Where to begin with Krzysztof Kieślowski

As the Three Colours trilogy returns to cinemas, we plot a path through the metaphysical masterpieces of Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski.

Three Colours: Red (1994)MK2

Why this might not seem so easy

When the French newspaper Libération asked various filmmakers why they chose their profession, Krzysztof Kieślowski replied: “Because I don’t know how to do anything else.” But this disarming modesty undervalues not merely a vast body of work across multiple film forms (shorts and features, fiction and non-fiction, cinema and television) but also the fact that he surely ranks among the last century’s great moral philosophers, albeit favouring moving images over textual treatises.

Kieślowski (1941 to 1996) initially planned to specialise in non-fiction, which he felt was a filmmaker’s highest calling. But between his professional debut (The Photograph, 1968) and his final documentary just over a decade later, he found himself increasingly drawn towards fiction, a process accelerated by ethical concerns about what he was filming and what might inadvertently happen to his subjects. After work-in-progress footage for Railway Station (1980) was impounded by the police, in case Kieślowski had inadvertently captured evidence of an actual murder that had occurred in the same location (he hadn’t), he switched to fiction full time.

Krzysztof KieślowskiCurzon

As with Woody Allen’s “early, funny films”, so Kieślowski made “early, political films”. Key examples of the so-called ‘Moral Anxiety’ movement, his films from Personnel (1975) to No End (1985) wrestled with the personal and sometimes existential challenges posed by living in Poland at a time of significant upheaval – albeit upheavals that Kieślowski and his colleagues were generally banned from discussing directly.

After frustrations over the treatment of Blind Chance (1981, but not released until 1987) and No End (1985), the first banned outright and the second given barely discernible distribution, Kieślowski abandoned politics for more universally human concerns with Dekalog (1989) and his four post-Communist features (The Double Life of Véronique, 1991; the Three Colours trilogy, 1993/1994). He announced his retirement after the premiere of Three Colours: Red, dying less than two years later following unsuccessful heart surgery at the age of just 54.  

The best place to start – Dekalog

A Short Film about Love (1988)

With a body of work this strong, there are numerous excellent places to start, but the fact that Kieślowski criticism often refers to “pre-Dekalog” and “post-Dekalog” highlights the obvious front-runner. A 10-part television series set around the same Warsaw housing estate, each episode showcases a breach of one of the Ten Commandments, but this is no didactic religious tract. Its many admirers included Stanley Kubrick, who said of it: “[Kieślowski and regular co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz] have the very rare ability to dramatise their ideas rather than just talking about them. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming, and don’t realise until later how profoundly they have reached your heart.”

Many people’s first exposure was via expanded episodes given cinema releases as A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. A Short Film About Killing, in which an agonisingly protracted murder is followed by a meticulously clinical but even more disturbing execution, is Kieślowski’s most fearsomely single-minded film, with cinematographer Sławomir Idziak turning Warsaw into a hellhole of bilious greens and browns (Ridley Scott later hired Idziak to give downtown Mogadishu similar treatment in 2001’s Black Hawk Down). A Short Film About Love applies a scalpel to a subject more usually given a soft-focus filter, anatomising the relationship between a young man barely into adulthood and a thirtysomething woman on whom he spies every night. As with Killing, Kieślowski never flinches: the sexual politics are messy and sometimes excruciating, but the title is finally justified by an extraordinary final sequence.

What to watch next

The Double Life of Véronique (1991)

Kieślowski’s best-known films are The Double Life of Véronique (1991) and the Three Colours trilogy (Blue, 1993; White and Red, both 1994), made for western European companies and largely in French. He’d have preferred to remain in Poland but felt that it would be inappropriate for a filmmaker of his international standing to avail himself of dwindling local production funds in the immediate post-Communist economic climate. Although Véronique and White are partly set on home turf, his concerns became more universal, indeed nudging the metaphysical, with enthralling scores by regular composer Zbigniew Preisner that are just as eloquent as any spoken content. 
Two decades earlier, the TV films Personnel (1975) and The Calm (1976, first shown 1980) are as strong as any of his early cinema features, the first being his most directly autobiographical film (its protagonist is a young backstage theatre assistant, as Kieślowski was himself), the second being the first of many collaborations with the marvellously hangdog Jerzy Stuhr, playing an ex-convict determined to keep his head down in the face of a politicised workplace situation that increasingly forces people to take sides. (Four years after Kieślowski’s death, Stuhr directed and starred in The Big Animal, a gently witty parable about man’s perennial intolerance of “the other” – here, an escaped circus camel – that was based on a previously unfilmed Kieślowski script.)

Blind Chance (1987)

Stuhr also appears in Camera Buff (1979) and Blind Chance, in the former as a factory worker who buys a home movie camera to record his life at home and at work, with the footage undergoing the kind of censorship processes with which Kieślowski himself was all too familiar. Blind Chance was the first of Kieślowski’s ‘high concept’ features, with a medical student (Bogusław Linda) finding his life diverging in three alternative directions (Communist, Catholic, neutral), depending on whether he catches a train and/or what happens after he misses it. The basic idea, if not the intertwined politics and philosophy, later fuelled British romcom Sliding Doors (1998).

Kieślowski’s non-fiction output deserves its own dedicated ‘Where to begin’ feature, but for the time being you can’t go far wrong with Refrain (1972), Bricklayer (1973), Hospital (1977), From a Night Porter’s Point of View (1979), Seven Women of Different Ages (1979) and especially Talking Heads (1980). The latter asks multiple people in ascending age order (one to a hundred) the same three questions: “When were you born?”, “Who are you?” and “What is most important to you?”, a disarmingly simple idea that unfurls a panorama of riveting sociological detail.

Where not to start

No End (1985)

No End is one of the most vital cinematic snapshots of the depressive funk into which politically aware Poles sank during the 1981 to 1983 martial law era – indeed, it’s surprising that it was greenlit at all. It’s also a fascinating harbinger of the later, more metaphysical Kieślowski films, opening as it does with a Solidarity lawyer (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz) calmly informing the audience that he died three days earlier, his ghost forced to watch his grieving widow struggle with the personal and political consequences of his premature departure. It’s an intensely moving experience – but its relentless bleakness makes it perhaps not ideal as a first Kieślowski film.

Kieślowski himself was retrospectively apologetic about his big-screen feature debut The Scar (1976), and he actively hated the TV film Short Working Day (1981), both of which concern ethical dilemmas facing middle-ranking Communist functionaries. That said, both have points of interest, the latter in particular for being the only Kieślowski film with an explicit historical setting (albeit just five years earlier, during the social unrest of 1976).  

As for his two industrial films, Between Wrocław and Zielona Góra and The Principles of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine (both 1972), Kieślowski delivered strictly according to the commissioning brief and later said, “I didn’t particularly want to, but it wasn’t a shameful thing to do. It’s a profession – film director. Sometimes you just have to render some services. It was boring, far more boring than anything else I’ve done, but I could live because of it.”

Three Colours: Blue is back in cinemas in a 4K restoration from 31 March, Three Colours: White from 7 April and Three Colours: Red from 14 April. All three will be at BFI Southbank from 26 May.

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