Krzysztof Kieslowski Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."