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The Essentials: Krzysztof Kieslowski

The Essentials: Krzysztof Kieslowski

“Maybe it is worth investigating the unknown, if only because the very feeling of not knowing is a painful one.”

It’s perhaps comical to describe a filmmaker revered in some circles as underrated when they’ve been nominated for some of the biggest prizes in cinema — the Palme d’Or, Venice’s Golden Lion, the Academy Awards, Berlin’s Golden Bear. But perhaps because Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski never really took many of these major prizes home, and never gained global status until later in his career, we find that the filmmaker is not as revered as we’d like (though he tied for a Golden Lion in 1993). Perhaps this observation is very relative. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t enter the Criterion canon until 2006, perhaps because his career ended too abruptly just as it was truly ascending, or perhaps simply because he’s one of our most adored filmmakers: we routinely never give up an opportunity to celebrate Kieslowski’s work when we can.

A Polish director who spent much of his life behind the country’s postwar communist regime (and felt the pains of its control and censorship), Kieslowski started out as a documentarian and then made his first feature-length drama in 1975. While the early narrative films contained many elements of social realism and political dimension within the intangible and mystical conceits Kieslowski is known for, the filmmaker’s work soon discarded many of his overly political ideas and shifted into his unwavering purpose: exploring the metaphysical, random mysteries and paradoxes of the universe via themes of chance, interconnectivity, identity, destiny and more. The films had some high-concepts on paper — movies about doppelgangers, rewriting one’s time and history, second chances, reaching beyond parallel alternative universes and even death — but each one had a spiritual resonance, an emotional weight, a soulful humanism, and a dramatic texture that made them beautifully profound and enigmatically enrapturing.

Stanley Kubrick himself once said of Kieslowski and his constant screenwriting companion Krzysztof Piesiewicz — a lawyer and now a prominent politician — “I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work… They [dramatize life] with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.”

There’s arguably a before and after period in Kieslowski’s work that is divided by 1985’s “No End.” That film marked the first collaboration with screenwriter Piesiewicz and composer Zbigniew Preisner and both men would work on every subsequent Kieslowski picture. Arguably, Kieslowski’s metaphysical sonnets of intuitive nature from that period forward became masterful symphonies of sound, color, and rich emotional transcendence. Interestingly enough, this new period would center almost exclusively on ravishing female protagonists (though “The Dekalog” was mixed).

Frustrated by the medium of cinema and/or his own limitations — a terminally cynical Kieslowski didn’t believe the interior mysteriousness of the human condition could be aptly captured on film, though that hardly ever stopped him — and exhausted by the speed in which he made his final masterwork and triptych Three Colors trilogy (he directed all three in under ten months and at one point he was editing, shooting and writing all three films simultaneously), Kieslowski announced his retirement at the age of 52 during the premiere of “Red” at the Cannes Film Festival. Just under two years later, as word came out that he was considering leaving retirement to form a new trilogy loosely based on the concepts of heaven, hell and purgatory (one of which was later directed by Tom Tykwer), the filmmaker died during open-heart surgery at the all-too early age of 54. Krzysztof Kieslowski passed away 17 years ago today, and so simply we use this opportunity to celebrate the filmmaker who believed that strangers were perhaps not so estranged; who sometimes believed the our existence was a cruel trick with deeper meaning we couldn’t fully comprehend; who believed in contemplating the mysterious elements of the universe that unified us as people beyond nationalities, race religions, political and personal philosophies.

“The Dekalog” (1988)
While “The Double Life Of Veronique” was his first international breakthrough and the Three Colors trilogy brought him much more acclaim, Kieslowski’s first masterpiece was “The Dekalog,” a ten part cycle of short films shot for Polish television. Co-written with Piesiewicz, the two men conceived of ten vignettes that would be loosely based on the Ten Commandments and one hour long each. Set in a bleak and drab housing project in Warsaw, “The Dekalog” illustrated ten stories of moral and ethical dilemmas that various loosely intertwined characters faced. Moody and melancholic throughout, perhaps one of the most powerful, resonating and moving shorts is episode I, based on “Thou shalt have no other gods.” It centers on a university professor who teaches his son the virtues of the scientific methodology and philosophy above all others, but fate intervenes tragically. The only recurring character throughout the series is a silent, nameless figure, a perhaps celestial and Christ-like figure who is shown observing the character in each moral tale. “The Dekalog” made huge fans of Stanley Kubrick and Roger Ebert (who I still have to thank for bringing these films to my attention on TV in the late ‘80s) and the international film community (while he had been in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes previously; one of the extended shorts would be the first time he was invited into main competition). Due to contractual obligations, Kieslowski expanded parts V and VII into longer feature-length films, “A Short Film About Killing” and “A Short Film About Love,” the former taking the Jury and FIPRESCI prizes at Cannes that year. While the religious and metaphysical connotations are obviously present, “The Dekalog” is also an examination (and sometimes censure) on the mental condition of Polish society during the communist regime hence harsh gray conditions and the unbearable opaqueness of being that floats over the films like a somber cloud. If there is one major crime of home video it is that “The Dekalog” is still collecting dust on shelves in an outdated, bare-bones version that hopefully will be rectified by someone like the Criterion Collection soon.

“The Double Life Of Veronique” (1991)
“The realms of superstition, fortune-telling, presentiments, intuition, dreams, and the inner life of a human being…all this is the hardest thing to film,” Kieslowski once said. “Because [these themes] deal with things you cannot name. If you do they seem trivial and stupid.” Featuring a bifurcated narrative, ‘Veronique’ centers on two separate women — each played by Irene Jacob (who would win the Best Actress prize at Cannes) — raised in different countries with a mysterious bond connecting them. Identical doppelgangers or the same person? Weronika is a singer in Poland with a weak heart and Veronique is a Polish music teacher. Ostensibly the same person (or maybe not), Weronika dies of a heart attack mid-recital after seeing her identical other half briefly in a Krakow square (ironically at a demonstration about solidarity). Unaware of Weronika’s existence, Veronique nonetheless is struck with a deep sense of loss, isolation and grief after her other half passes on. This death reverberates like an echo throughout her, leading to quit her job and transform her life (themes of manipulation, inverted worlds and freedom are all felt). Expressively shot in intimate, melancholic close up of its protagonists — with radiant amber hues imbuing each frame — “The Double Life Of Veronique” is a sensual, enchanting and profoundly absorbing contemplation of Kieslowski’s singular preoccupation with the unfathomable and enigmatic interconnectedness of human existence. The distinct musical presence of Zbignew Preisner and the memorable gold color palette by cinematographer Slawomir Idziak all forecast hints of what was to come in Three Colors. Extra credit: fate and chance intervened on Kieslowski himself as such forces helped to narrowly avoid the original casting choice of Andie Macdowell in the role of Veronique/Weronika.

“Three Colors: Blue” (1993)
Kieslowski’s final troika, the Three Colors trilogy explored the themes of the three colors represented in the French Flag, liberty, equality, and fraternity through three, seemingly unrelated and unconnected individuals (the filmmaker acknowledged the pictures were French because of the funding, but would have been the same under any nationality). For each film, Kieslowski would use a different female protagonist and three different cinematographers to give the films a distinctive look. In his first chapter, “Blue,” arguably the most emotionally devastating of the three, Juliette Binoche stars as Julie, and the sole survivor of a car crash that has killed her daughter and husband, a famous composer. Left to pick up the pieces, Julie initially doesn’t possess the will to go on, but it’s strong enough that she can’t even go through a suicide attempt. Attempting to live a dissociative existence and sever ties to her past, Julie begins to discard the possessions of her life in order to be free and begin again save for a chandelier of blue beads owned by her daughter. Yet the past manages to be tricky to elude and a former assistant of her late husband turns up, interested in the condition of an unfinished musical composition, commissioned by the government to celebrate European unity (it’s strongly implied throughout that Julie wrote or co-wrote some of this music). Appropriately, “Blue,” is marked by its extraordinary score that often arrives in evocative snatches of orchestral grandeur and the striking sapphire color palate of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. Sensual, operatic and haunting, “Blue” is a crucial film in this final masterwork.

“Three Colors: White” (1994)
Regarded as (and often unfairly dismissed as) the least essential film in the Three Colors trilogy, due to its lighter and more comedic tone, “White” undeniably does not carry the same emotional weight and sense of mysterious import as the triptych’s bookends, but the picture is still nonetheless, an engaging and unlikely diverting treat from the director. Focusing on the theme of equality (and or the lack thereof in this case; Kieslowski’s thematic riffs were hardly linear and often sarcastic), Kieslowski’s black sheep and second film of his lauded trilogy is a sort of black comedy, centering on Karol, a Polish hairdresser (Zbigniew Zamachowski) whose wife (Julie Delpy) has left him due to his impotency. Humiliated, penniless and left abandoned in Paris without a passport, Karol has to make his way back to Poland and during his pilgrimage, he befriends another Pole, Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos) who wants to pay the hairdresser to kill someone who wants to die, but doesn’t have the courage to commit suicide. When Karol finally returns to Poland, his fortunes turn for the better and he begins amassing considerable wealth of which he then uses to hatch a misguided plot of revenge against his wife. A cynical and mordant examination of marriage, power and the inequalities of wealth, “White” may be the weakest of the trio, but Kieslowski still won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 44th Berlin International Film Festival in 1994.

“Three Colors: Red” (1994)
Described as the “fraternity of strangers,” this key line is perhaps the ultimate connecting throughline and obsession in Kieslowski’s work: how one person on the planet could be thinking the exact time as someone else in another part of the world and never know, but maybe could feel a curious sensation at the time. How deja vu or a ringing in the ears could mean something deeper. How those unknown to us are perhaps not strangers at all. A cynical person at heart, but with a deep curiosity of the human condition, some have suggested the theme of fraternity in “Red” was a self-critique of Kieslowski’s own selfishness. Whatever the case may be, the ravishing and sumptuous final conclusion of The Three Colors trilogy is haunting, poignant and unforgettable. Starring his muse Irene Jacob once more (after seeing her in ‘Veronique,’ Tarantino wanted her for Bruce Willis’ French wife in “Pulp Fiction,” but ironically, she was busy filming “Red”), the last chapter in the triumvirate centers on two polar opposite strangers who by chance — via an injured dog — become more and more connected and even bonding far beyond they would ever imagine. Part time model Valentine (Jacobs) accidentally runs over a German shepherd and then eventually tracks down the owner, a reclusive and retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) soured by old age and the fates of how his life has turned out. He’s a nasty man, who Valentine discovers is abusing his powers and secretly recording his neighbors’ phone calls for entertainment value (and to continue his former vocation in some kind of perverse manner). Though morally disgusted with him, the two find themselves inexorably drawn to one another suggesting a missed connection in some part of time they did not exist in concurrently. Typically mysterious, “Red” is even tentatively optimistic and is a striking, poetic meditation on alienation, connection, kinship and togetherness beyond our basic understanding. Quentin Tarantino himself assumed “Red” would win the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year and when “Pulp Fiction” took the prize instead, the filmmaker was met with some boos and jeers from those that expected Kieslowski’s final film to take the top prize. Still, to this day, it remains of the most controversial choices in the history of the festival. Breaking out of the foreign film category ghetto, “Red” was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director, and was the filmmaker’s final statement. He retired shortly thereafter and died less than 10 months later during open heart surgery.

Also recommended: Kino’s “The Krzysztof Kieslowski Collection” which includes the earlier films, including “The Scar” (1976), “Camera Buff” (1979, starring Jerzy Stuhr, who would reappear in several projects down the line), 1981’s “Blind Chance” (a sort of precursor to “Sliding Doors” that showed three outcomes to one man’s life based on luck and chance) and the aforementioned ‘Dekalog’ extended films, “A Short Film About Love,” and “A Short Film About Killing.” With over two dozen shorts and documentaries to his name (shot well before his feature-length dramatic career), one could argue an Eclipse set from Criterion would also be nice, but at this point, we’ll take what we can get. 

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