Krysztof Kieslowski‘s genius germinated as a truly original and thought provoking film director was deeply influenced by the presence of Communism in Poland,. Later to join the ranks of the world’s greatest filmmakers, Krysztof was quoted as saying asking questions about our existence was more important than being concerned with political reality ; “ why get up from bed ?!” – If one was not at all concerned about the metaphysics of things. In this context his fascination towards the parameters of memory and complexities of survival developed and was later manifested in his works.
The land of his birth, Poland, was the background for many of his movies. He shifted his focus from documentary reality as a filmmaker working in his country. The gaze of his camera shifted from documenting reality to the probing the inner life of human beings, deeply affected by their reality in different ways. The oeuvre of Kieslowski straddled over many concerns. Two of his recurring themes were the persistence of memory and survival amidst the harsh realities of life. Death and violence was a feature of life in communist Poland.
Each in their own way resolve a dilemma of existence, to find reunion, stark truth, even death, happiness and yet the films never work their way to some artificial conclusion – ambiguous as life is, in fact. An examination of the director’s projects will throw up evidence of these recurring themes. Yet, the films are never completely pessimistic, even if some might go deep into the dark side of human nature or seem to be concerned with erotic obsession. Thus in one hand it magnified memory or the reconstruction of memory and on the other hand he juxtaposed the manifestation and complexities of survival.
However, the director was himself a very warm person who simply felt that depicting fictionalized reality was simply a better, if oblique, way to show reality. One tends to get an impression from the whole body of work that a lot is being said in the films but very subtly. Of course, helping Kieslowski was his immensely talented cast who seem to draw every shade of feeling out in films as diverse as No End and The Double life of Veronique. On the face of it nothing very much seems to be happening in these films. It is all subtle emotional underplay and a strongly controlled interplay of human conflicts and deeply moving responses. (Dollard, 89-92)
Two of his films are representative of the aforementioned themes: Three Colors: Blue and Decalogue 2
Three Colors: Blue (1993)
‘Blue’ is a work of such intensity that one is eternally grateful that Juliette Binoche plays Julie Vignon De Courcy, the protagonist of the film with such a fine texture of emotions.
Blue is the Polish director’s penetrating and highly involving work on loss and freedom and is also the dominant hue of his film. It is also part of a trilogy, Red, White and Blue the director made.
A bluish candy wrapper in a small girl’s hand, reflects, sunlight through a car’s window; the next shot cuts to a leaking pipe, hinting at the imminent accident involving the car. Julie Vignon is the only survivor in the accident, which kills her daughter and husband. Fortunately for viewers, the car crash is heard not seen. The rest of the incident is shown in fragments and slivers of shattered glass. This reflects the state of the injured Julie in hospital.
Extremely painfully she recollects the incident in fragments. The fragments hint at her life so far. She is the wife of a well known musician. The husband has been lately rumored to have run out of original ideas for composition – his scores are said to have been penned by his wife. Julie seems to fighting these memories off almost as if they cause great suffering. She seems to find it difficult to survive.
Through these initial terse cuts , Kieslowski draws us wide eyed into a private world of pain and suffering mad acute by lingering memory this is a devastated world , and very subtle action depicts this . Dialogue would be utterly contrived in this situation. A typical approach would be to take the path of resolution of this pain shown in quick recovery. True to his commitment, the director does not make it so easy. In the hospital, Julie attempts suicide by an overdose of pills but does not really go all the way – she survives. Here there is a further ‘hardening’ of the situation. (Lamb, 243-245)
After her release from hospital, Julie wants to kill herself off psychologically by withdrawing from the world. Her grief in fact, is so intense that she can neither cry nor even feel. Yet, her body language reveals that she is still in great pain. Her mouth quivers as she watches her family’s funeral on television and her daughter’s casket. She visibly goes limp as she approaches her husband’s study. This is depicted with an economy which truly emphasizes the slow build up of grief. She withdraws herself completely from the world around her and shifts from the family’s country estate to an apartment, in her maiden name. She wipes out all traces of the past, even of her family except a few slivers of glass. Reflections in glass are a persistent device used in the film – meant to convey the distance Julie is creating for herself and her memories.
But the distance Julie wants to create cannot really stave off her past, try as she might; her reaction is to further withdraw into an enigmatic silence. At this point, her husband’s business partner, Olivier, searches her out and offers to complete her husband’s unfinished symphony as a tribute to his memory. Here is the working out of a cathartic device. The audience would find it relieving to have Julie come out of the prison of grief and re attach to the world.
The resolution of the film’s mesmerizing tone of grief is toward a brighter shade. Blue is the color of grief but Juliet’s slow emergence back into personal peace helps to overcome this. Olivier’s role is cathartic meant to bring a closure. Towards the end of the film, she decides to collaborate on finishing her husband’s symphony and gives off the family’s country estate to her husband’s mistress. (Fletcher, 188)
Losing everything can be freedom too.
Decalogue was a series of ten I hour films, each based on one of the Ten Commandments. The work was however, no rendering of the Biblical story but a reframing of the commandments to contemporary Poland. Each sin attributed to a particular moral lapse in each of the ten films. These films offered Kieslowski the convenience of working with some of his favorite themes and some new ones. They obliquely refer to Kieslowski’s religious concerns but in a way totally in synch with the director’s typically understated and subtle style. They are tightly made and form a work of considerable cinematic importance.
The central theme of Decalogue 2 is of the purest moral dilemma. Dorota’s husband is seriously ill and in hospital. What she needs to know from the doctor is whether he will survive or not. She is pregnant by some one else and if her husband survives, she will abort the child .If he dies, she will keep the child.
The doctor denies any knowledge of her husband’s prognosis saying he doesn’t clearly know how to answer her. The doctor’s story is then told in flashback and we find that his family has been killed in a World War 2 bombing raid. His tragic loss in the past and his memory of it makes him conscious of another life at stake. Here we have a clear glimpse of the director’s humanity and his strong convictions as a person even when working or dealing with a lot of abstraction in his films. The doctor’s dilemma is; should he tell her the husband will be well thus making Dorota abort the child? In the end the doctor‘s brilliant answer will help to save two lives (Dorota’s and the child’s).
The film is embellished like the others in this collection with the many small details that help build up the situation in a one hour film – details that keep audiences involved in the story unfolding. The film reveals that the doctor lives in the same apartment block as Dorota, walks to work. There are scenes involving Dorota’s smoking which obviously increases the danger to her.
The theme of survival is cleverly shown in scenes where a bee tries to draw itself out of a bottle on a table in the husband’s hospital bed, making the connections to the issue of the fragility of life and strong survival instincts at work both within the film and in living beings. Human beings seem to be longing for contact or withdrawing in their own private world. Meaning is ambiguous in these films: there are the sub themes to consider – violence, chance, fate, and destiny. Dream sequences are an extension of memory giving us a glimpse of the depth of anguish or obsession which different in the human beings. (Kar, 145)
Rather, as his other creation like The Double Life of Véronique, the films take on a life of their own with individuals in a society, in a state, in a family. More is happening to these characters than the films makes apparent. The director does not observe from the wings but probes deep in to what makes human conflict, what goes on in their minds. Thus the aspects of memory and complexities of survival become evident again and again.
Throughout the latter part of his career, Kieslowski reveals a streak of pessimistic humanism. The works show a fascination for the inner life of human beings and a spiritual quest for the meaning of existence, with carefully structured camera compositions and an almost sparse narrative. The deeper truths lie beneath the surface of reality and the unraveling of it is as unpredictable as life – the creator does not contrive situations to fit his view. However, he remained loyal towards his belief of greater truth regarding memory and complexities of survival. (King, 126)
Dollard, John; Krysztof Kieslowski looks into Tomorrow. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2006) pp 89-92
Fletcher, R; Art: Beliefs and Knowledge; Believing and Knowing. (Mangalore: Howard & Price. 2006) pp 188
Kar, P; History of Cinema & Market Applications (Kolkata: Dasgupta & Chatterjee 2005) pp 145
King, H; Art Today (Dunedin: HBT & Brooks Ltd. 2005) pp 126
Lamb, Davis; Cult to Culture; (Wellington: National Book Trust. 2004) pp 243-245