Krzysztoff Zanussi: «My faith is the faith of a physicist»
Vladimir Legoyda
Read More

Dear friends, welcome to a new episode of our TV show, Parsuna.  Our guest today is Krzysztof Zanussi. Mr. Zanussi, good afternoon!

Good afternoon!

It’s great to have you here, in our studio!

Thank you! It’s great to be here. 

Mr Zanussi, you are a world-famous director you’ve won a great number of awards, but at the outset I would like to ask you is how you personally see yourself? How would you describe yourself?

That depends on a perspective: where I am, with whom and what kind of introduction it should be. 

It should be here and now. 

At a program of this kind, I should first of all say that I’m Christian, not only because I was christened, but also because I consider myself a believer. Secondly, I’m an artist, a husband to my wife, a Polish and European citizen. Also, I’m a former physicist and I’m very proud of it. It’s already in my past, though, but the years that I studied to be a physicist, have influenced my mindset profoundly. I teach – that’s another occupation for me. I’m a traveler, of course. Sometimes I write books. 

Thank you very much! In the course of our show we will speak about faith and, I hope, about physics. Our conversation is usually concentrated around five topics. Such formation is related to the prayer of the Optina Elders, namely to its ending: “Teach me to pray, to hope, to believe, to be patient, to forgive and to love.” Our guests also have an option to ask a question to the host. Some of them use that opportunity; some don’t. So, if you feel like asking me something, I’ll be happy to answer or at least give it a try. Alright?


So, our first topic is Faith. 


Let’s start with a famous phrase, which is attributed to different people, usually to scientists Pasteur or Pascal. Let’s say, it’s a quotation by the latter, because he was not only a Catholic, but also a physicist, just like you. As a scientist, he is a little more recognized than you, though. Anyway, he said: “The more I know, the more my faith resembles that of a Breton peasant. Could I but know all, I would have the faith of a Breton peasant woman.” This quotation is interpreted in various ways, but I wonder, how you understand it. I would even ask you: you started as a physicist, then you studied philosophy, now for quite a while you’ve been making great movies and writing books. Can you say that your faith has transformed from the faith of a Breton peasant to that of a Breton peasant woman?

No, definitely, I can’t say that. It’s not about me at all. My faith is closer to the faith of a physicist, a man, who has discovered that it doesn’t contradict science at all. Quite the opposite: reason, that is striving for the truth, leads the human to God, and I see nothing wrong here. The communities close to me, especially theoretical physicists, who have discovered that the world in reality is totally different from Pascal’s idea of the world – nowadays they admit, that physics is facing new mysteries and it’s impossible to speak about nature and even matter without touching upon those mysteries. Pascal’s world is, basically, Newton’s world, where everything seemed to be comprehensible by reason.  But nowadays mysteries are obvious and they come down to God, for sure.    

I agree, it’s all true, and it’s really important that you say it, because a stereotype that faith runs counter to science still persists.  But there are two big questions in this regard, and let me start with the one I find more important and, maybe, difficult. Once I participated in some theological conference. Several scientists were invited as well, and one physicist said that faith didn’t contradict science, that believers should be involved in research, that both communities should be integrated (he used Tolstoy’s metaphor). I took the floor after him and said: “All that is very interesting, of course, but strange too. You mean, there are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and also Physicists, and they should somehow interact all together. But it doesn’t happen.” So, faith and science don’t contradict, after all?

Interaction is something different. I don’t think all religions can be brought into one line. There’s a diplomatic aspect to the issue, not to offend anybody.

Yes, right. 

But I’m firmly convinced that my Christian faith is closer to the truth, than all the others.  If I had found more truth in some other religion, I would have converted to it. But I haven’t done it and I’m not going to, because the years I’ve lived, almost 80, have proved that mine is the closest to the truth, although we, as people, keep spoiling it. We haven’t understood Gospel, and I don’t think we will ever do it properly. But science gave us a theory, that helps me understand things easier: it holds that the categories of time and space depend on a person and on the backdrop and that they can’t be objective. This model was developed by Immanuel Kant and it has become more relevant nowadays. If I take that God is above both time and space, physics make it easier for me to turn to God. The idea of God is hard to comprehend, but Christ was born as a human, so it’s another thing that makes it closer to me. But I know for sure that there’s no way I can understand the idea of living after death. Physics tells me, it is the limit of my reason, and I concede it. 

Even so, I think, religion and science are completely different concepts. There’s no contradiction between them because there’s just no intersection. I mean, they lean on different references. 

No contradiction, at least, there shouldn’t be any. However, for the last 200 years since the Age of Enlightenment, science undertook the role of religion, and it can’t be justified. Science tried to give answers to all the questions of our existence, but it shouldn’t do that, as it just can’t do that. 

Science has allowed us to have a good life, feed the poor, develop energy which helps us prosper. So, that image of a Breton peasant woman seems to me a bit archaic. Her faith can be called child’s faith, and it’s beautiful in its naivete. But for me faith should include an intellectual aspect too, so that I can believe with my heart and mind. 

So, you disagree with Pascal in this regard?

Yes, I do. 

Great. Sir, why do you think the idea of contradiction between faith and science is still here? I talk to my students and I face this stereotype every now and then. Way back in the old days in our country it could be explained by the Soviet rule. But what about now? 

You know, these concepts are over two-three centuries old, and this mindset has already become obsolete, but it did so only 50 years ago, when Einstein, Bohr and Schroedinger and other prominent scientists took the center stage. They gave us a new idea of the Universe, of our world and matter. Kopernik’s ideas were accepted only 400 years later, so, I’m afraid, it’ll take ordinary people a hundred years or so to understand the teaching of Einstein. Only 50 years have passed so far. What I can see now is a crisis that is often expressed by aggression. You know, non-believers have become too aggressive in their stance against religion, they start to see it as a threat. Maybe that’s because they feel, their ideas no longer seem that obvious as before. They can no longer be taken for granted. Nowadays we see very often that the progressive ones now seem more like retrogrades. And on the contrary, that praying old woman seemed so ridiculous, but in fact, she is not, because it turns out that she is closer to the truth in what she’s doing. I believe, prayer is not just a psychological process - it’s not just something that calms you down. It is something different – it is talking to the Infinity. 

So, you agree with Pascal in some ways…

In this sense – yes. 

Mr Zanussi, today I’m going to touch upon your books a lot. For example, in the book Life Strategies - How to Have Your Cake and Eat it you write: “We’ve learned how to live in the world full of differing views. But the very fact that they do differ, makes us doubt our beliefs.” So, the question is: you’ve already said, that if you had found something true, you would have converted, but anyway, have any other opinions challenged your own faith, and how did you deal with it? 

Well, you know, I’ve always been an open-minded person, I never thought I had access to the whole truth in the world. I’ve always been aware that the things I understand are just a small piece of it. But I haven’t been in such a deadlock, like many saints and mystics. God spared me that ordeal. I’m blessed that at an early stage of my life I met people, who somehow helped me make sure that the road I was on, was the right one, close to the truth. I’ve met fascinating people from different religions, and they amazed me. I know there are a lot of things I can learn from them. But if we take a complete look on my existence, the Christian view remains actual to me all the time. It doesn’t mean you can just have faith for yourself. I often recall a funny phrase, saying that one cannot put faith into a fridge. It just won’t survive there. There’s no way you can wake up to a thought like: “Yesterday evening I was a believer. Am I still one? Or maybe something has changed in me?’ Faith is something you should struggle for every day. It’s a dynamic process, one can’t have faith once and for all. Maybe, that’s what Pascal dreamt of. 

Maybe. I can’t help but wonder, what do you find the most difficult in faith, in this dynamic process? 

For me the most difficult is to break free from everyday reality and feel that our lives and daily routines don’t mean much to this world. We are just dust, though, some may want to think they are the whole Universe. That happens because of our arrogance – it’s our weakness. Humans want to attach great important to themselves, but that’s what we should forget about. We are not that important.    

So, you think our faith convinces us that we all are just dust?

Yes, I think so. 

So, what about love and the idea of creation in general?

Dust can be loved too!

Okay okay, I give up! 


Our next topic is Hope. 

Oh, that’s the main thing in our life. If there is no hope, what is left for us — death, suicide? But we do lose hope and we do it often. It is terrible see people who have lost hope, who don’t want to live, don’t understand what to live for, and it’s really dangerous for them. If there’s no hope, why get up early in the morning and do something? Hope is like fire: we can live as long as we have it. But without fire there’s no life. 

Mr Zanussi, may I cite another passage, it’s not from your book, but from your interview. It was your meeting with the students of MGIMO University. Do you remember that visit?

Yes, I remember it. 

This meeting took place 12 years ago, and you said at that time: “Nowadays we can’t say Europe is atheistic. A lot of advanced countries have now developed a notion of respect for mystery. We see it in art, as well as in science. Another era comes to mind – 19th century, when people would lose their mind because of pride and feeling of omniscience. Now everything is different and it’s the first step to religious sensitivity. That’s what I hope for.” So, my question is, with regard to what I’ve just said: has your hope grown stronger or become weaker during those 12 years?  

It has become stronger. I see more of this. I can see that the atheistic outlook is hopeless, it is not moving forward, that’s why it’s so aggressive. It is sinking into foolishness and it’s being expressed by some small meaningless things. Some social groups take different issues, from feminism to ecology, for their new religion. Of course, these all are important problems, but they don’t stand for the truth and they have nothing to do with the questions what do we live for and what’s the purpose of our existence. And in this respect, those who believed they represented progress nowadays don’t feel so confident. But they are behind the curve already, and nowadays we can see it clearer, than 12 years ago. I feel more of this, especially in Western Europe, especially among the youth. Of course, they are still in a minority, but let’s be reminded that it was a minority of 12 men that gave a start to Christianity in the Roman Empire. Nowadays they are not 12, there are hundreds of thousands of young people who are now closer to faith than 20 years ago. 

It’s great to hear it. These are really important words, but what about all the speculation that Europe is losing its Christian identity? These talks are not groundless, after all, are they?

It has lost it long ago, and we are only witnessing the results of it now. It’s true that the whole system of worship, I mean churchgoing, sacraments, hierarchy (bishops, priests etc.), is no longer relevant and we have to reorganize it. I think, the current Pope Francis feels it and tries to express what’s the most important in Christianity in new ways. Is he managing it successfully – that’s a different story. It’s all about the idea that Christianity is not an ethical judgement – it is not just dividing the society into the good and the bad, the saved and the unsaved ones, it’s something of a different scale, and there’s a great number of people who can understand it very well. However, we’re talking about things that cannot be put into words that can be expressed by gestures at most, so, obviously, that’s a matter that requires looking from a different angle. 

Under the topic Hope I often discuss our youth with my guests, because our Hope lies mostly in the hands of our young people. And I guess I got you here, because in one of your books you write: “When I see a hall full of young people, frankly speaking, I feel deeply sorry for them, because youth is the worst time (the worst, dear friends! Just think about it) of a person’s life. 

Of course. 

Wasn’t it a trick?

No, it wasn’t and can confidently repeat it. Of course, it’s a bit of a provocation. But in fact, we live in the world where everybody wants to be young, and youthfulness has become a reason for bluster.  But it’s not an achievement at all, because time can’t be stopped. Youth is a time of great risks. Any misstep may have long-term consequences. But at that stage we know nothing about life at all, and if not for the hormones that keep us active, we’d collapse under the weight of responsibility and uncertainty. We know almost nothing about ourselves and the world when we are young. We don’t know, who is honest and who is not. When everyone around tells lies, including the media, we get so confused and we have to tell between the truth and fake news. I give them hope: don’t worry – youth comes and goes, it’s not forever, so, there’ll a time when you will feel better. That’s an optimistic side of it. 

So young people’s hope is that one day their youth will be over?

Yes, it will be over and after that they will become a bit older and wiser.


Thank you, Mr. Zanussi. Our next topic is Patience. Again, there is an amazing, electrifying passage in your book: “I understand the Christian imperative Your will be done, but there’s another thing I understand as well. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that innocent suffering can be His will too. Moral dilemmas are imbued with the spirit of mystery.” That’s a very beautiful passage, I would even say, that’s an aesthetic version of Ivan Karamazov’s question. Do you remember it?

Of course, I do. 

He said: “It’s not that I don’t believe in God; I can’t accept the world created by Him.” Then there was that famous episode with a boy’s tear and so on. So, I would like to ask you, if it’s impossible to believe at times, what is left for us to do? To abide?

We shouldn’t keep our hopes up and we have to admit our personal limitations - we cannot understand everything, there is some mystery. I may not accept what I see around me, but it doesn’t mean I disagree with God. Probably, I just don’t understand Him right. At such moments I feel I’m just dust but I try to live through this crisis. Such times can be really challenging. So, in this sense, faith is not that easy. Unwise people often say: “You, believers, live an easier life”, but it’s not right – quite the opposite. Our life is much harder. Non-believers don’t even look for sense. But the world has no sense without God. This is the thought I repeat after a great French writer Eugène Ionesco. I knew him in person and even staged his plays. I remember, somebody asked him: “Why did you move from the theatre of absurd to the theatre of religion towards the end of your life?” And he answered: “I’ve never composed any absurd plays. I’ve always been realistic. The world without God is absurd, I’ve always been just painting a portrait of it. In this regard, there has never been an evolution”. He had a sense of humor, and I find that phrase very witty. The world would lose any sense without God. How can we find it if we don’t even look for it? That’s why the life of non-believers is easier – they don’t bother with looking for sense and they don’t even expect it to be somewhere. But it’s almost never that I meet such atheists. Even Hawking, who identified himself as an atheist…

Not always, I suppose. 

Right, but he would always say that there must be some sense in the world. And recognizing that sense is the first step to believing. 

I see your point, but, you know, recently I had an interesting discussion with some atheists, and, as I understood, when atheists say that the life of believers is easier, they understand it this way: they don’t believe there’s anything after death, so they live the way they want and do all the good things just because they are good people; but believers do good things because they hope they will be given thanks in heaven. So, their life is easier. 

But, you know, if you read the Gospel or even the works of Martin Luther, that I often think about. 

For obvious reasons!  

Yes, but again, it’s not that simple. Christ didn’t promise we would be rewarded for our good deeds. Doing them to get something good in return - it’s way too primitive. What if we get suffering or some formidable challenge in return? There wasn’t any promise like this. And here I’d like to turn to Pascal again. He said: “We should live as if God existed. If it turns out that there’s no God, at least, we don’t lose anything.” It means, let’s do good deeds just for the sake of it, not for the sake of redemption – God doesn’t sell it. This is the mystery I feel concerned about. Of course, I would like to be able to “earn salvation”, then come to St. Peter with a long bill and say: “I’ve paid my dues”. But I know, it won’t be like this. 

You keep coming back to Pascal, and I in turn can’t help turning to Church Fathers and their thought that a will to do well and submit to God can be like a stairway: at first you do good things from fear, then from hope of being rewarded and so on, and the final stage is the doing good for the virtue of love – that’s what we climb that stairway for. So, this is how we grow. 

Yes, of course, we grow day by day. Or we fall, again, day by day. Doing good deeds from love for the good is the supreme motivation. It is the ultimate measure of the human. I see that for some unwise social reasons lots of developed societies tend to avoid judging anybody or anything, because without judging it’s easier to reconcile people. But that’s not right. We should judge – both ourselves and other people’s deeds. Judging people is not for us. What we may judge is their deeds – they can be beautiful or ugly. Beautiful are those done for the sake of the good, beauty and truth. If it’s done for the hope of being rewarded, it’s good, anyway, but not that sublime, of course. Such deeds are rated a bit lower. 

I know, you are an admirer of Augustine and Plato, so, for you, beauty equals good, and that’s where I totally agree with you. And I know, the concepts of taste and kitsch (as the contrast for taste, lack of it) are of extreme significance for you. I remember you said once that kitsch in art is art without mystery. But in one of your interviews I heard you speak about such thing as sacro-kitsch. 

Yes, unfortunately, it really exists. 

We can see much of it in architecture. But let’s take, for instance, a temple, that is difficult to pray in. You complained, there are a lot of modern temples of this kind in Italy, if I’m not mistaken. 

There are a lot of them in Poland as well. 

So, is it something we should tolerate? 

Well, you know, I wish I had enough money to destroy those temples and build them anew. But, unfortunately, I don’t. If an architect builds something without living through it, that is nothing but a catchpenny job. I’ve just came back from Barcelona. I visited Sagrada Familia by Gaudi once again. He was an architect and a theologian at the same time. His temple is still being built and I think it will take another 50 years, probably even more, to complete it. It’s an enormous work. You may like his tastes or not, but his deep faith found its way in his constructions and people could see and feel it. Of course, it is a subject for disputes, but it proves the point that if an artist, especially a talented one, lives through his piece of work, that is definitely high art, not kitsch. If a work repeats something, that has already been known, there’s no discovery in it. I see a lot of this in modern architecture and religious painting. In this regard, serials where the storyline goes towards the ending where the characters are rewarded for their good deeds, are even worse. It’s so nice to see such happy endings, but it’s nonsense, because it’s not true. That can drive somebody to despair, because he or she might feel deceived if not given a reward. So, that’s why presenting life this way is no good. 

I heard an interesting opinion, by Pavel Lungin, Russian movie director, as far as I can remember. He said that the cinema is dead, so all the sense is now concentrated in series, not feature films. I didn’t expect that. Maybe it was only about Russian cinematography. 

I agree that the role of TV series has grown, but it depends on what kind of series we are talking about. There are mini-series that are like a book split into several parts…

Like volumes.

Exactly. And there are endless ones, which defy the idea of Greek tragedy. In life, as well as in any conflict there’s a certain order: beginning, development, culmination and ending. It’s very much like the circle of the Sun – it rises and eventually sets and that’s it. This is how our culture sees it. In China or India, for example, the approach to life and to telling about life is different. Unfortunately, there are a lot of stupid serials nowadays. Pardon my expression, but let’s call it straight. Such serials kill any sense. We don’t see any development in their plot – somebody is born, somebody dies, and so the story goes on. Therefore, I think, such serials reduce spirituality in the human dramatically.  People watch them and see life that was cut into small meaningless pieces – like from a meatgrinder. There’s no turning point or catharsis, which is sure to be in a Greek drama. In life we should look for such game changers, after which everything seems to go on, but something changes, anyway. That’s what long serial kill. With mini-serials, that have become popular recently, it’s different. There are a lot of good and interesting ones. However, I haven’t seen any, that would be comparable to the masterpieces by Tarkovsky, Fellini or Antonioni. 

Or Zanussi.

Oh, thank you!