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 Post subject: Re: Krzysztof Kieslowski
PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 6:17 pm 
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I Was a Soldier (Byłem żołnierzem, 1970)

“[16mm] has a lot of benefits. […] Had I been using a 35mm camera during the shoot, a different film would have arisen. Seemingly, it is a traditional piece, realised in the method of “cinematic survey”: here are veterans, seasoned by war; they talk to a static camera. It would seem that a light portable camera with narrow film is here utterly unnecessary. But that is so only seemingly. In that film it was not war memories of the veterans that interested us, but above all their feelings, mental states, modes of thinking. So everything depended on their candour. The blind are sensitive and highly strung people. Narrow film, a portable camera, were essential. It allowed us to film straight after entering the subject’s apartment, before he managed to become nervous, before he felt stage-fright. It also allowed us to change the viewing angle without the necessity to stop filming, which would be lethal to the value of monologues. And, most importantly, it did not happen that we were not able to film something because of technical difficulties.” (Krzysztof Kieślowski, Film 48, 1970)

Co-directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski and Andrzej Titkow, this powerful and moving documentary begins with a group of former soldiers offering vivid reminiscences of first-hand experience of military conflict (“I tried to wipe off the sweat, and realised that it was blood”), but aside from the fact that many are wearing dark glasses it’s not made clear for some time that all of them have ended up blind. Which turns out to be the film’s real subject: how do you cope with the sudden loss of one of your primary senses, especially as the by-product of a situation that was already traumatic?

Unsurprisingly, shock and depression are endemic, suicide is contemplated, the tiniest glimmer of light seized on as though it heralded a full recovery, while worrying about how they can make themselves useful to a society that seems to have written them off. (One says “I’d rather not exist than be a piece of trash.”). Retrospectively, the most characteristically Kieślowskian section comes when they discuss their retreat into dreams, the one space in which they can still see perfectly as their mind’s eyes are still functioning, a particularly vivid experience when fused with the usual dream-tropes of being able to fly.

As if to deny us the sights that the film’s subjects cannot see, the film is made up entirely of close-ups of these men, who’ve long since got over their initial self-pity and can talk articulately and intelligently a day to day reality that most of us find utterly unimaginable - not so much the shutting off of vision, but its permanence. At the end, Kieślowski (visible in several over-the-shoulder shots) cuts to several seconds of black screen before the end credits appear, as if to give us some brief insight into the reality of their day-to-day lives.


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 Post subject: Re: Krzysztof Kieslowski
PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 3:24 am 
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MichaelB wrote:
From the City of Łódź (Z miasta Łodzi, 1969)

This was Krzysztof Kieślowski’s graduation film from the Łódź Film School. It might have seemed like the height of opportunism (or even cheesiness) to mark this career milestone with a portrait of Poland’s second city, but it’s clear from the opening shots of an exercise break at a textile factory that he’s not interested in appealing to the Łódź tourist authorities: in his own words, “it’s a portrait of a town where some people work, others roam around in search of Lord knows what. Nothing, probably. Generally, it’s the women who work hard and the men not so hard or not at all. A town which is full of eccentricities, full of all sorts of absurd statues and various contrasts. There are trams and old horse-drawn coal carts still on the streets to this day. It’s a town full of terrible restaurants and horrible milk bars. Full of stinking, shitty, pissed, foul toilets. Full of ruins, hovels, recesses.”

Having worked quite regularly in Łódź between 1994 and 2012 even in the mid-nineties it was far closer to this portrait than its present day refurbished facades and Shopping malls. As you say it is very affectionate with more than a hint of Forman about it. With regards to its eccentricities the guy with the electric shock gizmo is just the tip of the iceberg. Łódź must rank as the capital of everyday surrealism. (David Lynch loves the place). A few choice images plucked from a list of encyclopedic proportions would include inside the Poznanski textile factory (the same as the women workers' 'aerobic' class ?) - scenes that would rival German's Hard to be a God. Workers slopping around in toxic chemical sludge wearing 'boots' like tatty carpet slippers in sub-Crimean sanitorium lighting conditions. A 25 stone guy striding down a main street (Piotrkovska) wearing nothing but a thong carrying a gigantic sledge hammer over his shoulder. An ancient old guy bent double pushing his wife on a makeshift wheelchair made from a wooden chair fastened to a rusty pram chassis and a safety harness of old army webbing.
Anyway great job on the write -ups and as the old travelogues used to sign-off... So we must leave Łódź city of contrasts.


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 Post subject: Re: Krzysztof Kieslowski
PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 12:33 pm 
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Factory (Fabryka, 1970)

This study of a tractor factory is a natural successor to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film-school short Office (1966), and was effectively the second in a series of similar depictions of everyday environments - Refrain (Refren, 1972), Hospital (Szpital, 1976) and Railway Station (Dworzec, 1980) are three more. We’re shown little of the factory’s actual workings - instead, much of the running time is taken up with a management discussion about equipment and organisational failures, whose participants are shot in such extreme close-up that it’s impossible to get any real sense of the space they inhabit - and therefore it’s all too easy to imagine them in any number of other settings and industries, because there’s little doubt that such scenes were being repeated all over Poland at the time.

Bureaucracy rules supreme - something as trivial a single task not being performed (for whatever reason, even a perfectly good one), or raw materials or a piece of equipment not being available (or up to scratch) can clog up the entire system, leading to much recrimination and fingerpointing but little actually being accomplished. “Who can we blame?” is a recurring theme, and it does indeed appear to be the case that most of the factory’s problems are completely outside its control - and yet it’s still required to meet its output quota on pain of fines that it clearly can’t afford to pay. Poland’s economic decline would be a recurring issue throughout the 1970s, and films like Factory were charting it a full decade before things came to a head in the Gdańsk shipyards - although it also has plenty of wider resonances too, as anyone who’s worked in an environment dominated by petty rules will swiftly recognise. Somehow, tractors still emerge at the other end, but the suggestion is that this is more by luck and hard work on the part of the people on the factory floor than any kind of fully thought-through plan, even though you'd notionally expect the latter to reign supreme in a command economy.


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 Post subject: Re: Krzysztof Kieslowski
PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 4:00 pm 
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MichaelB wrote:
Factory (Fabryka, 1970)

This study of a tractor factory is a natural successor to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film-school short Office (1966), and was effectively the second in a series of similar depictions of everyday environments - Refrain (Refren, 1972), Hospital (Szpital, 1976) and Railway Station (Dworzec, 1980) are three more.

I suppose that if Kieslowski had never made the transition to fiction features and continued in this vein, he might be remembered today as "the Polish Frederick Wiseman".


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 Post subject: Re: Krzysztof Kieslowski
PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 5:20 pm 
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Outside of the people who look into Polish documentaries he probably wouldn't be remembered.


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 Post subject: Re: Krzysztof Kieslowski
PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 5:24 pm 
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Well, his work would have been resurrected when PWA / NiNA issued those Polish School of Documentary box sets, but that's such an incredibly strong body of work I honestly don't know whether he would have stood out from the pack.


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 Post subject: Re: Krzysztof Kieslowski
PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 5:45 pm 
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Which are also packages that only people interested in Polish documentaries know of.


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 Post subject: Re: Krzysztof Kieslowski
PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 6:30 pm 
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I'm sorry, did you think I was arguing with you?


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 01, 2017 6:35 am 
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Before the Rally (Przed rajdem, 1971)

You’d think that a film about two rally drivers (Krzysztof Komornicki and Blazej Krupa) preparing to race in Monte Carlo would offer a significant change of pace for Krzysztof Kieślowski, but in fact it’s an almost perfect sequel to Factory in that it shows that the drivers' ostensibly glamorous lives are in fact just as dominated by bureaucracy, pointless meetings, equipment shortages and arbitrary output figures as is a tractor factory. Indeed, the behind-the-scenes discussion is shot more or less identically, to the point where you could probably intercut this material with the equivalent footage from Factory and it would be some time before anyone noticed.

The central problem, as everyone involved is clearly fully aware, is that the Polish Fiat 125 car simply isn’t up to the task allotted to it, but the factory supremo adamantly says that he’s not prepared to modify the entire factory to improve the car just for the purpose of a single event, however welcome the publicity. As a result, despite various jerry-built solutions (as ever, Kieślowski has nothing but respect for those on the front line) it comes as little surprise that the car is disqualified before the end of the race, for failing to complete certain parts of the course within the allotted time limit.

It’s well worth noting that despite the fact that both Factory and Before the Rally were made and funded by Poland’s Communist regime, both films are highly critical of Poland’s dysfunctional economy in a way that certainly wouldn’t have been possible twenty years earlier, when Socialist Realism reigned supreme and the kind of material that Kieślowski was shooting would never have got past the censors. We have a tendency in the West to assume that filmmaking under Communist regimes was much of a muchness throughout their existence, and that repressive censorship was de rigueur, but these films and many others being made at the same time prove that this was very far from the case. Indeed, Polish documentary-makers were often at the forefront of such criticism, which is one of the reasons they were regarded with unusual respect compared with other filmmakers, and why people like Kieślowski initially regarded documentaries as being the noblest calling that anyone in his profession could aspire to.


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 Post subject: Re: Krzysztof Kieslowski
PostPosted: Fri Sep 01, 2017 10:36 am 
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zedz wrote:
I'm sorry, did you think I was arguing with you?

I couldn't figure out any other utility for the comment.


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 01, 2017 10:44 am 
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Zedz was talking about the circumstances via which Kieślowski might be remembered. It's wildly unlikely that anyone outside Poland (at least not those who follow documentary festivals) would have heard of, say, Marcel Łoziński, Wojciech Wiszniewski, Danuta Halladin, Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz, Jacek Bławut and many, many others if it hadn't been for those PWA packages.

Of course, it's possible to argue - and pretty convincingly at that - that it was Kieślowski's films and comments that acted as the main gateway into this field: he famously nominated Kazimierz Karabasz's The Musicians as one of his ten greatest films in 1992, a time where people would have been likely to pay a great deal of attention to his Sight & Sound list purely because he'd just fully emerged as a big international name. A decade or so later, many Kieślowski DVDs included his early documentaries as extras. As with people discovering György Ligeti's music via 2001 (a near-universal experience, unless you're seriously interested in the Hungarian avant-garde), it's overwhelmingly likely that most people's first experience of Polish documentary-making would be one of Kieślowski's films: that's certainly true in my case, and it's also why PWA sensibly made Kieślowski the subject of their first release. But effective distribution and public awareness-raising is all about seizing opportunities like this.

For a parallel example, see The Shop on the High Street. Hardly anyone outside Czechoslovakia knew that its national cinema was then in the very early stages of an almost unparalleled creative outpouring, but when that film won 1965's Best Foreign Film Oscar (and was the first to do so from a country other than France, Italy, Sweden or Japan, newsworthy in itself), it suddenly turned a bright international spotlight onto what was happening there. Would Czechoslovak films have been Oscar-nominated for the next three years in succession (including another win, for Closely Observed Trains) if it hadn't been for that early hit pointing the way? Would Miloš Forman have had an international career? We simply don't know - but it obviously didn't hurt.


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 01, 2017 11:09 am 
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Although to zedz's point, if, say, Wiszniewski or Dziworski had been the gateway, people discovering Kieślowski's documentaries from that vantage point might have been underwhelmed.


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 01, 2017 4:11 pm 
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MichaelB wrote:
Before the Rally (Przed rajdem, 1971)

You’d think that a film about two rally drivers (Krzysztof Komornicki and Blazej Krupa) preparing to race in Monte Carlo would offer a significant change of pace for Krzysztof Kieślowski, but in fact it’s an almost perfect sequel to Factory in that it shows that the drivers' ostensibly glamorous lives are in fact just as dominated by bureaucracy, pointless meetings, equipment shortages and arbitrary output figures as is a tractor factory. Indeed, the behind-the-scenes discussion is shot more or less identically, to the point where you could probably intercut this material with the equivalent footage from Factory and it would be some time before anyone noticed.

The central problem, as everyone involved is clearly fully aware, is that the Polish Fiat 125 car simply isn’t up to the task allotted to it, but the factory supremo adamantly says that he’s not prepared to modify the entire factory to improve the car just for the purpose of a single event, however welcome the publicity. As a result, despite various jerry-built solutions (as ever, Kieślowski has nothing but respect for those on the front line) it comes as little surprise that the car is disqualified before the end of the race, for failing to complete certain parts of the course within the allotted time limit.

It’s well worth noting that despite the fact that both Factory and Before the Rally were made and funded by Poland’s Communist regime, both films are highly critical of Poland’s dysfunctional economy in a way that certainly wouldn’t have been possible twenty years earlier, when Socialist Realism reigned supreme and the kind of material that Kieślowski was shooting would never have got past the censors. We have a tendency in the West to assume that filmmaking under Communist regimes was much of a muchness throughout their existence, and that repressive censorship was de rigueur, but these films and many others being made at the same time prove that this was very far from the case. Indeed, Polish documentary-makers were often at the forefront of such criticism, which is one of the reasons they were regarded with unusual respect compared with other filmmakers, and why people like Kieślowski initially regarded documentaries as being the noblest calling that anyone in his profession could aspire to.


I just watched this as one of the films I hadn't already seen in the new Documentarist set. It seemed like a typical Kieslowski workplace documentary, and typically good. He structures the film around a focal character (the supervisor / eventual driver) but that character doesn't really serve as a protagonist in any conventional sense of the word: we don't get any real sense of him as an individual, and it's never his story that we're following, always just the story of the enterprise in which he's involved.

Formally, there's a lot of Kieslowski's characteristic (for his documentaries) use of close-up, but more than that, I get a sense (without going back to document this in any rigorous way) that the camera is always consistently closer to the subject than classic style would call for, even when this doesn't amount to a close-up. For instance, the colour shots of the car driving through snow seem to be shot with a long lens, crushing depth, and even when we can see all of the car, we don't get a good look at its surroundings, let alone where it is in the landscape. Likewise, in the factory, we tend to be in the midst of the action, without establishing shots to give us a breather. It's a good way of conveying the constant pressure of the crews' deadlines, just as the throwaway title announcing their failure is an ideally anticlimactic means of conveying the dramatic anticlimax.


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 Post subject: Krzysztof Kieślowski
PostPosted: Sat Sep 02, 2017 6:22 pm 
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Between Wrocław and Zielona Góra (Między Wrocławiem a Zieloną Góra, 1972)

“Masses of films like that were being made at the WFD [the main documentary studio] at the time. I didn’t particularly want to, but it wasn’t a shameful thing to do. It’s a profession - film director. Sometimes you just have to render some services. It was boring, far more boring than anything else I’ve done, but I could live because of it.” (Krzysztof Kieślowski, Kieślowski on Kieślowski)

This film and its companion-piece Principles of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine (Podstawy BHP w kopalni miedzi) are the exact equivalents of The Seafarers in Stanley Kubrick’s output: they were made purely to put food on the table (in Kubrick’s case, to claw back funds lost on Fear and Desire) and both filmmakers dutifully turned in perfectly competent but totally anonymous pieces of work that did little more than fulfil the commissioning brief. I was only able to track down copies in unsubtitled Polish, but I’d be surprised if the commentary contained much in the way of nuances that I may have missed - although it is at least apparent from the framing device of a young miner writing a letter about his profession (effectively to the viewer, since he goes on to narrate the film) that Kieślowski’s instinctive respect for the worker remains well to the fore. A recruitment film made on behalf of the Lubin copper mine, it stresses both the well-regulated working conditions and ancillary bonuses available to miners, including flats, schools for miners’ children, numerous leisure facilities, and extensive on-the-job training.

The fact that it was shot in colour (a first for Kieślowski) is merely the most obvious way that it contrasts with his earlier work: in terms of content it also couldn’t be more different from the likes of Factory, Before the Rally or the filmed but as yet unshown Workers 1971: Nothing About Us Without Us. In line with the commissioning brief, Kieślowski presents a vision of an idealised workers’ Poland that isn’t at all far removed from Andrzej Munk’s similarly wide-eyed Destination Nowa Huta! (Kierunek - Nowa Huta!) two decades earlier, and just as fond of visual cliché - he even has a young couple gazing skywards, before cutting to the hot-air balloon that they’re watching. Although not an explicitly Socialist Realist film like Munk’s, it’s cut from the same cloth, and I’m sure Kieślowski was fully aware of this at the time.


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PostPosted: Sun Sep 03, 2017 7:19 am 
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Principles of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine (Podstawy BHP w kopalni miedzi, 1972)

The second of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s commissioned industrial films pretty much delivers on the promise of the title. It’s the exact equivalent of the instructional films that the National Coal Board was making in Britain at the time, and I’d guess from the return to black and white that Kieślowski encountered similar problems to his British counterparts when it came to effectively lighting underground - Wolfgang Suschitzky, who shot many NCB films, said that high-speed black-and-white stock was often the only viable way of being able to film anything, since elaborate lighting setups were completely out of the question in a dangerous, potentially gas-filled underground environment.

It’s a tribute to the film's visual eloquence that it’s easy enough to follow even in an unsubtitled version: Kieślowski typically uses freeze-frames to illustrate all the mistakes that a careless copper miner might conceivably make during a typical working day. At the start, they’re handed out numbered identification tags (presumably, if morbidly, to help identify corpses in the event of a disaster), smoking is completely forbidden, and appropriate clothing has to be worn at all times, even down to underwear. Lamp batteries must be checked above ground, and a montage of regulatory noticeboards confronts miners as they descend beneath the surface.

Underground, the barrage of safety rules is even more relentless, and with good reason - although unlike some of the gorier NCB films like the almost exactly contemporaneous Man Failure (1971), Kieślowski prefers cartoon illustrations to demonstrate what might go wrong, including miners being electrocuted, buried in a rockfall, beheaded, losing a limb or even being completely sliced in two after misjudging a short cut. The music occasionally hints at a suspense-thriller ambience as the protagonist (as before, Kieślowski focuses on a single miner's viewpoint) walks along possibly unfamiliar tunnels, warning signs confronting him at every turn, but these pleasures are strictly fleeting, and the rest of the film focuses on good workplace practice, be it coupling trucks or shovelling in close proximity to fast-moving industrial machinery. Like its companion piece, the film does its job, Kieślowski clearly earned his fee - and, thankfully, moved on to more stimulating projects.

(NB: The 16m24s version on YouTube is truncated at the end. The invaluable Film Polski database gives an impressively precise 20m52s as the full running time, which means that even after a framerate adjustment to make the YouTube version run 17m5s at 24fps, that’s still nearly four minutes missing. However, based on Kieślowski's other commissioned film and the stated purpose of this one, this footage almost certainly comprised more of the same sort of thing.)


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PostPosted: Mon Sep 04, 2017 6:50 pm 
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Refrain (Refren, 1972)

At less than ten minutes, this was the shortest of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s professional films to date, and returns to the territory of his 1966 film-school project Office (which was never intended for public consumption and which wouldn’t be commercially released for decades) in that it’s a depiction of the way that bureaucracy can render even the most heart-rending human stories into dry facts and figures, albeit not without a certain amount of ghoulish humour along the way (“No offence, sir, but at an undertaker’s establishment we sincerely hope not to see you again”).

It’s set in a municipal funeral home, and the opening shots of passports and identity cards being stripped of key features (such as the photograph) set the tone perfectly, as do the meticulous breakdowns of exactly where each złoty goes when totting up the final bill (“Transport is 8 złotys per kilometre, but we only charge one way”), the patient explanation of why cloth-covered sawdust makes a perfectly good substitute for a purpose-designed, but much more expensive headrest, or deadpan responses to off-the-wall enquiries (“We don’t sell graves to the living - only with a death certificate directly prior to the funeral. True, in the past one could buy oneself a grave, or build oneself a tomb or a monument - but not any more”). Meanwhile, as regular glances out of the window attest, life goes on as people wander along the street without a care in the world.

Unlike Office, the visual focus here is almost exclusively on the faces of the various funeral home employees - we barely see or hear their clients, presumably out of tact. With few exceptions, they seem a remarkably good-natured bunch, although given their profession and indeed the widespread Polish propensity towards gallows humour, that’s perhaps not surprising. Tellingly, at the very end, a baby is born - and immediately tagged with its own identification number, which it will need up to the very end of its life. Welcome to the system.


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