What would you be willing to do to pursue your egotistical thirst for knowledge? What would you sacrifice? Ethics? Humanity, maybe? Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi addresses these questions in his latest cinematic effort, ETHER (original title, ETER), screened in the official selection of the Rome Film Festival and focusing on a ruthless military doctor researching new medical uses of the liquids at the beginning of the 20th century.
This November marks the centennial of the end of World War I – one of the most tiring, meaningless wars tainted by irrational carnage and hurried executions of deserters, but also many cases of spontaneous truces between opposing factions to prove that humanity wasn’t entirely lost on the battlefield. Although the war is only a couple of years away as ETHER begins, the endless human hunger for substituting man for God that usually triggers conflicts is mimicked by the doctor’s actions and research. Guilty of having killed a young woman when trying to knock her out with ether to rape her, the doctor (Jacek Poniedziałek) faces execution but is surprisingly pardoned and sent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Here, together with a young assistant (Ostap Vakulyuk) he saved from certain death, the doctor can finally start experimenting regardless of any limits or morals.
A modern rewriting of the legend of Faust, ETHER explores the metaphysical limbo where a single man is apparently granted infinite powers and can operate outside the grace of God. Shot in a rigorous flair showing Zanussi’s craftsmanship and directorial experience, the film leads us through its main character almost literal descent to hell. It depicts an atheistic world perverted in its own aims, where men’s devilish longing for knowledge, power, and supremacy is clearly criticised – its sins unashamedly exposed. The Manichaean opposition between such an atheistic and opportunistic approach to life and Zanussi’s own religious point of view on the matter is the story’s dynamic backbone. Moving from one act of exploitation to another, ETHER eventually loses its balance when the time comes to wrap everything up.
After a solid and convincing main body, ETHER feels the need to put all its cards on the table, indulging in a too-blatant self-exegetical fit. Pairing the doctor’s story labelled as “The Known Story” with a new coda under the title “The Secret Story” where the Faustian reading is openly confirmed, a little more subtlety would have been more beneficial to the film’s success. Parading its mock Faustus, Mephistopheles himself and a rather fleeting Margaret briefly making her appearance, the film ends in the trenches of the WWI, the young assistant now a military doctor who tries to help his comrades while the senseless horrors of the war are rampaging all around him.