There aren’t many directors left who can impudently inject high culture into the soul of their films the way Krzysztof Zanussi can, and still deliver a gripping historical drama. In Ether (Eter), the topic is the abuse of science to gain control over individuals and subjugate the masses, depriving people of their free will and the option of choosing between good and evil. One can debate whether it was really necessary to superimpose a Faustian twist on a story that is already loaded with references, and not everyone will cotton to the story’s metaphysical ending. But the questions Zanussi poses about runaway science are utterly topical, even if it’s unusual to see them approached head-on from the high ground of religious ethics.
Screened in the official section of the Rome Film Festival, this Poland-Ukraine-Hungary-Lithuania-Italy co-production is guaranteed commercial release in at least five markets and Latido should wiggle it into other niches. But its main life will probably unfold at film festivals, where Zanussi’s name is the stamp of old-school quality cinema.
The pic opens with an extraordinary nose-to-nose examination of Hans Memling’s medieval painting ‘The Last Judgment.’ specifically the torture and torment awaiting sinners in hell. It introduces the film’s theological side, which rumbles quietly in the background of the main story. Eventually it will dovetail with Goethe’s Faust story, featuring an elegantly outfitted devil who tempts our anti-hero into exploring the darkest recesses of science, while a pure-hearted patient named Margaret prays for his salvation.
It’s genteel 1912, and controlled Polish actor Jacek Poniedzialek plays the well-mannered doctor of the upper classes. One sunny afternoon, he coolly decides to rape his beautiful young patient after knocking her out with a new anesthetic he has been experimenting with — ether. Although at the time it was considered a safer version of chloroform, Zanussi’s story shows the doctor killing a number of patients — including the beautiful girl — by overdosing them with the stuff, accidentally or on purpose.
By a devilish miracle, he gets away with his first murder and takes up a post as a military medic in a remote outpost on the border of the Ukraine and the Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s just the sort of out-of-the-way place he’s looking for to test the limits of human endurance to pain under ether’s influence. Luckily for him, the cynical officers in the fortress seem as unconcerned about the sacredness of human life as he is.
And yet, Poniedzialek’s doctor is more complex than he appears. He may be an amoral Frankenstein figure with the face of Adolf Hitler, but he’s a passionate believer in science and risks his life to fund his research. Compared to Jeff Goldblum’s lobotomist-for-hire in Rick Alverson’s recent The Mountain, he’s a man with a mission, sinister though it may be. His real objective is to develop methods of eliminating free will — something bound to prove useful in the upcoming war expected to break out soon.
In one disturbing scene, he injects a soldier with a serum that boosts his martial instincts to the max, making him an invincible wrestler. As usual, the dose is too high, and the fighter turns into a wild animal who has to be confined to a straitjacket and a jail cell. The scene owes much of its effectiveness to the dazzling lighting by DP Piotr Niemyjski, whose own painterly instincts are unleashed in the film’s key scenes, where he swathes the barbarism of the early 20th century in gauzy white and ivory tones.
Like all good mad scientists, the doctor needs a young assistant whose innocence he can callously destroy. Taras (a perfectly cast Ostap Vakulyuk) is a peasant boy so poor he sells his dead father’s cadaver to science, only to find it standing as an embalmed exhibit in the doctor’s museum, alongside two-headed fetuses in jars. Unlike the atheist doctor, the boy is a devout Catholic who, one hopes, will follow a more ethical and humanistic path in his medical studies. Or will the system corrupt him? As he finds himself trapped in a net of lies and accusations, the film slows down and loses quota for a while.
Zanussi’s modernity is always cautiously present. After telling the doctor’s story more or less straight under the title “The Known Story,” he surprises the audience by doubling back over events in a coda dubbed “The Secret Story” that explains the theological underpinnings of it all. A little-seen character in the film is unmasked as the devil himself; he doesn’t give a hoot if the doctor doesn’t believe in him, and is no less the evil influencer for that. It’s a milder version of discovering that the Neville Chamberlain look-alike in Wonder Woman is really Ares, the god of war, and of course it changes things. Ether ends in the trenches of WWI where the question “Does suffering have a meaning?” is raised with a vengeance. But the answer must wait for another movie.
On the tech side, everything is pleasantly a bit over the top, like the doctor’s chic black-leather lab coat that makes him seem like a cross between a butcher and a Nazi. The music track makes constant use of excerpts from Wagner’s opera Parsifal, further suggesting the man is on a quest to find his own Holy Grail.
Production companies: Tor Film Studio in association with Interfilm Production Studio, Studio Uljana Kim, Laokoon Filmgroup, Revolver, Bielle Re, Wytwornia Filmow Dokuementalnych i Fabularnych, Canal+
Cast: Jacek Poniedzialek, Zsolt Laszlo, Andrzej Chyra, Ostap Vakulyuk, Maria Ryaboshapka, Stanislav Kolokolnikov, Malgorzata Pritulak, Rafal Mohr, Victoria Zinny
Director-screenwriter: Krzysztof Zanussi
Producers: Janusz Wachala, Krzysztof Zanussi
Director of photography: Piotr Niemyjski
Production designer: Joanna Macha
Costume designer: Katarzyna Lewinska
Casting director: Magdalena Szwarcbart
Venue: Rome Film Festival
World sales: Latido