Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Polish director

One of the most interesting directors in all time, Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996), came from Communist Poland, with most of his work completed before the Iron Curtain fell. Kieslowski loved to take situations that seem to grow out of common environments and imagine existential moral dilemmas that had no clear answer, and play them out. He often cowrites with Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Some of his later work was done in France.

Central to his work was a ten-hour telefilm series, "The Dekalog" (1088), a series of ten one-hour dramas with characters (often appearing in several of the dramas) who live in a Warsaw housing project. Each drama is based on one of the Ten Commandments. The full screen DVDs (three of them) are distributed by Facet, with an introduction by Roger Ebert.

The first drama, for example, presents a professor who trains his son to use science and reason (dramatized with 1980s style personal computers), and that leads to tragedy in a local pond. In another drama, a woman kidnaps a daughter who had been raised as a sister. In still another, a man needs to sell a kidney to complete a stamp collection and is confronted by the moral questions of being open to sharing a part of his own body.

Two of the films generated short features (“A Short Film about Killing” and “A Short Film about Love”, the former a famous exercise opposing capital punishment). But what gets more interesting is how he explores the idea of chance in a couple of his other feature films.

Blind Chance” (“Przypadek”) was originally filmed in 1981 but was not available until 1987 because of political objections from the Communist Polish government. Here, Kieslowski poses the alternative paths in life that can occur when a young man (Boguslaw Linda), a medical student, runs for a train. If he makes it, he winds up becoming an activist in the Communist Party. If he gets stopped and arrested by police, he becomes active in resistance. If he gives up and misses altogether, he becomes a doctor, has a passionate “Song of Solomon” marriage, stays away from politics and emphasizes family and personal matters, but then dies in a random plane crash. The filmmaker’s view is that our basic social and political attitudes are shaped by somewhat random events that the outside world imposes on us. There seems to be no ultimate logically consistent “moral truth.” The same concept would be explored by British director Peter Hewitt in the 1998 film “Sliding Doors” (from Miramax), where a young woman, after being fired from a job, either makes or doesn’t make a London underground train.

But the most interesting concept may be the one film he made outside of Poland after Communism fell, “The Double Life of Veronique,” (1991) with theatrical distribution by Miramax. A young woman, played by Irene Jacob, has two incarnations or doppelgangers, with the same appearance and personality, one in Poland and one in France. They may meet or glance at each other once. Both love music and voice but questionable health. But the Polish incarnation collapses and dies in a stirring concert (with operatic music by Zbigniew Preisner). The French “copy” falls in love with a puppeteer but gradually comes to decide to leave music despite her having worked so hard at lessons. The use of marionettes in the second part of the movie plays with our idea of what makes people “real”. This film would make a great stage opera if the composer would finish it that way; imagine it at the Met!

So, two people can have similar talents and psychic constitution (particularly with gifts in music), and one succeeds and one does not because of external factors or because of some deeper problem with karma. For me personally, this an extremely important idea.

Then the director has his “Trois Coleurs” films. Music comes back in “Blue” as composer Patrie de Courcy dies in an accident, and his widow retreats into a schizoid world. The composer’s opera was to be called “The Unity of Europe” and would obviously relate to the politics of the EU (especially today in the financial crisis). She even destroys the notes of the work out of grief. The music of Preisner is spellbinding, and resembles that in the Veronique film. “White” (“Bilary”) presents the sharp-edged proposition of a man humiliated (in France) by not being able to perform sexually in his marriage. After he goes back to Poland, he comes up with an elaborate scheme that attracts his ex-wife and gets her sent to prison. In "Red," Irene Jacob appears again as a woman spied upon by a judge, who has built up a list of enemies. The film concludes with a mini-Titanic disaster in the English Channel.

Kieslowski produced numerous short films, mostly in black and white. The “Veronique” CD includes “Factory”, “Hospital” and “Railway Station,” all of which have some fun with life under Communism (in the hospital, doctors don’t practice good hygiene). That DVD also includes "The Musicians" ("Muzycanci"), 1960, dir. Kazimierz Karzbasz, about a factory orchestra. There is also “Tramway” and “A Night Porter’s Point of View” and “Workshop Exercises” where a filmmaker interviews reluctant youth about life in Communist Poland.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Enthusiasts of the films of Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski (Blind Chance, Dekalog, The Double Life of Véronique, Three Colours Trilogy, etc) are invited to drop by my chatroom at the Brasserie Alizé on the anniversary of the director’s death, this coming Friday evening, 13 March 2009, from around 1800 UTC and throughout the weekend for those who don’t sleep much. Please pass on the invitation to others and hopefully see you there!