The morning on the day after Krzysztof Kieslowski had died (in March 1996) a friend called me up to express his sense of loss. I shared his pain, because Kieslowski had by then become a part of our lives, with his films and his chain-smoking presence in interviews. He had a deadpan delivery and a certain ambiance, or amused boredom which was, and still is, very appealing. Once when he was about to be interviewed the journalist was unable to get the recording machine to work. He was becoming more and more stressed. Kieslowski sat on his chair, cigarette in mouth, and waited. Finally he said "Why don't you try to plug it in." (I was not that journalist but I have been told about it.)
He was very Polish, and worked exclusively in Poland for the first 24 years of his career. But he was also very European. As soon as the iron curtain came tumbling down the European in him burst out. The Double Life of Veronique (1991) is set in Poland and France, as is Three Colours: White (1992). Three Colours: Red (1994) is set in Switzerland and Three Colours: Blue (1993) is set in France and is partly about the creation of a symphony to be played at the day of Europe's unification.
There are some differences between the Polish ones and the European ones, in terms of the look of them, with the Polish ones being more gritty. There is little obvious beauty in the images of, say, A Short Film About Killing (1988) whereas Three Colours: Blue has beauty written all over it. That is not meant as criticism of one or the other, in both cases the look of the film is appropriate for the story that is being told, I just mean that there is a difference. And the style of his films evolved over time, there are no clear breaks. Thematically the films are consistent, about how people are interconnected, whether they know it or not, and how events in the past and the present are linked, how things are repeated. Even though chance and luck seems to be what governs our lives it is all apparently part of some master plan.
I have not seen any of his early documentaries, the first of his films that I have seen is Camera Buff (1979, original title is Amator), which is excellent and is from when Kieslowski was part of the Polish film movement called "cinema of moral anxiety", in the late 70s and early 80s. Camera Buff is about a man who is an amateur filmmaker and whose camera is always with him. He is also making films for the Communist Party, who of course censors his work and criticise it. He becomes more self-absorbed in his filmmaking, leading to the breakdown of his marriage, and in the end he starts to film himself. It is as good an introduction into the world of Kieslowski as one could hope for, filled with irony, passion and philosophical ideas. Also excellent is his next film, which is probably the most celebrated of his early films, Blind Chance (1981). It is popular among philosophy scholars since it shows how fate trips up the life of a man, with the narrative a three-forked path. We get three alternative versions of what this man's life might be like.
A key film is No End (1985), because it was the beginning of his collaboration with writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz and composer Zbigniew Preisner. It is especially Preisner who is important for from now on the music is one of the pillars on which Kieslowski's films stands. It is a perfect collaboration of filmmaker and composer, images and music, and one of the most remarkable artistic partnerships in film history. The music is not only complementary to the images but is also often a part of the story, including characters who are working in music as composers, musicians or singers. At the very least they can be seen in record stores looking for the music of the film. When they were making The Decalogue (1989-1990) Kieslowski and Preisner even created a fictional composer from the Netherlands, Van den Budenmayer, who lived in the 18th century. They claimed he wrote some of the music for the later films, and in The Double Life of Veronique there is a lecture given about the life and work of this Van den Budenmayer. But there is no such man. (This can be seen as an example of the irony and humour that has always been an important part of Kieslowski's films, their occasional playfulness.)
I am not sure if I have a particular favourite among his films, but I have a special feeling for Blue. Julie (played by Juliette Binoche) looses her husband and daughter in a car accident, and although badly injured she survives. But she does not want to. She succumbs to depression and suicidal thoughts, yet something holds her back. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the will to live, to live on, gets stronger and she connects with the world again. It is beautiful, and moving, and very uplifting. The music is part of that.
I said that she connects with the world again. However, the feeling of Kieslowski's films is that, although set in the real world, they really belong to a Kieslowskian world, which is like our world, but only just. An absurd world, strange, cruel and beautiful.
I should perhaps add that "cinema of moral anxiety" was a loose movement in the late 1970s (ending more or less with general Jaruzelski becoming prime minister in 1981, and declaring martial law) which told stories about political disillusion and moral corruption, as well as domestic strife. Among the most well-known participants were Kieslowski, Krzysztof Zanussi, Agnieszka Holland and Andrzej Wajda.