The world in a drop of water

Before the Polish visionary Krzysztof Kieslowski died in March, his friend Krzysztof Wierzbicki completed a documentary about the great film-maker's life.
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The Independent Culture
Generally speaking, unless they're called Roman Polanski and have sex with under-age Californian teenagers, Polish film-makers don't make much of a splash in the West. Krzysztof Kieslowski, who died in March and whose career is about to be celebrated in a season at London's National Film Theatre, is a notable exception. Ever since Dekalog, his series of 10 short films set in the grey, austere Warsaw of the Eighties, he has been heralded as probably the most important European director of his era; one of the few contemporary figures who can be mentioned in the same breath as old masters like Renoir, Bresson and Rossellini. At once a political film-maker (he was one of the leaders of the so-called "Cinema of Moral Anxiety" which sprang up in Poland in the Seventies) and something of a mystic (his later films like Three Colours: Blue and The Double Life of Veronique were criticised in certain quarters because they seemed to shirk politics), he was also a supreme storyteller with an abiding interest in love, faith, birth and death.

One afternoon, during the film festival in Prague a few weeks ago, the Vysherad steamer set off down the Vltava river with a delegation of Polish film-makers (many of them ex-colleagues of Kieslowski), a handful of journalists, and the usual assortment of freeloaders aboard. As press conferences go, this one had its drawbacks. For a start, no one could think of any questions to ask. Then there was the music - a Country and Eastern band singing non-stop Tammy Wynette in Czech all but drowned out the Poles' responses to the occasional inquiries thrown their way. Worst of all, at least for a unilingual British journalist, was the choice of languages: questions were asked and answered in Polish, translated into French and Czech, but hardly a word of English was uttered.

Eventually, the press conference broke up and the film-makers and journalists filtered through to the room where the food and free Pilsner were being served. Left sitting at a corner table all on his own, eating a gelatinous- looking Czech chicken, was Krzysztof Wierzbicki, the bespectacled, owlish director of the documentary, Krzysztof Kieslowski: I'm So So, a film completed only a few months before Kieslowski's untimely death. Yes, Wierzbicki spoke English, and yes, he was prepared to answer a few questions about his old friend. He used to work with Kieslowski during the Seventies. He'd made his documentary because "everybody knew about Kieslowski the film-maker" and he wanted to give them a sense of "the man behind the camera".

The film opens in striking fashion. Various "experts", a doctor, a priest, a psychiatrist, a clairvoyant and a graphologist, are presented with information about Kieslowski (samples of his handwriting, his medical records, accounts of his family life etc), but they're not told his identity. Wierzbicki challenges them to analyse the personality from the evidence in front of them. Their respective diagnoses build up a recognisable profile of their subject, but each somehow falls short of the truth. This, of course, is the point: Kieslowski, like the saints and sinners in his films, defies categorisation.

"It is about Kieslowski," explains Wierzbicki, "but it could be about anybody. It is about how near it is possible to approach a human being. There are some people, like the doctor, graphologist and clairvoyant, who, by virtue of their profession, can explain some part of a personality. Then we (his old film crew, his old friends) can come and try to get that little bit closer, but it's also in vain. Because nobody can come as close to another human being as they might like. Nobody can really know another person. Even if you know someone very well as a friend, you can only reach some parts of his personality."

Kieslowski, who deliberately gives contradictory answers to the questions asked him by Wierzbicki or parries them with self-deprecating jokes, proves an elusive, inscrutable subject, but the documentary none the less stands as a kind of final testament. It was the last film he was ever involved with. He only agreed to make it because it gave him a chance to work again with old friends; not only Wierzbicki, but the cinematographer Jacek Petrycki and the sound recordist Michael Zarnacki were veterans of many of his earlier movies.

On the first day of shooting, Wierzbicki recalls being somewhat apprehensive. He wasn't sure whether or not his old mentor would take direction. "But then Kieslowski arrived, and he said, 'Come with me, I've brought costumes.' And he opened the door of his car. There were rows of hangers with his jackets, shirts and everything else, just for me to choose what he should wear. He behaved like a hired actor."

As the Vysherad puffed laboriously down river, Wierzbicki warmed to his own reminiscences. "Kieslowski was in a very good mood. He was so witty, so funny. None of us knew he was ill. I'd seen him after the premiere of his film, Red, and he was really very tired, very bad looking. But when we met for this film, he was recovered. He was full of energy and full of life."

After the Three Colours trilogy, Kieslowski announced his retirement from film-making. Although he subsequently signed a contract to co-write a new trilogy, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, Wierzbicki believes he was in no hurry to return to directing. "He wanted to be with his family and friends ... and to be with himself. Not to be with strange people who always hover round him, and always want something of him." Nobody could begrudge him his rest: as the doctor observed after looking at his X-rays, this was a man who smoked far too many cigarettes and lived in a perpetual state of stress.

There's a magical, strangely touching moment in the documentary: Kieslowski is shown sitting alone in a field. Wild horses can be seen in the distance behind him. Gradually, the horses move closer to him. By the end of the scene, they're nuzzling up to him affectionately. Wierzbicki insists it was all unplanned. "In one of his films, The Calm, Kieslowski uses horses as a metaphysical symbol. I wanted him to appear in a place with horses in the background. But it didn't work. The horses were too far away. So we decided to climb over the fence, to be among them. And suddenly, they approached him, came closer, and started to kiss him. It was totally unexpected. Krzysztof was a man whom animals loved. He was always surrounded with animals, especially dogs ... even bad dogs, angry dogs, when they saw him, they'd lie on their backs and ask for patting."

It seems this Dr Doolittle of the film world exercised a similarly magnetic influence over people. Wierzbicki tells a poignant little story about Kieslowski's 1977 documentary, From the Night Porter's Point of View. A profile of a petty bureaucrat with reactionary views, this was intended as a microcosmic satire at the expense of the Communist State. The night porter in question, Wierzbicki remembers, "was not an evil person. He was stupid and fascistic, but we weren't against him, we were against the ideology that made him think like he did." Over the course of filming, Kieslowski and the night porter became firm friends. In subsequent years, the porter changed; he renounced his right-wing views. He even appeared as an extra in a couple of Kieslowski's films. Kieslowski, for his part, refused to allow the documentary to be shown publicly after 1979 to save the night porter from embarrassment. Unfortunately, he didn't own the rights. After he died, Polish TV promptly broadcast it.

In the documentaries in particular, Wierzbicki believes that Kieslowski's great secret was his quiet, painstaking approach. "What you notice is that people didn't shout, they spoke in slow sentences, even when they were shocked. The whole drama of human beings isn't in shouting. It's in silence, in slowly spoken and silent words. His documentaries in those times wanted to show the world in a drop of water."

The steamer does an about turn and begins to head back to the jetty. Wierzbicki, still picking at his chicken, reflects on the chaotic state of the Polish film industry that Kieslowski has left behind. "As he used to say, before we had a censorship of politics. Now we have censorship of money. Which is worse?" He admits he is struggling to get over Kieslowski's death, but says he hopes shortly to start work on a new documentary about his legacy. "There are a lot of people who met him during his life just for one moment or saw just one of his films, and it completely changed their attitude to life. What difference would there be for these people if they'd never met Kieslowski? That will be my subject."

n A season of Krzysztof Kieslowski's work runs from 1-25 Aug at the National Film Theatre, London SE1. Booking: 0171-928 3232