Personnel – Krzysztof Kieślowski
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1975 feature debut. Awarded in Mannheim, Koszalin and Gdynia, the piece recounts the story of a young tailor, who begins work in the theatre and confronts his notion of art with reality.
Personnel is a film based mostly on the director’s own experiences. He graduated from the National Theatre Technique School in Warsaw and later worked in the Warsaw Contemporary Theatre as a dresser for famous actors. Nineteen-year-old Romek (Juliusz Machulski), the film’s protagonist, begins working as a tailor, sewing costumes and preparing decorations. The young man, bewitched by art, learns not only the craft, but also observes the artists’ performances from backstage with curiosity and himself tries to organise a small cabaret for the technical staff. He quickly notices that the atmosphere in the theatre is very different from what he imagined.
Sowa (Michał Tarkowski), who graduated from the same technical institute, remarks in one of the scenes that Romek was lucky because he did not finish school. The professors often spoke about great art and piqued the students’ ambitions, which later led to big disappointments. The work of tailors in the theatre consists mainly of stitching tailcoats and nailing together daises and offers no solemnity whatsoever. That does not mean that Kieślowski negates the magic of art. In one of the takes, when the camera is positioned on the elevator rising up alongside theatre decorations, Romek says: ‘it feels as if one was growing’. In another scene, the captivated protagonist overhears the sounds coming from the open window and compares the street clamour to the hush and tranquillity one can find in the theatre in the evening. However, that space becomes magical only for a short while – normally it is dominated by the prose of life. It applies not only to the tailors doing mundane work and shooting the breeze, but also to the artists. The haughty and assuming singers, such as Andrzej (Andrzej Siedlecki), do not talk a lot about art, but they do prank the technical staff and organise a tennis court in the paint room.
Personnel’s story is barely a draft and the film consists of loose scenes, showing theatre from the backstage perspective. Making use of his long-standing experience as a documentalist, Kieślowski cares mostly about the story’s authenticity. The director consciously uses the poetics of a documentary: the film was shot with a fidgety hand-held camera, observing the vapid lives of the characters; many dialogue scenes were improvised. The feeling of authenticity is also accentuated by a very distinctive cast. Personnel stars both real-life tailors from the Wrocław Opera and people from the cinema world – not only actors, but also directors. The main character was played by Juliusz Machulski, at the time just an unknown directing student, who was noticed by Kieślowski by chance in film school. Tomasz Zygadło, Tomasz Lengren and Mieczysław Kobek, also starring in the film, were full-fledged directors. Personnel’s creator avoided professional actors, because he was afraid that they would look artificial and implausible in confrontation with amateurs.
Nevertheless, authenticity is not the only asset of Kieślowski’s feature and the seemingly simple story can be read in many ways. Personnel is not only a film about what art looks like from the backstage perspective, but it is also a critique of Polish culture in the mid 1970s. The theatre is run by manifold personal agreements, the artists are regular buffoons, the mainstream culture is dead and the only people who seem to be fond of art is the technical staff, who, occasionally and in secret, do things they themselves relish. Apart from that, as Kieślowski says himself, Personnel can be read as a metaphor of life – a story about the bitter initiation process and about amassing knowledge. The viewers who are not in favour of the later, more metaphysical Kieślowski, often dub this unusual and candid image one of the most noteworthy features of the Three Colours’ creator.
Personnel, Poland 1975. Directing and screenplay: Krzysztof Kieślowski. Cinematography: Witold Stok. Scenography: Tadeusz Kosarewicz. Cast: Juliusz Machulski (Romek Januchta), Michał Tarkowski (tailor Sowa), Włodzimierz Boruński (technical director), Tomasz Lengren (cutter Roman), Irena Lorentowicz (scenographer), Andrzej Siedlecki (singer Andrzej Siedlecki) and others. Film Group TOR. Colour, 66 minutes.
Originally written in Polish by Robert Birkholc, September 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, October 2017.Robert Birkholc