Struktura krysztalu (The Structure of Crystals) is Krzysztof Zanussi’s debut feature film. From the beginning we quickly notice that this is a film that will explore the values of the sedentary life. The first scenes show two people pacing about in a snow-covered field in the country. They are waiting for someone to arrive. The sky is grey. A horse-drawn sled slowly saunters by. In fact, everything that takes place in the film does so at a very leisurely pace.

The man breaks the silence. He asks the woman: “Are you cold?” Two young children appear. He then says to his wife, “They’re growing fast”. This is the first indication of an existential, reflective motif. As a vehicle approaches, the man now says to her, “a private car”. This is an indication of the greater sense of claustrophobia to come in the film. This mundane line of dialogue is also significant because the film takes place in Poland, a repressive communist country where automobile ownership is not common. The year is 1969.

Jan (Jan Myslowicz) and his wife, Anna (Barbara Wrzesinska), greet Professor Kawecki (Andrzej Zarnecki), Jan’s old friend and colleague from the university. Kawecki has driven four hours to reach the remote post where the couple runs a State meteorological station. Kawecki will be staying with Jan’s family for six weeks. The first night the three of them eat dinner together. The following morning they go for a walk, and the two friends catch up on old times. Jan tells Kawecki about the good experience that he had when he was a visiting professor at Harvard University. This anecdote is important to the film because the viewer is informed that Jan has not always lived in the isolation that he and his family currently experience.

Early on in the film we begin to notice that Jan is seemingly very content in his surroundings. He seems like a man who is happy to enjoy such a sedentary life. He has lived in the country for the last five years. When asked by Kawecki if he’d rather not do research, Jan tells him that he is happy doing routine meteorological work. Jan’s life showcases a form and order that Kawecki does not agree with or understand. Kawecki tells Jan that he is wasting the best years of his life living in the country.

“The structure of crystals” is a mineralogical term that gives the film gets its title. This technical term refers to atoms that are arranged in patterns that exhibit order and symmetry, and crystals demonstrate repetitive, close-knit units that make up compound structures.

Now, according to ancient Greek and Roman stoic philosophers, order and symmetry are two of the staple ingredients of the stoic life. In many respects, Jan’s existence emulates this molecular structure – if only metaphorically – in the regularity of his sedentary life. As the two friends become reacquainted with each other, they discuss the passage of time and the physics of crystals. Kawecki shows Jan pictures of American cars and magazine advertisements. Jan is very animated by the memories that these pictures evoke.

The Structure of Crystals is a film that features a protagonist who has to make difficult life choices. After Jan and his old-time friend Kawecki get comfortable with each other, the film’s key plot points revolve around Jan’s decision and desire to live in the kind of isolation that he and his family share. Of course, because Kawecki is an outsider, his character works best as a vehicle for questioning Jan’s motives – at least for the duration of time that Kawecki will be a guest in Jan’s home.

Jan can accept Kawecki’s suggestions, or he can ignore them. He chooses the latter. His beliefs and convictions are productive, that is, they allow him to live a contented life. Kawecki tells Jan, “You have to do something. You’re in your best years.” Jan responds that “pausing for breath” has become a way of life for him and his family. Of course, implicit in Kawecki’s disapproval of Jan’s sedentary life is his wish that Jan return to do research at the university.

There are several Catholic themes in the film that are worthy of attention. For instance, the slow pace of Jan’s life enables him to capture the essence of eternity, as it were. In one of their many conversations they discuss the notion of infinity for those living during the Middle Ages, and further back to the ancient Greeks. Jan complains that infinity is no longer a source of fascination for contemporary man.

In another scene, the two friends are seen walking in a cemetery. They stop and read a tombstone: “I was what you are. I am what you will be. Remember me so that someone might remember you.” This is an illustration of the timeless dictum: tempus fugit; memento mori. Jan seems to have internalised the essence of this eternal truth, while Kawecki is much more concerned with reaping the fruits of a temporal existence. Kawecki calls himself a realist.

Apparently, Jan has come to embrace this form of life after an accident that kept him in hospital for six months. Jan was a mountain climber. There are several references to this time in his life at various points in the film. On several occasions, Jan even glances up at the mountain range in the distance. This innocent look past the frozen fields and into the mountains may also signal a break with his previous life.

Kawecki does not hide the fact that he wants Jan to return to the university, and Jan gives Kawecki a chance to articulate his offer. Yet even though Jan and his family are having financial problems, he shows no interest in returning to university life.

His family, his walks, and what is essentially the quiet life of reflection now rule Jan’s world. His convictions are strong enough that Jan can still enjoy himself driving Kawecki’s Volkswagen, taking a day-trip to the city, and laughing aloud with his family and Kawecki. However, Jan’s contentment is solid, for he does not feel that his life lacks anything that Kawecki can offer him.

The Structure of Crystals is a simple film with an uncomplicated plot and straightforward motifs. Absent is the angst and existential torture that we often encounter in Bergman films, for instance. This is rather important because even though the plot of the film is framed by the confinement brought about physical isolation and bitter cold, we never “encounter” the existential and emotional cul-de-sac experienced by the protagonist.

However, the apparent simplicity of this film is deceptive, for once the viewer identifies Jan’s reason for wanting to live as he does, and the meaning that he attributes to his life, do we then understand the source of his spiritual serenity. While Kawecki has to defend himself from accusations of cynicism, Jan remains relaxed and happy. Kawecki admits to Jan that he is divorced and “not the marrying kind”. Jan, on the other hand, is happy with his family life.

The Structure of Crystals is an uplifting, positive movie that appears to be inspired and moved along by the Catholic principles surrounding life and death. Jan is content to witness his children growing up right before his eyes.

Struktura Krysztalu/The Structure of Crystals (1969 Poland 74 mins)

Prod Co: Polish Corporation for Film Production Prod: Krzysztof Zanussi, Joanna Krauze Dir, Scr: Krzystof Zanussi Phot: Stefan Matyjaszkiewicz Ed: Zofia Dwornik Prod Des: Tadeusz Wybult Mus: Wojciech Kilar

Cast: Barbara Wrzesinska, Jan Myslowicz, Andrezej Zarnecki, Wladyslaw Jarema, Adam Debski

About The Author

Dr Pedro Blas Gonzalez is a writer and philosopher who holds a PhD in Philosophy. He has written five books: Human Existence as Radical Reality: Ortega y Gasset’s Philosophy of Subjectivity; Fragments: Essays in Subjectivity, Individuality and Autonomy; Ortega’s The Revolt of the Masses and the Triumph of the New Man; Unamuno: A Lyrical Essay and Dreaming in the Cathedral.