Special K: Europe’s auteur from the age of arthouse
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For a time, Krzysztof Kie?lowski was perhaps Europe's most fashionable director. A timely retrospective reminds us why, as JAMES OLIVER reports.
Over the years, there's been many an upset when the Cannes film festival hands out its prizes. But what happened in 1994 was a doozy. That year, by common consensus, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski had the Palme d'Or in the bag. He'd premiered Red, the third part of his Three Colours trilogy and, like the earlier shades (Blue, White), the critics had swooned. Victory was a mere formality.
But that year's jury disagreed. They awarded the top prize to Pulp Fiction (you know that one, right?) and gave not a sausage to Kieslowski or his film. Sure things aren't always what they might seem at Cannes.
It's a tiny moment in the grand scheme of things and might seem especially insignificant now, amid all the troubles of our own era. But look a little closer: the upset of 1994 represented something more than just personal taste, something worth thinking about as we contemplate how our world will change.
Kieslowski's reputation has diminished since 1994 but the current lockdown offers an excellent opportunity to (re)discover him, especially since his first four films are newly available in an essential boxset. Unlike the older generation of Polish directors (Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski), Kieslowski was too young to remember when his homeland was free – born in 1941, he barely remembered the war.
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Not for him stories of confrontation and grand national anguish: his films played out on altogether more intimate terrain.
The films in this boxset reveals a young director defining himself. The Scar (1976) is about that oh-so communist subject, construction (in this case, of a chemical factory), although things go less smoothly here than in most communist construction movies: not because Kieslowski wanted to make a political statement but because he'd begun as a documentarian and still held a commitment to showing things as they were, warts and all.
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Camera Buff (1979) was more pointed; it concerns an amateur filmmaker, whose hobby overwhelms his life. But it also touches on issues all Polish filmmakers then faced, very much including Kieslowski, like state interference and even censorship
Kieslowski always anchored his stories in recognisably realistic environments but beginning with Blind Chance (1981), he became more interested in metaphysics.
It's a film about fate and destiny, and how easily they can be derailed: in three separate stories we see what happens to the same young would-be commuter depending on whether he makes his train or not.
In one, he becomes a communist apparatchik, in another, a dissident. In the third he remains apolitical. (Sliding Doors later recycled the same premise for a rom-com: how appropriate that a film about alternatives should have an alternative all of its own.)
In spite of its director's protestations, this was taken as a political film and kept it under lock and key for six years (communism, after all, was supposed to be inevitable, not a quirk of fate).
Curiously, the more directly political No End (1985) got a (slightly) easier ride; it is a film about grief, following a recently widowed young woman whose mourning is observed by the ghost of her husband.
But it is set during the martial law period of the early 1980s, the external turbulence in the country mirroring the emotional disruption of the main character, her sadness a microcosm of the country's own.
Unlike Blind Chance, No End at least got a release, although it was to overwhelming hostility reaction – it took something rare indeed to unite the Catholic church and the communists but No End managed to annoy them both (the church disliked its theology, the communists its politics). The experience bruised Kieslowski, who vowed his next project would avoid controversy.
This project would be made for television, and it deserves to be ranked amongst the greatest achievements in that medium, something that knocks most products even of our supposed 'golden age' of TV into a cocked hat.
The original title was Dekalog. When it was shown on BBC2, it was re-titled The Ten Commandments, which goes some way to explain what it's about.
Set in an apartment block in modern Poland, each episode was a self-contained film freely inspired by one of the Old Testament injunctions. Not that any Biblical aspect is stressed: although co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz was a Catholic, Kieslowski was not a religious man and certainly had no interest in producing tracts or trite morality plays. Rather, he uses them as a way of exploring moral dilemmas, missteps and mistakes.
As with the originals, some of Kieslowski's commandments are better known than others. Aware that there might be limited opportunities to sell a Polish TV series overseas Kieslowski persuaded his producers to let him expand a couple of the commandments to feature length, and naturally, he picked the juiciest. 'Thou shalt not kill' became the anti-death penalty A Short Film About Killing while A Short Film About Love was a twisted take on 'thou shalt not commit adultery'.
These are (relatively) straightforward treatments of their subjects, and the most obviously moralistic of the series. Elsewhere, however, things are more tangled and oblique. #2 ('thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain') is about medical ethics and marital fidelity while #8 ('thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour') muddies the waters with guilt and the Holocaust. #7 is 'thou shalt not steal' but Kieslowski and Piesiewicz resist the obvious: the story might just as easily be used for 'honour thy father and thy mother' or 'thou shalt not covet'.
In many ways, the whole 'ten commandments' schtick is actually a bit of a red herring; the point of the Bible's commandments was clarity and simplicity: a framework for an easy life.
But life isn't easy and mistakes get made, and that's what Kieslowski shows, messiness and human fallibility; the films are knotty and morally complex – 'adult' in the best sense of the word.
As Kieslowski had hoped, his Short Films About Killing and Love made an impact on the international film circuit. More surprisingly, there was a clamour to see the entire sequence from which they were drawn, and near-universal acclaim from the critics when they became more widely available.
It helped that the series arrived in the west as communism withered away, the Cold War ended and feelings of international solidarity were running high.
Kieslowski seemed like the artist for the times: where Hollywood was shallow and materialistic, here was a filmmaker of gravity and seriousness who gave audiences what they needed, not necessarily what they wanted.
His next film confirmed this. Straddling the divide between east and west, The Double Life of Veronique tells parallel stories of two identical women, both played by Irène Jacob. One is French (Veronique), the other Polish (Weronika); neither is ever aware of the other, although both sense they are not alone.
It's a mysterious, delicate film that declines to explain itself (but then, why should it?). Certainly, it showed Kieslowski moving effortlessly to the international stage and he would become more ambitious yet: The Three Colours trilogy, like Dekalog, was inspired by an overarching theme, in this case the revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité. (The colour scheme comes from the French Tricolour.)
Blue (1993) came first, the story of a grieving widow, unhappily 'free' of her obligations to her loved one. It won top prize at the Venice film festival that year. White (1994), about an unfortunate Polish emigre adrift in Paris, was garlanded at the Berlin film festival in 1994. That's why people thought Red was a shoo-in at Cannes. Why, symmetry alone demanded it!
But this is where we came in, with Pulp Fiction upsetting the balance. Let's not be snooty: Pulp Fiction is a great film and a deserving winner. But with hindsight, we can see it was also a straw in the wind, showing how things would change in the post-Cold War world, a culture no longer much interested in high-seriousness, where the traditional European art-house film was no longer as central to the discourse as once it was.
Kieslowski himself would not see this eclipse. He died in 1996 after surgery following a heart attack. It's easy to forget just how highly he was regarded in the mid-1990s even beyond even the critical eulogies: name-dropped in The League of Gentlemen, even inspiring a punk band's name (3 Colours Red, whose song Sixty Mile Smile is, officially, a banger).
His work has been less widely discussed since then, his influence muted. But so what? Even if Kieslowski is not as fashionable as he was, those who watch the films will see why they were held in such regard. They have lost neither their power or their humanity.
And who knows, such things might find themselves in vogue once more.
The age of irony that began when the Berlin Wall fell has survived 9/11, the War against Terror, the great crash and all that followed. But Covid-19 looks set to shake things more fundamentally. We'll find out what that means soon enough.
• Cinema of Conflict: Four Films by Krzystof Kieslowski is available from Arrow Academy
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