Tributes: Kieslowski

By Andi Engel

‘As I get older, I realise that it is wrong to judge people. We all do it all the time. We even judge people we pass in the street. They look to us intelligent or stupid, kind or primitive. It’s automatic. It is wrong. We must not.’

Died 13 March 1996.

It seems that when someone decides to leave us, we also feel compelled to pass judgement on the life lived. We can’t help it. It’s automatic. Some people make a living from it. It is wrong. We must not.

The critic of a leading German weekly called K ‘just another puppetmaster, pulling his actors’ string’. And in a leading London quality (so-called) daily, a critic felt it necessary to inform us how relieved he was that now he did not have to sit through another Trilogy. Judging people. Settling scores. Quite right. Get your leg up. Even pissing on someone establishes some sort of connection. And a bit of the glory rubs off.

I think what they really resent was that he broke the rules. He announced that he was through with filmmaking. They despised him for that. They felt they had made him. And he walked way.

He made it quite clear, to me, and anybody who was prepared to listen, that the idea was to use his international standing to secure finance for young Polish filmmakers. THE FLYING KRZYSZTOFS, international circus act extraordinary, him and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, his friend and script-writer for years, would write the texts and produce, and first-time Polish filmmakers would direct the films. A sound idea, I thought. They disagreed. All this was not helped, obviously, by their French co-producer, who was busily selling territories of the new Trilogy, telling everybody, stay calm. Sign the contract. He’ll come round. This is a bankable project. Now he has to pay the money back.

K made several films about judgement. One of them was generally taken as a passionate attack on the death penalty. Which it was. But I like to think that it is also a contemplation of the problem of guilt. And punishment. And judgement And the absence of salvation. I want to think that K was appalled by ‘judgement’. Who judges? And whom and why? Today we have Bosnia. Are we really going to find those responsible and punish them? Punish them how? By doing the same to them as they did to others? I think K knew about all this. This not just a pamphlet against the death penalty. The man was too intelligent for that.

Genet said in an interview that all art could hope to do, was to cause longing (Sehnsucht/senso). K hardly allowed even that. The nearest you get to some sort of longing is when the dead husband welcomes his dead widow into joining him in the other world, in NO END. I wept in NO END.

As hard as K was with his characters, and he was extremely hard on them, hard on himself (and us), he forced himself (and us) again and again to face the horrors of life, the small and big injustices of daily life. Every film of his was set today, (no costume dramas for him) and every film was also about Poland, even if for financial reasons some were shot abroad. It was Poland. It was about Poland. Poland in Paris. Poland in Geneva.

He saw what was going on around him. And he hated it. And he hammered against it as forcefully as he could, but at some point he must have realised that it was pointless.

He saw the battle had been lost. He knew that we are retreating. He was in that small group in the army we all marching that knows about this retreat. Small, because nearly everybody thinks we are still advancing, advancing by following ever newer flags, standards, ensigns, pennants, some of which one has never seen before, and some one had hoped never to see again. But he knew that we are retreating. Not in full flight yet, but we will need all our wits and cunning to make it an orderly retreat. Geneva Convention and all that.

K wanted out. He was through with filmmaking. He had hoped to live a bit like a pensioner, like any other pensioner. In his hut near a Masurian lake. Smoking and throwing sticks for his dog Brat. Means brother. He was burnt out. Kaputt. If you do not want to believe me, look at the portraits Steve Pyke took during one of K’s last visits to London. K takes off his glasses and this is the face Pyke saw. The face of a person distraught.

That death from a broken heart fits him, but I wish he had not had to buy it in Warsaw hospital, but at home. God, let me die in my own bed. But God is terribly busy. He overlooks things. He overlooked that night.

Having met K, now when I see a film of his, I see him. I sense the man who tries to do everything right, to do everything as well as he knows how to, and I can feel his bitter frustration, because on the plateau where he worked everything became a matter of life or death; for his characters and, finally, for himself.

Because in the end, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films are not about telling the story well, though he does that as he goes along; in the end the impact, the shock of his filmmaking is this direct command:


Every time someone leaves us, we say life goes on. True. It does. But always a bit worse than before. Step by step something is taken away from us, and rarely replaced.

I hope they sell cigarettes where you are.

Andi Engel is a filmmaker and director of Artifical Eye Distribution and Exhibition