[Originally published in The Weekly, November 13, 1985]
Physicist/philosopher/filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi has told how he was once hired by a French couple to teach their children Russian. They assumed that, as a Pole, he would have to know the language of the nation in effective political control of his country. Zanussi knew Russian, to be sure (also French, English, German, Italian, Spanish), but the West Europeans’ presumption offended him: “It was very hard to forgive them their ignorance. I taught the children basic Polish, instead of basic Russian, using Russian pronunciation.”
That anecdote might well serve as the basis for a Zanussi film. It would be a wry parable of characters from disparate cultures meeting, misreading one another’s strengths and intentions, setting mutually convenient yet covertly opposed agendas. As the comedy unfolded, so would it quietly expand to take survey of how inadequate all social, political, historical, and ethical systems are to fixing the place and purpose of the individual human being in a vast, glacially beautiful cosmos. There’d be no winners in the perverse little game. Even the trickster hero’s victory would carry an aftertaste of bitterness and misdirected cruelty. As the heroine of A Year of the Quiet Sun remarks, “It’s not for us to judge. So you always say.” To which her mother crankily replies, “Oh really? And who is to be the judge of that?”
A Year of the Quiet Sun could also be summed up as a simple anecdote. In 1946, in a battered town located in “Poland now, Germany before the war,” Norman (Scott Wilson), a U.S. infantry veteran serving with the Occupation forces, and Emilia (Maja Komorowska), a Polish widow, meet. Norman, who has never had any personal life to speak of, is drawn to the refugee, tries to bring her some material comfort, and yearns for her affection. Emilia resists, seeing him as an opportunistic liberator looking to buy some companionship with chocolate bars; but eventually she responds to his earnestness, and warily reaches for a portion of happiness amid the postwar wreckage. Duty takes him away. He arranges for her to follow. But the forces of drift and inertia keep them apart.
That synopsis evokes any number of clichéd, bittersweet romances hung on the Christmas tree of history. It doesn’t begin to suggest the emotional and psychological complexity of this extraordinary film, or its transfiguring power.
At the most direct level, A Year of the Quiet Sun is a love story of rare and poignant beauty. Norman and Emilia do not speak each other’s language. “I am dumb—we are dumb!” Emilia cries in her first English utterance; the built-in ambiguity of the language leaves it unclear whether she is protesting their effective muteness or the foolishness of imagining a relationship between them. Yet that evolving relationship has been imagined by Zanussi with such particularity, and realized by Wilson and Komorowska with such heartfelt behavioral eloquence, that their every interaction conveys reams of understanding.
In one especially persuasive scene, Norman sits Emilia down to talk with her through an interpreter, a young Polish soldier. The mechanics of translation immediately break down. Norman makes his opening declaration and the interpreter nods agreeably. No no, tell her, Norman explains—then is dismayed when his carefully built speech is reduced to a single abrupt phrase. “Look,” he says to the interpreter, “I know you’re young, but you must have someone you really care about. I need your help here.” Whereupon the obliging fellow begins to relay that message to Emilia. Norman despairs of ever getting through, and finally begins to chuckle in exasperation. Offscreen, Emilia too begins to laugh. Cut to longshot as Norman and Emilia now share their laughter, and begin to share a good deal more, while the miffed interpreter complains, “l don’t understand this at all!”
How we understand and just what we are to understand is an issue worked into the fiber and movement of the film. During Norman’s first visit to the crumbling room where Emilia and her mother (Hanna Skarzanka) have found shelter, the women discuss him in Polish while he fidgets in the one armchair: He’s probably with that busybody Allied commission—all that fuss about a few missing American pilots but no concern for millions of killed or missing Poles. Later, the missing flyers are located in a mass grave outside the town, and the Poles gaze on the spectacle even more aghast than the Allied personnel whose countrymen lie before them.
The corpses are shocking to behold: black, skeletal, yet—this is the shock element—eerily peaceful. The hands, even the shovels, scraping to separate human remains from the earth are gently, reverently circumspect. Suddenly, a movement of the crowd sends several onlookers tumbling into the grave. Onscreen and in the audience, horrified gasps. And—such is the exactness of Zanussi’s touch—the horror is twofold: that the living can so readily find themselves among the horribly dead, and that their flailing might somehow visit further violation on those fragile relics.
This confrontation with mortality has a decisive impact on the GI and the refugee woman. When at last they become lovers, in an attic room adjacent to the widow’s quarters, Zanussi observes their preparations with a gentle comedic gravity—the mother feigning sleep as the couple passes through her room, a candle nearly singeing Emilia’s hair during the first clumsy embrace, the pair only partially undressing before covering themselves once more against the chill. The camera edges away from them in apparent discretion, and in doing so inadvertently reveals that the floor surrounding them has all but disintegrated: This love is joined literally and figuratively over the abyss.
Zanussi’s films have always been conceived with daunting intelligence, their scenarios reverberating at several carefully considered levels of meaning, and his casts unfailingly bring a fervent commitment to their work. (Upon occasion, such estimable players as Robert Powell, Leslie Caron, and Brigitte Fossey have acted in his films literally for nothing; the present film got onto American screens only because Scott Wilson took it away from its original, essentially dysfunctional distributor and began showing it at film festivals.) But as artful and resonant as the screenplay of A Year of the Quiet Sun is, as brilliant and moving as are the performances of Wilson, Skarzanka, and the incomparable Maja Komorowska (the face of humanity to Zanussi, much as Takashi Shimura once was to Kurosawa), what moves me most here, what sets A Year of the Quiet Sun apart as a breakthrough in the director’s work, is the look of the film. Zanussi’s images have never been so limpidly, relentlessly suggestive, his instinct never so acute for placing the camera at precisely that point from which, it seems, we can watch the world turn on its metaphysical axis. The title teases at the inadequacy of language to measure what is most essential in life: Can the sun be quiet? If this is “a year,” is the quiet sun forever? Visually, this movie is a dying fall of soul-searing clarity and absoluteness.
The Weekly, November 13, 1985
Copyright © 1985 by Richard T. Jameson