Obituary: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Thursday 14 March 1996
Wajda influenced every Polish movie-maker of the next generation, among them Krzysztof Zanussi, Feliks Falk and Krzysztof Kieslowski, all of whom sent out parables about the corruption and incompetence of the regime. These, whether set among the bureaucrats themselves, or in journalism, or in the world of provincial theatre were easily decipherable, but at the same time they managed to be powerful, subtle and clever.
Of these film-makers only Kieslowski has continued to hold his place internationally, perhaps by finding new subjects. The other directors, I was told last year in Warsaw, are looking for movies worth making - and are not sure, in the changed Poland, what these are.
Kieslowski studied, like Andrzej Munk and Wajda, at the Lodz Film School, graduating in 1969. Though artistically indebted to Wajda he felt closer to Munk, who also came to features after experience as a documentarist. Indeed, Kieslowski was the leader of "The Cracow Group", which in 1971 issued a manifesto to that effect, that they should learn from dealing with reality how to use their experiences subsequently in fictional features. His first feature was for television, The Underground Passage (Przejscie Podziemne, 1973), which he followed with Personel (1975), drawing on his own experiences directing for the stage. He also wrote the screenplay, which he later described as "half-documentary, half-feature with no clear dividing line. The point was that theatre is a place in which various fragments of life focus, various elements of reality happen in one place . . . I called it "a pill of reality." That's why I set it in a theatre; it could be made anywhere, in a factory, in an office, it didn't matter." Juliusz Machulski played a theatre graduate working backstage, fascinated by the world of make-believe but gradually becoming aware that that was only created by a combination of ambition and devious politicking.
The film won the Grand Prix at Mannheim, encouraging Kieslowski to express the point of view of those who do the manipulating. The Night Porter's Point of View (Z Punktu Widz-enia Nocnego Portiera, 1978), a documentary short, allowed the night porter to express his satisfaction in the control he has in this job and another at weekends as a park superintendent, in which capacity he has moral designs on even petty offenders. The authorities disliked the film, but allowed it to be shown the following year in a suburb of Warsaw, where it attracted crowds which didn't always stay for the main feature.
Kieslowski once explained the difficulty of getting such films made: ``It is simply a duty. I am trying all the time, I believe in trying. There is also a matter of pressure". He went on to say that after having 10 screenplays rejected there was always the possibility of an 11th slipping through.
This is clearly what happened in the case of The Scan (Blizna, 1976), Kiewlowski's first feature for cinema, ostensibly the story of a man (Franciszek Pieczka) who returns to his native town to construct a factory. The film managed to touch on the 1970 riots (caused when the government ordered price rises in staple foods just before Christmas), and this aspect - what Kieslowski called "the painful area of reality" - gave Wajda his "way in" to Man of Marble.
Camera Buff (Amator, 1979) was written by Kieslowski and his leading actor, Jerzy Stuhr, who plays a factory worker who buys a camera to record the progress of his baby. As he is the only employee with a camera, he is invited to film the factory's 25th anniversary celebrations. After his movie wins a prize, he becomes so obsessed with movies that his marriage breaks down. Camera Buff's key scene is when the worker meets Zanussi at a film showing and asks him why he makes movies. Zanussi replies that is increasingly hard to do so because the world is dishonest - and the dishonesty is caused by those who have taken it upon themselves to run our lives.
Those people inevitably disliked the film, but after it shared the Grand Prix at the Moscow Film Festival there was little point in banning it. Blind Chance (Przypadek, 1982) was, however, prohibited for five years. It starts with Witek (Boguslaw Linda) running for a train and shows, in tripartite form, what happens if he catches it or if he misses it. In the first place he meets a Communist of the old school, in the second he becomes a dissident, and in the last there is no train and he settles down to a humdrum life. No End (Bez Knoca, 1988) begins with its protagonist, a lawyer (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), already dead; he had been defending a working man accused under martial law for organising a strike. His widow, realising the State's evidence is weak, decides to take on the cause, and with her husband's ghost helps the worker's wife.
The changed climate in Poland brough Kieslowski the co-operation of Polish television for his series of hour- long moralities based on the Ten Commandments, Dekalog (1988), chiefly set on a Moscow housing estate. Two of them, A Short Film About Killing (Krotki Film O Zabijaniu) and A Short Film About Love (Krotki Film O Milosci), he expanded into features. Throughout the films there is little suggestion of a new Poland, as each grimly questions the role of authority and the responsibility of the individual. There is no love in any of them - literally in A Short Film About Love, when its heroine pronounces that ejaculation is "all there is" to love. Life on this housing estate is unflinchingly cruel, though it does display Kieslowski's remarkable talent for commonplace details. What is less to the fore is the intellectual muscle of Blind Chance and No End - and their celebration of the complexity of life.
The two "Short Films" did more than those movies had done to establish Kieslowski on the art-house circuit, also enabling him to get French backing for La Double Vie de Veronique (1991), which followed the adventures, mainly amorous, of Weronika in Cracow and her name-sake and lookalike, Veronique, in Paris. The whole is an artificial, whimsical box of conceits, as hermetic as it is cerebral. Enigma follows enigma, as in its contemporary, The Crying Game, but whereas everything in that film proved to have a purpose this becomes little but a series of irrelevancies. Neil Jordan's film tossed its audience to the fates, as Kieslowski's used to do; this time Kieslowski gave the impression of a puppeteer only anxious to manipulate.
Again in France (and Switzerland), Kieslowski did his trilogy Trois Couleurs - Bleu (1993), Blanc (1993) and Rouge (1994), each purporting to examine qualities suggested by the French flag - liberty, equality, fraternity. This turned out not to be the case. Writing in Sight and Sound, Philip Strick found the second "mere game-playing by Kieslowski and his co-writer [Krzystof] Piesiewicz . . . So much mystery is engendered that it unfolds in a fog of imprecision". Writing in New York magazine of the third film, David Denby said, "There are moments of great beauty in everything Kieslowski does, but he's essentially a constructor of intricate puzzles; an artificer, perhaps, but not an artist."
That was not a judgement anyone who admired his earlier films would ever have expected. Perhaps, after all, he found less to say once his homeland had found its freedom. Zanussi had temporarily filled his creative gap by becoming the art director on La Double Vie de Veronique. Perhaps we know why Kieslowski announced that Trois Couleurs: Rouge would be his last film - though he did appear to have changed his mind before his illness.
Krzysztof Kieslowski, film director, writer: born Warsaw 27 June 1941; married (one daughter); died Warsaw 13 March 1996.
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