Blind Chance (1981)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 54min

Had the first and final shots of Blind Chance been cut, the film could have been a pure examination of three alternate timelines, branching off from a singular point in one man’s life when he is at his lowest and most impressionable. With context of these bookends, everything we see is reframed under the umbrella of impending mortality and heavy regrets which may flash past our eyes in half a second before our death. What small actions could have we done differently that might have set us on a different path, leading us away from our current lives? For Witek, this is a question that arises every now and again as a passing thought. What if he never reconnected with his old school friend and found God? What if he were not there to save that old lady from being run over? It is only when Witek ponders the greatest one of all – what if his attempt to catch a train years ago had turned him away from the path to his own demise – that the rumination over what could have been becomes an all-consuming thought, manifesting as fully developed realities.

The opening and closing shots of this film – everything else could be a vision conjured up in those dying seconds.

That fateful run towards a departing train is the tiny action upon which everything hinges for Witek. Or to narrow in even further, his outcome is even more minutely determined by his attitude towards a man carrying a beer, which only minutes earlier was purchased with a coin that he knocked from a woman’s hand while in a mad rush to get to the platform. Played three times over with minor adjustments, these nearly identical scenes either see Witek successfully catch the train, be arrested for causing a public disturbance, or miss it and go on with his life.

With this divergence of possible futures catching him at his lowest point when he is most open to embracing new ideologies, the broad swings we witness in his character are monumental. Should he make the train, he will meet an influential Communist thinker, and conform to the party thinking. Should he be arrested, he will meet a priest who drafts him into the anti-Communist resistance. Should he go on with life as normal, he will remain politically neutral, falling back into the medical school that he previously decided to quit, and eventually starting a family.

In each timeline, it is an older man who comes into Witek’s life as a patriarchal figure, offering the sort of guidance that he no longer receives from his recently deceased father. In his father’s ambiguous final words, “You don’t have to,” there is a vague absence of any specific instruction – he doesn’t have to what exactly? With the heavy weight of uncertainty leaving Witek aimlessly drifting, he finds himself lost in a modern world of competing priorities, distractions, and relationships, and thus looking for something to hang his identity on.

In 1981, Krzysztof Kieslowski was similarly on the verge of his own transition, contemplating a shift from the familiar realm of social realism to a more transcendent style with broader, more metaphysical ambitions. Blind Chance falls right in the midst of it, aiming to probe questions of fate just as much as it seeks to examine the radical political landscape of 1980s Poland. Inadvertently, it was these revolutionary sentiments which led to the film’s censoring by Polish authorities, from which it never fully recovered. Even today, there is a single unrecovered scene still missing from the final cut.

In exposing the flimsiness of such fervent followers, Kieslowski manages to rile up both sides of the political aisle, though in the mind of the dying Witek who safely straddled the fence, there is some question as to whether some sort of whole-hearted political commitment might have changed his life for the better. His life is not one of significant introspection, but with a director as thoughtful as Kieslowski behind the camera, fleeting hints of self-reflection manage to break through Witek’s mindless surrender of his own agency. Later in his career, Kieslowski would perfect the art of the symbolic cutaway and weave them in as constant motifs through his work, and here we see an early glimpse of that, following a slinky tumble down a set of stairs. “It’s like it died,” he reflects as it reaches the bottom, and perhaps in that moment he sees a piece of himself set on a rigid path that leads nowhere but his own death.

A cutaway to a symbolic slinky, representative of Witek’s path through life.

As each timeline ends in social rejection for Witek, Kieslowski begins to slow down the frame rate until they freeze entirely, anticipating the impending rewind that will take us back to the turning point at the train station. It is notable that he does not return to this device a third time as the last timeline approaches its conclusion. There, Witek arrives at an airport to disembark on a trip to Libya where he will deliver some medical lectures, and much like the ending of Three Colours: Red, he brushes past two characters whose lives he has come close to intersecting with. Given that we have only seen them in alternate timelines, they are simply strangers to him, though both times he does stop and notice their presences.

Kieslowski’s frame rate slowing down until it freezes at the end of the narrative strands, then cutting back to the train station where the new timeline begins.

At first it might seem that he is picking up on something familiar about them on a subconscious level. This is not an unreasonable assumption either, especially considering some of Kieslowski’s later films that imbue characters with intangible, mystical qualities. But if Blind Chance is to be read as a split-second vision conjured up between Witek’s realisation of his death and the explosion of the plane he is on, then perhaps at this point he is simply storing them in his mind as characters for his dream, ruminating over the alternate lives that might have saved him from his tragic fate. It is said that your life flashes before your eyes on the verge of death, and indeed that happens here in the fast-moving character introduction towards the start, but Kieslowski’s sights are not so much set on “what was” than “what could have been” – all those turning points that might have given us happier, or at least longer lives. But then again, what is the use of such regrets anyway if the paths upon which we travel are merely governed by blind chance?

Blind Chance is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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