Krzysztof Kieslowski Essay - Critical Essays

Kieslowski, Krzysztof


Krzysztof Kieslowski 1941–1996

Polish filmmaker.

The following entry presents an overview of Kieslowski's career through 1998.

Kieslowski was a widely acclaimed and respected Polish film director known for works which dealt with labor- and industrial-related subjects. Although his films have important political implications for Poland, he did not fit in with either hard-line Communists or political dissidents. Eventually Kieslowski turned his attention to more universal social themes which garnered him international attention.

Biographical Information

Kieslowski was born in Poland in 1941. During World War II, the Kieslowski family relocated several times. After the war, his father contracted tuberculosis and spent time in a sanitarium before finally succumbing to the disease while Kieslowski was still a boy. His father's death had a profound effect on his life; the impact the dead have on the living became a prevalent theme in many of his films. Kieslowski's childhood was bleak. His mother was forced to work at a series of clerical jobs to support the family, and Kieslowski himself suffered from lung disease. Kieslowski's original interest was in stage direction, but he decided to attend film school to prepare himself for his career as a stage director. He applied to the prestigious Lodz School of Cinema and Theatre and completed his cinematic studies in 1969. Despite the political themes of his films, Kieslowski had very little involvement in politics, with the exception of a small role in a student uprising over the deportation of Jews from Poland in 1968. After graduation from Lodz, he began making documentaries about life behind state propaganda. Television feature films depicting bleak lives in oppressive states such as Podziammne przajscie (Pedestrian Subway; 1973) and Personel (Subsidiaries; 1973) established his reputation as a daring, provocative filmmaker. He became disenchanted with documentaries when he realized his footage could be used by the authorities against his subjects, and turned instead to feature films. Kieslowski was never prohibited from making films in Poland, but the Polish government frequently stopped or limited distribution. Kieslowski retired from filmmaking after making the trilogy Trois Couieurs (Three Colors; 1993–94), saying he had lost the patience it required to be a director. He died of heart failure in 1996.

Major Works

Many of Kieslowski's films deal with the struggle between inner reality and social reality. Amator (Camera Buff; 1979) is the story of a worker turned amateur video cameraman. After buying a video camera to record milestones in his baby's life, the protagonist becomes fascinated with capturing life on film. Przypadek (Blind Chance; 1981) concerns the arbitrary nature of life. Kieslowski relates three different versions of a young man's life based on whether or not he catches a train to Warsaw. In one scenario he catches the train and becomes a Party activist, in another he misses the train and becomes a dissident, and in the last he stays home and becomes a politically neutral family man. Bez Konca (No End, 1984) focuses on a human rights lawyer who dies just before he is scheduled to defend a Solidarity activist. The film examines events following his death, his wife's subsequent suicide, and the activist's plight after an unscrupulous lawyer takes over the case. The film has religious undertones and contrasts the personal and the political. Dekalog (Decalogue, 1988) is a series of ten short films based on the Ten Commandments. The films deal with ordinary people struggling with everyday moral choices. They are tied together by a recurring character, an angelic figure who acts as a silent witness to the action of the films. La Double Vie de Véronique (The Double Life of Veronique; 1991) follows two women as they lead parallel lives in Warsaw and Paris. They each affect the other's life without ever meeting. Three Colors is a critically acclaimed trilogy of films named after a color symbolizing a different theme; Blue (1993) representing liberty, White (1994) representing equality, and Red (1994) representing fraternity.

Critical Reception

Kieslowski's work has generally garnered critical praise. Amator won first prize at the Moscow film festival in 1979 without the judges realizing that it was an indictment of Socialist governments. The final installment in the trilogy The Three Colors: Red, was favored to win a Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995, but lost to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Critics note Kieslowski as a ruthless editor and praise his precisely filmed scenes and attention to minute detail. Phil Cavendish said of Decalogue, "There has been some pretty brutal pruning between the conception and final product, much of which created the economy and precision for which the films have been so highly praised." Many reviewers refer to Kieslowski as a humanist because of his interest in the individual, his sympathy for his characters, and his refusal to judge his characters. Christopher Garbowski states, "All things considered, few contemporary directors can match him in allowing the viewer to enter the protagonist's realm of vision and thus sharing his or her I." Commentators are divided on the use of political themes in Kieslowski's films. Some assert that Kieslowski abandoned the political realm with Decalogue, but others feel that even his films focusing on individuals have political undertones. Some reviewers who believe Kieslowski left politics behind find his later works diminished. Geoffrey Macnab stated, "Perhaps Kieslowski is, as his supporters so ardently proclaim, the most important film-maker in Europe; but his blithe abandonment of social issues and retreat into a remote, mystical realm where personal experience is all that matters, do not augur well for the future." Kieslowski's move from the Polish to the international film scene prompted recognition of the universal themes in his work and made him an international success. Marilynne S. Mason remarks, "Starting out as an innovative, intellectual documentary filmmaker, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski evolved into one of the great artists of the contemporary European cinema."

∗Principal Works

Z miasta Lodzi [From the City of Lodz] (documentary film) 1968
Fabryka [Factory] (documentary film) 1971
Podstawy BHP w kopalni miedzi [The Principles of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine] (documentary film) 1972
Przejscie podziemne [with Ireneusz Iredynski; Pedestrian Subway] (documentary film) 1973
Personel [Personnel] (documentary film) 1975
Spokoj [Calm Before the Storm; also known as Peace] (film) 1976
Siedem kobiet w roznym wieku [Seven Women of Different Ages] (documentary film) 1978
Amator [Camera Buff] (film) 1979
Przypadek [Blind Chance] (film) 1982
Bez konca [with Krzysztof Piesiewicz; No End] (film) 1985
Dekalog [with Piesiewicz; Decalogue; also know as The Ten Commamandments] (film) 1988
Kroti film o zabijaniu [with Piesiewicz; A Short Film about Killing] (film) 1988
Kroti film o milosci [with Piesiewicz; A Short Film about Love] (film) 1988.
Podwojne zycie Weroniki [with Piesiewicz; The Double Life of Veronique] (film) 1991
∗∗Trzy kolory: Niebieski [with Piesiewicz; Blue] (film) 1993
∗∗Trzy kolory: Czerwony [with Piesiewicz; Red] (film) 1994
∗∗Trzy kolory: Bialy [with Piesiewicz; White] (film) 1994

∗Kieslowki wrote and directed all the films listed here; bracketed information refers to screenwriting credit only.

†This television mini-series consisted of ten short films: Dekalog 1 [I Am the Lord Thy God]; Dekalog 2 [Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of the Lord Thy God in Vain]; Dekalog 3 [Honor the Sabbath Day]; Dekalog 4 [Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother]; Dekalog 5 [Thou Shalt Not Kill]; Dekalog 6 [Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery]; Dekalog 7 [Thou Shalt Not Steal]; Dekalog 8 [Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness]; Dekalog 9 [Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Wife]; Dekalog 10 [Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Goods].

‡These films are expanded versions of Dekalog 5 [Thou Shalt Not Kill], and Dekalog 6 [Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery], respectively.

∗∗These films are collectively refered to as the Three Colors trilogy.


Krzysztof Kieslowski with Gustaw Moszcz (interview date Spring 1981)

SOURCE: "Frozen Assets: Interviews on Polish Cinema," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 50, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 86-91.

[In the following excerpt, Kieslowski discusses the impact of political changes on the film industry in Poland and how politics have affected his own work.]

Living in Poland now is to participate in momentous events which are, at the time of writing (January 1981), still in turmoil, although not quite the chaotic mess that the Soviet bloc media would have the West believe. The independent trade organisation (union is not an adequate term to describe a network of combined worker and intellectual groups which now conservatively account for ten million...

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Paul Coates (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Exile and Identity: Kieslowski and His Contemporaries," in Before the Wall Came Down: Soviet and East European Filmmakers Working in the West, edited by Graham Petrie and Ruth Dwyer, University Press of America, 1990, pp. 103-14.

[In the following essay, Coates discusses the cohesiveness of Kieslowski's work and the fusion of Eastern and Western influences in his films.]

How the West was Won is the title of the East European producer's unrealized dream film: a horn of plenty discharging hard currency into the coffers of its debt-ridden country of origin. At a time when hopeful speculation is resurrecting the specter of Central Europe, however, it may be...

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Krzysztof Kieslowski with Phil Cavendish (interview date Summer 1990)

SOURCE; "Kieslowski's Decalogue," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 59, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 162-65.

[In the following interview, Kieslowski discusses the development and filming of his series of films, Decalogue.]

With his latest films based on the Decalogue, the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski seems to have pulled off two difficult feats in one stroke. Not only has the ten-part series established him as a world-class talent, but it has also aroused a new interest in the Ten Commandments.

Certainly, the critics who first saw the cycle at the Venice festival last year were as eager to praise as they were frantic to discover the relevant...

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Michael Tarantino (review date December 1990)

SOURCE: "The Cave," in Art Forum, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, December, 1990, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review, Tarantino discusses Kieslowski's use of character, setting, and plot in Decalogue.]

Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue, 1988, is a series of investigations into the question of choice, both esthetic and moral. The director and his scriptwriter, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, based this series often one-hour television dramas on the Ten Commandments. (Two of the films, A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love, have been expanded to feature length for cinema release.) The works have a number of constants: each is based on one of the...

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Dan Millar (essay date January 1993)

SOURCE: "A Great Polish Film-Maker: Krzysztof Kieslowski," in The Durham University Journal, Vol. LXXXV, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 131-35.

[In the following essay, Millar praises Kieslowski's Dekalog and La Double Vie de Véronique as examples of Kieslowski's greatness as a filmmaker.]

Krzysztof Kieslowski is not interested in Sin. In fact, he is not a 'theological' director at all, even though he is best known for his TV series Dekalog (The Ten Commandments) and its spin-off cinema films, A Short Film about Killing (i.e. the fifth commandment, Catholic numbering) and A Short Film about Love (sixth commandment), both 1988. But then...

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Geoffrey Macnab (review date November 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue), in Sight and Sound, Vol. 3, No. 11, November, 1993, pp. 54-5.

[In the following review, Macnab asserts, "Perhaps Kieslowski is, as his supporters so ardently proclaim, the most important film-maker in Europe; but his blithe abandonment of social issues and retreat into a remote, mystical realm where personal experience is all that matters [in his Trois Couleurs: Bleu], do not augur well for the future."]

[In Kieslowski's Trois Couleurs: Bleu,] Julie, a young French woman, loses her husband and child when the family car careens out of control on a remote country lane and crashes into a...

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Marilynne S. Mason (review date 25 March 1994)

SOURCE: "Through the Lense of a Polish Filmmaker," in The Christian Science Monitor, March 25, 1994, p. 15.

[In the following review, Mason recommends Kieslowski on Kieslowski "for film buffs, students, or anyone interested in the cultural history of Eastern Europe."]

Starting out as an innovative, intellectual documentary filmmaker, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski evolved into one of the great artists of the contemporary European cinema.

Kieslowski gained international prominence with his Decalogue, a series of 10 films based on the Ten Commandments made for Polish television. His The Double Life of Véronique made in France...

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Philip Kemp (review date May 1994)

SOURCE: "Slightly Excited," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 5, May, 1994, p. 35.

[In the following review, Kemp asserts that more can be learned of Kieslowski from watching his films than from the book Kieslowski on Kieslowski.]

Faber's 'Directors on Themselves' series, of which some half-dozen volumes have so far appeared, suffers from two inbuilt drawbacks. The obvious one is that some directors don't have anything interesting to say about their own films, in which case—as with David Thompson's valiant editing job on Barry Levinson—the sound of some fairly desperate barrel-scraping can be heard. The other is that, even given an articulate and perceptive subject,...

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Krzysztof Kieslowski with Tony Rayns (interview date June 1994)

SOURCE: "Glowing in the Dark," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 6, June, 1994, pp. 8-10.

[In the following interview, Kieslowski discusses influences on his filmmaking, including themes, financing, and the political situation in Poland.]

Hong Kong: 25 March—Dinner at the Pacific Club with Krzysztof Kieslowski, hosted by Golden Harvest, the local distributor of the Three Colours trilogy. Kieslowski is in town for the Hong Kong Film Festival (which opens with Blue and closes with White) and has spent the day giving interviews to promote the upcoming releases of the films. His producer Marin Karmitz, the ex-radical who runs the Paris...

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Dave Kehr (essay date November-December 1994)

SOURCE: "To Save the World: Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy," in Film Comment, Vol. 30, No. 6, November-December, 1994, pp. 10, 12-13, 15-18, 20.

[In the following essay, Kehr traces the movement from isolation and solitude to acceptance of community and interdependence in Kieslowski's Three Colors.]

When Red, the concluding episode in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy, was screened at this May's Cannes Film Festival, the 53-year-old Polish filmmaker took the opportunity to announce his retirement. He now had enough money to keep himself in cigarettes, he told a group of American journalists through an interpreter, and rather than...

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Jonathan Rosenbaum (essay date 16 December 1994)

SOURCE: "Seen and Unseen Encounters: Kieslowski's Red," in Chicago Reader, December 16, 1994, pp. 47-53.

[In the following essay, Rosenbaum discusses the possibility of resurrection in Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy, especially Red.]

A film of mystical correspondences, Red triumphantly concludes and summarizes Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy by contriving to tell us three stories about three separate characters all at once; yet it does this with such effortless musical grace that we may not even be aware of it at first. Two of the characters, both of them students, are neighbors in Geneva who never meet—a model named...

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Christopher Garbowski (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Kieslowski's Seeing I/Eye," in The Polish Review, Vol. XL, No. 1, 1995, pp. 53-60.

[In the following essay, Garbowski discusses Kieslowski's use of point of view in his films.]

There is a scene in Bleu [Blue], the opening film of Krzysztof Kieslowski's trilogy Trois couleurs [Three Colors], which shows the director's mastery of unspoken dialogue with the viewer. The film's heroine Julie is sitting on a Parisian park bench facing the street. Following a whiteout, we see a bent elderly lady on the sidewalk slowly walking toward a bin with a plastic bottle in hand. She can barely reach the opening in order to dispose of the bottle. The viewer has...

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Janina Falkowska (essay date Winter 1995)

SOURCE: "'The Political' in the Films of Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski," in Cinema Journal, Vol. 34, No. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 37-50.

[In the following essay, Falkowska compares and contrasts the presentation of and audience reaction to the political content in Andrzej Wajda's Man of Iron and Kieslowski's Without End and A Short Film about Killing.]

Films of Polish directors are frequently called political or are said to reveal political content. This essay constitutes an introductory proposal for a new project exploring issues which I have been working on for some time. The project deals with the questions of politics in Eastern European film and...

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Georgia Brown (essay date May 1996)

SOURCE: "Auteur Tricolore," in Art Forum, Vol. XXXIV, No. 9, May, 1996, pp. 21, 118.

[In the following essay, Brown traces Kieslowski's career from documentaries to feature films and analyzes the director's relationship to Poland.]

When Krzysztof Kieslowski retired from cinema at 52 "to sit on a bench in Poland," Cannes reporters seemed almost more shocked at the Poland part. (Why, when he could be sitting in Paris?) Two years later he left us wondering why anyone with his resources would have heart surgery in Warsaw. Few in the West understood the man's ferocious Polish complex. Because he came to the attention of most film audiences only in the final phase of his...

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Geoffrey Macnab and Chris Darke (essay date May 1996)

SOURCE: "Working with Kieslowski," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, No. 5, May, 1996, pp. 16, 18.

[In the following essay, Macnab and Darke talk to three former colleagues of Kieslowski about working with the director.]

We were in the same school. Krzysztof was one year ahead of me. We didn't really work at school together because the system was to team up directors with cameramen who were one year up. It was incredibly difficult to get into Lodz film school. Exactly like Krzysztof, I applied three times before I was accepted. There were at least 25 candidates for each place. And usually half the places were taken up by people who had some kind of leverage, sons of...

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Angela Pope (essay date August 1996)

SOURCE: "In Memory," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, No. 8, August, 1996, p. 69.

[In the following essay, Pope asserts that Kieslowski's Three Colors: Blue "tells how, as they say, life goes on, and while you are alive you have no choice but to be part of it."]

We were there to choose Best Picture: David Leland, Harry Hook, Sally Hibbin, Mike Figgis, Simon Relph and me. Stephen Frears was late. When he finally arrived, it was quite an entry. "BAFTA owes me £7.50," he bellowed, slinging a seat stub across the table at Chairman Relph. "I paid … paid to see Forrest Gump." The message was clear; no one disagreed. Forrest Gump was no Best...

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Paul Coates (essay date Winter 1996–97)

SOURCE: "The Sense of an Ending: Reflections on Kieslowski's Trilogy," in Film Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 2, Winter, 1996–97, pp. 19-26.

[In the following essay, Coates analyzes the misconceptions revolving around Kieslowski's films.]

Krzysztof Kieslowski's films have long resisted categorization. For the author of this piece, such Polish features as Camera Buff, Blind Chance, and No End had a paradoxical, teasing ability to be political without endorsing political melodramas, without dissipating the air of reality by dividing Polish society into angelic dissidents and demonic Party members, as the New Wave Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewski...

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Ruth and Archie Perlmutter (essay date Winter 1996–97)

SOURCE: "A Testament to Krzysztof Kieslowski," in Film Criticism, Vol. XXI, No. 2, Winter, 1996–97, pp. 59-61.

[In the following essay, the Perlmutters discuss the bio-documentary on Kieslowski's life, Krzysztof Kieslowski—I'm So-So by Krzysztof Wierzbicki.]

Very much like a fortuitous event in one of his own movies, Krzysztof Kieslowski, the renowned director, consented to be in a bio-documentary shortly before his death. Krzysztof Kieslowski—I'm So-So was made in Denmark by Krzysztof Wierzbicki, who had worked with Kieslowski as his assistant director on The Scar and Camera Buff.

Equally fortuitous was Wierzbicki's...

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Annette Insdorf (essay date March-April 1997)

SOURCE: "An Affectionate Look at Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors," in Film Comment, Vol. 33, No. 2, March-April, 1997, pp. 46-8.

[In the followíng essay, Insdorf asserts that "White illustrates how Kieslowski is a cinematic 'poet,' a Polish artist whose rich audiovisual vocabulary expresses a profound vision of human fallibility, as well as transcendence."]

Three Colors: White is one of Krzysztof Kieslowski's deceptively simplest films. Of the trilogy, it has received the least critical attention, overshadowed by Blue and Red. But White illustrates how Kieslowski is a cinematic "poet," a Polish artist whose rich...

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Ruth Perlmutter (essay date Winter 1997–98)

SOURCE: "Testament of the Father: Kieslowski's The Decalogue," in Film Criticism, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Winter, 1997–98, pp. 51-65.

[In the following essay, Perlmutter asserts, "Although glimmers of hope and oxymoronic moments of a kind of desperate joy temper the suffering throughout the ten films [of Kieslowski's The Decalogue], their message is clear—the Ten Commandments exist in our consciousness but are most often beyond our realization."]

The Decalogue marks an important midpoint in Krzysztof Kieslowski's career. As a kind of serialized melodrama, it consolidates his move from documentary to fiction after he first explored the disadvantages...

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Further Reading


Combs, Richard. "The Game-Player of Lodz." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4782 (25 November 1994): 16-17.

Discusses Kieslowki's career and asserts that "many of Kieslowski's artistic decisions amount to, not escapism exactly, but an almost pedantic need to define himself, to insist on not being where he doesn't want to be, on not serving a purpose he doesn't want to serve."

Iordanova, Dina. Review of Kieslowski on Kieslowski, by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Slavic Review 54, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 168-69.

Lauds Kieslowski on Kieslowski for "reflect[ing] the...

(The entire section is 147 words.)