Monthly Archives: June 2014

Join us, by proxy!  Here’s one of our classes, and some of what we’ll be reading, hearing and seeing:



Objective: the purpose of this class is to immerse students, teachers and standers-by alike in some of the events and expressions and experiences that have made the UK what it is today. And what is that? We may not be too concerned with finding a definitive answer to that question. There are lots of theories and positions, most with value and validity. But since we’re here for only a short time, and since we’ll have a lifetime of melancholic post-London years for sorting things out, for now we just want to read and run, and rest as little as possible.

Methodology: here’s how we’ll go about it. Everyone signs up to read five (5) books. Everyone signs up to visit seven London sites. Everyone reports everyone’s findings to everyone else. Everyone else gets enthused and ends up reading and visiting what everyone else read and visited. Then we go home.

Reading list: students will pick one book (non-fiction, play, novel, collection of poems, etc.) from five of the following six groups. Please note that sort of representative/rather random musical and cinematic titles are also included, for orientation and information’s sake. A few similarly wayward importantevents are also listed.


Group One—Foundations

Defoe, Daniel, Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

Swift, Jonathan: Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

Fielding, Henry, Tom Thumb (1730)

Johnson, Samuel, Rasselas (1759)

Goldsmith, Oliver, She Stoops to Conquer (1773)

Wollstonecraft, Mary, Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, 1800 [2nd,] ed.)

Scott, Walter, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805)

Lamb, Charles and Mary, Tales from Shakespeare (1807)

Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice/ Persuasion (1813/1818)

Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein (1818)

Hogg, James, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)

Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist (1837-8)

Darwin, Charles, Voyage of the Beagle (1839)

Carlyle, Thomas, On Heroes (1841)

Engels, Friedrich, The Conditions of the Working Class in England (1844)

Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre (1847)

Bronte, Emily, Wuthering Heights (1847)

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Trollope, Anthony, The Warden (1855)

Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty/ Utilitarianism (1859/1863)

Eliot, George, Silas Marner (1861)

Kingsley, Charles, The Water Babies (1863)

Queen Victoria, Highland Journal (1868)

Arnold, Matthew, Culture and Anarchy (1869)

Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking Glass (1871)

MacDonald, George: At the Back of the North Wind /The Princess and the Goblin (1871/1872)

Pater, Walter, Studies in the Renaissance (1873)

Sewell, Anna: Black Beauty (1877)

Gilbert, W.S. and Sullivan, Arthur, HMS Pinafore/The Mikado (1878/1885)

Stevenson, Robert Louis, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde/ Kidnapped (1886/1886)

Conan Doyle, Arthur, A Study in Scarlet (1887)

Hardy, Thomas, Wessex Tales/Tess of the D’urbevilles (1888/1891)

Morris, William, News From Nowhere (1890)

Wilde, Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Gray/Lady Windermere’s Fan/An Ideal Husband/The Importance of Being Earnest (1891/1892/1895/1895)

Pinero, Arthur, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893)

Yeats, William Butler, The Celtic Twilight (1893)

Jacobs, Joseph, English Fairy Tales (1894)

Kipling, Rudyard, The Jungle Book (1894)

Shaw, G.B., Arms and the Man (1894)

Grahame, Kenneth, The Golden Age (1895)

Wells, H.G., The Time Machine(1895)

Kipling, Rudyard, Stalky and Co. (1899)


Group Two—The Edwardian Era and the First World War

The Zeroes:

Elgar, Edward, Enigma Variations (1900)

Wells, H.G., Love and Mr. Lewisham (1900)

Kipling, Rudyard, Kim /Just So Stories (1901, 1902)

Barrie, J.M., The Admirable Crichton/Peter Pan (1902/1904)

Brown, George Douglas, The House with the Green Shutters (1902)

Shaw, G.B., Mrs. Warren’s Profession/Major Barbara/Pygmalion (1902/1905/1912)

Yeats, W.B., Cathleen ni Houlihan/Dierdre (1902/1907)

Death of Queen Victoria

Boer War ends

London, Jack, People of the Abyss (1903)

Gregory, Lady, The Spreading of the News/Kincora and the White Cockade (1904/1905)

Abbey Theatre founded

Sinn Fein party founded in Dublin

Synge, J.M., Riders to the Sea/The Playboy of the Western World (1904/1907)

Granville-Barker, Harley, The Voysey Inheritance (1905)

Munro, Neil, The Vital Spark (1906)

Nesbit, E., The Railway Children (1906)

Everyman’s Library begun

Conrad, Joseph, The Secret Agent (1907)

Boy Scouts founded

Chesterton, G.K., The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)

Forster, E.M., A Room With a View, Howard’s End (1908/1910)

Ross, Martin, and Somerville, Edith, The Further Experiences of an Irish RM (1908)

Strife, John Galsworthy (1909)

Girl Guides founded


The Teens:

Barrie, J.M., Peter Pan (1911)

Burnette, Frances Hodgson, The Secret Garden (1911)

Lloyd George introduces National Health Insurance bill

Suffragette riots in Whitehall

Bentley, E.C., Trent’s Last Case (1912)

Houghton, Stanley, Hindle Wakes (1912)

Sowerby, Githa, Rutherford and Son (1912)

Commons reject franchise bill

Sinking of the Titanic

Lawrence, D.H., Sons and Lovers (1913)

Joyce, James, Dubliners (1914)

Vaughan-Williams, Ralph, The Lark Ascending (1914)

Break-out of WWI

Buchan, John, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle (1915/1916)

Holst, Gustav, The Planets (1915)

Brighouse, Harold, Hobson’s Choice (1916)

Easter Rebellion

Balfour declaration (1917)

Brooke, Rupert, Collected Poems (1918)

Strachey, Lytton, Eminent Victorians (1918)


Vote extended to women 30 years and older

Elgar, Edward, Cello Concerto (1919)

Maugham, W. Somerset, The Moon and Sixpence (1919)

Sassoon, Siegfried, War Poems (1919)

Lady Astor is first female Member of Parliament


Group Three—In-Between

The Twenties:

Christie, Agatha, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

League of Nations founded

Maugham, W. Somerset, The Circle/The Constant Wife (1921/1927)

BBC established

Irish Free State established

Eliot, T.S., The Waste Land and Other Poems (1917-1922)

Forster, E.M., A Passage to India (1924)

Wodehouse, P.G., The Inimitable Jeeves (1924)

First Labour government

O’Casey, Sean, Juno and the Paycock/ The Plough and the Stars (1924/1925)

Coward, Noel, Hay Fever/Private Lives (1925/1930)

Woolf, Virginia, Mrs. Dalloway/To the Lighthouse/A Room of One’s Own (1925/1927/1929)

Hitchcock, Alfred, The Lodger/Blackmail (1926/1929)

Lawrence, D.H., The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, 1926)

McDiarmid, Hugh, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926)

General Strike

John Logie Baird Television demonstrated

Milne, A.A., Winnie-the-Pooh/The House on Pooh Corner (1926, 1928)

Lonsdale, Frederick, On Approval (1927)

Waugh, Evelyn, Decline and Fall (1928)

Hughes, Richard, A High Wind in Jamaica (1928)

Suffrage for women 21 one years and up

Graves, Robert, Goodbye to All That (1929)

Green, Henry, Living (1929)

Grierson, John, Drifters (1929)

The Thirties:

Bridie, James, The Anatomist (1930)

Auden, W.H., Poems

Grassic Gibbon, Lewis, Sunset Song (1932)

Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World (1932)

Compton-Burnett, Ivy, More Women than Men (1933)

Korda, Alexander et al, The Private Life of King Henry VIII/ Rembrandt/The Four Feathers (1933/1937/1939)

Orwell, George, Down and Out in Paris and London/The Road to Wigan Pier (1933, 1937)

Fields, Gracie, Sing as We Go! (1934)

Gow, Ronald and Greenwood, Walter, Love on the Dole (1934)

Hilton, James, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934)

Priestley, J.B., English Journey (1934)

Sayers, Dorothy, The Nine Tailors (1934)

Travers, P.L.: Mary Poppins (1934)

Hitchcock, Alfred, The Man Who Knew Too Much/The Thirty-Nine Steps/Sabotage/The Lady Vanishes (1934/1935/1936/1938)

Bagnold, Enid, National Velvet (1935)

Eliot, T.S., Murder in the Cathedral (1935)

Muir, Edwin, Scott and Scotland (1936)

Abdication of Edward VIII

Allen Lane founds Penguin Books

Gunn, Neil, Highland River (1937)

Hay, Will, Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937)

Tolkein, J.R.R.: The Hobbit (1937)

du Maurier, Daphne, Rebecca (1938)

Greene, Graham, Brighton Rock (1938)

Hamilton, Patrick, Gaslight (1938)

White, T.H.: The Sword in the Stone (1938)

Williams, Emlyn, The Corn is Green (1938)

Godden, Rumer, Black Narcissus (1939)

Household, Geoffrey, Rogue Male (1939)

Isherwood, Christopher, Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

Powell, Michael, and Pressburger, Emeric, The Spy in Black/Contraband/ The Forty-Ninth Parallel/The Life and Death of Col. Blimp/A Canterbury Tale/I Know Where I’m Going/A Matter of Life and Death/Black Narcissus/The Red Shoes (1939/1940/1941/1943/1944/ 1945/1946/1947/1948)

Reed, Carol, The Stars Look Down (1939)


Group Four—The Second War and the End of Empire

The Forties:

Day-Lewis, Cecil, Poems in Wartime (1940)

Koestler, Arthur, Darkness at Noon (1940)

Thomas, Dylan, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940)

Battle of Britain

Watt, Harry, Target for Tonight (1941)

Jennings, Humphrey, Listen to Britain/Fires Were Started/A Diary for Timothy (1942/ 1943/1945)

Lean, David and Coward, Noel, In Which We Serve/This Happy Breed/Brief Encounter (1942/1944/1945)

Lewis, C.S., The Screwtape Letters (1942)

Markham, Beryl, West with the Night (1942)

Gilliat, Sydney and Launder, Frank, Millions Like Us (1943)

Olivier, Laurence, Henry V/Hamlet (1944/1948)

Boulting, John and Roy, Desert Victory (1945)

Britten, Benjamin, Peter Grimes (1945)

Calvalcanti, Alberto et al, Dead of Night (1945)

Green, F.C., Odd Man Out, (1945)

WWII ends

Clement Atlee forms Labour government

Lean, David, Great Expectations/Oliver Twist (1946/1948)

Peake, Mervyn, Titus Groan (1946)

Priestley, J.B., An Inspector Calls (1946)

Rattigan, Terence, The Winslow Boy/The Browning Version (1946/1948)

Stewart, Ena Lamont, Men Should Weep (1946)

Larkin, Philip, A Girl in Winter (1947)

Mackenzie, Compton, Whiskey Galore (1947)

Indian independence

Reed, Carol, The Fallen Idol/The Third Man (1948/1949)

End of Britain’s Palestine mandate

Mackendrick, Alexander, Whiskey Galore/The Man in the White Suit/The Maggie/The Ladykillers (1949/1951/1954/1955)

Iron and steel industries nationalized

Eire recognized; Northern Ireland’s place in the UK reaffirmed

The Fifties:

Lewis, C.S., The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950)

Greene, Graham, The End of the Affair (1951)

Christie, Agatha, The Mousetrap (1952)

Norton, Mary, The Borrowers (1952)

Beckett, Samuel, Waiting for Godot/End Game/Krapp’s Last Tape/Happy Days (1953/ 1957/1958/1961)

Fleming, Ian, Casino Royale (1953)

Hartley, L.P., The Go-Between (1953)

Wilson, Sandy, The Boyfriend (1953)

Coronation of Elizabeth II

Amis, Kingsley, Lucky Jim (1954)

Golding, William, The Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors (1954/1955)

Thomas, Dylan, Under Milk Wood (1954)

Moore, Brian, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)

Osborn, John, Look Back in Anger/The Entertainer (1956/1957)

Suez crisis

Braine, John, Room at the Top (1957)

Wyndham, John, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)

Behan, Brendan, The Hostage (1958)

Delaney, Shelagh, A Taste of Honey (1958)

Fisher, Terence, The Horror of Dracula (1958)

Hoggart, Richard, The Uses of Literacy (1958)

Murdoch, Iris, The Bell (1958)

Pearce, Phillipa, Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958)

Pinter, Harold, The Birthday Party (1958)

Silitoe, Alan, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning/The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1958/1959)

Sutcliff, Rosemary: Warrior Scarlet (1958)

Clayton, Jack, Room at the Top (1959)

MacInnes, Colin, Absolute Beginners (1959)

Opie, Iona and Peter, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959)

Waterhouse, Kieth, Billy Liar (1959)


Group Five—Swinging and Post-Swinging

The Sixties:

Bart, Lionel, Oliver! (1960)

Bolt, Robert, A Man for All Seasons (1960)

Powell, Michael, Peeping Tom (1960)

Naughton, Bill, Alfie (1960)

Storey, David, This Sporting Life (1960)

Dearden, Basil, Victim (1961)

Prebble, John, Culloden/Glencoe (1961/1966)

Spark, Muriel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

Britten, Benjamin, War Requiem (1962)

Burgess, Anthony, A Clockwork Orange (1962)

Chilton, Charles, Oh! What a Lovely War (1963)

Le Carré, John, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)

Losey, Joseph, The Servant/The Accident (1963/1967)

Richardson, Tony, Tom Jones (1963)

Lester, Richard, A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Mortimer, Penelope, The Pumpkin Eater (1964)

Beatles, Rubber Soul/Revolver/Sgt. Pepper’s…/The White Album/Abbey Road (1965/1966/1967/1968/1969)

Orton, Joe, Loot (1965)

Watkins, Peter, The War Game (1965)

Grierson, John, Grierson on Documentary (1966)

Kinks, Face to Face/Something Else/Are the Village Green Preservation Society/ Arthur/Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround/Muswell Hillbillies (1966/1967/1968/1969/1970/1971)

Loach, Ken, Cathy Come Home/Kes (1966/1969)

Rhys, Jean, The Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Rolling Stones, Aftermath/Beggars’ Banquet/Let it Bleed/Sticky Fingers/Exile on Main Street (1966/1968/1969/1971/1972)

Thompsen, E.P., The Making of the English Working Class (1966)

England wins World Cup

Brown, George Mackay, Calendar of Love/Magnus (1967/1972)

Garner, Alan, The Owl Service (1967)

Nichols, Peter, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967)

Stoppard, Tom, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead/Travesties (1967/1974)

Who, the, The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Live at Leeds, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia (1967/1969/1970?1971/ 1973)

Anderson, Lindsay, If… (1968)

Hamilton, Richard, Swinging London (1968)

Hines, Barry, A Kestrel for a Knave (1968)

Hughes, Ted, The Iron Man (1968)

End of theatre censorship in Britain

Booker Prize established

Monty Python’s Flying Circus launched (1969-1974)

Rupert Murdoch buys The Sun

The Seventies:

Hughes, Ted, Crow (1970)

Priestley, J.B., The Edwardians (1970)

Shaffer, Anthony, Sleuth (1970)

Beatles break up

Greer, Germaine, The Female Eunuch (1971)

Naipaul, V.S., In a Free State (1971)

Roeg, Nicholas, Walkabout (1971)

Adams, Richard, Watership Down (1972)

Ayckbourn, Alan, Absurd Person Singular/The Norman Conquests/Absent Friends/Bedroom Farce (1972/1973/ 1974/ 1975)

Bowie, David, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars/Hunky Dory/Aladdin Sane (1972/1972/1973)

Herriot, James, All Creatures Great and Small (1972)

Direct rule in Northern Ireland

Tutankhamen exhibition at British Museum

UK joins EEC

McGrath, John, The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil (1973)

Jones, Terry, et al, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)

Berkoff, Steven, East (1975)

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer, Heat and Dust (1975)

Le Carré, John, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1975)

Sussex, Elizabeth, The Rise and Fall of the British Documentary Film Movement (1975)

First British North Sea oil

Clash, The Clash/London Calling (1977/1979)

Leigh, Mike, Abigail’s Party (1977)

McIlvanney, Wiliam, Laidlaw (1977)

Pym, Barbara, Quartet in Autumn (1977)

Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)

Hare, David, Plenty (1978)

Norris, Leslie, Sliding (1978)

Rice, Tim and Lloyd-Weber, Andrew, Evita (1978)

Pinter, Harold, Betrayal (1978)

Potter, Dennis, Pennies from Heaven (1978)

Attenborough, David, Life on Earth (1979)

Carter, Angela, The Bloody Chamber (1979)

Churchill, Caryl, Cloud 9/Top Girls (1979/1982)

Shaffer, Peter, Amadeus (1979)

Sherman, Martin, Bent (1979)

Margaret Thatcher elected


Group Six—Thatcher and Labour and everything

The Eighties:

Edgar, David, Nicholas Nickleby (1980)

Harwood, Ronald, The Dresser (1980)

Joy Division, Closer (1980)

Mackenzie, John, The Long Good Friday (1980)

Motorhead, Ace of Spades (1980)

Reid, Lynne Banks, An Indian in the Cupboard (1981)

Rushdie, Salman, Midnight’s Children (1981)

Rupert Murdoch buys the Times

Forsyth, Bill, Gregory’s Girl/Local Hero (1981/1983)

Frayn, Michael, Noises Off (1982)

Roxy Music, Avalon (1982)

Falklands War

New Order, Power, Corruption and Lies (1983)

Lean, David, A Passage to India (1984)

The Jewel in the Crown (1984)

Prince Charles criticizes Modern Architecture

Apted, Michael, 28 Up/35 Up/42 Up (1985/1992/1999)

Hampton, Christopher, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1985)

The Pogues, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (1985)

The Smiths, The Queen is Dead (1986)

The Cure, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)

McGuiness, Frank, Observe the Sons of Ulster… (1987)

Jacques, Brian, Redwall (1987)

Crichton, Charles, A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Davies, Terence, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Frears, Stephen, Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Norris, Leslie, The Girl From Cardigan (1988)

Pratchett, Terry, Wyrd Sisters (1988)

Branagh, Kenneth, Henry V (1989)

Ishiguro, Kazuo, Remains of the Day (1989)

Le Carré, John, The Russia House (1989)

Sheridan, Jim, My Left Foot (1989)

Woo, John, The Killer (1989)

The Nineties:

Byatt, A.S., Possession (1990)

Craig, David, On the Crofter’s Trail (1990)

Bennett, Alan, The Madness of King George III/Talking Heads (1991/1992)

Pratchett, Terry, Reaper Man (1991)

Rushdie, Salman: Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1991)

Hornby, Nick, Fever Pitch (1992)

Jordan, Neil, The Crying Game (1992)

Morton, Andrew, Diana: Her True Story (1992)

Ondaatje, Michael, The English Patient (1992)

Hare, David, Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges, The Absence of War (1990/1991/ 1993)

Blur, Parklife (1994)

Brown, George MacKay, Beside the Ocean of Time (1994)

Kelman, James, How Late it Was, How Late (1994)

Shields, Carol, The Stone Diaries (1994)

Doyle, Roddy, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1995)

PJ Harvey, To Bring You My Love (1995)

Kane, Sarah, Blasted (1995)

Boyle, Danny, Trainspotting (1996)

Leigh, Mike, Secrets and Lies (1996)

Pullman, Philip, Northern Lights/The Subtle Knife/The Amber Spyglass (1995/1997/2000)

Von Trier, Lars, Breaking the Waves (1996)

Roy, Arundhati, The God of Small Things (1997)

Frayn, Michael, Copenhagen (1998)

Pulp, This is Hardcore (1998)


Sites: as threatened, here are several dozens of worthwhile London places or events. Class members will be assigned to officially visit and make a report on one per week. Program members will be invited and encouraged to see as many of them as humanly possible.

Barbican Theatre

Battersea Park

Berwick St. Market

Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood

British Library

British Museum

Buckingham Palace

Camden Lock Market

Charing Cross Road

Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Old Church

Chelsea Physic Garden

Commonwealth Institute

Covent Garden Market

Cutty Sark

Design Museum

Dickens House Museum

Dr. Johnson’s House

Duke of York Theatre

FA Cup

Fenton House

Florence Nightingale Museum

Garrick Theatre

Globe Theatre

Goethe Institute

Greenwich Park


Hayward Gallery


Holland Park

Imperial War Museum

Institute Française

Kensington Gardens

Kew Gardens


London Aquarium

London Toy and Model Museum

London Transport MuseumMuseum of Garden History

Museum of London

National Film Theatre

National Gallery

National Maritime Museum

National Portrait Gallery

Natural History Museum

Palace Theatre


Pollock’s Toy Museum

Portobello Road Market

Queen’s Gallery

Regent’s Park

Royal Albert Hall

Royal National Theatre

Royal Opera House

Science Museum


Sir John Soane’s Museum

Southwark Cathedral

St. James Church

St. Martin’s in the Fields

St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s, Covent Garden

Tate Gallery

Tate Modern

Theatre Museum

Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Theatre Royal Haymarket

Tower of London

Victoria and Albert Museum

Wallace Collection


Westminster Abbey

Westminster Cathedral

William Morris Gallery




This essay, which profiles a very important man with a ton of a lot of consonants in his first name, was also published in Wintle, ed., New Makers of Modern Culture (Routledge, 2007).

Like the last long half century of his nation’s history, the cinema of Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996) has had a grey and hard aspect, as well as a subversive and insistent hopefulness. Poland’s difficulties have been reflected in his films.  At one point this was a major impediment to the wider dissemination of his work: if Kieslowski effectively described issues of national interest, then he was also dismissed for being basically a local artist.  By the end of his life, however, the intensity and vividness of this local look, together with the fortuitous success of his final films, movingly demonstrated the interdependence of small and big, and revealed how effectively and completely the part can illuminate the whole.

Kieslowski’s upbringing was attended by a sense of uncertainty and impermanence.  War privation and the constraints of Communism left their mark; he became accustomed to limitation and wary of orthodoxies, of the person or the system that claimed to know the answers.  Here was skepticism, but not the defeatism he would later be accused of.  Kieslowski saw in the lives of his compatriots a malaise that was due to more than just poverty or politics.  His work would reflect this hardship and sorrow, but also the hopeful conviction that painful experience can create compassion, that it is not only tolerable, but necessary.

Graduating from the Lodz film school, Kieslowski’s first work was primarily in the documentary film.  He used it to make a record, to fashion, often indirectly, a counter to the official view and the party line.  Kieslowski would come to know the double edge of that sword; documentaries, in Poland, could get real people in real trouble.  The dangers are dramatized in his 1979 film Camera Buff.  Like its protagonist, Kieslowski came to see that documentaries could remove people’s protective anonymity, subject them to potentially dangerous scrutiny, leaving filmmakers unwilling, or even just unable to deal with the consequences.

A prize-winner at Moscow, Camera Buff seemed to be a figurative withdrawal from documentary engagement, and was seen in some quarters as an apology for the regime.  This was in part because of the film’s complex and finally sympathetic portrayal of party officials’ motivations and administrations.  The root of this difficulty lay not in any collaborationist impulse, but rather in Kieslowski’s humanism, in the idea that everyone has his reasons, and that if no one is wholly justified, then neither are they completely blameworthy.  “All my films…are about individuals who can’t quite find their bearings, who don’t quite know how to live, who don’t really know what’s right or wrong and are desperately looking.”

These ideas were incompatible with the hard lined caricature of so much political discourse, and they put off ideologues of various stripes.  Kieslowski was briefly inactive during the first Solidarity period and its aftermath.  At that point he became skeptical, even despairing about the efficacy of politics, at least as conventionally practiced.  His return to (almost exclusively fictional) filmmaking in the early and mid-1980s was perceived by some as a turn from social commitment.  Further, a dramatic increase of formalist, metaphorical, and metaphysical elements in the films introduced what detractors would characterize as an opaqueness bordering on incomprehensibility.

Critical incomprehension, especially in the face of new and difficult work, has its roots and reasons, and should perhaps be understood and forgiven.  However hindsight and the perspective of a couple of decades makes it clear that at this point Kieslowski was issuing to his audiences both challenge and invitation, and inaugurating one of cinema’s most striking stretches of creativity, relevance and beauty.

The alleged flight from social relevance now seems a characteristic rejection of the moral polarities of melodrama and partisanship. Challenging work (as in the narratively adventurous and very Polish Blind Chance [1981] and No End [1984]) was a reminder that a national (regional, sub-cultural) voice needs to be taken on its own terms, with humility and some dedicated effort on the part of the viewer.  The elusive spirituality of a film like The Double Life of Veronique (1991) exemplifies what had basically become a phenomenological cinema, in which audiences were invited to probe what lay within them, to actually collaborate in the making of meaning and the application of principle.

Kieslowski’s crowning achievements combine all these things, and more.  The Decalogue (broadcast on Polish television in 1988) consists of ten one hour films about each of the Ten Commandments.  Written in collaboration with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, this monumental series couches Kieslowski’s longstanding ethical concerns in the terms of parable, but a parable rendered with a detail and authenticity of documentary proportions.  Decalogue is an inquiry into the nature of goodness and decency, and into the impediments thereto.  Here Kieslowski demonstrates how film can help us to articulate, establish and responsibly inhabit our moral positions.  In this he does not prescribe, but rather catalyzes, again leaving the viewer the freedom and the duty to absorb and translate according to need and circumstance.

Three Colours (White, Blue and Red, 1993-4) continued to explore this rich vein.  In contemplating with these fictions the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, Kieslowski accomplished the very difficult trick of being a moralist and an ironist simultaneously.  With his feeling for paradox, his combination of caution and charity, he managed to avoid both the heavy didacticism of the Sunday School teacher and the cheap sarcasm of the mere skeptic.  The films avoid the sectarian and meld precept with searing relevance; with these international co-productions Kieslowski, after his definitive immersion in and exploration of a multi-faceted Polish reality, speaks just as authoritatively for his continent.  There are few films that can say as much about the European Union at its dawn, and about human possibility beyond borders.

The Three Colours trilogy was a tremendous international success. After its release Kieslowski unexpectedly announced his retirement from film direction.  He declared himself weary of the whims of fortune, the shallowness of success, its relative insignificance, the often baselessness of both indifference and praise. Mere months later he died on the operating table while undergoing open heart surgery.


Kickasola, Joseph G., The films of Krzysztof Kieslowski : the liminal image /New York : Continuum, 2004.

Zizek, Slavoj. The fright of real tears : Krzysztof Kieslowski between theory and post-theory /London : BFI Pub., 2001

Insdorf, Annette, Double lives, second chances : the cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski / New York : Miramax Books, c1999

Kieslowski, Krzysztof, and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Three colours trilogy: blue, white, red /

translated by Danusia Stok/London : Faber and Faber, 1998.

Kieslowski, Krzysztof, Kieslowski on Kieslowski / edited by Danusia Stok.

London ; Boston : Faber and Faber, c1993

Kieslowski, Krzysztof, and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Decalogue : the Ten Commandments / translated by Phil Cavendish and Suzannah Bluh/London ; Boston : Faber and Faber, 1991.


From the City of Lodz (1969)

Workers ’71: nothing about us without us (1972)

First Love (1974)

Hospital (1976)

The Scar (1976)

From a Night Porter’s Point of View (1977)

Camera Buff (1979)

Talking Heads (1980)

Railway Station (1980)

Blind Chance (1981)

No End (1984)

The Decalogue, in 10 parts (1988)

Including A Short Film About Killing, A Short Film About Love (extended versions of two of the films, released theatrically)

The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

Blue (1993)

White (1994)

Red (1994)

The following essay appeared in New Makers of Modern Culture, ed. Justin Wintle, Routledge, 2007.

The Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) is one of the cinema’s great figures, a man set apart by his single-minded devotion to artistry and to humanity.  The magnitude of Dreyer’s accomplishments and of his reputation—at his death director Jean Renoir characterized him as an artist-saint—has at times made it difficult to clearly consider the actual man and his actual work.

There are intractabilities enough in both.  From the beginning of his extraordinarily long career, Dreyer demonstrated a single-minded, even intransigent devotion to his medium, to his craft, and to the promptings of artistic conscience.  He abominated the compromises filmmakers made for the sake of security, a demanding producer, or a passive audience.

“All art is a single person’s work.  But a film is created by a collectivity and a collectivity cannot create art unless an artistic personality stands behind it and acts as its driving force.”  “No considerations other than the purely artistic and aesthetic ones should come into play.”  “I only think of working my way to a solution that satisfies my own artistic conscience.” (Skoller, 1973, 128, 181, 146)  Here is the contradiction, almost the impossibility of Dreyer’s career, which was full of travail, and of long periods in the figurative wilderness.  His was a personal vision, an artisanal, hand-made methodology and an artist’s sensibility, all in a thoroughly and incontrovertibly industrial/commercial setting.

Dreyer was single-minded in his devotion to these ideas, and his devotion took him into increasingly rarefied places.  From his most celebrated film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), his work would mark an increasingly rigourous and solitary path.  The severity that for many characterizes Dreyer’s cinema is found precisely in this rigour and solitude.  Paradoxically, here also is the root of the other most celebrated quality in the films, which is a great loving regard for characters and, complicatedly, for audiences as well.  That which envelops these seemingly contradictory terms is also what many have found at the very root of this oeuvre, which is holiness.

Dreyer called the technique that most strikingly reconciles these apparent poles “realized mysticism.”  The idea, which evolved and increased from its first articulation in 1929, was that things spiritual were actually made up of things factual, and physical. Most obviously, but not exclusively in his patently religious subjects (cf.“Passion” and Ordet [1955])—Dreyer treated the miraculous matter-of-factly, and he rendered the everyday with reverence.  All this is evident in the famous resurrection, or really in the remarkable series of linked miracles that concludes Ordet, in the documentation of the emblems and stages of Joan’s martyrdom, and elsewhere besides (as in a mother’s response to a baby’s rising in Master of the House [1925], a superb Passover sequence in an unproduced screenplay about Jesus Christ).

Here was a deeply materialistic, almost clinical treatment of the ineffable, what David Bordwell refers to as the “foregrounding of the minute.” (1981, 165)  The most striking and controversial manifestation of Dreyer’s aims is contained in the increasingly slow pace of his later films.  In contrast to the rush of conventional protagonists in conventional narratives, Dreyer wished to use time in a way that would makes the viewer feel the weight of its portentous passing, to go beyond the frivolous objectives of films, film characters, film industries.  Here is the root of Dreyer’s daring, and of his profundity.  His detail, his “wide, quiet rhythm” (Skolker, 134), appropriate to the monumentality of the subject, increases in the audience what Bordwell referred to as “the threshold of significance.” (Bordwell, Ibid.)  Dreyer’s rigour has a refining effect; our eyes see, and our ears hear.

Not all of Dreyer’s cinema is religious; The Parson’s Widow (1920) contains much sharp if affectionate satire of pastoral types, and in Day of Wrath (1943) he powerfully uses religion as a symbol of totalitarian rule.  Current biographical evidence actually suggests that Dreyer had not in his own life any especially powerful conviction or sense of calling.  (Drouzy, 1982)  Far from diminishing the possibility or the accessibility of holiness, these facts may make it all more immanent.

In his adaptation of Kaj Munk’s play Ordet, Dreyer makes a brief and seemingly facetious reference to what might actually be a key source, a key clue to his methodology and his mindset. A passing joke in the film suggests that the key character of Johannes went mad from studying too much Soren Kierkegaard in divinity school.  Of all the things that this might mean, it is particularly telling to note that existentialism, in the Christian or Kierkegaardian sense, is not at all to reject the notion of immanence or the transcendent.  Rather, it is to require that transcendental possibility be considered in light of the here and the now, of the ethical requirements of personal and community relations.  (With regard to Dreyer’s aesthetic, note Kierkegaard’s references to magnitude and duration in Fear and Trembling [trans. Alistair Hannay, Penguin, 1985, pp. 64 and 80].)

There is an opaqueness in Dreyer’s cinema, but it is not at all vague, or ill-defined.  In this there is a suggestion of the rigours and satisfactions a great and difficult man’s great and difficult art, not to mention of religion itself.  Taken together (and including the largely unavailable, unjustly underseen and surprisingly diverse silent films), Dreyer’s output contains and suggests multitudes: there is directness, intensity, eccentricity, difficulty, multiplicity.  All of these things—combined, contemplated, integrated—suggest a rare and surprising thing.  Carl Theodor Dreyer becomes, cinematically and culturally speaking, most all things: an index of and model for cinematic possibility, perceptual opportunity, and even ethical and moral application.