Savina Petkova on Krzysztof Zanussi’s ‘Ether’ (2018)
If there is one thing that contemporary Polish cinema doesn’t need, it’s another film glorifying Catholicism and its promise of salvation. Director Krzysztof Zanussi is an emblem for Polish cinema, with over fifty years of filmmaking behind him, yet the stamp of a “classic” auteur does not save him from making a preachy film, a crash-course in the hubristic Man vs God artistic tradition. Ether / Eter tells the story of a sadistic, atheistic nameless Doctor with a will-to-power (Jacek Poniedzialek whose biggest contribution to the role is his Hitler-like moustache), painted with all the go-to references that Western art can offer, which, in the end, dissolves the character into a myriad of symbols and canons, thinning his figure to that of a caricature. While the film allegedly explores how one becomes radically evil, Zanussi’s artistic decision to condense free will to religious underpinnings (i.e. a try-hard Faust / Frankenstein story), only adds to the conservative image of Poland that exists in the public eye.
Within Ether, two films exist. One concerns the narrative of the Doctor’s monomaniac and often fatal experiments with the anaesthetic gas “Ether” and follows him fleeing from the Russian to Austro-Hungarian Empire, bestowing the superiority of science over religion. So far, so good – a story of a degraded soul, the perils of total rationalism, and a depiction of lost humanism that reflects the over-analytic threats to arts and humanities. The film’s opening which depicts the purgatorial iconography of “The Last Judgement” by medieval Flemish painter Hans Memling, together with its plot-twist end, on the other hand, transform this criticism of human hubris into a Biblical dualism: it’s either God or the Devil. A debate more suitable for medieval times, since Zanussi prefers to keep it in the abstract realm of sermons and theology by proposing absent characters, half-baked dialogue, peppered with Wagner’s “Parsifal”, or the occasional yelp, “Science knows no limits!”
While the initial Russian segment is drenched in white, the summer air of frivolity is sucked out of the frame when, during an attempted rape, the Doctor kills a woman with an overdose of ether. When he’s sentenced to death, a miraculous pardon arrives, and the malignant scientist luckily escapes justice. That is until he becomes part of a trusted Austro-Hungarian army as a doctor to soldiers and prostitutes. The period costumes are superb but none of the characters animate them enough to elude the sour stench of last century theatre props.
The effortful strain to intertwine Nietzschean Übermensch motifs with secular defiance against the Church suffocates the film on a conceptual level, while its visuals are by-the-book. The mad doctor is shown pondering reflections, framed through glass windows, or behind veils – heavy-handed stylistic devices to insinuate his detachment from the human world in the name of a higher purpose, of science! While following a madman’s descent into dehumanising behaviour has its ethical intrigues, Ether soon runs aground in its deflated second act.
This damning commentary on “the quintessence of power” overuses ether as its symbol, its presence more pronounced than that of its employer, even when his appearance shifts from ephemeral white robes into Nazi scientist-esque black leather apron when experimenting. The contrast of black and white is particularly didactic as it plays directly into the God/Devil binarism, and as the film showcases later on – there is no middle ground to conceive of. This simplistic symbolism may work better in a novel description, but within a film with heavy religious stakes, it plays out as unimaginative and banal.
The film’s accomplishment is its critical distance to the protagonist. Ether does not empathise, even though the camera breathes the same air as the Doctor and never shows little beyond his reach. However, he is conceived as nothing more than a caricature of a person, a non-believer. The way he slaves to science and power associates him with the religion he despises; yet Ether does nothing with contradiction and tension since it serves a sermonic purpose, wrapping itself in the Western art canon to mask its deficiency.
Krzysztof Zanussi is a brilliant filmmaker, and his long directorial work has changed Polish cinema for better. Yet, as far as Ether is concerned, it doesn’t add anything new to the artistic tradition it evidently finds value in. Instead, its ambition becomes lamentable; in its abundant use of textbook historical, musical, and philosophical references, Ether never manages to make indelible use of the morals of its heritage.
Screened as part of the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival