Oscar Movies: Red–Director Kieślowski, Writer Piesiewicz, Composer

A graduate of Poland’s prestigious Łódź film school—whose alumni also include Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Andrzej Wajda—Krzysztof Kieślowski began his career as a filmmaker after a childhood spent moving from city to city, a flirtation with the theater, a drawn-out attempt to avoid military service, and two rejections from his future alma mater. Appropriately, his early works are varied, on-the-ground documentary shorts that explore corners of everyday life normally ignored by state-approved cinema: factory work, the effects of industry on urban existence, medical care, military conscription, and even funerals.
As his work became increasingly political—Workers ’71, a film about striking laborers, was censored by the Polish government—Kieślowski moved away from documentary and toward narrative filmmaking, first with the hybrid and then with a trio of features (Personel, The Scar, and The Calm) that blend a focus on labor and class with keen insight into the ethical quandaries of life under Communism.
His fourth-released feature, Camera Buff—about a factory worker turned obsessed filmmaker—screened to acclaim at the Moscow and Berlin  Film Festivals but would be recognized as a major work only in hindsight. Another exploration of labor, Short Working Day, was followed by Blind Chance,
a work that found Kieślowski pursuing grander themes of fate and spirituality.
Consisting of three variations on the simple premise of a man trying to catch a train, Blind Chance announced a new chapter in Kieślowski’s career, even though its suppression by the government meant that it was not widely seen until six years after its completion.
No End solidified Kieślowski’s new approach and introduced him to two collaborators with whom he would continue to work until the end of his life: the lawyer turned screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz and the composer Zbigniew Preisner.
In 1988, the trio embarked on the ambitious Dekalog project, completing ten hour-long films for television and two feature-length theatrical versions of films five and six (A Short Film About Killing, A Short Film About Love) that announced the filmmaker to a global audience.
The Double Life of Veronique
Building on that success, Kieślowski was able to turn next to European investors for The Double Life of Veronique, which won three awards at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.
Three Color Trilogy
Expanding on the themes of fate and chance that he’d explored in Blind Chance and the concept of interlocking narratives that he’d pursued in Dekalog, Kieślowski created the masterful Three Colors trilogy, then announced his retirement from filmmaking.
Kieślowski died from medical complications after a heart attack in 1996, at the young age of 54, leaving behind a thirty-year body of work and several masterpieces of world cinema.
Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s career as a screenwriter began, much like the way events unfold for a character in a Krzysztof Kieślowski film, with a fateful encounter. While working as a private-practice lawyer with a focus on defending critics of the Communist
government and members of the Solidarity trade union, Piesiewicz was approached by Kieślowski to serve as an adviser on a planned documentary about the televised trials being conducted under martial law in Poland (1981–83). Though filming began on that
project, it was soon abandoned after Kieślowski realized that his presence as a filmmaker was affecting the cases being documented. In its place, Kieślowski and Piesiewicz began to collaborate on a narrative film about martial law, which became No End. Though Piesiewicz returned to law, the two remained friends and worked together three years later on Dekalog, after Piesiewicz suggested the Ten Commandments as a subject to Kieślowski. Over the next six years, Piesiewicz balanced a career as a politician (having been elected to the Polish Senate in 1991) with his efforts as a screenwriter, working with Kieślowski on all the director’s
subsequent features: The Double Life of Véronique and the Three Colors trilogy. Piesiewicz has continued writing screenplays since Kieślowski’s death, including those for Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, a trilogy the two had conceived just before the director’s passing.
A self-trained musician, Zbigniew Preisner began performing at the famous arts-cabaret Piwnica pod Baranami in Krakow while still in college. His debut as a film composer was in 1981 with Antoni Krauze’s Weather Forecast.
After composing several scores for film and television, he came to the attention of Krysztof Kieślowski, who met him at the infamous dive bar Lotos in Warsaw, where they discussed the concept that would turn into No End.
After No End, Preisner and Kieślowski would work together on sixteen more films before Kieślowski’s death in 1996. They enjoyed an intimate collaboration, with Preisner beginning his work in the earliest phases of preproduction.
Their last collaboration was Three Colors: Red, for which Preisner won the César for best score from the French Film Academy.
Preisner has scored many other international feature films, including Héctor Babenco’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Louis Malle’s Damage, Luis Mandoki’s When a Man Loves a Woman, Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden, and Thomas Vinterberg’s It’s All About Love.
He continues to tour and compose music outside the realm of film. Requiem for My Friend, Preisner’s first large-scale work written for recording and live performance, is dedicated to Kieślowski’s memory.
1994 Three Colors: Red
1994 Three Colors: White
1993 Three Colors: Blue
1991 The Double Life of Véronique
1988 Dekalog
1988 Seven Days of the Week: Warsaw
A Short Film About Love
A Short Film About Killing
No End
Short Working Day
Blind Chance
Railway Station
Talking Heads
Camera Buff
The Card Index
Seven Women of Different Ages
I Don’t Know
From a Night Porter’s Point
of View
Two for the Seesaw
The Scar
The Calm
(released 1980)
(unfinished short)
Life Story
Curriculum Vitae
First Love
The Bricklayer
Between Wrocław and Zielona
The Principles of Safety and
Hygiene in a Copper Mine
Shooting Permit
Chess Kings
Workers ’71: Nothing About Us
Without Us
Before the Rally
I Was a Soldier
From the City of Łódź
The Photograph
Concert of Requests
The Office
The Tram
While all this was going on, I happened to bump into my coscriptwriter in the street. He’s a lawyer, roams around, hasn’t got much to do. Maybe he’s got time for thinking. It’s true that he has had a bit to do over the last few years, because we had martial law
and he took part in quite a few political trials in Poland. But martial law finished sooner
than we’d all expected. And one day, I bumped into him. It was cold. It was raining. I’d
lost one of my gloves. “Someone should make a film about the Ten Commandments,”
Piesiewicz said to me. “You should do it.” A terrible idea, of course.
Piesiewicz doesn’t know how to write. But he can talk. He can talk, and not only can
he talk but he can think. We spend hours on end talking about our friends, our wives,
our children, our skis, our cars. But we keep going back to what would be useful for the
story we’re inventing. It’s very often Krzysztof who has the basic ideas; ones which, in
fact, look as if they can’t be filmed. And I defend myself against them, of course.
Chaos and disorder ruled Poland in the mid-1980s—everywhere, everything, practically
everybody’s life. Tension, a feeling of hopelessness, and a fear of yet worse to come
were obvious. I’d already started to travel abroad a bit by this time and observed a
general uncertainty in the world at large. I’m not even thinking about politics here
but about ordinary, everyday life. I sensed mutual indifference behind polite smiles
and had the overwhelming impression that, more and more frequently, I was watching
people who didn’t really know why they were living. So I thought Piesiewicz was right,
but filming the Ten Commandments would be a very difficult task.
Should it be one film? Several? Or maybe ten? A serial, or rather cycle, of ten separate
films based on each of the commandments? This concept seemed closest to the idea
of the ten propositions, ten one-hour films. At this stage, it was a question of writing
the screenplays—I wasn’t thinking about directing yet. One of the reasons for starting
work was the fact that, for several years, I’d been deputy to Krzysztof Zanussi, artistic
head of the TOR production house. Zanussi was working largely abroad, so he made
general decisions, while the day-to-day running of the production house was left to
me. One of the functions of the production house is to help young directors make their
first films. I knew a lot of directors like that who deserved a break, and I knew how
difficult it was to find the money. For a long time in Poland, television has been the
natural home for directorial debuts—TV films are shorter and cheaper, so less risk is
involved. The difficulty lay in the fact that television wasn’t interested in one-off films.
It wanted serials and, if pushed, agreed to cycles. So I thought that if we wrote ten
screenplays and presented them as
ten young directors would be able to make
their first film. For a while, this idea motivated our writing. It was only much later,
when the first versions of the screenplays were ready, that I realized rather selfishly
that I didn’t want to hand them over to anybody else. I had grown to like some of them
and would have been sorry to let them go. I wanted to direct the films, and it became
obvious that I would do all ten. We knew from the very beginning that the films would
be contemporary. For a while, we considered setting them in the world of politics,
but, by the mid-1980s, politics had ceased to interest us. During martial law, I realized
that politics aren’t really important. In a way, of course, they define where we are and
what we’re allowed or aren’t allowed to do, but they don’t solve the really important
human questions. They’re not in a position to do anything about or to answer any of
our essential, fundamental, human, and humanistic questions. In fact, it doesn’t matter
whether you live in a Communist country or a prosperous capitalist one as far as such
questions are concerned, questions like, What is the true meaning of life? Why get up
in the morning? Politics don’t answer that.
Excerpted from Kieślowski on Kieślowski.
By Kryzstof Kieślowski and edited by Danusia Stok.  1993. Published by Faber & Faber. Reprinted with permission, not for republication.
In order to secure funding from the Minister of Culture and Telewizja Polska (TVP) and Sender Freies Berlin
(SFB), the television stations that produced the series, director Krzysztof Kieślowski and coscreenwriter Krzysztof
Piesiewicz decided to turn two of the segments of Dekalog
into feature-length films for theatrical distribution. They
Dekalog: Six
to become
A Short Film About Love,
the television stations chose
Dekalog: Five
to become
A Short
Film About Killing.
All twelve films were shot and edited over an eighteen-
month period, with overlapping production and
postproduction processes. For example, in one day,
scenes from three different films might be shot in the
same location.
Dekalog: One
’s young Paweł’s falling into the frozen pond is
based on an experience Piesiewicz had when his young son
went out with his ice skates and was missing for hours.
Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak didn’t exactly want the
job of shooting
Dekalog: Five
A Short Film About Killing.
In protest, he made the test shots look shockingly ugly,
as he felt the topic of murder called for, and in hopes that
Kieślowski would fire him. Idziak’s plan backfired, and
ultimately he designed over 500 unique camera and lighting
filters for the production.
In the church scene from
Dekalog: One,
the tears of wax on
the painting of the Virgin Mary were being dropped by
Kieślowski himself.
Dekalog: Eight,
the character of Elżbieta is often shown
playing with a cross she wears on a necklace. The new
restoration shows clearly that she is also wearing the
Hebrew letter
which means “life.”
Kieślowski and Piesiewicz considered extending
Dekalog: Nine
into a feature-length film called
A Short Film About Betrayal.
Dekalog: Nine’s subplot about a female heart patient with
aspirations of becoming a professional singer was expanded
into what became
The Double Life of Véronique.
A Short Film About Killing
was distributed theatrically,
the scene showing Jacek murdering the taxi driver was
believed to be the longest murder scene in cinema history.
When Dekalog first played at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, critics wanted to know which commandment applied to which film. Under pressure, the festival assigned new titles to each film, specifying a commandment for each—which was never Kieślowski and Piesiewicz’s intention.