Cinema After Kieślowski: The Master Lives On
small, Cinema After Kieślowski: The Master Lives On, A scene from the film Amelie, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, photo: promotional materials / Gutek Film, full_amelia1_770.jpg
No other Polish director has found as many disciples and followers in international cinema as Krzysztof Kieślowski, nor has any other director attained as many tribute films which cause so many pitiful smiles.
Stanisław Zawiśliński, Krzysztof Kieślowski's biographer who also wrote about the works and artists influenced by the director, counted no less than 20 titles that have "something Kieślowski" about them. The films listed by Zawiśliński include those by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Tom Tykwer, Jean-Pierre’a Jeunet, and Wong Kar-Wai, as well as those by Polish filmmakers such as Jerzy Stuhr, Krzysztof Krauze and Greg Zgliński. And although his list is long, it is still incomplete. Today, numerous Hollywood artists, masters of Iranian cinema, and filmmakers from Sweden all avow to this inspiration. Recently, young Polish directors also converse with the master through their work more and more frequently. Some simply copy his films, others treat Kieślowski as a starting point for their own artistic searches, and there are also those who pay homage to him.
Tom Tykwer – A German version of Blind Chance
Tom Tykwer, the director of the film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (among others) has been fascinated with Kieślowski’s cinema for a long time. In 2002, he decided to make Heaven, a part of the trilogy created by Kieślowski and Piesiewicz. But even before this project, Tykwer made two other films, both of which owe much to the director. The pictures in question are Run Lola Run and The Princess and The Warrior.
The former is especially worthy of mention in the context. In Run Lola Run, Tykwer tells the story of a man who asks Lola – his girlfriend and the daughter of a wealthy banker – to save his life, after losing a suitcase of money addressed to a mafia boss. The film takes up the notion of the randomness of human fate. With a dynamic and almost trance-like montage, Run Lola Run is essentially a variation on Kieślowski’s Blind Chance. Much like Witek Długosz (played by Bogusław Linda), the heroine Franki Potente lives through the same day in a different ways, and each one of her decisions results in unpredictable consequences.
Sense8 – Kieślowski according to Netflix
The fact of Kieślowski’s influence on Tykwer’s sensitivity is further confirmed in his newest project, the Sense8 series realised for Netflix. The production, authored by Michael J. Straczynski and the Wachowski siblings, tells about a group of people who share a metaphysical understanding, in spite of living on different continents. Sounds familiar, right? It’s no chance occurrence, because the creators of Sense8 draw a further debt from Kieślowski, taking inspiration from The Double Life of Veronique by the handful. It’s only too bad that the actual series is obnoxiously repetitive and full of metaphysical blathering.
The artistic level of films inspired by Kieślowski is very varied. Next to titles which allowed their authors to gain true creative independence, there are many films which are vexatiously imitative. It is no coincidence that the language of Polish film critics saw the coining of a term "kieślowszczyzna" (a neologism the equivalent of which in English would be 'Kieślowskiness'), used to describe boldly metaphysical and kitschy films whose authors attempted to imitate Kieślowski by employing his visual language and his favourite motifs.
The list of examples of such films is rather long. Suffice it to mention Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody – a futurist tale about the last man on Earth which comprises an indecent amount of appropriations. The homage to Kieślowski in this film can be reduced to dousing the whole story in cheap metaphysical sauce.
Polish cinema is also full of films that attempt to imitate Kieślowski, and the first and obvious proof of this can be found in the picture entitled Piąte: nie odchodź (Fifth: Don’t Leave) by Katarzyna Jungowska. This bombastic debut about the battle between good and evil features the figure of an angelic homeless man (played by Daniel Olbrychski), who helps people, and loses feathers from his wings on the streets.
Kieślowski’s late works, in which the director abandoned realism in favour of a spiritual and artistic journey, seem to have imprinted themselves the most in the minds of his pupils. It is those late films that return most frequently in the appropriations, references, and various authors’ own transcriptions. The Double Life of Veronique echoes in Iñárritu’s Babel, where the fates of a couple of persons, each living in remote corners of the world, intertwine in an inconspicuous way. A Short Film about Love finds its homage in the form of Wong Kar-Wai’s novel, The Hand, which forms part of the Eros series. It is thanks to Kieślowski that music written by Zbigniew Preisner resounds in the unbearably pretentious Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, and that the moral dilemmas of a former prisoner in Eric Poppe’s Troubled Water evoke The Decalogue, as well as his later films.
Body/Ciało – an ironic conversation with Kieślowski
Another director to recently allude to The Decalogue is Małgorzata Szumowska. Her film Body/Ciało constitutes one of the most intelligent and interesting dialogues with the oeuvre of Krzysztof Kieślowski in contemporary cinema. Szumowska employed handfuls of Kieślowski in telling the story of an ageing, cynical attorney general who raises his daughter alone after the death of his wife. The narrative of her film itself brings to mind the excellent fourth part of The Decalogue, and the story of a lonesome father and his adult daughter.
The theme of a letter from the deceased mother also surfaces in Body/Ciało, and the actor Janusz Gajos actually plays the father in both these films. And there are more points in common – the action of Szumowska’s film also takes place in the apartment block district of Ursynów in Warsaw, which looks exactly the same as the one across which Artur Barciś walked years ago, playing the role of an angel.
But in the case of Szumowska, the cinema and style of Kieślowski are not objects of tribute, but rather of an ironic play. Szumowska approaches cinematic mysticism in a somewhat ironic manner, serving it with a grain of salt. Balancing between these two elements, she tells the story of an unsettled battle between faith and a lack thereof, between despair and hope. I am inclined to believe that this is exactly the kind of film conversation that would truly satisfy Krzysztof Kieślowski today.
The Decalogue in America?
There will be much talk about The Decalogue in the nearest months. And it’s all because of its remake being prepared by the American channel NBC. After four years of talks with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, American film studios have finally reached an agreement with him, and a new version of The Decalogue will hit the silver screen in 2016. In a talk with Artur Zaborski, the producer responsible for negotiating with the NBC, Beata Pisula asserts that:
"It will be a faithful adaptation. The format has been preserved, it will consist of telling contemporary stories in the context of what are probably man’s most important phrases, the decalogue's ten commandments"
The ten-episode series is written by Todd Ellis Kessler, a co-author and producer of the The Good Wife, one of the best television series of the last decade. For now, much of the project remains a secret – it is only known that the action of the ten episodes will be set in contemporary Boston.
The Decalogue re-written in Polish
It is not the first time that Kieślowski’s series has attracted foreign producers. In 2005, George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh were interested in remaking Kieślowski’s and Piesiewicz’s The Decalogue, but they had failed to reach an agreement with Piesiewicz.
Jean Pierre Jeneut
Four years later, and twenty years after the premiere of The Decalogue, the series did nonetheless enjoy its Polish continuation. Andrzej Mańkowski initiated a project as part of which ten young filmmakers created a set of 20-minute film-studies, each of which was meant to constitute a tale about one of the ten commandments. The Dekalog 89+ project included rising young talents of Polish cinema, such as Adrian Panek, Bartosz Paduch, Marcin Bortkiewicz, and others.
Amelie – A Veronique in Paris
The best known successful film inspired by Kieślowski is certainly Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie from 2001, one that owes a lot to The Double Life of Veronique. It shares its fable-like convention in telling the stories of two brotherly souls, who inhabit two distant places and who dream that one day they will meet someone dear to them. When writing about the similarities between the two films, Mirosław Przylipiak numbered dozens of scenes, motifs, images, and themes which connect Jeunet’s film and the earlier work of the Polish director. The motif of playing a signal-sending game by two people in search of each other appears in the two. Both Amelie and Veronique have no siblings, both have heart problems, and both play with marbles. And the two films seem to share a way of constructing the narrative, as well as surreal aesthetics.
Amelie is an homage paid not only to The Double Life of Veronique, but also to other films made by Kieślowski – there are also reiterating motifs from The Decalogue and Red from the Three Colours trilogy. Jeunet’s film is nonetheless a work in its own right. While the films of the Polish director dealt with the supernatural world and conceived it in religious terms, the story told by Jeunet is entirely secular in its essence.
A camera onto oneself
One would search in vain for a Polish film that refers to the style and imagery of Kieślowski in an equally open manner. With the exception of Jerzy Stuhr, who took up the toil of continuing Kieślowski’s work as early as the 1990s, there are few Polish artist who felt they wanted to converse with the master Kieślowski. It is only now, many years after his death that a generation of artists has surfaced who draw on his oeuvre, and who refer to his works in a more or less direct manner.
One such film was the successful debut of Bartek Konopka, Lęk wysokości (Fear of Heights) – the story of a young man who has to come to terms with his mentally ill father before truly entering adult life. Also, the excellent Erratum by Marek Lechki, – another film about difficult father-son relations – had in it something of the moral dilemmas that echo throughout Kieślowski’s films. Both the artists spoke about a life burdened with undeserved harm, and about vain attempts at freeing oneself from the sense of helplessness. Both also turned the camera onto themselves – like Filip Mosz in The Amateur – telling stories that are deeply felt, autobiographical and because of this, touchingly true.
Greg Zgliński – conversations with Kieślowski
Metaphysical yearnings and questions which resound in Kieślowski’s works so clearly, can also be perceived in the films of Greg Zgliński, his former student. The Swiss-Polish director thus remembered his encounter with the master: "It was a moment when the full awareness of what I am doing came to life, and an instant when I had to answer the question of why I was making films."
In his debut Cała zima bez ognia (A Long Winter Without Fire), Zgliński referred to Part One of The Decalogue, and the motif of the tragic death of a child. He told of the consequences of loss, and asked how it could be dealt with. The moral anxiety can also be perceived in his later Courage, the story of two brothers who witness a terrible accident. And still, this anxiety is private, deep felt and his own. Because even if Zgliński takes up a dialogue with Kieślowski, he remains an independent artist in his own right.
Scenes inscribed in memory
The search for similarities between films and a subsequent reasoning about their authors’ sources of inspiration is one of the most risky strategies in film criticism. It is, after all, impossible to prove that the similiarities are intentional. Yet, sometimes just one shot is enough to bring to mind a whole sequence from The Decalogue, Red, or The Amateur.
Such is the case when one watches the long, stretched-out scene of murder in Hardkor Disko by Krzysztof Skonieczny – instantly, the scene of the taxi driver’s murder from Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing comes to mind. The frequency with which one stumbles upon his traces in films by artists of different generations and sensitivities is in any case proof of the great power of Kieślowski’s cinema.
- Konrad J. Zarębski, "Każdy mój film jest poszukiwaniem" (Each of my films is a search), a conversation with Greg Zgliński, Kino magazine 2005, nr 10.
- Artur Zaborski, "Dekalog po amerykańsku” (The Decalogue in America), a conversation with Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Beata Pisula, Magazyn Filmowy 2015, nr. 5.
- Andrzej Gwóźdź [editor], "Kino Kieślowskiego, kino po Kieślowskim” (Kieślowski’s cinema, cinema after Kieślowski), Scorpion publishing house, Warsaw, 2006.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, June 2015. Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 18/06/2015