Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 4
 Issue 5 
29 Nov
2004

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Front cover for Marek Haltof's The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski: Variations on chance and destiny (London: Wallflower Press, 2004)POLAND
Psychological portraits
The early documentaries of Krzysztof Kieślowski

It is often forgotten that Kieślowski, usually known for his metaphysical fiction, started his film career as a documentarist. Marek Haltof, in this extract from his new book The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski (Wallflower Press), delves into the director's early works.


In a documentary film on himself, I'm So-So, Kieślowski states that his early films were made in order to get "a common portrait of our mental condition". The filmic portrait of working-class ód belongs to a group of works that, like the earlier Urząd (The Office, 1966), paint the picture of communist Poland. Films such as Fabryka (Factory, 1970), Refren (Refrain, 1972), Robotnicy '71: nic o nas bez nas (Workers '71: Nothing About Us Without Us, 1972) and later, Szpital (Hospital, 1976) and Gadąjce głowy (Talking Heads, 1980), focus on different institutions and see them as reflections of the bigger issue – the communist state. They also introduce the "collective hero." For example, the working class in Workers '71 and medical practitioners in Hospital, although dealing with everyday struggle and hardships, reveal the hopes and aspirations of different social strata of Poles.

At the beginning of the 1970s Kieślowski also produced two promotional documentaries, commissioned by the copper mine in the industrial town of Lubin. Między Wrocławiem a Zieloną Górą (Between Wrocaw and Zielona Góra, 1972) advertises Lubin as a place to work and live, and Podstawy BHP w kopalni miedzi (The Principles of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine, 1972) is a typical training film. He also produced the documentary Przed rajdem (Before the Rally, 1971) about the preparations for the Monte Carlo car race by Krzysztof Komornicki driving a Polish Fiat. The film focuses on Komornicki's desperation to participate in the race, along with the bureaucracy and the economic limitations of 1970s Poland. The film ends with a sentence stating that the driver was unable to complete the Monte Carlo race. Like in a number of other Kieślowski's films, the protagonist struggles against overwhelming apathy, bureaucracy and absurd regulations.

Like several other Kieślowski's documentaries, Factory clearly serves as a metaphor of communist Poland. Made in 1970 – the year of violent workers' strikes in the Baltic ports, the film juxtaposes images of long managerial meetings and assembly-line workers at work at the Ursus tractor plant. Kieślowski crosscuts close-up shots of engineers and party functionaries with primarily long- and medium-shots of factory life. The dynamic factory sequences, portraying workers during their daily routines almost in the manner reminiscent of socialist realism, contrast the endless talk ("talking heads") of the male-only factory administrators who gather in a smoke-filled conference room to discuss co-operations, production plans and supplies. The film ends with an image of new tractors leaving the factory, against all odds. The ending, writes Paul Coates, "is a deadpan epiphany: the pandemic production problems give the completion of anything a near-miraculous air".

A similar attempt to reflect the state of mind of the working class in Poland after the strikes of 1970 is presented in Workers '71: Nothing About Us Without Us, directed together by Kieślowski, Tomasz Zygadło, Wojciech Wiszniewski, Paweł Kędzierski and Tadeusz Walendowski. The very title of this film explains its political message, more fully realised by the workers themselves during the Solidarity period (1980–81). Workers '71 suffered from the censor's intervention. Despite the directors' objections, it was re-edited and re-titled as Gospodarze (Housekeepers), and in that mutilated form shown on Polish Television.

The film is divided into several segments titled "Morning", "The Division of Labour", "Tools", "Mass Gathering", "Hands", "Heads" and so forth. It opens with images of an early morning working day in several Polish cities: crowded trains delivering tired people to work, workers reading newspapers and listening to early radio news and communist slogans seen from passing trains. What follows are images of, predominately, miners, steelworkers and female textile workers at work and expressing their concerns about salaries, work organisation, norms and the abuses of the system.

The more open spirit of the early Edward Gierek years, who succeeded Władysaw Gomułka as the Communist Party leader in 1970, is clearly seen and heard in the picture. Like other films by Kieślowski, Workers '71 is deprived of voice-over narration and relies on diegetic comments expressed by workers. Their voices display the gap between the official communist newspeak and the true concerns of the working class. The subtitles indicate the content as well as the style of a particular segment. For example, close-ups and extreme close-ups dominate segments titled "Hands" and "Heads" while long- and medium-shots feature prominently in parts such as "Factory Conference".

Kieślowski's attempt to reflect the state of mind in 1971 Poland certainly influenced some seminal documentary films produced later, during the Solidarity period. For example, the very title of what is probably the most significant documentary made in 1980, Robotnicy '80 (Workers '80), directed by Andrzej Zajączkowski and Andrzej Chodakowski, refers directly to Kieślowski's work. Other film-makers, for example Andrzej Piekutowski in Chłopi '81 (Peasants '81, 1981) and Górnicy '88 (Miners '88, 1988), strive to achieve a similar goal, which is stressed by referring to the same documentary tradition of Polish cinema.

Another documentary work produced by Kieślowski in 1972, Refrain, lacks the serious tone of his two previous films and shares similar features with the earlier film, The Office. The ten-minute-long Refrain deals with a funeral home and targets bureaucracy, corruption and dispassionate attitudes toward sorrowful fellow citizens.

The film also reveals some macabre, almost Kafkaesque humour familiar to those who lived under the communist system, for example in the scenes when clients apply for graveyard lots. Refrain opens with an image of erasing the name of a recently deceased person. The last scene not only displays Kieślowski's black sense of humour, but also provides a universalising metaphor: to the sound of Vivaldi's music, the camera portrays a number of newborn babies in a hospital, each being assigned its identification number.

Krzysztof Kieslowski's Szpital (Hospital, 1976)In 1976 Kieślowski produced Hospital, the 1977 winner of the Festival of Short Films in Kraków. The film deals with Warsaw orthopaedic surgeons who are portrayed working long, 32-hour shifts. The camera follows them in the operating theatre, admittance room and smoky offices. They are portrayed as struggling with faulty equipment and overcoming fatigue. The film focuses on everyday hospital situations without any voice-over comments, with the passage of time carefully indicated every hour. The surgeons are portrayed as skilled workers in this, to use Kieślowski's words, "film about some brotherhood".

Kieślowski's later film Dworzec (Station, 1980) portrays the atmosphere at Central Station in Warsaw after the rush hour. It opens with the main television news at 7:30PM, providing information about the communist party leader, Edward Gierek. The recurrent image, Orwellian in spirit, of security cameras watching people, organises the film. In the last scene the camera moves inside the surveillance room and presents various images of the station on multiple screens. Its political, Orwellian touches aside, Station is chiefly admired for its attention to detail, its portrayal of tired, almost inanimate faces, "people looking for something", the reality that has nothing to do with the optimism of the television news. Scholars often quote the confiscation of Station by the police, searching for a murder suspect at the Central Station and hoping that Kieślowski accidentally filmed her. As Kieślowski explains to Danusia Stok, this event, which could have jeopardised his filmed subjects, contributed to his abandonment of documentary cinema.

Marek Haltof

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This extract comes from...

Krzysztof Kieślowski: Variations on destiny and chance
by Marek Haltof
ISBN: 1-903364-91-4 (paperback); 1-903364-92-2 (hardback)
London: Wallflower Press, 2004
Part of the "Directors' Cuts" series
208 pages, illustrated

Extract taken from Chapter One: Documenting the Unrepresented World, pp 11-14.

Personal copies of the book can be ordered directly from Wallflower Press.

Republished with the kind permission of Wallflower Press

Also of interest
About the author

Marek Haltof is Assistant Professor at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. He is the author of several books in English and Polish, including Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide (1996) and Polish National Cinema (2002).


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