No book alone can fully do justice to the career of a great film maker, but this one is certainly worthwhile as a reference guide. It begins with an introductory section that is suitable both for the novice and for those familiar with every completed film by Krzysztof Kieslowski because there are some original viewpoints and interesting anecdotes. As with all great directors, it’s welcoming to know the influences which formed the expression of their later work. Monika Maurer doesn’t, perhaps, have the space to cover the earlier, lesser seen films (particularly the shorts) in great detail but does highlight Kieslowski’s background, interest in (and subsequent rejection of) the theatre and the early documentaries, before he surprisingly discovered that the best way to represent people’s struggles was not cinema-verite after all but through fiction. Kieslowski would ultimately be frustrated at not being able to fully portray this in narrative film either and (after retiring) believed literature would have been a more viable way of reaching inside the solipsist world of his characters.
In her comments on one of Kieslowski’s earlier features Camera Buff (Amator, 1979), Monika Maurer says: ‘Like his protagonist, Kieslowski also rejected the documentary form of film-making, and for similar reasons. When the militia confiscated some footage that the director had shot at Warsaw Central Station, Kieslowski dropped an activity that could, however unwittingly, potentially aid the powers that be.’ This film would ironically serve as a premonition for Kieslowski as he would make the somewhat ill-fated Railway Station (Dworzec, 1980) a year later and it would be the last documentary he would make in Communist Poland and one of the last times he would use this format. However, Kieslowski had already left an influential legacy in the films he made in this period as prime examples of what became known as the Cinema of Moral Anxiety. More a retrospective critical term, it denoted films in Poland (mainly in the years 1974–1980) that was found in Kieslowski’s works as well as in films by Agnieszka Holland, et al. This film movement strove to awaken social consciousness and had its roots in the Polish documentaries of the 1960s and 1970s. The movement was critical both artistically and politically, striving to depict the harsh reality of Communist life in Poland.
Monika Maurer’s book first came out in 2000 and it would have been worthwhile to have had a slightly revised version here. As Kieslowski died in 1996, there was little to update from 2000 to the present except that his script for the film Heaven was adapted for a film in 2001 (directed by Tom Tykwer, who made Run Lola Run (2000)) and released in 2002. Monika Maurer mentions this as a work in progress. The film, when released, had mixed reviews so it would have been good to address this reaction in what was the first of a planned ‘post-retirement’ trilogy Kieslowski had begun working on. One of the director’s favourite actors, Jerzy Stuhr (who appeared in many Kieslowski films, the last being Three Colours: White (1994) unearthed an old Kieslowski script, Big Animal (Duze zwierze, 2000) in which he also stars. The book’s first edition mentioned that the film was dedicated to the late director, but it would have benefited from a couple of notes here on what the response to it was like.
What does make this book unique and entertaining is that the author marks the films out of five and picks up on the recurring themes in Kieslowski’s work, which were almost deliberate. In the later Decalogue and Colours trilogy, we look for recurring characters and lives overlapping, but throughout all his work, such motifs and themes had been in place, and the author points out the continuation of dialogue as well, such as in the scene from Blind Chance (Przypadek, 1981) : ‘When Witek visits the woman whose home has been ransacked by government thugs, she tells him: "Life is a gift," something that Pawel’s aunt will tell him in Decalogue 1. Similarly, when Witek speaks to God, he tells him "I am here," an echo of the computer that reads "I am ready" in Decalogue 1. Finally, when Witek’s Jewish girlfriend leaves on a train, the couple press their hands together on each side of the train window – an image repeated in Three Colours: Red.’ Kieslowski was also an admirer of Ken Loach, and is quoted as saying he would happily have made tea for him on set, not to be an assistant but to see how he works. In Camera Buff, the protagonist, an amateur filmmaker, is flicking through a book on filmmakers and arrives at a section on Ken Loach.
Ultimately, the book implies that had Kieslowski died before 1988, we wouldn’t have heard much of him except through enthusiasts of Polish Cinema lamenting an emerging talent who may have gone on to create some seminal works. Indeed, this would have been likely and we were still to lose him prematurely, nine years later, but only after he had completed 14 more works (six of them features, including the two full-length Decalogue films) that have placed him in the canon of outstanding directors from the late 20th Century. The book’s post-script hints at what was to come: "Perhaps his ‘retirement’ was really a hiatus and felt he had to go back to reading and revise his approach to directing before he embarked on his next trilogy. He had long hidden his passions behind a mask of sardonic detachment and self-proclaimed pessimism and it wasn’t too long before news leaked out that he was indeed working on a new trilogy with Piesiewicz, entitled Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. But he was not to see it through." This book is nonetheless an essential introduction to Kieslowski for the film buff and serious film students will also find it of use as a reference guide. Anyone who wants to know more about Kieslowski should check the appendix at the back of this book. These little extras show an author who knows the subject and the films extremely well.