Krzysztof Zanussi:
Timeless Images and Questions in
"A Year of the Quiet Sun"
 
      
 
 




 

 

 

 
                                                                   Original movie poster
 
 
What Turns a Man into a Human Being?
 

Since we at cinemaseekers.com had the privilege of a personal interview with the great Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi, let me start with a few personal observations. It rarely happens that upon meeting an artist, whom one has admired for a long time, one is not in some way disappointed. Yet our meeting with Zanussi was just such a rare case. As anyone who watches our interview with him can see, this man truly "lives" the questions he poses in his films: what is the nature of fate, of redemption, of sin? These are not merely abstract, intellectual topics for him, but rather profound concerns of his soul. It is no wonder that students all over the world feel attracted and inspired by his noble strivings in the very midst of today's general slide towards apathy and irresponsibility.

There are many films, which stand out as exceptional in Zanussi's output: "The Structure of Crystals", "Face to Face", "Family Life", "Illumination". However, a particularly special place is occupied by "A Year of the Quiet Sun". It represents one of those rare moments in cinema, when all the elements come together to form a magical, yet totally natural work of art. One can, of course, analyze the perfection of the screenplay and the subtleties of acting, but ultimately it is the indefinable elements that turn this film into a transcendental experience, when viewed as a whole. From the very first (somewhat awkward) encounter between the two main characters, we sense that they have a special connection, which draws them together with irresistible force. He is an American stationed in Poland at the end of WWII, and she has just returned to her native, war-ravaged country after the Nazi occupation. Speaking as they do two different languages, they can barely say two words to each other. Yet the attraction is unmistakable. This, however, is not the "animal magnetism" of sexual attraction so common and so misguidedly praised today, but a deep sensing of a spiritual connection between two human souls.
 
And it is the woman's soul in particular, Emilia's (beautifully portrayed by Maja Komorowska), which shines here in all its natural beauty! It is worth noting, in passing, the differences between Emilia's appearance and that of a typical Hollywood image of womanhood. What a striking contrast! One comes from the soul, has nothing to do with physical features themselves, but beautifies them from within with genuine feminine grace. The other (the Hollywood type) is a beauty-substitute: it is all about surface glamour, about the arousal of instincts, and it substitutes feminine vanity for feminine charm. Not coincidentally does the American man in the film (Scott Wilson) chooses the more natural type of feminine beauty (represented by Maja Komorowska) over the artificial American type.
 
The film's greatest achievement is that it manages to convey, despite (or even through) the essentially wordless communication of the characters, a sense that these two people "belong" together and that this "belonging" has already been predestined before they meet, before the film even begins. They themselves "know" it, and this sense of "knowing" empowers them to confront the harsh political system of Poland, which acknowledges no reality beyond what is visible to the earthly eyes (the reality of  a chair and a table, as Ingmar Bergman once put it). The inner world of a human being, his spiritual intuition, his ability to distinguish right from wrong, purity from impurity, true love from mere instinct, and his sensing of the invisible threads of Fate which connect people - all of these things are ridiculed and laughed at by the so-called "realists". These "realists", however, can be found in any political system, in any part of the world, in any profession and on any level of education. In truth, they are the people, who have cut themselves off precisely from the very reality of life, since they forcibly limit their perception of reality to the minutest part of the Universe - that part, which is visible only to our very limited earthly senses.
 
The totalitarian system, which is so vividly portrayed in "A Year of the Quiet Sun", actively and aggressively promotes the basest and coarsest aspects of life, acknowledging the material reality as the only reality and denying man's higher spiritual nature. This attitude is actually not confined to any particular political system, but it does tend to manifest in the most brutal forms under the socialist system. And this is another reason why "A Year of  the Quiet Sun" is so valuable: it allows us to observe what this type of brutality does to people - both to the perpetrators and to the victims. When Emilia's flat is ransacked by the thugs (who are, perhaps, connected with the police), who do not even stop at beating her elderly and sick mother, it affects one so deeply that one can't stop wondering: are these people even human? What happened to make them lose their humanity to such an extent? Have they always been like this? And do we have anything in common with them? One usually goes round and round in these circles of questions, not finding a way out, as in a labyrinth...