Leaving college and working as a theatrical tailor, Kieślowski applied to the Łódź Film School, the famed Polish film school that also produced Roman Polański and Andrzej Wajda. He was rejected twice. To avoid compulsory military service during this time, he briefly became an art student, and also went on a drastic diet in an attempt to make himself medically unfit for service. After several months of successfully avoiding the draft, he was accepted to the Łódź Film School on his third attempt.
He attended from 1964 to 1968, during a period in which the government allowed a relatively high degree of artistic freedom at the school. Kieślowski quickly lost his interest in theatre and decided to make documentary films. Kieslowski also married his lifelong love, Maria (Marysia) Cautillo, during his final year in school (m. January 21, 1967 to his death), and they had a daughter, Marta (b. January 8, 1972).
After Workers '71, he turned his eye on the authorities themselves in Curriculum Vitae, a film that combined documentary footage of Politburo meetings with a fictional story about a man under scrutiny by the officials. Though Kieślowski believed the film's message was anti-authoritarian, he was criticized by his colleagues for cooperating with the government in its production.
Kieślowski later said that he abandoned documentary filmmaking due to two experiences: the censorship of Workers '71, which caused him to doubt whether truth could be told literally under an authoritarian regime, and an incident during the filming of Station (1981) in which some of his footage was nearly used as evidence in a criminal case. He decided that fiction not only allowed more artistic freedom, but could portray everyday life more truthfully.
Camera Buff (1979) (which won the grand prize at the Moscow International Film Festival) and Blind Chance (1981) continued along similar lines, but focused more on the ethical choices faced by a single character rather than a community. During this period, Kieślowski was considered part of a loose movement with other Polish directors of the time, including Janusz Kijowski, Andrzej Wajda, and Agnieszka Holland, called the Cinema of Moral Anxiety. His links with these directors (Holland in particular) caused some raised eyebrows within the Polish government, and each of his early films was subjected to censorship and enforced re-shooting/re-editing, if not banned outright (Blind Chance was not released domestically until 1987, almost six years after it was completed).
No End (1984) was perhaps his most clearly political film, depicting political trials in Poland during martial law, from the unusual point of view of a lawyer's ghost and his widow. It was harshly criticized by both the government and dissidents. Starting with No End, Kieślowski's career was closely associated with two regular collaborators, the screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz and the composer Zbigniew Preisner. Piesiewicz was a trial lawyer whom Kieślowski met while researching political trials under martial law for a planned documentary on the subject; Piesiewicz co-wrote the screenplays for all of Kieślowski's subsequent films. Preisner provided the musical score for No End and most of the subsequent films; the score often plays a prominent part in Kieślowski's films and many of Preisner's pieces are referred to within the films themselves. In these cases, they are usually discussed by the films' characters as being the work of the (fictional) Dutch composer Van den Budenmayer.
The Decalogue (1988), a series of ten short films set in a Warsaw tower block, each nominally based on one of the Ten Commandments, was created for Polish television with funding from West Germany; it is now one of the most critically acclaimed film cycles of all time. Co-written by Kieślowski and Piesiewicz, the ten one-hour-long episodes had originally been intended for ten different directors, but Kieślowski found himself unable to relinquish control over the project; in the end, each episode featured a different director of photography. Episodes five and six were also filmed in longer feature-length versions, and released internationally as A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love respectively. Kieślowski had also planned to shoot a full-length version of Episode 9 under the title A Short Film About Jealousy, but exhaustion eventually prevented him from making what would have been his thirteenth film in less than a year.
The first of these was La double vie de Véronique (The Double Life of Véronique) (1990), starring Irène Jacob. The relative commercial success of this film allowed Kieślowski the opportunity to raise the funding for his ambitious final films, the trilogy Three Colors (Blue, White, Red), which explores the virtues symbolized by the French flag. Three Colors is his most acclaimed work next to The Decalogue and his first international commercial successes. The three films together garnered a host of prestigious international awards, including the Golden Lion for Best Film and Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival, and the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival, in addition to winning three Academy Award nominations. The Trilogy is generally regarded as a major achievement in modern cinema.
Krzysztof Kieślowski died aged 54 on March 13, 1996, during open-heart surgery following a heart attack, and was interred in Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw. His grave is located within the prestigious plot 23 and has a sculpture of the thumb and forefingers of two hands forming an oblong space—the classic view as if through a movie camera. The small sculpture is in black marble on a pedestal slightly over a meter tall. The slab with Kieślowski's name and dates lies below. He was survived by his wife Maria and daughter Marta.
Years after his death, he remains one of Europe's most influential directors, his works included in the study of film classes at universities throughout the world. The 1993 book Kieślowski on Kieślowski describes his life and work in his own words, based on interviews by Danusia Stok. He is also the subject of a biographical film, Krzysztof Kieślowski: I'm So-So (1995), directed by Krzysztof Wierzbicki.
After Kieslowski's death Harvey Weinstein - then head of Miramax Films (which distributed the last four Kieslowski films in the US) wrote a eulogy for him in Premiere magazine. In it he said that Quentin Tarantino saw The Double Life of Veronique at the Cannes Film Festival and was not only blown away by the film, but fell in love with its star, Irene Jacob. He apparently wrote the part of Bruce Willis' wife in Pulp Fiction for her, but she was unavailable for the shoot. She was working on Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red at the time. According to the same article, Tarantino saw Red at Cannes and declared that it would win the Palme d'Or. Instead his own Pulp Fiction received the top prize at the festival.
Though he had claimed to be retiring after Three Colors, at the time of his death Kieślowski was working on a new trilogy co-written with Piesiewicz, consisting of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory and inspired by Dante's The Divine Comedy. As was originally intended for the Decalogue, the scripts were ostensibly intended to be given to other directors for filming, but Kieślowski's untimely death means it is unknown whether he might have broken his self-imposed retirement to direct the trilogy himself. The only completed screenplay, Heaven, was filmed by Tom Tykwer and released in 2002 at the Toronto International Film Festival. The other two scripts existed only as thirty-page treatments at the time of Kieślowski's death; Piesiewicz has since completed these screenplays, with Hell — directed by Bosnian director Danis Tanović and starring Emmanuelle Béart — released in 2005, and the third part released as "Nadzieja" in 2007.
The Polish actor-director Jerzy Stuhr, who starred in several Kieślowski films and co-wrote the script for Camera Buff, filmed his own adaptation of an unfilmed Kieślowski script as Big Animal (Duże zwierzę) in 2000.
Kieslowski said the following in an interview:
It comes from a deep-rooted conviction that if there is anything worthwhile doing for the sake of culture, then it is touching on subject matters and situations which link people, and not those that divide people. There are too many things in the world which divide people, such as religion, politics, history, and nationalism. If culture is capable of anything, then it is finding that which unites us all. And there are so many things which unite people. It doesn't matter who you are or who I am, if your tooth aches or mine, it's still the same pain. Feelings are what link people together, because the word 'love' has the same meaning for everybody. Or 'fear', or 'suffering'. We all fear the same way and the same things. And we all love in the same way. That's why I tell about these things, because in all other things I immediately find division. Kieślowski in Interview Kieslowski's Many Colours by Patrick Abrahamson, Oxford University Student newspaper, June 2, 1995
I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work. But in this book of screenplays by Krzysztof Kieslowski and his co-author, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, it should not be out of place to observe that they have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what's really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don't realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.
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