There was a time in the late 1970s when Krzystof Zanussi was the toughest-minded filmmaker in the world, and Barwy ochronne/Camouflage is among his finest achievements. It comes in the middle of a ferociously fertile period in his career which included films such as Spirala (Spiral, 1978), Wege in der Nacht (Paths in the Night, 1979) and Constans (The Constant Factor, 1980). What gives this body of films a thematic cohesion is their concentration on characters who recognise that they are completely compromised by the social situation in which they find themselves. Zanussi pulls no punches and offers his protagonists no easy ways out. Their intelligence makes them interesting and sympathetic, but their self-awareness is, finally, the curse under which they live.

It is one of the handicaps of many national cinemas that we often jump to read their films in terms of political allegory. Given that Camouflage comes from the period leading up to the emergence of the Solidarity movement, it offers a cogent sense of the pressure cooker environment of the late years of communist, Eastern bloc control. However, the film has a thematic richness in its exploration of the clash of idealism and cynicism that makes it just as absorbing today at it was in the late 1970s.

The film’s narrative reduces the social world to the petty fiefdoms of academic politics. Jarek (Piotr Garlicki) a junior academic, is in charge of a linguistics seminar camp at a regional university (“We get sent to the socialist conferences”, one academic observes philosophically, “while the Warsaw people get to go to the West”.) He is responsible for the camp along with his middle-aged supervisor Jakub (played by one of Zanussi’s favourite actors from this period, Zbigniew Zapasiewicz).

Although the ostensible subject is linguistics, politics is everywhere, from decisions concerning the acceptance of papers for a student contest to all the inevitable sub-texts which attend the awarding of prizes. The students are a bolshie lot, intoxicated with new freedoms and vodka, and insisting that they should be consulted on every decision. This brings about Jakub’s droll rejoinder: “Have you been in Poland long?” When Jarek consults him, Jakub smilingly observes that, “the decision is up to you – I won’t interfere”, before expertly carving up a budding student rebellion. He throws out the challenge to Jarek that the students “are conformists – like you and me”.

Jarek is young and idealistic enough to take all this seriously, especially when it wins him the admiring attention of British exchange student Nelly (Christine Paul). The older man, however, delights in his self-critical cynicism (“I see the better course and approve it. But I follow the worse”), and keeps up a scathing, but strangely amiable, mockery of Jarek. “I thought you were going to moralise a little”, he offers thoughtfully at one stage.

Authority is exemplified by the Vice-Chancellor, a fat, corrupt bully who wields authority from afar before swanning in for a swim and to anoint the prize-winners. He appears benevolent on the outside unless you have the misfortune to push a little deeper beneath that surface. Jarek is the VC’s current favourite because he’s an earnest and upright young man, and tyrants love to surround themselves with those possessing the virtues they lack. Jakub pushes Jarek to see if he has the courage of his conscience, aware that those who do will inevitably be destroyed by this world.

If I seem to have quoted a lot of dialogue thus far, it is because this is a very talky film – in the best sense of the term. The bulk of Camouflage is taken up by simple, sustained, and yet absorbing scenes of conversation between two intelligent and articulate characters as they spar with each other over issues that are both immediate and abstract.

The dialogue not only makes the issues clear but shows that the two men are self-aware about the little drama of idealism and compromise in which they are engaged. Jarek knows that he is being baited and Jakub makes clear that the reason he is doing this is because the younger man is like he was early in his own career.

The symbolism in the film is similarly obvious, and registered as such by the characters. Animals are invoked as a motif signifying the everyday savagery and selfishness of nature. Where earth-child Nelly puts a bell on the camp’s cat to stop it killing birds, Jakub’s view is that nature is dominated by the struggle for survival. Whoever survives wins, and the winners are always right.

Zanussi generally employs a deceptively unobtrusive camera style. Longish handheld takes use slight zooms to frame the characters in medium shot while they break apart and move back together. It looks fairly simple until you consider the complex interaction between walk-and-talk staging and stand-and-deliver dialogue that is being choreographed. There is only one occasion when Zanussi shows off his mastery of camera style with a long take which incorporates a prodigiously complicated pan around a dining table staged with the camera seemingly positioned at its centre. For the most part, however, there is nothing decorative about the film, no place to hide from the harsh truths that are being debated before us. All of the shot transitions are straight cuts and the soundtrack is composed completely of the chatter of talk with only a few obligatory notes of music to signal the end of the drama.

Zanussi’s strong suit is that he doesn’t require us to hunt for esoteric meaning. All the elements of the conflict are right there in front of us in a way that is straightforward and respecting of our intelligence rather than coming off as heavy-handed. These are the issues of Polish life that everyone recognises (and I wonder if Australian academia is so radically dissimilar) and there is no need to dissemble or dress them up with excessively stylistic flourishes.

I haven’t seen enough of Zanussi’s films from the period after the fall of communism to have a strong sense of the later trajectory of his career. However, it is clear that he had the simple virtues of intelligence and courage to make him a gifted commentator on this particular historical moment. Good people inevitably come to a bad end here, and self-knowledge is the final tragedy to be visited upon Zanussi’s protagonists. I wonder if the diminished stature of his later films stem from the strange need for optimism in the early years of Lech Walesa and Pope John-Paul II. Perhaps the final irony is that Zanussi has now entered academic life himself as a professor of European film.

Barwy ochronne/Camouflage (1977 Poland 106 mins)

Prod Co: Film Polski/P. P. Film Polski/Polish Corporation for Film Production/Zespol Filmowy “Tor” Dir, Scr: Krzysztof Zanussi Phot: Edward Klosinski Ed: Urszula Sliwinska Prod Des: Tadeusz Wybult Mus: Wojciech Kilar

Cast: Piotr Garlicki, Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Christine Paul, Mariusz Dmochowski, Wojciech Alaborski, Mieczyslaw Banasik

About The Author

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in the Screen and Media Department at Flinders University in Adelaide. He is also a programmer and writer for the Adelaide Film Festival. He is a contributing editor for Metro and RealTime.