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Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1994
27 June 1941|
13 March 1996 (aged 54)|
|Alma mater||National Film School in Łódź|
He is known internationally for Dekalog (1989), The Double Life of Veronique (1991), and the Three Colors trilogy (1993–1994). Kieślowski received numerous awards during his career, including the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize (1988), FIPRESCI Prize (1988, 1991), and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (1991); the Venice Film Festival FIPRESCI Prize (1989), Golden Lion (1993), and OCIC Award (1993); and the Berlin International Film Festival Silver Bear (1994). In 1995, he received Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Writing. In 2002, Kieślowski was listed at number two on the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound Top Ten Directors list of modern times.
Kieślowski was born in Warsaw, Poland, the son of Barbara (née Szonert) and Roman Kieślowski. He grew up in several small towns, moving wherever his engineer father, a tuberculosis patient, could find treatment. He was raised Roman Catholic and retained what he called a "personal and private" relationship with God. At sixteen, he attended a firefighters' training school, but dropped out after three months. Without any career goals, he then entered the College for Theatre Technicians in Warsaw in 1957 because it was run by a relative. He wanted to become a theatre director, but lacked the required bachelor's degree for the theatre department, so he chose to study film as an intermediate step.
Leaving college and working as a theatrical tailor, Kieślowski applied to the Łódź Film School, which has Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda among its alumni. He was rejected twice. To avoid compulsory military service during this time, he briefly became an art student, and also went on a drastic diet to make himself medically unfit for service. After several months of avoiding the draft, he was accepted to the school on his third attempt. He attended Łódź Film School from 1964 to 1968, a period with a relatively high degree of artistic freedom. Kieślowski lost his interest in theatre and decided to make documentary films.
Kieślowski's early documentaries focused on the everyday lives of city dwellers, workers, and soldiers. Though he was not an overtly political filmmaker, he soon found that attempting to depict Polish life accurately brought him into conflict with the authorities. His television film Workers '71, which showed workers discussing the reasons for the mass strikes of 1970, was only shown in a drastically censored form. After Workers '71, he turned his eye on the authorities themselves in Curriculum Vitae, a film that combined documentary footage of Politburo meetings with a fictional story about a man under scrutiny by the officials. Though Kieślowski believed the film's message was anti-authoritarian, he was criticized by his colleagues for cooperating with the government in its production.
Kieślowski later said that he abandoned documentary filmmaking due to two experiences: the censorship of Workers '71, which caused him to doubt whether truth could be told literally under an authoritarian regime, and an incident during the filming of Station (1981) in which some of his footage was nearly used as evidence in a criminal case. He decided that fiction not only allowed more artistic freedom, but could portray everyday life more truthfully.
His first non-documentary feature, Personnel (1975), was made for television and won him first prize at the Mannheim Film Festival. Both Personnel and his next feature, The Scar (Blizna), were works of social realism with large casts: Personnel was about technicians working on a stage production, based on his early college experience, and The Scar showed the upheaval of a small town by a poorly-planned industrial project. These films were shot in a documentary style with many nonprofessional actors; like his earlier films, they portrayed everyday life under the weight of an oppressive system, but without overt commentary. Camera Buff (Amator, 1979) (which won the grand prize at the 11th Moscow International Film Festival) and Blind Chance (Przypadek, 1981) continued along similar lines, but focused more on the ethical choices faced by a single character rather than a community. During this period, Kieślowski was considered part of a loose movement with other Polish directors of the time, including Janusz Kijowski, Andrzej Wajda, and Agnieszka Holland, called the Cinema of Moral Anxiety. His links with these directors, Holland in particular, caused concern within the Polish government, and each of his early films was subjected to censorship and enforced re-shooting/re-editing, if not banned outright. For example, Blind Chance was not released domestically until 1987, almost six years after it had been completed.
No End (Bez końca, 1984) was perhaps his most clearly political film, depicting political trials in Poland during martial law, from the unusual point of view of a lawyer's ghost and his widow. It was harshly criticized by both the government and dissidents. Starting with No End, Kieślowski closely collaborated with two people, the composer Zbigniew Preisner and the trial lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, whom Kieślowski met while researching political trials under martial law for a planned documentary on the subject. Piesiewicz co-wrote the screenplays for all of Kieślowski's subsequent films.
Preisner provided the musical score for No End and most subsequent of Kieślowski's films and often plays a prominent part. Many of Preisner's pieces are referred to and discussed by the films' characters as being the work of the (fictional) Dutch composer "Van den Budenmayer".
Dekalog (1988), a series of ten short films set in a Warsaw tower block, each nominally based on one of the Ten Commandments, was created for Polish television with funding from West Germany; it is now one of the most critically acclaimed film cycles of all time. Co-written by Kieślowski and Piesiewicz, the ten one-hour-long episodes had originally been intended for ten different directors, but Kieślowski found himself unable to relinquish control over the project; in the end, each episode featured a different director of photography. Episodes five and six were released internationally in a longer form as A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love respectively. Kieślowski had also planned to shoot a full-length version of Episode 9 under the title A Short Film About Jealousy, but exhaustion eventually prevented him from making what would have been his thirteenth film in less than a year.
Kieślowski's last four films, his most commercially successful, were foreign co-productions, made mainly with money from France and in particular from Romanian-born producer Marin Karmitz. These focused on moral and metaphysical issues along lines similar to Dekalog and Blind Chance but on a more abstract level, with smaller casts, more internal stories, and less interest in communities. Poland appeared in these films mostly through the eyes of European outsiders.
The first of these was The Double Life of Veronique (La double vie de Veronique, 1990), which starred Irène Jacob. The commercial success of this film gave Kieślowski the funding for his ambitious final films (1993–94), the trilogy Three Colours (Blue, White, Red), which explores the virtues symbolized by the French flag. The three films garnered prestigious international awards, including the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival and the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival, in addition to three Academy Award nominations. Kieślowski announced his retirement from film-making after the premiere of his last film Red at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival.
Kieślowski often used the same actors in key roles in his films, including:
Kieślowski married his lifelong love, Maria (Marysia) Cautillo, on 21 January 1967 during his final year in film school. They had a daughter, Marta (b. 8 January 1972), and remained married until his death.
He characterized himself as having one good characteristic, I am a pessimist. I always imagine the worst. To me the future is a black hole. He has been described as "conveying the sadness of a world-weary sage", "a brooding intellectual and habitual pessimist". Visiting the United States he noted the pursuit of empty talk combined with a very high degree of self-satisfaction.
On 13 March 1996, less than two years after he had retired, Kieślowski died at age 54 during open-heart surgery following a heart attack. He was interred in Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw. His grave has a sculpture of the thumb and forefingers of two hands forming an oblong space; the classic view as if through a film camera. The small sculpture is in black marble on a pedestal slightly over a metre tall. The slab with Kieślowski's name and dates lies below.
Kieślowski remains one of Europe's most influential directors, his works included in the study of film classes at universities throughout the world. The 1993 book Kieślowski on Kieślowski describes his life and work in his own words, based on interviews by Danusia Stok. He is also the subject of a biographical film, Krzysztof Kieślowski: I'm So-So (1995), directed by Krzysztof Wierzbicki.
Though he had claimed to be retiring after Three Colors, at the time of his death, Kieślowski was working on a new trilogy co-written with Piesiewicz, consisting of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory and inspired by Dante's The Divine Comedy. As was originally intended for Dekalog, the scripts were ostensibly intended to be given to other directors for filming, but Kieślowski's untimely death means it is unknown whether he might have broken his self-imposed retirement to direct the trilogy himself. The only completed screenplay, Heaven, was filmed by Tom Tykwer and premiered in 2002 at the Berlin International Film Festival. The other two scripts existed only as thirty-page treatments at the time of Kieślowski's death; Piesiewicz has since completed these screenplays, with Hell, directed by Bosnian director Danis Tanović and starring Emmanuelle Béart and released in 2005. Purgatory, about a photographer killed in the Bosnian war, remains unproduced. The 2007 film Nadzieja (Hope), directed by Ibo Kurdo and Stanislaw Mucha, also scripted by Piesiewicz, has been incorrectly identified as the third part of the trilogy, but is in fact, an unrelated project.
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.
I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work. But in this book of screenplays by Krzysztof Kieślowski and his co-author, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, it should not be out of place to observe that they have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what's really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don't realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.
Stanley Kubrick January 1991
In 2012, Cyrus Frisch voted for "A Short Film About Killing" as one of "the best damned films" with the comment: "In Poland, this film was instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty." Since 1952,Sight & Sound magazine conducts a poll every ten years of the world's finest film directors to determine the "Ten Greatest Films of All Time", which has become the most recognised poll of its kind in the world.
Since 2011, the Polish Contemporary Art Foundation "In Situ" has been organizing The "Sokołowsko Film Festival: Hommage à Kieślowski". It is an annual film festival in Sokołowsko, where Kieślowski spent a part of his youth and commemorates the director's work with screenings of his films, as well as films of younger generations of film makers both from Poland and Europe, accompanied by creative workshops, panel discussions, performances, exhibitions and concerts.
Krzysztof Kieślowski earned numerous awards and nominations throughout his career, dating back to the Kraków Film Festival Golden Hobby-Horse in 1974. The following is a list of awards and nominations earned for his later work.
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