Director of documentary and feature films, screenwriter. Born in 1941 in Warsaw, passed away in Warsaw on the 13th of March 1996.
A filmmaker of unparalleled merit who gained worldwide renown for the Decalogue series, The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colors: Blue, Red and White. His "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?".
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, From the City of Łódź and made his first short feature The Tram. 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 , Night Porter's Point of View, First Love and Seven Women of Various Ages. 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 marked his professional debut. Until 1983 he was affiliated with the Documentary Film Studio 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. 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.
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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. Together, they worked on A Short Film About Love (1988), two films from the Decalogue 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.
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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.
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 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, Purgatory and Hell.
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 Personnel (1975), a Gold Medal at the Moscow International Film Festival for Camera Buff, the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival for Three Colors: Blue and the Silver Bear at the International Film Festival in Berlin for Three Colors: White. In 1976 he received the Yeast Award of Polityka weekly, and in 1985 Kieślowski received a lifetime achievement award at the 15th Lubuskie Film Summer in Łagów.
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n 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 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.
- 1966 The Tram - Narrative student film which centers on a meeting between a boy and a girl that goes awry and lacks dialogue entirely.
- 1966 The Office - Documentary student film, a portrayal of bureaucrats who award disability pensions and of the applicants for said pensions. A vision of the bureaucratic machine and human drama.
- 1967 Concert of Requests - Documentary film about youth behavior and subcultures.
- 1968 The Photograph - Made-for-television film. The camera follows the crew in search of two boys from a wartime photograph in which they are smiling and holding rifles.
- 1969 From the City of Łódź - Kieślowski's thesis film from the State Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź. A portrait of the city of Łódź. Images of buildings that are falling apart are accompanied by optimistic commentary about the city and its industries.
- 1970 I Was a Soldier - The stories of a handful of soldiers who were blinded during World War II. The image of war it offers differs from that presented officially.
- 1970 The Factory - A reportage from a management meeting at the Ursus Tractor Factory in Warsaw inter-cut with footage of its workers working on the assembly-line. The film offers a depressing vision of a state enterprise operating within the Polish People's Republic and its Socialist economy.
- 1971 Before the Rally - A reportage on the many hurdles and traps that Polish rally driver Krzysztof Komornicki encounters in the Polish People's Republic during preparations for the Monte Carlo rally.
- 1972 Refrain - An exploration of the operations of a funeral home providing a vision of bureaucracy that is hard to escape, even after death.
- 1972 Between Wrocław and Zielona Góra - A film about the copper mining center in Lubin.
- 1972 Principles of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine - A commissioned educational film.
- 1972 Workers 1971: Nothing About Us without Us - A look at Polish workers at the beginning of the 1970s. The film provides insight into the public mood at the time and the awakening of worker awareness, as well as the machinations and manipulations of government authorities after the social turmoil of December 1970. This version of the film was never shown. A censored version entitled Hosts was released in cinemas without the authors' consent. In addition, the authorities stole the film's soundtrack with the aim of using it against the workers who made statements in front of the camera.
- 1973 The Bricklayer - A film about bricklayer Józef Malesa, a former 'leading laborer' and Communist Party activist. Malesa reminisces about his past, the Stalinist years and the turmoil of October 1956. The film provides a view of Polish history through the eyes of someone who was first seduced by the enthusiasm of building a new reality and then disappointed by the new order.
- 1974 X-Ray - Made at the sanatorium of Sokołowsk in Lower Silesia, this film looks at individuals suffering from pulmonary disease and is a moving portrait of those living with illness.
- 1974 First Love - The story of two young people (aged 17 and 18) up through the moment their first child is born. The film offers a vision of the love between two young people who are beginning their lives as adults in the realities of the Polish People's Republic, where nothing is simple and every matter - even the simplest - requires multiple visits to multiple institutions.
- 1975 Curriculum Vitae - A fictionalized documentary about a meeting of a Communist Party Voivodeship Control Committee reviewing the appeal of a worker excluded from the Communist Party. In spite of the fictional character of the worker and his fictional biography, the meeting transforms into a highly realistic trial of an individual who refuses to submit to authority and actually wishes to accomplish something. This is a vision of how those who rebel in the name of the fundamental principles of honesty and dignity are ultimately destroyed. The film was produced as an educational tool and shown during screenings organized for members of the Polish United Workers Party.
- 1976 The Hospital - A film made in the emergency room of the traumatic surgery hospital located on Barska Street in Warsaw. Doctors attempt to help the injured in the face of frequent power shortages typical of the Polish People's Republic.
- 1976 Slate - A short impression composed of outtakes from Krzysztof Kieślowski's feature film titled The Scar.
- 1977 A Night Watchman's Point of View - Portrait of factory watchman Marian Osuch, who turns out to be a fanatic of discipline wanting to control everything and everyone. A metaphorical image of totalitarianism.
- 1977 I Don't Know - The story of the managing director of the "Reindeer" Leather Factory, who is stripped of his position. An exploration of life in a state enterprise, where bribery and infighting prove endemic. An image of the rotten Polish economy and realities of the 1960s. Premiered in 1981.
- 1978 Seven Women of Different Ages - Portraits of seven dancers, teenagers and women on the verge of ending their career. The seven portraits combine to form the portrait of one woman from childhood to old age. A poetic story of transcendence. Premiered in 1981.
- 1980 The Railway Station A film about Warsaw's Central Station, which was a symbolic building of the 'Second Poland' touted by new Communist Party First Secretary Edward Gierek. The realities of the train station (symbolising Poland) are juxtaposed with propagandistic images of life in Communist Poland as seen on television monitors distributed throughout the station.
- 1980 Talking Heads - People of various professions and various ages, ranging from a one-year-old child to a one hundred-year-old woman, answers questions: What year were you born in? Who are you? What do you think is most important? The result is a gallery of heads identified by their year of birth. The dreams and problems of people of various ages combine to constitute a story of human life. A two-year-old dreams of being a 'Syrenka' automobile, while a one hundred-year-old woman dreams of living longer. The film is simultaneously a story about Poland, about how Poles perceive their country and what they would have liked to change about it.
- 1988 Seven Days a Week: Warsaw - An installment of the 'City Life' international film series, the film observes seven people following their daily routines over seven days of the week. All of them ultimately meet each other for Sunday breakfast. The film is a symbolic image of an average Polish family and is almost entirely free of dialogue. Dutch production.
- 1973 The Underground Passage (screenplay with Ireneusz Iredynski) - A mid-length made-for-television feature in which a young teacher from the provinces arrives in Warsaw and encounters his wife, who left him some time ago, in a pedestrian underpass. The teacher attempts to revive his marriage, but the couple prove incapable of finding an understanding. The woman has already been changed by life in the big city, which has made her cold and cynical. The film is about a crisis of values at its core.
- 1975 Personnel - A television feature that references the director's life. Like his protagonist Romek Januchta, Kieślowski was also a theatre dressing room attendant. It explores the insurmountable barrier between stage artists and support staff, and deals with the loss of youthful illusions and difficult choices in life.
- 1976 The Scar - (based on Romuald Karas's book The Town of Puławy - Chapter Two) - A social and psychological drama in which the director of a chemical enterprise supervises the building of a plant whose location is causing local inhabitants to protest. The season of social upheaval in 1970 arrives and the protagonist takes the side of the workers. When the workers' protests are quelled, he returns to his hometown in Silesia highly disappointed.
- 1976 The Calm (based on the short story A Step Beyond the Gate) - A television feature that is considered to have been one of the pioneering films in the cinema of moral anxiety. The story of worker Antoni Gralak who is released from prison and wishes to settle down to a calm life. He fails to find peace though he does find a woman to marry and a place to live. The realities of the Polish People's Republic cause him to enter into conflict with his construction worker colleagues who decide at one point to organise a strike, and with the manager of the construction site who wishes to make an informer of him. These complications conclude tragically. Premiered on television in 1980.
- 1979 Camera Buff - Considered one of the best films of the so-called cinema of moral anxiety, the story of amateur filmmaker Filip Mosz, a supply worker at a state-owned plant. Mosz purchases a film camera in order to record the first months of his newly born daughter's life. However, he proceeds from filming his child to filming the plant places around his small town. He learns that a camera can be used both to tell lies and to tell the truth. Mosz, however, wants only to tell the truth. This desire exacts a price when his family falls apart and he enters into conflict with other individuals. This film explores the place of art in the world, the concept of courage, the uncompromising spirit, the boundaries of responsibility for one's word and the price of creative freedom.
- 1981 A Short Work Day (screenplay with Hanna Krall based on her reportage The View from the Window on the First Floor) - A television feature about the social turmoil in Radom in 1976. Events seen through the eyes of Wacław Ulewicz, First Secretary of that city's Municipal Communist Party Committee, whose office was located in the Voivodeship Communist Party headquarters to which the demonstrators laid siege.
- 1981 Blind Chance - Three stories of a young man named Witek Dlugosz. In each of the stories, the hero purchases a train ticket. In the first he makes the train and meets a Communist idealist who inspires Witek to become a Communist Party activist; in the second, he gets into a fight on the train platform, is arrested, brought before a court and becomes an opposition activist. In the third, he does not make the train and meets a woman at the train station, falls in love and goes on to lead a normal life. Both the first and second stories end with the hero drowning in dilemmas and bitterness during the workers' protests of August 1980. In the third, which might seem the happiest of the three stories, the hero dies in an airline crash. In the film, Kieślowski portrays coincidence as the unpredictable director of human fate.
- 1985 No End (screenplay with Krzysztof Piesiewicz) - Set during Martial Law in Poland and centers on the young widow of an attorney who defended activists during political trials. The woman finds herself unable to deal with her husband's death. The spirit of the departed intervenes in her life and the widow constantly feels this presence. Her longing for her deceased husband ultimately leads her to commit suicide. The storyline of the heroine's personal experiences is intertwined with that centering on the political trial of a young worker. In the film, Kieślowski offers a series of reflections on the political stance of society and the professional ethics of lawyers.
- 1988 A Short Film About Killing (screenplay with Krzysztof Piesiewicz) - The cinema version of part five of the Decalogue television series. A young man murders a taxi driver without any specific reason. He is caught, tried and sentenced to death. His execution is presented in extraordinary detail, a measure that was the filmmakers' protest against the death penalty.
- 1988 A Short Film About Love (screenplay with Krzysztof Piesiewicz) - The cinema version of the part six of the Decalogue television series. A young postal work uses binoculars to spy on an attractive neighbor. The inexperienced boy's curiosity transforms into fascination. The woman, who is emotionally cynical and reduces love to sex, proves incapable of appreciating the feeling offered to her by the boy in time.
- 1988 Decalogue (screenplay with Krzysztof Piesiewicz) - A made-for-television series of ten short features whose themes reference the fundamental ethical code of Judaism and Christianity, though in some cases this relation is relatively distant.
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.
- 1991 The Double Life of Veronique (screenplay with Krzysztof Piesiewicz) - Two identical young women, named the same and similarly sensitive, live in parallel in two different countries. The psychological link between them is strong, though they do not know each other and only have an intuition of their relationship. The one living in Poland is a singer. When she dies of overexertion during a concert, the second, living in France, abandons her efforts to become a musician on impulse.
- 1993 Three Colors: Blue (screenplay with Krzysztof Piesiewicz). Julie loses her husband and little daughter in an automobile accident. She proves incapable of finding another purpose in life; she is free and can elect to do anything, but the blow of her family's death renders her incapable of finding the strength to take advantage of her freedom.
- 1994 Three Colors: White (screenplay with Krzysztof Piesiewicz) - An attractive French woman abandons her husband, a dull Polish émigré hair stylist. She clearly feels far superior to him. The desperate Pole, however, proves surprisingly cunning. He plans his revenge to prove his value to her, regain her admiration and perhaps even her love. Kieślowski frequently underlined that in this film he approached comedy in a manner highly atypical of his work.
- 1994 Three Colors: Red (screenplay with Krzysztof Piesiewicz) - This film full of symbols and signs centers on people searching for their 'other halves'. The story is designed to persuade viewers that ideal pairs of this kind have been programmed by fate, yet their 'halves' might pass each other in time and space without ever coming together. Therefore, in order to avoid losing our opportunity at bliss, we should carefully read the coded signs that appear before us.
Krzysztof Kieślowski also directed a number of television theatre productions, including License for a Culling (based on the writings of Zofia Posmysz, 1972), Checking the King (based on Stefan Zweig's A Chess Novella 1973), The Card Index (a play by Tadeusz Różewicz, 1976) and Two on a Swing (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. In 2001, German director Tom Tykwer's feature Heaven, produced in Germany and Italy, was based on Kieślowski's and Piesiewicz's screenplay Paradise.
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 (1999), Dominique Rabourdin's A Cinema Lesson (1996) and Mikołaj Jazdon's The Last Meeting with Krzysztof Kieślowski (1996).
Author: Ewa Nawój and Jan Strękowski, May 2004, edited by Marta Jazowska August 2012, last revised January 2016.