“The conclusion we came to about equality is that nobody really wants it”: Krzysztof Kieślowski on the Three Colours trilogy

In our June 1994 issue, we heard from the Polish auteur about his three-film masterwork, his homeland’s post-communism troubles and his retirement from filmmaking.

28 March 2024

By Tony Rayns

Three Colours: Red (1994)
Sight and Sound
This feature first appeared in the June 1994 issue of Sight and Sound

Hong Kong: 25 March. Dinner at the Pacific Club with Krzysztof Kieślowski, hosted by Golden Harvest, the local distributor of the Three Colours trilogy. Kieślowski is in town for the Hong Kong Film Festival (which opens with Blue and closes with White) and has spent the day giving interviews to promote the upcoming releases of the films. His producer Marin Karmitz, the ex-radical who runs the Paris production/distribution company MK2 , has faxed ahead with precise instructions for prospective interviewers: “No stupid questions.”

Kieślowski’s left forearm is in plaster (“A skiing accident – my first vacation in three years, and this happened on the second day”), but he is in high spirits. He is flying on to Tokyo next, and dinner-table talk about Japan prompts him to tell a very funny story about his first visit to the country years ago. His over-solicitous hosts, he recalls, kept asking him what he wanted to do in Japan, and he finally came up with two absurd requests to keep them quiet. But they took him seriously, and so he found himself roaring out of Tokyo on the latest 750cc Honda motorcycle… and then taken on a mysterious three-day trip into the mountains which climaxed with a fleeting glimpse of Emperor Hirohito.

It doesn’t surprise me that a Japanese PR person didn’t grasp Kieślowski’s irony, but the anecdote raises larger questions about his distinctive tone of voice. Irony was, of course, a key weapon in the armoury of all East European intellectuals in the communist years, and ironic quips come as easily to Kieślowski as one-liners do to Bill Murray. But how much of the current critical backlash against the director is founded on a mishearing of his tone of voice?

That question came to a head at the Berlin Film Festival in February, when Kieślowski gave a press conference on White that shocked many hacks present by its apparent sarcasm and cynicism. He also announced that he has no plans to make more films after the trilogy. The Berlin audience had no trouble with White itself (it polled high in the local newspaper surveys), but journalists – some of whom booed the announcement of Kieślowski’s Best Director prize – seemed to feel either shortchanged by the film’s ‘lightweight’ tone or outraged by the man’s insistence that he has had enough of working as a film director.

Berlin: 15 February. White premieres in the festival, and turns out to be the trilogy’s scherzo: a black comedy about an unconsummated Polish-French marriage, a messy divorce and a problematic sexual-emotional reunion. The storyline intersects only very briefly with that of Blue (we now see that it was Zbigniew Zamachowski and Julie Delpy’s divorce hearing that Juliette Binoche nearly barged into when she went to the Paris courthouse to look for her late husband’s mistress), but both films climax with extremely emotive love scenes in which the protagonists overcome their mindsets and surrender to their hearts. The humour springs less from the tribulations of the central couple than from the accompanying picture of Poland in the 90s: a country of swindlers, strong-arm men and criminals where it is possible to buy anything at all, including a fresh Russian corpse.

Two days after the screening, the PR people working for MK2 allow me 45 minutes with Kieślowski. Much of what he tells me echoes and amplifies his succinct answers at the press conference; as I transcribe the interview, I am several times struck by the thought that it would be easy to misunderstand these words, to hear them as bitter or arrogant. I can only say they didn’t sound like that at the time; the problem is that level of irony again. Kieślowski speaks better-than-viable English, but this interview was given in Polish and simultaneously interpreted in both directions by an unnamed translator. The whole thing was conducted at amazing speed, partly because of the time constraints and partly because that’s the way Kieślowski thinks.

Two brief caveats. First, this is not a complete transcript of the interview but an edited selection from it. Second, this was conducted before I saw either Red, which provides a new perspective on the trilogy as a whole, or Danusia Stok’s excellent book Kieślowski on Kieślowski, which is a fascinating counterpoint to a viewing of the man’s films and clarifies his reasons for wanting to retire from film-making.

Krzysztof Kieślowski

Tony Rayns: Why a trilogy? Why isn’t one film enough?

Krzysztof Kieślowski: Because it makes everything more interesting. Differing points of view are inherently more interesting than one point of view. Since I don’t have any answers but do know how to pose questions, it suits me to leave the door open to varying possibilities. I realised this some years ago. I don’t want to pose as a relativist, because I’m not one, but I have to admit that there’s an element of relativism in play here.

Is White in some sense a parody of the other films in the trilogy, in the way that Decalogue 10 parodied aspects of that series?

You could see it that way. But I think Red is different in tone. It’s hard to put a handle on it.

Isn’t the ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ theme a pretext, just as the Ten Commandments were for Decalogue?

Yes, exclusively that.

So you don’t lie awake at night worrying about such themes?

No, but I did spend a lot of time thinking about them.

How seriously do you discuss these things with your co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz?

We crack a lot of jokes. We talk about cars, about women. The conclusion we came to about equality is that nobody really wants it. Karol in White doesn’t want equality, he wants to be better than others.

Did anyone pressure you to make the three parts of the trilogy in different countries?

No, I did it this way because I wanted to. The issues these films raise are deeply rooted in European traditions, so it was natural to spread them around Europe. The production company helped us decide where to shoot, but nobody forced us.

This isn’t a case like The Double Life of Veronique, where there’s a material relationship between the financing and the structure of the story?

Actually, that film didn’t need to be a co-production between Poland and France. You could imagine it done with one girl living in Kraków and the other in Gdańsk. I didn’t frame the story of Veronique that way because of the financial background to the production; the subject itself was something close to my heart.

But the way you finally made the film did reflect the financing?

For sure. But this trilogy is a rather different case. I don’t think these storylines are as original as the one in Veronique, and anyway, these are mainly French films.

You have a strong sense of humour, but there isn’t much evidence of it in serious films like Veronique and Blue.

It’s true that I have a certain sense of… irony. Sometimes you have to laugh, but I think it’s worth trying to be serious from time to time. It’s difficult to do both at the same time, but I hope that White strikes the odd lyrical note. For example, the character Mikolaj, who wants to die – he’s kind of serious.

Three Colours: White (1993)

What’s the song Karol plays on the comb in the Metro?

A pre-war Polish song, every Pole knows it. It’s stupid and sentimental; we sing it when we drink. It goes: “This is our last Sunday, tomorrow we part forever…” We become very sentimental when we drink.

White offers a fairly scathing picture of post-communist Poland.

Only in the background. But yes, that’s the way it is now – unfortunately.

You still live in Poland?

Yes. I see it with a certain bitterness. I’m not against Polish entrepreneurialism, but people now care for nothing but money. I don’t know what happened to us.

Do people in Poland resent the fact that you’re working abroad?

Patriots do, yes. Normal people, I hope don’t.

Who are these patriots? Do they have any power?

Nationalists, fascists, call them what you like. They’re a crazy minority, but they shout loudly enough to be heard. They have newspapers, and access to television.

Last year in Poland, I found a widespread desire to come to terms with the past – for example, the treatment of the Jews. But the election result suggested a nostalgia for the ‘security’ of the communist period…

What you say is evident, but I don’t think it’s just. For me, it wasn’t that the Left won, it was that the Right lost. That’s not the same thing. There’s no nostalgia for the Left. After 45 years of being told what was good and what was bad, Polish people have had enough of it. They don’t want someone else telling them the same story, even if the meanings are reversed. What happened was that they threw out the Right and the Church.

Three Colours: White (1994)

Do you see a way forward for Poland?

I think we have to die first, all of us. Eventually there will be new people with new ideas. It’s not just a generational change, it’s a matter of changing a way of thinking that has been inculcated for 45 years. I can’t see it taking less than two generations. Decades of Marxist education have left Poland unable to think in normal human terms. We can only think in terms of Left and Right.

You’ve said you won’t make any more films. So how come I’ve seen the outline for a film you’ve written for the BFI’s ‘Century of Cinema’ series?

That’s just a short film for television. I promised to do it some time ago, so it’s just a matter of fulfilling a promise. But the financial side of it hasn’t been sorted out yet; I hope they won’t find the money, so I won’t be obliged to do it.

Why do you want to stop making films?

I don’t have enough patience for it any more. I didn’t realise it, but it suddenly dawned on me: I’ve run out of patience. And patience is a fundamental requirement in this line of work.

Does the situation in Poland have anything to do with it?

No, I’ve just become old. I want to live normally. I’ve had no normal life for the past 20 years, and I want to go back to having one.

Are you rich? Don’t you need to work?

Not that rich, but I don’t need many things. I have enough to live… peacefully.

How will you fill your days?

There are many books I haven’t read. Or books that I’ve read four times and want to read three times more.

You’ll be missed.

Don’t worry, someone else will come along.

Three Colours: Red (1994)

London: 8 May. Red closes the Three Colours trilogy – and Kieślowski’s career as a director – on a magisterial note of wish-fulfilment. Each of the film’s four main characters is a distinct centre of interest with her or his own narrative orbit; and these orbits intersect only occasionally and sometimes in surprising ways. But one of them, the retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, sees himself as a silent and embittered god. Emotionally wounded by a faithless lover and morally shaken by episodes in his courtroom, he has retreated from society to live alone and eavesdrop on his neighbours’ phone conversations, exultantly monitoring the messes they, too, are making of their lives.

His stance is changed by the accidental arrival in his life of the young model Valentine (Irène Jacob): he moves from passive observation to intervention. He is too old to romance her himself, and so (thanks to a mystical transference that could only have come from the director of The Double Life of Veronique) he lines her up with a younger surrogate of himself, a young man he has never met but who is busy reliving the judge’s own youthful experiences. In other words, the judge starts playing god in an active sense, manipulating lives and relationships. Kieślowski knows as well as you or I that this is also what a film director does. The closing scene of Red amounts to a brilliant synthesis of the judge’s handiwork and the director’s vision. And since it’s a scene that involves the protagonists of Blue and White, it also brings the entire trilogy to a tremulous but emotionally satisfying conclusion. Not bad for a filmmaker who says he has trouble with endings.

Liberty, equality and fraternity may well have been the starting points for Kieślowski and Piesiewicz’s thinking about Three Colours, but this is finally a trilogy about love in the 90s. It’s not giving much away to say that all three films quicken in pace as they move towards climaxes in which the characters discover in themselves an unsuspected capacity for reciprocating intense feelings. In all three cases, this involves putting behind them earlier relationships that they believed at the time to be happy and fulfilling. For Julie in Blue, it means accepting that her idyllic marriage was a sham, acknowledging her own role in co-writing her late husband’s music and opening herself to the sincere affections of Olivier. For Karol and Dominique in White, it means outgrowing the whirlwind excitement of their hasty marriage – seen in ironic, slow-motion flashbacks – and realising that their attempts to destroy each other were actually declarations of love. And for Valentine in Red, it means splitting from her jealous, absent boyfriend and embracing the possibilities revealed to her by the judge. Of the three, Valentine’s future seems the least secure, since circumstances have only just thrown her together with Auguste, the young man who is perhaps the judge’s younger self. But everything is in place to push her into the new relationship: the judge’s design, Kieślowski’s story structure, and the audience’s will.

Three Colours: Red (1994)

The trilogy is also, of course, about colour: about blue as the colour of remembering and melancholy, about white as the colour of weddings and orgasms, about red as the colour of jeeps and emergency rescue services. That’s a jokey way of saying that Kieślowski integrates his colour motifs into the social and psychological fabric of his storylines, making connections and finessing moods. This relates to other visual strategies in the trilogy: the recurring play of light on Julie’s face in Blue, the four fades to black at moments when time stands still in Blue, the cuts from light to darkness in White, the disquieting tracking shots (disquieting because not tied to anybody’s point of view, even when they initially seem to be) in Red. These and Kieślowski’s other formal strategies are hardly avant-garde, and audiences (if not critics) clearly have no trouble reading them, but they are arresting enough to give the trilogy a creative energy missing from most other mainstream film-making these days.

Two years ago, introducing an Edward Yang retrospective in a film festival catalogue, I wrote: “Imagine a kind of film-making that’s truly in tune with the ways you think and relate to other people. A deeply humane kind of film-malting, but free from ‘humanist’ lies and sentimental evasions. Not a dry, ‘realistic’ kind of film-making, but one in which all the imaginative and creative efforts have gone into understanding the way we are. A kind of film-making as sensitive to silence as to speech, and alert to the kind of meanings we prefer to hide away. To my knowledge, only two directors in the world are currently making films like that. One is Krzysztof Kieslowslti in Poland. The other is Edward Yang in Taiwan.”

When I wrote that, I had no idea that Kieślowski was interested in Yang’s work (he is, and asked me about it over dinner in Hong Kong), or that the Three Colours trilogy would move into and take over the territory mapped out by Yang in The Terroriser – that inexplicable terrain where the aleatory becomes objective chance and lives intersect as if fulfilling some higher design. Neither director is at all religious in the orthodox sense, but Kieślowski is no doubt the more ‘spiritual’ of the two: the more willing to privilege moments of sixth-sense intuition and the more receptive to ideas such as the existence of the soul and parallel lives. But both men are perfectly in tune with the patterns, issues, tics and tropes, of modern life, and Kieślowski’s ultimate achievement in Three Colours is to have pinpointed the mood of Europe in the 90s. Of course, he is right that another critical darling will soon come along to replace him. But who else is going to do for Europe what Edward Yang is doing for Asia?

More on Kieślowski

“I know it’s unfashionable, but I believe in humanity”: Krzysztof Kieslowski on the Decalogue

By Phil Cavendish

“I know it’s unfashionable, but I believe in humanity”: Krzysztof Kieslowski on the Decalogue

Three Colours Silver: Europe 25 years after Kieslowski’s trilogy – a video essay

By Leigh Singer

Three Colours Silver: Europe 25 years after Kieslowski’s trilogy – a video essay

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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