Director of documentary and feature films, screenwriter. Born in 1941 in Warsaw, passed away in Warsaw on the 13th of March 1996.
Krzysztof Kieślowski gained worldwide renown for the Decalogue series, The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colors: Blue, Red and White. A filmmaker of unparalleled merit whose simple stories deal with difficult, fundamental and universal questions about complex human feelings. Present throughout his oeuvre, he asks and attempts to answer 'How should one live?'. In an interview Kieślowski said, 'Everyone wants to change the world whenever they make the effort to do something. I don't think I ever believed the world could be changed in the literal sense of the phrase. I thought the world could be described'.
Producing at first documentaries, his later works, for which he is most remembered lack specific cultural, political or social detail. He showed reality through the prism of micro-worlds, places that were seemingly normal, encountered in everyday life which create the appropriate context for the entire sphere of feelings, intuitions, dreams and superstitions that constitute the inner life of every human to be considered as the primary subject of interest. His imagery, the slow camera movements that lead viewers' eyes from object to object, shots in which minute details draw the viewers' gaze are calculated to draw attention to objects vested with symbolic meaning.
Kieślowski embarked upon his career as a documentary filmmaker. Film critic Marek Hendrykowski writes,
Documentaries were Krzysztof Kieślowski's first great love. Today, when his worldwide successes as a director of feature films have obscured his documentaries, eclipsed them, we somehow forget how significantly the documentary film years preceding this success shaped Kieślowski's artistic identity and how much the his features owe to his experience as a documentary filmmaker.
After having graduated from a technical theatre college in 1962, he worked at the Warsaw Współczesny Theatre, where he was a dressing room attendant. He continued to study and graduated from the State Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź in 1968, and received his directing degree in 1970. During this time he created his first documentary student films: The Office / Urząd, From the City of Łódź / Z Miasta Łodzi and made his first short feature The Tram / Tramwaj. Mikołaj Jazdon, the author of a monograph devoted to Kieślowski's documentary cinema Kieślowski's Documentaries remarks, 'Those who remember The Tram, his first student film, might even insist that the director was destined to make features from the beginning. In fact, this short, soundless film, which tells the story of a meeting between a boy and girl gone awry, contains so much of what would ultimately interest the director about reality, life and coincidence'.
In the years 1966-80, he produced more than a dozen documentary films most of which explored social, economic and political realities in the Polish People's Republic. Ordinary places served as a backdrop to create a universal picture of contemporary Polish reality. Some featured collective heroes The Factory, The Hospital, Workers 1971 - Nothing About Us without Us, others starring individual protagonists The Bricklayer / Murarz, Curriculum Vitae / Życiorys, Night Porter's Point of View / Z punktu widzenia nocnego portiera, First Love / Pierwsza miłość and Seven Women of Various Ages / Siedem kobiet w różnym wieku. Tadeusz Sobolewski in The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski examined this premise and concluded that Kieslowski,
Both his documentaries and features do not fight the system. Rather, like the factory director of his feature The Scar, the former factory director of his documentary I Don't Know, the protagonist of the documentary The Bricklayer or the doctors in the documentary The Hospital, they simply want to do a good job. This desire to do a good job clashes with a system that does not like that sort of working. Kieślowski's protagonists thus constantly engage in battle over the simplest things (The Hospital, Before the Rally) and either prove capable of realizing their passions or are destroyed in the process of pursuing them (Curriculum Vitae, I Don't Know). The desire to settle down to a peaceful life in some niche (the feature The Calm, the documentary First Love) proves just as difficult to realise. Kieślowski's protagonists are forced to take sides (Personnel, I Don't Know, Camera Buff) and to make difficult political and life choices.
The television documentary The Photograph / Zdjęcie marked his professional debut. Until 1983 he was affiliated with the Documentary Film Studio / Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych in Warsaw where he almost exclusively made documentary films. The presence of non-professional actors, real places and protagonists playing themselves were all characteristics of Kieślowski's documentary stance, which went on to influence his feature films. In 1973 he made his first narrative film, the made-for-television feature The Underground Passage / Przejście podziemne. In 1980 he made his last documentary Seven Days of The Week. His abandonment of the documentary form was generated by the limitations that characterise documentary filmmaking in general and precipitated by the situation of artists in the Polish People's Republic, restricted in their production possibilities and unsure if authorities would not use their films or footage for purposes other than those intended by them.
1985 marked the beginning of Kieślowski's long-time collaboration on screenplays with renowned Warsaw attorney Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Their first joint project was the film No End / Bez końca. Together, they worked on A Short Film About Killing / Krótki film o zabijaniu and A Short Film About Love / Krótki film o miłości (1988), two films from the Decalogue / Dekalog series. With The Double Life of Veronique (1991), Kieślowski began making Polish-French co-productions, and from 1993 onwards all his films were collaborative efforts with the renowned French producer Marin Karmitz.
The Decalogue, The Double Life of Veronique, Three Colors differ from his documentary films and his earlier features in that they are stripped of the trappings of reality, simplified to the bare minimum, with an increased density of images. Kieślowski did not so much resort to new subject matter, as he did modify his film language and consciously reach for a set of different formal solutions. Critic Maria Kornatowska notes that with The Double Life of Veronique, Kieślowski began paying close attention to visual aesthetics, carefully selecting the dominant hues of his imagery, filming his heroines differently, highlighting and adding to their beauty through photography that was akin to that characteristic of advertising. These measures ultimately proved the source of the new style of his films and were drawn from his experience as a documentary filmmaker.
He developed a desire to tell 'simple stories', stories that were clear, logically constructed and bore no marks of struggling against the elemental force that is reality. Ones that concerned the sphere of human emotions almost exclusively. He freed himself of external limitations and gained the ability to follow through on ideas like a scientist in a laboratory. Details, which appear frequently in both the Decalogue and later films, play an important role in conveying filmic information. Kornatowska notes that in his works symbols and objects often carry mysterious, magical meaning, 'they enable links to be drawn between events and characters. Crystal balls, magic rings that can cast a spell on reality, a necklace of glistening and chiming glass beads, dolls... A plethora of the most normal items'.
After the extraordinary international success of A Short Film About Killing the remaining films of the Decalogue series - which sometimes very loosely referenced the Ten Commandments - met with a tremendous response, especially in the West. There existed a disparity in the reception of his films, deriving from the different viewpoints of Polish and Western viewers. The Decalogue series seems to be set in Polish realities. Each film takes place in what appears to a typical, gray, gloomy, Communist-era Polish housing development - a simplified reality of everyday life in Poland of that time. Though the average western viewer might perceive these settings as very realistic, to Polish viewers they seemed excessively abstract, lacking the features of everyday life, the daily details that make this up.
After completing the Three Colors / Trzy kolory trilogy (1993-94), Kieślowski announced that he was abandoning the filmmaking profession. During the last months of his life, he worked with Piesiewicz on a screenplay for a triptych consisting of works titled Paradise / Raj, Purgatory / Czyściec and Hell / Piekło.
During his lifetime, Krzysztof Kieślowski won numerous awards for his work as a maker of documentary and feature films, among them a Grand Prix at the International Film Festival in Mannheim for Personel / Personnel (1975), a Gold Medal at the Moscow International Film Festival for Amator / Camera Buff, the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival for Trzy kolory: Niebieski / Three Colors: Blue and the Silver Bear at the International Film Festival in Berlin for Trzy kolory: Biały / Three Colors: White. In 1976 he received the Drożdze / Yeast Award of Polityka weekly, and in 1985 Kieślowski received a lifetime achievement award at the 15. Lubuskie Lato Filmowe / 15th Lubuskie Film Summer in Łagów. In 1990 the director became an honorary member of the British Film Institute for his 'outstanding contributions to the culture of the moving image', and in 1993 he received the Order of Literature and Art of the Minister of Culture of France. In 1994 Kieślowski was awarded the Danish C.J. Soning Award for his contribution to the development of film art and European culture, and that same year he was nominated for an Academy Award for his direction of Trzy kolory: Czerwony / Three Colors: Red. In 1995 he became a member of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Kieślowski received the European Media Award (Girona) in 1996 and was a winner of the Felix Award of the European Film Academy. The Department of Radio and Television at the University of Silesia in Katowice was named after him in the year 2000.
Dekalog I / I Am the Lord Thy God - A young scientist blindly believes his own estimations of ice hardness calculated on his computer. Based on these, he rashly allows his son to go ice-skating on the local pond. The child drowns and the father blames himself for the death. Science is shown as incapable of providing sufficiently certain answers for phenomena that can always be affected by additional unforeseen circumstances ruled by a higher force.
Dekalog II / Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of Thy Lord God in Vain - A young woman whose husband is hospitalized and battling a terminal disease finds that she is pregnant with another man's child. She makes her decision about whether to give birth to the child contingent upon whether her husband will survive his battle. She insists that her husband's doctor provide her precise information about her husband's chances of surviving. The doctor consciously gives her the answer that will prevent the woman from aborting the child.
Dekalog III / Honor the Sabbath Day - This film centers on a woman once abandoned by her lover. He chose his family over her and is now an exemplary husband. The woman now finds herself deeply depressed and decides to play a dangerous game. She decides that she will commit suicide if she proves incapable of seducing the man who once loved her and spending Christmas Eve with him. She succeeds in doing so in a peculiar manner, by tricking and lying to the man. She nevertheless sees herself as having won the bet with fate and abandons her decision to kill herself.
Dekalog IV / Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother - A father and daughter sense, though unclearly, that the feelings they share go far beyond the familial bond existing between them. They have thus far not found the courage to admit this. The girl, a theatre school student, provokes a situation which she hopes will incite her father to declare his feelings for her. Namely, she shows her father a forged letter from her mother and his wife, deceased for a number of years. The letter states that the girl is the daughter of another man. This revelation incites the father to reveal his true feelings, and this truth proves in line with what the girl wanted it; yet at the same time they both realize that independent of any feelings they might have, they remain father and daughter. A real letter from the mother stating the same as the forgery is destroyed and never read.
Dekalog V / Thou Shalt Not Kill - television version of A Short Film About Killing
Dekalog VI / Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery - television version of A Short Film About Love
Dekalog VII / Thou Shalt Not Steal - A mother, who protected her teenage daughter from scandal by acknowledging her daughter's child as her own, years later finds herself accused of theft. The adult daughter concludes that she was simply robbed of the child and wishes to recover it. The child, a little girl of only a few years, becomes the center of a conflict whose participants perceive her as something that can be acquired and taken away from mothers.
Dekalog VIII / Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness - A dignified woman, now a professor of ethics, remembers that during the war she refused help to a young Jewish girl because this would have forced her to lie. She sought justification for her refusal in principles she applied strictly and interpreted very impersonally. This decision now casts a shadow on her entire life.
Dekalog IX / Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Wife - The story of a married couple deprived of a satisfying sex life by the husband's illness. The truly destructive force in this relationship, however, proves to be jealousy.
Dekalog X / Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Goods - Two brothers inherit a valuable stamp collection from their father. They develop a passion for it when they learn its value. They subsequently embark on a quest aimed at adding the one stamp that would make the collection complete. Willing to do anything to acquire it, one of them sacrifices a kidney to finally obtain the stamp. When the entire collection is subsequently stolen, the absurdity of their situation and behavior is revealed to them.
Krzysztof Kieślowski also directed a number of television theatre productions, including License for a Culling / Pozwolenie na odstrzał (based on the writings of Zofia Posmysz, 1972), Checking the King / Szach Królowi (based on Stefan Zweig's A Chess Novella / Nowela szachowa, 1973), The Card Index / Kartoteka (a play by Tadeusz Rozewicz, 1976) and Two on a Swing / Dwoje na hustawce (a play by William Gibson, 1976).
Several films have been made based on Kieślowski's screenplays. In 2000 Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr made A Big Animal / Duże zwierzę. In 2001, German director Tom Tykwer's feature Heaven / Niebo, produced in Germany and Italy, was based on Kieślowski's and Piesiewicz's screenplay Paradise / Raj.
A number of documentaries have been made about Krzysztof Kieślowski. These include Krzysztof Wierzbicki's I'm so-so (1995) and Kieślowski and His Camera Buff / Kieślowski i jego Amator (1999), Dominique Rabourdin's A Cinema Lesson / Lekcja kina (1996) and Mikołaj Jazdon's The Last Meeting with Krzysztof Kieślowsk i / Ostatnie spotkanie z Krzysztofem Kieślowskim (1996).
Author: Ewa Nawój and Jan Strękowski, May 2004, edited by Marta Jazowska August 2012, last revised January 2016