March 13 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski.

Krzysztof Kieślowski passed away on March 13, 1996. He was one of the most acclaimed directors of the second half of the 20th century, having won accolades at film festivals in Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and San Sebastian. He had also been nominated for an Oscar, and was the first recipient of the Felix prize (later renamed the European Film Awards) of the European Film Academy. His personal style evolved over his 30-year-long career as a filmmaker, from his early minimalist documentary films that looked at the daily life of people in Poland, to his modest narrative films that were in line with the cinema of moral anxiety movement, and later to the conceptual, ornamental, metaphysical parables.

While his approach to film changed over the years, he never shifted his focus from human emotions, examining the individual and his doubts, stance against the regime or society, the role of chance in making crucial decisions, the role of art and ethics in life; over time, politics and history in Kieślowski’s films began to serve as context or metaphor, only to disappear entirely in his later works.

In an interview for Tadeusz Sobolewski on the set of his last film Three Colours: Red, Krzysztof Kieślowski said that he would like his films to reach people sensibility, but not of the social or political kind — he aimed at reaching the unconscious level of emotions that people are often embarrassed to admit (in: T. Sobolewski, “Za duży blask — o kinie współczesnym,” Wydawnictwo Znak). The year 2016 has been named the Year of Krzysztof Kieślowski.

Born in 1941 in Warsaw, he spent his early years in the war-torn city. After the war, his family moved to Western Poland, and subsequently moved around from sanatorium to sanatorium due to Krzysztof father’s tuberculosis. Krzysztof himself also suffered from lung disease from his early years. In Sokołowsko, where the family settled for more than the usual brief period of time, Krzysztof watched his first film: Fanfan la Tulipe (1952). In his autobiography, he notes that he remembers more about the trip to the cinema than the film itself. Sokołowsko found a place in Kieślowski’s life as a filmmaker in his 1974 documentary Prześwietlenie (X-Ray), when he filmed tuberculosis patients at the Sokołowsko sanatorium. Hommage à Kieślowski, an annual festival dedicated to Kieślowski’s work, has been organized in Sokołowsko annually since 2011.

Kieślowski graduated from high school in Warsaw. He originally intended to become a stage directed, but this area of studies was only open to students who had graduated from other tertiary courses, which led the young man to applying to the Łódź Film School. He passed the entrance exams and was accepted on his third attempt. He made his early student films (including Tramwaj, his 1966 narrative student film) under the guidance of Wanda Jakubowska, and later films under Jerzy Bossak, Kazimierz Karabasz, and cinematographer Kurt Weber (the 1966 documentary Urząd). During his student days, he also made Zdjęcie (The Photograph; 1968), in which he and his crew searched for the protagonists of the eponymous photograph from the Second World War.

Documentary films

In the early years of his career, Kieślowski focused on documentary filmmaking. He once defined documentary film as a portrayal of the director’s approach to events that took place in real life, regardless of whether the camera recorded the actual event or the events were later recreated or synthesised. His first documentary film was a critical look at the residents of Łódź. “My debut film after film school went smoothly. I made my graduation film, which was also a professional film. I made it at Warsaw’s WFD studio […]. Z miasta Łodzi (From the City of Łódź) is the portrait of a city in which some people work, while others loiter around in the streets in search of God-knows-what,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Kieślowski finished film school in 1968, but graduated two years later upon completion of his film. In his early years as a filmmaker, he often focused on people in their workplace, trying to depict the relationship between the individual and society and, in a wider scope, the communist state. He looked at workers in a tractor factory (in his 1970 film Fabryka), a funeral home (Refren; 1972), soldiers who had lost their eyesight in the Second World War (Byłem żołnierzem; 1970), rally driver Krzysztof Komornicki during preparations form the Monte Carlo race (Przed rajdem/ Before the Rally; 1971), bricklayer Józef Males as he recounted his enthusiasm in the early years of the Polish People’s Republic and the disappointment that followed (Murarz/Bricklayer; 1973), or the doctors working around the clock in the surgical ward (Szpital/Hospital; 1976). At first, censorship wasn’t much of an issue. But in 1971, when Kieślowski along with filmmakers Paweł Kędzierski, Tadeusz Walendowski, Wojciech Wiszniewski, and Tomasz Zygadło made Robotnicy ’71; Nic o nas bez nas (Workers 1971: Nothing About Us Without Us), a film that criticised the authorities and portrayed social discontent following the tragic events of December 1970, the censorship office cut a few scenes from the film and released it under a different title.

The following years brought some of the most famous of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s documentaries: Z punktu widzenia nocnego portiera (From a Night Porter’s Point of View; 1977), the story of a control-freak guard at a factory; Siedem kobiet w różnym wieku (Seven Women of Different Ages; 1978), a film about dancers that addresses the transient, and Gadające głowy (Talking Heads; 1980). In this last documentary, which was to be the last doc in Kieślowski’s oeuvre, the protagonists use simple words to discuss vital questions: who they are and what is important to them.

What was important to Kieślowski, according to what has been shown in his movies, was the human being, which was precisely the reason why he stopped making documentary films. He felt that by showing the lives of real people he might be hurting them, not only by broadcasting the film on television, but also by touching upon painful and intimate issues in front while the camera is rolling. He therefore turned to narrative films, but remained true to the craft of documentary filmmaking for years to come.

Narrative Films

In his autobiography, Kieślowski noted: “documentaries unfold through the director’s thought process, while narrative films unfold through plot lines. “I believe that what I kept for myself from the documentary tradition is that my narrative films unfold more through the thought process than the plot.”

He was also thorough in depicting reality. In the words of Sławomir Idziak, who worked with Kieślowski on Blizna (The Scar): “He lived and breathed reality. He would always say: ‘if my actor gets off of bus no. 127 at the corner of such and such a street, then there really has to be a bus stop for bus no. 127 on that particular street corner. (Barbara Hollender, Zofia Turowska „Zespół ‘Tor’”).

His background in documentary filmmaking also influenced his choice of subject matter. “All my films, save for The Scar, are about members of the ‘middle class’, like a tailor or a factory worker. I simply selected people to whom I could somehow relate in terms of their lifestyle or quandaries. A simple man may prove to be quite complex; it is up to the director, depending how deeply he and his camera are prepared to explore the protagonist,” he said in an interview for ‘Kino’ magazine (10/1981).

Kieślowski’s 1975 feature Personel (Personnel; 1975) looked backstage at Warsaw’s Teatr Współczesny, the theatre where he himself had worked as a high school student. His earlier 1973 TV movie Przejście podziemne (Pedestrian Subway) was a look at an estranged couple who bump into each other years later. Kieślowski noted that he was unhappy with the results when the film wrapped and chose to reshoot several scenes. He was often critical of his own work, never afraid to point out what did not work. In his autobiography, he called The Scar (1976), a film that focused on the construction of a chemical plant from the perspective of the CEO, a film that was “badly made, and socialist à rebours.” (in: Barbara Hollender, Zofia Turowska „Zespół ‘Tor’”).

Kieślowski often said that the rate at which he usually manages to fulfill his shooting plans is at about 30%. He was also a perfectionist, working on his film non-stop; often, after wrapping the shoot, he would go to the editing suite and sit down at the editing table, thus tormenting his editors.

His later films Spokój (The Calm; 1976) and Amator (Camera Buff, 1979), considered to this day to be one of Poland’s best films, brought Kieślowski into the heart of the ‘cinema of moral anxiety’ movement. The latter of these films was also a long process in the making; two weeks after wrapping the shoot, Kieślowski decided to change the ending, instructing Filip Mosz to turn the camera on himself. In the original story, the character only destroys the tape rather than sending it off to the broadcaster.

In 1981, Kieślowski made his feature Przypadek (Blind Chance), in which he touches upon the philosophical, contemplating the meaning of liberty and necessity in human life, and the border between these two. “I ponder how easy it would be to end up in two different places purely by chance. I’m not saying that chance is a determining factor in human fate; I am however interested in the fact that by maintaining one’s own qualities and identity it is possible to end up at the opposite side from one’s intentions. And that is often up to chance,” („Kino” 10/1981). The film’s protagonist Witek, depending on whether or not he makes it in time to hop onto a departing train, becomes either a devoted member o the communist party, a dissident, or does not engage in politics at all.

Shelved for six years, Przypadek (Blind Chance) was finally released in 1987. Years later, the film served as inspiration for Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998).

During the times of martial law, Kieślowski did not make films. Instead, he tried to make ends meet working as a tax driver, although it was far from being his area of expertise. I the mid-1980s, he met young lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who would go on to become one of his key collaborators; together they penned the screenplays for all of Kieślowski’s subsequent films, from Bez końca (No End, 1985), the story of martial law as seen through the eyes of a deceased attorney. Three years later, one of Kieślowski’s most acclaimed films, Krótki film o zabijaniu (A Short Film About Killing), was made. The protagonist is a young man who kills a nameless taxi driver, only to later die himself, having been sentenced to death. The film is not only a look at the judicial system, but also a portrait of the frightening reality of late 1980s Poland. Similarly to Krótki film o miłości (A Short Film About Love), which was about the contrast between youthful idealism and mature cynicism, A Short Film About Killing was the extended theatrical version of one of the episodes of the Dekalog (The Decalogue) TV series, which aimed to be both a modern-day code of ethics and an account of daily life in the mid-1980s. Both Kieślowski and Piesiewicz claimed to have removed any trace of politics from their script in order to make the series appear more universal.

While Kieślowski was already a recognized European filmmaker, it was his Cannes-winning A Short Film About Killing that elevated him to being an authority figure for filmmakers and film enthusiasts around the world. Interviewe by Katarzyna Bielas and Jacek Szczerba, Edward Żebrowski recounts that Kieślowski’s reaction to those events was as follows: “he returned [from Cannes] on Sunday night. He came to me and said “Looks like I am it.” I said: “That’s great! This might pave the way to the Palme d’Or.” And he said: “No, this isn’t about the award. You see, they need a guru. Bergman isn’t doing anything, neither is Antonioni, neither is Fellini. And they need something like that. They need a prophet. So it looks like I am it.”(„Gazeta Wyborcza”, 2003). Kieślowski indeed went on to become a master of the craft in the eyes of many filmmakers; those who admit to being fascinated with his works include Cristian Mungiu and Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

The last four films by Krzysztof Kieślowski, also written together with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, were European co-productions that greatly differed from the director’s earlier works. “Many people don’t understand the path I have chosen. They believe it’s the wrong path, thinking I have betrayed my own way of thinking, my way of looking at the world. I don’t share those feelings. I did not betray my views […], instead, I believe that I have managed to enrich the portraits of people to include the sphere of one’s inner life — intuition, dreams, superstitions. While I am aware that it can’t be filmed no matter how hard I try, I follow this path in order to come as close to it as my skill set will allow,” (Barbara Hollender, Zofia Turowska „Zespół ‘Tor’”).

The realm of the invisible is most certainly at the heart of La double vie de Veronique, a film starring Irène Jacob in the title role, or rather roles. Two women with musical talents, one Polish and one French, don’t know each other, but sense each other’s existence.

Kieślowski tried to emphasise the metaphysical using aesthetics — beautiful cinematography by Sławomir Idziak and music by Zbigniew Preisner.

His later films Three Colours: Blue, Three Colours: White, and Three Colours: Red challenge the traditional French values of liberty, equality and fraternity in an unassuming way. These films also address loss, regret, dignity, and magnanimity. And this is where Kieślowski depicts blind chance, coincidence, trying to convey the mysterious and intuitive.

After the premiere of the final part of his trilogy, Krzysztof Kieślowski announced he would be retiring from film directing. In his usual blunt manner, he explained that the work of a film director was physically and mentally exhausting and that the uncertain accolades may not be sufficient payoff for all that stress and risk. Nonetheless, together with Krzysztof Piesiewicz he began work on yet another film trilogy. “In the spring [of 1995], the treatment for Heaven was ready; we took it to Paris and then went off on holidays. A few days later, I learned that Krzysztof had had a massive heart attack,” notes Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who went on to finish the first script by himself and write two others: Hell and Purgatory.

Krzysztof Kieślowski suffered from heart disease; he passed away on March 13, 1996. Years later, Heaven would be made by Tom Tykwer. The second part of the trilogy, Hell, was slated to be directed by Danis Tanovic. The third part has yet to be turned into a film. Another script by Krysztof Kieślowski, Duże zwierzę (Big Animal) was brought to the big screen in a film directed by Jerzy Stuhr, one of Kieślowski’s favourite actors.

Teaching and Awards

Krzysztof Kieślowski taught at film schools in West Berlin, Helsinki, Switzerland, at the Łódź Film School, and at the Radio and Television Department of the University of Silesia in Katowice, which bears Kieślowski’s name since 2002.

Since 1974, Kieślowski was a member of Zespół Filmowy „Tor,” and served as deputy head of the Polish Filmmakers Association between 1978 and 1981.  In 1990, he was made honorary member of the British Film Institute. Five years later, he became member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Kieślowski was a two-time winner of the Golden Lions award at the Gdynia Film Festival , winner of the Golden Hobby-Horse award at the Krakow Film Festival (for Siedem kobiet w różnym wieku (Seven Women of Different Ages and Z punktu widzenia nocnego portiera (From a Night Porter’s Point of View). He also received the Felix award, the FIPRESCI prize and the Main Competition.

Trzy kolory: Biały (Three Colours: White) brought Kieślowski the Silver Bear award for Best Director in Berlin, while his Trzy kolory: Biały (Three Colours: White)” won the Golden Lion in Venice, while his Trzy kolory niebieski (Three Colours: Red).

Three Colours: Red was nominated for the BAFTA award, the Golden Globe (for best screenplay and best director), and three French Cesar awards (also for best film, best screenplay and best director). When asked by Tadeusz Sobolewski about whether film allows room for change, for pushing boundaries, Kieślowski said: “Every film is such an attempt. It’s about the journey, not the destination.”

Ola Salwa

Translated by Karolina Kołtun