With his thick glasses, gangly frame and awkward demeanour, Franciszek Retman (Stanis?aw Lata??o) looks the part of the nerdy scientist. He chooses to study physics because he wants to understand the world with the most certainty possible, but life is about to throw some obstacles in his way – both practical and philosophical.
In Illumination (1972), rather than simply telling the story of a character’s life, director Krzysztof Zanussi wanted to present that character’s developing states of mind. To do this, he had to escape from traditional narrative form, instead modelling his film on an essay. Illumination does present pivotal events and everyday scenes from Franciszek’s life, but these standard narrative passages are whittled down to a minimum. Zanussi fills in the gaps with cinéma vérité footage of academic discussions and experiments, and images of medical diagrams, scientific graphs and close-ups of the human body.
Does this approach work? Not entirely: audiences may become bored with Franciszek’s quite ordinary existence. The narrative sections, showing happy moments with his loved ones, are intimate and beautiful, and the intercut stills are original and surprising, but this is not always enough to keep the audience engaged.
Some viewers will also find it difficult to watch the film’s footage of biological and medical experiments. But it is a disquiet shared by Franciszek, whose gentle, inquisitive nature is horrified by some scientists’ lack of empathy for their subjects as human beings. The film marks each milestone in Franciszek’s life with a still image of an official document, always accompanied by the same dissonant chord on the soundtrack. While his life seems to be proceeding normally, there is something not quite right in his world, something that extends beyond the normal existential questions that are part of everyone’s psychological experience. The film couldn’t point directly at the authoritarian political system that controlled Poland at the time, but it could create a generalised atmosphere of unease and menace, and does so with chilling effect.
Zanussi admired physicists because their discipline allowed them to be free thinkers at a time when Marxist doctrine had infiltrated most other academic areas, including biology. The director had originally included a scene where Franciszek takes part in the 1968 student demonstrations at the University of Warsaw, but the censors forced him to cut it. Now lost, the footage could not be put back into the restored version of the film.
Second Run’s DVD release of Illumination is part of the second edition of classic films of Polish cinema and comes with an insightful, and very recent, interview with Zanussi himself, in English. It also includes A Trace (Ślad, 1996) a short film about Stanis?aw Lata??o, the cameraman who reluctantly played Franciszek: Zanussi rightly felt that Lata??o would be more convincing than a glamorous professional actor at playing a nerdy physicist. Liner notes by critic and author Micha? Oleszczyk offer an engaging analysis of the film and a lucid assessment of Zanussi’s place in Polish film history as ‘one of the godfathers’ of the ‘cinema of moral anxiety’.