another will never speak of tolerance, because love is higher than this notion.

Tolerance is like training. I have nine Labrador retrievers at home, with well-developed hunting instincts, and I have paid lots of fines for the neighbors’ chickens they killed. A stick helped instil tolerance for chickens in my dogs, but I don’t know how to make them love them.

U. W.: What can you say about the confrontation of globalism and anti-globalism?

This is all on the level of pop culture. I have never come across a case of truly deep globalism, or anti-globalism, for that matter. Although our reality does present huge problems which should indeed be opposed. We should oppose the egoism and irresponsibility of big capital, and the destruction of nature.

But often, the idealism of the young ends up serving someone else’s interests. That is denial, protest becomes a profession. They have now found shale gas in the mountains in Poland, but I expect huge protests, paid by those who are already selling fuel, they don’t need new sources. And just think of the Chornobyl money the USSR wrung from the West in its last days! Sadly, it was not used to help the people that suffered from the disaster, or to relieve the radiological situation. Now the West gives Belarus money for Chornobyl, and again, it is being misused.”

U. W.: Once you said that you reject “Christian” and “Muslim” values etc.

Everything depends on the context. In many countries which used to be ruled by ideology, religion has now stepped in – for example, this happened to a certain extent in Russia. Universal values, on the contrary, exist on the level of subtle mysticism. People of noble culture are close all over the world. And all the world’s brutes are worlds apart.


U. W.: Under totalitarianism, our nations experienced artists and intellectuals being subjected to extreme pressure. On the other hand, the regimes feared them, as they perceived them a threat to the existing order. Has the significance of the artist shrunk today?

Back then, access to information was extremely restricted, and the artist served as a transmitter, an information medium. In democratic countries his role is not that important, but under communism it was really special. Well, Moliere also had a large influence in his king’s entourage, so the monarch banned his plays. Art has always been a mirror, a reflection of life, but without illusions.

U. W.: An artist is believed to speak through his work. You deliver lectures around the world and have even tried conducting symphony concerts. Do you find the boundaries of your profession too narrow?

You know, there comes a time in your life when a man wants to do something he has never done before, as he understands that time is running out. This is such a treat, to do something for the first time. I am seized with fear when I come in front of a symphony orchestra. Incompetence is one of the secrets of youth, I love being incompetent. But speaking seriously, I have always been attracted by new areas where I can do something.

U. W.: How would you define freedom?

You can be free even in prison, and not free as a president of a nation or a bank director. This is a matter of your inner self. If you are at peace with your conscience, this is freedom. Of course, man has genes, he experiences pressure from society, he is a zombie, but it is up to the man alone to resist this all. We must oppose it in the limits given to us.


U. W.: You keep repeating that the mission of art is the quest for truth and beauty. Is this true for all epochs?

The quest for truth, good, and beauty is the essence and the sole mission of art. This idea is Aristotle’s. Art awakens conscience and puts chaos right. Man needs help. Often, life seems senseless to us, but under the influence of art, we can at least get some glimpses of its sense. Even when art shows ugliness, it evokes a yearning for beauty.

The problem today is that art typically doesn’t express anything, it is totally devoid of any worldview. But I hope this is a temporary phenomenon, and not to be forever. Some forms of art are at a deadlock now, for example, fine arts, whereas architecture is on the rise. High music is in the shade, while pop music has taken its place.

The situation in cinema is also deplorable. Some 30 years ago its language was far brighter, more powerful and diverse. And the audience was more sophisticated. The pictures by Bergman, Godard, Fellini, Tarkovsky, or Antonioni were shown to vast audiences. Today most films are for a primitive public. These kinds of movies have always been made, but now they prevail. The screen industry is not aware of its mission, it only produces what is going to be bought. No one cares for upbringing the viewer.

Well, then we’ll have to wait. El Greco waited for two centuries, Bach was forgotten, so if it hadn’t been for Mendelssohn… and now his work is said to be one of the proofs of God’s existence. I just don’t know if films can wait, though.

Speaking of television, it has rather a low level everywhere worldwide. I seldom watch TV shows, because they are just a succession of senseless episodes. They break up the foundations laid by the Hellenes. Ancient Greek tragedy rests on life’s crucial moments as a culmination of our existence.

U. W.: What can you say about Ukrainian film-makers?

I am interested when Kira Muratova appears. Otherwise, I am poorly acquainted with your cinema — the only thing I know is that it barely exists! Europe has a certain standard: there should be one film per one million population. In France, with its 55 million, they make about 60 full-length films a year. So it would be good if Ukraine had at least 40. But with the actual two or three… You need special privileges for the national cinema. I don’t understand why the Ukrainian leadership can’t see that culture is more important than economy.

U. W.: Has life become easier for you after the reform of the Polish film-making?

I’m not making any films now, because it is for the first time that I haven’t got any money from the state, but I hope for the situation to improve. Our legislation is quite good, and we make our living by that. According to the law, 1.5 percent of all advertisement on TV channels, cable TV, and the proceeds from cinema tickets is spent on national filmmaking. And if an American movie is a box office hit in Poland, this, too, boosts the Polish film industry. We borrowed this system from the French (although there it is 3 percent).


U. W.: Your path to your profession took you a long time. Was it uncertainty about yourself, or some outer circumstances?

Both. I began my studies in 1955, and back then the choice was not really very big. All humanities were studied from the Marxist perspective, and I wouldn’t have anything in common with that. I dreamed of architecture. But my father showed me the Palace of Science and Culture in Warsaw and explained that it was a horrendous kitsch and total disgrace – so of course I could not make any design like that. Only physics remained pure and free from Marxism, and that is why I applied for the department of physics. The year 1956 brought its thaw, normal philosophy came back, and I made a choice in its favor.

U. W.: What do science and art have in common?

The mystery. A believer calls it ‘God.’ Physics instilled in me a great reverence for the unknown, because it is a science that is continually trying solve riddles. If there is mystery in art, then it has depth and truth. If mystery is absent, and everything can be explained like a detective story, it will never become a great work of art.

Creative work conceals this danger: once I understand what I’m doing, I should not do it, because the mystery is already gone.


Krzysztof Zanussi

Polish film and theater director, script writer, educationist

1939 – born in Warsaw.

1955-1959 – studied physics at Warsaw University.

1959-1962 – studied philosophy at Krakow University.

1958 and onwards – Zanussi made a series of prize-winning amateur films.

1962-1966 – student at the department of directing at the Lodz Film School.

Zanussi’s graduation project, The Death of a Provincial, won a prize at the Venetian Film Festival and first prize at the Manheim International Film Festival.

Since the early 1970s, Zanussi has been one of the most active directors in Polish film, making one or two pictures each year and alternating full- and short length film with TV films.

Zanussi has authored several collections of TV and cinema scripts, the books Discourse on an Amateur Film (1978) and Time to Die (1999), and directed a series of theater an opera performances in Poland, Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.

Professor of the Silesian University, Katowice, cooperates with the National Film School, UK.

Since 1994, Zanussi has been a consultant of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Vatican City, member of the Polish PEN Club, and the Association of Polish Writers. He has also presided the EUROVISION Association.

2008-2010 – Zanussi was Senator of the Ukrainian Catholic University.

Zanussi is a laureate of numerous film prizes.

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