Memories from Cannes: Krzysztof Zanussi

Marcin Zawiśliński interviews director Krzysztof Zanussi for the special issue of biweekly Viva! Polish Cinema at the 70th Cannes International Film Festival.

Marcin Zawiśliński: You first went to Cannes in 1971 with Family Life, which was in the main competition.

Krzysztof Zanussi: Yes. My debut, The Structure of Crystal, had already been shown out of competition at Cannes. But I didn’t attend then. I remember going together with Maja Komorowska and Daniel Olbrychski in 1971 in great excitement. I used to have a Trabant back then. In Cannes, I started thinking about exchanging it for another car. I was staying at the Carlton hotel and got into a conversation with a lift attendant there, who was more or less my age, and after work he got into his very nice car. That’s when I realised how huge the material gap was separating communist Poland from Western Europe.

What were your first impressions of that visit?

At that time, Polish films used to compete quite regularly at various international festivals. Only later did I realise that it was something special, as if you had set the world on fire. I remember after the screening of Family Life, which was well received, I went with Maja Komorowska and Daniel Olbrychski down the stairs on the red carpet. Nearby, behind the railings, were huge numbers of people who were reaching out their hands for us to touch them. So we walked along and generously reciprocated their smiles. At some point, the barriers finished. We mingled with the crowd and stopped… being special. No-one wanted anything from us anymore. I was inspired by this experience so after I came back to Poland, I wrote the stage play Unavailable together with Edward Żebrowski, in which we talked about the effect of unavailability which suddenly and unexpectedly passes.

In 1978, you won the Cannes Ecumenical Jury Prize for “Spiral”, and two years later the Jury Prize for “The Constant Factor”.

Also in 1980, my film Ways in the Night, which I had made in Germany, was shown in the Un Certain Regard section. I cherish both of those movies and they are both very close to my heart.

And what about that new dream car?

I bought it, but later. In 1980, to kill time while waiting for the decision of the jury, I made an appointment to meet a car dealer who sold me a Fiat Mirafiori. I got packed and was ready to go back to Poland when Tony Molière, my foreign distributor, called me with the information that I was going to get the award for The Constant Factor. I remember when I accepted it that I said I had made a movie about scaling peaks and that here – at sea level – I felt that I had scaled other peaks.

That’s beautiful.

The host of the entire gala and all the people gathered in the Palais des Festivals hardly reacted to it, as if they hadn’t even heard it. Imagine my surprise when I walked out onto the street and someone came up to me, thanking me for what I had said. I put it down to television, which had been broadcasting the gala. Close-up on the screen, it had resounded but the audience in the hall hadn’t paid any attention to it.

What do you associate with the Cannes Film Festival today?

It is still the most important and most prestigious film festival in Europe and the world – but it is no longer the biggest. In this respect, it has been overtaken by the Korean Busan. Cannes is a somewhat coquettish event, where the selectors have a lot to say. They are well-versed, but unfortunately afraid to take bold decisions. They usually choose works that are similar to films that have already been awarded. Cannes also has its trends and fashions. There were years when Polish cinema was very popular. Then came the time for Persian cinematography, and now Romanian movies are having their five minutes.

What are your hopes and expectations when you come to Cannes now?

I like to meet other artists and so I participate in panel discussions, which are often very inspiring. Sometimes I will see something new, and I lift the spirits of some young director. If I ever make another movie, I hope it will be shown in the main competition. Or at least in the Un Certain Regard section, as happened with my last film, At Full Gallop, which was presented at Cannes but overlooked at the festival in Gdynia.