Kieslowski’s documentaries, Part 1

From the City of Lodz (1968)

Krzysztof Kieslowski (whom I’ve written about for Senses of Cinema) had the rare luxury of having US studio sponsorship, no doubt partly because of his savvy use of narrative skills, photogenic stars, and evident polish. But Kieslowski spent roughly half his career making documentaries that have been rarely seen outside Poland; fortunately, a recent traveling retrospective and a newly released 2-disc Polish DVD offer opportunities to catch up.

The region-2 DVD from Polish Audiovisual Publishers is subtitled in English and French, and comes with an 18-page booklet in Polish and English. Browsing the North American Kieslowski DVDs, it appears that the only documentary unique to them is The Office (1966), a short film Kieslowski made in school; the Polish DVD repeats From a Night Porter’s Point of View (1978) and Talking Heads (1980), but offers 10 more films.

The films are largely cinÈma vÈritÈ in style–strictly observational, without overt commentary or contextualization–and range anywhere from ten minutes to just short of an hour in length. And unlike the documentary work of, say, the Dardenne brothers, which is stylistically (though not thematically) different from their fictional work, Kieslowski’s documentary style shows a fondness for the handheld camera and facial close-ups that would dominate his features. In the documentary I’m So-So (1995), he emphasized his approach:

“Perhaps we were the first postwar film generation–and I say ‘we’ because there were so many of us–who tried to describe the world as it was. We showed only micro-worlds. The titles suggest this: The School, The Factory, The Hospital, or The Office. If these mini-observations were pieced together, they would describe life in Poland. . . . Living in an undescribed world is hard. You have to try it to know what it feels like. It’s like having no identity. Your problems and suffering disappear; they disintegrate. To put it more radically: you feel completely cut off from other people. . . . We lived according to ideals: Fraternity, equality, and justice. But none of these things existed, least of all justice. . . . Documentaries deal with people who live real lives.”

Kieslowski’s documentaries tend to construct this implicit critique of official reality in cumulative fashion within each film as well. As film scholar Paul Coates puts it, “Kieslowski’s most frequent solution was the serial alignment of voices expressing the same, or cognate, feelings, individual instances massing into the ‘statistically significant proportion’ that validates generalization.” Many of the films are highly-edited montages collating people and ideas in provocative ways.

The following films appear on Disc 1:

From the City of Lodz

Poland’s famed film school resides in Lodz, mostly because it was one of the few cities spared from bombing during the war; but it was also an industrial garment town, filled with dilapidated buildings and tired workers. This film was Kieslowski’s graduate piece as well as his first commercial job, and he takes delight in showcasing the city’s eccentric charms: women factory workers take a break for aerobic stretches; a man in a park holds a contest to see who can hold a live wire and withstand the most voltage; the elderly population demands folksy Ciuksza music rather than modern bands. There’s a wonderful editing moment when a crowd of women calling for Ciuksza cuts to a man holding his hand up as their cries diminish–but the man is not silencing them, merely conducting a Ciuksza band. “I wanted to film what I’d once liked so much in that town,” Kieslowski told Danusia Stok in Kieslowski on Kieslowski. “Of course, I didn’t manage to capture everything but I think that a little of the atmosphere is there in the film.”

I Was a Soldier (1970)

A harsh critic of his own work, Kieslowski once uncharacteristically described this movie as “quite a good film.” A low hum accompanies a round table discussion between blind war veterans. Using quick cuts and occasional fade-to-white intertitles (“I ask the doctors what time it is”), Kieslowski highlights their collective experience of combat, injury, disability, and subsequent daily life. “I ask the doctors what time it is and if it’s daytime,” one of the men says, “because I can’t see anything.” The film takes on a metaphysical tone as the men describe the imagery of their dreams. “I’ve never had a dream where I couldn’t see,” one man says. And when another claims he always dreams in color, the film’s black-and-white stock paradoxically handicaps the viewer. Kieslowski’s career-long interest in dreams commences.

Refrain (1972)

The film begins with a furious montage of close-ups depicting official documents–gradually revealed as death certificates and various identifications–being stamped and sorted; the film illustrates the labyrinthine process by which a person’s grave is purchased–whenever possible, that is. (“We don’t sell graves to the living. . . . Madam, if we all started to buy ourselves grave plots we’d have no room to bury the dead. Some graves would be waiting fifty years for someone to die.”) Kieslowski makes good use of the black background behind the curt workers (virtually the only people onscreen); his slow pans away from them into the darkness beyond create strong visual transitions and provide recurring reminders of death itself. Yet several times, the camera frames the busy city street outside the window–life in perpetual motion.

Bricklayer (1973)

One of Kieslowski’s most political films, Bricklayer diverges from the collective approach to truth, and focuses on a single individual: a middle-aged worker who prepares for his day (shaves, eats breakfast, catches a trolley) and attends a May Day parade, all the while reminiscing through voiceover about his career. Once a bricklayer, he was offered a Party Youth office job, but eventually became disillusioned, resigned, and returned to bricklaying. He contends that he could’ve “made it to the top,” but “there was no air; you couldn’t get enough of the windows open.” The bricklaying trade becomes a potent metaphor critiquing the dreams of youth and the cultural project of Communism (the parade is suffused with official rhetoric about “raising national standards”) so that Kieslowski’s startling aerial shots at the end–which survey numerous structures ultimately built by the bricklayer–seem like triumphant rebuttal.

X-Ray (1974)

In some ways a companion piece to I Was a Soldier, this film surveys a group of patients at a tuberculosis clinic in the serene Polish countryside. The nature photography is strikingly beautiful, as are the softly-lit interiors of patients receiving care (the opening shot is a tender image of a stethoscope caressing a human back). But despite the idyllic setting, many of the patients complain of feeling isolated and discarded and cherish their rare excursions into the city–even just standing in lines. Kieslowski’s own father died at 47 after a twenty-year battle with TB, an event the filmmaker restrainedly describes as “hard” in I’m So-So. In The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Joseph G. Kickasola writes, “Kieslowski seems to be exorcising some childhood demons here: the stark contrast between the pastoral rehabilitation center and the smog-ridden city is potent visual rhetoric.”

Curriculum Vitae (1975)

In 1975–fifteen years before Kiarostami’s Close-Up–Kieslowski made two films that creatively blended documentary and fiction, Personnel and this film. He wrote up a character history for an ordinary engineer who had been thrown out of the Party and cast someone with a similar history to play the role; then managed to stage a committee review by a real Party Board of Control (with their consent) in order to dramatize “that this Party wasn’t quite suited to meet people’s wishes, people’s lives or their potential” (as he later told Danusia Stok). Again boasting revealing close-ups and tense, confrontational editing, the film reveals how the committee drags out as many details of the protagonist’s life as possible and shames and criticizes him in the process. Interestingly enough, Kieslowski decided to write and direct a small stage version of this film at the Old Theatre of Krakow, a play he firmly disowned in subsequent years. (“It’s a terrible play, a complete mistake. . . . I realized that theatre absolutely didn’t suit my temperament.”)

Slate (1976)

A quirky little film, this is a brisk montage comprised of discarded clapper footage from The Scar. At the loud smacking noise, actors wince and lapping dogs jump; actions and reactions are repeated ad nauseum. Kieslowski’s assembly emphasizes the absurdity of film production.

(I’ll review the films on Disc 2 in a later post.)

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