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A leading Polish director who achieved international acclaim from behind the Iron Curtain, Krzysztof Kieslowski began his career by making documentaries that focused on the cultural, political and economic problems of Poland during the waning days of the Soviet Union. Having grown up under both Nazi and Stalinist rule, Kieslowski naturally gravitated toward the political and often remained at odds with authority, while at the same time relying on state financing to make his films. In the mid-1970s, he began moving away from documentaries toward narrative filmmaking and keeping his focus on political themes. Kieslowski rose to international fame late in the decade with "Camera Buff" (1979) and solidified his status as a powerhouse filmmaker with "Blind Chance" (1981) and "No End" (1984). But it was on Polish television that he was able to make his greatest achievement, "The Decalogue" (1988), a film cycle of 10 one-hour films that adapted each of the Ten Commandments into a modern fictional story. Universally acclaimed, the series won numerous awards and became a staple of film school classrooms the world over. Kieslowski next directed his most conventional art house film, "The Double Life of Veronique" (1991), which also brought him his greatest success. With his famed "Three Colors" trilogy - "Blue" (1993), "White" (1993) and "Red" (1994) - Kieslowski cemented his place as a towering figure of European cinema whose influence stretched across the globe.
Born on June 27, 1941 in Warsaw, Poland, Kieslowski was raised in various small towns where his father moved the family in order to better treat his tuberculosis. When he was 16 years old, Kieslowski trained as a firefighter for a few months before transitioning to the College for Theatre Technicians in Warsaw in 1957. Though intending to be a theater director, he switched his interest to film, only to leave school and work as a tailor. Kieslowski applied to the famed Lodz Film School and was rejected twice, and even briefly attended art school to avoid compulsory military service. But at the insistence of his office clerk mother, Kieslowski applied for a third time to Lodz and this time managed to get in. Once there, he was given a surprising amount of artistic freedom. He turned his attention to documentary filmmaking, making his debut satirizing the state bureaucracy with "The Office" ("Urzad") (1966). After directing a longer documentary about Polish television, "The Photograph" ("Zdjecie") (1968), Kieslowski graduated from Lodz and focused exclusively on making documentaries, making his post-student debut with "From the City of Lodz" ("Z Miasta Lodzi") (1969), which showcased the grimy city with an unrelentingly drab realism.
Throughout the early 1970s, Kieslowski made a number of state-commissioned documentaries with rather mundane titles like "I Was a Soldier" ("Bylem Zolnierzem"), "Before the Rally" ("Przed Rajdem") and "The Principles of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine" ("Podstawy BHP w Koplani Miedzi"). Following another documentary "The Bricklayer" ("Murarz") (1973), he made his first narrative drama for television with "Pedestrian Subway" ("Przejscie Podziemne"), before returning to documentary filmmaking with "X-Ray" ("Przeswietlenie") (1974) and "First Love" ("Pierwsza Milosc") (1974). He followed with more documentaries before making an international splash with his award-winning feature, "Camera Buff" (1979), a slyly satirical look at life in a corrupt provincial factory, where a factory worker becomes obsessed with a new camera to the detriment of his job and marriage. The film won a number of awards, including the Grand Prix at the Moscow International Film Festival. Kieslowski learned firsthand that censorship within Communist societies tended to ride on the coattails of success with "Blind Chance" (1981), which explored Poland's political future through the premise of a student trying to catch a train. An impressive film, "Blind Chance" was banned for over five years before finally being released in 1987.
Throughout his career, Kieslowski's films featured philosophical journeys into the human spirit and a concern for the moral and ethical implications of human action. That was true of his next major effort, "No End" (1984), a glibly satirical film - also his most overtly political - about a the widow of a lawyer who finds her feelings deepening for him after his death, which seemed to suggest the idea of how the dead can guide the living. A lifelong Roman Catholic, Kieslowski confirmed his status as a major contemporary director with "The Decalogue" (1988), an ambitious series of 10 hour-long films funded by Polish TV that adapted the Ten Commandments and explored the meaning of each through a contemporary lens within a fictional story set in modern Poland. For example, in "Decalogue X," two brothers - one an accountant and the other a punk rocker - both covet a stamp collection inherited from their father, realizing how much it is worth after giving it away. That same year, Kieslowski expanded the fifth and sixth segments into two features: "A Short Film about Killing" and "A Short Film about Love." An extraordinary achievement - widely hailed as the greatest film cycle of all time - "The Decalogue" won numerous international awards and solidified Kieslowski's standing as a towering figure of Eastern European cinema.
Kieslowski ventured even closer to the realm of the human heart and soul while shifting further away from the political realities of contemporary Poland with his first international co-production, "The Double Life of Veronique" (1991), which was partially funded by France. The film starred Irene Jacob as both Veronika and Véronique - one a Polish woman, the other a French woman, both of whom live separate lives but are psychically interconnected. A more conventional art house item, the film not surprisingly gave his career greater international exposure than ever before. Kieslowski next embarked on his famed "Three Colors" trilogy, which contained "Blue" (1993), "White" (1994) and "Red" (1994), based on the tricolor themes of the French flag representing liberty, equality and fraternity. The first, "Blue," starred Juliette Binoche as a woman who cuts herself off from her past after the death of her husband and young daughter in a car crash. "White" featured Julie Delpy as a model who divorces her impotent Polish husband (Zbigniew Zamachowski), which forces him to return home penniless. The best of the three, "Red," starred Irene Jacob as a young student and fashion model whose accidental meeting of a judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) leads to a series of chance encounters. Together, the trilogy was a universally acclaimed series that proved to be the perfect swan song for Kieslowski, who announced his retirement from filmmaking in 1994. A year later, he suffered a heart attack and died on March 13, 1996 while undergoing bypass surgery. He was only 54 years old.
By Shawn Dwyer
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Short film directing debut, "Z miasta Lodzi/From the City of Lodz"
Feature film writing and directing debut, "Pedestrian Subway"
Contributed a segment to the 11-part anthology drama, "City Life"; each segment had a different director and Kieslowski's contribution was set in Warsaw and entitled "Seven Days a Week"
First international feature co-production, "The Double Life of Veronique", a French-Polish co-production
Began making trilogy of films interrelated thematically; first film, "Blue", followed by "White" and "Red"
Announced retirement from filmmaking at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival
Sufferred a heart attack while at vacation home in northern Poland