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Crash victim?

Krzysztof Kieslowski at the MFA
By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 4, 2006

TROIS COULEURS: BLEU: You can’t make this stuff up, or at least you can’t unless you paid careful attention to it in the first place.

I recently saw Alejandro Iñárritu’s Babel, the latest entry in the multi-narrative, pseudo-serendipitous, ain’t-life-ironic genre that reached a highpoint with the Best Picture Oscar last year for Crash, and I asked myself, is this the future of cinema? It occurred to me also that if we could blame anyone for this trend it would be the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who died in 1996. Always a stalwart admirer of Kieslowski, I wondered what, if anything, distinguished his The Decalogue and “Three Color Trilogy” from the likes of 21 Grams and Grand Canyon?

As if to answer these questions, the Museum of Fine Arts begins an exhaustive retrospective of Kieslowski’s works, from his earliest documentaries to L’enfer|Hell (2005; October 8 at 7 pm, October 13 at 2 pm), director Danis Tanovic’s realization of a screenplay that Kieslowski was working on with his collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz at the time of his death.

I think the seldom seen documentaries offer a clue to what makes Kieslowski different from his imitators. He started as an observer of behavior, places, and things, not as a manufacturer of stories meant to mimic them. Take the short “From the Point of View of a Night Porter” (1977; October 11 at 4 pm, with the 1976 feature The Calm). It consists of shots of a middle-aged security guard officiously fulfilling his duties at a factory while in voiceover he offers his opinion on the death penalty or describes how a pet parakeet drowned in a bowl of soup, “but he was sick anyway.”

As they say, you can’t make this stuff up, or at least you can’t unless you paid careful attention to it in the first place.

On another occasion Kieslowski realized that what he filmed in his documentaries had more going on in them than he thought. In “Railway Station” (1980; October 13 at 4 pm, with the 1975 TV feature Personnel) he used a candid camera to catch the faces of ordinary people drifting in and out of the title site. Police confiscated the film; it turned out that a woman who had murdered her mother had entered the station, the dismembered corpse in her suitcase.

That put Kieslowski off documentaries, but he’d already been exploring more fictional, or manipulated, realms, starting with First Love (1974; October 21 at 10:30 am). He spent a year following a teenage couple. She’s pregnant, they decide to get married, the bureaucrats at school hassle them and the housing board won’t give them an apartment, but they persevere. Kind of like a Frederick Wiseman film, except that Kieslowski nudges it a bit by, for example, sending a policeman into their tiny room to demand their registration papers.

In short, he was playing God. Or was God playing with him? The link between art and life, between events and people, surpasses the understanding of mere filmmakers. So it seemed when, for example, he shot an autopsy for Blind Chance (1982; October 13 at 7:45 pm) and learned that at the same time he was filming that scene, his mother, who unbeknownst to him had died in a car crash, was undergoing the same procedure.

Such things make you feel humble before the universe your art tries to probe or imitate. Maybe it’s this awe and humility that fills Kieslowski’s films with authenticity, ambiguity, and mystery. He knew that coincidences, interconnected fates, and immanent revelation are not just a screenwriter’s tricks but the stuff of life itself.

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