News and Commentary – Kieslowski for Completists
Thanks to the efforts of Arrow Academy, Kino Video, and The Criterion Collection, all of the fiction films of the great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski are now easily accessible. Actually, that’s not quite true. His second foray into fiction (Kieslowski made his early reputation as a documentary filmmaker, and those talents are put to extraordinary use in his dramatic efforts), Life Story, a forty-six minute film about the interrogation of a former party member, is still unavailable. But I thought you’d let that go, especially as I resisted the overwhelming temptation to call this The Komplete Kieslowski.
As with all of the greatest filmmakers, a Kieslowski film is easily recognizable—as a Kieslowski film. His filmmaking features an observational style, thoughtful, patient framing, and the inspired use of color and composition, all in the service of stories about complex, non-heroic characters faced with questions of enormous consequences (for their own lives, not for the course of human history), questions for which there are no obvious, easy, or certain answers. (And although the more overt influences of documentary-style shooting become less pronounced over the course of his career, Kieslowski never strayed much from the conviction of the French New Wave that the line between documentary and drama was arbitrary and vaguely defined.) Best of all, and, again, similar to so many of the greats, when you are watching a Kieslowski film – even one that turns out not to be a personal favorite – you never lose that feeling that you are in the hands of a master. And so there is no Kieslowski film not worth watching.
Pedestrian Subway, a short personal drama shot in stark black and white, had a ten day shooting schedule. At the last possible moment, Kieslowski decided what he had created was artificial (“on the ninth night I realized that I was shooting something idiotic”) and shot the whole thing again from scratch in one long overnight—it seems to have been the right call. Early feature length efforts Personnel (influenced by Kieslowski’s experiences working for a theater company), and The Scar (a film that suggests the machinations of urban politics are universal) showcase the director’s emerging style, but the best of these early efforts is The Calm, a powerful film which fell afoul of the censors and was left unreleased for years.
Camera Buff has a nominal plot (and the story holds attention), but it is at bottom a film about falling in love with the idea of making movies—in this case quite by accident. But when Filip puts breadcrumbs on the window sill, he becomes a filmmaker—and one so obsessed that when fighting with his wife imagines how her anger might best be framed by the camera. Camera Buff was followed by A Short Working Day and Blind Chance, both in production during the first flowering of freedom that accompanied the rise of the Solidarity moment in 1980. Martial Law was imposed just as these films were being edited, and both were subjected to the censors’ heavy hand and would not be shown as intended for years. A Short Working Day Kieslowski would later disavow, and the movie failed with the public (almost certainly as a result of its not-unsympathetic portrayal of a communist functionary during a labor uprising). But Working Day and Blind Chance are each successful representations of core Kieslowskian themes: like Woody Allen, Kieslowski considers the influence of radical contingency, even more than human agency, to be essential in shaping life trajectories; with Renoir, he embraces the view that “everyone has their reasons.” In Communist Poland (and so many other places), it was only natural (and often appropriate) to blame one’s problems on the collective, unseen “them”. But as the film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski once commented, Kieslowski’s films often suggest, provocatively, “maybe they are us in other circumstances.” This is by no means to dive into moral relativism – Kieslowski’s films are deeply and profoundly moral affairs – but it is a rejection of stock villains and easy answers, complexities invariably present in his movies and on display in his subsequent feature, No End.
In 1989, Kieslowski made ten films for Polish Television (two of which would be extended for theatrical release); each entry loosely based around an idea expressed by (some interpretation of) one of the Ten Commandments. Stanley Kubrick wrote that the films that comprised The Dekalog were made “with such dazzling skill you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.” Our favorites are episode 2 (how might one describe it? Is it about the about the things a Doctor doesn’t tell a woman concerning her gravely ill husband?), and episode 8, which contemplates, with astonishing minimalism, the enduring legacies of the impossible choices forced upon people in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Global screenings of The Dekalog elevated Kieslowski’s reputation far beyond his native Poland, and with the fall of communism his final four films were transnational affairs: the haunting Double Life of Veronique, and the magisterial Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White and Red. Blue, stunning and brilliant, involves Juliette Binoche – perhaps her greatest performance – in the aftermath of a personal tragedy; White brings the action back to post-Communist Poland. As for Red, featuring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Irene Jacob—if pressed, we will call it his masterpiece. See it now. (Our complete user’s guide follows the vid-caps below.)
Camera Buff: "Shooting" The Argument
Dekalog 8: Polish History Hangs in the Balance
The Fiction Films of Krzysztof Lieslowski: A User’s Guide
Pedestrian Subway (1974) *
Life Story (1975)
The Scar (1976)
The Calm (1976/1980) *
Camera Buff (1979) *
Short Working Day (1981) **
Blind Chance (1981) *
No End (1985) *
Dekalog (1989) [10 films + 2 features] ***
The Double Life of Veronique (1991) *
Blue (1993) ***
Red (1994) ***