Two men and a woman sit quietly drinking tea; it is like a scene from Chekhov, says one of the men, with only the samovar missing. ‘Silence and nothing happens,’ he remarks, but his inaccurate characterization of Chekhov’s plays is challenged by the woman’s comment that a great deal happens in them. The odd shooting aside, much of what ‘happens’ in Chekhov is subtle, but there are grand passions stirring beneath the placid surfaces. If the three main characters in The Structure of Crystal are hiding any grand passions beneath their placid surfaces, Krzysztof Zanussi is more restrained even than Chekhov in allowing a few glimpses of them to be seen. One of the most notable aspects of his excellent debut film―a complex reworking of the fable of the town mouse and the country mouse, which he wrote as well as directed―is its consistent avoidance of conflict and crisis. The story concerns two scientist friends, Jan and Marek, who have not seen each other in several years. Marek has achieved great professional success, while Jan is content to occupy himself with monitoring the weather for a local airport. When Marek returns from the U.S.A., he visits Jan with the aim of persuading him to quit his life of quiescent domesticity with his wife Anna and return to serious study. It’s a set-up that allows several possibilities for dramatic confrontation, but Zanussi rejects them all; the debates are conducted politely, with no raised voices; sexual tension is present but never acted upon; potentially major revelations about the two men are allowed to pass by without consequence. All seems as undisturbed as the snow that blankets the ground. But the questions with which Zanussi is occupied are profound; the graceful economy of his probing and the closeness of his observation make for rich and satisfying cinema.
With a mixture of bemusement and gentle derision, Marek needles Jan persistently about his humdrum life, contrasting it with the great potential he showed as a student. Although he tries to discover why Jan has effectively abandoned his scientific career, he makes no real attempt to understand what might be attractive about the life he has chosen with Anna. Jan, meanwhile, is genuinely curious about Marek’s life, but it is not the research that interests him so much as the consumerist lifestyle and technological advances he witnessed in America (a curiosity that is devoid of envy). Zanussi shows the gulf between the intellectual concerns of the two characters with a pair of scenes in which one tries to engage the other seriously―Marek about his work on crystal structure, Jan more philosophically about the concept of infinity―only to meet with indifference. In both scenes, the voice of the speaker fades out, to be replaced by music―a nod to the inattentiveness of the listener, and also an acknowledgement that, had the discourses been included in full, most viewers would have been similarly inattentive to such weighty matter.
The relationship between the two friends in their thirties still has a strong element of boyish competitiveness in it, displayed in scenes of racing, chin-ups, shot puts, sliding on the ice, arm wrestling. Marek invites Jan to take a turn at the wheel of his car, urging him to go ever faster on the icy roads; Jan complies at first, gaining in reckless confidence, but eventually has enough and stops. What is interesting is that Zanussi uses these scenes to illustrate the differing temperaments of the two men, but without loading them with dramatic significance. The playing never becomes serious; tempers are not frayed; good humour is preserved. Of course, beneath the surface much more may be going on, but Zanussi is content to let it remain there undisturbed.
If Zanussi’s sympathies seem to lie more with Jan than with Marek (most clearly revealed in a sequence of short scenes in which a swirling camera and twinkling piano music make domestic chores such as bread-making, fire-stoking and honey-gathering seem like acts of ecstasy), he doesn’t tip the scales too far. Like Jan, Zanussi forsook scientific studies, though he did so in favour of the cinema and not a retired life in the country. In one uncomfortable scene, he contrives to place both himself and the viewer in the midst of his characters’ mutual incomprehension. In a bar, Jan chats with the locals while Marek sits alone in the foreground; when the former joins him, Marek wants to know what his friend can possibly have to say to such people. Marek’s snobbery is obnoxious, but even Jan’s answer―that they talk about everything except the weather, about which they know far more than he does―contains a hint of condescension in its self-deprecation. Jan may enjoy socialising with those far less educated than him, but it is possible that they do not accept him as one of their own to quite the degree he imagines. In reply to a sour remark from Marek on the men’s faces, Jan says that it depends on how you look at them, which is the cue for a succession of unflattering Brueghelian close-ups that seem to bear out the truth of Marek’s observation, aided by some queasy woodwind/vibraphone music courtesy of Wojciech Kilar. Zanussi challenges us not to find these faces grotesque and rustic, asking whether we might not also be guilty of Marek’s snobbery, while at the same time making it difficult for us to deny his assumption of the banality of the men’s conversation. The sophisticated director filming these faces is also implicated.
This is a wintry film, and it is easy to detect a political aspect to the bleakness of the weather. The film was released the year after hopes were ignited and then brutally crushed in neighboring Czechoslovakia by the Prague Spring and its suppression. Marek and Jan present different examples of how to find one’s place in the sterility of a one-party state. Marek, with his single-minded ambition tinged with ruthlessness, channels his intellectual pursuits into a narrow area of specialization; the resulting professional success brings him material comforts and escape in the form of foreign travel. There are hints that Jan’s rejection of this option is partly a rejection of the moral compromises involved, and a refusal to make himself so useful to the state.* A third option is seen in Anna’s position as a schoolteacher, but in the absence great social and political change, her pupils will perhaps have constricted futures ahead of them. The characters are repeatedly seen walking aimlessly in the snow, the barrenness of the landscape illustrative of both the impasse between them and the wider social impasse in which they are situated. And yet Jan and Marek’s friendship endures; its strength, and the strength of Jan and Anna’s marriage, are reasons against hopelessness. The final image points towards the cosmic and ineffable, the disinterested contemplation of it a source of wonder.
*Two other Zanussi films I’ve seen―Camouflage (1977) and The Constant Factor (1980), both of them excellent―also feature central characters struggling to maintain their integrity in a corrupt society, while the protagonist of Family Life (1971) seeks to free himself from his father’s influence.