“The image of a Socialist paradise is a false one, false because it is static. What is beautiful in life is movement, development, change, part of a pattern of transition in which I take part.” (1)
Krzysztof Zanussi is a filmmaker whose critical reputation has significantly declined over the last 25 years. This decline has coincided with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and a radically altered film production environment in Poland. Zanussi has continued to make work that address serious moral, philosophical, social and intellectual concerns, but these films have rarely matched the intensity found in his output of the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. But even these earlier, once celebrated films have passed into relative obscurity since the early 1990s.
Zycie Rodzinne (Family Life) is Zanussi’s second feature, a largely hermetic, interior and darkly illuminated domestic drama that can be seen as a conscious corrective to his more aesthetically and intellectually adventurous debut, Struktura krysztalu (The Structure of Crystals). It is in almost every way a quieter, more melancholy Chekhovian chamber work that focuses incisively on the deeply fractured relationships within a family compromised by the shifting political and social contexts of twentieth century Europe. Although Family Life is one of the least critically discussed of the director’s works of this era (2), it is also a characteristic Zanussi film in which figures move within a circumscribed physical environment while talking directly and obtusely – and at length – about their personal, intellectual and professional lives. Zanussi’s work is often concerned with the world of science and philosophy – or, in this case, of engineers – trapping its characters as if “entomological specimens” (3) it then dissects, examines and observes, often at a considerable and calculated distance. Family Life is a somewhat messier and less focused affair than many of the director’s subsequent works over the next ten years, concentrating its attention on a broader family of sisters, aunts and absent mothers, alongside the consuming relation of father and son it most explicitly explores.
The plot of the film is deceptively simple. Wit (Daniel Olbyrchski), a designer for an engineering firm, returns home for the first time in over six years when he is summoned by his family to attend to his seriously ill father (Jan Kreczmar). The film’s initial, pre-credit sequence highlights Wit’s working environment, creating a strong contrast between the organised, elevated, brightly-lit, almost magisterial office-block that overlooks the city and the dank, dilapidated, dark, claustrophobic and mysterious interiors of the ancestral home he then must reluctantly return to. Wit travels home with his friend Marek (Jan Nowicki), and both become enmeshed in – though Marek as more of a “participant observer” – the messy realities and memories of “family life”: Wit’s alcoholic father injures himself while using his scientific equipment to distill illegal alcohol; his sister Bella (Maja Komorowska) manically flits around the house as a means of dealing with her emotional entrapment; his browbeaten aunt (Halina Mikolajska) reluctantly maintains some sense of order by cooking meals, partially cleaning the house, and insisting on the security of locked doors; while his absent mother provides a mysterious set of other possibilities and ill-found motivations.
As in many of Zanussi’s films of the 1970s and early 1980s, Family Life contrasts the worlds of work and the intellect (and logic) with the messier realities of everyday life, emotions and personal relationships. But Zanussi’s film is primarily concerned with the question of origins and our inability to fully or truly break free from our past, upbringing and genetic makeup. For example, Wit is reluctant to return “home” because he has actively sought to reject his past and family, as well as the responsibilities attached to such familial and explicitly filial relations. But even those moments that show him actively railing against his father’s late claims on his attendance and consideration – and the hostility between the two is not only palpable but clearly, methodically set out – mostly act to highlight their gestural, emotional, intellectual and even emotional connections and similarities. In so doing, the physical and emotional environment of Family Life presents an apt if overworked metaphor for the inescapability of twentieth century Polish history – the present as a palimpsest of past moments.
In many ways, the most remarkable aspect of the film – aside from Maja Komorowska’s dynamic and earthy performance as Bella – is its setting and the ways in which Zanussi and his collaborators render it. When writing his script, Zanussi reportedly already had the house he would use in mind (3), and this sense of the setting as an equal character and motivation for the film carries over into the ways in which this environment defines, cloaks and almost overrides the somewhat opaque characters. Family Life is dominated by deep blacks, ochres, ghostly shapes, and shafts of light that occasionally enter into the murky interior of the house. Although the house itself is hardly foreboding in a Gothic sense, it nevertheless envelopes the interactions of the characters and provides a perhaps too neat visual metaphor or plan for the ways in which their relationships, pasts and motivations are only gradually and partially illuminated. The initial scenes of Wit’s return to his ancestral home are remarkable for their use of natural light and extraordinarily limited but sculptural illumination. At times characters wander into spaces that are rendered as inky blacks and little more. But even when light does enter the frame – as in the striking moment, around a third of the way into the film, when the father emerges from his room bathed in a warm glow – it hardly marks a sudden clarity or deeper emotional engagement. This overriding sense of interiority is emphasised in one of the film’s most striking moments in which Wit ventures out of the house at night (the plot really only covers one day and the following morning in duration). In contrast to the opening scene of the film, which emphasises the panoramic, almost panoptic view offered by the large windows of Wit’s workplace, the space of the family home seems detached from the world that obviously, or must, surround it. Although there are numerous moments when characters venture out into the garden – particularly Bella who is initially spied by Marek high in the canopy of a tree and seeks to encourage a more porous relation between the inside and outside of the property – the general visual and physical sense communicated is that of an incestuous isolation. It is therefore surprising when we discover, in the scene of Wit outside at night I mentioned above, that the house is positioned next to a block of flats or apartments. Wit glimpses the outside world and its possibilities through the window-framed composition of the family who gather peacefully, lovingly together and distractedly watch the television showing images of the Indians who had earlier visited Wit’s workplace as well as a European Cup football match. The global and pan-European networks and spectacles these images suggest seem truly alien to the deep recesses of Wit’s family and home.
In the closing sections of the film Wit finally escapes from the immediate clutches of his familial environment. Leaving the house, he walks into a street and merges with a soothingly anonymous crowd before alighting a train. At this moment, looking out of a window, and feeling he has finally escaped his past, he becomes noticeably afflicted by a facial tic or twitch that mirrors that of his father. Though this passes, and Wit’s face communicates a noticeable sense of relief as it does, the deeper sense is of the inescapability of one’s upbringing and origins, marked as they are in the sinews, unconscious gestures, and genetic inevitably of one’s physical and social being. Family Life is a fatalistic portrait of life, society and family, arguing for the impossibility of escaping the past or disappearing into a “utopic” future. In Zanussi’s film everything is relative and interconnected, and society is something we can neither escape from or to.
- Zanussi quoted in “Krzysztof Zanussi”, World Film Directors Vol. 2, 1945-85, ed. John Wakeman, The H. Wilson Co., New York, p. 1200.
- The film’s circumscribed critical reputation in the West is partly a result of its delayed release after that of several of Zanussi’s subsequent and more mature works. For example, it was not released in Britain until late 1976.
- Tom Milne, “Zycie Rodzinne (Family Life)”, Monthly Film Bulletin vol. 43, no. 513, October 1976, p. 221.
- Derek Elley, “Family Life”, Films and Filming vol. 23, no. 1, October 1976, p. 31.
Zycie rodzinne/Family Life (1971 Poland 93 mins)
Prod Co: TOR Unit/Film Polski Prod: Janina Krassowska Dir, Scr: Krzysztof Zanussi Phot: Witold Sobocinski Ed: Urszula Sliwinski Art Dir: Tadeuz Wybult Mus: Wojciech Kilar
Cast: Daniel Olbyrchski, Maja Komorowska, Jan Nowicki, Jan Kreczmar, Halina Mikolajska