Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996) is considered one of his country's most important filmmakers. He began his career in the 1960s making politically subversive documentaries under Poland's Communist regime. He began directing feature films in the 1970s and first gained international recognition with his 1979 film Camera Buff.
Kieslowski earned even greater renown in the 1980s for A Short Film about Love and A Short Film about Killing, both adapted from his ten-hour Polish television series The Decalogue. His subsequent releases, Blue, White, and Red, comprising the early-1990s "Three Colors" trilogy, stand as his most highly acclaimed works. Kieslowski shocked the film world when he announced his retirement following the release of Red. He had little time to enjoy his newfound leisure, however; he died following heart bypass surgery, on March 13, 1996.
Kieslowski was born on June 27, 1941, in Warsaw, Poland. His father was a civil engineer and his mother was an office clerk. Kieslowski's father suffered from tuberculosis, requiring him to stay in various sanatoria and the family moved frequently to be near him. "I went to so many schools that I often get them mixed up, and don't remember even where I went," Kieslowski recalled in Kieslowski on Kieslowski. "I would change schools twice or even three times a year." At risk of contracting tuberculosis himself, Kieslowski also spent time in various sanatoria and, while home and resting, read a great deal, from classic works by Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoevsky to Tom Sawyer and cowboy tales. "Those books formed us—at least, they did me," he stated in Kieslowski on Kieslowski. "They taught me something, made me sensitive to something. The books I read, particularly as a child or a boy, made me what I am."
Entered Film School
As a teenager, Kieslowski's parents could not afford to send him to boarding school and he expressed little interest in furthering his education, so his father sent him to fire-fighter's training college. As his father suspected, Kieslowski quickly grew to dislike the regimented environment. "They didn't beat me at firemen's training college; I just realized that I can't do things which are subject to rules, a trumpet, whistles a set time for breakfast and so on," he recalled in Kieslowski on Kieslowski. "I want to eat breakfast when I feel like breakfast or when I'm hungry." He arrived home ready to pursue an education, and enrolled in the College for Theater Technicians in Warsaw. There, he was introduced to various aspects of arts and culture. "They advised us to read books, go to the theater or the cinema, even though it wasn't such a fashionable thing to do then, at least not in my world, my environment," he recounted in Kieslowski on Kieslowski. "Then once I saw that such a world existed, I realized that I could live like that, too." Kieslowski's father died while his son was in school.
Kieslowski's schooling steered him toward a career as a theater director, and he decided to learn the craft of directing at the prestigious Lódz Film School in Poland. Lódz required a rigorous, two-week entrance exam, however, which Kieslowski failed twice. He worked for a time as a clerk in the Department of Culture and as a dresser at a theater. To avoid compulsory army service, he attended teacher's training college for one year, where he studied drawing, under the pretense of preparing to teach art. Later, he starved himself in order to fail the military conscription board's physical, although he ultimately avoided required military service by convincing the board that he was mentally ill.
Although his interest in the theater had begun to wane, Kieslowski attempted the Lódz entrance exam a third time in 1964 and passed. "I was happy when I got into film school," he recalled in Kieslowski on Kieslowski. "I'd simply satisfied my ambition to show them that I could get in—nothing else—although I do believe they shouldn't have accepted me. I was a complete idiot. I can't understand why they took me. Probably because I'd tried three times." While at school he grew to admire the film directors Ken Loach, Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, and some of the works of Ingmar Bergman, although he often cited authors as his greatest influences. "They always ask me, in interviews, which directors have influenced me the most. I don't know the answer to that," the director wrote in Kieslowski on Kiewslowski. "When the newspapers ask, I always say, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Kafka." While in school, Kieslowski directed The Office, a documentary satirizing bureaucracy through the workings of a state-owned insurance office. His 1967 short Concert of Requests, is a fictional tale. In 1968, he directed a 32-minute documentary for Polish television titled The Photograph.
After graduating from Lódz in 1969, Kieslowski attempted to create a studio with a group of fellow students. While this project was not realized until the 1980s, by a different group of filmmakers, Kieslowski and several colleagues, including Krzysztof Zanussi, Edek Zebrowski, Agnieszka Holland, and Andrzej Wajda, developed a collective they eventually called the Cinema of Moral Anxiety. "That name was invented by Janusz Kijowski, who was one of our colleagues," Kieslowski recalled. "I think he meant that we were anxious about the moral situation of people in Poland. It's difficult for me to say what he had in mind. I always hated the name, but it works."
Focused on Documentaries
Kieslowski focused exclusively on documentary filmmaking at the start of his career. Documentaries played an important role in Polish film at the time, as they could serve as a vehicle for subtle criticism of the country's Communist regime, which took power during World War II. Artistically crafted, the messages in such films often escaped government censors. The documentaries were often intended as lead-ins to feature films, but Polish audiences paid as much, if not more, attention to the documentaries as the top-billed dramas that followed. Kieslowski's early work in this genre includes From the City of Lódz, I Was a Soldier, Factory, Before the Rally, and Refrain. In 1972 he directed two industrial films for the Lubin Copper Mine, and he also released one of his best-known documentaries, Workers '71: Nothing about Us without Us, which focused on a 1970 labor strike that helped cause the downfall of a Communist United Workers' Party official. The documentaries Bricklayer, X-Ray, and First Love followed, along with a television drama, Pedestrian Subway, and Curriculum vitae, the last a "dramatic documentary" centering on a Communist party member's potential expulsion which some regarded as government propaganda.
Kieslowski's first feature film, Personnel, debuted on Polish television in 1975. The film tells the tale of a young costumer in a state-run theater company who must choose between his job or defending a friend who has been unfairly fired. Following the documentaries Hospital and Slate, the filmmaker made his cinematic feature debut in 1976 with The Scar, a survey of postwar Poland centering on several officials at an industrial plant. Three more documentaries—From a Night Porter's Point of View, I Don't Know, and Seven Women of Different Ages—followed over the next two years, along with the television drama The Calm.
Earned International Recognition
Kieslowski first gained the attention of the international film community in 1979 with the release of his feature drama Camera Buff. The satirical work, which earned Kieslowski the grand prize at the Moscow Film Festival, centers on a factory worker who jeopardizes his marriage and his job due to his obsession with his new eight-millimeter film camera. Kieslowski released the documentaries Station and Talking Heads in 1980. That same year the democratic free trade union movement Solidarity succeeded in winning political reforms in Poland, including greater tolerance for dissent. In this more tolerant environment, Kieslowski directed the feature films Blind Chance and Short Working Day, both of which openly criticized Poland's Communist regime. The Communists declared martial law throughout the country in 1981, however, and film stock and equipment became difficult to access. Although martial law was suspended a year later, Poland was thrown into financial crisis, and Kieslowski still could not obtain the resources he needed. Aside from his 1984 film No End, a drama chronicling the political events in Poland at the time, he produced little work in the mid-1980s.
In 1988 Kieslowski began work on his ten-part television miniseries The Decalogue. Using the vehicle of a group of tenants in a Warsaw housing project, each installment in the series illustrated one of the Ten Commandments. Kieslowski turned two episodes of the critically lauded series into the feature films A Short Film about Love and A Short Film about Killing. These releases raised Kieslowski's stature in the international film community, and he earned both a jury prize at the 1988 Cannes International Film Festival and an Academy Award for Best Foreign-language Film, both for A Short Film about Killing.
Released "Three Colors" Trilogy
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, democracy was reestablished in Poland. The country remained in financial turmoil, however, and Kieslowski relocated to France. There, he topped his earlier international success with the 1991 film The Double Life of Veronique, the story of a woman leading two different, interwoven lives. In 1993, Kieslowski released Blue, the first of the films in his "Three Colors" trilogy. The series serves as a meditation on the French motto of equality, liberty, and fraternity, and each film—Blue, White, and Red—represents a color of the French flag. Kieslowski produced the trilogy at his trademark frenetic pace, often shooting one film during the day and editing another at night. The films were widely celebrated, earning Kieslowski an Academy Award Best Director nomination for Red, as well as the Best Foreign Film title from the New York Film Critics Circle, also for Red, a Golden Lion from the Venice International Film Festival for Blue, and a Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival for White.
Kieslowski opted to slow down after he finished Red, and he announced his retirement soon after the film's release. "When you're an active filmmaker you have to have plans, you have to pretend to have plans, you look for money, you answer questions," he told the Washington Post in 1994, following the announcement. "When you're a retired director you don't have to do any of this." Kieslowsi had little time to enjoy his newly relaxed life, however. He died on March 13, 1996, in Warsaw following heart bypass surgery, and was survived by his wife, Maria, and his daughter, Marta.
Kieslowski, Krysztof, Kieslowski on Kieslowski, edited by Danusia Stok, Faber and Faber, 1993.
Newsmakers, Issue 3, Gale Group, 1996.
New York Times, November 20, 1994; March 14, 1996.
"Krzysztof Kieslowski, All Movie Guide Online,http://www.allmovie.com/ (December 15, 2005).
Nationality: Polish. Born: Warsaw, 27 June 1941. Education: School of Cinema and Theatre, Lodz, graduated 1969. Career: Worked as director of documentaries and fiction films for TV, from
1969; directed first feature for cinema, Blizna, 1976; vice president of the Union of Polish Cinematographers, 1978–81; member of faculty of Radio and Television, University of Silesia, 1979–82; made Dekalog, series of short films for Polish TV, 1988–89, then gained financing to make longer versions of two episodes for cinematic release. Awards: First Prize, Mannheim Festival, for Personel, 1975; FIPRESCI Prize, Moscow Festival, for Amator, 1979; Diploma from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1979; Special Jury Prize, Cannes Film Festival, and Academy Award for Best Foreign Feature Film, for A Short Film about Killing, 1988. Died: Of a heart attack, 13 March 1996.
Films as Director:
(Documentary shorts, unless otherwise stated)
Urzad (The Job)
Zdjecie (The Photograph) (for TV)
Z miasta Lodzi (From the City of Lodz)
Byłem żołnierzem (I Was a Soldier); Przed rajdem (Before theRally); Fabryka (Factory)
Gospordaze (Workers) (co-d); Miedzy Wrocławiem a ZielonaGóra (Between Wroclaw and Zielona Gora); PodstawyBHP w kopalni miedzi (The Degree of Hygiene and Safetyin a Copper Mine); Robotnicy 71 nic o nas bez nas (Workers 71) (co-d); Refren (Refrain)
Murarz (Bricklayer); Dziecko (Child); Pierwsza miłość (FirstLove) (for TV); Prześwietlenie (X-Ray); Przajście podziemne (Pedestrian Subway) (feature for TV)
Zyciorys (Life Story); Personel (Personnel) (feature for TV)
Klaps (Slate); Szpital (Hospital); Spokój (Stillness) (feature for TV); Blizna (The Scar) (feature)
Nie wiem (I Don't Know); Z punktu widzenia nocnego portiera (Night Porter's Point of View)
Siedem kobiet w różnym wieku (Seven Women of VariousAges)
Amator (Camera Buff) (feature)
Dworzec (The Station); Gadajace głowy (Talking Heads)
Krótki dzień pracy (A Short Working Day) (feature for TV); Przypadek (Blind Chance) (feature, released 1987)
Bez końca (No End) (feature)
Krótki film o zabi janiu (A Short Film about Killing) (feature); Krótki film o milóści (A Short Film about Love) (feature)
Dekalog (Decalogue) (10 episodes for TV)
City Life (Episode in Netherlands) (feature)
Podwójne życie Weroniky (La Double vie de Véronique; TheDouble Life of Véronique) (feature) (+ sc)
Trois couleurs Bleu (Three Colours: Blue) (feature) (+ sc); Trois couleurs Blanc (Three Colours: White) (feature) (+ sc); Trois couleurs Rouge (Three Colours: Red) (feature) (+ sc)
By KIEŚLOWSKI: book—
Decalogue, London, 1991.
By KIEŚLOWSKI: articles—
Interview, in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), December 1979.
Interview with H. Samsonowska, in Kino (Warsaw), October 1981.
Interview with S. Magela and C. Göldenboog, in Filmfaust (Frank-furt), April/May 1983.
Interview with Marszalek, in Kino (Warsaw), August 1987.
"Un cinéma au-dela du pessimisme" (interview), in Revue duCinéma, no. 443, November 1988.
Interview with A. Tixeront, in Cinéma (Paris), December 1988.
Interview, in Time Out (London), 15 November 1989.
Interview with B. Fornara, in Cinema Forum, April 1990.
Interview with P. Cargin, in Film, May/June 1990.
Interview with T. Sobolewski, in Kino, June 1990.
Interviews with M. Ciment and H. Niogret, in Positif, June 1991 and September 1993.
Interview with M.C. Loiselle and C. Racine, in Images, November/December 1991.
"Dziennik 89–90," in Kino, December 1991/February 1992.
Interview with V. Ostria, in Kino, August 1992.
Interview with Steven Gaydos, in Variety, 8 August 1994.
"Giving Up the Ghost," interview with Kieślowski, in Time Out (London), no. 1262, 26 October 1994.
On KIEŚLOWSKI: articles—
"Krzysztof Kieslowski," in International Film Guide 1981, edited by Peter Cowie, London, 1980.
Zaoral, F., "Krzysztof Kieslowski," in Film a Doba (Prague), September 1985.
Kieslowski Section of Positif (Paris), December 1989.
Revue du Cinéma/Image et Son (Paris), January 1990.
Cavendish, Phil, "Kieslowski's Decalogue," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1990.
Taubin, A., "Kieslowski Doubles Up," in Village Voice, 24 Septem-ber 1991.
Kieślowski, Krzysztof, "Les musiciens du dimanche," in Positif (Paris), no. 40, June 1994.
Ryans, T., and P. Strick, "Glowing in the Dark/Trois couleurs," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 4, no. 6, June 1994.
Hoberman, J., "Red, White, and Blue," in Premiere, October 1994.
Harvey, Miles, "Poland's Blue, White, and Red," in Progressive, April 1995.
Lucas, Tim, "'How Death Will Judge Us': A Krzysztof Kieślowski Videolog," in Video Watchdog (Cincinnati, Ohio), no. 30, 1995.
"Special Issue," Kino (Warsaw), vol. 30, no. 5, May 1996.
Macnab, Geoffrey, and Chris Darke, "Working with Kieślowski," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 6, no. 5, May 1996.
* * *
In the late 1970s, when the conflict between the State and the citizens of Poland was imminent, a new trend emerged in cinematography—the "cinema of moral unrest." All the films in this trend have one common denominator: an unusually cutting critical view of the state of the society and its morals, human relationships in the work process, public and private life. It is more than logical that Krzysztof Kieślowski would have belonged to this trend; he had long been concerned with the moral problems of the society, and paid attention to them throughout his film career with increasing urgency. The direction of his artistic course was anticipated by his graduation film From the City of Lodz, in which he sketched the problems of workers, and by his participation in the stormy protest meeting of young filmmakers in Cracow in 1971, who warned against a total devaluation of basic human values.
A broad scale of problems can be found in the documentary films Kieślowski made between shooting feature films: disintegration of the economic structure, criticism of executive work, and the relationship of institutions and individuals. These documentaries are not a mere recording of events, phenomena, or a description of people and their behaviour, but always attempt instead to look underneath the surface. The director often used non-traditional means. Sometimes the word dominates the image, or he may have borrowed the stylistics of slapstick or satire, or he interfered with the reality in front of the camera by a staged element. Kieślowski did not emphasize the aesthetic function of the image, but stressed its real and literal meaning.
His feature films have a similar orientation: he concentrated on the explication of an individual's situation in the society and politics, on the outer and inner bonds of man with the objectively existing world, and on the search for connections between the individual and the general. He often placed his heroes in situations where they have to make a vital decision (in his TV films The Staff and The Calm, and in his films for theatrical release).
The Amateur is the synthesis of his attitudes and artistic search of the 1970s, and is also one of the most significant films of the "cinema of moral unrest." In the story of a man who buys a camera to follow the growth of a newborn daughter, and who gradually, thanks to this film instrument, begins to realize his responsibility for what is happening around him, the director placed a profound importance on the role of the artist in the world, on his morality, courage, and active approach to life. Here Kieślowski surpassed, to a large extent, the formulaic restrictions of the "cinema of moral unrest" resulting from the outside-the-art essence of this trend. These restrictions are also eliminated in his following films. In The Accident (made in 1981, released in 1987) he extended his exploration of man and his actions by introducing the category of the accidental. The hero experiences the same events (Poland in 1981) three times, and therefore is given three destinies, but each time on a different side. Two destinies are more or less given by accident, the third one he chooses himself, but even this choice is affected by the accidental element. The transcendental factor appears in No End (a dead man intervenes in worldly events), but the film is not an exploration of supernatural phenomena so much as a ruthless revelation of the tragic period after the declaration of the state of emergency in December 1981, and a demonstration of the professed truth that private life cannot be lived in isolation from the public sphere.
In the 1980s Kieślowski's work culminated in a TV cycle and two films with subjects from the Ten Commandments. A Short Film about Killing is based on the fifth commandment (Thou shalt not kill), while A Short Film about Love comes from the sixth. Both films and the TV cycle are anchored in the present and express the necessity of a moral revival, both of the individual and the society, in a world which may be determined by accidentality, but which does not deliver us from the right and duty of moral choice.
After the fall of communism when, as a consequence of changes in economic conditions, the production of films experienced a sharp fall in all of Eastern Europe, some Polish directors sought a solution to the ensuing crisis in work for foreign studios and in co-productions. This was the road taken by Kieślowski, and so all his films made in the 1990s were created with the participation of French producers: The Double Life of Véronique and the trilogy Three Colours: Blue, Three Colours: White, and Three Colours: Red—loosely linked to the noble motto of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. In these films Kieślowski followed up on his films from the 1980s, in which his heroes struggle with the duality of reason and feelings, haphazardness and necessity, reality and mystery. Even in these films made abroad we can also trace certain irony and sarcasm which first appeared in his films made in the 1970s in Poland.