Kieslowski on Kieslowski

Krzystof Kieslowski’s films are a major influence on my life. His warm portraits of life blend metaphysical musings with deeply tragic and human characters. His career began in his native Poland, starting off with documentaries, then moving over to feature films and then doing a few international productions for his last four films (The Double Life of Veronique, and the Three Colors trilogy). He also made The Decalogue, a TV miniseries comprised of stories demonstrating the Ten Commandments.

This book is a composite of a number of interviews conducted by Danusia Stok. It starts from his early films and then sadly ends while Kieslowski is in the midst of finishing the Three Colors Trilogy. He has a working cut of Blue and is still working on compiling White and Red. They have a conversation based on the screenplays of the film and while they do have a strong correlation to the final results, it’s just disappointing that Kieslowski’s most well-known achievement gets perhaps the most superficial treatment in the book.

One of the most interesting themes of the book is Kieslowski tracing his interest in not having villains in the sense of someone driven by evil. He gives a lot of background on how the rise of Communism in Poland resulted in a lot of evil things. Instead of going with the gut instinct of assuming people have evil intentions, he talks about how he has these encounters that slowly lead towards this conclusion that people try to behave through good intentions that somehow go bad along the way.

You can see glimpses of how he translates these ideas into his films when he starts talking about his characters. Perhaps the best example is when he talks about shifting perspectives in A Short Film About Love, allowing the audience to suddenly get the perspective from another character. Kieslowski is the artist I attribute to growing in a similar understanding of the world, reacting to people who do something bad or wrong not as people seeking to do evil, but as people who are somehow misguided or skewed in their motivations. There’s a story there, one that Kieslowski often digs up in his films.

It reminds me of Blue, where we follow this character that can be very mean, cruel and cold, but we always understand why. The film begins with her pain, and Kieslowski shows how that pain carries forward into her doing a number of terrible things. It’s moments where we get glimpse of Kieslowski’s method that make me wish the book would have been written after the Three Colors trilogy so Stok could ask about these kinds of connections. Instead, the readers are to draw in the gaps left by the books abrupt end.

There’s a lot of speculation that Camera Buff is Kieslowski’s most biographical film, the story of a young man’s naïve journey as an armature documentarian and negligent husband and father. In another one of the book’s great disappointments, Kieslowski has almost nothing to say about the film. There’s hints that it might be his most personal film, but he also says he never thought his obsession was a strong as Camera Buff’s protagonist.

This brings up another odd feature of the book, as his work becomes more and more metaphysical, Kieslowski becomes more and more impersonal when talking about his films. He becomes far more technical, far more wrapped up in logistics and details, when explaining his later films. He talks about his documentaries and some early features as these films with sweeping ideas and where he thinks they achieve something of worth. By the time he gets to The Decalogue and The Double Life of Veronique, he talks about the literalness of so many things. He even goes on to conjure up one of his most metaphysical images and say it only represents literally what happens.

So much of the richness of Kieslowski’s work is in the grand implication and interpretation fostered in his imagery. He recognizes that his films search for the interior of characters in a medium where audience interpretation means that he can never craft it where everyone will understand. Therefore, he just decides to not bother explaining it in his interview.

It’s an interesting distinction to make between mediums but one that leads him to talk about some of his later films in a way that proves a bit frustrating. There are sweeping, metaphysical moments in The Double Life of Veronique that Kieslowski doesn’t even mention. Instead, he spends pages talking about the various cast members who he tried to get to play certain roles.

However, he does recount what I still find one the most moving story of a movie-watching experience: “After a meeting just outside Paris, a fifteen-year-old girl came up to me and said that she’d been to see Veronique. She’d gone once, twice, three times and only wanted to say one thing really-that she realized that there is such a thing as a soul. She hadn’t known before, but now she knew that the soul does exist. There’s something very beautiful in that. It was worth making Veronique for that girl. It was worth working for a year, sacrificing all that money, energy, time, patience, torturing yourself, killing yourself, taking thousands of decisions, so that one young girl in Paris should realize that there is such a thing as a soul. It’s worth it. These are the best viewers. There aren’t many of them but perhaps there are a few.” (p210-11)

Part of my frustrations with Kieslowski on Kieslowski stems from wanting a book with some answers and instead getting a book that in a lot of ways makes the man just as enigmatic as the films he made. There’s an odd distance, as if he’s holding back lots of mysteries. The book is also incomplete, not fully accounting for his last three features. Still, hearing his words echo the ways I saw his films slowly work in my own life is a wonderful, rich experience.

© 2014 James Blake Ewing