No End (1985)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 49min

Even for Krzysztof Kieslowski, No End is an exceedingly sombre affair, exhuming the voice of a recently departed lawyer and haunting his widowed wife, Ulla, with visions of his apparition. It has been four days since Antek’s passing, as he informs us in the opening minutes, and he has borne witness to all of it, from the immediate aftermath of his heart attack right through to his funeral. Behind him, Ulla lies motionless on their bed, incapacitated from the grief. Elsewhere, his final client sits in prison awaiting trial, having illegally organised a factory strike after the introduction of martial law. Along two parallel paths, Kieslowski follows both the personal and political implications of Antek’s untimely death, binding them together under the shadow of Poland’s Communist authoritarianism.

Though he is our entryway into this story, Antek steps to the side right after his monologue, from this point on only appearing as a mysterious presence vaguely interfering with the lives of those he left behind. His impact is ambiguous, implicitly leaving a red question mark on a legal document and making a fellow lawyer drop his watch. Even when we do see him, his appearances are often only fleeting. While Ulla meditates, his hand slips into the foreground to pick up a glass before retreating, and later when she is describing his presence to someone else, Kieslowski cuts away to his hands playing with the holes in her stockings.

The longer she mourns, the greater her love for him grows, but she also evidently has trouble expressing this to anyone. In one scene that sees her sleep with an English tourist, she is driven to tell him of the powerful union she shared with Antek, though only in Polish so that he cannot understand. Perhaps Kieslowski himself is making a point here about the inherently unique and honourable qualities of Poland’s Solidarity movement, which Antek embodies. The crushing loss of this Polish push for workers’ rights and social change simply cannot be comprehended by anyone not directly affected by it.

It is in the courtroom drama side of No End that Kieslowski elucidates this metaphor a little more, centring Artur Barciś and Aleksander Bardini respectively as a political dissident and his new lawyer. Both men would later go on to play significant roles in Kieslowski’s Dekalog series, particularly Barciś who bears witness to each individual episode as a silent, supernatural entity. In the role of No End’s Darek, that neutrality is exchanged for fervent passion, trying to make himself a martyr of the suppressed Solidarity trade union that was rapidly terminated by the Polish government’s imposed martial law. Here, the ghost of Antek serves as an even greater reminder of that pacifist resistance movement, physically absent yet still active in the minds and memories of Poles.

Though Darek’s lawyer, Labrador, possesses a warmth and genuine desire to help his client, his convictions are not as strong as his predecessor’s. He wins Darek’s case, and yet it doesn’t feel like victory. There is nothing brave or impressive about a Solidarity leader getting off with a slap on the wrist. As Antek stands in the courtroom with them, the insignificance of this entire trial gradually sets in.

In constructing an allegorical narrative with so few direct representations of Poland’s political landscape, Kieslowski often keeps No End at an intellectual distance from audiences wishing to grasp its historical details. Due to censorship, the word “Solidarity” is not even mentioned anywhere in this screenplay. Where it does connect is in its solemn representations of devastating political defeat, likening it to the death of a loved one and the hopeless depression that follows.

It sinks in very subtly, but this despair does take root in this ensemble of subdued performances and Zbigew Preisner’s slow, grim music. If No End is a eulogy, then his church choir, strings, woodwinds, and organ make up a liturgical underscore, ploughing along in grave unison as if brought together under a common cause of shared melancholy and reverence. Just as these musical instruments move as one through haunting minor progressions, too does this overwhelming sense of loss spiritually unite Kieslowski’s characters throughout the film, together commemorating a death that carries demoralising implications across multiple levels of society.

No End is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel.

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