by Roy Anker
Out of the Darkness
Few expected it, and news of it came with a deep-down jolt, like the surprise death of a friend who'd shown you what good there was in living. Even celebrities die, of course, and while we miss Stewart, Hepburn, and Peck—artists who made figments laugh, sweat, and sorrow, and we along with them—and see in their passing a token of our own, we accept the order of things and move on. The death of Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski in March, 1996, at the age of 54, was more like losing that dear friend.
Yes, when he died Kieslowski was a world-class director at the top of his game—perhaps even, in the not eccentric judgment of Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, "the most accomplished filmmaker in the world." But lots of folks dazzle with a camera. What distinguished Kieslowski above all—what made his sudden absence deeply felt—was the stories he chose to tell and the way in which he told them. The achievement came in the eerie, enveloping, worlds he conjured. And "conjure" is not too strong a word. Their power seemed magical, unfolding with the logic of dreams. Like an illusionist pulling wonders from a hat, a trunk, a handkerchief, Kieslowski worked his magic with ordinary stuff, plumbing the everyday-always human wrestle with the possibilities of fate, freedom, faith, love, and especially God.
Kieslowski was already dead and gone before he became well-known in the United States. Only his last four films, done feverishly between 1990 and 1994, were released in the United States, and then only in artsy places. And, not least for dumb bureaucratic reasons, they did not have an easy time of it. Until Three Colors: Red (1994), his last picture, the Academy Awards excluded his work because of their odd national origin (Polish but filmed in France and Switzerland). What many critics regard as Kieslowski's masterwork, The Decalogue (1988), a Polish television series on the Ten Commandments, was finally commercially released here just last year. Prior to that one had to be lucky enough to get tickets for rare showings at big-city art venues. Now, though, The Decalogue and his Three Colors trilogy (1993-94) are wonderfully available in pristine splendor on DVD editions stuffed with all sorts of extra goodies like audio commentaries, interviews, and even "cinema lessons" by the master himself. At last, alleluia, everyone can join the party. Which makes this a good time to revisit the life and work of a filmmaker who doesn't fit any of the fashionable generalizations about the movies these days.
Kieslowski's career began with brief, slice-of-life political documentaries, after a go at firefighter school, from which he dropped out, and training at the prestigious Lodz Film Academy, from which he graduated in 1969. By 1973 he had moved to writing and directing television fiction features that meshed the political and existential. His first commercial feature, Scar (1973), examined the conflict between political good intentions and obdurate human nature. Camera Buff (1979) tells of a young man who buys a camera simply to record the coming of his child, and to disastrous consequence, the device soon takes over his life. Blind Chance (1982) begins Kieslowski's lasting preoccupation with chance and choice. Young medical student Witek misses a train, a common enough occurrence, but from there Kieslowski details three radically different futures that spin from this seemingly innocuous event.
Happily, Kieslowski's life then took its own decisive turn when he met lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who thereafter coauthored all the screenplays. Their first collaboration, No End (1985), tracked a widow whose dead activist lawyer husband quite literally haunts her as she mourns and tries to dispose of his unfinished cases, particularly the plight of a Solidarity organizer. The two Krzysztofs were rather taken aback when Poland's major institutions—the Church, Solidarity, and the government—all condemned the film. It was Piesiewicz who suggested, half in jest, that they should play it safe (and recoup their reputation) by doing the Ten Commandments.
The result was a ten-part series for Polish television that occupies the opposite extreme from Charlton Heston's bathrobe blustering on Sinai. Each of the hour-long stories attends to one of the commandments as it pertains to different lives in a large high-rise apartment complex in Warsaw. Far from pious didacticism, the films display the tangled weight of the perennial moral-spiritual struggles that the commandments address.
The first, on "no other gods," is as wrenching as cinema gets. A father and son trust a computer to determine the thickness of the ice—to disastrous consequence—and the story ends, de profundis, in a church. In the second, on taking God's name in vain, a woman violinist asks an aging neighbor physician to determine if her seriously ill husband will die. The answer will dictate if she, pregnant by another man, will have an abortion. In number five, on killing, a young vagrant ineptly kills a taxi driver only to be executed efficiently, though just as coldly, by the state. The last, a dark comedy on coveting, follows two brothers after they discover that their newly dead father possessed an invaluable stamp collection.
And so they go, deft, incisive, and harrowing, disclosing what's at stake in the inescapable encounter with those trite-seeming epigrams on how the self should behave in a thorny, exigent world. As for God, well, the first ends in despair wrought of arrogance, the second in doubly new life and talk of miracle, and the last in the nothingness wrought of greed. And often hanging about is a mysterious silent "presence," a young (angelic?) stranger who quietly broods on the odd turns of this universe in microcosm.
Kieslowski's first international release, The Double Life of Veronique (1991), initiated the last phase of his career, one where theme and cinematic style entwine to explore overtly theological turf, although many academic critics dismiss this reading. The Double Life is a disquieting tale of two young women (Irene Jacob playing both), one in Poland and one in France, who not only share the same name but also, though they know nothing of one another, a vague awareness of the other's "presence."
The scenario seems canned and corny, the makings of a cooked-up horror tale—unless one is "in it," which is where Kieslowski puts us. Once there, he weaves a path into the shadowy bright depths of human connectedness and sacrifice. The Double Life suggests that in finding answers to the big questions about God and meaning, much depends on apprehending the import of amply cryptic "riddles, signs, portents, coincidences and sudden, odd strokes of fate."1 In Kieslowski's world, these omens beckon befogged humanity toward recognition that divine love summons all people to its embrace.
The Double Life seems a fit prolegomenon for Kieslowski's last major enterprise, his Three Colors trilogy. The colors in question are those of the French flag: white is equality, blue liberty, and red fraternity. In the majestic first film, Three Colors: Blue (1993), a young widow, Julie (Juliette Binoche), having lost her daughter and famous composer husband in an auto accident (so Kieslowski lost his mother), uses her new "freedom" to live without attachment, thought, and feeling. Until, that is, Julie begins at last to attend to the out-of-nowhere music which, like the voice of God, has regularly invaded her consciousness since the fatal accident. (The stunning score, like all of Kieslowski's music, is composed by Zbiegnew Priesner.)
Though Julie tries to obliterate the disquieting eruptions, remnants of her dead husband's unfinished "Symphony for the Unification of Europe," they persist as a sort of spiritual presence that prods her to love life again, despite its manifold perils for the heart. Most academic critics contend, in a serious case of tone-deafness, that the music is simply repressed memory, even though Kieslowski repeatedly specifically identifies the film's mysteries with the love of God.
As Julie's favorite color, the color blue pervades Blue, and it assumes multiple meanings, everything from Julie's liberty and depression to the ultimacy of love. Color carries the same weight in Three Colors: Red (1994), the conclusion of the trilogy. A young student and part-time model, Valentine (Irene Jacob again), returns a dog she has run over to the owner, an embittered retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who, it turns out, has been elaborately eavesdropping on his neighbors' lives (instead of living his own). An unlikely pair though they prove, their lives entwine, though not romantically, and love comes to redeem the judge and deliver the young woman into love and (along with the principals from the other two films in the trilogy) away from disaster.
The color red, here identified with fraternity, soaks the film. On the one hand, it is the color of blood, the physical stuff by which creatures live and die, and it also signifies the passion of romantic love, the mystery by which human life perpetuates. Finally, though, red an-nounces the same agape in which a resplendent chorus exults at the end of Blue.
Kieslowski's growing audience cuts wide and deep and includes, once exposed, late adolescent American males of the sort of who usually relish bang-bang intergalactic car chases. He is a lean, minimalist storyteller; the old-fashioned word "gracile" fits best. His editing pares away anything that does not deepen the story's emotional and narrative depth. Typically his films feel much longer than they are—not because they drag, but because they immerse viewers in the dense tangle of a world fraught with death, love, tragedy, hope, choice, change, and, very possibly, the love of God.
Through all of this, in a chief feature of his accomplishment, Kieslowski stays remarkably nonverbal, trusting to events and images to arrest, disclose, and move. Which is exactly what his films do, over and over again, stories so simple and spare that they seem parables. People, events, conflict, silence, color, and music all brew up together to mesmeric effect. And always there are faces, lovely and otherwise, on which Kieslowski's camera dwells as if to exhibit the soul.
Much is enigmatic in these films, especially at first glimpse, which might also be said about life. When Kieslowski finished the Three Colors trilogy, he announced his retirement from filmmaking, a vow he apparently could not keep. At the time of his death, he and Piesiewicz had completed a screenplay that has since been made, the very remarkable Heaven (2002), which was to join two others, Purgatory and Hell, in a new trilogy. A grief-crazed young English teacher in Italy (Cate Blanchett) tries to kill the man responsible for her husband's death, but innocents die instead. Oddly, unexpectedly, but ever so plausibly, redemption happens. What Heaven's director, Tom Tyckwer (Run, Lola, Run), says about Heaven applies to the whole course of Kieslowski's thematic preoccupation: it is "about redemption and about somebody who seems completely lost and who's taken out of the darkness and brought into the light and the light comes from above."
Roy Anker is professor of English at Calvin College. His new book Catching Light: Looking for God in Film is forthcoming later this year from Eerdmans.
1. Stephen Holden's eloquent New York Times review of The Decalogue for its commercial release is probably the best short piece written on the religious freight in Kieslowski's work (June 6, 2000).
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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