The Structure of Crystal - Struktura kryształu - Krzysztof Zanussi - Andrzej Żarnecki - Jan Mysłowicz - Marek - Janek - fence - snow

The Structure of Crystal
1969, directed by Krzysztof Zanussi

About halfway through The Structure of Crystal, while the three protagonists sit around the dining room, the houseguest Marek compares the moment to a Chekhov play. “We’re only missing a samovar. Everybody’s having tea. Silence and nothing happens.” Anna answers him, “Actually there’s a lot happening in Chekhov’s plays.” Her comment pertains equally well to the movie, a modest story of two former physics classmates reuniting in rural Poland. The film is decidedly undramatic, but close examination shows a lot happening across the film’s brief duration of 74 minutes. It’s a contest between the divergent attitudes of the two male friends, Janek and Marek, but the scope of the contest expands into an important philosophical comment on life.

Of course Anna is not talking about the film her character is in, and if one is looking for a double meaning, her insight into Chekhov applies equally well to the everyday life around her. When Marek condescendingly asks his host, “What do you fill your days with?” the film answers with a montage of ordinary moments – drawing water from a well, baking a loaf of bread, siphoning liquid from a bottle, harvesting honey. The montage is a wordless retort to Marek, conveying a joy and vitality that he seems not to imagine in his friend’s comparatively humble routine. Ironically the sequence ends with a close-up of honeycomb, focusing on the crystalline structure whose similarity to the crystals Marek studies is hard to miss. On one hand, it’s as if the two friends’ lives are not so different after all. On the other hand, the structure of nature plays a different role for each of them – for one it’s the material of an academic career, for the other it’s an object of wonder.

The Structure of Crystal - Struktura kryształu - Krzysztof Zanussi - crystal diagram
The Structure of Crystal - Struktura kryształu - Krzysztof Zanussi - honeycomb

The cut at the end of Marek’s question is not the only riposte of its kind. Seven minutes later, at a local bar, Marek remarks on the men around them: “You must agree that their faces don’t fill one with optimism.” The film answers with another wordless montage, a series of faces from the bar, again revealing a vitality that Marek appears insensitive to. This time however, before the cut, Janek says, “Oh, it depends on how you look.” The contrast between the two men, throughout the film, is a difference of vision. Marek, the successful career physicist from Warsaw, studies the natural world as a means of getting ahead. Janek, his talented but less ambitious friend, settles for the life of a rural meteorologist, observing nature without pretence of original discovery.

Marek’s outlook is summed up in his competitive nature, which reveals itself again and again. He challenges Janek to a series of athletic contests like racing and arm-wrestling, but he appears less interested in proving his abilities than in demonstrating superiority. He attempts to seize an unfair head start in the footrace, and he admits taking credit for a discovery that belonged at least partly to some scientists in Poznań. After all this, it shouldn’t be surprising when he makes a play for Janek’s wife Anna. Anna admits to cheating too, but in a trivial way at cards. To paraphrase her, her objective isn’t superiority but equal footing – and she refuses to cheat on Janek.

The Structure of Crystal - Struktura kryształu - Krzysztof Zanussi - Andrzej Żarnecki - Jan Mysłowicz - Marek - Janek - mirror

Even more to the point, Marek’s motivation as a scientist is to compete with nature. Lecturing at the local school, he sums up his work on artificial gemstones: “Modern man has in many instances surpassed nature. The artificial things we make are often better than what we can find in the ground.” His point of view is far from uncommon, and when Janek looks at slides of International Style high-rises in New York and Chicago, the point is to show how architects too may compete with nature, modeling buildings on the structure of a crystal.

The movie gives Marek a fair hearing, never refuting him directly or trying to force the viewer toward another perspective. Janek declines to argue with him, secure in his own course of life. Any viewer can appreciate Marek’s wish to utilize his friend’s talents productively. Despite his disdain for Janek’s lifestyle, which he compares to that of a “pensioner”, there’s an affection between the friends that rarely wavers, and Marek’s attempts to pull Janek back to academic research show a respect for his abilities. Marek is neither a villain nor his friend’s opposite, and it’s because of this nuanced characterization that the film’s argument is effective. After Marek’s lecture about man outperforming nature, a young woman from the audience presents him with a modest bouquet of flowers. By all appearances she had appreciated his presentation, yet from the film’s point of view, the flowers are another wordless refutation of Marek’s arrogance – a reminder that man is still a long way from surpassing nature. He then hands the flowers to Anna, as if he’s not entirely happy to receive them.

The Structure of Crystal - Struktura kryształu - Krzysztof Zanussi - Barbara Wrzesińsk - Andrzej Żarnecki - Jan Mysłowicz - Anna - Marek - Janek - field - snow - trees - winter

In contrast to Marek’s competitive nature, Janek reveals the core of his character at the film’s precise midpoint. It would be unlike him to express it directly – instead, without any explanation, he brushes the snow off a tombstone to expose the epitaph:

I was what you are;
I am what you will be;
Remember me for someone to remember you.

This comes right after Janek shares his recent readings on the topic of infinity: “For the Greeks, for Aristotle and Plato, infinity was something imperfect, something worse than finity.” In other words, Janek appreciates and even treasures the limits of humanity. Instead of reaching to outdo nature, he prefers to subordinate himself to the surrounding world, which ironically puts him in a position to observe it with greater accuracy and wonder. The epitaph is an eloquent summary of the limits nature imposes on life, yet its last line allows life – in a modest way – to extend beyond its limits. This extension of life through memory, however, requires reciprocal action. Whoever wishes to be remembered must also remember in turn. It would follow, then, that whoever wishes to live to the fullest must also observe life from a self-effacing position.

The Structure of Crystal - Struktura kryształu - Krzysztof Zanussi - Andrzej Żarnecki - Jan Mysłowicz - Marek - Janek - poster - clouds

As universal as these thoughts may be, the film’s commentary extends also into the political reality of its time – again with an ample degree of nuance. The director Krzysztof Zanussi had studied physics in Warsaw like Janek and Marek, so there is evidently something personal in the story. Marek’s behavior, reporting his friend’s activities to their former boss at the laboratory (who would like Janek to return), is reminiscent of the internal espionage typical of totalitarian countries. In the early 1960s Zanussi had been unwillingly registered as an agent of the internal security service. Like Janek he was close to people who monitored their fellow citizens, but he apparently never acted in the capacity of a spy, and it’s tempting to speculate that the movie expresses his feelings about an episode from his past that had caused misunderstandings.

Marek outwardly resembles a dutiful apparatchik, betraying his friend’s trust, and his efforts to push Janek into a more productive career resemble the state’s incessant drive to increase production – as the clip of a newsreel and the comments about a nearby factory remind us. On the other hand, his disdain for the proletarians at the bar smacks of bourgeois elitism. Marek has spent the last few years going back and forth between the Soviet Union and the United States, and at the end he leaves to meet some visitors from Leningrad. He’s apparently comfortable in both capitalism and communism, like a mercenary without ideals, vaguely hinting that Poland’s puppet government was similarly motivated.

The Structure of Crystal - Struktura kryształu - Krzysztof Zanussi - car - cows - snow - overhead shot

The movie’s substance however transcends politics, and its preference for Janek’s point of view finds its most powerful expression in the scene where Janek drives Marek’s car. Janek apparently doesn’t know how to drive, yet as soon as he takes the wheel, the ride changes completely. With Marek steering, the characters had appeared in dull light, shot conventionally through the windshield – but after the friends switch seats, the perspective and the music come alive. The car floats up the screen through a snowy crossroads, jaunts along a country road, and in another overhead shot it glides into a herd of spotted cows. The scene, which had looked so flat when Marek was driving, now rises to a kind of ecstasy. It’s not only that Janek represents a closer view of nature… it’s precisely because he’s not an experienced driver, because he has no claim to mastery, that the ride takes on a feeling of wonder.

The Structure of Crystal - Struktura kryształu - Krzysztof Zanussi - Andrzej Żarnecki - Marek - car - visor
The Structure of Crystal - Struktura kryształu - Krzysztof Zanussi - Jan Mysłowicz - Janek - telescope - ending

There’s a similar contrast at the very end. As Marek drives away, lowering his visor to keep the sun out of his eyes, the film cuts to a snowy field where Janek sets up a telescope to look into the sun. The sun is the closing image, representing the light of nature which one man shuts out and the other looks at with fascination.


All About Eve – Critique of ambition, arguing that it tends to make excuses for cheating

Winter Light – Intimate winter setting; contest between two points of view; symbolically important switch of drivers

Blow-Up – Movie about vision with key instances of irony; character seen from overhead at end with insinuation of self-effacement

The Man Who Left His Will on Film – Contest between two points of view; unconventional perspective used to express wonder

The Passenger – Expressive cut that gives a wordless answer to a spoken question

The Counselor – Philosophical commentary inspired by gemstones, with the implicit or explicit suggestion of nature’s superiority, the value of a crystal being in its irregularities