Thursday, November 9, 2006

Revelations of the Human Soul


"When Krzysztof Kieslowski died on March 13, 1996, it was as though
a certain kind of cinema had come to an end along with him. The calm,
reflective, compassionate gaze he brought to bear on the dilemmas
faced by his characters made him the most humanistic of film directors."
-- Richard Williams in The Guardian

Kieslowski's best Jeremy Irons impression


I'm always interested in the early work of major filmmakers. It isn't that I expect to enjoy such films -- although that's a nice bonus -- but that I hope to learn something from them. Maybe I'll gain greater insight into their creator; maybe I'll gain greater insight into his/her career -- ideally, both. In other words, I long gave up on the assumption that I'll like the early material. That's a fool's game, and I've gotten burned before. Everybody has to start somewhere, after all, and few begin at the top. (Or, if they do, there's the very real possibility that there's nowhere to go but down).

All of this is to say that, in Revelations of the Human Soul, the Northwest Film
Forum focuses on the early work of the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski (born 1941). Until recently, I was only familiar with the Decalogue and Three Colors, but that's a little like saying one is "only" familiar with Berlin Alexanderplatz. In other words, if you haven't seen the latter, you can't really say you know Fassbinder, as
he considered it his defining work, and everything he did relates to it in some way.
The same is true of Kieslowski, although I'd rather not choose which is superior --
the series, which was inspired by the Ten Commandments, or the trilogy, which
was inspired by the concepts behind the French flag (liberty, equality, fraternity).
Both are essential. While the NWFF isn't screening Blue, White, and Red or the complete Decalogue, the program includes shorts, features, and full-length versions of Decalogue entries A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love.
The shorts are divided into four programs: Student Shorts and Early Documentaries, Kieslowski on Daily Life, Kieslowski on Politics and Protest, and Final Documentary Shorts. The earliest, The Office, shot by hidden camera, is from 1966. The latest, From a Night Porter's Point of View, is from 1980. Six were screened for critics.
In all honesty, I disliked Before the Rally (Student Shorts) and Factory (Daily Life), both fly-on-the-wall looks at workers in dramatically different fields, international racing and national social security. I don't have much to say about either, other than that I found them dull. As such, I wouldn't recommend these films to Kieslowski neophytes, although his concern for regular people, his innate humanism, comes through loud and clear. (Factory is an extra on the Double Life of Véronique DVD.)
Jozef Malesa in The Bricklayer (1973)
With I Was a Soldier (Student Shorts), Bricklayer (Daily Life), and Seven Women of Different Ages (Final Shorts), however, I felt I was getting a glimpse into the mind
of the man who made A Short Film about Love (1988) and Red (1994), my favorite Kieslowski efforts. (The other selections felt as if they could've been made by almost anyone). The NWFF also screened a short called Slate, a compilation of outtakes from The Scar (1976), which is amusing at first, but quickly becomes repetitive.
What I liked best about I Was a Soldier (1970) is that Kieslowski arranges information about these veterans so that each recollection builds on the one that precedes it. In this black and white film, he simply lets them talk about their war experiences. The more they talk, the more they reveal. At first, they don't seem to have much in common, but then we realize that all suffered the same injury (I won't say what, as I didn't know at first). They haven't dealt with it in the same way, but each man has vivid dreams about the person he used to be. This is quite a moving documentary; it isn't heavy-handed -- never obviously anti-war or pro-disability --
but deeply sympathetic, nonetheless. This is also true of Bricklayer, a portrait of a Polish everyman, and Seven Women of Different Ages, which offers glimpses of ballerinas at every stage of life, from hard-working student to stern teacher.
Other than the two Decalogue segments, in their made-for-TV length (60 versus 86 minutes), I'm not familiar with the other Kieslowski films in the series. Titles include Camera Buff (1979), Blind Chance (1987), and No End (1985). Based on the description alone, Camera Buff sounds like the one to catch, if you were only going to catch one, since it concerns an amateur photographer (actor-turned-director Jerzy Stuhr, White) whose obsession with his hobby ruins his life. In its outline, Camera seems like the filmmaker's ultimate nightmare: that the thing he loves best will destroy him.
And who's to say Kieslowski wasn't predicting his own death at the age of 54?
Like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and other legendary obsessives, Kieslowski was so productive that he was unable to film all of the screenplays he wrote (or for which he drafted treatments), hence Heaven and
Hell were directed by Tom Tykwer and Danis Tanovic, respectively, just as François Ozon took on Water Drops on Burning Rocks (Fassbinder), George Hickenlooper took on The Big Brass Ring (Welles), and Steven Spielberg took on A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Kubrick). I'm glad these films were made and that these legacies continue --
and more are on the way -- but there's just no substitute for the real thing.
Whenever I watch a movie that's struggling to be meaningful, I think of Kieslowski, since such works usually miss the mark. At his best, Kieslowski couldn't be more profound, but I never sense a "struggle" or desire to impress, as I do in the work
of spiritual heirs, like Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel). It's not that I don't like
the Mexican director's work; just that I don't think his jigsaws are as deep or clever as they at first appear (not so with the Dardennes, who say more with less).
In Kieslowski's mature material, it feels as if it came naturally to him to explore what -- beyond language, culture, and other exterior trappings -- connects people. These early films indicate that that wasn't the case; that he had to grow into his brilliance, and I'll always be grateful he lived long enough for that to happen.
seven women.jpg
Dancers in Seven Women of Different Ages (1978)
"In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, movies counted.
Because everyone was against the communist system, it
was easy for us to tell stories the public understood, even
during censorship. Now, the audience doesn't know what it
wants to see, and we don't know what we want to say."
-- Kieslowski in 1994
runs from 11/10-19 at the Northwest Film Forum. Click here for the full schedule.
Passes available. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between
Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here. You can also call
206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.


  1. Kathy, I enjoyed reading your blog entry "Revelations of the Human Soul". The film Camera Buff was a major turning point for Kieslowski. He wanted to show in this film just what he began to realize at that time himself - that filmed reality is not reality at all but a perception of it; a controlled one. The last minute of this film conveys this perfectly.
    Kieslowski made his films partly for the audience but also partly for himself to try to make sense of his own existence. He didn't regard his earlier documentaries well because they did not do quite what he wanted them to do. But with the Double Life Of Veronique and the Three Colors Trilogy he felt he was moving closer to what he was aiming for. Something he knew and admitted that literature was better at; where dialogue was less necessary for understanding.
    Incidentally, the Northwest Film Forum details are on my site Weronika's World together with other events if you're interested:
    I run a blog on Kieslowski's films that you're very welcome to add your views/reviews at:
    Other news I received last night is that Irene Jacob, Krzysztof Zanussi and Agnieska Holland had to pull out from attending the "Hommage A Kieslowski" event taking place this evening in Tourcoing, France but that a video will be shown in their absence:

  2. I highly recommend No End (Friday, Nov.17). It played at SIFF in '86 or so. Images from it are still lodged in my brain 20 years later. Deeply melancholy, and probably his most political narrative film. Blind Chance--which inspired the Gwyneth Paltrow movie, Sliding Doors--is also a must-see, especially for admirers of the Blue/White/Red trilogy. Again, it's more explicitly political than his more famous movies.

  3. Thanks so much for your comments. I hope I'm able to catch "Camera Buff," "No End," and "Blind Chance" (but with my schedule, this is doubtful). I wish they weren't only screening for one day a piece. At the time of its release, many seemed to think "Sliding Doors" was inspired by "The Double Life of Veronique," but that's probably because they were more familiar with the later film. Don't know if anyone caught "Hell" at this year's SIFF, but it was deeply disappointing. Beautiful to look at, but ultimately empty--something I could never say about Kieslowksi's work.