Kinoteka Polish Film Festival: Ether Review
We begin in 1912, in Podolia, at the time part of the Russian Empire. A Polish doctor (Jacek Poniedziałek) is experimenting with ether as a possibly safer anaesthetic than chloroform. However, he uses if to subdue a young patient of his in an attempt at rape – and gives her an overdose, which kills her. Sentenced to death for murder, he is reprieved at the last moment and exiled to a military outpost on the border of Ukraine with the Austrian-Hungarian empire, where he continues his experiments in the limits of pain the human body can endure, under the influence of ether. The officer at the outpost let him continue...
In Krzysztof Zanussi’s new film, the title, Ether (Eter in Polish) has more than one meaning. There’s the organic chemical compound which was indeed beginning to be used as an anaesthetic at the time. Then there’s the substance once believed to suffuse the whole of the universe. Ether, says our unnamed protagonist, takes away pain, but it also takes away consciousness and free will. It’s the latter which he wants to find out how to eliminate, something especially worth doing as war is about to break out. However, he isn’t as amoral as he seems at first, as the advancement of science is his goal, and he has a trusting assistant, a local peasant called Taras (Ostap Vakulyuk) to help him and possibly be corrupted by him.
Just after the doctor is saved from being hung while he is standing on the scaffold, the opening credits run over shots of the fifteen-century Flemish artist Hans Memling’s painting The Last Judgement, showing the torments of sinners in Hell. Then a caption appears: “The Known Story”. The significance of this isn’t revealed until the end of the film, when we have a second caption, “The Secret Story”. Now, we find out what has really been going on, and we learn of the involvement of someone whose greatest triumph was to persuade people that he didn’t exist.
Krzysztof Zanussi turns eighty this year. I was disappointed by his last film, Foreign Body which opened the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in 2015, so I’m glad to say that Ether is a return to form. A Polish/Ukrainian/Hungarian/Lithuanian coproduction, with dialogue in Polish, Ukrainian and Russian and some non-Poles in the cast dubbed into Polish in the version seen, it looks like a fairly conventional historical drama, but as I say above, it has more than one reversal in the nearly two hours it’s on screen. As so often in his career, Zanussi’s is a cinema dedicated to asking moral questions, and the answers are not always comfortable. Jacek Poniedziałek is fine as the inevitably not-always-sympathetic protagonist. Cinematography (Piotr Niemyski), production design (Joanna Macha) and costume design (Katarzyna Lewińska) are all fine.