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Krzysztof Kieślowski (June 27, 1941, Warsaw – March 13, 1996, Warsaw) was an influential Polish film director and screenwriter, known internationally for his film cycles Three Colors and The Decalogue.
Kieślowski was born in Warsaw, Poland, and grew up in several small towns. At sixteen, he briefly attended a firemen's training school, but dropped out after three months. Without any career goals, he then entered the College for Theatre Technicians in Warsaw because it was run by a relative. He decided to become a theatre director, but at the time there was no specific training program for directors, so he chose to study film as an intermediate step.
Leaving college and working as a theatrical tailor, Kieślowski applied to the Łódź Film School, the famed Polish film school that also produced Roman Polański and Andrzej Wajda. He was rejected twice. To avoid compulsory military service during this time, he briefly became an art student, and also went on a drastic diet in an attempt to make himself medically unfit for service. After several months of successfully avoiding the draft, he was accepted to the Łódź Film School on his third attempt.
He attended from 1964 to 1968, during a period in which the government allowed a relatively high degree of artistic freedom at the school. Kieślowski quickly lost his interest in theatre and decided to make documentary films.
Kieślowski's early documentaries focused on the everyday lives of city dwellers, workers, and soldiers. Though he was not an overtly political filmmaker, he soon found that attempting to depict Polish life accurately brought him into conflict with the authorities. His television film Workers '71, which showed workers discussing the reasons for the mass strikes of 1970, was only shown in a drastically censored form.
After Workers '71, he turned his eye on the authorities themselves in Curriculum Vitae, a film that combined documentary footage of Politburo meetings with a fictional story about a man under scrutiny by the officials. Though Kieślowski believed the film's message was anti-authoritarian, he was criticized by his colleagues for cooperating with the government in its production.
Kieślowski later said that he abandoned documentary filmmaking due to two experiences: the censorship of Workers '71, which caused him to doubt whether truth could be told literally under an authoritarian regime, and an incident during the filming of Station (1981) in which some of his footage was nearly used as evidence in a criminal case. He decided that fiction not only allowed more artistic freedom, but could portray everyday life more truthfully.
Polish feature films
His first non-documentary feature, Personnel (1975), was made for television and won him first prize at the Mannheim Film Festival. Both Personnel and his next feature, The Scar, were works of social realism with large casts: Personnel was about technicians working on a stage production, based on his early college experience, and The Scar showed the upheaval of a small town by a poorly-planned industrial project. These films were shot in a documentary style with many nonprofessional actors; like his earlier films, they portrayed everyday life under the weight of a flawed system, but without overt commentary.
Camera Buff (1979) (which won the grand prize at the Moscow International Film Festival) and Blind Chance (1981) continued along similar lines, but focused more on the ethical choices faced by a single character rather than a community. During this period, Kieślowski was considered part of a loose movement with other Polish directors of the time, including Janusz Kijowski, Andrzej Wajda, and Agnieszka Holland, called the Cinema of Moral Anxiety. His links with these directors (Holland in particular) caused some raised eyebrows within the Polish government, and each of his early films was subjected to censorship and enforced re-shooting/re-editing, if not banned outright (Blind Chance was not released domestically until 1987, almost six years after it was completed).
No End (1984) was perhaps his most clearly political film, depicting political trials in Poland during martial law, from the unusual point of view of a lawyer's ghost and his widow. It was harshly criticized by both the government and dissidents. Starting with No End, Kieślowski's career was closely associated with two regular collaborators, the screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz and the composer Zbigniew Preisner. Piesiewicz was a trial lawyer whom Kieślowski met while researching political trials under martial law for a planned documentary on the subject; Piesiewicz co-wrote the screenplays for all of Kieślowski's subsequent films. Preisner provided the musical score for No End and most of the subsequent films; the score often plays a prominent part in Kieślowski's films and many of Preisner's pieces are referred to within the films themselves. In these cases, they are usually discussed by the films' characters as being the work of the (fictional) Dutch composer Van den Budenmayer.
The Decalogue (1988), a series of ten short films set in a Warsaw tower block, each nominally based on one of the Ten Commandments, was created for Polish television with funding from West Germany; it is now one of the most critically acclaimed film cycles of all time. Co-written by Kieślowski and Piesiewicz, the ten hour-long episodes had originally been intended for ten different directors, but Kieślowski found himself unable to relinquish control over the project; in the end, each episode featured a different director of photography. Episodes five and six were also filmed in longer feature-length versions, and released internationally as A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love respectively. Kieślowski had also planned to shoot a full-length version of Episode 9 under the title A Short Film About Jealousy, but exhaustion eventually prevented him from making what would have been his thirteenth film in less than a year.
Kieślowski's last four films were foreign co-productions, made mainly with money from France and in particular producer Marin Karmitz. These focused on moral and metaphysical issues along similar lines to The Decalogue and Blind Chance but on a more abstract level, with smaller casts, more internal stories, and less interest in communities. Poland appeared in these films mostly through the eyes of European outsiders. The four films were his most commercially successful by some distance.
The first of these was La double vie de Véronique (The Double Life of Véronique) (1990), starring Irène Jacob. The relative commercial success of this film allowed Kieślowski the opportunity to raise the funding for his amibitious final films, the trilogy Three Colors (Blue, White, Red), his most acclaimed works next to The Decalogue and his first international commercial successes. The three films together garnerd a host of prestigious international awards, including the Golden Lion for Best Film and Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival, and the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival, in addition to winning three Academy Award nominations. The Trilogy is generally regarded as a major acheivement in modern cinema.
Death and legacy
Krzysztof Kieślowski died on March 13, 1996 during open-heart surgery following a heart attack, and was interred in Powązki Cemetery, Warsaw, Poland. Situation of his grave: on entering by the main entrance turn right and you will see his grave a short distance in, off the path to the right (very close to the perimeter wall). The grave has a sculpture of the thumb and forefingers of two hands forming an oblong—the classic view as if through a movie camera.
The small sculpture is in black marble on a pedestal slightly over a meter tall. The slab with Kieślowski's name and dates lies below.
Years after his death, he remains one of Europe's most influential directors, his works the study of film classes at universities throughout the world. The 1993 book Kieślowski on Kieślowski describes his life and work in his own words, based on interviews by Danusia Stok. He is also the subject of a biographical film, Krzysztof Kieślowski: I'm So-So (1995), directed by Krzysztof Wierzbicki.
Though he had claimed to be retiring after Three Colors, at the time of his death Kieślowski was working on a new trilogy co-written with Piesiewicz, consisting of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory and inspired by Dante's La commedia. As was originally intended for the Decalogue, the scripts were ostensibly intended to be given to other directors for filming, but Kieślowski's untimely death means it is unknown whether he might have broken his self-imposed retirement to direct the trilogy himself. The only completed screenplay, Heaven, was filmed by Tom Tykwer and released in 2002 at the Toronto International Film Festival. The other two scripts existed only as thirty-page treatments at the time of Kieślowski's death; Piesiewicz has since completed these screenplays, with Hell—directed by Bosnian director Danis Tanović and starring Emmanuelle Béart—being released in 2005.
The Polish actor-director Jerzy Stuhr, who starred in several Kieślowski films and co-wrote the script for Camera Buff, filmed his own adaptation of an unfilmed Kieślowski script as Big Animal (Duże zwierzę) in 2000.
- From the City of Łódź (Z miasta Łodzi) (1969)
- I Was a Soldier (Byłem żołnierzem) (1970)
- Workers '71: Nothing About Us Without Us (Robotnicy '71: Nic o nas bez nas) (1971)
- Pedestrian Subway (Przejście podziemne) (1973)
- First Love (Pierwsza miłość) (1974)
- Curriculum Vitae (Życiorys) (1975)
- Hospital (Szpital) (1976)
- The Calm (Spokój) (1976)
- I Don't Know (Nie wiem) (1977)
- From a Night Porter's Point of View (Z punktu widzenia nocnego portiera) (1978)
- Station (Dworzec) (1981)
- Short Working Day (Krótki dzień pracy) (1981)
- Personnel (Personel) (1975)
- The Scar (Blizna) (1976)
- Camera Buff (Amator) (1979)
- Blind Chance (Przypadek) (1981)
- No End (Bez końca) (1984)
- The Decalogue (Dekalog) (1988)
- A Short Film About Killing (Krótki film o zabijaniu) (1988)
- A Short Film About Love (Krótki film o miłości) (1989)
- The Double Life of Véronique (La Double vie de Véronique/Podwójne życie Weroniki) (1991)
- Three Colors: Blue (Trois couleurs: Bleu) (1993)
- Three Colors: White (Trois couleurs: Blanc/Trzy kolory: Biały) (1994)
- Three Colors: Red (Trois couleurs: Rouge) (1994)
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