Krzysztof Zanussi’s Zycie jako smiertelna choroba przenoszona droga plciowa (Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease) follows the final weeks of Tomasz Berg (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz), an intelligent, though egotistical and cynical doctor. His journey is complemented by that of Filip (Pawel Okraska), a young, doubt-ridden medical student. At the heart of the film lies the question of human reconciliation with death. Unlike Zanussi’s Illuminacja (Illumination, 1971), which questions the meaning of life and death, Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease does not question death’s inevitable nature but rather offers a meditation on how we come to terms with that which nature itself attempts to battle.

The film begins in a provincial French town – almost 1000 years ago – where the execution of a horse thief is about to take place. The hanging is interrupted by the arrival of St Bernard of Clairvaux (a medieval mystic) who vows to bring back the condemned man after he is spiritually prepared for his inevitable death. Someone cries “cut”, and we realise we are watching the production of a fictional, French film (Bernard et Abelard) shot in the Polish countryside. The decision to include a scene from a foreign production in Zanussi’s film works on several levels. Firstly, the self-reflexivity of the scene reminds us of the fact that we are watching a film, a text dedicated to the exploration of a specific subject. Secondly, it underscores the permeable nature of the origins of European cultural production; in times of crisis a number of Polish artists (Fredryk Chopin, Adam Mickiewicz, and, more recently, Andrzej Zulawski) have immigrated to and worked in France (1). Thirdly, and most importantly, this medieval sequence introduces the theme of death and brings together the characters of Tomasz, Filip and Brother Marek (Tadeusz Bratecki). Brother Marek (a Cistercian monk from the order established by St Bernard) becomes Tomasz’ spiritual guide through the mysteries of faith – mysteries to which the intellectual and atheistic Tomasz has little access. In this manner, Brother Marek and Tomasz provide a contemporary incarnation of the figures of St Bernard and Abelard (a medieval scholastic philosopher and theologian), respectively. The debate that ensues can be simply, if problematically, characterised as a contrast between Abelard’s “I doubt, therefore I am”, and St Bernard’s “I believe, therefore I am” (2).

A non-believer himself, Tomasz’s first reaction is to battle the cancer that, in his own words, is causing him to “rot”. In his initial response Tomasz calls on financial help from his ex-wife Anna (Krystyna Janda). This triggers in him a reflection upon existence and his responsibilities as a husband and man. However, when faced with the ultimate impossibility of the cancer’s remission, Tomasz resigns himself to the preparations for his death. In a poignant moment of understanding, he responds to his French doctor’s words, “But nature defends itself”, with “but in the final quarter it always loses”. When science fails him, and Tomasz begins to fully understand that which has been physically foreign to him for so long – the limits of the human body and science – he turns to religion to make sense of his inevitable death. The Cistercian monk’s words that “death is not the end but only the beginning” reverberate in his mind.

Yet, Tomasz doesn’t understand how to really reconcile himself with death. He logically understands and accepts the concept but begins to feel a certain unease with the process. In response to a question about human reconciliation with death Brother Marek argues that it is a matter of conversion. However, Tomasz cannot bring himself to believe – his education and scientific life don’t allow him to make such a concession. If faith is a matter of divine grace it is something that needs to be asked for and granted. Trained in reading X-rays and concrete human physiology, Tomasz is almost blind to the signs around him. He does understand though, that one cannot buy oneself out of death and suffering (3).

Like Brother Marek at the beginning of the film – in regard to the conversion of the horse thief – Zanussi does not offer us any clear explanation of how Tomasz reaches his final state. Neither does he preach to us about the way to reconcile oneself with such a definitive life moment. With the subtle use of a few signs and symbols Zanussi allows us to create our own understanding of Tomasz’s psychic process. To do otherwise would depreciate the delicacy and multi-dimensionality not only of the film’s characters but also of the doubt and uncertainty that take root at such an important moment.

Zanussi’s is a highly engaging intellectual cinema, one that attempts to provide a dialectic on the human condition. The presence of an ongoing dialogue is not just an essential element of his films but also hints at the convergence of two approaches in his work:

If he is an artist of the mind, he is an artist of the heart as well. The human condition… must be illuminated…. Zanussi crafts the doubts, fears, hopes, affirmations, frustrations, defeats, and partial victories in such a way that we can brood and think about them, and when we are at the limits of thought, his art helps us find intuition. (4)

Endnotes

  1. In an interesting contrast, Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion (1982) follows Jerzy, a Polish film director who works in France as Poland experiences the upheavals associated with the Solidarity Movement and the eventual imposition of martial law.
  2. In her analysis of the film Malgorzata Dabrowska points out that the respected professor Jacek Wozniakowski (a Polish art historian and writer) plays Abelard. This scene, however, was not included in the final cut and Wozniakowski is only present in a poster for the fictional film, which Tomasz notices during one of his trips to a Parisian clinic.
  3. Malgorzata Dabrowska, “Smiercia wszystko sie nie konczy tylko zaczyna”, Kino vol. 35, no. 2, February 2001, p. 46.
  4. Boleslaw Michalek and Frank Turaj, The Modern Cinema of Poland, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1988, p. 195.

Zycie jako smiertelna choroba przenoszona droga plciowa/Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease (2010 Poland 96 mins)

Prod. Co: Studio Filmowe TOR/Telewizja Polska/Canal+/Polska Prod: Iwona Ziulkowska Dir: Krzysztof Zanussi Scr: Krzysztof Zanussi Phot: Edward Klosinski Ed: Marek Denys Prod Des: Miroslaw Mentcel Mus: Wojciech Kilar

Cast: Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Krystyna Janda, Tadeusz Bradecki, Pawel Okraska, Monika Krzywskowska, Aleksander Fabisiak

About The Author

Marcin Wisniewski is a writer and curator inspired by national cinemas as well as issues of identity, beauty and the aesthetics of excess. He is currently organising an exhibition, Allegory, Folktales and Poetics: Soviet Cinema in the Works of Sergei Parajanov, with Fofa Gallery in Montreal, Canada.