The awarding of prizes for an academic paper in a linguistics summer camp in a Polish provincial University is the setting for Zanussi’s great exploration of hierarchy, power, knowledge, justice, democracy, morality, conformism, corruption, ethics. A jaded, cynical professor, Jakub (Zbiniew Zapasiwicz) tries to enlighten and manipulate an earnest and idealistic younger colleague, Jeroslaw (Piotr Garlicki) and the verbal jousts between them are the occasion for the explorations of the issues the film dramatises. ‘Why not take things at face value’ asks the younger man? ‘Because it’s not all that simple or honest’ responds the elder.
Zanussi’s frame is always full of people or landscape – students staging sit ins, gangs swimming naked in the river, classes replete with students, dozens at dinner — in a way that makes one realise how thinned out much of contemporary cinema has become, not just visually, but thematically. Here when two characters speak in a two-shot it carries the context of the social so many people earlier helped depict. Place, and society are always the background to the protagonists’ thought and actions.
It’s no surprise that the film was read as an allegory for Poland in the last years of the Communist regime. It’s a film in which signs are often read by the characters as having other referents than its popularly acknowledged ones, but these other referents can only be divulged through avenues of power and knowledge. People are often compared to nature through animals: the cat will have its prey, and only by collaring it with bells will those poor birds and mice have a chance. But the analogy with nature has its limits. Human groups build their own value systems we’re told. But are those honest, just, democratic, ethical; and do they pave the way to knowledge and progress? At the end, Jaky thinks he’s brought out the beast in Piotr but Piotr makes clear that if he had, he’d be dead.
A film that seems particularly relevant in the light of present discussions on the role and purpose of universities. A great film.
Camouflage is currently available to view on MUBI.