From his boyhood dreams of becoming a stoker, to how he encountered his future wife and his odd passion for train stations – here are some lesser-known curiosities about master director Krzysztof Kieślowski.
A child of no permanent home
Kieślowski spent his childhood living out of suitcases. His family was constantly on the move from one city to the next. His father suffered from tuberculosis so his family had to keep moving to places where he could be looked after: sanatoriums, locations with a better climate, towns without a busy industrial landscape. One of their stops was the Polish health resort Sokołowsko. In his honour, the small village in the Sudetes, known as the Silesian Davos, nowadays hosts the Hommage á Kieślowski festival.
From stoker to fireman
'To tell you the truth, I never really wanted to go to school,' the filmmaker admits in Krzysztof Kieślowski: I'm So-So:
I wanted to be a stoker. In the houses where we lived there was central heating, you would heat in the furnaces. I had a friend named Skowron who was already a stoker, and I thought it was the best thing that one could do in their life. My parents didn’t share my enthusiasm so they tried to put me in school, any kind of school. Father sent me to a fireman school, a very smart move on his part [...] because there I understood that I definitely don’t want to be a fireman. Probably if father would have let me tend to the furnace, I would have quickly understood that I didn’t want to be a stoker.
Theatre director by extent
He didn’t become a fireman or a stoker. His parents sent him to Warsaw where he could go to a high school that taught future theatre technicians. His uncle was the school’s deputy director and helped secure a place for young Krzysztof. Not long after, his sister joined the same school. He looks back:
The school was fantastic. It showed me that there was more to life than just producing things that are meant to be used [...], that there exists a different sphere of life, one that gives a different kind of fuel. Loftly said, a fuel for the soul and the mind.
He wanted to work in theatre, but he didn’t want to be a painter or a dressing room attendant – he wanted to be a director. But in order to get into theatre school he needed a school diploma.
I thought to myself that since I needed to go to university, then why should I study history, Polish or sociology if straight away it was possible to go in the right direction - theatre direction. I thought that if I graduated in film direction then by extent I would know something about theatre direction [...] It was meant to be a phase, not the goal.
However, he didn’t get into the school. He was rejected twice before eventually passing the entry exam. He said about his trials, 'I was really stubborn [...] If the motherfuckers don’t want me, I’ll show them by getting in.' When after the third try he finally managed to do well, he left the exam, did a somersault on the lawn in front of the building, threw his glasses on the ground and smashed them with his shoes.
He did well with women. As a teenager, he changed girlfriends as if they were gloves, and was the subject of envy to his high school friends. Everything changed at university. One day he and his friend had a double date. Kieślowski was supposed to meet with a girl he already liked and she was meant to bring along a friend. Everything changed. Maria Cautillo, the girl meant for Kieślowski’s friend, was the one who caught his eye. He proposed to her two weeks later. Maria Kieślowska was his wife until death did them part.
When it comes to female attention, after the success of A Short Film About Love, followed by Three Colours: White, actresses from around the world dreamt about acting in his films. Catherine Deneuve wanted to forfeit being paid just to be able to act in Three Colours: Blue. And among those who pride themselves in being fascinated by Kieślowski’s cinema is Hollywood star Nicole Kidman.
Acting it out
When he starting studyng at the Łódź Film School, he did more than just assist other directors and create his first short works. Every now and then he stood in front of the camera to perform. In his own Concert of Wishes, he played a cyclist herding a cow, while in Ewa and Czesław Petelski’s Don Gabriel, he was a soldier. His acting career finished with a scene in Marek Piwowski’s Foul Play.
The world in a drop of water
At Łódź Film School, he had three gods: Bresson, Bergman and Karabasz. Closest to him was Karabasz, a lecturer at the film school, an eminent documentary film maker and pedagogue. He taught Kieślowski that in order to be able to make films, you have to have your own world to talk about. In Krzysztof Wierzbicki’s documentary, Kieślowski reminisces about that time of his life:
The world around was very sad. It wasn’t even black and white, just black. Maybe grey. That is linked to the place where the film school is located, that is Łódź. The city is particularly photogenic, dirty, scratched. That’s what the whole city is like, so in some sense, it's the whole world. People’s faces look no different from the walls – tired, sad, with some kind of drama in their eyes, the drama of feeling the nonsense, a creeping feeling, which results in nothing.
In his documentaries he revealed communist microworlds, showing ordinary people in their ordinary lives. They were worlds in drops of water. Elementary School, Hospital, The Factory, The Office – from these tiny pieces of reality, Kieślowski put together a picture of the People’s Republic of Poland.
'Letters to the leaders'
After film school, he started working for the Documentary and Feature Film Production Company on Chełmska Street in Warsaw. He was tasked with putting together their Kroniki Filmowe (Film Chronicles). This is where he met Jacek Petrycki, a young cinematographer who later become a close associate. And even though he never got involved in politics directly, by describing reality he revealed the lies of the communist system. 'These were "letters to the leaders",' Tomasz Zygadło said about his films. Kieślowski constantly walked a tightrope between what the authorities could allow, and that which was censored. 'We were afraid of falling into disfavour and fell into disfavour all the time,' he explained years later.
'You made a complete arse of the guy' - the end of documentary making
From a Night Porter's Point of View turned out to be a breakthrough documentary in his cinematic output. It encapsulated totalitarianism. The story of a doorman who basks in the glory of his 'power' was an open accusation of a system that demoralised. Kieślowski became friends with his protagonist and years later cast him in small roles.
'Well, you made a complete arse of the guy,' was what Agnieszka Holland told Kieślowski after the film was shown at the Krakow Film Festival. Looking at the behaviour of the protagonist, the public burst into laughter every now and then, and Kieślowski kept on sliding lower and lower into his seat. His film wasn’t meant to be a comedy. 'I think that’s where it started. He stopped wanting to do documentaries,' Jerzy Stuhr commented about the events of that evening.
This is what Kieslowski himself said about his decision to leave documentary film making:
For ten years I made documentaries. I loved the genre and it was with pity and shame that I abandoned it; I felt like a human who is escaping from a sinking ship instead of saving it or going down with it in honour. The documentary film sank. It disappeared with a general lack of interest.
An obsession with home improvement
He liked to do mechanical things and DIY. His classmates said that every free moment he wasn’t preoccupied with his 'girlfriends' would be spent in shops searching for screws, motorcycle bearings or tools. 'Thanks to him, all his friends got to know all the auto-part stores in Warsaw,' divulged Janusz Skalski, an old friend of Kieślowski’s.
Reminiscing about the director’s talent, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a friend and associate said:
He knew how to take apart a watch and put it together again. Take apart a motorcycle and put that together too. Take apart an engine even and put it back together. When I had some kind of home improvements to be done, he arrived with his tool chest and adjusted all the screws and bolts, chandeliers, or dissasembled all the locks in the doors.
His friends were happy that he could help them with little projects around the house. Sławomir Idziak even joked that many people even had a strategy when it came to Kieślowski’s readiness to fix things: 'They would start to mess around in the car in his presence knowing in a moment Krzysztof would tell them to move away and would fix what was needed himself.'
Carpentry was his hobby. 'I like to work with wood,' he said in Krzysztof Wierzbicki’s documentary:
Unfortunately I lack the talent for it. I have probably made more than one hundred things out of wood, simple useful things which require right angles. And I still haven’t managed to make a single right angle.
The mystery of train stations
Train stations appeared in most of his later films. The protagonists constantly said their goodbyes and hellos on the platforms, and it was where some of their fates were decided: the future for some and freedom from the past to the sound of departing trains for others. As a young man, Kieślowski travelled a lot around Poland and ranked the best railway station bars. He knew where to find the best schnitzels and which eatery had the best minced-meat cutlets (kotlety mielone).
But there came a certain point when train stations became his curse. In the TV programme 100 Pytań Do (100 Questions For ...), he said:
I like travelling by train [...] But I very much dislike shooting at train stations, and I don’t like scenes with animals and children. But lately, whatever we come up with with Piesiewicz, there is a railway station there, and a train and children, and animals.
Wooed by the regime
When he filmed Workers 71’, a sad collective portrait of the working class, the Communist Party's censors decided that it wasn’t fit to be shown to the wider public, but that it had shown them Kieślowski might take an interest in politics. He was asked to attend an educational seminar. There was hope that they could turn him into a communist object of adoration. But it wasn't going to happen.
Curriculum Vitae is a film partly made upon the request of the party. Tadeusz Sobolewski, a critic and connoisseur of Kieślowski’s work commented:
At the same time, the film was also an accusation towards the party. He made it side by side with the communist leaders who hoped to use the finished product in their propaganda campaigns. But Kieślowski’s film was absolutely no good for that. Because Kieślowski did his own thing all the time – he didn’t hand over his independence into their hands, nor did he let himself be taken away by the opposition rush which at that time was hitting a large number of the people from his world.
'Eulogist of the party's cries'
When Kieślowski passed away, people from the film industry had endless accolades to say in his regard. But he wasn’t always well understood by his milieu. Agnieszka Holland disclosed that his friends ironically called him the 'eulogist of the party's cries'. They were bothered that he 'collaborated' with the system by refusing to sign letters of protest, and that he didn’t make films about Solidarnośc but about people who wished for nothing more than a small piece of stability – a home, a family, and enough to get by.
Where they expected black and white narration, he saw ambiguity. In one of the scenes in Amateur, he seemed to show agreement with the communists, leading to severe criticism by other people involved in the film industry. When a lawyer played by Aleksander Bardini in No End convinces a member of the opposition to abandon an empty rebellion against the regime and save his freedom instead, Kieślowski was attacked from all sides: the opposition, people from his profession, the church, and communists too as they didn’t appreciate the overall thrust of the film. Even some of his friends stopped giving him a helping hand.
What interested Kieślowski were portraits of ordinary people, not the big political game. He wasn’t trying to say who was right and who was wrong. As a director, he tried to be like the angel from The Decalogue – an observer full of empathy and understanding. But there was no escaping politics. He spoke about it in his own way, avoiding easily-reached evaluations and revolutionary fervour. When he was getting started with The Decalogue, he couldn’t even find a camerman because everyone claimed that after the events of December 13th 1981, people should only make films about Solidarność, communism and underground newspapers.
Nevertheless, political events did influence his films. Blind Chance and Short Working Day were his reaction to the phenomenon of Solidarność, and No End was a response to the imposition of Martial Law. The death of the protagonist played by Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, the memorable Man of Marble in Andrzej Wajda’s film, was the symbolic death of a certain idea.
After Martial Law was lifted, Kieślowski said that he was no longer interested in filming, and would only shoot again under one condition: if a machine gun could be placed in the lens of the camera and be used as a weapon in armed battle. At the same time, he continued to refuse to sign letters of protest. He told his student Andreas Veiel:
Politics is atrocious. The only thing that interests me now is to have toilet paper when I go to the toilet.
An invisible world & an elephant in Głubczyce
When I was 6 years old, I saw an elephant in the street. I’m sure I saw it. Later they explained to me, that that’s impossible, that I didn’t see an elephant because why would there be an elephant in the marketplace in Głubczyce.
That’s the story he told when he was asked about the source of 'mysticism' in his cinema. He believed in a mystery. He was distressed by the fact that the tangible world in which he lived wasn’t all that there was, that there existed something beyond it. That feeling of transcendence wasn’t the result of reading the works of philosophers or through cinematic discoveries, but something that accompanied him since he was a boy, a boy who saw an elephant in the marketplace of a provincial Polish city.
That event also gave rise to the idea for a script, Big Animal, which was filmed by Jerzy Stuhr after his death.
Particular about poster art
Kieślowski scrupulously chose the authors of his posters. He gave a lot of freedom to those he could trust. At the end of the 1980s, he wrote:
It matters who makes the poster. There are some who I trust – if he made the poster, I try to get a ticket. There are others who I don’t trust – I don’t care what they like. In that sense, the author of a poster becomes a co-author of the film, who speaks out on its behalf.
'You make posters, I make films. You don’t meddle with my films, so why should I meddle with your posters?' he rhetorically asked Pągowski, his regular poster maker and the creator of most of the posters to his films.
Uncomfortable in the West
Following the success of The Decalogue, he was regularly invited to big cinematic events, but he never felt a great love for the West.
'Wherever it is that I was abroad,' he used to say, 'I always feel like a stranger and I always feel bad. And to be honest, I always want to return home as soon as possible.' Hollywood just never appealed to him.
In America there is something that just isn’t for me. It’s talking about nothing with a good, a decidedly good, and even very good mood. I meet my American agent and I ask him, 'How are you?' He always says, 'Extremely well.' It can no longer be 'okay', or 'well'. It has to be 'extremely well'. Me on the other hand, I’m not 'extremely well'. And for that matter I’m not even 'well'. I am simply 'so-so'.
He always saw the glass half empty. He joked:
I have a very good trait of character which consists in me being a pessimist. I always imagine the worst. The future is for me a black hole. If there is anything I am afraid of, it’s the future.
Time for God to get up
He rarely spoke about his own religious convictions. In a review for a Catholic paper following the premiere of No End, Krzysztof Kłopotowski wrote that Kieślowski was not Catholic and warned the public not to get tricked by his wanna-be metaphysics, seemingly particularly offended. Years later, Kieślowski turned it into a joke, but he always felt like a person who didn’t really stick to any church communities, dogmas or simple answers to eschatological questions.
In a mid-1990s interview for French television, he was asked: 'If you, the creator of The Decalogue died and went to heaven, what do you think God would say to that?' He retorted: 'If I went there, I would have to wake him up. Because if he is there, then he's sleeping. I would tell him: Wake up! Look what’s happening!'