Kieslowski's Many Colours

"About a year ago, Krzystof Kieslowski recieved a courteous letter from Oxford University Press. They were in the process of updating their music encyclopaedia, and could he please provide them with some details about Van den Budenmayer, the late 18th century Dutch composer whose music he had featured in his Dekalog, Double Life of Veronique and Three Colours trilogy. Their research had yielded nothing. Kieslowski replied equally courteously that Van den Budenmayer was a fictional character created by him and his composer, Zbigniew Preisner. Soon he received a second letter. Of course they understood his concern to protect his sources, but as this was to be the definitive series on classical music could he please provide them with at least some information. Kieslowski wrote a second letter, reiterating that the score had been written by Preisner, a 19 stone self-taught musician from Cracow. Still they did not believe him. After about half a year of this fruitless correspondence back and forth Kieslowski stopped replying.

Relating this anecdote, Kieslowski has perhaps unwittingly put his finger on the dichotomy between the impression he gives in talking about his work, and that of his works themselves. Having followed Kieslowski around Oxford for a day, heard him speak twice, and interviewed him in private, I still find myself in search of the Kieslowski whose name appears at the beginning of some of the most remarkable films in our otherwise cinematically uninspired age.

Kieslowski's rise from relative obscurity, to being universally recognised among the ranks fo the world's most gifted living film- makers, was meteoric. In the course of five years he had completed his series of ten, one-hour television interpretations of the Ten Commandments - the Dekalog - which brough him international recognition, as well as six feature films (taken together, comprising over a thousand minutes of screen time). He is perhaps best known as the director of A Short Film About Killing, the Double Life of Veroniue, and Three Colours: Red. And now, at what appears to be the height of his creative talent, he has confounded viewers and critics alike by deciding to retire from directing to his country home, as he puts it, to: "smoke, read, and mow my lawn."

Listening to Kieslowski, one is struck by his self-professed lack of faith in the medium with which he has come to address what many hold to be the spiritual malaise of our times. He has become known as someone who finds redemption in our common humanity. In particular, he bemoans the camera as a "stupid" instrument, which, unlike the novel, "cannot show a character's inner feelings."

Asked halfway through the Union speaker meeting whether he even likes films, Kieslowski deadpans "No". When questioned as to his greatest cinematic inspirations, he replies: "Life and Literature." As for Hollywood directors whom he admires, he thinks long before coming up with Chaplin and Hitchcock. He admits to liking Scorsese as a person but counterweights this statement by listing celebrated American directors (whose names won't be repeated here) who he thinks "make stupid films."

Asked whether he'd rather be in Cannes than Oxford right now, he jokes that "I don't think I missed anything good." Later, he elaborates: "I detest the place. Not Cannes itself, but the whole media circus." Given the choice today he would never have, as he puts it, "climbed aboard the train called `Culture', let alone have headed for the waggon marked `Cinema'. Rather, he would have waited for the `Medicine' train, and taken the `Surgery' waggon.

His decision to retire should therefore perhaps come as no surprise, yet the inevitable question "why?" still lingers. "It's not that simple to suddenly stop doing something that you've been doing for a couple of decades, he concedes. You have to explian to yourself why, and you have to have some reason that you yourself believe in. Of course when some journalists ask me why I tell them "I don't want to any more" and that's that. Being serious, especially when I'm talking to young people, however, I try to explain my reasons. I think that it has to do with the state of the culture. But also my own attitude to the way it's all going, or raher winding down." But this is all that he is willing, or able, to elaborate on the subject.

Did he intend the Tricolour Trilogy to be his cinmatic swansong? "No, they were simply three films which I did at that stage of my career. It was quite simple - the money to make them had been found and that was that. So we thought that we'd make these films, which seemed like they might even mean something four years ago, when we started. So I just treated it as another phase of my career. Then it turned out that I had earned enough money with these films, so that I don't need to work any more."

Retirement has, however, not been the "sitting at home and smoking cigarettes" that he had originally envisioned. "It's not that simple to sever contacts with everything that you've done for the past years. I write some scripts, I meet young people who want to make films - why, I don't know - and I try to understand what it is they want and why, and try to get a general feel of the `scent in the air'. He also travels a lot, to Finland, Argentina, Italy, and most recently to Oxford, to do promotional work and talk about his films.

"Trying to convey the impression that he makes, it is tempting to talk about the double life of Kieslowski. He speaks much better English than he tries to give sheen of, correcting his interpreter several times. He displays a remarkable sense of humour for a self- avowed pessimist. He refuses to compare himself with masters of the screen, such as Ingmar Bergman or Russia's Tarkovsky. Yet his assessments of his own works and talent contain not a trace of false modesty. He claims that the only joy he gets out of film-making is the editing: those rare `special moments' collaborating with people, when ideas are born or give rise to soemthing new and unexpected; or when he feels that his films have an effect, `an echo' with the audience.

If in the end he rejects the medium it is because he feels so strongly about the message and the urge to tell it. `It comes from a deep-rooted conviction that if there is anything worthwhile doing for the sake of culture, then it is touching on subject matters and situations which link people, and not those that divide people. There are too many things in the world which divide people, such as religion, politics, history, and nationalism. If culture is capable of anything, then it is finding that which unites us all. And there are so many things which unite people. It doesn't matter who you are or who I am, if your tooth aches or mine, it's still the same pain. Feelings are what link people together, because the word `love' has the same meaning for everybody. Or `fear', or `suffering'. We all fear the same way and the same things. And we all love in the same way. That's why I tell about these things, because in all other things I immediately find division.'

Talking to him afterwards in Jesus College Quad (where he could finally light a cigarette) I asked him whether the Tricolour of his trilogy was a flag of convenience, and whether or not it really was a story about love in the Europe of the 1990s. `Of course it is. The words [liberte, egalite, fraternite] are French because the money is French. If the money had been of a different nationality we would have titled the films differently, or they might have had a different cultural connotation. But the films would probably have been the same.'

Before ending the interview, I couldn't help but to return to the subject of his early retirement. Was there any validity to the critics attempts to draw ananlogies between him and the recluse judge in his last film, Three Colours: Red? `I don't make biographical films', he replies, without the slightest hesitation. `None of the films is about me. Not a single one. None. I have my life and I'll simply never tell anyone what part of me is in my films. I won't ever tell anyone about that, because I don't consider that to be anyone else's business but mine. Nobody will guess where and how and in what way I fill them with my own pains. And that's an intimate aspect of my work that I keep to myself.' He pauses. `I won't even tell my wife - ever.'

I came away that day feeling that just as with Van den Budenmayer and OUP, we ought not look for the `real' Kieslowski outside the world of cinema but to simply enjoy what he offers us in his films."

by Patrick Abrahamson
Oxford University Student newspaper, June 2, 1995

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