Krzysztof Kieslowski made over 40 films 1966-1994 (see below), 26 of them short documentary films for the communist regime of Poland. He is the greatest European film director since Bergman and one of the pre-eminent artists of cinema. Documentary was important to him – he wanted to film what was, an ambition that wasn’t congenial to the communist officials who funded his films. Eventually Kieslowski transcended the documentary format by filming what were actually emotional and spiritual states usually well hidden. He evolved a style based on symbols and coincidences meant to suggest rather than show, to intrigue rather than narrate. You can see this process beginning by viewing the 1980 short Talking Heads (a condensation of hundreds of interviewees answering the same three questions) and his second feature film Camera Buff (Amator, 1979).
The dominant characteristic of both man and filmmaker is honesty. This is well documented in I’m So-So, an interview with Kieslowski made by friend and colleague Krzysztof Wierzbicki in 1995 (the title refers to his response to how he feels – he doesn’t want to respond with “well”, or “very well”, or even less with “amazingly well”). Kieslowski spent his life confronting despair, and I admire his strength and determination in this even more than I admire his artistry in film making. To be honest, though, even in describing what is in front of you, is one of the most difficult of all actions. There is a famous scene in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man where Stephen tries to describe what he sees on his desk. The harder he tries, the longer the list, the less he succeeds in showing what’s there. To ‘realise’, we have to select: this is in fact how the human brain operates on ‘reality’. To make others realise, one of the most effective means artists have found is the metaphor. With Kieslowski’s feature films we experience the cinema of metaphor.
I feel Kieslowski was as important for his point of view as for his achievement in film. Kieslowski suffered from censorship all his life: the communist state disapproved of his honesty in dealing with real emotions because it harmed the morale of citizens. The capitalist world provided financial resources but intervened because some honest subject matter would not attract audiences (ie lose money). This experience left Kieslowski bitter and cynical. Against this is the extraordinary hope in human nature implied in the actual making of his films. Important to the effect of Kieslowski’s films is the co-scripting of Krzysztof Piesiewicz (he couldn’t write, said Kieslowski, but his ideas were marvelous) and the music of Zbiginew Preisner.
Of these films, the most important to me are: A Short Film About Love, A Short Film About Killing, Dekalog (all 1988), Camera Buff (1979), Blind Chance (1987), Red (1994) and the documentary short Talking Heads (1980).
A Short Film About Love
This is not a love story, but deals with why we are attracted to others. As always with Kieslowski, a documentarist wishing to film the most intimate human emotional processes, it is notable for what it implies rather than reveals. A marvelous examination of the mysterious phenomenon of love, here seen as transcendent and powerful and beyond human comprehension, yet able to transform lives. Kieslowski, one of the great poets of the cinema, places scenes in juxtaposition such that we feel far more than we think about what we see. It’s a film for people who delight in having their feelings and imagination stimulated.
A Short Film About Killing
This is not an exposition of the commandment ‘thou shall not kill’. The film delves into the mixed motives that result in the act of killing, whether as crime or punishment. Bitterly, it implies something atavistic in us finds satisfaction in the act. Before the murder, there is grief and despair and neglect, a monstrous inhumanity towards the 19 year old who eventually kills. Before the punishment, there is guilt and a grisly kind of impersonal satisfaction. What is behind these almost hidden emotions? Kieslowski, as always, delicately suggests the questions at a level that engages our emotions, not just our reason.
10 short films inspired by moral imperatives similar to those behind the ten commandments. The treatment is indirect, allowing the viewer to make those connections he or she is able to. As with all of Kieslowski’s Polish films, one can only wonder at the depth of acting talent: 24 of the greatest performances in cinema by people whose names you can’t pronounce (unless you speak Polish). The music is both attuned to the mood of each film, and great in its own right. Although they vary in quality, collectively these ten films are one of the major achievements of cinema.
Camera Buff is, among other things, autobiographical. It contains an extraordinary performance from Jerzy Stuhr (the acting is superb as so often in Kieslowski’s Polish films). It begins with Filip recording his child’s first few months, show him alienating everyone by his insistence on recording what is there (the ‘truth’) and ends with a sublime scene where Filip turns the camera away from his documentary subject and begins to film himself. Film is so much more acceptable if it creates a false reality because it becomes self contained, a commodity. Filming the truth requires the complicity of the viewer, which is hard to acquire.
Blind Chance is a visually powerful meditation on fate and its intersection with human lives that contains scenes that resonate in the subconscious long after the film is over, such as the shot of Witek’s arm reaching for the train railing as he catches/misses the train/collides with a station official. As with all of Kieslowski’s best films, there is so much more to affect the viewer than is seen on the screen, yet what is shown is the work of a master of his craft, using the medium of cinema to express something beyond cinema. As in many of Kieslowski’s films, Blind Chance benefits from a powerful and compelling performance, here from Boguslaw Linda.
Director – filmography
1994 Trois couleurs: Rouge
1994 Trzy kolory: Bialy
1993 Trois couleurs: Bleu
1992 La Double vie de Véronique
1990 City Life (segment “Siedem dni w tygodniu”)
1988 A Short Film About Love
1988 A Short Film About Killing
1988 Siedem dni w tygodniu Seven Days a Week
1987 Przypadek Blind Chance
1985 Bez konca No End
1981 Krótki dzien pracy Short Working Day
1980 Spokój The Calm
1980 Gadajace glowy Talking Heads
1980 Dworzec Railway Station
1979 Amator Camera Buff
1978 Siedem kobiet w róznym wieku Seven Women of Different Ages
1978 Z punktu widzenia nocnego portiera Night Porter’s Point of View
1977 Nie wiem I Don’t Know
1976 Blizna The Scar
1976 Personel Personnel
1976 Klaps Slate
1976 Szpital Hospital
1975 Zyciorys Curriculum Vitae
1974 Przejscie podziemne Pedestrian Subway
1974 Pierwsza milosc First Love
1974 Przeswietlenie X-Ray
1973 Murarz Bricklayer
1972 Refren Refrain
1972 Miedzy Wroclawiem a Zielona Gora Between Wroclaw and Zielona Gora
1972 Podstawy BHP w kopalni miedzi The Principles of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine
1971 Robotnicy 1971 – Nic o nas bez nas Workers 1971 – Nothing About Us Without Us
1971 Fabryka Factory
1971 Przed rajdem Before the Rally
1970 Bylem zolnierzem I Was a Soldier
1968 Z miasta Lodzi From the City of Lodz
1968 Zdjecie The Photograph
1967 Koncert zyczen Concert of Requests
1966 Tramwaj The Tram
1966 Urzad The Office
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.