The NFT’s Krzysztof Kieslowski season has just begun, marking ten years since his death, on 13 March 1996. How time flies. Kieslowski was only 54 when he died, and although he had announced his retirement from filmmaking, his many fans (‘many’ being a bit of an understatement) might have been nursing some hope that he would reverse that decision. Alas, we would never know. And so his Three Colours trilogy – Blue, White and Red – became his final works. Which was some consolation: he went out on a high.
The season has limited itself to his feature films, because, says NFT Programmer Geoff Andrew, that’s where Kieslowski’s reputation mainly lies. These features evolved from Kieslowski’s documentary work in Poland in the seventies (some of which turns up on the DVDs of his films). It is generally noted that his early films were close to the documentaries in that they were naturalistic political stories about the working class, while his later films (specifically, from the Dekalog onwards), began to reach for less sociological, more metaphysical stories. It’s a question as to which were finer, the earlier films or the later, internationally financed ‘prestige pictures’. Certainly by the end of his career he could no longer be considered a Polish director – like his fellow countryman Roman Polanski he had adopted France as a close ally, and the trilogy was produced by Marin Karmitz and his MK2 company.
On reflection, Kieslowski’s development was gradual. The strain of mysticism was actually present from the earlier films – his third feature, Blind Chance, offered a non-naturalistic structural trick to act as a parable on chance, while his fourth, No End, had the ghost of a dead lawyer hovering around his wife as she struggles to continue his good work in fighting for the right of a worker imprisoned under martial law. If the Dardenne brothers and M. Night Shyamalan got their films tangled up together in the projector, the end result might be something like No End! But we must not neglect The Scar, his debut feature, a very patient and balanced drama about a company wishing to build a chemical plant right in the middle of an unassuming town. And we must definitely revisit Camera Buff, the excellent movie in which Jerzy Stuhr buys a movie camera to film the birth of his baby and becomes obsessed with filmmaking, which leads to trouble with his employers and his wife. Stuhr, a frequent actor in Kieslowski’s films, is at his best here. Regarding the later films, it’s worth reminding oneself that Kieslowski was, among other things, a very inventive director. Red, perhaps his greatest movie, is a rock-solid narrative told through an assembly of extraordinarily pointed visual symbols, links and codes that is extremely flamboyant and highly economical at the same time. The Double Life of Véronique, too (just coming out on DVD at last), teases as a literal story which remains poetically and tantalisingly out of reach. One should also mention Kieslowski’s regular collaborators – composer Zbigniew Preisner, co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, cinematographers Slawomir Idziak and the late Piotr Sobocinski, and, of course, actors such as Zbigniew Zamachowski (Dekalog 10 and White), Graznya Szapolowska (No End and A Short Film About Love) and Irène Jacob (Véronique and Red).
If his films form an unwitting but marvellous legacy, they are enhanced by what he did for the idea of the filmmaker. Kieslowski was an internationally renowned director whose films achieved widespread popularity and acclaim. He was a successor, in film history terms, to Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Godard, and his own hero, Tarkovsky. He seemed an almost legendary figure in his own lifetime. But when he died, did he take the age of the director with him? It’s somewhat ironic that in this age of the proliferation of ‘celebrity’ where anyone can be famous, from the tabloids to The X Factor, the auteur theory seems embarrassed to flourish, as if it offends the sense of ‘self’, or as if it’s somehow unseemly for the movie industry to play host to an individual personality. It might also be that as films are made more and more by committee, they become less the product of a distinct personality and more the result of ‘producers’. Too much money is riding on them nowadays for people to claim them confidently as the work, or the right, of one person. But, happily, it’s also the case that non-English language films have become more successful in the mainstream, which means that the prospect of the idolised but ‘distant’ director, the ‘artist’, is harder to summon. And, of course, film criticism is not what it once was: we now have countless film courses, endless magazines, and the internet, proffering a multitude of ‘masters’ and their ‘masterpieces’. All of a sudden, 1996 seems such a long time ago.
So this tenth anniversary is an opportunity to raise all these questions. The films, because they were so unfashionable at the time, are unlikely to date. Kieslowski wrote with cinema the way a figure on a beach writes with a stick in the sand. His films duck our heads under the water and bring us up gasping at his uniqueness and the generosity of his vision.
See links for more details on the NFT season.