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  and No End ) 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)
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)