Before becoming one of Poland’s best known directors, Krzysztof Zanussi studied physics at Warsaw University and philosophy at Jagellonian University. His debut feature, The Structure of Crystal (1969), explores both subjects through the simple story of two former college friends looking back on their lives as 30-something men on two very different paths.
The film starts as Marek, a successful physics professor, arrives at the modest home of his friend Jan and his schoolteacher wife Anna. Marek and Jan’s lives could not be more different: one is a worldly divorcé who has taught at Harvard and owns a car — a rare luxury in 60s Poland — while the other is a family man, who has abandoned an academic career in favour of a simple, if not always easy, life in the countryside. Each believes he has made the right choice, at least, until he is tempted by something the other one has. For both Jan and Marek, their friend represents the mysterious “road not taken”.
Halfway through the film, Marek compares his visit to a Chekhov play: “Everybody’s having tea. Silence and nothing happens”. Anna replies: “Actually, there is a lot happening in Chekhov’s plays.” The line might as well refer to the life that she shares with Jan: it will take Marek some time to realise that there is more to it than the routine he sees on the surface. Ironically, the couple are the ones who can find time to ponder the great philosophical questions of science in the quiet of their provincial home, while their fashionable guest is stuck building his career in the city. The Chekhov reference is even a good way to sum up the film itself, which relies more heavily on the conflict of ideas, rather than people.
The film’s unsophisticated plot is elevated by Wojciech Kilar’s outstanding score and by Stefan Matyjaszkiewicz’s sure-handed cinematography. Matyjaszkiewicz is equally skillful at setting the scene amidst austere snowy landscapes, and at capturing dynamic sequences of Marek and Jan’s boyish games of wrestling and racing. But his lens is perhaps at its best when it comes to the quasi-abstract shots of crystal, or of pieces of wood. These images do not linger on the screen long enough to be analysed and dissected by the viewer — instead, they are perceived purely aesthetically. Interestingly, pages of the friends’ books and notebooks are shown in a somewhat similar way: here, they are not to be studied, but to simply be admired for their beauty, the beauty of science and intellectual work. This admiration of science is, after all, something the two friends share, even if they approach it from very different angles.