Film and theatre director and scriptwriter. Born on June 17, 1939 in Warsaw
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Zanussi's work was noticed during his activities in the amateur film movement in the 1950s and '60s. Nine of his eleven films received awards, including Tramwaj do nieba / Tram to heaven, co-directed with Wincent Ronisz, awarded the Grand Prix at the Festival of Student Amateur shorts in 1958. He was also awarded for his graduation film Śmierć prowincjała / The Death of a Provincial.
He graduated in physics from the University of Warsaw in 1959, and from the department of philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in 1962. He then graduated directing studies at the Public Academy of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź in 1966.
Zanussi's films cannot be considered along any clearly defined track or trend in Polish or international filmmaking. As a director, he is not subject to others' tastes or styles. He has said:
My films are derived primarily from literature, and are a kind of human speech. The idea of visual cinema has always raised my doubts.
Film magazine, 1992 No. 17
The important period of art in Zanussi's life probably took place in the 1970s, when films including Życie Rodzinne / Family Life, Za ścianą / Behind the Wall, Iluminacja / Illumination, Barwy ochronne / Camouflage and Spirala / Spiral were produced. A specific character was created in this period, one that became the quintessential hero of Zanussi's films: a man faced with a choice between values and the temptation of their rejection. The hallmark characteristic is moral sensitivity expressed in the compromise between the sphere of dreams regarding individual freedom and a life practice restricting this freedom.
Zanussi's films are regarded as examples of "auteur cinema". He wrote the script to almost all his films. Especially in the 1970s, in such films as Struktura kryształu / The Structure of Crystal, Za ścianą or Illuminacja, he encouraged actors to improvise, using the technique of open dialogue. Zanussi thereby intended to:
... characterise the heroes in a not-so-obvious way, leaving a margin for understatement, the primacy of the mood of the plot while building dramatic tension results from a collision of psychological or moral rational.
Film magazine, 1971 No. 5
The most significant film of the 1980s was produced in Poland in 1984: Rok spokojnego słońca / Year of the Quiet Sun. Zanussi pursued artistic plans in this decade primarily in the West, however, and became a European auteur. As he put it:
An artist does not belong to anybody, his art must be owned by all.
There is something in the director's attitude, writes Paweł W. Stachowski, which can be regarded as that of medieval bards who once wandered Europe attempting to find a warm welcome. Zanussi as an artist is someone who has respect for local autonomy, trying to find what is common, yet freely expressing himself. (Film 1992 No. 36)
In addition to dominant themes of freedom, slavery and moral choices, the meeting of human destiny with the absolute quite often appears, together with the theme of death. Andrzej Kijowski wrote:
The leading trend of thought in Zanussi's creations seems to be the awareness of the need to die. The director's films reveal a man moving from one position to another, and although disputes concern matters which are real [...] somewhere in the background, reminiscences of incomprehensible dimensions of over-existentialism can be felt in which the irrational need to complete life is a self-evident fulfilment.
Film magazine 1978, No. 43
In his works, Zanussi raises the perennial problem of love, death, happiness and conscience, looking at how they manifest themselves in the world today.
In all of Zanussi's films, you can particularly feel a strong presence of the author. Not only in arguments [...] and fiction but also, and perhaps above all, in the manipulation of scenes, visuals, which often stem not from the logic of the story, but the logical thinking of the author. I mean those moments where – between the lines, between the frames - we hear his voice, see the course of his thoughts, feeling his pulse of emotion.
Aleksander Jackiewicz, in Kino 1981 No. 1
Dichotomies are characteristic of Zanussi's cinema. Christian belief is in sharp contrast with the rationalism of the scientist. "Zanussi's films [...] join in a cinema genre recognizing philosophical issues", wrote Grażyna Świętochowska in Kwartalnik filmowy (Film Quarterly) 2004 No.45)
Andrzej Luter has written about the director's creativity, stating that:
In his films, Zanussi provokes us - he asks us key questions: whether spiritual wealth, religion and faith can be sufficient and a convincing answer against evil and suffering, which in itself has no meaning and can they be a sufficient answer to the mystery of death?
Kino 2009, Nr. 6
The director states, regarding his approach to art:
You are only an artist when you know how to do something well in five different ways, and can choose the one that is best.
In addition to filmmaking, Zanussi is also active in teaching and directing theatre and opera. He has taught in film schools in Łódź, the National Film School in Britain and in Copenhagen. He directs in theatres in Milan, Palermo, Bonn, Kraków, Basel and Rome.
He served as vice president of Polish Filmmakers' Association from 1971 to 1983, and as chairman of the Polish Federation of Film Discussion Clubs from 1975 to 1977. He was the club federation's artistic director from 1980, and later became director of the Tor Film Studio and, from 1987, a member of the Cinematography Committee. He was elected President of the European Federation of Audiovisual Performers in 1990. Zanussi is also a consultant of the Pontifical Commission for Cultural Affairs at the Vatican and member of the European Film Academy. He has been a member of the Pontifical Academy of Arts and Letters since 1997. He has served as president of the Eurovision Association, member of the Polish PEN-Club and the Association of Writers, vice president of Polish Public Television (TVP) and professor at the University of Silesia in Katowice.
Zanussi has received the titles of doctor honoris causa at the Moscow Film Institute WGiK (1998), European University in Minsk (2001), National University of Theatre and Film in Bucharest (2001), New Bulgarian University (2002), State University of Television and Film in St. Petersburg (2004), and Catholic University in Valencia (2004).
In 1998, on Piotrkowska Street in Łódź, Zanussi's star was unveiled on the Walk of Fame, and the director left his hand print on the Promenade of Stars in Międzyzdroje in 2000.
Author: Halina Olczak-Moraczewska, May 2004, updated in September 2009. Translated by Roberto Galea, January 2011.
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