Krzyzstof Kieslowski, one of Poland's great directors, was reticent to talk about his beliefs.
"Faith is a possibility," said Kieslowski, who died an untimely death at age 54. "In Poland, it is an obligation." In fact, he once told an interviewer that he thought the church in his country actually hindered contact with God.
He told another interviewer, "I am not a non-believer," and yet another, "I think that if someone like a God above exists, someone who made everything around us, and made us too, then we very much slip out of his grasp."
Yet Kieslowski clearly had an interest in the spiritual, religious and metaphysical aspects of his characters, not only in his subject matter, but also in his transcendental style.
Influenced by Bergman, Bresson and Tarkovsky, Kieslowski's filmmaking is characterized by ambiguity, irony, philosophical discussions, long takes, and close-ups of objects, hands and faces. Yet unlike most European directors, his films are enormously engaging; Kieslowski captivates the attention with suspense, humor and ruthlessly efficient editing.
In his films, though, he was open to questions of faith, while he left room for the "searchers," as he termed himself. "All my films," he said, "are about individuals who can't quite find their bearings, who don't quite know how to live, who don't really know what's right or wrong and are desperately looking."
After a distinguished career in documentary filmmaking as part of the "Cinema of Moral Anxiety" (which also produced directors like Agnieszka Holland and Krzyzstof Zanussi), Kieslowski abandoned the form because he felt afraid of filming "real tears" and felt he could more accurately portray the world and human emotion through actors.
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Turning the camera on himself
Camera Buff marks his first major narrative film, and Kieslowski turns camera on himself, as he has said he does in all his films, but in this one most explicitly. The main character, played by Jerzy Stuhr, buys a camera to film his newborn daughter. As he gains notoriety with his filmmaking, he also loses his family and career, even his soul. With nothing left to film, he shoots himself—with the camera—and tells the story of what happened, a redemptive suicide and a confession in one stroke, two themes common in Kieslowski's films.
In the early '80s, he met a lawyer (now a Polish Senator), Krzyzstof Piesiewicz, who was to co-write all the rest of Kieslowski's films. Piesiewicz, who describes himself as a "Christian rather than a Catholic," is still writing, with a film coming out next year, titled Nadzieja, which translates as "Hope."
Kieslowski's next film, No End, analyzes how there is no end to the oppression of the Communist regime (although the Catholic Church also denounced the film), as a woman tries to carry on her dead husband's legal defense of a Solidarity hunger striker. The husband's ghost silently watches her without expression or interference. In the end she kills herself to be with her husband in a "happy ending."
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Blind Chance is the first of his "series" films in that it's three films in one. The main character, Witek (Boguslaw Linda), lives out three possible lives depending on if he catches a train or not. In the first story, Witek becomes a Communist, in the second, a resistance worker, and in the third he is apolitical. Kieslowski admitted that the third viewpoint, the apolitical, was closest to his own, while it's in the second story that Kieslowski gives most voice to the religious search, as Witek prays at one point, "I ask only one thing of you: be there." Yet in all three stories, Witek remains an essentially good person. Blind Chance influenced later films in the conditional tense like Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run.
Tackling the Ten
Kieslowski's next project was the monumental Decalogue, a series of ten one-hour films made for television, ostensibly about the Ten Commandments. "I was watching people who didn't really know why they were living," he says. Decalogue is ten stories about people who "suddenly realize that they're going round and round in circles, that they're not achieving what they want."
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Kieslowski says he did a lot of research before undertaking the project, but "didn't want to preach."
"We read everything it was possible to read in libraries: a mass of interpretations of the Commandments, discussions and commentaries on the Bible, both Old and New Testaments," he is quoted in the booklet that comes with the DVD boxed set. "But we decided fairly quickly to dispense with all this. Priests draw upon it every day and we weren't here to preach.
"We didn't want to adopt the tone of those who praise or condemn, handing out a reward here for the doing of Good and a punishment there for the doing of Evil. Rather, we wished to say: 'We know no more than you. But maybe it is worth investigating the unknown, if only because the very feeling of not knowing is a painful one.'
"Once this approach had been decided, we found it easier to solve the problem of the relationship between the films and the individual Commandments: a tentative one. The films should be influenced by the individual Commandments to the same degree that the Commandments influence our lives. We were aware that no philosophy or ideology had ever challenged the fundamental tenets of the Commandments during their several thousand years of existence, yet they are nevertheless transgressed on a routine basis."
Kieslowski and Piesiewicz decided to make the relations of the films to the commandments just as they are in our real lives: harder to paint in black and white, often ambiguous, and difficult to separate one from another—as you break one commandment, others often follow in its footsteps. Rather than becoming Sunday school illustrations, they become soul-stirring invitations to confront one's own demons and to recognize the few angels in our midst.
Because of the religious inception of the films, God is dealt with a little more explicitly than in his other movies. In the first episode, a young boy, Pavel, asks his aunt, "What's God?" In answer, she hugs him. Later the boy sees a postcard of Pope John Paul II and asks if he has the answers; his aunt answers that she thinks so. In a later episode there is another photo of the Pope, goofily putting his hands over his eyes like glasses: maybe he doesn't have all the answers. Pavel's father believes his computer instead of God, but finds his trust in technology to be tragically misplaced. He enters a church in despair and bumps into a table of candles; drips of wax fall down a painted icon of the face of Mary, as though she weeps for him.
In the eighth episode, an ethics professor is confronted with a haunting choice she made in the past, during the Holocaust. When her interlocutor asks her who judges what is Good, she replies, "He who is in all of us." But she adds, "I am reluctant to use the word God. One can believe without having to use certain words. Man was created in order to choose. … If so, perhaps we can leave God out of it."
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Two of the episodes were made into longer features, one titled A Short Film About Killing, which played a major role in the abolishment of capital punishment in Poland, and A Short Film About Love, about a young man who is a voyeur. The latter is Kieslowski's most Hitchcockian film, yet without the guilt; the young man truly loves the woman he watches, and brings about a change in her character with his confession and his suicide attempt after she humiliates him.
Most intriguingly, nearly all the Decalogue episodes feature a character, played by Artur Barcis, who never speaks, who has been called variously The Watcher, The Guardian, The Angel of Fate, and most recently Theophanes (by Joe Kickasola in his Spiritus Award-winning book, The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Liminal Image). Kieslowski and Piesiewicz merely refer to him as "The Young Man" in their scripts, and Kieslowski never said anything about him except that "He's not very pleased with us."
"If I had to formulate the message of my Decalogue," Kieslowski said, "I'd say, 'Live carefully, with your eyes open, and try not to cause pain."
A double life and inner lives
The Double Life of Vé ronique is another film with multiple stories, this time with two characters in separate locations, yet mysteriously related. One, Vé ronique, lives in Paris, the other Veronika, lives in Warsaw. Their lives interact in strange ways, often through sound and music. The theme of Fate in the film is, Kieslowski admits, "more a Greek than a religious concept."
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Kieslowski's late films shift the emphasis from the precise description of the world's bleak reality toward the expansive depiction of the main characters' rich inner lives through expressionistic cinematography, foregrounded music, and a greater emphasis on style, and an abundance of biblical allusions. Kieslowski also leans toward younger, female characters who, while weak in his earlier films, are some of his most masterful creations in his later ones.
As Kieslowski started to film more in France, he came under fire from the Polish film critics. In an essay titled "I Don't Like the Word 'Success'" he wrote a defense of his choices, and an assurance that he had not sold out. The differentiation he made between his films and Hollywood's was that Americans "care for the public's interests because they care about their wallets. … What I'm thinking of is caring also for the audience's spiritual life. Maybe that's too strong a word but something which is a little more than just box-office."
The three films of Three Colors are named Blue, White and Red, for the colors of the French flag, and they can be said to each analyze the three themes of the French motto: liberty, equality and fraternity. The color of the title plays a major role in the visual design of the films; you might even say the color is a character.
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In Blue, Julie (Juliette Binoche) tries to cut herself off from her feelings and from all contact with humanity after losing her husband and daughter in a car accident. Her husband was a composer, and Julie works with his proté gé to complete his masterwork (a similar pattern in some respects to No End). In editing the film, Kieslowski decided to add unusual fades to black with a strong surge of soundtrack music to show Julie's inability to face her grief: she shuts her eyes, yet always must open them again. The final shot is of Julie, finally able to weep for her loss and her self.
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White is one of Kieslowski's few comedies and, like all his comedies, a black comedy. (The last episode of Decalogue is another comedy, as is 2000's The Big Animal, written by Kieslowski and directed by Jerzy Stuhr). In White, the main character Karol, who is divorced by his wife for impotence, goes through many resurrections, perhaps the most humorous of which is his transport from France back to Poland in a suitcase. He ends up in a garbage dump.
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Kieslowski's magnum opus, Red, features Iré ne Jacob as a young woman who discovers an older man (Louis Trintignant), a former judge, who is eavesdropping on his neighbors with surveillance equipment. As Kieslowski put it, "We have better and better tools and less and less communication with each other. We only exchange information." The old judge in the story is hard not to see as an image of the director himself, somewhat like Prospero in Shakespeare's own swan song, "The Tempest." Red is "a film against indifference," Kieslowski said. The judge could also be said to be a figure for God, the God we fear in some parts of the Bible and the God we yearn for in others.
Kieslowski once said, "The God of the Old Testament is a demanding, cruel God—God who doesn't forgive, who ruthlessly demands obedience to the principles which He has laid down … . [He] leaves us a lot of freedom and responsibility, observes how we use it and then rewards or punishes, and there's no appeal or forgiveness. It's something which is lasting, absolute, evident and is not relative. And that's what a point of reference must be, especially for people like me, who are weak, who are looking for something, who don't know."
All three films end with the main character in close-up, icon-like, weeping for the first time in the story. Tears of glycerin, perhaps, but if you have allowed yourself to create the film with Kieslowski, tears that are more real than those in many documentaries.
Kieslowski retired suddenly after Red's release, to soon after succumb to heart disease, yet his legacy continues: Piesewicz has continued to work on their final trilogy, the three films which were to be called Heaven, Purgatory and Hell; two of the three have been made (Heaven and Hell). Since other directors helmed these films, how much of Kieslowski is in them is hard to say.
Another trilogy was hinted at, titled Faith, Hope and Love. It is unclear if Piesiewicz's film called Hope is the same story he thought of with Kieslowski; unlike their other posthumous releases, Kieslowski does not have screenwriting credit. We may never know what that final trilogy would have been like, a mystery Kieslowski himself would have relished.
Kieslowski said shortly before his death, "The world is not only bright lights, this hectic pace, the Coca-Cola with a straw, the new car. … Another truth exists … a hereafter? Yes, surely. Good or bad, I don't know, but … something else."
Filmmakers of Faith
, an occasional feature at Christianity Today Movies, highlights directors who adhere to the Christian faith—sometimes strongly, sometimes loosely, and sometimes somewhere in between. This series will include everyone from biblically-minded evangelicals to directors who may only have a "church background" and perhaps a lapsed faith … but their films are clearly informed by their spiritual history.
© Eric David 2006, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.