Directed by the Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski — best known for Dekalog, a morality-test series; The Double Life of Véronique, a fable of intangible connection; and the Three Colours Trilogy, a cinematic hall of mirrors — between 1976 and 1985, each of the four films collected here are about changing realities: two of them witness gradual changes in circumstances (The Scar and Camera Buff), one takes three possible scenarios starting from one single event (Blind Chance), and the last documents the effects of a sudden change (No End).
Kieślowski’s first feature, The Scar centres on the efforts of Stefan Bednarz (Franciszek Pieczka), a dependable pair of hands within the Polish Communist Party, to manage the construction and running of a chemical factory in Olecko, a town in the northeast of the country. The atmosphere between the townspeople and the back-slapping officials is hot with distemper; town meetings are presented with confrontational editing patterns. Contrast this with the way Bednarz, who used to live in the town, walks around in long travelling shots, communing with the place he knows intimately. Years pass as the factory is built and starts producing nitrates, and yet time isn’t the only thing that slips by: his relationship with his family curdles, the local Party branch becomes displeased with his methods, morale in the factory disappears, and even his own sense of self dribbles away. Using techniques the director will return to with greater panache in later work (subjective camerawork, montage, jump-cutting), The Scar is a noble film, but at times it does, and this is also true of some of the director’s later work, get lost in emotional avenues it can’t navigate.
The persistent passage of time and the changes it effects are the twin subjects of Camera Buff, which looks more and more like one of Kieślowski’s greatest films. A buyer for a factory, Filip Mosz (Jerzy Stuhr), becomes a father to a little girl; at the same time as this momentous change occurs, he buys a small, 8-mm camera, hoping to document her growing up and the family’s life in general. Mosz is a sweet soul, seemingly liked by all, and Stuhr endows him with a boyish nervousness, a hesitant manner, and a propensity to suffer bouts of hiccups when stressed. Irka (Małgorzata Ząbkowska), notes his new hobby with suspicion but indulges him. His employers go further. They recruit him to film their upcoming jubilee. He does so: and is invited to submit the footage to an amateur film festival. Irka senses something ill will come of this, and as he leaves on the train, she yells, “Don’t win!” But he didn’t hear her. After the festival judges declare none of the films good enough, he’s awarded third prize (so, second, give or take). Afterwards, filmmaking grows from something tinkered with into his full-fledged passion. Camera Buff spins with the director’s salient concerns: censorship and freedom, connections forged and missed, religion (Mosz stamps his forehead with his film club’s logo, and then wipes it — the black mark resembles the cross drawn in ash on Ash Wednesday), and loss. The film exposes the dangers of this obsession (his wife grows enraged by his negligence; Mosz’s documentaries play on TV, to the detriment of his colleague’s career), but also notes the good that can come of it. A friend asks Mosz to film him for a lark, all the footage shows is him driving and waving to his mother; after his mother’s death, the friend asks to see the film: there she is, alive again, for a few moments — time reversed, the departed returned. The magic of film.
Speaking of connections forged and missed, Blind Chance, finished in 1981 but not released until 1987, positively vibrates with them. The film presents three versions of a single event, namely, one man’s rush to reach a train on time. This man is Witek (Bogusław Linda), a medical student on leave from his studies. He runs into a woman, whose change is scattered on the ground; a man nearby pockets the change and buys a beer with it; Witek hastily attains a ticket; he runs past the man with the beer; on the platform, the train is gliding away from him, and he sprints to catch it. The first time he catches it and becomes a Party member; the second time he misses it, is arrested and becomes an anti-Communist, a Christian, and a supporter of the underground university; the third time, he misses it, chancing upon an old classmate, marries her and becomes a doctor. Contingency is an important aspect of Kieślowski’s films, and Blind Chance is intricately arranged to show the alternatives beyond the alternatives, but also expose the way in which repetition demonstrates the constancy of human whims. In one scenario he prizes ideology; in the next, religion; in the last, neither. In all he is entrusted too quickly; in all, he disappoints those around him to some degree; in all, he loses his loves. With its extreme close-ups, agile movements, and intelligently integrated subjective and objective camerawork, Blind Chance more readily matches the free-floating impressions of the Three Colours Trilogy; its profound echoing structure is most closely skin to Three Colours: Red.
From a film of many changes to one of a single, decisive change: No End, set during the period of martial law in Poland, follows Ulla Zyro (Grażyna Szapołowska), a translator whose lawyer husband Antek (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz) recently died. Since its narrative is one of a woman grieving, it’s easy to see the film’s connection to Three Colours: Blue; but No End can’t hold a candle to the later work. For one thing, the film’s frame, involving the possible presence of Antek’s ghost, is flimsy; for another, the sub-narrative, involving a case Antek was working on, and the lawyer who picks it up in the wake of his death, doesn’t readily communicate with Ulla’s attempts to acclimate to life without Antek. Although Szapołowska’s performance creates an interesting tension in the film’s surface, her numb grief (best captured in a scene involving her and an English lover, during which she details her pain in Polish: the words fall upon uncomprehending ears) being at odds with the camera’s expressive movements, No End’s two parts do seem sealed off from each other.
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