Why I Love… Krzysztof Kieślowski

Late Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski, the author of only a small handful of films, all of which can and rightfully have been deemed masterpieces, sadly still remains uncharted terrain for far too many film fans in the world. I can’t hold it against anyone, though, because admittedly, at times, the territory Kieślowski asks the audience to navigate can be an awfully tough journey. However, it’s a landscape like no other out there. The kind of cinema Kieślowski creates is always startlingly intimate, chock-full of paradoxes where all at once can be familiar and alien, cruel yet forgiving and propelled by a probing curiosity for all things. So full of searching faces and wandering eyes, his lesser films would be the defining masterworks of many more celebrated directors. From films like Camera Buff to Talking Heads and from Blind Chance to No End, it becomes vividly apparent to those who have had the pleasure of experiencing his work that Kieślowski is not merely a writer and director for the ages, but an enduring creator who can reckon with the very best the medium has ever produced.

Sure, look at me, I might be preaching now but I’ll confess, however, to being quite late to the Kieślowski party. It’s interesting I say this because I actually stumbled across the Polish auteur on complete accident after frantically searching for directors similar to the great Ingmar Bergman. Like many obsessive fans of film I hit that period in my young adult life where I longed for filmmakers with a poetic touch; Bergman, Tarkovsky, Malick, Bresson, Wenders, Dreyer, Kalatozov, Cocteau. It was after I got a taste of the works of those aforementioned filmmakers that I needed fix after fix after fix. But like any desperate junkie, I still demanded more; a potent hit from a top pusher. Trekking my usual grounds I saw an unfamiliar name and I took the leap of faith. Fortunately I didn’t have to look back. Coincidentally, it was Kieślowski himself who spoke highly of Bergman, saying “This man is one of the few film directors, perhaps the only one in the world, to have said as much about human nature as Dostoyevsky or Camus.” So in me discovering Kieślowski was like discovering a long lost treasure.

But where to begin? The dilemma many newcomers face, regardless of director, is what film to start with. It’s a universal quandary. And with a catalog as sparse and challenging as Krzysztof Kieślowski’s, it was twice as difficult to choose from. Do I put on my big boy pants and dare start off with The Decalogue, the exalting nine hour epic? Make the conservative choice and go with his early works like Camera Buff? It wouldn’t be very smart for me to jump ahead and watch the Three Colors trilogy, Kieślowski’s last efforts as a director. So what does that leave me with? Well, with a little help from my friends (the internet) I was lead to The Double Life of Véronique, a film that many first time Kieślowski patrons recommend as a fine starting point before delving deeper and inevitably mustering enough courage, patience and curiosity to view behemoth The Decalogue.

While we can debate which Krzysztof Kieślowski film is the best until we’re all blue in the face, there’s no question that The Double Life of Véronique is the film in the late director’s accomplished filmography that launched him into the collective conscious of the Western world. Perhaps most lauded for his notably monumental Three Colors trilogy, Kieślowski first explored themes of duality, synchronicity, and fate in the cinematic reverie in The Double Life of Véronique. Irène Jacob, also the star of Three Colors: Red, handles a double role as two women cut from the same metaphysical cloth: the Polish Veronika and the French titular character Véronique. Her presence as both women is at once whimsically childlike and sensually melancholic; relentlessly alluring, it is easy to see why she essentially became Kieślowski’s muse. Jacob is perfectly fluid in the shift between characters, an embodiment of ideal femininity, as dreamlike as the tone of the entire film.

The Double Life of Véronique was exactly the kind of film I was fixing for in the first place; incredibly haunting and poetic work that raises a plethora of questions regarding life, death, and the unexplainable connection that certain people share. I remember being stuck in a sort of trance while watching the film, as beautifully photographed scenes seemed to follow one after the other for the film’s entirety. Working with long time collaborator, cinematographer Sławomir Idziak, The Double Life of Véronique introduces innovative camera techniques using color and camera filters to create an ethereal atmosphere with the entire film being shot in a sort of perpetual late afternoon glow, which is close to sepia tone but a slight tad bit brighter. Images and motifs are so rich that it’s hard to find another film that is comparable.

Going back to Ingmar Bergman for a second, Kieślowski uses Bergman’s classic Persona theme of shared identity in The Double Life of Véronique. Yet, even though Kieślowski asks deep, metaphysical questions, he is not a philosopher. And his film doesn’t come even remotely close to Bergman’s. However all things considered, Kieślowski isn’t as interested in illusions and doubling as Bergman and focuses most of his attention to searching for the balance between understanding and mystery. Because if Kieślowski shows too much the mystery disappears, and if he doesn’t show enough no one understands a single thing. But this is exactly the beauty in Kieślowski’s films and in order to attain the new emotional scales of his international production, he had to preserve the mystery. If anything, The Double Life of Véronique can be seen as somewhat of a precursor to a film like Being John Malkovich. While possibly a contradiction, I’d say that The Double Life of Véronique is the creative pinnacle of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s otherwise extraordinarily rich career. I think it’s a truly a majestic film that is a festive celebration of the wizardry of unrestrained, ingenious filmmaking, and ultimately a showcase for singular quality of cinema as an art form.

But that’s not to say that the Three Colors trilogy is some schlocky, listless piece of filmmaking. No, it’s quite the contrary, the Three Colors trilogy is the greatest film trilogy. Easily, in fact. Blue, White, Red, all three trump the much acclaimed Star Wars, Lord of Rings, and Dollars trilogies. It’s also probably the only trilogy where the third and final installment is the best of the three in the trilogy. The films, meant to represent the three colors on the French flag, and the story of each film is loosely based on one of the three political ideals in the motto of the French Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity. If The Double Life of Véronique didn’t already convince me that Kieślowski is the master of the visual narrative then the Three Colors trilogy further solidifies that. What is especially fascinating about the trilogy is how, due to the nature of the films, exposition in this case is not necessarily related to plot, but rather to the understanding of a human being.

For example, I just love the way Kieślowski delves ever so deeply into the true nature of Julie and in such a remarkable way that by the end of the film we understand her utterly. Free from all that clutter of dialogue and, for the most part, interaction with other characters we see the character Julie alone and in her most natural state. Kieślowski takes his early documentary background and conveys his character in an almost voyeuristic manner. Showing Julie in anything but a state of solitude would be false; due to human nature Julie with family friend Oliver would not be Julie, but rather a reflection of her true self, which, although certainly interesting, pales in comparison to observing her silently struggle with the death of her husband and daughter alone.

Kieślowski played with applying the documentary techniques, which he perfected in his early work, to the narrative form in The Decalogue with tremendous, although at times visually mundane, results. For lack of a better word, The Decalogue pretty much looks like a documentary. Here, he turns over much visual control again to Sławomir Idziak, with tremendously cinematic results. Idziak’s use of color and light, combined with his denoted groundbreaking filter work, serve to further explore Julie’s character. Blue feels like a documentary and looks like something of a dismal Rembrandt painting. While Kieślowski concentrates on showing the true nature of Julie through action, Idziak contributes by showing her through light and color. By combining their efforts, the end result is brilliant, emotional and effective.

The middle film in the trilogy, White, is perhaps the weakest of the three and Kieślowski still manages to achieve greatness. While White is very different from the other two episodes of the trilogy, it nonetheless has all the unmistakable touches of the genius that can generously be found in the accurate care of the details, in the emotional intensity of the dialogues, and of course in the careful analysis of the individual values. Much more vicious than its predecessor, White introduces us to this story of a marriage gone sour. This is, of course, a perfect premise for comedy and it makes a lot of room for silly, slapstick jokes. Kieślowski wants to emphasize on the philosophical aspect of the film just as much as the comedy. There is both a lighthearted and a more dark, sinister quality about White. Drama is often considered to be a higher form of art than comedy so maybe that’s why White is regarded as the weakest link in the Three Colors trilogy. Make no mistake: though the punchlines may be particularly wry and ironic in tone, White is often a very funny film. Personally I find White to be a suiting transition from Blue and a fitting precursor to Red.

The final part of the Three Colors trilogy, Red, is deceivingly simple, and yet it pretty much rounds out everything that came before in an enlightening way that only Kieślowski is capable of doing. If casting Irène Jacob didn’t have one immediately thinking The Double Life of Véronique then the theme of fraternity most certainly will. But Kieślowski isn’t retracing his steps here, no, in Red he’s found a muse in Jacob’s and given her comfort in The Double Life of Véronique it makes sense, from a filmmaking perspective, to recast Jacob’s for a film with a similar theme. Given that it’s not an easy film, with its heavy subject matter and unforgiving emotions, Jacob’s should be able to understand Kieślowski’s vision and effortlessly project it on screen with sheer authenticity. And she does. I can’t help but think of how Red is Kieślowski’s final film, as he intended to retire, so in a way it is his artistic testament. He died a couple of years after making Red, and though it is said that he intended to return to directing, destiny decided that this was indeed his last. And what a film! Ironically as Krzysztof Kieślowski’s last film, Red seems to be a bit of a hope. Hope in mankind and in life. And although the film is more subtle than both Blue and White, it boldly exclaims a statement of love and compassion.

Trilogies are very interesting. Some go out with a bang (Lord of the Rings, original Star Wars), some get progressively weaker (The Matrix, Die Hard), some get lost in obscurity (Blade, Back to the Future), but some maintain the genius, that seemingly ever-growing bright light that floats beyond the surface of its flawless exterior. Case and point: Three Colors trilogy. With each chapter in the trilogy, being as philosophical and thought-provoking as the last. In Blue we had a more visually stunning, more character driven plot, in White it was more of a lighthearted, narrative driven story where we listen more to what the characters say than anything. And Red, however is focused on the “what ifs” and “how comes”. It questions our own fate and focuses mainly on the past and the future than the present. Regardless whichever one you personally prefer in the trilogy, there’s no disputing the fact that all three are excellent examples of filmmaking in their own right.

And lastly that brings us to The Decalogue, said to be Krzysztof Kieślowski’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker, it’s a challenging and inspiring piece of work. As I mentioned earlier, The Decalogue is whopping nine hours. Yep, you read that correctly, nine hours. Though more of a television miniseries than a film, Kieślowski manages to carefully craft The Decalogue like a film rather than short bursts of consumption, ala television drama. Split into ten separate episodes, each Decalogue is meant to correspond with each of the Ten Commandments. Truthfully speaking, there would be no other way to accomplish such a feat than to split them up into ten episodes for television. If anything, the conception and outcome of Kieślowski’s The Decalogue is strikingly reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Although it’s reminiscent of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz the thoughts of The Twilight Zone keep coming to mind. While the episodes are based upon the Ten Commandments, they are not simple morality tales and illustrations. Kieślowski creates meditations that connect both intellectually and emotionally with the commandments instead. They explore the commandments’ themes with both the head and the heart.

It’s not just The Decalogue that is made from the head and heart, it’s all of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s work. What started as an accident, manifested into a love. I’m stricken with grief whenever I think about Kieślowski’s death and the little body of work he left behind. But simultaneously I am overwrought with joy because what immense quality that little body of work has. Of all European directors of recent decades, Kieślowski is the most obvious heir of the high seriousness that critics and film fans associate with Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky. Making my blind luck discovery of him ever more perfect. Though the name might leave some scratching their heads, there’s no doubt that the name Kieślowski belongs with top tiers like Kubrick, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Bresson, and Dreyer. Kieślowski’s death was sudden and tragic, yet one fraught with the sort of coincidence and mystery Kieślowski himself may have appreciated.

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