• Blind Chance: The Conditional Mood

    By Dennis Lim

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    A moral tale that forks into three possible outcomes for its everyman protagonist, Blind Chance was itself a crossroads film for its director, Krzysztof Kieślowski, whose career can be seen as a passage from the concrete to the abstract. He started out in documentaries, convinced that in Communist Poland there was “a necessity, a need . . . to describe the world,” to show things as they were and not as the state insisted they should be. But Kieślowski became increasingly aware of the limits of documentary realism: the realm of visible evidence did not necessarily provide access to what he called “inner life.” The challenge that would consume him through his culminating work, the Three Colors trilogy, was to move “beyond the concrete,” as he put it, to capture what was not seen but sensed, and 1981’s Blind Chance, his fourth fictional feature, was a pivotal moment in that progression, combining his early overt social and political concerns with his later obsession with fate and chance.

    Kieślowski’s earliest fictional works, like The Scar (1976) and Camera Buff (1979), had been extensions of his documentaries, gritty realist films that inevitably reflected Poland’s national climate at the time. The Polish phase of his career would culminate in The Decalogue (1988), a suite of hour-long films on the Ten Commandments that doubles as a portrait of the country’s last days under Communism and a mordant rumination on the founding tenets of Judeo-Christian thought. The collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and the corresponding shift toward international film coproductions, found Kieślowski moving from the local to the universal, and further into metaphysical terrain. These late films, premised on numinous questions of fate, chance, and human interconnectedness, abound with doppelgängers and divided selves. The two heroines of 1991’s The Double Life of Véronique—one French, one Polish—appear to share the same soul. In 1994’s Three Colors: Red, his final film, an elderly judge stage-manages the fate of a younger judge who appears to be repeating the course of the older man’s life. The cosmic enigmas of those films, which established Kieślowski in the international art-cinema firmament, had assumed a more direct form in Blind Chance, which was completed shortly before the declaration of martial law in Poland in 1981 but shelved by the authorities until 1987.

    Kieślowski’s description of Red as a film in the conditional mood applies equally here—Blind Chance presents, in succession, three alternate futures that could lie in store for one young man. Each scenario begins with Witek (Bogusław Linda), a medical student on a leave of absence, pushing past the crowds at a railway station. His jostling, split-second encounters with a couple of bystanders—an old woman who drops a coin, a tramp who picks it up to buy a beer—determine whether or not he catches his train to Warsaw. In the first version, Witek makes it, befriends an old Communist functionary on board, and ends up a party apparatchik. In the second, he misses it, gets into a scuffle with a station guard, and is sentenced to community service, which leads him to join a group of dissident activists. He also misses the train in the third section but meets a fellow student on the platform, prompting his return to medicine and a retreat into cozy, apolitical domesticity, only to eventually board a plane that explodes upon takeoff. The film is nothing if not schematic: on each life path, Witek encounters a different father figure and a different love interest, and assumes a markedly different political stance. To a large extent, Blind Chance derives its meaning from what remains the same even when circumstances change.

    The film opens with a close-up of a scream—which we eventually understand to be coming from the doomed Witek of the third segment—and a five-minute prologue of cryptic flashbacks that are gradually explained over the course of the film. A bloody scene in a hospital corridor turns out to be the moment of Witek’s birth in 1956, during the violently suppressed factory strikes in Poznan; in the chaotic aftermath of the uprising, his mother died in childbirth, along with his twin brother. The boyhood friend who bids Witek farewell, we learn, was emigrating to Denmark during the anti-Semitic purge of 1968. There are also glimpses of love affairs and of Witek’s troubled relationship with his domineering father, who on his deathbed leaves his son with the ambiguous parting words “You don’t have to . . .”—an apt slogan for a film about commitment and its opposite, choice and its absence.

    Given its numerous points of contact with national victories and traumas, Witek’s branching biography doubles as a crash course in modern Polish history. (We also learn that one grandfather was involved in the January Uprising of 1863 against Russian rule, and the other in the Miracle on the Vistula, which repelled the Red Army in 1920, shortly after the restoration of independence.) Blind Chance is steeped in the political unease of its time, a period of growing unrest that would culminate in the mass strikes of Solidarity, the broad resistance movement that grew rapidly out of the formation of a trade union in 1980. In part one, Witek becomes acquainted with two former friends whose Communist careers have starkly diverged: Werner (Tadeusz Łomnicki), once imprisoned as a “deviationist,” weary and wary but still an old-guard idealist, and Adam (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz), a cynical opportunist waiting for the system around him to crumble. Witek also reunites with his first love, Czuszka (Bogusława Pawelec), now working for the dissidents. Their romance ends when he unthinkingly discloses the activities of Czuszka’s circle to Adam, resulting in her arrest.

    The second part is an almost exact mirror image of the first: Witek falls in with the opposition thanks to Marek (Jacek Borkowski), an activist he meets while serving a community labor sentence after a scuffle with a railway guard while running for the train. Witek’s political calling merges with a religious one—not unusual in Communist Poland, where Catholic roots went deep—when he meets a priest, Stefan (Adam Ferency), and asks to be baptized. Witek also embarks on an affair with Werka (Marzena Trybała), the married older sister of a Jewish childhood friend of his, now back from Denmark. This scenario also ends with Witek being accused of betrayal—this time unfairly—after a raid on Marek’s underground printing operation. No matter Witek’s political affiliation, the outcome is the same: frustration and disillusionment.

    What to make, then, of the cruelest version of Witek’s life? The third and final variation in Blind Chance finds the hero rejecting ideology and religion, and paying the ultimate price. Having missed the train, Witek finds Olga (Monika Gozdzik), a fellow medical student, on the platform, and ends up back in school and marrying her. This Witek is a loving family man, a head-down sort, declining to join the party or support the dissidents. An opportunity to leave the country arises in the two previous iterations but is seized only in the third part, when Witek, in a rare decisive action, agrees to deliver a lecture overseas on behalf of his dean (Zygmunt Hübner), who’s unable to travel because his son is in political trouble. Just as the protagonists of the Three Colors films converge on a capsized ferry in the last installment, several of the characters in Blind Chance wind up on—or, in the case of Witek in the first two stories, narrowly missing—the Paris-bound flight that blows up in the third part. In part one, just before boarding, he’s directed to remain behind, as strikes break out across Poland. In part two, he’s denied a passport after refusing to provide names to the authorities.

    Grounded in topical realities (where Kieślowski’s later work tends to float free from them), Blind Chance asks to be read for both its political and its philosophical implications. Finally condemning the domesticated Witek to an early death, Kieślowski appears to propose that even in the divisive, paranoid atmosphere of late Communist Poland, a retreat from politics is not the answer. The echo chamber of unhappy endings amounts to a howl of no-win pessimism. But Kieślowski was a pessimistic humanist; his despair over humanity coexisted with a stubborn faith in it. The suggestion that Witek could easily wind up on either side of the barricade—or very far from it—speaks to the hero’s youthful malleability, but he is also, in each version, more or less the same eager, questing, reflective person, fallible and a bit naive but striving to do the right thing. The film’s refusal to take a political side could be perceived as a sign of Kieślowski’s own disenchantment with Polish politics, which he avowed with increasing vigor, but Blind Chance insists on the possibility of decency even while bristling at its apparent futility. In keeping with Kieślowski’s earliest fiction films, the failures of the system remain secondary to the human-scale dilemmas of the individuals trapped within it.

    Blind Chance entertains the notion of parallel worlds, more popular than ever these days in the field of quantum physics and in the pop-culture imagination. Slavoj Žižek has described Kieślowski’s alternate-history films as attempts to articulate a “new life experience”—a modern perception of existence as a “multiform flow”—in a medium that typically encourages linear narratives. (Such high-concept devices would become increasingly common; in this sense, the comparatively vapid likes of 1998’s Run Lola Run and Sliding Doors are descendants of Blind Chance.) Opening with Witek’s scream, Blind Chance could also be interpreted as an extended moment-of-death flashback, not unlike David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001)—one that cycles through not just memories of lived experience but also a series of hypothetical reveries, each of which comes to an abrupt halt when it reaches an impasse. As the film continually reminds us, the question that provides its form—What if?—is also one that haunts us through our lives, perhaps more than any other; Witek notes that he would have died had he been born after his twin brother, and not before. “If he’d gotten out before me, he’d be in my shoes and I in his,” Adam says of his friend Werner, recalling that they were imprisoned at the same time. Witek also muses to the priest that they met only because he missed a train. “It’s not just chance,” the man replies.

    It could be argued that Blind Chance, a lodestone of Kieślowskian themes, is the Rosetta stone to his filmography. Here, in embryonic form, are the episodic structures and intricate internal rhymes of The Decalogue and Three Colors. Here, too, is the obsession with mortality that would continue with No End (1985), The Double Life of Véronique, and beyond. Blind Chance also contains traces of the filmmaking bravado associated with Kieślowski’s later, glossier work, leavening the realist drabness of his early films with formal flourishes like emphatic musical cues and a restless camera that drifts at will into and away from its protagonist’s point of view. The vox-pop documentary Talking Heads, which Kieślowski completed a year before Blind Chance, already finds him gravitating toward big, meaning-of-life questions: a cross section of Poles are asked who they are and what they most want from life. Kieślowski’s work would tilt increasingly toward a kind of agnostic mysticism—or, as the critic J. Hoberman has put it, “a spirituality without God.” But this thrice-told tale remains the bluntest articulation of the Kieślowskian view of life: one in which human existence takes shape as a confluence of contingency, choice, and forces beyond our control and understanding.

    Dennis Lim is director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the author of David Lynch: The Man from Another Place (New Harvest, 2015). He has written for various publications, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times,Artforum, and Cinema Scope.

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