The Double Life of a Filmmaker’s Reputation

Director Krzysztof Kieślowski at the Polish premiere of his movie entitled "Three Colours: White" in 1994 Andrzej Rybczyński

Kieślowski, who would have been 77 today, won adulation abroad… but not necessarily at home.

In his 2002 film, Hollywood Ending, Woody Allen’s character directs a blockbuster while desperately hiding the fact that he is blind. While the resulting movie understandably flops at home, it turns out to be a hit in France where critics enthuse about its original camera angles and fuzzy shots. “Thank God the French exist”, proclaims the fictional director as he gears up for a triumphant trip to Cannes. In a symptom of the gulf separating Krzysztof Kieślowski’s reputation at home and abroad – many Poles took Hollywood Ending to be Allen’s tongue-in-cheek tribute to one of the country’s most successful directors.

Kieślowski, who would have been 77 today, won adulation abroad for his French-language films, The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and especially the Three Colours trilogy of 1993-1994, White, Blue and Red. But while many in Poland delighted in his Golden Lion from Venice and his Oscar nomination, the prevailing opinion back home understood these efforts as disguising banality with artsy framing, over-the-top symbolism, ponderous music and pretentious dialogue. 

Not that he didn’t have his critics abroad: Kazuo Ishiguro recounted in an interview how the Cannes festival jury he sat on in 1994 had to resist immense pressure to award the Palm d’Or to Three Colours: Red rather than to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. “The lobby supporting Kieślowski was very strong,” Ishiguro said in a Newsweek interview in 2011. “I have often heard it said that we on the jury killed him, that he could never understand why he didn’t win”.

Kieślowski’s international reputation really took off in the late 1980s with a series of ten short television films: The Decalogue. His last project filmed in Polish, each film corresponded with of the Ten Commandments, a concept he also used for Three Colours, drawing on the colours of the French flag and the tripartite revolutionary slogan, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

But many Poles prefer to remember Kieślowski as the maker of partially-staged documentaries of the 1970s, visually austere and less insistent than his later films on heavy symbolism. It is interesting that these early efforts also divided Polish and foreign audiences albeit in almost exactly the opposite way.

Take the Night Porter’s Point of View of 1977, a long monologue of a factory worker who delighted in controlling his fellow employees and reporting their slightest misdemeanours. An enthusiastic supporter of public executions who believed no criticism of the Communist government should go unpunished, Kieślowski’s protagonist would spend his free time walking the streets in search of truant children to send to correctional facilities and of unlicensed fishers to fine. He cut a comic figure in the eyes of foreign critics who described the documentary as slight if entertaining.

Polish reviewers, on the other hand, pointed to Kieślowski’s compassionate portrayal of his protagonist as a misguided victim of totalitarian oppression every bit as much as its perpetrator and praised the film for its hard-hitting, yet subtle political message.

The director destined, it seems, to forever polarise Polish and foreign opinion died in Warsaw in 1996.