Camera Buff (1979)

The central paradox of Kieslowski’s Camera Buff portrays an aspiring filmmaker, Filip, unable to balance his love of his family with his love of his art.

Kieslowski first raises this paradox with a strong ambiguity placed upon Filip’s pursuit of filmmaking in the film’s first act. The reticence over the place of the family in Filip’s life comes primarily from Filip’s wife, who sees all along that he has been blinded by a growing obsession. Kieslowski regularly punctuates her dialogue with some negative commentary on Filip’s filming.

However, even Filip initially has a limited understanding—or at least a sense—of the way his obsession might undermine his family. When Filip’s boss first enlists him to film the company’s anniversary celebrations, the boss cites an axiom of sorts, that cinema is the first great art. Filip responds that the quote came from Lenin, along with a decidedly confused, even disapproving look on his face. Filip wasn’t interested in making the film. And while some of that might have been the pressure of performing for regional bosses, the discomforting idea of moving away from family, already placed there by his wife, would have likely been in his mind. If Filip did indeed understand that tantalizing lure of obsession, he also had some choice in the matter. Kieslowski’s Filip is not some helpless mass of flesh prevailed upon by outside forces, but a willful man who chooses art over family.

Furthermore, Kieslowski carries an irony through the film that builds off of this notion of Filip’s vision or lack thereof: In his films, Filip seeks to present the world as it is, in a completely natural fashion. He even claims to want to see everything. Initially, this filmic desire was pointed at his family—Filip bought his first camera to film his newborn daughter. But as Filip turns the camera away from his family, he stops seeing them clearly. He gives in to the obsession. So we have a moment after a dispute with his wife: Filip should seek her out, but instead merely watches her walk away. Seeing the back of her head in the street as she walks home is enough for Filip.

Kieslowski could easily demonize this move from family to art, but he holds the tension by revealing the praiseworthy aspects of Filip’s work: the way his friend Piotr praises the film of his mother, or how the handicapped worker is moved by Filip’s television special about him. As the conflict with his wife grows, Filip is a man divided between good things. And yet, he leaves behind the greater good (his family)? Or does he? That is the question, I suppose.

Filip’s pursuit of his art to the neglect of his family ends tragically, but also with the promise that from his pain, a more acute sense of self will emerge. Kieslowski doesn’t provide Filip an easy way out of his predicament, instead leading him to point the lens at himself as he searches for answers. This final act by Filip seems to be a recognition of his situatedness. All seeing occurs within a context. Though some like Filip have tried to ignore their own context in order to present an “objective” view of their world, none have succeeded at such “lofty” expectations. When Filip filmed the deceitful way that his town had spruced itself up for a regional event, he felt that his “objective” vision of the truth had to be seen, despite his boss’ direction to keep the film under wraps. The “truth” of Filip’s film, he believed, was the most important thing. However, Filip discovered that his own position was not nearly as objective as he had thought. This is the final straw for Filip, who destroys his next film, another similarly-themed exposé. Without recognizing his own subjectivity and context, he could never make honest, truthful art.

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Red (1994)

The third film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, Red portrays a movement from cynicism to hopeful innocence, from death to life, and ultimately, from isolation to connection. Yet this movement appears in a universe where it is difficult to determine the difference between fated events on the one hand, and the utter randomness of Lady Luck on the other. This ambiguity brings a freshness and vitality to the proceedings where lesser films are crushed as the gears of plot groan into motion.

Red introduces us to Valentine (Irene Jacob), currently living in Geneva apart from her busy and brusque boyfriend Michel. She’s a model who’s just agreed to a photo shoot for a bubble gum company, part of an ad campaign creatively titled “A Breath of Life.” One cannot help but appreciate the characteristic underplayed Kieslowskian humor here. One night while driving home, Valentine runs over a dog, Rita, and upon returning her to the address on the collar, meets with a rather unpleasant old man (a retired judge, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) who tells her she can do what she wants with his severely injured pet. Valentine, befuddled and hurt by his insensitivity, fires back a penetrating question about whether his daughter would merit the same concern, and storms off to get the dog medical attention. The film follows both the developing relationship between Valentine and the judge, as well as a parallel story of sorts with a young law student and his girlfriend. There are three strange, and what might be considered throwaway moments that help to bring the film and its concerns into focus.

The first takes place early on, the day after Valentine’s initial meeting with the judge. She has since brought the dog home from the vet, and as is her habit every morning, she heads down to the corner store and plays a single coin in the slot machine. She’s prepared to lose, which as we see in an earlier scene, seems to indicate all is right with the world. Yet on this day, three cherries come up, many coins fall out, and Valentine is left nonplussed. After a moment’s reflection, she notes to the store keeper in a rather dour way that she’s pretty sure she knows why this happened (a reference to the incident the night before). Why so gloomy though? A scene like this flies in the face of common human experience. Most of us, when presented with large amounts of money, tend to be pleased rather than distressed.

By including this strange reaction, Kieslowski sets us up for the ambiguity between fate and freedom. Valentine’s reaction points out that all is not well in her world. Something is amiss, though even she can’t be completely sure of the exact cause yet. The slot machine victory seems like a fluke, but do we really know that? For Valentine, the corresponding event of hitting a dog also seems fairly random, yet what if it isn’t? What appear to be chance events in the lives of these characters are actually leading to greater things far beyond what they can imagine. Valentine seems to recognize this, even as she cringes at what the consequences might be.

The second strange moment comes not long after. Rita is healed, so Valentine decides to take her for a walk, letting her loose in the park. Rita immediately dashes off, while Valentine gives chase into a church where the Mass is being given. It’s a comic scene to be sure, as Valentine asks the priest at the altar if he’s seen her lost dog. Yet, is it wise to think of it as just that, or is something more going on? It seems such a strange moment, but I have too great a respect for Kieslowski to believe he just chose that location at random. Placing the scene in context, the dog ultimately leads Valentine back to the judge’s home, where they have the first of their three lengthy conversations. Thus, in the midst of this journey to solidify the central relationship of the film, Kieslowski has his heroine stop in a religious service. That he makes it a comic scene takes a little of the pretentiousness out of the moment, all the while leaving its significance. God’s presence is hinted at even in this simple transitional moment. All the while the main characters simply act and react as they normally would. For Valentine, that means following Rita until she makes sure the dog is safe. What we have here then is a recognition of transcendence in the midst of the common reactions of regular people. Yet while we have a hint here at who might be guiding or at least overseeing these events, one cannot help but wonder if the path leads anywhere in particular.

Finally, in a moment near the end of the film, Valentine invites the judge (now, safe to say, her friend) to a fashion show in which she’s modeling. He lingers afterward, hoping to speak with her, and as she walks out, still on stage, she sees him in the seats and moves in his direction. As they approach one another, she on stage, he in the seats, Kieslowski places his camera on her from an extremely high angle, causing her to tower above the judge in quite an extreme way. The moment is visually notable, allowing us to identify first with the judges lowliness and humility in her presence. Before he looked upon her with suspicion, anger, and pride, having no time to even answer the door or look at her when she left. Now though, he comes to her, waits for her long after the show ends, and places her on a pedestal. She has come to represent life, innocence, and community for him, things that have become realities in his life through her presence in it.

These three moments might be considered throwaways in a movie like this. They are certainly too brief to be considered on par with the first lengthy conversation between the judge and Valentine, a scene that crackles with tension and emotional power. Yet, the moments noted here are illustrative of Kieslowski’s work, in which no moment is random, no camera move left unconsidered. Yet somehow, even with such precision evident in his work, Kieslowski is also able to open us up to an unseen world that is far greater and more mysterious than a few words here can begin to comprehend.

Blue (1993)

During Julie’s journey from life to death and back to life again, everything in the world seems to be calling out to her, reaching for her in her self-imposed grave, to pull her back toward life, love, and goodness. Of course, the most obvious example of this is the music that breaks into her world all the time, the music that she desperately wants to forget but cannot. But it goes beyond that: chance meetings with strangers and people from the past, a puff of wind blowing her door shut, and a glimpse of herself on the television. Julie is trying to forget, to become like her ailing mother, removed from any reality, any pain, any tears. Everyday is a new day for her mother. For Julie though, in spite of her best efforts, she is painfully aware of the same thing, day in, day out.But it is in this very awareness, in the midst of her pain and suffering that she ultimately finds a kind of grace, resulting in life. Kieslowski’s world is a complicated place, filled with suffering, yet at the same time calling Julie toward new life. Thus, there is this struggle between pushing away and pulling back in. She loves me, she loves me not, indeed. This is both the way of Kieslowski’s world, yet it is also illustrative of Julie’s interaction with her past and those around her – pushing away from her former life, but never for a second being able to resist the urge to reach out for it, to stop the music in her head, to destroy those final mementos of that former life.

What’s interesting about Julie’s choices in the aftermath of the accident is the way in which she ends up cut off from everything and everyone. Even in her extreme moments (most notably the night spent with Olivier), she remains aloof. Her existence after that is very much like a hermit. She speaks as little as possible, goes out rarely, isolates herself from everyone, and descends almost into a kind of nothingness – an attempt to escape memory and thought. It is in her decision (or maybe that’s too active; let’s say experience) of living in this void that she hears and is ultimately able to receive grace.

I cannot help but wonder then, amidst all the noise of normal life, if Julie would even be able to hear the music blasting into her world as she does in the film. Would her surprising encounters with the boy, Olivier, and Lucille have had the kind of impact they did if she had been surrounded by the noise of life? What if she had not been paralyzed by fear of the rat and its babies for days – a fear that eventually pushed her out beyond herself, taking uncertain steps outside her world? What do these questions reveal about her mother, constantly in front of the television, supposedly connected to the world, yet with no idea she’s speaking to her own daughter?

Could it be that Kieslowski is suggesting, with his typical light touch, that Julie’s retreat from the world of the living was somehow necessary to allow the power of grace to pull her back toward life? Had she not done that, instead filling her life with everyday noise and responsibility, what would have become of her? Might she have become her mother, alive, but not really living? It seems that in the end, Kieslowski recognizes the tragedy of suffering, but also its converse: that same suffering works in its own way to bring life. Maybe one will find regret or sadness there. But having walked through such a valley, one also finds a rich and deep appreciation for this life, a belief that things can get better, and a comfort that the world works in such marvelous, life-giving ways.

Decalogue IX (1988)

Decalogue IX begins with Roman receiving some stunning news from his doctor – he is impotent, and will never be with a woman again. Kieslowski takes this simple moment and in light of its consequences, fashions characters that struggle with anger, frustration, loneliness, fear, jealousy, and brokenness. Throughout the Decalogue he places his characters in the midst of ethical dilemmas that challenge their thinking on any number of levels.

Most obvious in this film is the interplay between different kinds of truth and the falsehood that is borne out of that interaction. The first line of the film is the doctor asking what Roman wants to know, to which he answers: “The truth.” He believes that the doctor has reliable information that will determine the rest of his life. Roman, also a doctor, understands this kind of truth, based on observation of physical elements. It makes sense to him. It is objective, and can be trusted.

When he arrives home though, he is confronted by a kind of truth that isn’t scientific, but is rather based on personal commitments to love and be loved. His wife, Hanka, reacts out of love – maybe Roman won’t always have this condition, and it really doesn’t matter anyway, because love is more than, in her words, “what’s between your legs.” So, Roman’s physical and objective truth crashes against that of his wife, an inner, emotional truth. The distinction might be characterized by a rational versus a relational truth. Yet, neither of them is really prepared to deal with the world as seen by their spouse, thus breeding lies, deceit, and mistrust. A change is reached when, on that first night, Roman suggests Hanka find another man to be with. Her reaction that he shouldn’t say such things shows not that she abhors the idea, but simply that certain things should go unsaid. This decision toward infidelity only causes the pain to increase, and their lives to spiral further out of control.

The deceit in their relationship changes their vision of one another. At least three times, Kieslowski uses distortion and darkness to show the limitations of his character’s vision. First, at separate points in the film, the director shoots both Roman and his wife Hanka in their apartment through a glass on a shelf. As they walk past the glass, their image breaks apart. We can still see who they are, but something about their form isn’t quite right. Second, when Roman finally returns home from his trip to the doctor, he and Hanka ride up the elevator together in darkness. The light through the windows alternates, first over her face, then his. They are together, yet separate. We merely see glimpses of them, though never at the same time. Finally, the most famous limiting shot in the film comes when Roman has hidden himself in a cabinet, waiting for the meeting of his wife and her lover. Kieslowski shoots the entire scene through the crack in this cabinet, as the camera sways back and forth, trying to get the best angle on the characters moving around the room. Only at this moment, with his (and our) vision so limited, does Roman begin to really see his wife. And only then does Hanka see what kind of pain Roman has been in.

The lies that limit their vision of each other surface because the couple is trying to deal with an inability to communicate when their lives spin out of their control. Kieslowski uses an interesting visual cue to heighten this reality. Early in the film, as Roman drives home, the glove compartment in his car falls open. Later, when it occurs again, this time with Mariusz’ school papers in it, one might be led to think this was merely a device to move the plot along. Yet it happens a third time, after Roman has spied on his wife and Mariusz during one of their rendezvous’. He has been helplessly sitting on the stairs listening, then had to hide as they each left the apartment. He has no control over them or himself. He can’t stop their meetings; neither can he stop himself from spying. He’s angry, frustrated, knowing he suggested this course of action, but also knowing how wrong it has been. At the height of this, as he climbs back into his car, that compartment falls open, and we see that all along, Roman has had no control over his life. By all appearances he would – successful doctor, beautiful wife, patients who trust and like him. Yet with his diagnosis, his ensuing choices, and now the confirmation that his wife has been with another man all lead to his life spiraling out of control.

And so, in the midst of jealousy, loneliness, and anger, he decides to take control of his life – through suicide. With everything about his life in chaos (at least from his perspective), he takes control the only way he can. Ironically, he doesn’t succeed; he has no control over the end of his own life. Hanka has come back from her trip to try and find him, desperate to repair what’s been broken. And lying in a hospital bed, covered in a body cast, completely at the mercy of doctors, he speaks to his wife on the phone. She says: “You are there. God, you are there.” To which he replies: “I am.” Fade to black with the sacred sounds of Van den Budenmayer playing in the background. Those unfamiliar with the biblical text will miss part of the significance of those final lines. Yes they will be together, yes they want to fix things, but there is more. In a world spinning out of control, Roman utters the name of God from Exodus 3: I am. God is indeed there, and while the situations of life make no sense, there is someone greater in control. Thus Kieslowski, the ever-spiritual director, leaves his characters with the comfort of knowing they are not alone.

Decalogue II (1988)

This has long been one of my favorite episodes of this series, initially because of the great ethical dilemma that the story gives us. However, on repeated viewings, the richness of the details has only continued to grow – leading to revelations about the characters and ever more puzzling questions. What follows is a bit of my running commentary through the episode.The initial scene of the film in the doctor’s apartment sets up two intriguing elements about his character. Kieslowski achieves all of this with a mere two lines of dialogue. First, the doctor is surrounded by living things, revealing his care for living things of all kinds. He handles a plant, clearly wondering why it isn’t thriving in his makeshift greenhouse. He wonders what he must do. Next, he flips the cover off of a birdcage, revealing his chirping pet underneath. He then moves across his room, past an aquarium full of fish. And when the doorbell rings, he does not claim the dead rabbit the porter found beneath his balcony (the only verbal exchange in this scene). The doctor then moves to his bathroom, where he leans over the steaming tub, his face in agony. Is he in physical pain? Is there some emotional turmoil that plagues him? Later, he continues a story he has been recounting to his housekeeper – a story about the death of his father, his wife, and his two children. We don’t learn the end until later, but already we see him as a man willing to share himself with others.

Contrast all this with the early scenes of Dorota. When she first appears, she stares out the window, away from the camera. She looks after the doctor as he goes to the elevator, but when he meets her gaze, she abruptly turns back to the window. Kieslowski then gives us a close-up of Dorota extinguishing a cigarette with her shoe. When the doctor returns, Dorota ignores his approach even as he waits for her to speak (she obviously wanted to say something to him earlier). Yet as soon as he goes to his own apartment, she follows him, and rings his doorbell. In their conversation, he recalls her being the person who killed his dog. He abruptly shuns her request for a conference about her sick husband anytime before Wednesday (though he later offers to see her that day), and she responds by wishing she had run over him. Back in her apartment, she listens to messages on the machine without returning the calls. She looks at a hand-written note, which she crumples without answering. After a brief meeting with the doctor in the hallway, she returns to her apartment and rips the leaves from a plant. When she tries to break the stem, she cannot, and it slowly rises. As Kieslowski lingers for a second or two on that recovering stem, we are confronted with the fact that for all our attempts to control life, we cannot.

The doctor then is a man who surrounds himself with life, who is willing to share himself with others in friendship, partly in response to his pain – presumably over the sudden deaths of his family long ago. He can also be impatient and abrupt when put on the spot, though he recovers his sensibilities fairly quickly. Dorota on the other hand is surrounded by images of death – putting out the cigarette and killing the plant. She too is in pain over something, yet her response is to isolate herself. Instead of living things, she is surrounded by cold and impersonal objects. She won’t respond to messages, she destroys a note, she later starts to respond to it but doesn’t, and she won’t address the doctor when he approaches her. She is also controlling, wanting to see the doctor on her terms, not his. She must approach him. She insists on seeing him outside his normal office hours. And in spite of all this, she looks longingly at the pictures of her husband. Does she truly miss him? Is she wishing he is okay? Or maybe she is thinking something else entirely?

This leads to the central conflict of the Episode – Dorota is three months pregnant by another man, and wants to know if her sick husband will die. If yes, then she will keep the baby. If not, then she will have an abortion. At first, the doctor does not know the back story, and he refuses to give her a definitive answer. Later, Dorota follows him home and confronts him in his apartment. She fills him in, at which time he says her husband has only a 15% chance of living. Yet when she leaves, he is grieved, mimicking the motion from the beginning of the film, placing his hands over his face and rubbing it. He then walks to his shelf and looks at the picture of his family. The doctor again agonizes over his loss, but not only that, he agonizes over someone who seems willing to throw away all that he has lost.

But something is sparked in Dorota. Before she leaves the apartment, she inadvertently lights a box of matches on fire while putting out her cigarette, a beautiful image for where this path is taking her. She has visions of extinguishing life, but despite her efforts, she is actually going to see it rekindled. She goes home to find her husband’s friend waiting at her place, with Andrei’s backpack. Clearly, he thinks death is inevitable for his fellow climber, but Dorota reacts violently, clearly believing that her husband still has a chance to live. This means, of course, that she has decided to have the abortion, which we find effectively ends her relationship with her lover.

All this talk about abortion gets the doctor looking more closely at Andrei’s case, in which he sees the disease progressing at a rapid rate. The silent observer present in many episodes of The Decalogue looks on during this scene, with a seeming faint smile of approval. When Dorota visits the hospital next, the observer notices her with Andrei, and as she expresses her love to him, the observer looks away. Is he embarrassed, like he might be intruding on a private moment of tenderness? Does he think her disingenuous? She then visits the doctor for one final update. He informs her that the situation is hopeless, Andrei will die. So she should not abort the baby. She makes him swear, which he does, even though we know his beliefs to be that he never writes off a patient. He has seen too many strange things happen.

The brilliant final sequence begins with a shot of Dorota at her window. The camera is positioned below her, and as it gazes up, we feel the weight of her decision. The camera slowly descends, never cutting, down the building until it comes to the doctor’s window. He is lit in red, and the camera comes even with him. Here we enter into his mind – he has sacrificed his principles, effectively lying to Dorota so she wouldn’t have the abortion. The camera moves quickly to the right, and with a continuous motion with no evidence of a cut (thus connecting all three principles, showing their decisions are intertwined – this functions in a similar way to the apartment building through all ten episodes), we find ourselves in Andrei’s room. He awakens to see a fly struggling to climb out of a glass, which it does. We then cut to Dorota playing the violin with a faint smile, pleased that her husband has been healed. This leads to one final scene change to the doctor’s office, where he and Andrei meet. Andrei tells him that he has returned from a world that was disintegrating and ugly. It made him want to die. Yet now he has life, and his wife is going to have a baby. His question to the doctor is especially poignant: does he understand what it’s like to have a child? The doctor’s response is heartbreaking: with eyes downcast, a reflective gaze, and the look of tears coming to his eyes, he says simply, I do.

This is a tug of war between life and death. There is the tug going on within Andrei. It goes on between Dorota and the baby. It goes on between Dorota and the doctor. And in all these instances, life wins out. The doctor’s painful past reminds us that is not always the case, that death does have its day. But here, even as (and maybe because?) the doctor is forced to go against his conscience, life is the victor.