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Notebook Primer: Krzysztof Kieślowski

With an observational detachment and subjective intimacy, Krzysztof Kieślowski told poignant stories of happenstance and deliverance.
Jeremy Carr
Krzysztof Kieślowski once declared that “everybody’s life is worthy of scrutiny, has its secrets and dramas,” and these kinds of secrets and dramas were indeed at the heart of his assiduously affecting cinema. Applying the tactile textures of everyday objects and elements—recurrent motifs to advance a consistently generous formal construct—his poignant narratives support the fragility and inscrutability of human existence. As he delved deeply into the profound enigmas of characters at the proverbial crossroads of life, Kieślowski combined an observational detachment with the passionate expression of subjective intimacy, pushing past the inevitable sociopolitical surroundings that informed much of his early work and refining the more sensitive moments of self-reflection, ritual, and randomness, where precarious individual actions have comprehensive consequences.
Born June 27, 1941, Kieślowski and his itinerant family moved throughout numerous small towns in Nazi-occupied Poland, an unreliable progression that did little to affirm his undefined career ambitions. When he eventually entered Warsaw’s College for Theatre Technicians in 1957, with the goal of becoming a stage director, he realized he lacked the requisite degree to move forward. So, as but a step toward this objective, he turned his rather indifferent attention to the study of film. Although he had twice been rejected, he finally secured a place in the famed Łódź Film School in 1964 and directed a series of revealing short films, including, in 1969, his graduation project, From the City of Łódź, a bleak though perceptive portrait of its titular city. Additional documentaries followed, including I Was a Soldier (1970), about veterans who lost their eyesight during World War II, and Factory (1970), a cynical juxtaposition of silent, toiling laborers and suited authorities discussing the methods of operation. With ever-increasing length, the focus of Kieślowski’s early films was often on the harsh realities of common workers and struggling citizens as they dealt with hesitant relationships, bureaucratic tedium, and the loss or manipulation of their very identity.
Above: The Scar
Kieślowski scholar Annette Insdorf argues that while these films were engaging, the director’s initial efforts “hardly [suggest] the brilliance that would develop later in his career.” That development become more pronounced in 1973, when Kieślowski began making features for television. And after Pedestrian Subway (1973), a slice of life sketch in a subterranean setting, and Personnel (1975), a somewhat jaded depiction of theatrical life, he made his first feature for the cinema in 1976. The Scar is a quintessential work of social realism, which Insdorf calls “quietly assured” while Kieślowski considered it “badly made.” It is a film, in the words of one character, about “the price of civilization.” When a bucolic village is grudgingly transformed into an industrial town, the project’s beleaguered director suffers personal and professional setbacks as public opinion conflicts with corporate ambition. The Scar has a visceral credibility and the oppressive tension of a prudently mounted drama, but Kieślowski also continued working on straightforward documentary ventures, among them Hospital (1976), about medical professionals operating in less than ideal circumstances, and Talking Heads (1980), where dozens of Poles ages 7 to 100 were asked questions about their lives, eliciting sometimes amusing and almost always insightful responses. While political connotations were seemingly unavoidable in his subject matter, Kieślowski frequently denied he was ever a political filmmaker, though there were obvious exceptions: Workers ’71 (1971), about mass strikes, and Curriculum Vitae (1975), about divisive factions within the Communist Party. Some of these films suffered for their content, with enforced cuts and limited, if not completely denied, distribution, but Kieślowski’s decision to step away from the documentary form was more a result of recognizing its limitations and questioning the morality of capturing and releasing real lives in all of their vulnerability.
Above: Blind Chance
After the television film The Calm (1976), also about striking workers, Kieślowski directed Camera Buff in 1979, a prize-winning, semi-autobiographical feature about an amateur filmmaker whose obsession with recording all that surrounds him (“What are you filming?” “Everything that moves.”) leads to the dissolution of his home life and occupational standing. But if Camera Buff reinforced associations with Kieślowski’s own disposition, Blind Chance (1981) was pointedly emblematic of the happenstance that governed his cinematic pursuits, charting the variable course of a young medical student whose life forks in three different directions depending on if he manages to catch an outbound train. After political powers put a stop to Kieślowski’s Short Working Day, a 1981 feature made for television, he directed No End in 1984. “Simultaneously a political drama, a ghost story, and a somber meditation on romantic love,” according to Insdorf, this film follows the widow (Grazyna Szapolowska) of a recently-deceased lawyer (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) as she reluctantly enters into his professional intrigue and attempts to move on with her own tormented life. No End was a pivotal film for Kieślowski in that it introduced two of his key collaborators—composer Zbigniew Preisner and screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz—both of whom would be crucial to his subsequent work.
Above: The Double Life of Veronique
No End is an acute reflection on death and love and deep yearnings of the soul, themes that would again manifest in Kieślowski’s Dekalog, an ambitious, ten-part television series made in 1988. Based on the strictures of the Ten Commandments and located in and around an austere housing development, the hour-long episodes situate a variety of characters in roughly the same environment during roughly the same period of time. Those on the periphery of one story will assume greater significance in another, and nearly all involved are driven by fortuitous variations of instinct, fate, malice, love, and the speculative, spiritual unknown. With degrees of narrative adjustment and evolution, episodes five and six were also released in longer form, as A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love, respectively (episode nine was also considered for expansion as A Short Film About Jealousy). The former, a brutal treatise on murder by any agency, was for Kieślowski a general “indictment of violence,” while the latter cultivated his preoccupation with romantic impulse and the delicate durability of desire. Although Kieślowski said the Dekalog characters behave similar to those in his other films, here the concentration is “more on what’s going on inside them rather than what’s happening on the outside.” A merging of these two forces would also be at the fore of Kieślowski’s next feature, The Double Life of Veronique. Released in 1991 and starring Irène Jacob in the dual roles of Weronika and Véronique—one a singer with a heart condition and one a music teacher—this enigmatic film explores the physiological bond between two ostensibly unconnected yet preternaturally linked individuals, an archetypal Kieślowskian scenario concerning destiny and subtle unification.
Above: Three Colors: Blue
Kieślowski rounded out his career with further reworkings of such resonant interests. His Three Colors trilogy, broadly hinging on the associative themes of the French flag, is set in Paris, Warsaw, and Geneva and interlocks diverse individuals at decisive moments of tragedy and triumph. The twists of fate underscored by the refrains of liberty, equality, and fraternity are commissioned in ironic ways, as loss translates to freedom, desperation yields vengeful valediction, and begrudging coincidence forms conciliatory friendship. Employing three different cinematographers to lend each entry a distinct visual accent, Kieślowski began the triptych with the Slawomir Idziak shot Blue (1993), a melodic, sorrowful, and ultimately revitalizing film starring Juliette Binoche as the grieving survivor of a car crash that took the lives of her composer husband and their small child. White (1994) (shot by Edward Klosinski), an uncharacteristically dark comedy from Kieślowski, follows the plight of a humiliated hairdresser (Zbigniew Zamachowski) who is abandoned by his wife (Julie Delpy) and embarks on a series of schemes to reinstate his worth. And Red (1994) (shot by Piotr Sobocinski) stars Jacob as a model who accidentally runs over the dog of a retired, eavesdropping judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, setting up an unlikely acquaintance and upholding Kieślowski’s remarkable capacity for stories of happenstance and deliverance.
Above: Three Colors: Red
Kieślowski announced his retirement after the release of Red and passed away 10 months later during open heart surgery. After his death, however, his scripts for another prospective trilogy—“Heaven,” “Hell,” and “Purgatory”—were adapted and produced by directors Tom Tykwer in 2002, Danis Tanovic in 2005, and Stanislaw Mucha in 2007.
Above: Dekalog
RECOMMENDED VIEWING
Camera Buff (1979): Filip (Jerzy Stuhr) purchases an 8-millimeter camera to record his newborn baby daughter, but when he turns his lens on the marketing of his factory, the initially innocent hobby becomes an all-consuming fixation co-opted by external interests and aims. “As a form of artistic suicide,” notes critic Georgia Brown, “there’s much here that reflects Kieślowski’s own deep-seated frustrations with cinema,” and as Filip’s compulsive filming moves from a means to seize life, to a mediation, to an undermining substitution, the allegorical dimensions of individual emancipation against dogmatic propaganda foster a resounding dissection of committed cross-purposes.
Blind Chance (1981): Although Kieślowski began working on Blind Chance during a period of relative freedom, it was completed under newly-instituted martial law and was subsequently withheld due to its politically-charged content. To be sure, the trifurcated path of Boguslaw Linda’s multi-fated Witek—taking him from a life towing the Party line, to one as an underground activist, to one as an apolitical family man—is stimulated by political propositions in all regards, but Kieślowski is also after something deeper. He finds the transcendence of one’s daily life using a fragmented narrative and the subjectivity of mixed perspectives, suggesting, despite his own avowed pessimism, that nothing in life is truly meaningless.
Dekalog (1988): That no single episode of Dekalog is more or less exemplary than another is basically the point. While all but two have different cinematographers, thus lending each submission a unique visual interpretation, the series is best viewed and measured as a cohesive, overlapping, and harmonizing whole. Certainly, the Christian implications are evident in its iconography and moral conditioning, but Dekalog exceeds a strictly religious reading as the dilemmas faced by its varied characters are more representative of communal, universal anxieties. Kieślowski originally intended for each episode to be completed by a different director, so it’s fortunate he decided to helm the entirety himself, providing the complete Dekalog a sophisticated expression of human vagaries subject to senseless cruelty and emotional connectivity.
The Double Life of Veronique (1991): Markedly less political than much of his preceding work, The Double Life of Veronique afforded Kieślowski the opportunity to explore personal trials and tribulations about, as he would state, “sensibility, presentiments and relationships which are difficult to name, which are irrational.” Jacob, taking the place of Andie Macdowell, Kieślowski’s initial choice for the twofold role, conveys the enchanting, inscrutable concept of unknowing and unknowable congruence, earing the Cannes Film Festival’s best actress prize in the process. Shot by Slawomir Idziak, who was also the cinematographer on The Scar and added the expressive colorizations to Blue and A Short Film About Killing (as well as its correlative Dekalog episode), The Double Life of Veronique is one of Kieślowski’s most luminous and naturally beguiling features. He played on “pure emotions,” he said, because it’s a film “about emotions and nothing else.”
Three Colors: Red (1994): Although there is much to admire in each film of Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, Red is arguably the most thoroughly captivating, in no small part due to the fact it became his final filmic testament. The subject of considerable controversy at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it lost the Palme d’Or to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Red nevertheless received three Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Director. It’s a model for Kieślowski’s career-long pursuit of increasingly stylized, inadvertent intersections, representing a core aspect of the trilogy, which, for the contemplative filmmaker, is “about people who have some sort of intuition or sensibility, who have gut feelings.”
Above: Camera Buff
RECOMMENDED READING
“Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski,” by Annette Insdorf: “No contemporary filmmaker,” writes Insdorf, “has been more successful than Kieslowski in combining an accessible story with haunting images that suggest something beyond what we can see.” This is the basic argument laid out in what was described at the time of its publishing as “the best introduction to a uniquely gifted artist.” Rightly calling Kieslowski a “cinematic poet,” Insdorf makes an enthusiastic, lovingly detailed case for his exceptional status in world cinema and charts a revelatory through line from his earliest documentary efforts to the later features that would cement his status as a master of profoundly humanistic drama.  
“Kieslowski on Kieslowski,” by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Danusia Stok (editor): This illuminating, first-person record by Kieslowski is perhaps the single most informative look at what drove the filmmaker to take on the projects he did. As noted in the text’s promotion, while Kieslowski was “notoriously reticent, and even dismissive of his work and talent,” these “frank and detailed discussions showed a passion for film-making that animated a life disrupted by both Hilter and Stalin and the legacy these figures left in Eastern Europe.” Kieslowski ruminates on his passions, his concerns, and the general worldview that grew more and more patent with each passing film. He also remarks on the ambiguities of his work, insisting he doesn’t film metaphors: “People only read them as metaphors, which is very good. That’s what I want. I always want to stir people to something. It doesn’t matter whether I manage to pull people into the story or inspire them to analyse it. What is important is that I force them into something or move them in some way.”
The Force of Chance: An Interview with Krzysztof Kieślowski,” by Patrick McGavin and Zbigniew Banas: Compiled from a series of interviews with Kieślowski conducted between September 1989 and November 1994, done by either of the authors individually or together, this article cites none other than Stanley Kubrick who declared his admiration for Kieślowski and Dekalog co-writer Piesiewicz: “They have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what’s really going on.” Kieślowski speaks about his struggles with his native land, referring to Poland as a “terrible country” and a “country of suffering people whose lives are very difficult,” yet in this he finds something “very inspiring.” And on his role as a filmmaker, Kieślowski comments: “To look, to very carefully observe and register how those thoughts and ideas impact the culture and people around you.”
Political movies are hard to pull off. The films of Krzysztof Kieslowski hold the key,” by Alissa Wilkinson: “Even when my films were about people involved in politics, I always tried to find out what sort of people they were.” So said Kieslowski, as quoted in this 2016 piece for Vox.com. “The political environment only formed a background.” To this assertion, however, Wilkinson remarks it’s “almost believable.” And her skepticism is understandable. As she writes, when Kieslowski shifted to primarily fictional features about “individual people faced with difficult ethical choices,” his association with “other Polish directors whom the government deemed subversive” resulted in early features that were “sometimes censored and recut” and, sometimes, “suppressed entirely.” So it makes sense, she argues, “that he got used to talking about his work as nonpolitical. Under those circumstances, many of us would develop the habit as a defense mechanism.”
Krzysztof Kieslowski,” by Doug Cummings: This thorough profile published in 2003 discusses Kieslowski as a filmmaker “preoccupied with similarities and paradoxes.” While detailing his multifaceted career of shorts, documentaries, and features, Cummings surveys Kieslowski’s body of work as one that “seems to have slowly inverted over the years from one centered on political realities to one of effervescent abstraction.” Upon closer examination, though, Cummings notes that “both ends of his career focus on human individuals struggling to reconcile daily life with its cultural myths—be they Communist propaganda, Biblical proverbs, or French revolutionary slogans.” Describing Kieslowski as a “powerful storyteller,” Cummings states that the filmmaker “undermined the ordered world of his documentary descriptions and high-concept anthologies with the complex, often disillusioning lives of his central protagonists—a dialectical portrait of life oscillating between pessimistic deconstruction and an affection for human resilience.”

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