English Title: Camouflage

Original Title: Barwy Ochronne

Country of Origin: Poland

Studio: Film Polski, Zespól Filmowy “Tor”, Polish

Director: Krzysztof Zanussi

Producer(s): Tadeusz Drewno

Screenplay: Krzysztof Zanussi

Cinematographer: Edward Kłosiński

Editor: Urszula Śliwińska

Runtime: 106 minutes

Genre: Drama

Language: Polish

Starring/Cast: Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Piotr Garlicki, Christine Paul-Podlasky, Mariusz Dmochowski

Year: 1977

Volume: East European


Teaching assistant Jaroslaw Kruszynski accepts a late entry for a student academic conference and competition. Professor Jakub Szelestowski warns him that their university chancellor, and Jakub’s future thesis director, despises the paper’s supervisor, and had made arrangements behind the scenes for him not to be invited as he used to denounce students and professors during the strongest communist repressions, and in addition plagiarized his doctoral thesis. Jaroslaw refuses to believe in dishonesty. The students understand the shenanigans, show enthusiasm for the debatable paper, and Jarek secures a special-mention award for it. When the chancellor appears not to mind, Jarolsaw calls it a demonstration of his own capacity to live for the truth and of Jakub’s twisted life and view of their world. The student comes drunk to the award ceremony and bites the chancellor after he hands him the award. Jarrolsaw fails to prevent the chancellor from calling the police, with the latter then leaving the conference in anger as tensions rise between Jakub and Jaroslaw.

An iconic instance of entertainment for the thinking mind that attracted college crowds in Poland and the rest of communist Central Europe, Barwy Ochronne/Camouflage dispenses with all but a few seconds of non-diegetic music and other frills of film-making, and hangs on the characters with medium-long to medium close-up eye-level shots in order to engage its viewers in a motion picture incarnation of a Renaissance literary discourse. For the censors, it dwelt on a student conference; but in Central Europe it was read as a discussion of a brooding person’s conundrums under communism. The film falls under the Polish label the Cinema of Moral Agitation (usually rendered as ‘Concern’ in English); it was dismissed by some in Poland after the collapse of communism as too demure and subservient to the regime, but made a more resonant contribution to social criticism under the circumstances than the cinemas of the rest of communist-dominated Central Europe. As ‘Moral’ at this time stood for the unutterable ‘Political’, according to Janusz Kijowski, who coined the label, so too did the moral dispute that dominates Camouflage stand in for a detailed political discourse. Indeed, Krzysztof Zanussi made an unqualified nod to politics when he transported the key statue from the set of Człowiek z marmuru/Man of Marble (1977), another influential and socially critical production being made at the same time, to the set of Camouflage, and had Jakub and Jaroslaw pause by it during one of their most dramatic confrontations.


Zanussi’s declared intent to show Jakub rejecting conscience and enduring human values – a common interpretation of the character – is equivocated by the dialogue. Partly out of concern about censorship, the script never demonstrates the veracity of Jakub’s knowledge of the chancellor’s/authorities’ fraudulence that is supposed to protect him (he weasels out each time he could provide Jaroslaw with evidence). Zbigniew Zapasiewicz’s highly praised, largely unrehearsed performance also strengthens this aspect of the film –  for the most part he made roundtrips to the location about an hour out of Warsaw just to shoot a scene, while acting in the theatre at the same time and, similar to his role, working as a college dean. In the less routine reading, Jaroslaw starts with dishonesty by wrongly accepting a paper and continues to lie to himself about his apparent un-involvement in the moral decay of their world, while Jakub’s description of it would not have come about if his actions were indeed as cynical as his understanding of their world. Jakub undermines his own thesis about the naturalistic survival instinct by making himself vulnerable to the danger of being denounced to the communist authorities.


Jakub’s (and the film’s) exposition of the realities of life under communism delivers itself as part of society’s hope for a moral renaissance should the opportunity arise. Without people like Jakub, Jaroslaw (and society in general) would live with an illusion of morality while descending into the practical cynicism exposed by this character, and would do so without a prospect to alter things if he sees nothing wrong with society and does not know how to bring about moral change in the isolated instances when he observes he should. Mentors like Jakub were able to recognize the cynicism of their world through their moral conscience ‘formed under different circumstances’, as Jakub, a camouflaged messenger from pre-communist times, says at one point. What Jakub sees needs now to be passed on to the generation already born under communism, as the West (embodied by Nelly and the Italian tourist with whom she has sex) withdraws to its insular gratifications after having peeked in and gained no further insight into people’s realities under oppression than Nelly’s vacuous assertion that ‘it does not make sense’.

Author of this review: Martin Votruba