This week marks the 20th death anniversary of Krzysztof Kieślowski, one of the most influential contemporary filmmakers. Amongst the widely known alumni of Poland’s famed Łodź Film School, Kieślowski began as a documentary filmmaker but was best known for his two anthology films Decalogue (1989-90), a ten-part series based on the Ten Commandments, and Trois couleurs: Blue, Blanc, Rouge (1993-94) or Three Colors: Blue, White, Red, a trilogy inspired by the colours of the French flag symbolising ideas of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In between his two greatest works Kieślowski also made The Double Life of Veronique (1991), a film that not only made him an international icon but also created an almost new language of cinema to depict the metaphysical side of human nature.
Each of the 10 episodes of Decalogue in the series was an hour long but instead of setting the episodes in ancient times, Kieślowski and writer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, transposed the Biblical teachings into modern times and focused on the residents of a Warsaw high rise in the late communist era. There is an interesting anecdote about how the idea of making Decalogue originated — the two had met in the early 1980s and were working on a film, No End (1985), that looked at life under martial law and the script generated extreme reactions; the government found it unsympathetic, the Opposition felt it was compromised and the Catholic church called it immoral. This prompted an exasperated Piesiewicz to shout, ‘Someone should make a film about the Ten Commandments.’
Using his unique symbolism, which was rooted in reality, Kieślowski’s Decalogue took moral rules that have come to be seen as dated and presented the viewer with the concept that no one opinion could be the only idea of one’s life. While Three Colors, specifically Red or The Double Life of Veronique might have come to be the favourites of many, in fact, it's Decalogue that gives the best insight into how cinema can transcend and a filmmaker, whose impact on the medium only gets greater with each passing year.
Here are the 'Ten Kieślowskian Commandments' of art, storytelling, cinema, life and beyond…
• Don’t make a film for film’s sake
In the book Kieślowski On Kieślowski the filmmaker said that the greatest sin a filmmaker could commit was to make a film because he wants to make it. Kieślowski’s entire body of work is a testimony to “show somebody’s fate.” The best instance of this comes in his interpretation of Decalogue Nine (Thou shalt not covet your neighbour’s wife) where the fate of a husband and wife comes to a head in an unusual manner. The man spies on his wife as he suspects of her having an affair, but what he sees is the wife breaking up with the lover and later he can’t face her when she discovers him in the room.
• Give the viewers an opportunity to question themselves
Unlike most filmmakers, especially when they’d have had something as complex as Biblical text to comprehend, Kieślowski never broke it down for the viewer. Even though the thought ‘How do I live?’ is at the back of everything in the Decalogue and at places the narrative such as in Decalogue Two (You shall not utter the name of your God in vain) states the evident by pointedly asking that question too, Kieślowski doesn’t conclude the obvious. Here a doctor resists playing God when a woman asks her if her sick husband will live or die: she is pregnant with another man’s child and if her infertile husband is going to die she will have the baby or else have an abortion.
• Don’t solve it, live with it
Kieślowski’s found his pessimism a virtue and anything he saw, including the future, was black. Experts such as Prof Tadeusz Miczka found Kieślowski treating plots in Decalogue as ‘court files’ presenting two opposing attitudes towards life and living with moral choices. This is best seen in Decalogue Six (Thou shalt not commit adultery). Also, known as A Short Film About Love, a lonely teenage boy spies on a morally careless woman who lives across him and when the woman finds out that he is a peeping Tom she, unexpectedly enough, invites him over. Once together, she humiliates him for being sexually inexperienced and both lives change forever — he ceases to believe in love while she finally understands what love truly means.
• A filmmaker is much more than his/her art
On the one hand Kieślowski can’t be comprehended without understanding the context (read Poland) in which he created cinema but on the other hand, personal vision makes his observations — moral individuals striving in a sinful world — transcend the geographical boundaries. Like his documentaries, Decalogue Five (Thou shalt not kill) displays this by presenting an amoral murderer but focusing on the defense attorney who is fighting his first major case and is opposed to the death penalty.
• Dramatise rather than just talk
Kieślowski barely showed characters talking about specifics; instead, he pushed them to deal with real-life ethical challenges. In Decalogue One (You shall have no gods before me) a rational scientist after the death of his child due to his fault questions God’s existence. When an answer appears on his computer screen: “I am here.” he rebels against God but his agitation is paradoxical — he wouldn’t oppose if he already didn’t believe. It’s this brilliance that made Stanley Kubrick praise Kieślowski’s “very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them.”
• The film doesn't exist without a viewer
Kieślowski felt that a film doesn’t exist without a viewer and for him, telling a story that touched people was important. Yet as a former documentary filmmaker, he felt cheated while making features because everything was imagined. In Decalogue he found a balance by looking at life from fiction’s point of view by rarely illustrating the commandments, just using an interpretation (as in Decalogue One and Five), or modifying the traditional meaning (as in Decalogue Two and Eight) and never hid his skepticism from his audience.
• Give people the feeling they are not alone
Although doused in pessimism, Kieślowski’s Decalogue, as pointed out by Simon Hattenstone, camouflages big themes — chance and fate, right and wrong, connecting and not connecting, belonging and not belonging — in little, elliptical stories that more than anything convey the unknowability of life. Moreover, Kieślowski’s imagery conveys humanism by seeking God and often finding him within mortals.
• Artists know, craftsmen doubt
Post-Decalogue Kieślowski continued to believe that he wasn’t an artist as an “artist is someone who knows” and saw himself as a craftsman, who, he believed shared doubts on life and art. Perhaps it was this notion that aided him to excel at showing gritty realism but also enjoy commercial success even with it came to something as metaphysical as The Double Life of Veronique, an exploration of the mysterious link between two identical woman — one Polish and one French — who have never met.
• Create experiences
Kieślowski was more interested in creating experiences rather than making much of filmmakers being interlocutors of an exchange of ideas. He would rather show how a character has started noticing the mundane as opposed to more pressing matters, such as the growing grief for the loss of her family, by a close-up of a sugar cube soaking up coffee in Three Colors: Blue than falling down under the weight of talent or waxing eloquent on the importance of art in shaping a nation’s condition, which he never believed in beyond a point to begin with.
• Make it worth it
A fifteen-year-old girl once came up to Kieślowski and said that after watching his films she realized that there is such a thing called ‘soul.’ This is what made him believe that sacrificing money, energy, time and torturing one’s self to make a film was worth it. On screen Kieślowski communicated this with the lead in Decalogue Three (Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy), an adulterous husband leaves his lover on a Christmas Eve as he realises the motive of his behaviour or the climax of Three Colors: Red where a spiritually isolated young woman makes a physically lonely older man realize that it’s okay to accept people the way they are rather than escape them.
Two years before his untimely death Kieślowski had announced his retirement from films stating that he had enough. He even mused that he never really enjoyed filmmaking and never found his achievements interesting. But, he found “the ways of achievement” interesting and therein lies the essence of the filmmaker. Even after ceasing to make films, Kieślowski's philosophical investigations never stopped and he continued looking for truth in the basic values of life that he held over cinema.
Almost mirroring one of the episodes from Decalogue, Kyrszstof Kieślowski died unexpectedly on 13 March 1996, during an open-heart surgery following a heart attack. As noted critic Aren Bergstrom observed, art-house films, and the ideas that drive them, are discussed more than viewed but Kieślowski is one such filmmaker where the alchemy of thought and emotion is seamless and as someone who could make films that were both philosophical quests as well as affecting dramas, he ought to be emulated more by the younger generation.
Gautam Chintamani is the author of the best-selling Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (HarperCollins, 2014).
He tweets @GChintamani