If you know any of the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski, it’s probably his final works: the Three Colours films (1993-4), The Double Life of Véronique (1991) and Decalogue (1989), his cycle of films loosely based on the Ten Commandments.
But when Decalogue first brought him to the attention of the West, Kieślowski had already been making documentaries and feature films in Poland for almost 20 years. And it’s this work that the ICA is currently celebrating in its Decalogue 25th Anniversary Retrospective.
While his final films quickly became familiar bookings on the art house circuit, the documentaries and early features are very seldom screened in Britain. But then even when they were brand new these films weren’t always seen in Poland either, because, like many artists working under Communism, Kieślowski’s films frequently fell foul of state censorship. For example, his 1976 TV film The Calm, the story of a former prisoner looking for work and love, was withheld from broadcast for six years.
Why? Because in the course of its action it depicted a strike and showed prisoners working on a building site. When the Vice President of Television told the film-maker that that scene had to be cut because prisoners didn’t work outside prisons in Poland, Kieślowski pointed out they could see prisoners working on the tramlines from the very office they were standing in.
‘That’s exactly why you have to cut that scene out,’ replied the Vice President.
Kieślowski did as he was told, but the film was still shelved. ‘When The Calm was finally shown,’ the film-maker later remarked, ‘it was a period piece.’
But despite film-making coming under harsher censorship than other art forms in 1970s Poland, Kieślowski believed it still offered the best description of Polish life at the time. His first feature, Personnel (1975), succeeded in mixing documentary and drama elements in its depiction of an idealistic young man having his illusions of art challenged when he goes to work as a dresser at the opera. (Kieślowski had earlier worked as a dresser in a theatre.) The Scar (1976) is about a man building a chemical factory against the wishes of local people, while Camera Buff (1979) follows a modest man whose hobby of making cine films leads to him becoming fêted as a film-maker, until he finds himself trapped by his own footage. In each, the individual is surprised to find himself up against the group.
Meanwhile, Kieślowski’s documentaries observed everyday life – doctors working in a hospital, the characters around Warsaw Central Station, a married couple’s first year together.
But by the early 1980s, Kieślowski felt that he’d reached the limits of this depiction of Polish life both in features and documentaries. ‘I noticed,’ he said of documentaries in the book Kieślowski on Kieślowski, ‘that the closer I wanted to get to an individual, the more the subjects which interested me shut themselves off.’
Thus, his 1981 drama Blind Chance marked a shift away from examining contemporary society and focused more on the individual’s inner life. In a premise now better known from the film Sliding Doors, a man runs for a train. Three outcomes are followed: in the first he catches the train, in the second he gets into a scuffle with a station guard, and, lastly, he simply misses the train. But the long-term consequences of catching or not catching the train prove to be radically different.
Again, Kieślowski’s film met with disapproval from the censor. While not overtly political, the story shows the protagonist’s path to becoming a Party member or a dissident is not based on political conviction but, well, blind chance. The film-maker had dismissed political engagement with a philosophical shrug. Then, just as the film was completed in 1981, martial law was declared in Poland and the film was shelved by the authorities. It was six years before it surfaced at the Cannes Film Festival.
But without martial law, Kieślowski may well never have made Decalogue. Seeking an informed collaborator with whom to write a film about court cases during martial law, the film-maker approached the lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz. The pair would go on to write all of Kieślowski’s subsequent films. Indeed, the director said: ‘It’s very often Krzysztof who has the basic ideas; ones which, in fact, look as if they can’t be filmed. And I defend myself against them of course.’
And theirs was perhaps an unusual team. ‘Piesiewicz doesn’t know how to write,’ Kieślowski said of his co-writer, ‘but he can talk and he can think. We spend hours talking about our friends, our wives, our children, our skis…but we keep going back to what would be useful for the story we’re inventing.’
Their first film, No End (1984), feels like Three Colours: Blue set against martial law. Just as Juliette Binoche’s character is widowed in the opening minutes of Blue and the story follows her grief and efforts to live beyond the personal and professional shadow cast by her late husband, so in No End a lawyer’s wife is widowed and the film charts her struggle to live on, as well as her involvement in one of her husband’s trials.
The film was hated by the authorities (it was against martial law), as well the opposition (they were seen to have failed), and the Church (for the sex at the very least), but the audiences who managed to see it – it was deliberately poorly distributed – loved it.
‘Never in my life have I received so many letters or phone calls from people I didn’t know,’ Kieślowski later commented. ‘And all of them said that I’d spoken the truth about martial law.’ Not that the film included headline images of tanks or riots. Instead, as was increasingly Kieślowski’s interest, the film represented ‘the state of our minds and the state of our hopes’ during that time.
One day some time later, the two Krzysztofs bumped into each other in Warsaw. ‘Someone should make a film about the Ten Commandments,’ Piesiewicz said to Kieślowski. ‘You should do it.’
The pair settled on the format of ten one-hour TV films (Decalogue 5 and 6 were also expanded into feature-length movies –A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love). By largely dismissing contemporary politics as a subject and ignoring the queues and ration cards in Polish daily life that might limit the films’ broader relevance, the film-makers made their stories universally significant, suspecting – correctly – they might reach an international audience.
Examined with a serious but compassionate eye, Decalogue’s characters are everyday people living on the same Warsaw housing estate who find themselves in extraordinary ethical situations: a woman asks a doctor to play God with the life of her unborn child; a teenage boy falls in love spying on the sex life of a neighbour, but she doesn’t believe in love; a woman draws a former lover away from his wife on Christmas Eve and ropes him into searching for her missing husband.
Of course, A Short Film about Killing (Decalogue 5), the closest of the series to Kieślowski’s heart, is political. The story of a newly qualified lawyer given the hopeless case of defending a teenage murderer who will receive the death sentence, the film is an indictment of violence – both the murder and capital punishment in Poland. By chance, the film was released just at the time when capital punishment was being debated again. Whether or not the film influenced the debate, the death sentence was suspended and has now been abolished in Poland.
Receiving international critical acclaim, Decalogue set Kieślowski on the world stage of film-makers as Communism fell across Europe and borders opened up for him to work easily abroad.
For some, Decalogue was the creative peak of Kieślowski’s life, while for many outside Poland it was the first work of his that they’d ever heard about.
In the West we only really encountered the final five years of Kieślowski’s 25 year career. This retrospective is a chance to catch up on the previous 20. Decalogue is the point where we came in, now you have the chance to understand where Kieślowski was coming from when he made it.
Krzysztof Kieślowski: The Decalogue 25th Anniversary Retrospective runs from November 27 to December 9 at the ICA.