7 Films of KRZYSZTOF ZANUSSI You Should Definitely Know

The work of Krzysztof Zanussi is a phenomenon on a global scale.

Przemysław Mudlaff

29 May 2024

The noticeable uncompromising nature of the Polish director’s works has naturally been selecting his audience for almost 50 years. Zanussi’s cinema is meant for an ambitious viewer, open to intellectual adventure and resistant to mediocrity. The author of Camouflage is a man confident in his extensive knowledge, claiming that he makes films to create new intellectual elites.

Krzysztof Zanussi is an unfashionable artist because he often expresses his thoughts, obsessions, and desires directly. Furthermore, the topics he tackles simply cannot be presented in a spectacular manner. Therefore, his audience is someone whose sensitivity is similar to his own. Zanussi’s work is thus a kind of philosophical film essay. This is likely why the protagonists of his films are often educated people, such as scientists, doctors, and clergy. In such an environment, intellectual discussions about life and death, good and evil, freedom and captivity seem quite natural.

Krzysztof Zanussi

Given this general characteristic of Zanussi’s non-filmic themes, it’s hard to believe that his body of work already includes over 25 feature films. Despite the impressive number of his films, this creator is among the domestic directors who are more known and appreciated outside of his own country. In Poland, Zanussi’s name today is synonymous with a misunderstood, because unseen, yet outstanding director. I decided to address this and to make it easier for you to confront the master’s vision, I watched most of his films. All these screenings were filled with overwhelming wisdom, which was sometimes truly painful. Out of respect for my weary mind, please read the following selection carefully, as I have chosen seven of Zanussi’s films that will turn you into intellectuals. I based the selection on three main recurring themes in the master’s work.

The Problem of Knowledge

Let’s start with the heavyweights. The Illumination and Imperativ are must-sees for every intellectual and cinema lover. These films will stimulate you intellectually very deeply and painfully, almost like the brain-stimulating devices during the shocking surgery scene in “Illumination.” “Supplement” is a continuation of the theme from “Life as a Sexually Transmitted Disease,” which unfortunately reflects Zanussi’s problem of not being able to debate truth with the contemporary viewer.

The Illumination (1972)

The Illumination Iluminacja

The Illumination opens with a kind of prologue in which Professor Władysław Tatarkiewicz explains the term from the film’s title to the audience. We learn that “illumination” is a term and a view created by Saint Augustine. According to this belief, purity of heart is more important than the work of the mind in achieving the goal of obtaining knowledge and absolute truth. The film’s title is ironic because, after the aforementioned explanation, we observe the process of Franciszek Retman’s entry into adulthood, whose various life choices, conditioned by joyful and tragic events, had an epistemological purpose. However, none of them could lead to knowledge. The main character seeks the meaning of existence in physics and religion but realizes that neither the Big Bang theory nor prayer will help him grasp the overall mysteries of the universe.

 Imperativ (1982)

Imperativ Imperatyw

Imperativ continues the reflections presented in The Illumination. The main character in Imperativ is Augustin, a mathematician who, like Franciszek from The Illumination, seeks answers to questions about the meaning of his existence and the presence of God in the world. Like the protagonist of the 1972 film essay, Augustin experiences a drama resulting from the inability to achieve his goal. Unlike Franciszek, however, he falls into madness, leading to an act of blasphemy. The desecration of an icon in a church is meant to provoke God to show a sign, proof of His existence. Augustin’s mystical fascinations culminate in a psychiatric hospital.

Suplement (2002)


Suplement differs technically from The Illumination and Imperativ. In the latter, Zanussi demonstrated originality and courage, mixing conventions or using exceptionally minimalistic means of expression. Suplement, by contrast, bears signs of narrative mediocrity. The 2002 film, however, has a bigger problem. Zanussi is not keeping up with modern times, making the main character’s dilemmas seem unrealistic and even laughable to today’s viewers. In Suplement, the choice between a relationship with a woman and a calling serves as a pretext for questions about the meaning of life.

Thus, the desire for knowledge is an existential drama for unenlightened people who must eventually submit to the ordinariness of life. According to Zanussi, an intellectual’s enlightenment occurs through the acceptance of limitations.

The Problem of Choosing a Life Attitude

The Structure of Crystal (1969)

The Structure of Crystal Struktura Krysztalu

In Krzysztof Zanussi’s feature debut, the mood is deceptively Chekhovian—nothing happens. Filmed in a raw, winter landscape, the work of the creator of The Year of the Quiet Sun does not promise or deliver fast-paced action. The story in The Structure of Crystal boils down to a reunion after years of two top students, former college friends. One, Marek, has a brilliant scientific career, while the other, Jan, leads a peaceful life in the countryside. This sets up a confrontation of values, none of which either man is willing to give up, and neither can convince the other. Through the conflict, we receive a reflective moral discourse on choosing life attitudes. Do you choose family or continuous professional development? Peace and stability or chaos and movement? City or countryside? In Zanussi’s work, the choice is never straightforward. Jan’s move to the countryside bears the marks of escape and even selfishness. Marek’s choice requires a series of dishonest moves and compromises against himself. The Structure of Crystal is the first example of the recurring confrontations between active and contemplative characters in the director’s work.

Camouflage (1976)

Camouflage Barwy Ochronne

A summer camp for linguistics students is the setting for the confrontation of two attitudes in one of Zanussi’s best films, Camouflage. On one side of the conflict is the mature cynic and conformist, associate professor Jakub Szelestowski (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz), and on the other, the young idealist, lecturer Jarosław Kruszyński (Piotr Garlicki). Interestingly, Camouflage remains relevant even today. It seems that the contemporary world is not so different from that of the 1970s. Of course, I’m not referring to political issues. Today, we still wrestle with thoughts when choosing a path of development, such as a career. It would be easier to compromise and adopt a servile attitude towards those higher in rank. Unfortunately, this could lead to adopting “camouflage,” meaning that one changes into a cynic, always negating any idealistic motives that one once championed.

The Problem of Departure and Death

Spiral (1978)

Spiral Spirala

The theme of dying and looking at life from the perspective of its imminent end is ever-present in Krzysztof Zanussi’s work. In Spiral, the viewer observes the final days of Tomasz Piątek, whose brilliant career is cut short by an incurable, rapidly progressing disease. The main character decides to go to the mountains to commit suicide.

Dying, according to Tomasz, was supposed to be a grand, unique act, but it turned into a hopeless and desperate death. The failed pure and beautiful mountain suicide is replaced by the humiliating confinement to a hospital bed. In Spiral, Zanussi peculiarly asks whether we can ever prepare for departure. It also devastates the minds of those living day by day, seeming to say “memento mori,” and asks how you will behave when the time comes.

Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease (2000)

Zycie Jako Smiertelna Choroba Przenoszona Droga Plciowa Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease

Krzysztof Zanussi returns to eschatology in Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease. The main character this time is Doctor Tomasz Berg (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz), who learns he has cancer. Initially, he desperately wants to fight for his life. He gets money for surgery from his ex-wife, but it turns out it’s too late for treatment. This situation forces him to reflect on the meaning of his life and mortality. He seeks harmony between life and death in God, from whom he has been very distant his entire life. Does the proximity of death bring a person closer to reconciliation with God, even if one has lived in the belief that He does not exist? In the 2000 film, Zanussi also speaks of the paradox of life, which is essentially just a path to inevitable death.

Przemysław Mudlaff

Przemysław Mudlaff

He appreciates the truth and sincerity of the intentions of its creators in cinema. He loves to be emotionally kicked and abused by the film, but also happy and amused. A hunter of film curiosities, references and connections. A fan of the works of PTA, von Trier, Kieślowski, Lantimos and Villeneuve. What he likes the most is talking about the cinema over a beer, and the beer has to be cold and thick, you know what.

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