ATTENTION: This article contains minor spoilers to White, and a major spoiler to Ashes and Diamonds (1958). However, since you’re as curious as I am about Polish cinema and most certainly watched the movie after the previous article - please read on.
So let’s pick up from where we left off. Regardless if his legacy is that of a shiny diamond or forgotten as meaningless ashes, Maciek met his bitter fate on the trash heap of history’s losing game. In Kieslowski’s White, we find our hero Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) returning to Poland and waking up in a junkyard. Whether intended as a homage or simply pure coincidence (it’s not), White is a descendant to Ashes and Diamonds in the sense that the action takes place at the hinge of decisive change and connecting between two eras. Released in 1994, the movie satirizes Poland’s move away from communism and the staggering baby steps into capitalism and a hope for an integrated Poland in Europe.
Following the international success of “The Decalogue”, long-time collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz suggested to Kieslowski that they make a trilogy based on the precepts of the French revolution, utilizing the tricolors of the French flag (blue - freedom, white - equality, red - fraternity) as visual-and-otherwise symbols for each movie. The final result was a trilogy that was received with wide acclaim and garnered some of the most prestigious awards and nominations possible, but also immediately entered the canon of absolute must-sees for cinephiles. However, out of the three, “White” has always received bad rap. Perhaps, in context of its brethren, it was the lack of visual virtuosity (both “Blue” and “Red” are strongly filtered by their respective colors, providing a saturated ambience). Perhaps it was its adherence to a more accessible narrative with plot-turns that surpassed all logical explanations. And perhaps - simply put - it was just less artsy. Next to the tantalizing delicate beauties of the heroines of “Red” and “Blue” (Irene Jacob and Juliette Binoche), the protagonist Karol Karol - a Chaplinesque tramp, stubby and short and with bewildered innocent eyes - wasn’t much to look at. Much like Karol’s naivety that gets shat on by pigeons in the first scene, the movie “White” has been quickly forgotten, if not openly derided for not belonging in the trilogy. This is unjustified and if viewed from a different perspective, you may find that it offers other qualities that elevate it above its peers.
Karol Karol, everyday-man molded out of the Chaplin genus, is down on his luck. Once a successful hairdresser running a fancy shop in Paris, Karol’s beautiful French wife Dominique (Julie Delpy) files a divorce claim against him and standing trial Karol loses the case as he is forced to admit to his own failure in consummating the marriage. If this wasn’t embarrassing enough, Karol needs a translator to express his sexual impotence. Now seeing his credit card cut in half before his eyes and his bank account frozen, followed by Dominique setting their shop on fire and accusing him of arson, Karol - now on the run - is reduced to living like a tramp and has to play tunes off of his comb (yes, you heard it) on the dirty ground of a metro station. Those of you familiar with Kieslowski’s “Decalogue” are no strangers to his indirect and mind-blowing interpretations of the individual commandments. And Kieslowski does not fail to surprise here either in his premeditated discussion on “equality’ - it is an ugly monster that rears its two heads:
1) The world is unfair and often manifests itself in the debasement of the weak (Karol has to suffer the experience of calling his ex-wife who insists that he should listen to her moaning in the receiver as her lover pleasures her)
2) In our struggle for equality we may find ourselves doing terrible deeds, as will manifest in Karol’s embittered search for revenge
A stranger and fellow alienated countryman, Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), recognises the Polish tune that Karol is playing on his comb. The two take comfort in each other’s company and Mikolaj eventually offers the down-and-out Karol a grim job - to kill a suicidal man who cannot bring himself to take his own life. Karol is shocked and rejects the offer. Mikolaj helps Karol return to Poland by smuggling him in a suitcase - through airport security and all. If you are a person of functioning mental faculties, then this is the moment when you stop and scratch your head. “Say what now?” you will ask. Kieslowski asks of you to bear with him. If you’re willing to stretch your suspension of disbelief much further and instead enjoy the symbolism and metaphors that this fable offers, then you may find this experience very rewarding. Karol, who is much like the rugged suitcase in which he is trapped, will now begin his transformation inside the proverbial “belly of the whale” and set out to regain his stature as a man worthy of equality. Karol, driven by his vindictiveness and search for equality, will make ends meet in this new Poland where you “can buy everything” in a money-grabbing, free-for-all, dog-eat-dog atmosphere of new capitalism. He will take a job as a watchdog for a man who prides himself in shady dealings and he will take Mikolaj up on the previous offer of killing the suicidal man (the scene that is the topic for this entry).
But first, since this is a farce heavy on irony, credibility will be stretched another notch as a band of thieves steal the suitcase that harbors Karol off of the airport conveyer belt and to the junkyard. Upon discovering that the suitcase holds no loot except for a tramp with only 2 francs to his name, the thieves beat him up. In one of many great instances of dark comedy in this film, Karol - bleeding in the snow of the junkyard - exclaims triumphantly “Home at last!”.
*I ask you to watch a sequence of two scenes: from the moment that is linked, and the scene immediately following it HERE*
I chose this scene for obvious reasons - it is simply incredible. Karol, having made the appointment to kill the man in the Warsaw underground, finds his friend Mikolaj there. It is he who wants to die. We do not know the exact reasons for Mikolaj’s request, but we turn to something he mentioned earlier - he is a bridge player with an outstanding memory, and we assume a man with such a memory will have a hard time forgetting the hardships of Poland’s troubled past. Karol shoots Mikolaj and he falls into his arms in a way that some people may suggest is another allusion to “Ashes and Diamonds” when Maciek kills Szczuka (I belong to this group of people). However, Karol has shot a blank bullet and now offers his friend a choice - the next one will be a real bullet. Mikolaj, who no doubt wanted to die and has now experienced his death, receives a second chance and is reborn (another dominant theme). The dramaturgical meaning of the color white does not only symbolize equality in this film, it is also a clean slate through rebirth. And so, following the glimmer in Mikolaj’s eye and his cocked smile as he says “you’ve earned it”, the two men slide across the pure whiteness of the ice upon the Wisla, drunk on alcohol and drunk on life, reborn with a sense of childish wonder and marvel at the beautiful absurdity of life. “Everything is possible”, Mikolaj proclaims before shouting out his victory yell. Our hearts leap and we believe him.
In Karol’s obsessive desire to exact his revenge upon Dominique and make her feel compassion for his suffering, there are overt political overtones. Perhaps it was Poland that, like Karol, felt a similar impotence in its relations to the West and after freeing itself from communism wanted to regain its standing in Europe and to enjoy the “equality”. But perhaps Poland also harboued a need for West to see the injustice it had suffered as it was stripped of freedom and dignity and the indifference with which it had been met by the West that cast it away. Perhaps. It is a popular reading of the film. Kieslowski would no doubt reject such a political reading, and I will not continue that discussion here but rather invite you to do it for yourselves.
Although it shares several themes with the other movies in the trilogy, it is indeed different - it is a comedy. It moves towards reconciliation at a furious pace. And it’s funny - perhaps not in the classical lough-out-loud-until-you-choke funny. It’s more like the inadvertent slip of a fart at a funeral service with the attendees vehemently stifling their laughs due to propriety and solemnity. That is not to say that the film has any fart jokes, but it does have some deaths, and amidst Karol’s tragic haplessness and the oppressive air of anxiety there is that slip of a fart that is life-affirming. Kieslowski’s unusual accent finds so much life and humor in human misery and in this strange fable of a spiteful revenge story.
Legendary film critic Roger Ebert once wrote of Kieslowski: “He is one of the filmmakers I would turn to for consolation if I learned I was dying, or laugh with on finding I would live after all”. I believe that this scene is a wonderful example of why Ebert might have admired Kieslowski so much.
Author: David Tejer, 30/06/2015