Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Souls of Strangers

Director Archives

YearFilmGrade
1976The ScarR
1979Camera BuffR
1981Blind ChanceR
1985No EndR
1988A Short Film About LoveHR
1988A Short Film About KillingMP
1989DekalogMP
1991The Double Life of VeroniqueMP
1993Three Colours: BlueMP
1994Three Colours: WhiteMS
1994Three Colours: RedMP
A red billboard, red car, red traffic light – you can’t talk about the use of colour in film without mentioning Three Colours: Red.

Best Film

The Double Life of Veronique. It is tight competition between all four of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s top-rated films though. The Dekalog may be the more traditional choice given its ambitious scale, but this is a more thoroughly consistent film from start to finish in its gorgeous visual style. It is a formal triumph of complex characterisations as well, binding together a pair of nearly identical women living thousands of miles away from each other who have never met, but who possess shared traits which might suggest some metaphysical connection between the two. Irène Jacob plays both with a deep sensitivity, prone to blissful elation in musical sequences and profoundly affected by the tiniest shifts in Kieslowski’s bewildering cosmos. Everything between them is mirrored in some aspect, edging us towards an emotional understanding of humanity’s interconnectedness without ever fully letting us in on its mystical secrets.

The Double Life of Veronique marks a great achievement in mise-en-scène for Kieslowski, weaving red decor through scenes shot with yellow and green filters, but it might also be his most formally complex work in its quiet mysticism.

Most Overrated

Nothing. Everything from Kieslowski is either well-rated on the TSPDT list or underrated. Given the formal complexity of much of his work, it is naturally more likely that audiences will miss his genius rather than overestimate it.

No End is a heavy, sombre film contemplating the introduction of martial law in Poland, and paralleling that with one woman’s grief over her deceased husband. It also marks an important transition for Kieslowski from social realism into spiritual, philosophical cinema.

Most Underrated

A Short Film About Killing. This currently sits at #8 of 1988, which is a significant miss from the critical consensus. It deserves to be in the top 3 (along with Distant Voices, Still Lives and Dead Ringers), if not sitting at number 1. It was also the first theatrical cut of a Dekalog episode, so my guess is that many critics are divided over whether they should consider it as part of the series or on its own. My vote obviously goes to the latter. It is not just a highpoint of the series, but of Kieslowski’s entire career, delivering a punishing treatise on the injustice of the death penalty through a sickly, jaundiced filter. This vision of Warsaw is a barren wasteland of corruption, and that seeps all through Kieslowski’s grotesque photography and methodical staging.

Perhaps Kieslowski’s greatest accomplishment in style, filtering a pair of senseless murders through a sickly, yellow haze and crafting endlessly creative frames in A Short Film About Killing.

Gem to Spotlight

Dekalog. The cinematic launchpad for the rest of Kieslowski’s great career can’t be overlooked. Few television series have reached this level of artistic accomplishment, as Kieslowski dedicates each of its individual episodes to one of the Ten Commandments, crafting an epic drama around a set of strangers living in a single Warsaw apartment complex. We are gifted an omniscient perspective into their stories, each one of which possesses its own distinct style while being bound together by a series of common motifs. Kieslowski’s characteristic use of iconography and cutaways also lend spiritual significance to these characters’ journeys, wrestling with complex moral dilemmas that attempt to reconcile traditional moral imperatives with modern cultural values.

One of the single greatest frames from the Dekalog, watching a man through the apartment building entrance and silhouetted against the rain. The use of glass as a lens through which we can observe the world would later become a key stylistic feature of The Double Life of Veronique.

Ranking

  1. The Double Life of Veronique
  2. A Short Film About Killing
  3. Dekalog
  4. Three Colours: Red
  5. Three Colours: Blue
  6. Three Colours: White
  7. A Short Film About Love
  8. Blind Chance
  9. No End
  10. Camera Buff
  11. The Scar
A gorgeous composition to open The Scar, using forest trees to divide the frame into segments and split up the labourers.

Cultural Context and Artistic Innovations

Targeting Polish Politics

As a film student with ambitions in the realm of political art, Kieslowski began his career making both short and feature-length documentaries, travelling Poland to research and shoot the day-to-day lives of labourers, soldiers, and city people. After recording interviews with workers protesting against food shortages, he quickly found himself being heavily censored by Polish Communist authorities, though this only incensed him further and pushed him to branch out into narrative filmmaking.

His non-documentary debut, Personnel, was broadcast on television and stuck a chord at the Mannheim Film Festival, winning him first prize. It wasn’t until The Scar though that he was able to combine his intelligent political voice with artistic potency, setting him up as an important figure in the realm of social realism. Through his following films he developed a didactic and pointed cinematic style, targeting specific areas of Polish culture and politics unique to the time period such as the introduction of martial law, all the while continuing to wrestle with censors. Blind Chance was hit particularly hard with its release being delayed by authorities for six years, and not being seen by the public until 1987. Even today, there is still a single scene depicting the police beating up a citizen that has not been fully recovered.

Across the late 70s and mid 80s, Kieslowski continued dropping in pieces of conceptual philosophy and surrealism. There was already a hint of it in the sparse, ethereal score of The Scar, but in the parallel timelines of Blind Chance and the ghostly manifestations of No End, it became clear that he was starting to head in more metaphysical directions. Of course, this would all foreshadow the complete departure from politics in his later career, and a submission to personal, spiritual questions.

Kieslowski’s camera in Blind Chance rushes along the platform with our young protagonist at a key turning point in his life, right before the narrative splits off into three different timelines.
A Television Breakthrough

While Kieslowski was beginning work on his most ambitious project yet, the Dekalog series, he was asked by his producers to expand two of its episodes into feature-length films to make for easier international distribution, thus giving us A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love.

These films were released in 1988, a year before the Dekalog would make its television debut, and both marked a dramatic step up in artistic quality from his previous films, individually developing colour palettes that are formally tied to their narratives. This would go on to be an identifying characteristic of Kieslowski’s later work, even becoming the stylistic basis of his Three Colours trilogy in the 1990s. Here though, it was A Short Film About Killing which especially leapt out for its harsh depiction of Warsaw as a dystopian hellhole, laying vignettes over sepia images of social decay and violent murder, and making a powerful statement against the death penalty.

The arrival of the Dekalog series in 1989 only cemented the genius that took over film festivals the previous year. Inspired by a 15th century artwork that depicted the Ten Commandments in scenes from that period, Kieslowski strived to make a modern cinematic equivalent within the social and political context of late-Communist era Poland. This wasn’t just the start of his interest in God-like, omniscient perspectives that study the hidden interconnections between unassuming strangers. This was also the beginning of his commitment to long-form cinema, structuring series around cultural ideals whether they be religious imperatives or the colours of the French flag.

Red production design soaking A Short Film About Love in a passionate ardour, foreshadowing a similar (and stronger) stylistic choice a few years later in Three Colours: Red.
Questions of Faith and Philosophy

By the 1990s, Kieslowski was well and truly on a roll, delivering masterpiece after masterpiece. Despite being the only standalone film from the latter half of his career, The Double Life of Veronique stands as one of his finest cinematic accomplishments, displaying all of his most recognisable stylistic trademarks that would continue to be represented in his subsequent Three Colours trilogy. The use of glass to reflect and distort images is particularly characteristic of Kieslowski, gazing through orbs, lenses, and windows to empathetically consider alternate perspectives. It has a distancing effect as well though, as if to suggest we can never truly cross that barrier into other people’s lives.

In The Double Life of Veronique, Kieslowski frequently combines those glass shots with his cutaways, another distinguishing feature of his that stretches even further back to his earlier films. A dissolving sugar cube, a pair of grasped hands, a cracked glass of beer – these tiny, delicate representations of larger ideas offer deeper meanings to his stories and characters, stepping beyond the immediate plot to examine the ways human experiences are reflected in the micro-details of their surroundings. They also practically break up the flow of Kieslowski’s narrative, taking the time to retune our sensitivity and perspective, before letting us re-join our characters.

Powerful cutaways to tiny symbols reflecting our characters’ emotional journeys, here paired with one of Kieslowski’s greatest use of glass to refract a shot.

It is worth noting the yellow and green hues that hang in the air in The Double Life of Veronique, but the colour palettes which permeate the Three Colours trilogy go without saying. In representing the French flag as a film series, Kieslowski is able to take the time to examine philosophical applications of its national values – liberty, equality, and fraternity. Red in particular stands out as being most in line with his previous metaphysical fascinations as laid out in Blind Chance, the Dekalog, and The Double Life of Veronique, studying the passing connections between strangers and the alternate lives we could have lived were it not some twist of fate or divine intervention. Much like the ending of Blind Chance, the conclusion of Red sees Kieslowski gather a small ensemble of characters we have been following but who are unknown to our main protagonist, uniting the Three Colours trilogy within a single scene.

It was at the premiere of Red at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival that Kieslowski announced his retirement from film, claiming his belief that literature could achieve greater things than cinema. Evidently there was a change of heart at some point, as he began to work on a new trilogy with films based on the concepts of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Though he had finished writing them, he passed away in 1996 from a heart attack, and two of the three screenplays were later adapted by other filmmakers.

A gentle azure palette infused with the photography in Three Colours: Blue, diffused through the soft natural light.

Frequent Collaborators

CollaboratorRoleNumber of Films
Krzysztof PiesiewiczWriter8
Zbigniew PreisnerComposer8
Jerzy StuhrActor5
Artur BarciśActor4
Aleksander BardiniActor4
Slawomir IdziakCinematographer4
Grażyna SzapołowskaActor3
Jacques WittaEditor3
Irène JacobActor2
Bogusław LindaActor2
Maria PakulnisActor2
Zbigniew ZamachowskiActor2
Janusz GajosActor2
Piotr SobocinskiCinematographer2

Reviews

Three Colours: Red (1994)

Krzysztof Kieslowski lays heavily into the dramatic irony of his characters’ hidden interconnections in Three Colours: Red, saturating his beautiful mise-en-scene with a fiery warmth that unites neighbouring strangers in an invisible fraternity, their intertwining paths governed only by the irrational whims of chance.

Three Colours: White (1994)

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s dazzlingly light tones seek to visually restore neutrality and balance where neither can be found in Three Colours: White, lending a soft edge to the vaguely comical sensibilities of one man’s attempt to claw his way back up the ranks of society and pursue justice against his ex-wife.

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

The rich azure palette that pervades Three Colours: Blue in every shade imaginable beautifully sinks the film into a deep melancholy, as Krzysztof Kieslowski examines one young widow’s attempt to find emotional liberty from the ghosts of past traumas which continue to haunt her musically and psychologically.

The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

The mystical coincidences that bind French music teacher Véronique and Polish choir soprano Weronika together in a causal relationship are elusive in their formal complexities, as Krzysztof Kieslowski edges us towards an emotional understanding of humanity’s interconnectedness in The Double Life of Veronique without ever fully letting us in on its magnificently abstract secrets.

Dekalog (1989)

For all its authentic grounding in the culture of 1980s Poland, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog remains a mystical piece of theological cinema for its complex examination of the Ten Commandments in a series of contemporary moral fables, collectively provoking deep contemplation through an omniscient perspective akin to that of an all-seeing God.

A Short Film About Killing (1988)

The vision of Warsaw that Krzysztof Kieslowski presents in A Short Film About Killing is a barren wasteland of mud and shadows, strained through a sickly, jaundiced filter that unnervingly reveals the truly grotesque horror in justifying the malevolent destruction of human life.

A Short Film About Love (1988)

The Hitchcockian setup of an obsessive voyeur with a telescope in A Short Film About Love is very familiar, but in place of a suspenseful mystery Krzysztof Kieslowski instead absorbs us in a compelling morality play concerning two opposed yet twisted perceptions of love – the romanticisation of one-sided affection, and the complete denial of its existence.

No End (1985)

Four days on from the passing of Polish lawyer Antek in No End, his ghost still haunts his widowed wife and final client, forming the metaphorical basis of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s solemn eulogy for a defeated political movement that spiritually unites its mourners, and whose death carries demoralising implications across multiple levels of society.

Blind Chance (1981)

As one man runs towards his departing train in Blind Chance, Krzysztof Kieslowski splits his life into three separate timelines that send him down conflicting paths, thoughtfully probing metaphysical questions of fate and regret while exposing the flimsiness of political conformity in 1980s Poland.

Camera Buff (1979)

Polish factory worker Filip first picks up his camera to film the birth of his daughter, but as he grows more ambitious throughout Camera Buff, Krzysztof Kieslowski turns his tale into one of calloused obsession and denial, seeing the aspiring documentarian point his lens at everyone but himself in an effort to avoid examining his own shortcomings.

The Scar (1976)

Relative to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s great masterpieces of the 80s and 90s, The Scar is a modest piece of social realism, grounded in the details of Communist Poland’s bureaucracy and its controversial small-town development of a chemical factory that challenges one sympathetic Party member’s hopeful ideals.

2 thoughts on “Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Souls of Strangers”

  1. Brilliant work here again, especially love the way you’ve structured this director page and how much depth you explore not only his filmography but also some bits of his personal life. Sadly the only work I’ve seen from Kieslowski is Double Life of Veronique, but I do plan to check out the 3 Colors Trilogy soon, which I’m excited for. Keep it up mate!

    Like

    1. Thanks Chase, much appreciated! Keen to hear your thoughts on the Three Colours trilogy, Kieslowski is a very rewarding filmmaker to get into. I hadn’t seen anything from him before beginning my study.

      Like

Leave a Reply to SceneByGreen Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s