Interviewers were always asking Krzysztof Kieslowski if he was a political filmmaker. He always flatly denied it.
"Even when my films were about people involved in politics, I always tried to find out what sort of people they were," he said near the end of his career, shortly before he passed away in 1996. "The political environment only formed a background."
It's almost believable. After all, the Polish filmmaker's most famous movies don't have obviously political plots. The Double Life of Veronique, the Three Colors trilogy (Blue, White, and Red), and The Decalogue — a series of hour-long films that aired on Polish TV in 1988, with each episode corresponding to one of the Ten Commandments — are more about the concerns of ordinary citizens, like sex, family, and money, than political intrigue. (A restored edition of The Decalogue was released in theaters across the US this month, culminating in a five-disc Criterion release on September 27.)
Kieslowski is one of the most influential European filmmakers of all time — when he died at the age of 54, Harvey Weinstein eulogized him in Premiere magazine, and when the screenplays for The Decalogue were published, Stanley Kubrick wrote the foreword. His influence is especially remarkable given his early years: Kieslowski grew up and began his career behind the Iron Curtain, and was rejected from film school the first two times he applied.
Eventually in 1964 he got into film school, and by the end of his career he’d received most major prizes for filmmaking during his career — the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1988, the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1994, and many others — and was nominated for two Oscars in 1995.
As a prominent voice in European cinema during a time when Europe was undergoing big political shifts, including the fall of the Iron Curtain and the birth of the European Union, Kieslowski was often asked about politics, and he always denied any interest. Yet his films tell a different story.
Kieslowski confronted his audiences with the moral and ethical ambiguities of politics.
Besides being one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his time, with a gorgeously shot, deeply emotional body of work, Kieslowski also excelled at writing stories that exposed the limits of political ideas and ideologies.
Take, for instance, the fifth Decalogue film — later expanded into a feature called A Short Film About Killing — which unpacks the commandment "Thou shalt not kill."
In it, a young lawyer is in court, defending a 20-year-old who brutally robbed and murdered a taxi driver for no reason at all, first strangling him with a length of rope and then beating him.
Rather than leaving us to imagine the details of the crime, the film spends its first half cutting between two seemingly unrelated stories: In one, the young man is wandering around town, causing trouble and, it turns out, preparing for the murder; in the other, the lawyer is explaining in an argument to the judge why the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to would-be criminals.
Their stories converge about midway through the film, when we realize the lawyer is defending the young man in court and has just lost the case. That means his client will be executed.
And that's when things get political: In the same excruciating detail as the murder prep scenes, we watch an executioner prepare the chamber where the young man will be hung — with a rope, of course.
Is it moral, Kieslowski seems to ask, for a government to punish wrongdoing by doing wrong?
Kieslowski likely didn’t want to claim to be a political filmmaker because being subversive was dangerous
Even raising this question was risky. Kieslowski started his career making documentaries in Poland in the 1970s, while the authoritarian communist government still controlled Polish TV and film production.
Within a few years, he shifted to making features, usually stories about individual people faced with difficult ethical choices. But because of his associations with some other Polish directors whom the government deemed subversive, Kieslowski's early features were sometimes censored and recut. Sometimes they were suppressed entirely.
So it makes sense that he got used to talking about his work as nonpolitical. Under those circumstances, many of us would develop the habit as a defense mechanism.
Eventually the government loosened its grip, and Kieslowski's last four films were French co-productions. But his impulse to dodge the censors stuck around, as did his knack for subversion. After all, The Decalogue is based on one of history's most famous sets of laws; the Three Colors films each explore one of the founding virtues of the French republic (liberty, equality, and fraternity); and The Double Life of Veronique seems to be at least partly about the struggles between Eastern and Western Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Kieslowski saying he's not making political movies is like Jon Stewart saying The Daily Show is "just a fake news show."
Kieslowski challenged an oppressive regime by helping people realize they weren’t alone.
In a 1995 interview about The Decalogue, Kieslowski said:
Everything is important except politics. Loneliness is important. So is love, and the lack of it. Hopelessness, everything. Politics is not, because it isn't there. It only emerges in absurd and insignificant situations. That's hardly politics, but rather the consequence of political ineptitude. There's no water, elevators don't work. The basic things of life become problems. Life is organised in a bad and stupid way.
There's the key. Kieslowski says that "politics" doesn't matter, but because of politics — or, as he puts it, "political ineptitude" — ordinary people are placed in situations that put them into conflict with greater laws, whether of God or the universe. (Kieslowski was an avowed agnostic.)
The Decalogue films were shown on television in a deeply Catholic country, where viewers would instantly have noted the contrast and identified with the same basic problems the ordinary people onscreen experience as they also fall in love, lose their children, commit petty crimes, and have affairs.
By setting all of the films in the same dismal apartment complex, Kieslowski suggests that these aren't isolated incidents: Your neighbors next door and down the hall and five floors above you are experiencing the same problems you are, and living with the same ethical and moral dilemmas. He challenges the loneliness people feel by giving them the sense that they aren't alone.
In the Three Colors trilogy, Kieslowski challenged the French Republic’s ideals
The Three Colors films take it a step further. Sparked by French investors, each of the films is named for a color of the French flag — Blue, White, Red — and explores the corresponding animating idea of the French republic: liberty, equality, and fraternity. But each film also quietly undermines the ideal it explores.
In Blue, for instance, which unpacks the idea of liberty or freedom — considered an unmitigated good in the French political schema — Juliette Binoche plays Julie, a woman who is given ultimate freedom: Her husband, a famous composer, is killed in a car accident, along with her child. She leaves their home and moves to Paris, where she revels in living without ties to anyone, refusing even to help a woman in distress outside her door.
Yet the film isn't about the joys of liberty. Julie slowly grows weary of her independent life, which is meaningless without something and someone to live for. Threaded throughout the film is the symphony Julie's husband was writing before he died, intended to be played at a ceremony celebrating the unification of Europe. The text for the symphony, which plays throughout the film, is 1 Corinthians 13: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal."
Liberty, Kieslowski suggests, is hollow without interdependence. A core pillar of the French republic needs moderating. (It's perhaps worth noting that the unification of Europe represents a move away from total independence; it was, and obviously still is, hotly contested.) Kieslowski performs the same trick in the other two films, Three Colors: White and Three Colors: Red.
It’s hard — but possible — to make art that’s political without being propaganda
Making a political movie or TV show is risky, at least if the creator wants to actually change people’s minds or move them to act. Overtly political messages usually have two effects: People who already agree with the message nod vigorously, and people who already disagree continue to do so. (Think of the documentaries of Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza.)
Sometimes undecided viewers may be swayed — but only if they can be coaxed in the door. Reaction, not contemplation, is most people’s reflexive response to political art.
Movies and TV are great at capturing the excitement of political situations, but it’s less fun to watch policy — which might be why so much of what passes for political today rarely deals with the actual consequences of ideas. (What political party does Frank Underwood belong to? Did you have to stop and think about it?)
But political filmmakers rarely just want to start a think piece mill; they aim to shift minds and hearts and prompt change. And so political art that matters — that has staying power — gets people in the door with great stories, then critiques regimes or shifts people’s thinking almost without them realizing it’s happening.
Kieslowski intuitively knew how to pull this off. Instead of making overt critiques, he instead told stories about ordinary people with ordinary problems in the framework of big ideas, like the Ten Commandments or the values of the French republic.
And because he was just telling ordinary people’s stories, Kieslowski managed to be critical of political ideas, laws, and governments and still credibly claim to be an apolitical filmmaker. After all, the merits of a political system can’t be determined in textbooks and speeches. The real test is what happens in citizens’ lives.
Watch the trailer for The Decalogue: