Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi compares Lithuanian-Polish relations to those of a divorced couple and says that the current wave of populism in Central Europe arises from people living better than before and becoming complacent about responsible politics.
Zanussi was recently presented with a lifetime achievement award from the Vilnius International Film Festival Kino Pavasaris for his contribution to cinema.
The 79-year-old acclaimed filmmaker has made a name for himself with films like The Structure of Crystals, Family Life, and The Illumination. His last film, Ether, co-produced by Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Hungary, opened the International Rome Film Festival. A Faustian story set in the early-twentieth-century borderlands of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the film follows a doctor performing perilous experiments with ether.
Krzysztof Zanussi talks to LRT’s Denisas Kolomyckis.
This past year has been full of losses for cinema. We are paying tributes to departed cinema greats like Annette Michelson, Jonas Mekas, Agnès Varda, among others. What impact did they have on you?
They are mostly my contemporaries. With some of them, I was a close friend, less so with others. Agnès Varda I knew quite well, she was one of the icons of the Nouvelle vague and of the feminist cinema, because she was like Věra Chytilová. They were both attractive ladies who were making interesting films.
And it is not by chance that I say “attractive ladies”, because we were used to the idea that some actresses may become directors, but these were real directors. From the male point of view, an attractive woman who wants more than just admiration is a novelty. This only happened in the twentieth century on such a large scale. Agnès Varda was such a woman, she was sufficiently successful without making films, but she wanted to make films.
Is or should art be political?
Probably not, because politics in a normal, that is democratic, society is something rather routine. It’s mostly about taxes. All politics should be about taxes: who is paying more and how we spend it.
When there are deeper problems, they are ideological. And ideology goes beyond politics: what ideals we formulate, what we consider is good for the development of the society and what we consider is bad. What is progressive and what is not. This is very disputable, because many people believe that they are progressive, although some of them are not, you can prove that they are retrograde.
And from that point of view, art in general, and narrative art like cinema in particular, has something to contribute. It forms dreams, it forms ideals, it forms desires. It persuades people what should be considered normal and what abnormal. So here art’s role is quite big.
Doesn’t every piece of art suggest its author’s value system and is in that sense a political statement?
Value system, yes. As for politics, there are films that influenced elections and nowadays this is going even more extreme, like in Ukraine, like in India, like in Lithuania. You have people from TV series who become actual politicians. Not like Ronald Reagan, who was an actor, but spent years in politics before becoming president. But people who exist in the imagination of the public, or on screen, and suddenly they appear as real people and the public confuses them. That’s very infantile and rather dangerous.
What does it mean for you to present your finished work for the public’s judgement?
It’s of course the ultimate test and I’m always very nervous. There is a deep anxiety because when I make a film, I make it because I want to reach the public. And to reach the public is not only about the box office, only people in accounting believe that this is the final goal. We want to leave a trace, something that you cannot measure with the number of tickets sold.
Now that I have finished my latest film and I travel a lot with this film to many countries, I am each time very nervous. I want my public to be moved and to be influenced, to be touched by my work. Sometimes it works better, sometimes less so. I’m very sensitive to various reactions, I listen to them. Some people bring me very surprising remarks about what they have found in my film, what I sometimes did not intend and sometimes I did. But it is a very intense time and at a certain moment I have to say: this chapter is closed and I will start my next project.
Cinema is a collaborative art. How do you pick your team to work with?
First of all, as a boy scout I have a team of other boy scouts that I like them and try to work with. But I work a lot abroad and then we have to compose our team from foreigners. My latest film was co-produced by Lithuania, Ukraine, Hungary and Italy and it had many components of the team who were new to me. But all of them worked very well and I am very happy with these people and with many of them I stay in touch. This is a sign that I had good experience.
And the same goes for actors. I made one stage play in Panevėžys, Lithuania, and I took one of my actors to the film, because I wanted one Lithuanian to be on screen.
I try to be surrounded by people who have already contributed something to my work. Of course, I have to invite new people as well. I’ve one piece of advice about actors: you have to love actors if you want them to give a good performance. And love is not a feeling, it’s an effect of work. You can force yourself to love somebody and this is the goal of a good collaboration of a director.
What is the difference of working in theatre and in cinema, especially when it comes to directing actors?
The main difference is that cinema likes to capture something that cannot be repeated, that happens only once. An actor was in such a mood that gave such a performance and it probably will be not possible to reconstruct another day.
In theatre, it’s the opposite. Actor must repeat the same action every day. So that’s a big difference in methodology. Basically, an actor in cinema is using the means of expression that are identical to our means of expression when we talk privately, on the street or in a coffee house. But on stage, you have to amplify everything, you talk louder, make bigger gestures, because you must be understood from the second balcony. So the texture of acting is a little different. But most actors I know and most great actors act both on stage and film. And it’s complementary, it helps them. Only they must remember that they have to use slightly different means in cinema and in theatre.
How has life changed for you from the days as a student of physics and philosophy to being a filmmaker, and a great one at that?
I assure you that no serious artist will ever feel that he’s great. We don’t know what we are, we never do. I am happy that people still listen to me and pay attention to my work, one day they may stop. I won’t be surprised, but i feel very flattered that sometimes people care about what I say.
What was different when I was younger? I was maybe more eager to work fast, because I knew that each chance given to me was an exception. You have no right to be an artist. You have a right to be a doctor when you study medicine, you have a right to be an engineer when you study engineering; but an artist is an imposer. We bring to people something they didn’t ask for. We have to convince them: you need it, you like it, but see it first, meet my work.
And that’s why our position is always very fragile and we have to admit it. I may be better-known or less known, but there is always perplexity, there is always doubt, our existence as artists is precarious. And we have to put up with it, what can we do?
When you write your screenplays, do you work from inspiration, or is it rather a process of labour?
I've no time to wait for inspiration. I try to work systematically, but what is more important is not to waste your enthusiasm and energy. We’ve all had projects which were aborted, we tried and they were never born. And this is great pain, it burns you.
Of course, I have many scripts that I’ve written and have not found financing for. Sometimes I cannibalize them, I might take a little piece of script and put it into a new script, but it never works that well because it’s not originally conceived in harmony with the whole story.
So I would always warn my colleagues: don’t get involved too early, you must have some sort of a guarantee that the film can be realized. If you are a lunatic, if you are a dreamer, you will have many projects and none of them will be done. It is very painful and destructive to yourself.
Do you consider yourself religious?
I would say I consider myself religious. That means I believe that there is some intelligence above us and that the world makes sense. That’s all what is religion is about – if I believe that it all makes sense, even if I don’t understand it, then I am religious.
Albert Einstein was using a very good saying. In 1936, he was addressing humanitarian scientists and told them: he who doesn’t feel mystery is blind and deaf. And, he said, if mystery is the basis of religious feelings, then I am religious.
And ethics, morale is just part of it. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, especially in the period of Saint Augustine of Hippo, if your heart is pure, you have better access to truth and beauty. If your heart is contaminated by wrongdoings, you’re somehow separated from the truth. And that’s why ethical aspect is part of our integrity and we if we lose integrity, our creative possibilities are smaller.
Do you value artistic satisfaction more than financial success?
If my work gives me joy and satisfaction, it is important, but I must know that it is not my selfish pleasure, that somebody shares this pleasure. If I am satisfying myself only, then it is not a good satisfaction.
Sure, we live in a society where many things are measured in money, but not all of them. A friendly smile, you cannot sell it. If you sell your smile, you’re a prostituting. And disinterested charm is a great, very precious thing.
In films, in works of art, if you sell them well or less well, it does matter, but that’s not the final goal. If you want to be rich, don’t invest in films, invest in stock markets, that’s much safer. We do things for the others, to communicate, but we must not, I guess, succumb to the dictatorship of the market. We must keep some dignity and say: this is the price I am ready to pay, but not more. And price is a compromise. Sometimes we compromise with the public, with public tastes, with habits, with fashion, but an artist should rather create fashion than be a slave of fashion.
Can you comment on the sometimes tense relationship between our countries, Poland and Lithuania?
I think we are in a regular position of a divorced couple. And we have to admit it and have some sense of humour and see how ridiculous our feuds are. Because I don’t think we have any real reason to be hostile. Except some incidents, mostly in the twentieth century.
But in the past we created together something very precious, what was this Rzeczpospolita, this Commonwealth. And then we misled it and we are both guilty, because the influence of Lithuanians in this Commonwealth was disproportional, it was much bigger. I’m wondering why the Lithuanians don’t remember this – you were running this country, because you were better. Poles from this part which is now Poland were less skilful in state administration. People who came from Vilnius were better. The Jagiellonian dynasty, surrounded by hundreds of Lithuanians, were running this Commonwealth very successfully.
But then, unfortunately, we started committing mistakes, bigger and bigger. Finally, we didn’t find a solution for the third nation which is Ruthenia, now Ukraine and Belarus. We didn’t find a way how to integrate them, how much freedom we should give them, we didn’t want to share our freedom with them. And then Russia dominated and then we divorced. So I don’t see any reason why we should ever be hostile or bitter. Because we have a glorious past and now separate futures. Like in divorce.
Are you critical of current politics in Poland?
Oh yes, I think that it’s a natural and healthy approach. I criticise my medical doctor, I criticise my architect and my constructor. Why shouldn’t I criticise my politician? The one whom I vote for and the one I did not vote for.
But I believe that our living standards have risen so high in the last twenty years, we’re so much better off than in the past, that I note the societies becoming more irresponsible. Because when things look safe, people start to take frivolous decisions, play around with politics, which is dangerous. They choose populists who have no programme, only promise fairy tales. That’s the surest way to destroy the country, the society. And we both, Poles and Lithuanians, have survived the tragedy of lost independence (in 1795). So we must be very careful not to let something similar happen again, not to tolerate people who are ready to destroy our statehood, because we know that statehood may be lost.
Where do you feel most at home?
Of course, I feel at home in Poland, but I like many other countries and I feel very well there. I live in part in Paris. In the critical moment when we had martial law in Poland (in the 1980s), I was very well received by the French authorities that helped and assisted me. So I still keep my little pied-à-terre in Paris. But anywhere in Europe I feel well and not only in Europe where I have friends and i feel like at home. But, of course, Poland is my first reference and I’m very proud of my house in Poland where my wife painted two sparrows on the ceiling, so whenever I open my eyes in the morning and there are the sparrows, I know I am at home. When there are no sparrows, I’m in a hotel.
You also spend considerable time in Lithuania. What is your rapport with this country?
I’m aware of the past and that’s why I feel very comfortable when I visit you, because I know that we have a long story that unites us. And I’m very happy to relate to this story. I want to feel at home, even if i don’t speak one single word of Lithuanian.
My ancestors came from Italy. At the time when there were no nationalisms, foreigners were welcome and look how many foreigners contributed to Lithuania, how many contributed to Poland. At the time when we were together, a powerful country, we were attractive to Italians, to Germans, to Jews. they were all coming to live in our country.
What advice would you give to a young filmmaker?
I think integrity comes first. We are so much attracted to compromise, all the possible tricks we want to play in order to be a winner. But remember, you must sell your talent, your work, your time, your effort. Don’t sell your soul, because when you sell your soul, you’re lost, you’re empty.