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Krzysztof Kieślowski

WHEN KRZYSZTOF KIEŚLOWSKI retired from cinema at 52 “to sit on a bench in Poland,” Cannes reporters seemed almost more shocked at the Poland part. (Why, when he could be sitting in Paris?) Two years later he left us wondering why anyone with his resources would have heart surgery in Warsaw. Few in the West understood the man’s ferocious Polish complex. Because he came to the attention of most film audiences only in the final phase of his career, while working in France, we barely grasped the extraordinary integrity of his life or his project, and even critics who praised the four French coproductions—The Double Life of Véronique and the Three Colors trilogy—groped to put these intimate domestic dramas in context. Arriving the same year (1994) as Pulp Fiction, Red was even attacked as fraudulent. I doubt that anyone familiar with the director’s entire career would make such a charge.

Kieślowski was born into World War II Poland. The German occupation launched the Kieślowski family on a series of relocations. After the war, his father, suffering from TB, moved from sanitarium to sanitarium while his mother supported the family by taking clerical jobs in nearby villages. Krzysztof himself had “bad lungs” and was often sent to “preventoria” for kids. He read. His sensibility, it’s clear in retrospect, was formed in pity and grief, and showed an inclination, a melancholic tilt, toward death.

He always represented himself as an accidental rather than a born filmmaker, claiming that the only reason he persevered in his application to the famed Lodz Film School—three tries in three years—was the look on his mother’s face when he failed. “I don’t know whether she was crying or whether it was the rain,” he said. It was an image he would re-create in film more than once.

In school he gravitated to documentary, a subversive genre in a country where citizens were forbidden to acknowledge the absurdity of daily reality. He and his friends were interested not in dramas of noble sacrifice but in the possibilities of neighborliness, decency, kindness toward the elderly. They wanted to help Poles bear their lives.

A passion for pattern and linkage is evident early on in his work. From the titles of his documentaries, it seems that he was compiling an encyclopedia of the city: The Tram (1966), The Office (1966), Factory (1970), Bricklayer (1973), Hospital (1976), Station (1980). . . . In his 15-minute Talking Heads, (1980), he posed three questions to 79 Poles ages 7 to 100: When were you born? What are you? What would you like most? In Seven Days a Week (1988), the segments from Monday to Saturday show slices of six different lives. On Sunday we find the six people sitting around a dinner table, members of the same family.

But documentary had a catch. After filming a woman through her pregnancy to the birth of a daughter (First Love, 1974), he began work on a sequel, with plans to follow the newborn to adulthood and her own pregnancy. Early on, though, he began to fear that anything he filmed could be used against the family, and he terminated the project. (Since his only child was born around the same time, this aborted documentary, a sort of crypto-Véronique, would have traced the life of his daughter’s double or proxy.)

One day, after filming in a train station (Station), Kieślowski had his footage confiscated by the police. He found out later that a girl had murdered her mother and hidden the body parts in one of the station’s lockers. Filming live, he realized, risked turning him into a police informer (compare this to democracies, where citizens vie to capture wrongdoing on camera). He quit making documentaries.

Despair for the genre informs the marvelous Camera Buff (1979), a densely packed inquiry into filmmaking under communism. A factory worker named Filip (Jerzy Stuhr) buys a primitive 8-millimeter camera to record the life of his newborn daughter—“month after month,” he promises—but he quickly grows infatuated with filming everything around him, including his workplace. (There he shoots, clumsily, a documentary about a dwarf coworker that Kieślowski himself had once planned to make.) When his amateur movie wins a prize, Filip becomes, touchingly, and much to his wife’s dismay, an obsessive cineaste.

Initially encouraging, factory authorities inform him that only some of reality is fit for public viewing. His wife walks out, taking his daughter; a mentor loses his job. A hero to some, Filip feels like a goat. Alone at the end, he turns the camera on himself and begins telling the story of his daughter’s birth—the opening of the movie we’re watching. As a form of artistic suicide, there’s much here that reflects Kieślowski’s own deep-seated frustrations with cinema.

Camera Buff offers other glimpses of Kieślowski to come: the fairy light playing around the infant’s eyes, a portentous broken mirror, red- and blue-lighted sections of film, as well as a narrative that wheels around on itself. Fifteen years later in Red (a story that has an analogue in the past), several of the lines spoken by Irène Jacob (in the role of the model Valentine) directly echo statements by Filip’s wife. Coincidentally, the daughter in Camera Buff is named Irene.

The 1981 Blind Chance could have been titled Triple Life of Witek: to dramatize his ideas about fate—that destiny chooses us—Kieślowski imagines three alternate futures for a young man racing after a train. In parallel scenarios Witek becomes a party official, an opposition leader, and an apolitical family man. As in Véronique, the “purest” character dies suddenly. In No End (1984), a young lawyer appears to his wife as a ghost, allowing Kieślowski to extend his exploration of alternate worlds to the afterlife—here, an escape from the official lies of martial law.

With its ten episodes based on the Commandments, the made-for-TV Decalogue (1988) is both a metaphysical soap opera and an immensely entertaining grammar of morals. Inhabitants of the same Warsaw housing project suffer various losses: loved ones, potency, a small fortune, life as it had been. In the eighth installment—the one that breaks the series’ domestic frame—a visitor from America arrives with preconceptions about wartime guilt and little appreciation for the degree to which history has put Poles in ethical danger. “What a strange country this is,” she observes once she begins to grasp the maze of secrets she’s wandered into.

Véronique, Blue, White, and Red could almost be set in one Mitteleuropa apartment complex—with Véronique called Yellow after its dominant filter. (Véronique leaps to Blue when the actor playing Véronique’s nurturing father becomes the doctor who tends Juliette Binoche’s Julie as she awakes from her coma). The four films have many rhyming elements and refer to earlier works, including the unfinished attempt to follow the life of a girl from birth to adolescence. (Kieślowski’s concerned, fatherly portraits of young women coincide with his daughter’s coming of age.) But while these later dramatic films retain strong elements of his early documentary work—the grounding in daily ritual, family, work, and a social world encompassing old and young—more and more Kieślowski seems summoned by beauty.

As a way of interrogating the lives and counterlives of his characters, Kieślowski and longtime screenplay collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz continued to develop their tantalizing system of signs (like the pulsating telephone signals that stand for heartbeats in Red). But he added new devices—shifting light, myriad reflections, wild camera angles, music, amplified sound—to work directly on viewers’ emotions. This ecstatic style exposed him to the scorn of those resistant to the spell. And I do mean spell. Watching Véronique recently, I noticed that my limbs were heavy; I’d entered a kind of trance and was transfixed, impaled by light. It’s possible to feel tears on your face and wonder if it’s raining.

Back in documentary days Kieślowski’s picked up a nickname, “Ornithologist,” for the quality of his attention. A patient spy, he watched for the soul to light and begin building its nest. In Blue, in order to show what Juliette Binoche was seeing, he had to superimpose an image over the actress’ pupil. By the time he made White, he’d found a 200-millimeter lens strong enough to view the passing world in Julie Delpy’s eye.

Georgia Brown is a film critic for The Village Voice, New York.