Light Reading

By Gareth Evans

double-life-of-veronique-krzysztof-kieslowski.jpgThe Double Life of Veronique, 1991

A decade on from his death, the extraordinary oeuvre of polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski remains a triumph of world cinema


One of the enduring mysteries of cinema is how a medium so inherently pre-disposed to the metaphysical; dealing as it does in the telling of light and shadow has become all too often hijacked by the most prosaic and earthbound of rationales. More than any art form except music (to which, in its greatest incarnations, it is closely allied), cinema, dwelling on the threshold between physical and intangible realities, has the potential fully to explore the implications of what such a tension might mean for our individual and shared humanity.

In my lifetime, no film-maker has committed themselves more, and more successfully, to navigation of that borderland than Krzysztof Kieslowski . Working in a period both of evangelical consumerism and of counterpointed spiritual vacancy, the uniquely gifted film-maker, who died 10 years ago in March, managed both to craft completely believable and compelling narratives of life in the world as it is found and desired, while simultaneously suggesting that behind the fabric of observable phenomena, there lay a mysterious ordering, a synchronicity of charged forces, that seemed almost to provide a telling pattern for our interactions with others and ourselves.

If this sounds like he traded in ungrounded speculation, it shouldn’t. As with any genuinely visionary artist, Kieslowski based his investigations on the actually existing nature of things. Indeed, how else would someone born into the unavoidable austerities of authoritarian post-war Poland act? In a society constitutionally obliged to deal only in the material, it must have seemed an obvious choice to start from that, whether oppositional or not. So, from his first documentaries onward into his early politically inflected features, he focused on ethical questions around labour and social structures.

However, as early as 1982, with Blind Chance, his speculative drama of alternative outcomes, it was clear that Kieslowski was as concerned with motivations and consequences that operated from outside such hierarchies. Such an interest was confirmed two years later with No End, in which a dead lawyer observes his grieving widow’s challenges to martial law. But it would be with the Decalogue, his exemplary commentary on the ten commandments, that he would reveal himself to be one of the most subtle, perceptive and exploratory artists of our times. In pursuing the profound ethical questions raised by biblical teaching as they manifested in the messy, tangled lives of a Warsaw tenement block, he fused the most recognisable and emotionally resonant of narratives with an often breath-taking sense of the power of cinematic expression, to create an unassailable document of contemporary spiritual enquiry. That he then focused this search in the miraculous intimacy of The Double Life of Veronique and broadened the palette again with his take on the ideals of the French Revolution in the Three Colours trilogy only confirmed his singular ability to work across the spectrum of scale and experience.

None of the above should be read as hyperbole. Few makers ever genuinely affect how we might view the very quality of our being. Kieslowski could and did. And continues to do so. His work demands to be re-examined, to be viewed as one would read poetry over a lifetime, its hues constantly shifting. The recent NFT London memorial season of his features and those films he most valued by others could not have come at a more important time. In an age of endless fears and daily growing repressions, Kieslowski ’s finally transcendent vision of community, spiritual freedom and the centrality of a complex, dynamic love is one we could all do well to heed.