The Greater Freedom: Karol Wojtyla and Our God’s Brother

Saint Albert Chmielowski, Pope John Paul II, and Krzysztof Zanussi’s film

As a seminarian in the 1940s, the future Pope St. John Paul II wrote a play about a Polish artist turned religious who helped inspire his vocation. In 1997, a film adaptation costarring Christoph Waltz was directed by Krzysztof Zanussi (Life for Life).

This essay and my interview with Zanussi originally appeared in the companion booklet to Ignatius Press’ DVD edition of Our God’s Brother (buy at Amazon).
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“Can one serve art and God both at the same time?”

At one point such a question must have loomed in the mind of young Karol Wojtyla, who would one day be Pope John Paul II. Brilliant and gifted, the young Wojtyla was so full of promise and potential that it was almost too much — a man of too many talents and passions for almost any one path in life.

Athlete, philologist, actor and playwright, philosopher, theologian: Wojtyla was all of these and more, and any one of them could have been the stuff of a rich and full life. He could have married, had children, and taught them to play soccer and to ski, to speak a dozen languages, to write anything from drama to moral theology, and of course to pray and serve God.

At one point in his youth those close to him expected him to choose art, the world of theater. But Wojtyla also felt drawn to a life consecrated wholly to God, to the priesthood.

During this time he discovered a kinship to another devout and talented Polish Krakovian, who had died four years before his own birth: Adam Chmielowski.

Adam Chmielowski and Karol Wojtyla

Also known as Brother Albert or “our God’s brother,” Adam Chmielowski was a Polish aristocrat who, like Wojtyla, had been orphaned at an early age. Born in 1845, he too was multi-talented, studying agriculture and engineering in his youth before establishing himself as a celebrated artist, a painter of both secular and sacred subjects.

Like Wojtyla, Chmielowski was deeply religious, and struggled with a sense of duty to God transcending that of an ordinary career, or even that of a painter of sacred images.

At last Chmielowski made a decision that captured the young Wojtyla’s imagination: In 1887, he turned his back entirely on his artistic career and his aristocratic heritage, adopting a sackcloth habit and the name Brother Albert, and living among the poor as a Third Order Franciscan.

He had always been socially conscious, concerned with politics and injustice — at 18 he had fought in the 1863 January Uprising against the Russian Federation, losing his left leg below the knee — and he ultimately turned his attention to serving the poor of Krakow: giving his possessions to the poor, serving homeless shelters, even taking beggars into his home and feeding them.

At last Chmielowski made a decision that captured the young Wojtyla’s imagination: In 1887, he turned his back entirely on his artistic career and his aristocratic heritage, adopting a sackcloth habit and the name Brother Albert, and living among the poor as a Third Order Franciscan. A year later he took religious vows and founded a new religious community that would come to be known as the Albertine Brothers (and, later, the Albertine Sisters).

This act of sacrificing a life of art, culture and society in favor of a religious vocation helped to inspire Wojtyla’s choice to enter the underground seminary during the Nazi occupation of Krakow.

While still in seminary, Wojtyla completed the first draft of Our God’s Brother, a play of sorts about Chmielowski that he intended as a way of repaying his “debt of gratitude” to the man — and also, no doubt, as a way of exploring the choices he had made and the path he was on. Wojtyla continued to revise the drama into his priesthood until 1950.

An “encyclical for several voices”

Wojtyla described Our God’s Brother in his introduction not as a drama but a work of “inner theater,” an “attempt to penetrate the man.” Like his other theatrical compositions (including The Jeweler’s Shop, subtitled “a meditation on the sacrament of marriage passing at times into drama”), Our God’s Brother is less driven by action or dialogue than by interior monologues that are more philosophical than psychological.

The pope himself once told a theology professor that students who wanted to understand his views should study his plays; on the topic of social justice, he said, the play to study was Our God’s Brother.

Wojtyla intended his work as an exploration of Chmielowski; it is also, of course, a revelation of Wojtyla’s own mind, and it was as such that Our God’s Brother, along with his other theatrical compositions, came to the world’s attention after his 1978 ascension to the papacy as Pope John Paul II.

Like all Wojtyla’s plays, Our God’s Brother was staged numerous times in Poland and elsewhere in the decades following his election. Interest in this particular work was enhanced in the 1980s when Pope John Paul II beatified Chmielowski in 1983 and canonized him a saint in 1989.

The pope himself once told a theology professor that students who wanted to understand his views should study his plays; on the topic of social justice, he said, the play to study was Our God’s Brother.

With this papal sanction of his youthful works, the Holy Father unofficially elevated Our God’s Brother from a curio of a theatrical career that never was to an “encyclical for several voices,” as it was later described by the producer of the 1997 film adaptation by Krzysztof Zanussi. (Zanussi also directed From a Far Country, about John Paul II himself, and Life For Life, about Maximilian Kolbe.)

In New York Our God’s Brother was most recently staged in 2014 on the occasion of Pope John Paul II’s own canonization. Suddenly Our God’s Brother became the portrait of a saint by a saint who made him a saint.

Penetrating the mystery of Our God’s Brother

It is easy to see the inherent appeal of Our God’s Brother. It is also easy, on first exposure, to find it off-puttingly dense and abstract.

Having set himself the task of penetrating the mystery of the man, Wojtyla promptly begins by questioning whether such a thing is possible at all. (Zanussi’s film, though scrupulously serving Wojtyla’s text, begins differently, easing the viewer into the drama with introductory material. But it’s worth recognizing where the real start of the play is, even when watching the film.)

Wojtyla started writing Our God’s Brother during the Nazi occupation, but finished the last revision under Soviet rule — and the play was openly performed in Poland over a decade before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Naturally the Stranger couldn’t be plainly named as “Vladimir”!

The play begins with Adam offstage while friends and acquaintances talk about the nature of art and discuss Adam in absentia. (In the film, the number of auburn-bearded men in this sequence — none of whom is the auburn-bearded Adam, until he shows up — may be confusing at first.)

These include Adam’s fellow painter and friend Max (played in the film by Christoph Waltz), based on Chmielowski’s friend and peer Maksymilian Gierymski; another painter named Stanislaw (Andrei Roudenski), based on Stanislaw Witkiewicz; the art critic Lucjan (Jerry Flynn), based on the poet and critic Lucjan Siemienski; and the actress Madam Helena (Grazyna Szapolowska), based on the celebrated actress Helena Modrzejewska.

It is Max who most forcefully questions the possibility of penetrating the mystery of another person. Max distinguishes two layers of personality: the “exchangeable man,” the public or social man, visible and knowable to others, and the “non-exchangeable man,” the inner man that is the real self, living in unknowable isolation.

Even art, Max contends, does not reveal the inner, “non-exchangeable man” to others; the artist’s vision is never really recreated in the mind of another. Human beings are simply a multitude of atoms, each revolving in its own area, none touching or touched by any other.

The “Stranger” and the “Other”

Although others contest Max’s existential solipsism or atomism, nothing in the ensuing debate offers a very persuasive example of a true encounter or connection between two persons. As the play proceeds, the characters may seem indeed like atoms revolving in their own areas.

Characters debate, but there is no meeting of minds. Adam addresses Christ, present on canvas in Chmielowski’s most famous work, the unfinished Ecce Homo — but if Christ answers at all, it is only within Adam’s heart.

Adam also wrestles with the voice of a mysterious “Other” that cross-examines him, seemingly from within. (Chmielowski suffered from schizophrenia and depression, and experienced a breakdown before turning to religious life: an episode from which neither the play nor the film shy. Unlike most stage productions, the film simply gives these lines of the “Other” to Wilson’s Chmielowski, who schizophrenically debates with himself like Gollum and Sméagol. Praising Wilson’s performance, the pope said he could no longer envision his protagonist with any other face.)

Above all, Adam is cross-examined by a mysterious “Stranger” who appeals to Adam’s concerns about social injustice, the urgency of the plight of the poor, and the just anger building among the poor and the workers, and in Adam himself.

For all this, the theme of the drama, in the end, is neither art nor social justice as such, but love.

Portrayed in the film by a bald-headed, short-bearded Wojciech Pszoniak, the Stranger strongly suggests Lenin, whom the historical Chmielowski may have met. (Wojtyla started writing Our God’s Brother during the Nazi occupation, but finished the last revision under Soviet rule — and the play was openly performed in Poland over a decade before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Naturally the Stranger couldn’t be plainly named as “Vladimir”!)

Both Adam and the Leninesque Stranger foresee a coming explosion, a social upheaval in response to unjust economic inequality and the anger brewing in Krakow’s poorhouses and factories. Their outlooks on the problem, though, couldn’t be more different.

For all this, the theme of the drama, in the end, is neither art nor social justice as such, but love.

Adam hears out the Stranger’s fiery gospel of anger and solidarity, a harbinger of the revolutionary uprisings to come. He also hears out Max’s selfish atomism, which is social and economic as well as existential: Max maintains that just as the artist qua artist has no real responsibility to or for his viewer, so he has no responsibility, either as an artist or as a member of society, regarding social inequality.

As Max sees it, each individual is to take responsibility for his own flourishing. The more individuals succeed in their own spheres, the more society as a whole benefits; the more fail, the more society is burdened. Max’s creed is a form of rationalized egoism; he may be somewhere on a spectrum along with Nietzsche’s “will to power” and Ayn Rand’s “rational self-interest.”

Partial truths and the way of love

Strikingly, Adam acknowledges a great deal of truth both in Max’s view and in the Stranger’s. Max is right, perhaps, that society needs successful individuals to flourish in their own spheres. And the Stranger is right that the anger of the masses — an anger Adam admits is justified — at the wealthy who benefit from the seemingly stable social system while leaving the poor to the poorhouses will eventually erupt in violence.

But Adam ultimately rejects both Max’s and the Stranger’s worldviews, because both fail in love. Adam represents individualism, the Stranger collectivism, but both reduce persons to commodities.

Still in his 20s, Wojtyla dramatically pitted Christian solidarity against Communism over 30 years before his triumphant papal visit to Poland inspired Polish Catholics to unite under the banner of Solidarity, striking a fateful blow to Soviet Communism.

All Max really cares about is art. This really means, Adam eventually realizes, that Max doesn’t believe even in art: doesn’t believe in its transforming power, in its ability to point to something greater than itself. Seeing social man as superficial and “exchangeable” — “like money,” as Max himself puts it — he sees in Adam’s concern for beggars nothing more than fodder for a few new canvases down the road.

The Stranger seems deeply concerned about the unjust exclusion of the poor, but in the end he really only cares about their anger and the social transformation he wants to see accomplished. In their final confrontation, Adam recognizes that the Stranger reduces humanity to economic man; he sees nothing beyond their economic needs and economic poverty, and his gospel is an economic gospel.

Human poverty, Adam says, goes deeper than goods and wealth. Man needs more than things, a truth utterly beyond the Stranger’s ken. The Marxist offers the masses not too much, but too little. In the dramatic climax, a moment of truth between the Stranger and Adam, the poor themselves reject the Stranger, recognizing than he only wants to use them.

This vindication is tempered, though, in the very end by word of a worker’s uprising. Love, not anger, is the way — but great anger must erupt, and just anger will last. To the Marxist gospel of anger and violent revolution, Christian brotherhood is the only answer.

Still in his 20s, Wojtyla dramatically pitted Christian solidarity against Communism over 30 years before his triumphant papal visit to Poland inspired Polish Catholics to unite under the banner of Solidarity, striking a fateful blow to Soviet Communism. In 1950 Wojtyla had no reason to foresee Christian solidarity overcoming Communist anger in his lifetime — but he knew, as his protagonist concludes, that he had chosen the greater freedom.

The film

While generally following Wojtyla’s text line for line, Zanussi’s film softens the stark demands of its format in various ways.

An opening crane shot depicting Krakow’s Juliusz Słowacki Theater with spectators arriving on a snowy evening for a performance of Brat Naszego Boga (Our God’s Brother) establishes the format as a filmed “play” rather than a film as such.

Zanussi then takes us backstage where preparations for the performance are in progress. In a pseudo-documentary touch, the actors in their dressing rooms — Wilson, Waltz, and Szapolowska, who plays Madam Helena — address the camera, setting the stage for the drama to come.

Zanussi intercuts shots of Adam’s face with a slow zoom into the face of Christ in the painting — an obvious but powerful technique enhanced with an inspired move: Zanussi subverts the “dialogue” by cutting in images of the homeless poor, close-ups on sleeping faces, accusing Adam not by their expressions but simply by their presence.

All three actors tell us about the characters they play, filling in historical details beyond the scope of Wojtyla’s text. Wilson introduces a historical prologue of sorts from the January Uprising in which the young Chmielowski lost his leg, self-deprecatingly narrated from Chmielowski’s own writings. Waltz and Szapolowska introduce sequences from the play that Zanussi, for creative reasons, has chosen to isolate from the rest of the drama. From Szapolowska, not from anything in Wojtyla’s drama, we learn of Chmielowski’s unrequited love for Helena Modrzejewska.

Early scenes in Adam’s home are presented onstage, but presently Zanussi begins to drop in shots from a larger world, and at length the theater is left behind and we enter fully into the drama — until the brilliant final tracking shot, which ushers us out of the drama, but not into the fictitious backstage of the theater.

In this shot, after uttering the final line of Wojtyla’s play, Brother Andrew turns and leaves his followers, walking off the set — not “offstage,” but off the movie set, ceasing to be Brother Andrew and becoming the actor Wilson (you can see the limp disappear) as he climbs into his trailer (as opposed to the theatrical dressing room in which we first met Wilson). Here Wilson delivers a final monologue: remarks about the common good from John Paul II on the occasion of Brother Andrew’s canonization, intercut with still, black-and-white images of contemporary homelessness and need.

This is a strikingly cinematic flourish, and while Zanussi has insisted that Our God’s Brother is not a film but a filmed play, that last shot is not the only such flourish. In the thickets of Wojtyla’s philosophical dialogue, Zanussi generally keeps to unobtrusive static shots, but his camera is often more mobile at beginnings and endings of scenes. Occasionally Zanussi shows us what the dialogue merely describes: a flashback of Adam’s life-changing first encounter with the poor, related by Lucjan; the worker’s revolt at the end.

A few scenes are creatively staged to break up the monotony of chamber pieces, such as Adam’s confession, which occurs exactly halfway through the film, and takes place out of doors in a snowy monastery courtyard.

The best such stroke involves a moving exchange between Brother Andrew and a young would-be postulant, an aristocratic music lover named Hubert. This sequence is set in a salon where a tenor performs operatic arias accompanied by a piano in the next room. The background music is a constant reminder of what is at stake in Brother Andrew and Hubert’s dialogue.

No scene in the film is more effectively constructed than Adam’s first “dialogue” with Christ in his Ecce Homo painting. Zanussi intercuts shots of Adam’s face with a slow zoom into the face of Christ in the painting — an obvious but powerful technique enhanced with an inspired move: Zanussi subverts the “dialogue” by cutting in images of the homeless poor, close-ups on sleeping faces, accusing Adam not by their expressions but simply by their presence.

The contemporary still images in the final sequence, of course, offer the same challenge to the viewer: to you and to me.

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