Eter (Krzysztof Zanussi, 2018): Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Hungary, Italy

Reviewed by William Geare. Viewed at the 2019 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Deceptive and disturbing to the core, Krzysztof Zanussi’s Eter is the story of a manipulative military medical doctor (Jacek Poniedzialek) whose sadistic experiments on his patients betray his inner desire to exercise control over people. Deeply unsettling and intriguingly subversive, Eter is a unique example of how a story with even the most unlikable of protagonists can still be an overwhelming success. The Doctor’s actions are undeniably despicable, yet we remain captivated by them. Zanussi remains hyper-aware of our fascination with evil, and spends the entire film playing to that fascination. As a result, the film is full of surprises. Always present is the question of how far the character’s cruelty will extend.

As the complex tale of trickery and deceit unfolds, Zanussi’s mastery of his craft is fully apparent in every frame. The film’s desaturated colors and the abundance of visual depictions of sickness paint a rather bleak picture of Europe in the early 20th century. The true depth of the darkness is finally revealed in the film’s closing moments, in an ending that only further twists the knife. Eter continually keeps viewers on edge, illustrating a reality in which ominous forces are always lurking in the shadows, conniving and corrupting.

The film does fall victim to some pacing issues towards the end of the first act, taking a moment to get going. But once the plot starts to move, the film really delivers. The editing is also notably superb, with long dialogue sequences that draw out the tension tenfold. Certain characters will prowl about in the background, weaving their way in and out of the plot in such a way that even when you can’t consciously see them, their presence is still felt. This contributes so much to the atmosphere, and in the end is what made the film for me.

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