I first met the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski at the Toronto film festival in 1989. In interviews, Kieslowski was a lot like his films, contentious, brilliant and paradoxical. He struck me as alternately witty, colorful, relaxed, charming, closed off and intense.
With his closely cropped hair and the way he often perched his large glasses above his forehead, he could be an intensely forbidding man. The first time I interviewed him, I was not only fairly young though very inexperienced with dealing with somebody of his stature. He was a bit opaque, in his responses to what I naturally thought as important and incisive questions.
The festival was marked by Kieslowski’s full unveiling of his monumental ten-part work, The Decalogue. Financed by Polish television, the ambitious work was constructed of ten nearly one-hour works loosely adapted from the Ten Commandments, set around a Warsaw housing complex where the entwined and occasionally dovetailing stories examined the moral paradox, social anxiety and dark personal revelations of its tormented and intensely compelling protagonists.
In a cruel and perverse twist, The Decalogue for much of the next twelve years or so became a notorious work that for most people, especially in the West, existed by reputation rather than direct experience.The rights were embroiled by a complicated deal, a Cold War relic that unfortunately prevented most people from seeing it until the new millennium.
If the Solidarity trade union proved the most courageous resistance to the Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, the country’s film industry was forced to reinvent itself following the collapse of the state-supported film subsidies. Kieslowski’s subsequent Chicago visit, his last ever to the city with the largest Polish-émigré population, preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall by about two weeks. Talking about the rapid changes, he observed: “It used to be we had money and no freedom. Now, we have freedom and no money.”
Kieslowsi’s discovery in the West coincided with several important developments in film culture: the extraordinary work being done in Iran and the great Asian renaissance was a still a couple of years from penetrating Western consciousness. Kieslowski, for better and worse, became the avatar of a privileged past, the superstar international director. He used that cachet to enter into an arrangement with the French producer and exhibitor Marin Karmitz for his last four features.
The first, The Double Life of Veronique, was a haunting and mysterious work about two women, one French, one Polish, born on the same day who have an acute awareness of the other’s existence. Irene Jacob won the best actress prize at Cannes. In collaboration with the writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Kieslowski embarked on his final act of daring and bravado, his Three Colors trilogy.
On March 13, 1996, having sketched a new trilogy with Piesiewicz and his return to filmmaking seemingly imminent, Kieslowski died from complications from his second significant heart attack.
In retrospect what was eerie was the extent his own films foretold his own death (the brilliant, uncompromising lawyer whose death of heart failure opens No End; the young Polish singer in part six of The Decalogue whose heart condition precludes a career in the opera, a moment paralleled in Veronique in which the Polish singer Weronica collapses while performing).
The 1984 No End anticipated a significant thematic component of Blue, both telling of a capable though dependent wife who having subordinated her own identity must bring about her own regeneration. The party functionaries who appeared in many of his documentaries (especially the extraordinary Curriculum vitae, a forty-five minute work about an expelled party chief who must defend his censorious actions) resemble the Stalinists and careerists Boguslaw Linda encounters throughout Blind Chance.
In recognition of the twentieth anniversary of The Double Life of Veronique and terrific new Blu-ray edition published by Criterion, I’ve culled a series of interviews with Kieslowski dating from September 1989 to November 1994 that were done either individually by my friend Zbigniew Banas, a Polish-born, Chicago-based critic and myself, or the two of us in collaboration. The interviews took place in Cannes, Warsaw, Toronto, Chicago and New York.
The interviews were in Polish, and have been translated by Zbigniew. In some key areas, this is the first time some of this material has been published in English.
With the structure of The Decalogue, there seems to be a more concrete search for order and meaning?
Krzysztof Kieslowski: I don’t know. With The Decalogue there are also a lot of accidental events, because I believe in chance as a certain cause or force. I’m not a fatalist, but I know a lot of people whose lives are ruled by chance, including mine.
Do you believe the ten films amount to a whole?
Krzysztof Kieslowski: That’s difficult to say. For me it’s a certain completion. That’s how it was conceived, but the real test is how it will form in people’s minds and hearts. My opinion here is irrelevant.
In eight of the ten episodes, there’s a mysterious figure (played by the actor Artur Barcis) who interacts and observes the principal characters. What was his relationship to the balance of the work?
Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Decalogue isn’t a true series but a cycle of films about different stories. What this character allows is the opportunity to introduce the kind of elements which remind people they are seeing the same thing. All of the protagonists live in the same area; they keep meeting each other. This figure comes and he looks for a while, always during the most dramatic moments, always during turning points, in important or crucial moments. He looks and goes away, never saying anything.
The actor would ask me many times. ‘Who am I?’ ‘What kind of character should I be playing?’ I never really responded. I know there are some people who look at us and don’t say anything, and I think it’s one of those people.
In conceiving and writing the stories, were you trying to find some equilibrium between optimistic and pessimistic scenarios?
Krzysztof Kieslowski: That wasn’t how I approached it, but I always tried to create the ending in such a way the protagonists, once the film ended, they were smarter, they knew more, they understood something or they were more human toward one another. I get the feeling that the fact we are so apathetic to one another is the fundamental problem of the end of the twentieth century.
Has it been difficult reconciling your own need to create or experiment with form and structure and create a body of work with corresponding themes and preoccupations and deal with the complex economic conditions required of making films.
Krzysztof Kieslowski: I need a reason to make a film. The very fact I might have the money or the opportunity isn’t a good enough reason. There has to be a true inner force. There has to be something I would consider important. At the moment [September 1989] I’m completely empty and have to recharge myself.
Your films have dealt exclusively with the social and cultural rhythms of Polish life. If you made films about Germans or the French, would the films be dramatically different?
Krzysztof Kieslowski: That’s difficult to say. Poland is a terrible country. I’m amazed we are able to withstand it. I have a fairly comfortable life because I’m able to travel around the world. For the reason we have real problems, we don’t search for imagined ones. Poland is a country of suffering people whose lives are very difficult. That in turn is very inspiring. The extremities of our daily life make everyone so incredibly nervous and that we are aching so much, like a person who fell from a set of stairs and everything hurts him.
Every day we fall from thousands of steps and everything is extremely complex. We always face humiliation; we always feel we live in a country badly ruled and not as we would wish for. Consequently we are sensitive to every other type of pain. It’s a little like tearing off the outer layer of skin. Every other touch is painful, even if it’s a loving one.
How would you assess the state of international cinema?
Krzysztof Kieslowski: I believe that we have a crisis in world cinema. This is a crisis in culture. In cinema a certain era has ended and we are already awaiting a new one. Something has to change. All the signs point toward having an end of a century, which is usually connected to a notable crisis in the area of culture. The era of saying everything in a straightforward way has ended and we are probably waiting for something new.
In your case, are you searching out for something other than what our reality allows us?”
Krzysztof Kieslowski: That’s certainly what it is. But the search is very futile, the kind where you wave your arms and nobody knows where he is going. This is a blind search, only without the white canes. Not only don’t we know the directions which to move, we don’t know which obstacles stand in front of us.
The story of The Double Life of Veronique parallels decisions and choices confronting characters in No End, Blind Chance and part six of The Decalogue.
Krzysztof Kieslowski: Above all this was a film about the possibility of learning, however subconsciously, from the experience of others. There’s not really much chance in this film. Of course humanity as such never learns anything from the mistakes it makes, but it’s very different from one single person.
You used nine different cinematographers on The Decalogue. Slawomir Idziak is one of your key collaborators. How do you arrive at the formal and stylistic constructions in your collaborations?
Krzysztof Kieslowski: It depends on the subject. The story of A Short Film about Killing was very crude, so it demanded a very similar approach. Veronique is very poetic, so that’s how I decided on the style. The basic visual ideas are written between the lines, and the intelligent cameraman will understand that.
How would you characterize your work with actors. Your direction of women seems especially sensitive, creating an extraordinary bond between director and performer.
Krzysztof Kieslowski: I try to give them all a sense of freedom, and let them feel that they bring more to the film than their craft. They used their life experiences, and I gain from them. I love them with all of their virtues and faults, with all of their hysteria. We simply sit down for days and weeks and simply chat. With women the biggest problem for me is to find the right actress beforehand. If I can find the right actress then I’m sure she can find the right means for what she wants to say.
In Veronique and the Three Colors trilogy, there is a profound sense of displacement, of the artist in exile. Is this a function of your own estrangement from Poland?
Krzysztof Kieslowski: I’m a Pole. I live in Warsaw. I have no questions about who I am. We wrote the screenplays for both of those [four] films one after the other. We had the concepts of each one in mind when we sat down. We used individual stories to examine how the ideas functioned in everyday life.These ideas concern everybody. They don’t have anything to do with me or where I come from.
What is the role of the filmmaker?
Krzysztof Kieslowski: To look, very carefully observe and register how those thoughts and ideas impact the culture and people around you.
Why did you decide that Red will be your final film?
Krzysztof Kieslowski: I don’t know what else to do. I’ve made all of these films, and I’m left with the feeling I’m constantly making the same film. Since 1987, I’ve made fourteen films. I’ve done more than my share. Now it’s time to let others show what they can do.
(Doubles and mirrored imagery: a meditation on identity.)