• Zanussi’s Family Life (1971) screened at the Chicago International Film Festival this past weekend.

The great Polish writer-director Krzysztof Zanussi was in town this past weekend to introduce two of his movies at the Chicago International Film Festival: his 1971 breakthrough Family Life and his latest feature, Foreign Body. (The latter screens again on Saturday at noon.) As I wrote in May when three of his major works—The Illumination (1973), Camouflage (1977), and The Constant Factor (1980)— came through town as part of a touring series of Polish classics, Zanussi is one of the smartest people ever to make movies. He had already earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a PhD in physics before he taught himself filmmaking in his mid-20s. Since the release of his debut feature, The Structure of Crystal, in 1969, he’s written and directed several dozen features and shorts, worked frequently in theater, and taught at the top Polish film academies. (I also learned the other day that he’s fluent in five languages.) I was fully prepared to be intimidated by Zanussi before I interviewed him the other day. To my surprise, I found him exceedingly gracious—in fact he often speaks quietly and with his head down, as though trying to keep himself from dominating the conversation. He readily acknowledged what he perceives as flaws in his work and the limitations of his knowledge. When I told him that my wife Kat and I count The Constant Factor among our favorite films, Zanussi immediately proposed that we come visit him in Warsaw. In the second part of our conversation, which I’ll post tomorrow, the director opened up about his relationships with actress Leslie Caron and the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. To start, we touched on the legacy of Illumination and The Constant Factor, the connection between scientific and humanistic thinking, and the prospect of immortality.

Ben Sachs: When those three films of yours were revived in Chicago this past summer, it was the first time that many younger moviegoers got to see your work, since very little of it is available on DVD here.

Kryzsztof Zanussi: Unfortunately. But then, DVD is also vanishing now. [DVD] was such a hope for us filmmakers, making us think our films would have longer life. When I started my profession, I thought that a film was like a stage play—it appears for a season then it vanishes forever, remaining only in the memory. Then we had videocassettes, but the videocassette did not last forever; it was still better, it was a second life.

And then this great discovery, DVD, would make us immortal . . . not really. You know, we were always envious of writers, thinking that they had longer lives. But even this is not true, because we’ve learned that the paper that was produced after 1850—there was a slight evolution of the technology then—this new paper vanishes in about 100 years. So, older writers have better, longer lives than newer writers. And the libraries will vanish as well. But everything vanishes, including ourselves. In my age, I’m starting to notice it.

You’ve produced an extraordinary number of films. Do you feel motivated by this belief that your work will not endure?

Whenever I’m asked why do I work so much, I say, “Because I have nothing better to do.” Work is a blessing. Unemployment is a natural situation for an artist, so I appreciate that I’ve been able to avoid it. I still work a lot. Only recently have there been longer gaps between my films, mostly because I’ve been working a lot in theater and I had a hard time getting funding for my latest films. But now I have another couple of projects. I’m trying to take advantage of the fact that I’m still alive, that I’m still moving and have relatively good health—a genetic advantage I got from my ancestors.

What do you think has kept you inspired all these years, to keep writing and directing so prolifically?

The world just fascinates me so much. Also I think it comes from a longing for a better life, for better people. Not to make it sound too romantic, but I’m always overwhelmed when I see a beautiful human being—by which I mean when I see somebody act beautifully. This gives me such a strong impulse to be present in the dialogue with humanity.

I’ve long had a stable situation—materially, physically, in terms of family. I have eight dogs, a nice condo, many people around me, because I keep an open house. By the way, my house really is open to any visitor. I’ve had hundreds of people visit me in Warsaw. That’s a great joy. I could spend all my time entertaining guests, but I still want to make films and work on stage.

When did you get involved in theater?

About ten years after I started my film career. Since then I’ve occasionally written plays. A couple of times when I had a play ready, it was immediately purchased by [a] television [company]. Naturally I directed it as a television film, so it would have ten times as many spectators.

  • The Constant Factor

I’d like to get into this idea of making movies to see better people. In a sense, this is what Illumination, Camouflage, and The Constant Factor are about. All three films are about idealists obsessed with improving themselves.

Yes, exactly. That’s what I like about human beings—that we’re able to do this to some extent. We’re never perfect, and nobody can achieve beyond his limits, but still. . . . What I hate in the mood of contemporary life is this resignation. In my opinion, it’s a very stupid belief that we’re all conditioned by genetics, that there’s no freedom left to us. You know, this idea that you’re fat because you have to be fat. No, you’re fat because you overeat.

Did you see the film Force Majeure that’s playing in the festival here?

I did. Do you see it as an example of this resignation you talk about?

To some extent. I think it was sincere about the redemption of the protagonist, but I was wondering why people were laughing at it. To me it was dramatic [at the movie’s climax], when he started crying and discovering what a miserable creature he is. And you know, [another character] was telling him that this [disappointment] is all because we’re brought up to believe that there are heroes. But there are heroes in life—I know it for sure. There are people who are able to act heroically and go beyond their own limits, and that’s what I try to find sometimes in my protagonists.

One thing I love about The Constant Factor is that you’re never sure if the hero is capable of those things, even at the end of the movie. His moral development remains an open book.

That’s why I made, about five years ago, a sequel to three of my earlier films. With the same actor, I made an interview with that character [from Constant Factor] after 35 years, asking what happened to him. He made no career whatsoever, but his life is not wasted. He’s a volunteer, helping people who have tried to commit suicide. So he became an amateur psychologist by cooperating with firemen on critical cases—that brings sense to his life. It was my fantasy for him, after all those years.

Does this differ from how you imagined his future in 1980?

  • Oliver Abels/Wikimedia Commons
  • Zanussi at the GoEast Film Festival in Wiesbaden, earlier this year

Yes. I wanted to correct some things in the film, based on what I’d read in a review. You know, we always say that critics are dangerous creatures and they influence our lives, and so on and so on. But Constant Factor got almost unanimously very good reviews. It got a very severe review from just one of the most important critics [in Poland]—a big writer and kind of friend. He reproached me for something I only understood years later: that my protagonist—who is, of course, a projection of myself—sometimes goes for ideas more than for people. In his intransigence, he becomes not human anymore.

I’m now a bit afraid of idealists who lose this human touch. Witold practically loses this touch, because he does not get any understanding of his colleagues at work [whom he tries to expose for corruption]. When I was shooting the film, I thought he was absolutely right—I was like him. Due to this unfavorable review, today I understand this quality in myself a bit better. So, I expect this challenge from critics.

Have you revised your position on any of your other films?

I have my second thoughts sometimes, especially about the films that are more personal.

What about The Illumination? The hero of that film studies physics and comes to concern himself with spiritual issues, just like you did.

You know, the guy who played the lead [Stanislaw Latallo] died in the HImalayas . . .

And that inspired you to write Constant Factor, right?

Yes. So, somehow his story is close to me and yet not at all. I know it is not logical. I left the ending [of Illumination] open, as if I was inviting something terrible to happen. But I had no projection for his future, because he was my age—actually, a little younger—and I thought there were many options open for him.

You received a PhD in physics before you became a filmmaker. Do you see any continuity between these two chapters of your life?

Continuity for sure, but I wouldn’t really distinguish between scientific and nonscientific thinking. In humanistic thinking, you also have to be rational. It’s hard to put this into words in English. Your language doesn’t like any vagueness—it’s very much down-to-earth.

Physics deals with mystery. In examining matter, we prove that we know very little and that we’re surrounded by fascinating and unexplainable facts. From the time that I was studying physics [in the early 1960s] to today, the changes [in that field] have been dramatic—especially in the last 15 to 20 years. That teaches you to be humble.

I’ll use an example of this way of thinking—bear in mind it’s slightly pedagogical. You know that in a city as big as Chicago, there will be a certain number of car accidents tonight. Coming in from the airport yesterday, I saw that there have been 680 people killed so far this year. Somebody will be killed tonight in his or her car, which is now being filled up with gas, but we don’t know who. So what is the link? When I see human life, I see mystery, which is most exciting. What can be explained sociologically, psychologically, that’s easy. But there’s this field of mystery—the things that will happen to me or you that we don’t know—that we can’t expect and can’t influence. There will be an accident or no accident. You will have cancer or not. To me, this is scientific thinking.

Did you continue your scientific studies after you started making films?

Not really, but I have many friends who are physicists. They try to teach me about what’s going on today, because I know very little about this. I’m very excited about the developments in physics and mathematics, which is an even more mysterious field of exploration.

What did you make of the discovery of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle, at the Large Hadron Collider?

That name, the God particle, is not really what it means. But [the discovery] shows that everything we knew until now was so fragmented. What we knew yesterday seems inadequate now, and tomorrow we’ll probably know even more.

Read part two of this interview.