Krzysztof Kieslowski is one of the most unique and outstanding filmmakers of the XX century who concentrates on themes of memory and survival related to Jesus Christ and universal values of existence. In A Short Film About Love, the Decalogue, The Double Life of Veronique Kieslowski, offers the exceptional opportunity of observing the thought of a director shift and change as he creates his film. The theme of survival and memory helps Kieslowski create an atmosphere of solitude, desperation, and solitude related to human relations and human existence.
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Moral ambiance in films by Kieslowski
In The Decalogue, the specific setting, however, is not meant to be restrictive: For the viewer, Kieslowski creates a kind of moral ambiance or atmosphere. In each film, the existential situation of the protagonists, the moral struggle, the human imperatives, and the choices they face, are rendered more clear, sharper, more significant against the background of the biblical Commandment. The films of The Decalogue have as their protagonists middle class and upper-middle-class men and women, more often than not professionals, a doctor, a lawyer, an artist, a student, a taxi driver, a couple of university professors, and their setting is the Stowki residential suburb of Warsaw and specifically, the complex of condominium apartment towers that dominate the district (Haltof 23). Hilton explains well how Kieślowski forges a new approach:
Kieślowski in his Decalogue seems to have rewritten in the flesh of everyday human experience, the divine Commandments inscribed in stone; reversing the Law of the Other, from the beginning experienced as inhibitory, he transforms it into a norm that is civil, social, and profoundly human (130).
The theme of memory and survival is unveiled through a microcosm when the “men and women of the Condominium Earth” live and work, cross paths, and touch each others’ lives. Some die, some begin their lives again, some forgive and others are freed by forgiveness, some deny God, some discover God, and for others, God remains an unresolved question. Some fall in love, even for the first time, and others, having refused or resisted love, rediscover its greatness (Insdorf 65).
Each of the films can be viewed independently of the others. Each episode tells its own story but never entirely separate from the others. Kieslowski creates a thick net of meetings, connections, parallels, among characters, events, and themes, often the protagonists of one episode appear briefly in another and one mysterious figure is even seen in eight of the ten films, which along with a variety of stylistic parallels reinforces the universal reach of the individual themes and the common exploration of The Decalogue. Even though Kieślowski uses a different cinematographer in each episode with quite different specific effects, he insists that “the films are similar” (Insdorf 45).
In addition, Kieślowski privileges the close-up shot, often held for the longest time: of faces, to reveal human interiority, “the cry of the soul” (Insdorf 67), and of objects, which under Kieślowski’s lens acquire profound moral-spiritual significance. A curious aspect of his approach in The Decalogue is the self-conscious use, in the same and successive episodes, of similar objects, creating fascinating leitmotivs which fairly vibrate with meaning: glass and reflections on glass, through which reality is both hidden and revealed, telephones which both permit communication and prevent it, photographic images, doorways, milk and tea, and, of course, the already-mentioned mysterious man in white, strikingly and significantly present in eight of the films (Insdorf 65).
Commenting on the device of the stranger, and in general, on Kieslowski’s technique of making simple objects into complex metaphors, the critic Gina Lagorio (cited Insdorf) suggests that the many curious signs in the films are a means by which Kieslowski approaches “the mystery of the human condition,” and she goes on to speak of a metaphorical tension that becomes metaphysical tension” (Insdorf 165) in the sense that it permits the viewer to see the protagonists “facing situations that go way beyond them,” situations, in other words, that reach towards the Transcendent (Keates 132).
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In A Short Film About Love, the cinema version of Decalogue Six, Kieślowski examines the very particular relationship that is hoped for, established, and then develops between a young man, nineteen years of age, and a woman, perhaps ten years his senior. Tomek is a shy, withdrawn, awkward young man, by his own admission “still a virgin” who “projects a graceless ordinariness made vulnerable by innocence” (Insdorf 154).
An employee at the local post office, he studies foreign languages in his free time. The theme of survival is unveiled through the themes of loneliness and isolation. Tomek has no friends and being without a family, he rents a room in the apartment of the mother of a friend. The woman of Tomek’s attention is rather different from him (Kieslowski 43). Very attractive, extroverted, an artist, she has her apartment several floors below that of Tomek, in the condominium tower facing his, an apartment in which she entertains men, clients, lovers, business partners, regularly. Every evening when the woman comes home, with or without men, Tomek observes her through a small telescope that he has set up in his room.
The theme of survival is evident when the amorous activity goes beyond a certain limit, Tomek stops watching and on one occasion, on the pretext of the odor of gas in the corridor, has the gas company men come and interrupt the amorous activity. Occasionally, he makes anonymous telephone calls to her. The importance of these settings is that they reflect the inner feelings of the characters and help viewers to understand intentions and real emotions experienced by the main heroes (Kieslowski 48).
Viewing the film, a viewer takes the events of the film’s narrative at face value, one might be tempted to conclude that the film tells a strange and rather sordid story of obsession, robbery, voyeurism, prostitution, or at least promiscuity, violence, seduction, suicide.
An immature young man, “jealous, puerile, prankish, and frustrated” (Kickasola 29) sexually confused and repressed; a promiscuous woman who uses her body as an instrument to control others and ends up hurting others and herself; a botched seduction scene; a botched suicide in an “a rash attempt to blot out his over-intense shame;” a man and a woman of Stowki and of “Condominium Earth” locked into a desperate no-exit situation in which all “attempts at love must be neurotic” (Kickasola 29) interpreted this way, Kieślowski’s film becomes “a sad apologue on the impossibility of communicating in our contemporary world” (Kickasola 76).
If the film has to do with the Sixth Commandment, then on the first level of reflection, it seems to want to illustrate the hell-on-earth that people who violate the commandment create for themselves and others. The title thus becomes an ironic comment of the director, a little like the bitter comment of the woman to Tomek after the seduction attempt: “There, that’s all it is, your love.” Clearly and understandably, they are not satisfied by the film. Too, and understandably, on this level of reflection, A Short Film About Love is far from embodying anything like a Christ figure (Kickasola 77).
The Double Life of Veronique
Similar techniques are used by Krzysztof Kieślowski in The Double Life of Veronique. Several elements oblige the serious viewer to go beyond simple reflections and thus to encounter a very different film, more significant themes, more positive and more interesting protagonists, and in particular a more satisfactory conclusion (Kickasola 54). When, however, attention is paid to a very specific hermeneutical clue that Kieślowski provides about two-thirds of the way through the film, these details, and several others are given significance, and the film as a whole leap onto another level of meaning.
The importance of memory is evident in the following episode from A Short Film About Love: the woman answers and presuming the silence at the other end of the line means that it is Tomek, she excitedly confesses: “I’ve looked for you everywhere… to tell you you were right. Do you hear me? You were right” (Insdorf 88). Kleślowski is having her do nothing less than confessing her error, her “sin” of having denied the existence of love, a sin that is the basis of her self-destructive behavior. That it is the repetition of a scene seen earlier in the film suggests the imminent revelation of something new or beyond the mere narration but reflects memories and inner thoughts of the characters (Kickasola 66).
In sum, themes of memory and survival are the core of Kieslowski’s style and vision of the world. This is due in part to the theme and content of the film whose moral focus, speaking very generally, is that of the conflict between good and evil, the radically “theological” confrontation between sin and grace. Regarding Kieslowski’s style, there are many formal elements common to all the episodes. In general, his style is intense, pure, in the photography, in the strong but controlled acting style, in the choice and use of music, and particularly in the editing.
- Haltof, M. The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski: Variations on Destiny and Chance. Wallflower Press, 2004.
- Insdorf, A. Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Miramax Books; New Ed edition, 2002.
- Jonathan Keates, “Heartburn: A Short Film about Love”, Sight and Sound v. 59, n.2, Spring 1990, p. 132.
- Kickasola, J. Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Continuum International Publishing, 2004.
- Kieslowski, K. Decalogue: The Ten Commandments, translated by Phil Cavendish and Susanna Bluh. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.