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The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski: Variations on Destiny and Chance

The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski: Variations on Destiny and Chance by Marek Haltof
Review by: David Sterritt
Film Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Winter 2005-06), pp. 61-62
Published by: University of California Press
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The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski:
Variations on Destiny and Chance
By Marek Haltof. London: Wallower Press, 2004. $65.00 cloth;
$20.00 paper. 224 pages.
The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski:
The Liminal Image
By Joseph G. Kickasola. New York: Continuum, 2004. $89.95 cloth;
$19.95 paper. 352 pages.
Krzysztof Kieslowski was the youngest of the inventive
auteursincluding Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy
Skolimowskiwho limned Polish social, political, and cul-
tural life in the mid-twentieth century and beyond. He was
also the last to gain a strong international reputation, and
English-language scholars are now making up for lost time.
His translator and friend Annette Insdorf published the rst
book-length critical study in English on his work (Double
Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski) in
1999, and 2004 has brought two more: that of Marek Haltof,
which is concise and direct, and that of Joseph G. Kickasola,
which is more discursive and wide-ranging. Both take care to
situate Kieslowskis life and work within Polands specic his-
torical and sociopolitical conditions, with Kickasola harking
back to the regions rst Slavic settlement between the sixth
and tenth centuriesno mere historical exercise, since Slavi-
cization fostered a Christian identity that helped cement the
areas unity around the year 1000 and has exerted a lasting
inuence that screen artists as diverse as Kieslowski, Zanussi,
and Jerzy Kawalerowicz have felt compelled to explore.
After being rejected by the distinguished Ldz Film
School no fewer than three times, Kieslowski nally matricu-
lated there in 1964 at age 23; ten years later he was a leading
gure in Polish documentary cinema. At the time, he pre-
ferred documentary to ction lmmaking for various rea-
sons, including his interest in conditions under Polands
then-Communist governing system and his fascination with
what Kickasola aptly calls the paradox of whether and how
objective reality might be caught by the inherently subjec-
tive lmmakera problem Kiesloswki thought and wrote
about as early as his student days. Kickasola and Haltof both
trace his growing involvement with ction lm, which was
motivated by his growing realization that artice is inescap-
able in cinema and should therefore be actively engaged with
rather than passively sidestepped; they note his subsequent
shift of emphasis from authentic physical and psychological
observation to a quest for intuitive nuances of subjectivity,
interiority, and what might be called the human soul.
Although such early Kieslowski dramas as The Scar
(Blizna, 1976) and Camera Buff (Amator, 1979) have been
gathering increased attention in recent yearsthanks largely
to companies like Kino Video which have made them readily
availablehis reputation rests most rmly on lms made
after the Solidarity period, when his concern with existential
mystery and spiritual conundrum was growing at a rapid
pace. Chief among these are the ten-part Decalogue, hour-
long episodes made for Polish television in the late 80s; The
Double Life of Vronique, a French-Polish-Norwegian co-
production released in 1991; and Three Colors: Blue, White,
Red, a multinational trilogy produced in 1993 and 1994, after
which Kieslowski announced his retirement from lmmak-
ing, only to continue working on a subsequent trilogy to be
called Paradise, Hell, Purgatory, which was tragically termi-
nated by his untimely death in 1996.
The importance of Kieslowskis later, more mystical lms
is reected in the subtitles of both new critical studies. Kicka-
solas formulation, The Liminal Image, reminds us that despite
cinemas traditional reliance on the photochemical represen-
tation of physical objectsa reliance that has become less ab-
solute in the age of computer-generated imagery, but is still a
usual touchstone for motion-picture artlm is an excellent
tool for probing beneath the observable manifestations of
gesture, behavior, and environment. Haltof s subtitle, Varia-
tions on Destiny and Chance, points to a related facet of Kies-
lowskis art: its continual investment in notions of fate,
fortune, and the unknowable nature of the larger existential
matrices within which our lives unfold.
Given the greater length and more ambitious aims of
Kickasolas book, its not surprising that it delves more deeply
into the intricacies, subtleties, and yes, liminalities of Kies-
lowskis oeuvre. On the level of the apparatus, one wishes the
volume had a lmography and that its frame enlargements
were larger. On the analytical level, the book would be more
persuasive if Kickasola had been more thorough in distin-
guishing and dening such all-important terms as abstrac-
tion, transcendence, and liminality itself. Many images that
he identies as abstract, for instance, strike me as merely re-
calcitrant in offering up a rm visual signicationtheyre
hard to parse at rst sight, that is, but eventually yield a clear
meaning, and are immediately clear when one views the
movie more than once. This said, Kickasolas study is a very
impressive undertaking in scholarly lm criticism, bringing
to bear not only a keen understanding of the tropes and
chronotopes that preoccupied the Polish auteur at various
points in his career, but also the authors own clear interest in
the human and spiritual enigmas that fuel Kieslowskis most
engrossing lms.
Not quite so philosophical in its aims, Haltof s book is a
quicker and less challenging read. It moves swiftly through
Kieslowskis career, examining its phases in more breadth
than depth, and focusing more on the lms expressive sur-
faces than on the hidden layers underneath. The rst chap-
ters title refers to an unrepresented world that Kieslowski
was determined to lm; in Kickasolas hands such a phrase
would probably refer to metaphysical meanings, but in
Haltof s treatment it refers to the phase of modern Polish his-
tory shaped by Communist inefficiency and corruptiona
crucial point of emphasis, since this became a politically and
emotionally charged xation for Kieslowski and other practi-
tioners of the Cinema of Distrust, the label Haltof aptly uses
for Polands new lmmaking wave of the late 70s.
Again, this is not the Kieslowski volume of ones dreams.
For all its sociopolitical leanings, it gives fewer details than
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one might like about the upheavals of the Solidarity era and
their powerful inuence on Kieslowskis work. And while the
Kickasola book occasionally gets a tad unspecic when deal-
ing with Kieslowskis mystical side, Haltof gives this very lit-
tle emphasis; its odd that his Decalogue chapter starts by
underscoring the metaphysics aspect of the series, for in-
stance, only to claim eight pages later that Decalogue 1 is the
only episode to stage a direct engagement with issues that
might genuinely be called spiritual or religious.
Although theres considerable overlap between them, I
think there is much to be gained from reading both of these
booksand Insdorf s as wellsince their very differences
point to the complexities and contradictions that enriched
Kieslowskis artistic personality. Im a rather rational being,
actually, Kieslowski told me in a 1994 interview, I judge sit-
uations, I try to draw conclusions. But this rational way of
looking at things does not exclude . . . looking to the interior
of the human being . . . full of mystery, full of things that are
not expressed or said, full of intuitions, and full of fear. Such
a statement conveys the double ambition that propelled the
overall trajectory of Kieslowskis oeuvre and is superbly en-
capsulated in such masterpieces as Decalogue 1 and Red: the
ambition to creatively exploit cinemas power to capture
events and personalities, while also acting on an ever-growing
intellectual conviction (quite romanticized, philosophically
speaking) that logic, reason, and lmic objectivity will take
us just so far, and must therefore be supplemented (in a fully
Derridean sense) by the mediums capacity for intimating
and insinuating aspects of the human condition that cannot
be seen or heard, only sensed and intuited.
Haltof recognizes this, and Kickasola makes it the central
focus of his study. While both authors clearly admire Kies-
lowskis multifaceted gifts, they avoid temptations to idealize
or overpraise his work. Their project, carried off with roughly
equal success if in signicantly different ways, is to explore
frequently ineffable cinematic works in verbal terms while re-
maining true to an audiovisual medium that words can evoke
imperfectly, at best. The realm of image, Kieslowski told me,
is much more primitive, concrete, and direct than that of
literaturea quality he found to be simultaneously an asset
and a liability of his chosen medium. Taking [a subject] that
seems [cinematically] impossible, he added, I [try] to make
a lm that [is] possible. Haltof and Kickasola have taken on
the ip side of this challenge, and managed their tasks with
DAVID STERRITT is chairman of the National Society of Film Critics,
an adjunct professor of language, literature, and culture at the Mary-
land Institute College of Art, Emeritus Professor of Theater and Film
at Long Island University, and author of several lm-related books
including, most recently, Guiltless Pleasures: A David Sterritt Film
Reader (University Press of Mississippi, 2005).
David Sterritt, 2006
The Cinema of Mike Leigh: A Sense of the Real
By Garry Watson. London: Wallower, 2004. $65.00 cloth; $20.00
paper. 207 pages.
The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World
By Ray Carney and Leonard Quart. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge
University Press, 2000. $65.00 cloth; $20.99 paper. 304 pages.
Mike Leighs work is difficult to pin down. Echoing what Ray
Carney says of Leighs more blinkered characters, examining
these lms becomes a lot murkier when you bring too many
ideas and lm-critical categories to bear. Although not with-
out its strengths and serendipities, Garry Watsons book suf-
fers from intellectual larding while, like one of Leighs more
far-sighted characters, Carney and Quarts gets in amongst
the rough-and-tumble.
Mike Leigh is unique for having honed a rich and tex-
tured account of English social interaction for a domestic
audience, and has gone on to develop a singular vision of
contemporary Britain for an international audience. Few
other directors have managed to key an unadulterated and
vernacular focus on a sociologically specic body politic for
such a thoroughly heterogeneous mass audience. More than
most lmmaking, Leighs demands of its commentators a
subtle eye.
Garry Watson is Professor of English at the University of
Alberta, so it is hardly surprising that his approach tends to-
ward the literary. On the face of it, it seems appropriate to
tackle the dialogue-heavy and histrionic ow of a Leigh opus
from a literary standpoint. Leigh has a theatrical background,
after all. But what is so singular about this director is the
whole effect of words, reactions, edits, and sounds in his
work. It is not that Professor Watson does not make con-
vincing use of D.H. Lawrence when discussing class in the
1976 television play Nuts in May. The novelist was the prog-
eny of working and middle-class parents and so, like Leigh, he
straddled both worlds. But, as in Carney and Quart, the dis-
cussion of class is too scant for an oeuvre which literally
inhales and exhales its consequences. Both books skimp on
engagement with the sociohistorical in Leigh, while Watsons
often feels like a book on movies for English Literature
studentsyou want more cinema from a book entitled The
Cinema of Mike Leigh. There is already a widespread middle-
class British perception that movies are somehow a branch of
literature, and Watsons book plays to this misconception.
Symptomatic of the bias is his brief examination of the light-
ing in Topsy-Turvy (1999), a lm which Watson harps on,
possibly because it evokes the literary nineteenth-century
worlds of Charles Dickens and George Eliot. But by doing so,
Watson leaves you wanting more and closer examination of
Yet paradoxically, Watson is stronger than Carney and
Quart in looking at later Leigh lms such as Secrets and Lies
(1996), Career Girls (1997), and All or Nothing (2002). All or
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