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The Documentarist from Łódź, Part I

 | Director Profile |

  BY Anuj Malhotra

First Love (1974)

As is the luxury of the youth and the habit of the young, one tends to try everything once. It is the sort of adventure one may afford, in fact, only when one is young. In most cases, this routine of ceaseless, carefree experimentation with oddities can drive the youngster to a point of utter frustration, wherein he/she finally wishes to move on and grow up; in others, such hit-and-trial leads to a damning series of self-realisations. And while these encounters with a number of things happen all at once, none of them being satisfactory in any way, they can be the basis for what may crystallise into an ‘ideology’ or a ‘sensibility’ later.

Krysztof Kieslowski was young once – and perhaps youthful when he died. He tried ‘his hand’ at various things: firefighting, theatre, tailoring for actors, amateur poetry, politics; in the process composing a long list of items he would not want to indulge in for the rest of his life. Or perhaps, in a state of frenzied indecision that accompanies youth, he wanted to do all of them together. So he chose to make films. Politics, or a condition in which an individual exists as a product of a ‘system’ or a number of smaller sub-systems, was a singular enigma to Kieslowski – the more steadfastly he attempted to get rid of it, leave it behind, eliminate it from his cinema frame; the more rampantly it manifested itself in his films. The close-up to him would often become a device of obscurity, he would use long-lens, letting the frame fill with a human face, in a way attempting to divorce an individual from his larger social context; but life in Communist Poland meant that an individual existed, first and foremost, through the state. He himself was a willing participant in the widespread student agitation of ’68, but invariably, and as is the case with ‘artists’, he fast grew disillusioned with it. ‘I was not cut out for such revolutionary times’[1] said Kieslowski himself. 

The young Kieslowski was at odds to comprehend a larger ‘theoretically-driven’ movement that concerned a mass of people at once, and developed interest, instead, in individuals from among the mass. It would not be wrong to read Kieslowski’s entire career as this enormous zoom-in, which starts by showing the entire rally, but ends with only one individual – someone who is chosen as a product of the times or a symbol of a larger myth. The first half of Kieslowski’s career (1969 – 1975) as a documentarist is marked by derivativeness as it is by a steady denunciation of the political in favour of the apolitical – social in favour of the individual. But by no means does Kieslowski consummate this intention by the end of this phase, instead only embarking on a journey that he would never complete.

In his graduation film as a student of the National Film School in Łódź, From the City of Łódź (1968), this confusion is already manifest resolutely. Clearly, Kieslowski ‘set-out’ to make a film on the city of his residence, but in the end, his film says nothing about the city. Instead, young Kieslowski’s attention is diverted from the supposed central purpose of his film to transitory interactions between human beings on the streets of the city. It starts with a sequence that seems to depict a group of workers protesting the closure of a factory band, and features shots of a number of workers in vox-populi mode, voicing opinions – an attribute fundamental to any political film, but Kieslowski reveals a authoritative disinterest in the results of the protest itself. He, armed with his camera, is never really there to take the protest through. Instead, as the film progresses, Kieslowski moves out of the factory and the act of the protest itself is diffused, as if the open air of Łódź subsumes it. Relinquishing the possibility of a narrative altogether, Kieslowski intersperses seemingly random shots of people and architecture taken in the streets of the city with shots of the aforementioned band playing – resulting in a pseudo-collage. This assortment of shots functions in a manner that exists in complete contradiction with the Soviet Montage: in that, unlike the latter, it has absolutely no grand statement to make.

In the following quote, Kieslowski’s confusion about the definition of the concept of a ‘city’ is evident. He has been educated in the Polish notion of a ‘city and its citizens’, but cannot bring himself to reconcile with it. Later in his career, therefore, he would find more agreeable the French notion of ‘a city is its citizens’, 

“Lodz is... photogenic because it is dirty and crappy... The whole city is like that, in a certain way, the whole world is like that. And people's faces are like city walls: sad, full of a drama in their eyes, you know, the drama of pointless life where you make steps for nothing”[2]

The human countenance would assume a particular significance for Kieslowski throughout his career. Much like it was a playground for Rohmer; it would become a battlefield for Kieslowski. The notion of the human face as the common shape or outline that links humanity together would be rampant for the first time in I Was a Soldier (1970). Kieslowski films the human face with importunate intimacy not only as a humanist, but also because of reasons that are strictly pictorial. The basic constituents of a human face are easily identifiable (as is demonstrated in the ‘smiley’ face devised by the graphic artist Harvey Ball – three dots arranged in an isosceles, and a curve below). Kieslowski’s film, commissioned by the Polish military department, features an endlessly recurring series of faces shot in extreme-close-ups, which belong to soldiers blinded during service in the war. Kieslowski asks them to recount their dreams, and as they do, he cuts between the narration of one metaphysical experience to the narration of another. As face replaces face and image replaces image, no single soldier in the film is easily identifiable, or easy to ‘endear’ to (no one’s name supers on the bottom of the screen). All of them seem to be the narrating the same lengthy dream, with one reciting one portion of it and letting the other continue thereon; all of them become each other’s stand-ins. By the end, all the individual dreams have been smudged into one absolute super-dream: the one experience that has multiple owners or the issue of ownership has become redundant. The film is thus the first instance of the Kieslowskian notion of ‘humanity as an interlinked chain’ – one that he would perfect in the final film of his Three Colours trilogy. 

The key to understanding Kieslowski’s work as a documentarist lies in understanding the lack of a reactionary stance in it – his greatest ambition is not to denounce or endorse a situation, but to appreciate the effects of it on people. As such, each situation seems to present its own experience and Kieslowski’s only intent is to observe those who have been through it. His approach is markedly that of the neo-realists, who preferred the reverse-shot over the shot - the reaction over the action. In that regard, the period between 1970 – 1972 (Factory, Workers ’71, Before the Rally, Refrain) is anomalous within the Kieslowski repertoire; marked by an overtly political nature – one where the action becomes more crucial than its reaction. Throughout Refrain (1972), Kieslowski’s camera is pointed at the officials of a morgue, or a government department that handles grave-allocation. He frames them in mid-shots, cautious to suggest the presence of a ‘table’ in front of them, and as a result, declare the nature of the communication they indulge in purely impersonal and official. Made in the manner of an absurd comedy, the discussions in the film revolve around the technicalities of death – the breed of flowers to be placed at a grave, the apparatus of a coffin and the possibilities of a grave-purchase. 

‘Allocation’ is a theme that runs through the film – corpuses are allocated coffins, coffins are allocated graves officials are allocated designations and the whole operation is allocated a documentary. While it attempts to ‘show’ the wholly morbid manner in which the state deals with matters of interment – Kieslowski cannot resist a stab at cheap irony – in the final shot of a film about death and its wholly corporeal nature in a Communist state, he shows babies being allocated cots. 

There was a necessity, a need—which was very exciting to us—to describe the world. The Communist world had described how it should be and not how it really was.”[3]

With The Mason/Bricklayer (1973), Kieslowski embarked on a journey of disclosure – the whole farcical business of ‘exposing’, ‘eye-opening’ and ‘uncovering the truth’ that natural presumption dictates, is the declared purpose of the documentary. Kieslowski, eager to take first steps in the ‘cinema of moral anxiety’, chooses to follow a bricklayer – an icon of the larger fable of the willing Communist worker – and see what life is ‘really’ like for him. Kieslowski spends the film trying to gauge the validity of ‘‘theoretically attractive ideas…”[4] that state-driven propaganda sprouts. He films the bricklayer in the middle of a mass rally on May 1st, the International Labour Day. The bricklayer narrates his personal history, and through it, the history of Communist Poland – he lays it down, era by era – thus, in effect, ‘building’ the story of Poland, an action that corresponds to his vocation. In the background for the shots of the rally, extracts from speeches and workers’ songs play (‘the song of the tractor drivers’) – thereby firmly establishing the presence of the ‘political’ in the background, when the story of Poland (bricklayer’s narration) plays out in the foreground. Despite such palpable political intent, however, the film is perhaps the first instance of a Kieslowski film wherein the story of a nation distills itself through an individual – instead of the other-way round, which was an attribute symptomatic of his earlier films.  

But Kieslowski could not sustain an interest in the vagaries of collective concern or communal distress – instead always seeking the tender intimacy typical of a union with a single individual (or small group of individuals) who is severed wholly from the affairs of the larger organism of which he is a part. This ambition is literalised in X-Ray (1975), a film that is Kieslowski’s first openly humanistic film. In it, Kieslowski visits a sanitarium for patients of tuberculosis, and in a manner similar to I Was a Soldier, asks them to describe to him the isolation and seclusion that result from existence in a sanitarium. The notion of ‘quarantine’ assumes central importance – the forceful amputation from societal schema. It is also Kieslowski’s first wholly apolitical film – since the only larger context in the film is the disease itself. ‘I have good food, some entertainment, and I get to sleep a lot’, says one resident of the sanitarium, and then continues, ‘but I wish my time was more useful.’ The pursuit of the submerged sub-sentiment, obscured  by the obvious, more visible emotion would become a lifelong career goal for Kieslowski – who, like Antonioni, admitted to the impossibility of capturing the ‘absolute image’, but nonetheless, never gave up on its possibility. X-Ray was, perhaps, also a film ‘personal’ to Kieslowski – his father died of the disease when he was still a child.

By the time he made First Love (1975), Kieslowski’s insistence on filming individuals isolated from a  context had evolved into a larger, more sustainable monster: a model wherein he could no longer deny his character an existence inside a more elaborate arrangement – as a cog of the greater wheel – but the interactions between the members of the arrangement would no longer be ‘political’ (a struggle for power, control or hierarchy), but ‘human’ (a struggle for dignity, pride and honour). First Love, the story of a rather young Polish couple (the girl is 17, the boy is 19) who marry owing to the girl’s pregnancy. The film follows them to the point of the baby’s delivery, thus in effect, ‘documenting’ almost a year in their life. There is no paucity of seeming artifice in the film: the film’s heroine comes across, quite purposefully, as a The Brothers Dardenne protagonist – fiercely protecting the dignity of her choice (early pregnancy, marriage) against school teachers who consider her an immoral influence and friends who mock the loss of her. It comes across quite vividly, thus, as the story of a ‘brave woman’. As the film progresses, the husband fades into the background, adhering strictly to Kieslowski’s larger agenda, and is even rendered irresponsible in certain sequences : he drinks beer with his friends and they all laugh about his impending marriage. But through all this, the film never loses Kieslowski’s sincerity of purpose; he remains genuinely devoted to the cause of ‘authentic depiction’: of documenting a pragmatic alliance, and not an incredible love story. 

As such, the film conducts an exhaustive scrutiny of the mechanism of the situation it presents. Much like how Refrain stripped death of its sensational nature and discussed it as an event that is commonplace, First Love features sequences where the couple bickers over the paint in the house, the manner in which to hold the paintbrush to extract maximum application, and differences in culinary preferences. And as the wife lies in the labor ward, in visible agony and prepared to deliver; nurses stand over her and gossip about their colleagues on another floor in the hospital. Despite Kieslowski’s selection of a relatively ‘simple’ topic to film, First Love cements his commitment to the cause of the individual free of all baggage except his own.


1. From the Senses of Cinema article about Kryzstof Kieslowski by Doug Commings,

2. From a Kieslowski interview at Industry Central:

3. Senses of Cinema article about Kieslowski. See link above.

4. Industry Central article about Kieslowski. See link above.