IN RESPONSE TO:
- A Short Film About Love (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1988)
- A Short Film About Killing (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1988)
"A Short Text About Awe"
The Careful Conventions of Krzysztof Kieślowski
by H.P. Willis
It has always seemed to me that the majority of humanities most worthy literary greats have very frequently come to verify the importance of their work all in a similar way. Each building upon their predecessor, these titanic figures of print attain their dignitary status once, and only once they have been able to successfully stretch the bounds of their talent into several careful and congruous volumes. These types of laborious works in several installments most effectively demonstrate longevity, close analysis, a tireless work ethic, and if executed correctly, can wonderfully exhibit an author's capability to command attention at length from even the most skeptical reader.
The ability to successfully work in this difficult mode of textual relation known as "cycle" or "series" separates the lesser temporary ambitions of many from the lasting mastery of the epic and harmonious works of few.
This notion of "the more the effort, the more the reward" seems to remain a generally accepted measure of merit. Provided the content fully lives up to the toil of the conquest, a work will always receive an ample boost solely based on its length and effort. This mode of judgement obviously not only exists in literature, but in the common distinction among all other languages of expression between works of attempt and works of accomplishment; between the frailty of aspiration and the power of execution.
If the Cinema, still an infant art form mothered with such heavy influence and parallels in the very same classical writings, has produced any masters of worth to the medium, it is those with a firm grasp of narrative who in the eyes of the public have earned their place amongst the immortals. The ability to transmit a concept or argument with only the purity of visual constructs today seems to be secondary in importance to films offering an audience loaded images that are crutched by either the cheap exit of startling effects, or with the use of heavy handed or superficial dialogue.
Still, the cycle work or the "catalogue" remains the dominant means of proving one's caliber regardless of genre. In the least each director primarily aims to create a basic succession of works wherein the chosen content or visuals will hopefully be able to translate across each episode understandably. Where most fail is in assuming that the content they derive is strong enough to carry itself through several segments without being too easily spelled out before reaching the climax of their order.
The few directors whose creative contributions have warranted being called "masterworks" typically only yield one to two of these works celebrated as "gems of cinematic breadth" throughout their entire careers.
Krzysztof Kieślowski, Poland's premier auteur, therefore, is a true rarity in the short history of cinema. His gift has been made apparent in his famous prolificacy, creating his numerous bulk works of near perfection. A brilliant manipulator of alternation, each pack of films acts as a lexicon for his wholesale approach to cinema, as well as and index of the specifics of his artful direction for which he is lauded today.
In his lifetime, Kieslowski chose to transcend the "magnum opus" sought after by most filmmakers of the movements he was surrounded by. He worked instead on perfecting a body of gifted sequential panoramas of society and relationships, posing important questions about the human condition and the political climate of his surroundings as well as the greater population of the world. This pattern of intention is exhibited and studied most famously in works like The Decalogue and his Red, White, Blue trilogy.
Each collection's scale eclipses the common limits of the single feature, with a balance of both linear and disjunctive episodes arranged to more wholly capture the universal themes and intentions Kieslowski chooses to observe. The audience's intelligence (for once) is paid compliment, in that each film in Kieslowski's sweeping compositions, he means to challenge the viewer to draw several unspoken connections between each of his careful partitions. The viewer watching each vignette is gradually made aware of the greater significance in the combination of each of the series' parts. Kieslowski intends for this to be achieved through following the carefully threaded but often ambiguous argument or thesis that he rations out carefully between each section of the final work.
Kieslowski seems to have chosen carefully in his designating which of the two films out of his ten part series The Decalogue he wanted to expand further from their already epic original collection. He again chose to refrain from simply stretching short form into feature merely for the construction of an opus. Instead the two were expanded separately still as pieces of a larger whole, only meditated on a bit longer than the rest of the pieces in his ten piece suite.
Having before only seen the short within the series, I still find deep personal resonance in Kieslowski's communication even though its in short, television format. When viewed in solidarity as a more complete thought, Kieslowski's pieces still managed to maintain that resonance and yet pull it further with added detail, but again without exhausting the height of his narrative and cinematographic ability.
Both A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing accomplish an immaculate inspection of two difficult and controversial situations with a skillful composition that obviously denotes experience. Both employ the magic of glass and reflections, heavy psychological lighting achieved with filters and environmental light, a distinct attention to diegetic sound as well as marginal or fractionalized sound, and most noticeably a uniquely visual approach to character development and the establishment of power relationships, as opposed to the trend of simplistic expositional dialogue.
Although our modern commercial market thrives on various types of voyeurism, the sexual taboo of the "Peeping Tom" (or in this case the polish variation "Tomek") is still not endorsed by most of the general population. Outwardly it seems the majority of the film students discussing this piece last week claimed to find no personal connection to the protagonist in Love, or the subject matter at hand. Most admitted instinctively finding Tomek's behavior reproachable, and said they found it difficult to change their perspective after their initial impression of Tomek as well as the film's premise was established.
In reality I'm sure a good number of those same people publicly discrediting scopophilia have in some way or another dealt with the very same issue, or one similar. To claim naiveté in all matters sexual has become the Puritan's monument left for moral impact upon the psychological history of this and several other countries. Its sad to hear such shame in people, especially in the arts.
It has been my understanding that Kieslowski enacts a unique personal communication in his audiences choosing to abandon the interpersonal in favor of a silent exclusivity. Although it seems he intends the opposite, wanting for the human relationship to become more accessible even in the often dire or troubling circumstances his characters are placed within. One of his few faults may be his uncanny ability to create a psychological interior for each central character with the control he exhibits in detailing their internal lives and private nuances.
Like fellow master, Robert Bresson, Kieslowski highlights only the necessary elements (personal possessions, eating habits, tics or quirks) in each character's introduction. He carefully features each element visually, so directly that without a letter of dialogue he assures that his audience will properly assign close to the appropriate level of sympathy to each of the personalities he profiles.
Yet Kieslowski is mindfully inclusive, unlike Bresson, of the marginal, unessential details closely neighboring the elements he chooses to emphasize. Kieslowski specifically seems aware that the chaos provided by these devalued particulars is what normally fills completely the leftover spaces in real life. He gives weight to the unimportant in order to sate the gaps of empty fiction inherent in film's sterile dramatization. This sounds impossible, for a filmmaker to both highlight directly what he chooses, while leaving all of the other scraps and minutia in the visual conversation. Still, using frame and light to the height of their efficiency, Kieslowski can let the camera watch the important with the most direct priority while never neglecting to underscore the unimportant.
His success in exploring the nature of each primary character unintentionally distances many of the characters he has interact in an effort to support human communication and interrelationship. This problem seems only to have been resolved slightly in the Red, White, Blue trio. In each, throughout the first quarter or half of the film, it is clear that we are expected to distinctly identify with the cerebral depth and subconscious nature of the three troubled women, Julie, the composer's widow, Karol, the immigrant, and Valentine, the despondent student, who at the beginning of each plot seem likely to remain the central focus of our attention and sympathy as the films progress.
Each of the three films somehow defeats this idea of the expected singularity of character by first invalidating the innocence of each girl when one or several outside characters interrupts their psychosomatic empathy
by calling them out in some fashion about their inconsistencies or faults. Then Kieslowski enters simultaneously the psyche of one of the secondary characters while still vaguely continuing his earlier observation of the central woman in each film.
In Red, his final film, the main examination of the film ends up having little to do with the girl we've been following, aside from her importance to the climax shared by all three films (a ferry sinking with characters from each of the trilogy's episodes aboard.) The focus gently shifts away from the girl's mental state, as she suddenly is made to act more as a catalyst or, rather, a pivot attaching two external characters who seem to have very little in common. Finally she brings them together without intending to, enabling the two men to discover their similarities and eventually develop a strong fraternal relationship (the theme so unexpectedly imparted by the film.) These three films are unique in their clear cut departures between focal characters abruptly in each episode.
This is not to say that A Short Film About Love or A Short Film About Killing in any way evade human connectivity. Both most certainly address relationships from a dualistic viewpoint, showing the situation from both the perspective of the predatory as well as the perspective of the prey. Both act as separate political commentary on two debated aspects of modern human existence. The films employ a psychological context not easily achieved in films addressing ruthless murder or voyeurism.
Like the rest of The Decalogue, Kieslowski is able to use the sociopolitical backdrop of economic depression within a communist state to heighten the cravings and dependencies of his subjects, weaving a complex membrane intended to rouse his audience into both an open discussion of external global conditions as well as an amazing internal conference about quality of life.
Tomek is unabashed of his anonymous terrorizing of Magda, not once cowering from being called out to reveal himself and admit his obsessions, a trait uncommon among fetishists. Jasek seems to not understand or even regard self control, human decency, or the value of human life, until faced with the violent theft of his own existence, and it is soon apparent that there is a backwards sort of innocence in his callous incomprehension of his actions.
Kieslowski has effectively created a rarity in his portrayal of two deviants who, to the audience, may actually appear innocent for momentary glimpses, or even longer. In fact, the typically empowered male predatory degenerate who we are used to seeing control a disturbing sexual or emotional latitude in films both become the casualty of their own passions when Tomek's forthcoming nature reverses the scenario in Magda's favor and Jasek desperately explains his upbringing to the young lawyer.
Kieslowski consumes us in the distress between these two characters in each film, both of whom we sympathize with, choosing not to thoughtlessly exclude either side of the emotional spectrum at play in either film. Another oblique approach Kieslowski engages with Tomek's story is the inclusion of "love" in a piece which, disregarding the title, gives the first impression of a more animalistic study of unwanted exploitation.
The intimacy of Kieslowski's filmmaking exemplified in his attention within both films to a careful intellectually disturbing tone and a calm realism in his violence and sexual tension lends perfectly to a very layered discussion of loneliness, compulsion, and a loss of innocence in both elongated chapters of The Decalogue.
The controversy of each film Kieslowski produces rings to me as not provocative enough in a commercial sense to market as a bankable shock commodity, especially in an America with a deep hatred for subtitles. I still remain reverent of Kieslowski's filmmaking, even his solitary pieces like The Double Life of Veronique. Like the volumes of Dostoevsky, of Chaucer, of Styron, of Salinger, or even the loose encyclopedic legend of Kerouac, Kieslowski's silent wisdom is most evident in his ability to so carefully control a length of time that would seem impossible to most to keep so sensible or collected, while never sacrificing his speculative nature, imaginative content, or any of his dynamic approaches to shooting, framing, lighting, and the power of clarity no film maker should ever think to abandon.
Since my first attempt at soaking in The Decalogue, and after reading for a greater understanding about his handling the span of an epic like the Decalogue in his autobiography Kieslowski on Kieslowski, the only effective word I can use to advertise how his films have affected me and influenced me is the word "awe" returning from the title of this paper. Awe simply because his films are both incredibly disturbing and incredibly beautiful in tandem without a stitch in the middle for you to notice the gap. Awe at a filmmaker who can effortlessly move ideologies and questions that few people dare to address without having to reach for the hysterical or the pacifistic in order to translate both his qualms and his satisfactions about life and humanity with such ease. Awe at a filmmaker who can make films that remain just as classic as the words of any classic book.