If film aspires to be part of culture, it should do the things great literature, art and music do: elevate the spirit, help us understand ourselves and the life around us, and give people the feeling they are not alone.” During an interview with the Los Angeles Times a year before his sudden death in 1996 at age 54, the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski described in these terms his understanding of cinema. This approach to filmmaking—both aesthetic and moral—helps explain the enthusiasm of international critics when his ten-part masterpiece, The Decalogue (1988), was first seen outside of Poland. Kieslowski—until then an established documentary filmmaker who had directed only four feature-length fiction films—joined the ranks of the group of renowned fellow countrymen who had put Polish cinema on the international map since the 60s. Directors like Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi, Agniezka Holland, and Roman Polanski—graduates from the state-run Lodz film school—were probing the history, politics, and mores of a nation much battered by the winds of the 20th century. Working doggedly within and against the constraints of the Communist regime, they challenged the status quo in intelligent ways and spoke, beyond censors and obstacles, to a public eager to listen.
Kieslowski cannot be understood in depth without the Polish context that shaped his life and work. But also, in his determined pursuit of a personal vision—based on astute observations about how moral individuals contend, in a sinful world, with forces outside of their control—Kieslowski transcends the immediate Polishness of his earlier documentary work. His last four films, the notable The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and the magnificent trilogy Three Colors: Blue, White and Red (1993-1994), show a mature artist who has reached the summit of the mountain; he contemplates the valleys, peaks, and shadows of the human condition, awed by the beauty and the mystery of this creation and pointing, to those willing to see, to the Creator of it all. Like Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1988), the trilogy displays how the physicality of this world—its flesh—is transformed by the incarnation of the Spirit. The effects of this incarnation—apprehended through intuition and the perception of beauty, two philosophical themes at the core of The Double Life of Veronique—shape the relationships among the characters: They become true persons when they accept links of solidarity and realize they are part of a larger whole.
Solidarity and Transcendence
Kieslowski was born in Warsaw in 1941 to middle-class parents hit hard by World War II and the Sovietized postwar. Seeking to alleviate the father’s tuberculosis, the family moved around periodically. His plans to study stage direction were changed in the mid-60s when, after a third try, Kieslowski was accepted at the prestigious Lodz film school. Started by the Communist regime in the late 40s as part of its propaganda effort, the school had managed to shed its heavy-handed socialist realism for what turned out to be a subversive form of social realism. The filmmaker discussed his formative years in the book-length interview with Danusia Stok, Kieslowski on Kieslowski (1993), as a gold mine of film-student experience. After graduating in 1968, Kieslowski honed his craft for several years making documentaries for Polish television, working within the zespoly system of semiautonomous, state-funded production units run by film people. These works have been shown in the international festival circuit. They reflect—in an essential way, devoid of frills—the harsh truth of Polish life at scandalous odds with the Communist party line. As many filmmakers of his epoch, Kieslowski felt the need to address a world that did not exist for official politics. As he notes in a documentary about his work, I’m So-So (1995): “Our descriptive tools had been used for propagandistic purposes. Outside of Poland, you don’t know what it means to live in a world without representation.”
Paradoxically, Kieslowski’s interest in probing the outer and inner world of people began to lead him outside of the documentary genre, which requires the filmmaker not to intervene in the reality he is observing. This shift toward the interior of characters ushered the second stage of Kieslowski’s career, best exemplified by three major fiction films: Camera Buff (1979), the portrait of an amateur 8-mm filmmaker whose life as a factory worker is drastically changed when he embraces documentary cinema as a form of truth; Blind Chance (1981), a clever story about a young student who lives three subsequent but mutually exclusive political fates vis-à-vis Communism; and No End (1984), where the recent widow of an opposition lawyer—portrayed in the film as a ghost—reexamines her marriage in light of the consequences brought by the martial law proscribing the Solidarity movement.
In the third stage of Kieslowski’s career, the shift toward the interior world with a minimal outside context is fully accomplished. The Decalogue (1988) is the astonishing ten- part examination of moral behavior and the nature of the human person. He uses the skills he developed as a documentary filmmaker to observe reality in its essence—a philosophical term that best defines Kieslowski’s personalist approach to the characters that grace his films.
His career was stopped short by the failure of a heart operation in a Warsaw hospital, not unlike one he had featured in a compelling documentary during the 70s. The last stage of his career started in the late 80s with the huge international success of The Decalogue and four French-Polish productions that ensued: The Double Life of Veronique, about the mysterious and transcendental links between two identical young women—one Polish, the other French— born on the same day in 1968 but who never meet, and Three Colors. These three studies of people related to one another by providence, chance, or fate—interpretations left open to the viewer—sum up the filmmaker’s view of human solidarity and transcendence, as developed in conjunction with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a Solidarity lawyer turned screenwriter who collaborated with Kieslowski on all of his films since Dead End.
A Polish Catholic’s Work
Why is Kieslowski such an obvious choice for this ongoing series about filmmakers whose work is grounded on a Catholic understanding of the human condition? The answer is not obvious to many fine critics and scholars who, from the secular and postmodern platform of our age, will not or cannot discern the unmistakably Catholic characteristics of Kieslowski’s cinema. English-language scholarship, in general, falls short of acknowledging the Catholic frame of reference regarding the notions of personhood, communion, and transcendence that nourish the director’s works of maturity, most noticeably since The Decalogue.
Annette Insdorf’s moving account of her friendship with the filmmaker prefaces an in-depth analysis of the films. In Double Lives, Second Chances (1999), the Columbia University professor believes, for example, that Zofia, the ethics professor of Decalogue 8, functions as Kieslowski’s mouthpiece, “espousing a skeptical humanism rooted in spiritual belief.” In her final assessment, she notes, “Kieslowski was neither overly nor overtly fond of organized religion, but his later work emanates a belief in the life of the spirit.” She remarks that the director “still seems so present to many of us, maybe it’s because of the transcendence in which he seemed to believe—his ‘impression that there must be more things beyond what we can see; as he put it in I’m So-So.” In The Three Colours Trilogy (1998), British critic Geoff Andrew includes Kieslowski among a small group of directors, like Dreyer, Rossellini, Bresson, Bergman, and Tarkovsky, who have attempted to explore, through an eminently materialistic medium, a metaphysical and transcendental reality. Unlike Bresson and Rossellini, Andrew affirms almost casually, Kieslowski was not a Catholic. These two examples show how the films become a Rorschach test that illuminates the perspectives from which the scholars talk: transcendence and mystery, yes, but the presence of God, no…or an agnostic “maybe.”
To fully grasp the Catholicism of Kieslowski’s work, one must acknowledge the historical, philosophical, and religious traditions that connect his cinema, shaped by the totalitarian hecatombs 20th-century Poland endured, with that of other fellow artists and intellectuals. These include Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz, composer Henryk Gorecki, Zanussi, and, of course, Karol Wojtyla, as per George Weigel’s magnificent 1999 biography, Witness to Hope. Interestingly, by offering a cultural and political history of Poland to examine the pope’s context, the biographer supplies the reader with such an understanding. Even so, it should be said, the book offers no particular connections between the Polish cinema of moral and social consciousness that flourished in the 60s and 70s and Bishop Wojtyla’s passionate concern for cultural matters. That such connection existed should be seen, for example, in the fact that Jozef Tischner, the recently deceased philosopher priest and long-time friend of the pope, gave the eulogy at the filmmaker’s funeral.
In other words, Kieslowski and his Polish compatriots have a common Catholic understanding of the essence and value of the human person, made to the image and resemblance of God. By virtue of this filiation, we are all, the living and the dead, part of the same body—the communion of saints—held together by the redeeming power of love. Since Kieslowski produced works of fiction, the viewer will not find philosophical and religious treatises. But the eyes and minds of the believer will clearly recognize the Jewish-Christian tradition and spirituality that frame the stories, most notably since The Decalogue.
A work of intelligence and depth, The Decalogue is a polyptych that examines the relevance of the Ten Commandments in the modern world. These ten interrelated dramas of moral choice, set in an apartment complex in Warsaw, are centered on ordinary people whose lives are suddenly brought to a halt by ethical dilemmas to which are applicable the letter or the spirit of the Old Testament injunctions. Since the title of each episode lists only the number of the commandment, the viewer must recall its content. Each story illustrates the way the law is broken by men and women capable of discerning the morality of their actions and the chaos or redemption that follows once a choice is made. Invariably at the end of each episode, the protagonists have reached a stage of lucidity and awareness as a result of their struggle.
Two issues at the core of this polyptych seem central to examining it as a work of religious art. One is the treatment of the divine—a mysterious but incarnated presence—linking the ten stories. The other is the question underlying all of them: What is God, and how should we adore Him? Regarding the first issue, the divine in The Decalogue, unlike the cinema of Bergman where God remains silent, takes the shape of a young man (Artur Barcis), outside of the action, who contemplates, like the angels in Wings of Desire, the spectacle of human folly. This character, who never utters a word, appears every time the law is going to be broken and at crucial moments of choice. Though his recurrent role in all but Decalogue 10 can be interpreted in other ways (e.g., a messenger, the moral conscience), it is consistent to say that since his first appearance in the first sequence of Decalogue 1, the character represents the eye of God. The mysterious and elliptical presence of the divine also can be detected in Kieslowski’s use of light and shadows at key moments. These all-too-human protagonists face no burning bushes or lighting bolts on the road to Damascus, yet they are all aware that their behavior is measured against a standard not of their creation. In The Decalogue, there are no epiphanies of the divine such as in the crucial last scene of Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), where the presence of God is defined as mystery and beauty. Rather, the ten contemporary parables of The Decalogue function as icons, images that can lead the viewer toward the divine. As Veronique Campan noted in Dix Breves Histoires d’Image: Le Decalogue de Krzysztof Kieslowski (1993), the episodes are a potential space where God is made real—actualized—by the viewer’s act of seeing.
The golden calves of these stories are easily recognized as contemporary idols of worship. Some come with a twist: A mathematician’s blind faith in his computer causes the death of his child (Decalogue 1); the wife of a sick man is pregnant with her lover’s child, which she will abort if her husband recovers (Decalogue 2); a man leaves his wife and children to spend Christmas Eve with a former lover (Decalogue 3); the relationship between a young woman and her father will change if an unopened letter from the dead mother says she is not his daughter (Decalogue 4); a disaffected youth murders a taxi driver and is executed for this crime (Decalogue 5); a young postal worker spies with a telescope on the woman of loose morals he has fallen in love with (Decalogue 6); a woman has stolen the affection of her unmarried daughter’s daughter (Decalogue 7); to save an underground network during World War II, a philosophy professor lied, thus sending a little Jewish refugee to an almost certain death (Decalogue 8); encouraged by her husband, who has become impotent, a woman takes a young lover (Decalogue 9); on the death of their father, two brothers inherit his valuable stamps as well as his folly of collecting (Decalogue 10).
Decalogue 1 opens the series by asking, through the death of a child and from the perspective of a rationalist agnostic, the central question of God’s existence. At a crucial moment, inexplicably, an answer appears in English on the screen of the computer: “I am here.” In the final scene, the scientist rebels against God by destroying the altar of a church. There lies the paradox: He wouldn’t rebel if he didn’t already believe.
Interestingly, Decalogue 2, 5, 7, and 8 also deal with the possible destruction of a child. And the dilemma is solved in Decalogue 2 and 8 by the characters affirming that nothing can be more important than saving the life of a child. The value of human life—even that of a despicable murderer—is unequivocally reaffirmed in the stunning and brutal Decalogue 5, where the injunction “Thou shalt not kill” is also applied to a state-ordered execution. This is the only episode in the series that does not describe a case of conscience or the circumstances leading to the breaking of the law. Rather, it is concerned with its spirit, argued passionately by the young lawyer whose perspective frames this episode. This Christian view of the human person runs consistently through The Decalogue. It is a view enriched, as noted by Fr. Tischner, by Auschwitz as an indirect context for Kieslowski’s work.
The Double Life of Veronique
In his last four films, Kieslowski and screenwriter Piesiewicz explore, in an equally intelligent and challenging way, not just individual cases of conscience but the nature of the relationship that binds people together. The Double Life of Veronique examines the indefinable and intuitive links that connect a young Polish singer—who dies of a heart attack early in the film—and a French music teacher, both played by the beautiful Swiss actress Irene Jacob. The major connection between Veronika and Veronique is established through the music of von Budenmajer. A fictional 18th-century composer invented by Zbigniew Preisner—who has scored Kieslowski’s work since No End—von Budenmajer first appears in Decalogue 9, a blueprint for Veronique, and then in Red. His music creates the spiritual space where souls can meet beyond the physicality of this world.
In retrospect, Veronique’s unusual subject matter, with its elliptical narrative and expressionistic style, functions as the portico to Kieslowski’s last masterpiece, Three Colors: Blue, White and Red. These three films stand by themselves but are also interlocked by the presence of all the protagonists in the last scene of Red, seven characters physically saved from the sinking of a ferry in the British Channel and also spiritually redeemed by the force of love.
The trilogy was the idea of screenwriter Piesiewicz, who proposed to Kieslowski an exploration of the ideals of the French Revolution—liberty, equality, and fraternity—in fin-de-siecle Europe. The essential background—Europe after the collapse of Communism—is set with precision in a few strokes: a despiritualized society lost in materialistic pursuits yet longing for existential meaning. The stories devised are as intriguing and original as those in The Decalogue. Can we really be free from our emotions, memories, and responsibilities, isolated from people? (Blue.) What makes marriage a partnership of equals? (White.) What is the bond linking one human being to another? (Red.) These three ideals are tested against the value and meaning of love, making the trilogy, in the words of a critic, an epic of reconciliation.
The psychological drama Blue concerns the efforts of Julie (Juliette Binoche), a young widow who loses her composer husband and their only child in a brutal car accident, to begin her life without emotional or physical attachments. Systematically, she severs links with her past life, throwing away even the draft of a symphony celebrating the reunification of Europe that her husband was composing with her help. But neither can the physicality of life—symbolized by the recurring presence of blue objects—nor the aesthetic imperatives of a musical work seeking completion be held at bay. Fragments of the symphony being created in her mind burst on the soundtrack like ever more frequent thunderbolts. Music is the primary manifestation of love, the empathetic force that pushes the protagonist outside the prison built by an understanding of freedom in absolute terms. The stunning climax illuminates the unequivocal meaning of the film: The reconnection of Julie to life, through art, relationships, and forgiveness, is a work of love. The point is underscored at a visual and musical level by 1 Corinthians 13. The Hymn to Charity—in its beauty and depth—provides the lyrics for the chorale of the now-finished symphony, while a montage of images connects all the characters in a continuum that, through the unifying use of blue, makes them part of a whole, regardless of time and space.
On a metaphorical level, White is a dark social comedy, like Decalogue 10, that pokes fun at Poland’s embrace of capitalistic excess while commenting wryly on the inequalities between western Europe and the former Communist countries. On a literal level, through the probing of the marriage and divorce of two hairdressers, one French (Julie Delpy) and the other Polish (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a Chaplinesque character appropriately named Karol, Kieslowski and Piesiewicz examine the fundamental inequalities of this relationship, symbolized by the sexual impotence of the husband. Only by a twist of fate at the end, or the workings of providence in a prison like in Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), can the marriage have a second chance. The tango score designed by Preisner mirrors the intricate steps of approach and distanciation that Karol devises to take revenge on his wife. In the final scene, the protagonists—still in love and, at last, equally unhappy, separated by bars and a prison yard— acknowledge without words that a new relationship is possible if based on a different kind of love.
The last installment of the trilogy, Red is a work of summation. A psychological and philosophical drama about the role of love and compassion in today’s despiritualized world, the film unfolds as a process of communication is gradually established between physically and spiritually isolated individuals, whose lives may be the mysterious reenactment of lives already lived—echoes of Veronique—and choices already made. The opening sequence functions as a metaphor for the whole film: the camera traces with breakneck speed the journey of a long-distance call, from the hand dialing the number through the cables underground and sea to its final destination—a busy signal. Valentine (Jacob), a lonesome Swiss university student and part-time model, meets by chance an embittered retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) whose sole occupation is to eavesdrop electronically on neighbors’ phone calls. In a nod to the Hitchcock of Rear Window—a filmmaker with whom Kieslowski has some interesting affinities—what emerges from this voyeuristic obsession is the portrayal of broken humanity. The judge soon acquires a symbolic dimension: He is another incarnated version of The Decalogue’s eye of God and the puppet master in Veronique—that is, a witness of the human folly. The deepening of this friendship, largely based on emotional telepathy, transforms Valentine and the judge. He is given a second chance in life—by fate, chance, or providence?, the old Kieslowskian riddle goes—as he stages the encounter, in a ferry, between Valentine and Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a neighbor with whom Valentine crosses paths continually without ever meeting. Auguste, a lawyer about to become a judge, is in fact a younger version of the older man, complete with coincidences and a broken heart. Functioning at the end of Red as a deus ex machina for the entire trilogy, the judge sees on television that Valentine and Auguste are the sole Swiss survivors of the ferry’s shipwreck, together with Julie from Blue and the married couple of White. The mysterious workings of providence, of which the judge with his master plan is now its unambiguous incarnation, have brought these characters together in a physical place of disaster but also at the point of departure for a new life.
With depth and beauty, the climax of Red encapsulates visually and thematically Kieslowski’s poetic view of man and his place in the moral universe, rooted in a Catholic understanding of solidarity and transcendence. His cinema is a magnificent ascension toward freedom and redemption, made possible by love and grace. At the time of his death, Kieslowski and Piesiewicz were working on another trilogy: hell, purgatory, and heaven.