In 1989, the Communist rule that had dominated Eastern Europe since the end of the Second World War collapsed with astonishing rapidity. If the long-term political, economic, and ideological consequences of Europe’s reunification are still unfolding, there was an immediate and extraordinary artistic result, as Polish and French cinema came together to provide a climax to the work of Krzysztof Kieślowski. In a remarkable burst of creative energy from 1988 to 1994, the filmmaker was to write and direct fourteen films, culminating in Three Colors—the trilogy made up of Blue (1993), White (1993), and Red (1994)—a feat for which there are few parallels in the history of the cinema. Kieślowski in this period went from being a well-respected filmmaker within his own country to being one of the all-time greats of world cinema. The trilogy itself, his final work, almost defies belief: written, shot, and edited in less than three years and screened in succession at Venice, Berlin, and Cannes, so that for one year, Kieślowski dominated art cinema as no one ever had, or likely ever will again.
Kieślowski’s apprenticeship had been long and thorough. By the time he came to make The Decalogue in 1988, a series of ten hour-long films for Polish television based on the Ten Commandments, he already had behind him training at the Łódz film school, the most famous film school in Europe, and a long career as a documentary filmmaker, as well as a number of prize-winning features. Perhaps just as significant, he had developed a series of collaborations that were to form the infrastructure that would enable him to work at a furious creative pace. The first and arguably most important was with Studio Filmowe TOR, which Kieślowski joined in 1974 and which was to provide constant backing during both his struggles with Communist censorship in the seventies and eighties and his adventurous experiments with Western funding in the nineties. I remember well that when I first asked Kieślowski, as he was editing Red, to participate in a film celebrating a hundred years of Polish film—part of the sixteen-country Century of Cinema project, in which great directors were asked to make personal histories of their own national cinemas—he was adamant that, whatever his own interest, he would do nothing without the approval of TOR. I remember even better the day spent in TOR’s cramped offices in Warsaw, where Kieślowski sat, smoking more cigarettes than I have ever seen a human being smoke, listening intently to the negotiations but never intervening, until we had reached agreement that we would film his idea of a history told from the point of view of the audience, with a young and unknown director, Pavel Lozinski.
If TOR was Kieślowski’s bedrock from the early seventies, the filmmaker forged two further essential relationships while making the fiction film No End (1985). Earlier, while researching a documentary about the courts, Kieślowski had encountered the lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and when he came to make No End, a film about the consequences of a lawyer’s death during martial law, it was to Piesiewicz that he went, to suggest that they cowrite the script. This collaboration was to last until Kieślowski’s death in 1996. Similarly, the music for No End was provided by Zbigniew Preisner, who thereafter would compose for all of Kieślowski’s films. It was this formidable team that sat down in the late eighties to plan The Decalogue. Although the original intention had been to use several directors, in the end, Kieślowski directed them all. During this frenetic period, he and Piesiewicz also began to think that the films might have international appeal, and German television came in with the money to allow two of them to be turned into full-length features. The one based on the sixth commandment—“Thou shalt not kill”—was screened at Cannes in 1988 and, under the title A Short Film About Killing, became an international hit.
The final component of the infrastructure underpinning Three Colors now came into play. Marin Karmitz’s family had fled Communist Romania in the immediate postwar era, and he had built up one of the most important distribution and exhibition companies in France, MK2. That company now became the lead partner in Kieślowskis next film, the Franco-Polish coproduction The Double Life of Véronique (1991), starring French actress Irène Jacob. She won best actress at Cannes for her performance, and Miramax picked up the film in America—where it grossed $2 million, an amazing feat for such an art film. All the elements were now in place for Three Colors.
These films gather many of Kieślowskis earlier concerns, particularly the role of coincidence and chance in life, and take them to a level both more personal and more abstract. Each film elaborates one of the great ideas of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity. However, Kieślowski is not interested in these slogans politically; indeed, it would be fair to say that, for Kieślowski, the final collapse of Communism merely acknowledged the end of politics, which had so obsessed Europe for two hundred years, and had been so prominent in his earlier films and life. Instead, the films explore what these concepts can tell us about life: we are presented with Julie, who must break free from the ties that bind her to her dead husband and daughter; Karol, who must find equality with his French wife, who so despises and misuses him; and Valentine, who discovers in her relationship with a snooping judge a genuine fraternity absent in her life with her boyfriend, with his petty jealousy. But it would be completely wrong to think that these interpretations, or any of the other allegories that one can lay out—so that equality in White, for example, is also about the inequality between East and West in Europe—in any way exhaust the films’ multiplicity of meanings. Indeed, it is more helpful to understand these themes as one of the elements that Kieślowski uses to make each scene and each shot pregnant with meaning—for the individual films and, even more dizzyingly, for the trilogy as whole—which, in the end, the viewer can make sense of only in terms of his or her own life.
As a counterpoint to the great ideas of the Revolution are the three colors of the French flag: blue, white, and red. The colors punctuate each of their films, adding yet another layer to the rich palimpsest that Kieślowski creates from his gripping narratives. For they are all at the service of his abiding concerns: that each moment is full of infinite possibility, that our lives are connected and interconnected in ways that we can never fully grasp. The conclusion of the trilogy, when our major characters emerge from a tragic accident, both delivers the pleasure of a happy ending and leaves us all too aware of the five hundred deaths that the narrative has not had time for—an open ending without equal. This continuous reflection on the act of filmmaking never becomes coy or pretentious, but Kieślowski, in these final works, shows that he is perhaps the director in the history of the cinema who most recognizes the claims of narrative closure while also recognizing the falsifying simplicities of narrative.
When Kieślowski said that he was retiring from directing after Red, it was easy to read it as a gesture of exhaustion. However, it may be as true that Kieślowski saw that what he had achieved in these films marked a cross-fertilization of the two great postwar European cinemas that could never be surpassed. He had composed the hymn to Europe that provides such an important plotline in Blue, and his song was sung.
Colin MacCabe is Distinguished Professor of English and Film at the University of Pittsburgh. He recently coedited the collection True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity (Oxford University Press).