Kieslowski’s documentaries, Part 2

The following reviews cover the films included on Disc Two of the Polish region-2 DVD release of documentaries by Krzysztof Kieslowski. (Disc One reviews and other relevant info can be found here.)


First Love (1974)

Of the twelve films included on this DVD release, this is among Kieslowski’s most emotionally compelling works, and also an early hint of his strong intuition for narrative. The film follows the lives of two youths–Jadwiga, pregnant at the age of 17, and her boyfriend, Romek (19)–as it carefully reveals their struggles (finishing school, getting married, finding an apartment in a city with multi-year waitlists) and future hopes. Jadwiga is headstrong and impressively mature for a girl her age, and Romek is dependable and supportive, but both are inexperienced and vulnerable. It’s impossible not to root for them as they battle bureaucratic hurdles and institutional bias; Jadwiga’s teachers seem more intent on telling her what a bad example she sets for other students than giving her credit for the effort she makes. Every living arrangement and formality comes with a price, and Kieslowski emphasizes each one, piecing together the couple’s life together through a deft shuffling of major (ceremonial) and minor (private) incidents. (Apparently, he even invited a policeman to confront the youths in order to provoke some drama.) As an addendum, Krzysztof Wierzbicki–Kieslowski’s assistant on this film and director of I’m So-So (1995)–directed a follow-up film, Horoscope, featuring Jadwiga and Romek in 2000.

Hospital (1976)

It’s hard to watch a film about doctors these days and not think of last year’s The Death of Mister Lazarescu (but maybe that’s because it’s a new DVD release, too), but this examination of close to 24 hours in the life of a group of physicians working in a hospital conveys the same sense of professionalism, stretched Eastern European resources, and increasing weariness. Kieslowski liked to structure his documentaries according to a recurring question or element, and in this case, each hour of the day flashes onscreen as an intertitle. (Although the 20-minute film compiles footage obtained once a week over the course of two to three months.) The patients are rarely shown; the doctors do their best with sub-par resources: fluctuating power, faulty instruments (“you could sew boots with this needle!”), dwindling plasma, and so on. One scene shows the medics standing in line to collect their paychecks, earning 17 zlotys an hour (in today’s conversion, that’s about $5.50.)

Although the film shows the staff working from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. and beyond (sleeping in a special room for an hour or two), Kieslowski later told Danusia Stok that once a week, doctors would work 31-hour shifts, and this is what they filmed. And he prized the intimacy of his approach: “Those doctors were so open and we became such good friends, that they felt as if we weren’t even there. That’s the whole point of documentaries taking so long to make, yet nobody knows this, especially television reporters these days. They come along, stick a microphone under your nose and tell you to answer some question; you’ll answer wisely or stupidly but that doesn’t reveal the truth about you.”


From a Night Porter’s Point of View (1978)

“Everybody loves something, don’t they?” a middle aged guard muses in first-person narration. “Me, I love running checks on people, you know. . . . You could say this is my hobby.” He then enthusiastically describes randomly raiding fishermen for licenses, impounding their equipment, and maybe buying it at a discount before they can reclaim it.

The protagonist is a decidedly unpleasant personality, and the film highlights his overbearing legalism. The man champions authority and power, dislikes youth with sideburns, endorses public hangings, and utters witticisms like, “Regulations are more important than people.” Yet this is a straightforward description of his point-of-view without a note of irony or ridicule (though one might cite the lyrical music or the fact that the guard’s only companions seem to be dogs he can leash up). I’m reminded of Kieslowski’s remarks to Stok regarding the brutal impositions of the Party Board of Control in Curriculum Vitae (1975):

“My attitude is: even if something is happening which isn’t right, even if somebody is acting badly, in my opinion, then I have to try and understand that person. However good or bad they are, you have to try and understand why they’re like that. . . . If I see that people are acting according to some ideology–political, for example–through an inner conviction and not through the need for a comfortable life, then even if they are on the other side, I have a certain respect for them. But only up to a certain point, of course. . . . It’s not a question of justifying these people. Understanding isn’t necessarily associated with justification. Justification, in this case, would imply making the film through the eyes of the other side. I don’t look through the eyes of the other side in my films. I always look through my own eyes.”

Though the night porter trespasses Kieslowski’s humanist inclinations, the filmmaker allows his subject the chance to freely state his case. (In fact, Kieslowski opposed airing the film on TV because he feared the backlash the man might’ve faced.)

The film is also notable for its garish, faded color scheme, an effect Kieslowski achieved by using poor film stock from East Germany (“This porter is a distortion of a human being and we wanted the color to accentuate the grotesqueness of the world surrounding him”), foreshadowing his use of heavy filters to distort the world of his dark-protagonist masterpiece, A Short Film About Killing (1988). Both films seem to labor under the weight of the characters onscreen; empathy asphyxiating.

Seven Women of Different Ages (1978)

This is a fairly straightforward film, notable mostly–as is all of Kieslowski’s work–for its structure. In this case, the seven days of the week (identified with intertitles) are representative of seven different stages in the life of a typical ballet dancer, with seven women of different ages representing each stage from clumsy little girl to elegant performer to aging, authoritative instructor. One might see the first percolations of Kieslowski’s interest in shared lives–each individual provides part of the collective soul. And figure movement, performace, and dancing would recur in many of Kieslowski’s subsequent films.

Talking Heads (1980)

Kieslowski’s final documentary is an austere exercise in “man on the street” interviewing: people of all ages are filmed as they are asked when they were born, what they are, and what they would like the most; the film assembles their responses with straight cuts from youngest to oldest (one to a hundred), their birth years appearing onscreen. Paul Coates describes the film as “the most richly polyphonic and complex example” of Kieslowski’s penchant for collating many different voices to produce a cumulative idea in his documentaries, “whose every voice feels like Kieslowski’s own, calling for less aggression in everyday life, for freedom and love.” And while I don’t disagree, Kieslowski was typically contrarian when asked about the film in I’m So-So: “These people didn’t precisely know what they wanted. . . . Only a drunkard said, ‘I’m all right.'” It’s a fascinating collective portrait and a social summa that would become even more relevant as Solidarity began its slow political ascendancy throughout the ’80s.

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