MUBI's Krzysztof Kieslowski Retrospective runs August 10 – October 28, 2019 in most countries around the world.
“It comes from a deep-rooted conviction that if there is anything worthwhile doing for the sake of culture, then it is touching on subject matters and situations which link people, and not those that divide people. There are too many things in the world that divide people, such as religion, politics, history, and nationalism. If culture is capable of anything, then it is finding that which unites us all. And there are so many things that unite people. It doesn't matter who you are or who I am, if your tooth aches or mine; it's still the same pain. Feelings are what link people together, because the word 'love' has the same meaning for everybody. Or 'fear', or 'suffering'. We all fear the same way and the same things. And we all love in the same way. That's why I tell about these things, because in all other things I immediately find division.”
Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1941, Krzysztof Kieślowski is considered alongside Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski , Krzysztof Zanussi, and Agnieszka Holland as one of the titans of Polish cinema. Initially attracted to the theatre, Kieślowski decided to study film as a route to working in theatre, but it was only on his third attempt that he gained entry to the Lødź Film School.
First truly receiving international recognition for The Decalogue (1988), a series of ten films originally made for Polish television with further funding from West Germany, The Decalogue focuses on the residents of a housing complex in late-Communist era Poland whose lives become subtly intertwined as they face emotional dilemmas that are at once deeply personal and universally human. A series of ten one hour-long films drawing from the Ten Commandments for thematic inspiration and an overarching structure, the films grapple deftly with complex moral and existential questions concerning life, death, love, hate, truth, and the passage of time. Shot by nine different cinematographers with music by Zbigniew Preisner and scripts courtesy of Krzysztof Piesiewicz, two abiding collaborators, and featuring compelling performances from both established and unknown Polish actors, The Decalogue arrestingly explores the unknowable forces that shape our lives. A masterwork, the project stands as one of the twentieth century’s greatest achievements in visual storytelling.
Drawing huge viewing figures when it screened in Poland, reaching an estimated 15 million viewers according to Kieślowski2, the success of the project, including a FIPRESCI prize at Venice, led to two episodes being expanded to feature length for international release. Particularly potent was A Short Film About Killing (1988), in which a disaffected youth murders a taxi driver and is then tried and executed for his crime. Winning prizes at Cannes, the timing of the release of the film ultimately contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in Poland.
“I think I wanted to make this film precisely because all this takes place in my name, because I’m a member of this society, I’m a citizen of this country, Poland, and, if someone in this country puts a noose around someone else’s neck and kicks the stool from under his feet, he’s doing it in my name,”3 commented the director, discussing how his films reflect the social and political climate of his homeland and how his characters are ultimately at the mercy of the state and the wider conditions in which they live. Considered representative of a cinema of moral anxiety, the director has argued that all his films are about individuals and not politics, but it is impossible to deny that most of them, especially the works up to and including The Decalogue, reflect the political climate of their time and the struggles of the Polish people.
When considering the themes and aesthetics of the director’s work and their reflection of a commitment to social-realism, it is worth remembering that Kieślowski began his career as a documentary filmmaker in the Poland of the 1960s and 70s. Working in television and focusing on the everyday lives of city dwellers, workers, and soldiers, he was not an overtly political filmmaker but still soon found that attempting to authentically depict Polish life brought him into conflict with the authorities. Workers '71 (1971), which showed workers discussing the reasons for the mass strikes of 1970, was only shown in a drastically censored form.
The director then turned his camera on the workers themselves in Curriculum Vitae (1975), a film that combined documentary footage of Politburo meetings with a fictional story about a man under scrutiny by the officials. Though Kieślowski believed the film's message was anti-authoritarian, he was criticised by his colleagues for cooperating with the government in its production.
Kieślowski later declared that he abandoned documentary filmmaking due to two experiences: the censorship of Workers '71, which caused him to doubt whether truth could be told literally under an authoritarian regime, and an incident during the filming of Station (1980) in which some of his footage was nearly used as evidence in a criminal case. The director decided that fiction not only allowed more artistic freedom, but that it could portray everyday life more truthfully and perhaps with less interference. However, his features were to develop very organically from his documentary practice, with the abiding principle being that the films must evolve “through ideas and not action.”4 The work of Ken Loach, and specifically Kes (1969), acted as something of a template for what the director desired to accomplish. “There was something about that film that I’ve always been interested in, a documentary registration with the use of fictional film elements.”5
Taking a customary path to fiction in Poland by making half-hour dramas for television including projects such as Pedestrian Subway (1975) and Personel (1975), an extended work that Kieślowski viewed as inauthentic, the director graduated to a feature length project conceived for the cinema with The Scar (1976). Described as evolving from a socio-realist tradition, the film showed the upheaval of a small town by a poorly planned industrial project and the positioning of a new chemical factory. Placed in charge of the construction is Bednarz (Franciszek Piecka), an honest party man whose conviction that he can serve his people finally dissipates in the face of bureaucracy and the selfishness of the town people he had intended to aid. A film that flickers with ideas and intent, it was not held in high regard by its maker. “There are many reasons why it is not a good film. No doubt the flaw, as with any film that doesn’t work, began with the script. This was based on a report, which was simply a collection of facts, written by a journalist called Karaś. But I deviated from the report a great deal because I had to invent the action, a plot and character, and I did it badly.”6
Camera Buff (1979) marked a major progression both in terms of Kieślowski’s firmer grasp of fiction filmmaking and in serving to alert the West to his talents. A factory worker, Filip Mosz (Jerzy Stuhr), purchases an 8mm film camera to record his new-born baby. Fascinated by the possibilities of preserving life on film, Mosz begins to use his camera more widely, documenting life in his factory. As his talents soar he gains recognition and begins to win prizes. But his dedication to his camera causes a rupture in his personal life and fissures soon also appear at work when one of his films leads to the sacking of his immediate superior. The film ends with Mosz destroying his cans of film. Displaying Kieslowski’s ethic that all actions must be carried out to their logical conclusions, Camera Buff is redolent of Peeping Tom (1960) in its consideration of how lives mediated by technology ultimately combust. The Armenian director Atom Egoyan would go on to consistently explore similar terrain. Written specifically for Stuhr, the film’s self-reflexive nature and rumination on the difficulties of trying to reconcile film and life is further enhanced by the casting of Zanussi as himself. As for the question of why Filip destroys his films, Kieślowski asserted “he realises that as an amateur filmmaker he’s found himself in a trap and that making films with good intentions, he might prove useful to people who will use the film with bad intentions.”7
Winning the Grand Prix at the Moscow International Film Festival, Camera Buff undoubtedly marked a major artistic shift in Kieślowski’s practice. From this point on the director’s films still took the penetratingly observant eye of a documentarian, but also considered broader philosophical questions, focused more on the actions of a single individual rather than an entire community.
Blind Chance (1981) offered further progression and a second successful attempt at combining theme and form in a highly original manner. Featuring a more virtuoso cinematic style, the film is now popularly viewed as the director’s first work of metaphysical genius. Adopting a tripartite structure, the film follows Witek (Boguslaw Linda), a medical student with an uncertain future and dramatizes his journey as a series of different possibilities, all beginning with his attempts to catch a train. In the first section, Witek catches the train and after meeting a Communist party member on board himself becomes a party activist. In the second, rumination Witek is arrested while running for the train and sentenced to a labor camp and becomes a militant member of the opposition. In the final scenario, Witek misses the train, begins a romance with a fellow student, marries and then lives a life free from politics as a doctor.
Suggesting that chance rules our lives as much as choice, the film was first suppressed and then censored by the Polish government. Kieślowski viewed the film as a considerable improvement on his other excursions into feature length fiction—he was still making documentaries alongside features and T.V. dramas—but a fierce and at times merciless critic of his own endeavors still regarded the film as flawed, mainly in relation to the plotting and the script. It is however instructive that he would later speak of the central kernel of the film as being rich and interesting, specifically in regard to the way it enabled him to examine how outside forces impact upon the fate of mortals. It is undoubtedly the work that birthed both future thematic concerns, working practices and an interest in meta-textual stories and large-scale projects that interconnect and intersect.
In No End (1984) the ghost of a young lawyer, Antek, observes the realm of the living in the Poland of 1982, during the country’s period of martial law. Thanks to the help of his widow Ulla (Grazyna Szapolowska, who would feature in A Short Film About Killing), one of Antek’s former clients— a worker accused of being an opposition activist— will now be defended by one of Antek’s colleagues, an older, experienced lawyer. But Ulla finds life without her husband increasingly hard and must make a difficult choice.
A highly original blend of ghost story, political drama, and meditation on the nature of love that burns with a passionate engagement with the system, No End was Kieślowski’s first collaboration with Piesiewicz and Preisner. A compassionate, spiritual, and frequently tender work, it was highly regarded by Western critics on release, though it did not appear internationally until 1986, and hailed as one of the finest films to emerge from contemporary European cinema.
Kieślowski’s final four films would prove his commercially most successful. International in scope and funding, they continued to focus on moral and metaphysical issues on an abstract level and again frequently returned to notice of chance, and the ways in which people connect and disconnect on a physical and spiritual level. The Double Life of Veronique (1991), one of the director’s most beloved and accessible films, offered a ravishing, mysterious rumination on identity, love, and human intuition. Aided by Slawomir Idziak’s shimmering cinematography and Preisner’s haunting, operatic score, Kieślowski creates one of cinema’s most purely metaphysical works.
The Double Life of Veronique was followed by The Three Colors Trilogy. A return to the multi-strand scope and ambition of The Decalogue, the films—Three Colors: Blue (1993), Three Colors: White (1994) and Three Colors: Red (1994)—were named for the colors of the French flag and stand for the tenets of the French Revolution—liberty, equality, and fraternity—but that hardly begins to explain their enigmatic beauty and rich humanity.
Set in Paris, Warsaw, and Geneva, and ranging from tragedy to comedy, Blue, White, and Red examine with artistic clarity a group of ambiguously interconnected people experiencing profound personal disruptions. Marked by intoxicating cinematography, again utilizing scripts by Piesiewicz and the scores of Zbigniew Preisner and stirring performances by international figures including Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Irène Jacob, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, Kieślowski’s Three Colors is one of the benchmarks of contemporary European cinema.
Though enjoying prize triumphs at Venice and Berlin and securing an Academy Award nomination in the Best original Screenplay and Best Director category, Kieślowski was left exhausted by the completion of 14 films between 1975 and 1994. He announced his retirement but returned to start work on a further trilogy Piesiewicz based on the concept of heaven, hell and purgatory. At the age of 54 the director suffered a heart attack and died during open-heart surgery.