In the opening sequence of Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1977 film Camouflage, Jakub (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz), a middle-aged professor, carrying a camera, turns his gaze from a dead bird to young people frolicking in the lake. The fluid, objectifying switch of perspective from nature to people is emblematic of Jakub’s stance toward life: A researcher in the humanities, Jakub nevertheless views human dilemmas through the cool prism of biological laws. Fond of metaphors drawn from the animal kingdom, he questions the notions of justice and truth as going against basic survival instincts. And while the first images tune us in to the film’s major tensions, the opening titles hint at its tone, as the playful illustrations of frogs, snakes, and other chameleons signal that though this is a story with rather serious themes, it’s also meant to be taken slightly tongue in cheek.
Brilliantly staged and flawlessly enacted, Camouflage is thus, first and foremost, a precisely modulated satire whose abrasive edges continually test our discomfort, as Zanussi puts our understanding of essential facts into question. The action takes place within the confines of an academic summer camp, where conscience is pitted against survival. It’s here that Jakub embarks on his closely controlled, nihilist life experiment as he attempts to initiate his younger colleague, Jarek (Piotr Garlicki), into the dark machinations of academia, in the hope of remaking him in his own cynical image. The camp, masquerading as a democratic forum, is its precise opposite: The students live in squalid huts and subsist on meager meals, while professors lunch sumptuously in a scenic villa.
In one of the film’s funniest scenes, a dirty pool that has stood empty for the entire camp, is cleaned up and filled in on the last day, so that the arriving rector may indulge in a dip. But more vile than the rigid hierarchy, or the radically different standards of living between the high and low, which characterized the period of communism in Poland that Zanussi so skillfully eviscerates, is the dishonesty that pervades all the human relations. As students present their linguistics papers in a competition, Jarek, who believes that bureaucracy should make room for genius, is pitted against his older colleagues, who yield to petty favoritism and departmental politics. Cunningly, the seasoned Jakub forces through Jarek’s nomination to head the competition jury, and watches him take the bait, to then wallow in his colleague’s failure to preserve his noble disinterestedness.
With a bemused smile, full, lascivious lips, and sorrowful, sunken face, Zapasiewicz creates Jakub as a darkly charismatic Machiavellian. Thanks to his malicious energy, and to Zanussi’s crackling, dry humor, the academic battle of wills and intellects between the two men is animated enough to carry the entire film. For Zapasiewicz’s Jakub is himself an actor: Adept at switching masks, and at hiding his real motives, he goes from scolding a young female student for bathing stark naked to admiring her buttocks when she turns. Zanussi makes Jakub’s villainy entertaining and complex enough to pit him against Jarek, whose pride in his own superior moral judgment begins to look self-righteous, or even disingenuous. And in a story where everyone’s motives, including Jarek’s, must pass the test of Jakub’s supreme, annihilating doubt, we slowly begin to see that there are cracks in Jakub’s own mask: Rather than a self-proclaimed villain, he too has been scarred by experience. But when Jakub decides to destroy Jarek’s faith in not only scholarly integrity, or human decency in general, but also in the genuineness of the latter’s romantic relationship with a female student, he finds that he has pushed his younger colleague too far.
The film’s final shot—a misty, gray stretch of marshland, barely illuminated by the breaking dawn—is like an image lifted from a minor apocalypse, befitting for a film whose characters are always kept at an arm’s length, so that we don’t empathize with them as much as marvel at their villainous inventiveness or their self-satisfied buffoonery. A dark take on dubious values of educational systems, particularly when not powered by a strong desire to learn, the film was seen as a satire on the stifling intellectual conditions in which Poles found themselves after the invasion of Czekhoslovakia in 1968. Yet the rich intrigue that Zanussi creates can also be read as a critique of any status quo, historical or contemporary, and a measured, bitingly satirical warning against the limits of idealism.
Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema runs from February 5—16 at Film Society of Lincoln Center.