Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 1
 Issue 4 
15 Oct
2001

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The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski Between Theory and Post-TheoryBOOK REVIEW
The fright of real theory
Slavoj Žižek's The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieślowski Between Theory and Post-Theory

Žižek's book doesn't mention a Kieślowski film until page 38 and uses phrases such as "the zero level story of an intrusion of the meaningless and contingent Real." Alexei Monroe still considers it the best work on the director yet.


For the uninitiated, Slavoj Žižek's work can be intimidating. He is formidably well-read and his texts can operate at the highest levels of psychological and philosophical abstraction. He is the lead figure of a small "school" of researchers in Ljubljana whose work is based upon the controversial psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan. As Colin McCabe notes in his introduction: "To give a full introduction to the range of Žižek's thinking and writing would require a book in itself" (viii).

Žižek has had a huge influence upon film theory and academia generally. He is still best known for his use of the films of Hitchcock to explain Lacan and vice-versa (see his Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan: But were afraid to ask Hitchcock). His basic method is to discuss scenes from films as illustrations of highly complex psychoanalytic or philosophical processes and thus to cast light not just on the way particular films achieve their effects but on the art of film itself.

Politics and provocation

Readers should be aware that although Žižek has a broadly leftist political orientation, he is far from politically correct and his Lacanian fundamentalism can lead him to describe gender psychologies and relations between the sexes in ways some will find provocative and challenging. See for instance his ongoing discussion of Lacan's statement that "woman does not exist" (132).

In chapter nine, he makes a frontal assault on what he sees as the "degradation" of human rights (155). He claims that human rights are in practice reduced to the right to violate the Ten Commandments. Among the examples he gives is that "freedom of religious belief" is translated into "the right to celebrate false gods." It's hard to be sure whether there isn't an element of provocation here, but it could be noted that many might consider the practice of Lacanian psychoanalysis as an example of just such a celebration. Readers must also expect to encounter (but should not be deterred by) phrases such as "... the zero level story of an intrusion of the meaningless and contingent Real" (120).

The least-remarked aspect of Žižek's work—his deep and almost subliminal irony—should also be borne in mind. Besides being a highly subtle theorist, he is also a provocateur and a showman who sometimes exaggerates for effect. An example of this occurs on page 130 when he gives an analysis of the role of a frame in relation to a picture which he called, in the introduction, a bluff which listeners at a conference had taken seriously, noting this as a sad comment on the state of cultural studies.

Žižek's modus operandi

This book is his most intensive study of a single filmmaker since his works on Hitchcock (who inevitably features again here). Žižek covers a wide range of topics besides the primary theme of the book—his scope of references and agendas do not really allow us to talk about his books having a "subject" in the usual sense. Here we see his ongoing engagement with the works of Lacan, Hitchcock, Hegel and others and a continued pursuit of the radical political agenda he has begun to outline in recent works (part of his recent statement on the American terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 is drawn from material in this book).

He takes in subjects including national cuisines (24), the Cathar heresy and the literature and film of the GDR, citing Plato, Hegel, Derrida, Heidegger and more. The first (brief) reference to a Kieślowski film is not until page 38, which is not a criticism, but an indication of Žižek's modus operandi, his concern to establish a theoretical framework prior to addressing his key theme.

In the first chapter, Žižek engages in a fierce critique of so-called "post-theory" which attempts to move away from a reliance on theory and back towards more empirical accounts of film. He sees this as a case of political resignation or fear of ideology, detecting in it a desire to return to a kind of pre-Marx/Freud naïveté in which issues surrounding the role of the unconscious or ideology are evaded. This is an internal debate only fully relevant to the world of film studies, and yet it is important for the general reader as well as the specialist to bear this context in mind. To simplify, Žižek argues that it is only through the application of theory that a full understanding of the psychological, political and philosophical inferences of a film can be gained.

Chapter 2 deals with the notion of suture, tracing its evolution from a single reference in the work of Lacan to one of the key paradigms of academic film studies. Žižek characterises suture as representing the transition from imaginary to symbolic, the paradoxical operation through which gaps are closed and illusion restored. Suture is the process through which the artificiality of a shot is naturalised, a process that is both technical and reaches to the heart of the way in which film-makers create illusions of either realness or artificiality.

Žižek claims that the standard operation of suture is "subverted" by Hitchcock, Kieślowski and others to produce disconcerting effects—typically by presenting it as an "impossible" visual perspective on a scene. For instance, an "uncanny poetic effect" can be created if the subject (character) can be made to seem to "enter his own picture" (39). In Kieślowski's work, aspects of drab reality are made to operate as the "door of perception"—magical interfaces are opened between different realities, not through melodrama but mundane detail such as a glimpsed reflection or the interior of a Polish post office.

Žižek's also discusses the work of two German directors who for different reasons are rarely discussed: firstly Hans Jurgen-Syberberg, director of the monumental epics Parsifal and Hitler, A Film From Germany and secondly Veit Harlan, notorious as the director of the Nazi-sponsored historical epic Kolberg (1945). Suture is illustrated through a detailed discussion of Harlan's long-forgotten romantic melodrama Opfergang (1942-44).

An analysis of Kieślowski's aesthetics

Žižek seems to break new ground in the discussion which follows, analysing the metaphysical and romantic effects conjured by the director in a manner that is itself strikingly poetic. This is a mode of aesthetic analysis that fully describes the most spectral and intangible of film without compromising the underlying theoretical rigour. What is overcome here is the tendency in much academic writing on film (or for that matter popular music) to relegate the actual material to a mere starting point for an abstract discourse.

What Žižek seems to be trying to demonstrate through this approach is that there need not be a hard choice between theory and source material. It also exemplifies the agenda he sets out in the introduction—this passage and others of great subtlety seem intended as an implicit rebuke of the limitations of post-theory—an attempt to illustrate what insights can be lost in an over-reaction to previous theoretical excesses (which Žižek is to an extent reluctant to admit). The only doubt this sometimes raises is the extent to which he may be reading far more into the films than they deserve and imbuing them with far greater significance than they possess—as a reader with no previous knowledge of Opfergang, his description of it is certainly intriguing enough to make me want to see it.

Once Žižek "comes to grips" with Kieślowski the level of detail discussed is striking. Even the brief but essential synopses Žižek provides of the Decalogue, La Double Vie de Veronique and Red, White and Blue highlight elements of the stories of which the casual viewer may not even have been aware.

Žižek stresses the extent to which Kieślowski kept open multiple possible interpretations of his stories and quotes an interview in which Kieślowski creates even more space for speculation and confusion in interpreting the films, asking whether the judge in Red actually exists, suggesting that he could be "merely a ghost, or better still, a possibility" (67).

The fright of real tears

It is from chapter 4 that the book takes its title—Žižek argues that Kieślowski shared with all film-makers in the socialist bloc an interest in the gap between the drab realities of life and the bright futures of state propaganda. Kieślowski began with documentaries that attempted to show this hidden reality but at a certain point became aware of how the intrusiveness upon which documentaries depend can become obscene, if not pornographic (think of discussions of the TV coverage of the recent terrorist attacks which have talked of its addictive quality and the almost pornographic level of immersion 24-hour coverage implies).

After the documentary Young Love (1974), Kieślowski developed what he termed a "fright of real tears," questioning whether he had the right to intrude upon real grief and moved from documentaries to features. Žižek claims this illustrates that "... there is a domain of fantastic intimacy which is marked by a 'No Trespass!' sign and should be approached only via fiction, if one is to avoid pornographic obscenity" (73). He detects in Kieślowski a concern not to intrude to closely upon the real of a human personality. This is not of course to say that Kieślowski does not deal with the deepest emotions, but he does so allusively or metaphorically rather than in the brutally direct style of the Dogme school.

In recent works, Žižek has supplemented his broadly leftist political agenda with critiques of "New Age" thinking, and he insists that Kieślowski cannot in fact be associated with such (see also 101-2). For instance, Žižek claims that the films are not based on "anti-documentary ethereal spirituality" (77) and that their mystery and ambiguousness is rooted in the fact that Kieślowski still treats the footage as documentary material. He claims (on page 77) that:

...the ultimate achievement of film art is not to recreate reality within the narrative fiction, to seduce us into (mis)taking a fiction for reality, but, on the contrary, to make us discern the fictional aspect of reality itself, to experience reality itself as a fiction.

Also addressed is the question of why Kieślowski chose to retire from film near the end of his life. Žižek again attributes this decision to "fright"—if before Kieślowski was afraid on intruding on reality, at the end he became aware that "... fiction intrudes into and hurts dreams themselves, secret fantasies that form the unavowed kernel of our lives" (77).

A universe of alternative realities

Chapters 5 to 9 deal more intensively with the films themselves. Žižek argues that Kieślowski's is a "universe of alternative realities" (93). The films keep open a series of unresolved possibilities shown simultaneously, showing how the lives of characters are changed by the simple fact of, for instance, missing a train as in the early film Blind Chance.

Žižek believes this approach can be seen in the context of contemporary processes such as hypertext and is in this respect highly contemporary (despite what can also be seen as an old-fashioned romanticism of the films). In fact, the motif of much of his work is one of "multiple imperfect universes" (95). He also draws attention to the recurrence of themes, situations and characters which he terms "narrative echoes" (99), not just within Decalogue but in the later films (most notably in the final shots of Red, in which the three key couples of the trilogy are the sole survivors of a ferry disaster).

Kieślowski's work is then compared to that of Tarkovsky, who is described as his Russian counterpart (102). Within the space of five pages, Žižek produces a highly complex analysis of Tarkovsky's work, which serves only to tantalise—whilst he has discussed Tarkovsky elsewhere, it would be fascinating to see Tarkovskly receive the extended coverage Kieślowski gets in this book.

Ethics and fatal choices

A key claim presented in chapter 8 is that Kieślowski's work is marked by a concern for ethics and the sometimes fatal choices his characters are forced to make between their vocation or mission or living a straightforward life—the central question around which La Double Vie de la Veronique is structured. He notes the irony of Kieślowski's fate, reminiscent of those of his characters torn between self-preservation and mission. Shortly after entering retirement Kieślowski died of a heart-attack, suggesting the intensity of his relation to his mission in film which turned out to have been literally "a matter of life and death."

In the closing chapter, the famous Blue White Red trilogy is addressed through discussion of (amongst others) Lacan, Hegel and the Ten Commandments. In discussing Blue, Žižek sounds a false note however. He takes issues with the motif of the Concerto for Europe in the film and uses surprisingly simple and dismissive language, talking of what he calls a "... ridiculous and flat background of a unified Europe" (176) and goes on to claim that the film is ideal "... to satisfy the needs of a Brussells [sic] bureaucrat who returns home in the evening after a day full of complex negotiations on trade regulations" (176).

In this short passage he takes as self-evident the "ridiculous" nature of a unified Europe (without elaborating further) and indulges in a fairly crude caricature of an easy target. In this respect he represents a certain sceptic strand of Slovene opinion but does not begin to present a case for such thinking. Perhaps there are aspects of naïveté in the film's European theme, but it would be good to have a more rigorous analysis of this than is provided here—gratuitous EU-bashing as opposed to focussed criticism is just too easy a gesture.

His analysis of White, which situates the film in the context of the economic struggles experienced in post-Socialist Poland is more convincing. Žižek sees the thematic link Kieślowski makes in the film between commodity possession to sexual possession as a "stroke of genius" (177) and his reading of the film brings out clearly its sexual-political themes. In the last pages, Žižek returns to Decalogue and Red (as well as to the work of David Lynch) and re-deploys the theme of tears and the uncanny shots seen in Kieślowski's films.

Even if this book is not wholly "about" Kieślowski, it synthesises both Kieślowski's own writings and critical studies of his work and contains what is probably the most insightful analysis of the director's work to date. Anyone who has taken more than a casual interest in Kieślowski or who wants an insight into Žižek's thinking (or numerous other subjects) should attempt to engage with what is perhaps his most accessible and impressive work to date.

Alexei Monroe

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About the book

Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieślowski Between Theory and Post-Theory, published by BFI Publishing 2001, ISBN 0851707548

About the author

Alexei Monroe holds a PhD in Communications and Images Studies from the University Of Kent. The subject of his research was the Slovene group Laibach and the Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) arts collective, and he is currently working on a book on this subject. Other research interests include the music and art of the former Yugoslavia and eastern Europe and electronic music, all of which he has published articles on. He is also active as a DJ (Codex) and is currently working on his own material.

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