White: The Nonpolitical Reunifications of Karol Karol

On Film / Essays — Nov 15, 2011

“The day I can buy toilet paper in a Polish store, I’ll discuss politics,” Krzysztof Kieślowski told an interviewer in 1989, as he brushed aside a question. He was speaking at the Montreal Film Festival, where he was serving on the jury, a little more than two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. By 1993, when he was shooting Three Colors: White, he could credibly have his characters remark, “You can buy anything in Poland now”—and yet, at least in the film, he still kept mum about politics.

Maybe he held off because the “anything” in White is not sold in stores; the purchases that excite grim wonder among the film’s Polish consumers are a handgun and a Russian corpse. Or maybe, though everyone in 1993 said the world had changed after Communism, Kieślowski continued to refrain from political talk because he saw no difference he would have called fundamental. “Jesus, home at last,” sighs the protagonist of White, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), having survived divorce, humiliation, and utter dispossession in Paris to kiss the ground in his native Warsaw, albeit a little more abruptly than he might have liked. Kieślowski cuts from a close-up of the poor guy’s freshly battered face to a vista of the land he has just recognized as his own: a vast, frozen garbage dump.

White is the story of how the hapless Karol, reduced to nothing in the first third of the film, rises to entrepreneurial success in the next third (having discovered in post-Communist Poland that money literally sticks to him). He then uses his new resources to get revenge on his ex-wife in the final act—a loving, one might say captivating, revenge. In brief, White is a comedy. Lost potency is regained, bullies (both official and self-employed) are overcome, domestic union is restored; and if the happiness of this last achievement demands to be qualified with “sort of,” White nevertheless moves so irresistibly toward reconciliation and renewal that it even includes a sort-of resurrection.

The deceptive lightness of this comic movement—or should I say, its light deception?—sets White apart from the darker-hued films in the Three Colors trilogy. Of course, all three are explicitly films of reconciliation, taking the post-1989 reunification of Europe as the premise for their action as well as the excuse for their multiple settings: Western Europe in Blue (1993), Eastern Europe in White, and the historically neutral Switzerland (home of international law) in Red (1994). But when pondering the filmmaker’s elaborate claim that each part of the trilogy represents a color of the French flag and a universal value promulgated by the French Revolution—liberty for Blue, equality for White, fraternity for Red—a viewer attuned to Kieślowski’s sardonic streak and reluctance to talk politics might question whether he was making explanations or mocking the desire for them. It might be just as well to match the titles to the lead actresses’ hair color and call the films Brunette, Blonde, Redhead.

Or, better still, you could take the emotional associations of the colors, and the force of their sensual presence, as meaningful in themselves. In that case, White would stand out from Blue and Red for its significantly contrasting tone as much as for the story elements that distinguish it from the others—its quasi-farcical doings, its focus on a male protagonist, its Eastern setting.

Similarly, White differs markedly from the works of other major filmmakers who were surveying the post-Soviet landscape in the early 1990s, and who did want to talk about politics. Gianni Amelio and Emir Kusturica (to name two big examples) may also be said to have invented fables set in the former Eastern bloc, in Albania and the vanished Yugoslavia, respectively—a semidocumentary yet hallucinatory one in Lamerica (1994), a raucous, furious, and absurd one in Underground (1995). But unlike Kieślowski, these filmmakers made historical events and political movements integral to their tales. The environments they summoned up, full of pervasive lies and smash-and-grab economics, came from somewhere. In White, by contrast, people scheme and cheat and make banknotes multiply like a stage magician’s pigeons, and yet there’s nothing much said about how Poland got to be like this. “You bought a neon sign,” Karol says, dazed, upon dragging himself back to the home and hair salon of his brother Jurek (Jerzy Stuhr). “This is Europe now,” Jurek replies with a vocal shrug, as if to say, “You didn’t know?”

Karol knew. So too, of course, did Kieślowski, who with his coscreenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz was duly impressed at the wild acceleration in buying and selling that “Europe” seemed to set off. The “anything” circulating outside of stores in White also includes truckloads of bananas, shipping pallets of home electronics, and acres of sleepy farmland just begging to be turned into an Ikea outlet. As Karol eagerly learns—and as the owner of the sleepy farmland does not—money itself is now meant to be bought and sold. It’s thoroughly amoral, this universal commerce; it’s 90 percent corrupt. But Kieślowski, far from condemning it, entices the audience to enjoy its high spirits, expressed through the increasing zest and bustle of Zamachowski’s performance and the lilting stutter step of the tango that Zbigniew Preisner composed for the soundtrack. The pulse of money through Karol’s awakened blood is another of the comedy’s instances of revivification—to be contrasted, if you will, with the stultification caused by avarice in the satiric, Communist-era The Decalogue: Ten (1988), which also starred Zamachowski and Stuhr as brothers. In White, neither a political system nor a continent is blamed for the acquisitive impulse.

But perhaps Europe is chided, if not blamed outright, for having forgotten for all those decades that Poland was a part of it. Karol’s ex-wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy), convicts herself of this fault with her own words. “I’ll never go to Poland!” she shouts early in the film, during a postdivorce confrontation. Though merely disgusted to have married a limp loser such as Karol, she is truly outraged that he would suggest taking her to Warsaw. The very idea burns her up so much, she sets fire to the curtains. If any political agenda is at work in Whiteif—I suspect it emerges here, when Dominique refuses to have anything to do not just with Karol but with his whole country. Such insolence, which is more than individual in scope, demands a more than individual response; and that’s what it eventually gets, through Karol’s plot to make this Frenchwoman not only yield to him personally but also live in the vast, frozen garbage dump she’s scorned.

It seems there’s no separating White’s possible political theme (“This is Europe now”) from its moral one, which is that the existence of a border is no excuse for withholding human concern. (Karol makes this point, more or less, at the beginning of the movie, when he protests at the divorce hearing, “Where is the equality? Is my not speaking French a reason for the court not to hear my argument?”) This moral theme, in turn, is inseparable from the subject that really interests Kieślowski: the possibility, not very reassuring, that as much as the peoples of the world ought to treat one another as equals, the relationship between husband and wife always entails a little unfairness.

“Do I scare you?” Dominique asks, mockingly, during that early confrontation. Karol can’t even answer. He’s still at the stage of galumphing around Paris in worn-out shoes and dragging-at-the-heels trousers, still expelling stammers of bad French from between his chipmunk cheeks. But we may judge that he does fear Dominique, or her disapproval, by the image of her he upholds, which is both exalted and ridiculously banal. He points her out (inadvertently but tellingly) as if she were the gigantesque Brigitte Bardot on a poster for Contempt; he glimpses her face in the white plaster bust of an idealized milkmaid. Karol still sees Dominique as a bride, turning to smile while the air itself veils her in white. (The image pops up magically, without narrative function.) We may even guess that he views her as the cinematographer, Edward Kłosiński, sees Julie Delpy: as a flawless, pale, sunbeam-haired reflector of light. No wonder that Karol cannot make love to the Dominique who is only flesh and blood; no wonder that he is destroyed when she proves her corporeality with someone else.

A case could be made—by somebody else, not me—that White suffers from the thinness of Dominique, who is perhaps the least substantial female character Kieślowski ever created. I would argue that White works so delightfully well precisely because Karol must convert the ethereal Dominique into an earthbound one, mastered through the grubby instrument of money. At the end, she is still little more to him than an image, seen from afar. But she’s his for the seeing, and she’s no longer so shiny.

Why does this resolution not only trouble but also satisfy? Perhaps the answer—apart from the twilight mystery that hangs over the scene, and the delicacy of its ironies—is that this last face-off is the culmination of the film’s long chain of repetitions and mirrorings. There are two guns in the film (one of which shoots only tear gas), two fake passports (one of which is shredded before our eyes), two caskets (one of them used fraudulently), two renditions on comb-kazoo of a lachrymose Polish pop song (one of them performed from the heart). There are two crucial scenes set in unpopulated subway stations and two apparent resurrections—one of Karol and one of his friend Miko?aj (the bearishly sardonic Janusz Gajos), who switches places with Karol during the film, changing from protector to protégé and becoming his second self. We might even say there are two Karols, the second of whom is forceful and decisive and wears an overcoat like Mikołaj’s, only a size too big (a reminder, perhaps, that something of the original Karol still lurks under all that good fabric). We see the birth of this second Karol in a mirror, or rather the reflective glass that covers an image of the Virgin. He is studying himself, after his first important business deal, as he experiments with combing his hair a different way—always a significant gesture for a character who is a hairdresser.

In the final scene, though, Karol wears his hair as he did at the beginning and is even more of a nobody than he was then. He’s reverted to his authentic self but is now subtly altered, the double of his double—Karol Karol. He gazes raptly at Dominique but also very deliberately closes his eyes. And Dominique, the one whom the French court had willingly heard, has also become a new version of herself: silent instead of speaking, living in someone else’s homeland and making sincere hand signs, unlike the jeering one she performed after the divorce. Here are husband and wife, Poland and France, rendered unequal (in a surprising comic reversal) but finally mirroring each other’s desires on the ground of their common democratic Europe, in a building that looms out of the Communist past.

By this point, political talk would be as flimsy, and as blank, as a sheet of toilet paper.