Krzysztof Kieslowski is regarded as one of the finest directors of the late twentieth century. However, he’s best known largely just for the films he made during the last few years of his career and life (he died in 1996, aged only 54). Starting with the ambitious Dekalog series in 1988 and the two extended episodes of this, A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing, Kieslowski became a huge name on the world cinema scene and followed this up with four more unanimously-praised films, The Double Life of Veronique, and the Three Colors trilogy.
Kieslowski had been making films for around 20 years before Dekalog though and his ‘early’ work is more than worthy of the attention of any cineast. After leaving Łódź Film School in 1968, he began as purely a documentary filmmaker, making largely shorts which were well regarded in his native Poland. By the mid-70s though, he chose to abandon documentary filmmaking, believing he could, in fact, portray life more truthfully through fiction (though he still made some documentary shorts in later years).
His first fiction feature was a TV movie, Personnel in 1975, then he soon followed this up with his debut theatrical feature, The Scar. This and the next three theatrical fiction features are being brought together in a new Blu-ray box-set by Arrow Academy. I requested a copy to review, to see if this pre-Dekalog work stood up against his much-loved later films.
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Romuald Karas
Based on a Novel by: Romuald Karas
Starring: Franciszek Pieczka, Mariusz Dmochowski, Jerzy Stuhr, Stanislaw Igar
Running Time: 106 min
The Scar is set in a rural area of Poland where plans are being made to build a large chemical factory, despite some concerns and dodgy negotiations. Put in charge of the construction is Stefan Bednarz (Franciszek Pieczka), a former resident of the town who left with his wife (Halina Winiarska) several years ago on poor terms. He’s determined to do a good job and make the town a better place to live, but conflicts with the locals and issues with the original plans constantly get in the way.
Kieslowski is fairly unique among notable Polish filmmakers in that he rarely took a clear political or moral stance in his work. He preferred to stay neutral, examining various angles of a situation. This meant his work was often criticised for being too ‘soft’ on the authorities during a time when the communist regime was being questioned by many of his peers. Bednarz seems to share Kieslowski’s approach, attempting to stay neutral in the conflicts between the townsfolk and the officials behind the factory build. The film explores the cost of this approach.
Providing a less intimate look at its characters than in some of Kieslowski’s later work, The Scar isn’t very emotionally engaging, so can seem quite distancing. However, I still found myself drawn to the situation and story. Like with all of Kieslowski’s work, it’s an intelligent and thought-provoking film that doesn’t offer easy answers, instead adding fuel for debate after watching.
In terms of style, it seems a little unsure of itself, balancing somewhere between the ‘vérité’ look of Kieslowski’s documentary work and the more formally constructed style that would develop further into his career. For instance, the open debate sequences when the locals air their grievances are shot with roving cameras in a very naturalistic style, but other scenes are more static and artfully composed, such as an odd moment where Bednarz flicks his apartment lights on and off one evening.
It’s not one of Kieslowski’s best-loved films and the director himself didn’t want it shown after he found international acclaim in the late-80s and 90s. However, I believe it deserves more love. It’s cold and sparse, so not easy to warm to, but Kieslowski’s cinematic mastery is evident and strong performances, along with a compellingly naturalistic approach, make it quietly captivating.
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Starring: Jerzy Stuhr, Malgorzata Zabkowska, Ewa Pokas, Stefan Czyzewski, Jerzy Nowak, Tadeusz Bradecki
Running Time: 113 min
Camera Buff centres around Filip Mosz (Kieslowski regular Jerzy Stuhr), a man initially living a happy and simple life with a loving wife (Malgorzata Zabkowska), stable job and baby on the way. To document the development of his new daughter, Filip buys an 8mm camera. When the boss of the plant in which he works (Stefan Czyzewski) discovers this, he’s asked to film a forthcoming event. When this is well-received, Filip gets ever more excited and obsessed by filmmaking, developing the skill further than a mere hobby. Problems arise, however, when Filip’s new interest starts to fracture his peaceful family life and when his boss attempts to control the films he makes.
This is the first fiction feature that saw Kieslowski find international success, winning awards in Berlin, Chicago and Moscow as well as in Poland. It maybe didn’t make the same waves he’d make later, but it was a good start. It’s not difficult to see why it went down more easily than The Scar and the other titles in this set either. It’s often quite funny, with the naive and child-like Filip providing plenty of unforced humour. It feels much more personal too, treading ground obviously close to Kieslowski’s heart. Films about filmmaking are also popular among critics and fellow filmmakers and this, in my opinion, is one of the best.
What makes Camera Buff stand out is that it’s not about professional filmmaking. Filip finds some success with his work and is approached by a TV studio towards the end of the film, but for the most part we’re following the formative period of a burgeoning amateur director. Kieslowski’s film perfectly captures the lure of the camera and examines its various qualities and drawbacks. For instance, a grieving friend finds solace in the footage Filip captured of his recently deceased mother, whilst his more politically-charged films land him and his comrades in trouble.
This latter aspect allows Kieslowski to once again show his even-handed tendencies mentioned in my review of The Scar. As the film goes on, the initially unassuming Filip becomes bolder, attempting to make political statements in his work and standing firm against his meddling boss’ ‘suggestions’. However, there’s a fascinating scene where Filip’s boss takes him aside and explains how the town’s imperfect system works and suggests the personal damage that could be made from the incendiary films making their way to TV. It’s a scene that was criticised in Poland for toeing the Party line, but, in my opinion, it makes for a thoughtful alternative view of a complex situation. It also offers further examination of one of the film’s main themes, that of responsibility.
So, richly textured, intelligent, witty and occasionally quite moving, it’s a fine film. I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the most unique and interesting films ever to be made about filmmaking.
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Starring: Boguslaw Linda, Tadeusz Lomnicki, Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Boguslawa Pawelec, Marzena Trybala, Jacek Borkowski, Irena Byrska, Monika Gozdzik, Zygmunt Hübner
Running Time: 122 min
Year: 1981 (completed) 1987 (released)
Blind Chance follows Witek Dlugosz (Boguslaw Linda), a medical student who receives news that his father has died. Some advice he remembers his father gave him leads Witek to question his vocation, so he asks the dean of the University (Zygmunt Hübner) for a one-year leave from his studies to decide what to do with his future. He gets a train ticket to Warsaw to begin his soul-searching. The film then shows three alternative outcomes, each sparked by whether or not he catches his train and what happens next. Though each strand is wildly different, they each end at the airport with Witek due to board a plane to Paris.
The three alternate realities each guide Witek in a boldly different political direction. The first sees him joining the Communist Party, in the second he joins the resistance and in the third he stays neutral and goes back to his career as a doctor. Once again, Kieslowski tries to stay fair to each stance, showing both positive and negative aspects faced by Witek. The Party doesn’t usually come out very well, but, at the same time, Witek isn’t shown to be morally wrong in his decision to join it in part one. The final story, which takes the middle ground, seems to be the safest, most sensible route, but the film’s punchline suggests it’s no better in the grand scheme of things.
This even-handedness once again caused controversy in Poland and some had a particular issue with the fact that this one same character could be swayed into such diverse political camps just due to chance meetings or differing circumstances. Personally, I feel this is a justified suggestion though that’s important to bear in mind in a world that is becoming increasingly ‘us’ vs ‘them’.
The film came into more concrete trouble with the authorities in Poland though when it was due to be released. Blind Chance was completed in 1981 but was suppressed by the government, as were several other films by significant Polish filmmakers involved in the unofficial ‘cinema of moral anxiety’ movement (of which Kieslowski was considered a part), due to the rise of the Solidarity Movement and martial law being imposed at the end of 1981. Blind Chance was eventually released in 1987, to much acclaim, though it would likely have made a bigger impact had it been released during martial law.
Although I found the film rich with substance, I must admit I found it hard to get a handle on during the first half-hour or so. It opens in a fractured fashion, with a puzzling initial shot then jumping between flashbacks and the present without warning. These early images are all explained as the film goes on though and once the core plot kicks in, the film is clear enough to follow. It helps if you’re aware of the central concept of presenting alternate realities though.
As usual, the film is led by fantastic performances and is expertly directed with a strong sense of authenticity. It may have been hard to get into at first, but everything in the film has a purpose by the end and it rewards repeated viewings (I used listening to the commentary as another run-through, which aided my appreciation greatly). Kieslowski’s films are rarely ‘easy’ to digest, but they’re so finely constructed they’re always compelling. The concept, which would later be explored in thrilling fashion in Run Lola Run and more saccharine fashion in Sliding Doors, was unique on its release and makes for a fascinating examination of beliefs and dismissal of fate.
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Starring: Grazyna Szapolowska, Maria Pakulnis, Aleksander Bardini, Jerzy Radziwilowicz
Running Time: 108 min
No End opens with a lawyer, Antek (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), explaining how he recently died. His ghost lingers throughout the film (silently after this introduction), whilst we follow his wife Urszula (Grazyna Szapolowska) as she struggles to come to terms with her loss and still care for their son Jacek (Krzysztof Krzeminski). When Antek was alive the pair thought their relationship was on shaky grounds, but, after his death, Urszula realised just how much she loved him.
Whilst Urszula grieves, she’s approached by Joanna (Maria Pakulnis), whose husband Darek (Artur Barcis) is in prison for helping organise a strike (likely for the Solidarity Movement, though it isn’t named). Antek was his attorney and Joanna is desperate to find someone else to take on the case. Urszula recommends Antek’s mentor, the ageing Labrador (Aleksander Bardini). He’s initially reluctant to accept as he doesn’t like to handle political cases in the current climate (presumably during martial law, though again nothing is spelt out), but when he finds out he’s soon to be forced into retirement, he figures he’ll take this last job. Darek, however, isn’t keen on Labrador’s tactics, which are markedly different from Antek’s bolder, more honourable plans. As Urszula floats around in a haze of grief, she supports Joanna during this stressful time and gets involved with her Solidarity Movement friends.
No End was very poorly received by critics and audiences in Poland when released. It has been better appreciated over time, but it proved too much of a bold departure from his usual work back then, with its supernatural elements and relentlessly bleak tone. Also, the largely Catholic public had issues with its depiction of the afterlife.
It’s probably the most difficult film to watch from the set, so I can see why it didn’t go down well, but I still thought it was an excellent piece of work. It’s a unique spin on the ‘ghost story’ with some supernatural suggestions I didn’t expect from a Kieslowski film. I imagine David Lowery took inspiration from it for his A Ghost Story.
It’s a punishingly bleak film that maintains an ominous tone throughout. The sombre music and quiet, slow pacing help develop this atmosphere, as does the beautiful yet naturalistic cinematography. There’s an intriguing sense of mystery in the first half too, as information about Antek, his relationship with his wife and the central case is slowly leaked out to the audience.
Grazyna Szapolowska is superb in the lead role. Her character has been left quite hollow after her husband’s death, but the audience aches with her rather than being kept at a distance. Her scenes with her son are particularly devastating, as she loves him but finds his love alone can’t fill the void.
It’s not a warm, clear or easy to process film but a rich, bleak meditation on grief and dignity. It’s not as easy to recommend as something like Camera Buff but is equally as carefully and beautifully crafted.
Cinema of Conflict: Four Films by Krzystof Kieslowski is out on 20th April in a Limited Edition 4-disc Blu-ray set, released by Arrow Academy. The picture and sound quality on all four films is immaculate and seems true to the original look.
There are plenty of special features included in the set too. Here’s the list:
– Limited Edition collection (2000 copies)
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of all four films
– Original lossless mono audio for all films
– Optional English subtitles for all films
– Brand new audio commentary on Camera Buff by critic Annette Insdorf
– Brand new audio commentary on Blind Chance by film historian Michael Brooke
– Ghost of a Chance, a brand new visual essay on No End by Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez
– Moral and Martial Anxieties, a brand new discussion with Michael Brooke, exploring the brief and remarkable Polish film renaissance of the turn of the 1980s
– Brand new introductions by scholar and critic Micha Oleszczyk to all films
– Micha Oleszczyk looks through archive materials for each film
– Archival interviews with filmmakers Agnieska Holland and Krzysztof Zanussi, cinematographers Slawomir Idziak and Jacek Petrycki, actress Grazyna Szapoloska, sound designer Michal Zarnecki, critic Annette Insdorf and Kieslowski collaborator Irena Strazakowska
– Three short films by Kieslowski: Talking Heads (1980), Concert of Requests (1995) and The Office (1995)
– Workshop Exercises, a 1987 short film by Marcel Lonzinski
– Reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley
– Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by scholars and authors Ewa Mazierska, Marek Hatlof, Dina Iordanova and Joseph G. Kickasola, and original writing by Kieslowski
It’s a stunning package, crammed to the gills with supplementary material. My favourite pieces are the Micha Oleszczyk introductions that accompany each film. These are all around 20-30 minutes long and rich with background detail and analysis. He speaks with intelligence but remains clear and unpretentious. I couldn’t write this review without watching his pieces.
Michael Brooke’s commentary on Blind Chance is excellent too and his 45-minute discussion of the ‘cinema of moral anxieties’ is equally as fascinating. I didn’t warm quite as much to Annette Insdorf’s commentary on Camera Buff as I felt she spent too much time explaining what was happening on screen, which was often quite clear. The track is still strong though and delves into some interesting territories.
The archival interviews are substantial and interesting, though they’re not quite as essential as the pieces mentioned above. Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez’ piece is intriguing but disappointingly short. Finally, Kieslowski and Lonzinski’s short films are more than welcome and enjoyably varied in style.
I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately, but there’s enough here and the standard of the films is so high that I predict it’s going to be near the top of my list of releases of the year.