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The Documentarist from Łódź II

 | Director Profile |

  BY Anuj Malhotra

Curriculum Vitae (1975)

The post-First Love (1974) ‘documentary’ career of Kieślowski is marked by the need to confront, as opposed to the need to deny – a feature common to the latter halves of many a great film careers. Kieślowski’s films, up till First Love, are marked by an urgent need to depoliticize the ‘setting’ of his film – in effect, divorce the characters from their environment, and grant them an existence independent of the world they exist in – as such, Kieślowski’s films up till First Love (and including it, to a minor extent) function in the belief that the only larger system that an individual is a part of is ‘humanity’ itself. There is also the persistent conviction in the ‘close-up’ as a tool of exclusion – to shoot faces, simple talking heads, just the face and nothing else – in the wholly mistaken belief that by filming only the individual within the frame, he will reject the existence of the environment outside the edges of the frame– the guillotine artist as a filmmaker.

His basic belief in individual freedom in the face of the demands of the collective is intact, but he only chooses a less rigid and therefore braver approach to manifest it. To rebuff constantly is, after all, easy. It is through acknowledgement or at the least, consideration of the larger context within which his filmed individual exists that Kieślowski finally ‘grows up’ (so to say) as a filmmaker. While First Love can suitably be identified as the beginning of an interest in the individual vis-à-vis the society, it is still a grudging leap of faith; one that makes an effort but never really consummates it. It is one of the best Kieślowski documentaries, and yet, it is typical also of a peculiar Kieślowski (or any documentary filmmaker at some stage of his career) vice: that of an assumed role as the protector of what he films. 

The Kieślowski filmography, that includes his latter day feature films, can be seen in terms of a progressing fascination for life in regimented setups – from the literal: factory in From the City of Lódz (1969), sanitarium in X-Ray (1974), hospital in Hospital (1976), film set in Klaps (1976), dance school in Seven Women of Different Ages (1978); to the symbolic: society in First Love, political state in Bricklayer (1972); to the metaphysical: obsession in Camera Buff (1979), the burden of expectations in A Short film about Love (1988) and Three Colours: Blue (1993) and ofcourse, the grandest regimentation of all : destiny in Three Colours: Red (1994). 

But it is with Curriculum Vitae (1975) that Kieślowski begins to identify ‘regimentation’ as not a political object, but as a philosophical one. Instead of feigning ignorance about the existence of a ‘system’ outside the area of his frame, Kieślowski comes up with a rather sly move to demonstrate his belief in humanity and individual expression. He sets up his character besides the ‘system’, placing them in a state of visible comparison. A district control committee of a Lodz power plant considers the appeal of Comrade Gralak, a plant manager, against his expulsion from the party on the grounds of violation of the ‘principles’ of the party. Kieślowski begins the session of the inquiry with an overhead mastershot, thereby announcing the subject (Gralak, at the head of the table) and the context of the scene (an inquiry). As the committee members initiate the interrogation, Kieślowski’s camera assumes a formlessness hitherto unobservable in his career – it floatingly pans from one occupant of the table to another, and ends always at Gralak; thereby declaring the committee’s questions and Gralak’s answers (which as spoken dialogues, always overlap each other in a His Girl Friday-sort of manner) as a part of one single continuous membrane – one as a response to another, and vice-versa. 

Through such an approach, he uses the intense individuality of the person he films, to approximate the impersonal and calculated set of notions upon which the idea of the ‘system’ is founded. He achieves this stark contrast not by chance, as would be the norm for a passive documentarist, but I suspect, by careful manipulation of the material available to him: by getting an actor to slip in a line and through an ending that not very subtly tilts the entire balance of sympathy towards the individual, as opposed to the ‘system’. To call it a quasi-documentary is just eccentricities of nomenclature, because it is a fiction film, but its director is soaked in a conviction that what he is filming is ‘reality’. 

“How they functioned in everyday life, but from an individual's point of view.  These ideas are contradictory with human nature.  When you deal with them practically, you do not know how to live with them.  Do people really want liberty, equality and fraternity?  Is it not some manner of speaking?  We always take the individual, personal point of view.”[1]

Following are a few excerpts from the dialogue of the film,

: I worked in a coal mine. I overestimated by abilities. The drifts were one meter high. I suffered head aches and exhaustion, so I applied for dismissal.

Committee Member: No doubt the recruitment of Comrade Gralak into the mine was a political act, but his withdrawal could have been seen by other young activists as act of retreat and evasion of hard work.

Committee Member:
 The economic conditions of your family were not ideal. Your wife belonged to an alien social class. 
Gralak: To me, Comrade, she was just a young woman.

Committee Member: (describing a letter where the Gralak’s father-in-law blames him for leading his daughter astray) Was such conduct worthy of a party member? 
Gralak: I am only human.

Through a carefully conducted exchange, Kieślowski establishes the notion of the Party as only a collection of archaic symbols, fuzzy ideas that sound excellent but mean little : hard work, hierarchy, loyalty to the state, exemplary conduct; by interspersing them with the altogether human admissions of Gralak. He is presented as an individual who will readily confess his immense fallibility as an individual, but will appeal repeatedly to preserve his dignity through the revocation of his expulsion: ofcourse, the grand irony here is that Gralak wishes to dissolve himself into the same Mecca of the symbols he rejects – the Party, but Kieślowski’s larger point is clear. Such emphasis on the notion of individual freedom in the face of an antiquated ideology is similar to Masaki Kobayashi’s jidaegeki dramas: specifically, Harakiri (1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967), both films, like Kieślowski’s, about an apolitical individual in a political world. Kieślowski demonstrates, however, differently from Kobayashi, that the fight of the individual is one worthy of sorrowful pity; his kindred spirit indulges in arduous labour against an invincible opponent that is the ‘system’ – and unlike a Kobayashi film, a katana does not help in a Communist state.

Seven Women of Different Ages is Kieślowski’s first favourable look at the notion of regimentation – he sets the film inside a Polish ballet-academy where young women are first initiated into, then entrenched into, made to perform and then finally, made to instruct ballet as an artform. It is ofcourse, a move in the right direction for Kieślowski as the owner of a creative sensibility, for he finally, 10 years into his documentary career, conducts a self-inquiry and introspects his own attitudes (he would do it again, even more potently, in his first feature film the following year) instead of settling for the more convenient arrangement, i.e., to lament the condition of the world-at-large. 

He intercuts sequences which contain middle-aged Polish women pass on their knowledge, distilled through a stern rigour, to young aspiring ballerinas in dance-halls– with sequences of the final performance on stage. Kieślowski’s move is predictable though. It is almost to be expected by this stage, that while condemning the state or the sanitarium, he will however endorse the regimentation of an arts conservatory. Having himself been schooled in a school for film, Kieślowski films the dance sequences as some of the most graceful ever captured on film – thereby necessitating the regimentation, declaring the practice of art and then its performance as activities that somehow deserve an organized system – it is not as much a reversal of his sensibility as it is a convenient realignment. 

Kieślowski’s humour, of which he made sparing use, maybe found in thrifty instances in films such as X-Ray in which he films all the inmates of the sanitarium settled comfortably on reclining chairs as a nurse serves them their medicines; thereby engaging a clear visual gag through his replication of a scene one may associate more with a cruise ship or a hotel swimming pool; or in First Love, where he follows a scene of a domestic squabble between the two young lovers with a sequence of the male protagonist sitting with his friends, casually discussing the soundness of his decision to marry so young. His humour is strictly Polish, the sort Jan-Jakub Kolski does rather well these days i.e., based on little eccentric tics of individuals rather than on elaborate situations or plots – the American version. 

Kieślowski’s documentaries conduct themselves through a clear identification of the ‘officials’ and the ‘citizens’ – the entire agenda of his documentation is laid out bare in the nature of the interaction between the state ‘official’ and the state ‘citizen’ – the reason Hospital is a demonstration of Kieślowski humour is because in it, the ‘official’ and the ‘citizen’ are the one and the same. The larger organism: the hospital, is not separate from and infact, exists through its officials. They are the ones who are wronged citizens (as their idle gossip about higher-ups’ treatment of them, inhumane work-timings and general working conditions reveal) and are also the officials under scrutiny (they conduct the idle gossip while performing crucial medical procedures). This results in a situation where Kieślowski’s sympathies are for the first time, ambiguous; he is not incriminatory, but he is also not relenting – in a very interesting move, he strips the profession of medicine itself from all its inherent schlocky movie-nobility by filming a doctor doing something that he never does in any other film: getting paid at the end of the day.

Kieślowski’s focus on the narrative of a single being instead of the observation of a larger culture reaches becomes even more evident in From the Night Porter’s Point of View(1977). Explanatory as the title is, Kieślowski aligns his camera with an individual’s subjective view of a situation for the first time after I Was a Soldier (1970)  – to ‘be in someone else’s shoes’ – and comes up with the single most intriguing individual of his documentary career:  the night porter, Marian Osuch. The film does not conduct itself like an investigation, and infact, has nothing ‘to find’; or like a summary, because there is nothing ‘to summarise’ – instead, it is a documentary where Kieślowski merely ‘films’ because there is the night-porter to film. Sequences of the night-porter in uniform are mixed with sequences of him at home – training his dog, standing at a window and walking by the riverside. The eponymous point-of-view is lent, ofcourse, by a recorded voiceover narration of Osuch, which runs parallel to all the aforementioned sequences. 

He is revealed above all, to be a person on the far-right, an aspiring Fascist, a product of primitive times in consistent disagreement with the prospect of imminent change. As he stands at the window of his house looking at young children playing in the street downstairs, Kieślowski conducts a fascinating shot-reverse shot schema of the porter and the street below – thereby using the most classical of film techniques, i.e. matching eyelines, to emphasise that the film is indeed being served from the porter’s point-of-view. The voiceover over the schema varnishes it, however, with another meaning:

‘In recent times, more and more people have begun finding problems with the state. I do not like such nitpicking. If I were the state, I would crush them.’

Kieślowski superimposes this voiceover over the sequence of him overlooking the city from his apartment window, and the children in the street below look like tiny creatures to him. It is clever peddling of an objective, even vindictive observation wrapped in the guise of a subjective ‘point-of-view’. Later, the porter declares, ‘regulations are more important than people. If people do not comply, they should be taken to the gallows in full-view of the public.’ He becomes the symbol of the irrationality of Communist regimentation – and a captive, eventually, of his very personal ambition of megalomania (‘people as captives of their ambition’ is a theme that continues into Talking Heads (1980)). 

In the last scene of the film, however, it is the porter who comes under the scrutiny of watchful eyes; Kieślowski turns the tables on him, making him the spectacle instead of the spectator. As the porter goes to a nearby school, the teacher asks the children to identify the profession of the ‘man in the hat ‘(the porter). All of them collectively glance up at the porter, who in the final shot of the film, framed helplessly in a mid-shot, becomes ‘watched’ instead of the watchman, and comes across sheepishly as a mere agent of a grander ideology that he does not fully comprehend but is a mouth-piece for – someone who deserves sympathy instead of condemnation.  It is precisely at this point in his filmography: the discovery of the individual who must be ridiculed, subjected to derision, and even denounced; but eventually be absolved – that Kieślowski’s feature-film career begins. The night-porter is the early draft of the latter Kieślowski-protagonist – through Dominique of Three Colours: White (1994), to Jacek of A Short film about Killing (1989), to The Judge in Three Colours: Red (1994) – the individual, who despite all, deserves a chance.


1. From an interview with Krzystof Kieślowski,