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‘The Zespol System assured a partial autonomy to our cineastes’: an interview with Krzysztof Zanussi




By Giuseppe Sedia.

According to a decision recently voted by the Polish Senate, the remaining state-owned film studios are due to be privatized by 2013. This provision will affect 11 companies including the studio TOR headed by Krzysztof Zanussi. Since the aftermath of the events of 1989, Poland has not yet fully come to terms with a free market film industry.

Zanussi is, first and foremost, a film director and one of the key figures, together with names like Krzysztof Kieslowski and Agnieszka Holland, of the so-called ‘cinema of moral anxiety’. This label was given to films focusing on the existential issues affecting Polish society abruptly let down by the ruthless repression of the Baltic shipyards protests of December 1970.

Zanussi’s vibrant cinema is mostly built upon a troublesome triangle involving science, moral and religion resulting from his educational background in physics and philosophy. He can be seen as the bridge between Andrzej Wajda and a new generation of talented directors such as Slawomir Fabicki, Pawel Borowski and Xavier Zulawski, the latter the son of Andzrej Zulawski.

This interview, with coffee but without cigarettes, took place on January 26, 2011, in the foyer of Pod Baranami cinema of Cracow (recipient of the Europa Cinemas Award for Best Programming in 2009).

Film International (FI): Which is in your opinion the most successful movie to date in your long career?

Krzysztof Zanussi (KZ): I do not have the right to judge my own features. Furthermore, the appreciation of a film is always affected by the local taste. Becoming more and more confident, film directors should learn to accept their past efforts in order to focus on their new projects.

(FI): Do you have any favourites among the youngest Polish cineastes?

(KZ): I think Polish cinema has been in good shape especially since the creation of the Polish Film Institute in 2005. I was recently impressed in a positive way by Borys Lankosz debute feature Reverse (2009), a brilliant black comedy set in the fifties.

(FI): Could you tell us something more about your activity at the head of the zespol [state-owned film company] TOR?

(KZ): I have worked for this production unit since 1980. Despite the work of the censors the zespol system assured a partial autonomy to our cineastes during the Communist era. At TOR studio we produced dozens of films, not only arty pictures but also cult films such as Marek Piwowski’s comedy The Cruise (1970) and Walerian Borowczyk’s soft-core features.

(FI): Do you think that the artistic choices of a zespol-studio should reflect the taste of their management?

(KZ): In comparison to Wajda’s zespol for instance, TOR decisions were influenced only to a minor degree by personal penchants. After 1989 I think that most of the production units in the country lost their previous identity, which consisted in taking shared decisions based on a common artistic background.

(FI): How did you manage to get around censorship, directing films that clung to the dark side of life in Poland?

(KZ): Censors with a kind of blind optimism weren’t aware that Communism was already about to decay. In the seventies several controversial references to Polish reality were considered more or less part of the internal debate of the Polish United Workers’ Party and therefore tolerated.

(FI): Were censors always so indulgent with the projects submitted by the zespols?

(KZ): Censors were always obliged to provide a certain number of cuts to their supervisors. They had to show some concrete results obtained in their struggle with the artist. Sometimes with camaraderie they just purposely eliminated only frames not affecting the content of the films.

(FI): What about your own experience with the official ‘thou-shall-nots’?

(KZ): I personally faced several bans in those years. A controversial quotation of Lenin for instance was removed from Camouflage (1977). In The Constant Factor (1980) most of the footage of Polish student protests from March 1968 was trimmed from the final cut.

(FI): It seems that your early cinema could not survive without the presence of documentary footage in the final edit.

(KZ): The Illumination (1972) for instance contains interview footage from the physics and astronomy academic milieu including philosophical statements by Wladislaw Tatarkiewicz. In the seventies I attempted to enrich the debates about the topics in my films. In this way, I felt I could better grasp reality in its full complexity.

(FI): Were you influenced by Edgar Morin’s cinéma verité style?

(KZ): My interviews were carefully prepared in front of the camera. They did not result from casual encounters in the street. Anyhow, I really appreciate the work of post war French documentary filmmakers such as Morin and Jean Rouch, but still as a feature film director, nouvelle vague cinema is what impressed me the most.

(FI): Do you think that your generation rebelled against Wajda, ‘le cinéma de papa’?

(KZ): Intellectual solidarity between generations has been never put into question in Polish cinema. The fact that cineastes such as me, Krzysztof Kieslowski or Agnieszka Holland didn’t deal with stories taken from literature and/or set in the Second World War does not imply that we despised Polish Film School achievements.

(FI): What did you mean when you said that Polish cinema found its new Roman Polanski in Skolimowski in the sixties?

(KZ): The position of the rebel auteur suddenly left vacant at Lodz campus after Polanski’s departure to the UK was immediately filled in by Jerzy Skolimowski. His approach, behind the camera, contributed to perpetuate a healthy individualism in Polish contemporary cinema.

(FI): How has the generational gap among film directors manifested itself today in Poland?

(KZ): There are no major rifts separating the youngest generation from Kieslowski’s one in terms of approach in directing. Nevertheless, the fiasco of a film is nowadays considered more the result of personal mistakes rather than a failure of the whole production team.

Giuseppe Sedia is a free-lance reporter and editor based in Poland.

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