Krzysztof Zanussi is a filmmaker that has, for much of his career, been considered by many as the cinematic conscience of Poland. There is arguably no clearer demonstration of this than during a purple patch towards the end of the 1970s and into the following decade in which he turned an unflinching eye on various facets of his society during a politically charged period. Camouflage (1977) certainly fits this bill, probing the cultural landscape of the time via a theoretical academic discourse. However, as with much of the director’s oeuvre it is a work not just about the immediate, but dizzyingly rich in the depth and breadth of its thematic concerns.
The loose threads of narrative keep circling back to a through-line in the form of an ongoing debate between a young graduate lecturer, Jaroslaw (Piotr Garlicki) and an older, jaded professor, Jakub (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz) who are running a linguistics summer camp. Through their verbal sparring, Jakub is ostensibly attempting to convince Jaroslaw that his world-view, which largely boils down to youthful honesty, is not only naive but an ineffective way to navigate the politics of academia – and by extension the wider dynamics of the latter years of the Communist state. Of course, though, there are many more layers shifting beneath the surface in this densely textured treatise that both expounds and belittles its protagonists conflicting beliefs with equal gusto.
At one point Jaroslaw speaks about his own work at “the borderlands of linguistics and information theory” and as with Zanussi’s masterpiece of several years earlier, Illumination (1973), Camouflage once again hunts in the grey area between sciences hard and social. Jakub sees the world in terms of nature’s red tooth and claw and it breeds cynicism which he seeks to instil in his younger charge mostly for his own bitter amusement. It boils down to sophistry at times – and when artificial languages are discussed, how can it not – but this is also the point, with Zanussi’s keen eye not missing the inherent corruptions of the camp organisers. Jakub is worldly wise and easily quells a student rebellion, but his following quip that “they’re no less conformist that you or I” is a damning one. Dialogue is the order of the day and Zanussi script is littered with witticisms and bracing intellect, never assuming that its audience will not be able to keep up.
Even as discussions become entwined in dialectic materialism, deconstructing ideology, and comparative grammar, they remain endlessly fascinating and razor sharp. Form follows function and though the director is more than capable of exquisite stylistic acrobatics, here he allows screenplay and characters to do the talking that they’re there for. The camera spins and wheels around the camp, but only in service of tracking the latest in flowing ruminations whether they be across a bustling dinner table or over the shoulder of a pupil. Most impressive, however, are the ideas; overlaying multiple explorations onto a seemingly simple narrative, Zanussi wields them with precision. How much they are merely for his own amusement is only known to him and the maliciously mischievous Jakub, and the answers to his probing questions, he leaves to the audience.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson