Although Krzysztof Zanussi is hardly a household name in the English-speaking world, he is a distinguished Polish director with a long list of films to his credit. Born in 1939, he directed his first film in 1969. In 1981, he made a biography of John Paul II, Man from a Far Country. In 1982, he won the Golden Lion Prize in Venice for The Year of the Quiet Sun, a romance about an American soldier and a Polish refugee at the end of World War II.
He currently teaches European film in Switzerland and Poland, is a director of the Polish film studio TOR, and is a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
Zanussi's films are characterised by their moral restlessness and a deeply-felt Christianity, which never wavered, even under the Communist regime in Poland. He was interviewed in Spain by Ana Sánchez de la Nieta when he received a prize for his work from the University of Navarra.
MercatorNet: You have always defended the superiority of European thought and art over American. Does that make sense when we see that the film industry is almost completely dominated by the United States?
Zanussi: I'm not so sure about that. It's true if we look at things from a European perspective during a moment of crisis in European cinema. Today, since European film and culture are weak, American film is stronger. But this situation is not immutable, and a proof of this is the success of many Indian and Chinese productions.
MercatorNet: But what is happening to European culture?
Zanussi: If Europe were a person, I would take her to a psychologist. Not to a psychiatrist, but to a psychologist. I do not believe that the illness which afflicts Europe is a clinical case, but her behaviour shows clear signs of unbalance. She has lost her dreams and her self-confidence. Sometimes I have said that Europe suffers from depression. To be cured, she needs to believe in herself and in her mission — just like a team which wants to win needs determination, self-sacrifice and education. The whole world has benefited — and still does — from European ideas, but no one is trying to save her. Europe has to cure herself and to do this she has to recover her self-esteem.
MercatorNet: What role do artists have in this recovery?
Zanussi: It is always minorities who spur on development in the different fields of human endeavour. These minorities are what we call elites. But elites face a danger — they can get hardening of the arteries and this is dangerous.
On the other hand, membership in an elite means accepting responsibility for the others. If you don't accept this responsibility, you have no right to belong to an elite. This is true in sport, in culture, and obviously in cinema.
MercatorNet: You have written that artists and scientists are becoming more spiritual, although the process is just beginning.
Zanussi: Sure. Twenty or thirty years ago a scientific and thoroughly materialist mentality was dominant. Even social concern was exclusively a concern for material welfare. Today, however, there is more room for spirituality in art and culture. True, sometimes it is a very cheap supermarket spirituality — but better cheap than non-existent.
MercatorNet: You studied philosophy at university and in your films there is a constant concern for linking images to reflections on the meaning of life.
Zanussi: Asking yourself about the meaning of life, of the world and of history is what ennobles art. Without these questions, art is just an ephemeral expression of our sensations. I do not believe in art with a capital A which lacks a metaphysical dimension. On the other hand, I do not believe that you can draw a line between metaphysics and ethics, because both are inseparably united from birth.
MercatorNet: Besides writing, producing and directing films, you have abundant experience as a university lecturer.
Zanussi: Yes, but oddly enough, my work as a teacher is not directed only to people involved in film, but also to philosophers, sociologists, diplomats, and for the past three years, engineers. I give a course on culture for engineers at Warsaw University of Technology, along with courses on the dialogue between cultures and religion, a topic which interests me a lot.
For students in film, more than courses at the University, I offer than another option — spending a couple of weeks in my home. Throughout the year, many film students pass through my home, from Poland and other countries.
MercatorNet: After many years making films, you began making TV series. Have you thought about making films adapted to new technology?
Zanussi: I think that every opportunity to be in contact with other people is an unmerited grace. I have no right to demand that others listen to me. That's why my reaction to new technology is to accept it without further ado. This does not mean, obviously, that I don't prefer to leave a darkened theatre and that I don't dream of an audience which is glued to the screen. In television you can only count on 70 per cent attention; the rest is divided between telephones, chatting and neighbours. But I am also grateful for an opportunity to tell stories through television. A further step is TV on cell phones. It seems like the worst option, because the attention of a viewer on the street, in the metro or on a bus is so limited, and he is looking at a tiny screen. But if I can reach viewers that way, it is great.
MercatorNet: It is important to tell stories?
Zanussi: Without the art of narrative, including in film, human beings would have only their own experiences, which means that they would have to learn everything from the beginning. Without knowing the Odyssey, man would know nothing of the fidelity of Penelope, without Shakespeare, he would know nothing of the doubts of Hamlet, or the love between Romeo and Juliet. Without Don Quixote, you would have to discover on your own the difference between seeing the world as it is, and seeing it as it ought to be.
This interview was first published in Aceprensa. Translation by MercatorNet.