We totally eliminated politics as a subject. We considered it as something of no importance. We knew it was important, but could do nothing about it, so we decided it wasn’t important at all. - Krzysztof Kieślowski
This interview excerpt, made in January 1995 by filmmakers Eileen Anipare and Jason Wood for their film A Short Film About Decalogue: An Interview with Krzysztof Kieślowski, is an attempt to examine the universal messages—as well as the idiosyncrasies—offered by Decalogue. This is the first time this interview has been transcibed and published, and as part of our Decalogue 25th Anniversary Retrospective we're proud to present it here on the ICA Blog.
Eileen Anipare: What is important in Decalogue? I had the impression the protagonists conducted a lonely struggle with everyday problems.
Krzysztof Kieślowski: Of course, yes. 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.
Many of my films walk the line between fiction and documentary. That interested me for a long time. I don’t think the Decalogue films have anything to do with documentaries. When I think of documentaries, I think of the documentary films that were being made in Poland during the 70s, 60s, and 50s. They were also significant in England before the war. Although the films are not similar, a documentary is a relationship of a filmmaker with actual events. Even if they’ve been dramatised.
You mean the facts?
No, the events. If someone is in love with somebody, you can hardly call that a fact. It just happens, doesn’t it. I would call that a fact, but it is something that actually took place. A documentary that doesn’t merely register events—because that would be boring—is always the maker’s search for his relationship to the actual event. That’s a documentary. So Decalogue is not a documentary. Nothing really happened, it was invented. So it has nothing in common with a documentary.
On the other hand, in Poland these films were criticised for not having anything to do with reality. They’re not documentaries at all. Not only this, but people thought they had nothing to do with reality. Events in the film could never have really happened. There are two steps: one, if something really happened, it’s a documentary. Two is credibility: could it have happened? Events in Decalogue could really have happened. In every episode, event the smallest elements could be true. But many people in Poland felt they couldn’t be. It was impossible, all the things were made up. Or if you want to use a more pejorative word, let’s say... unbelievable, an invention, and therefore not credible. That’s a pejorative connotation.
But you can also look at it from a different perspective. You could say it is a documentary registration - in spite of the fact that the story is fiction and the protagonists are played by the actors, and the tears are glycerin-induced, it is a kind of record of the times, of the temperature of the times. Of how people lived in those days.
In Poland in the 80s?
Right. From that point of view, you could say that Decalogue is a record of a certain period of time. A moment of time in Poland. Of course, it deals with more universal issues, and day-to-day occurrences people have to deal with to survive in their daily life. It’s the reality of a particular time, place and political system. It’s a record of society’s daily routine. The type of record that Ken Loach is famous for in England. In a way, Decalogue accomplishes the same effect. It is a record of a certain human life at a particular point in time. Right.
In that sense it’s more of a documentary film than [the] Three Colours [films], which are further removed from everyday life. At least the first and the third. The second [White] is more like Decalogue. It’s a more realistic film that describes a particular moment, in a particular time and place, and particular people.
In the Decalogue series you used different cameramen for some episodes. Was it deliberate or did you want to give new talent a chance? Or did using different cameramen influence the visual style?
Of course it was deliberate, most of what you do in a film is. Sometimes things happen spontaneously and you use them. But few things happen by accident. And it wasn’t a series, it was a film cycle. There’s a difference. A cycle is a different concept than a series. That difference is much more complicated. It’s hard to define the rules of a cycle, if they even exist. But I think they do. You could probably define them.
I didn’t set out to give new talented cameramen a chance. Most were either cameramen I worked with before or that have been working for quite some time. In fact only two of the cameramen were very young.
Did it influence the film?
It was my intention, and I think it was one of my best ideas in Decalogue to use different cameramen. All the films were made as one production. One after the other, sometimes even overlapping. Sometimes we were shooting three different films in one day. By doing that we were able to keep from getting too bored. Because, at least for me, the actual job of directing is very boring. Working with new cameramen changes all that. A new cameraman has a fresh new approach to the whole process. And not just me, but also the whole crew, needed something interesting after working on the project for months. New actors obviously added an interesting element, because every episode was made with different actors. But also the new cameramen. He’ll change everything, from the lighting to the camera movements. So everything else changes. Soundmen have to rethink the sound recording. If first the set was lit without shadows, now it’s with shadows. For the soundman it means he faces a new challenge. And if there’s a challenge, the work gets interesting. Otherwise, you get the effect of what they say, that if you know a cameraman too well, you can predict exactly where the holes in the carpeting will be. Because he’ll always put the camera in the same spot, hence the holes. Since we used different cameramen, we had no holes in the carpet. Every cameramen came with another style and approach. Another productive aspect of that was a slightly competitive element. They all wanted to be better than the last one
Did one stand out?
No. It was more a feeling they had amongst themselves. You know what was really funny? The cameramen had different temperaments, and work experiences, and, in general, a different way of telling a story in film. Everybody tells a story in their own way. But in the end, all the films were shot in a similar way. I didn’t interfere in their work, I didn’t even tell them which lens to use. Not to mention the lighting – that was their business. Generally, I don’t look through the finder. But I know what a shot will look like if the camera is in a certain position, and is fitted with, say, a 50mm lens. I might be off by half a centimetre. I can do the same with a 35mm lens and be wrong by this much, not more. I know all this, but I don’t look through the finder. So they have a lot of freedom of movement to tell the story their way. I wait for the moment they start telling it their way. It’s always interesting. Well, it can be, but not always.
You’ve said that different episodes of Decalogue resemble each other. That they’re told in a similar way...
A script indicates the camera positions, but they’re not written down. It indicates the lighting, the storytelling, but in my scripts I hardly ever use the word ‘camera’. I never write down where the camera is or what it does. I don’t think it’s necessary. I never write what’s called a storyline. Or what Americans call storyboard. I never do it. I haven’t done it in years. You won’t find ‘camera’ in my scripts. But the narrative apparently dictates the way you tell the story in film. The cameramen picked up on this intuitively, though it’s not written down. Formally, the word ‘camera’ doesn’t exist. In none of the scripts for Decalogue will you find the word ‘camera’: ‘camera shoots this or that, or tells the story this or that way.’ ‘Camera moves into the room.’ Nothing of the sort.
Still, the directions for filming must be present somewhere, because the way the story is told in the episodes is very similar. Yet the cameramen had different temperaments, experiences and tastes. And I gave them the freedom to shoot the film their own way.
As you mentioned, the different episodes resemble each other visually. Another factor contributing to that is that the protagonists [of each episode] also appear in other episodes of Decalogue. It gives the narrative a sense of continuity.
I just mentioned that. We tried to transfer some of the rules of a series onto the cycle. Or to formulate new rules for the cycle using the experience of a series.
But isn’t it so that because of that... Doesn’t it give the impression that Decalogue could take place at any time, and any place, like that neighbourhood?
An English spectator does not get the impression it’s Poland, that it has a Polish mentality or was made in Ursynów in Warsaw...
Actually, it wasn’t Ursynów. It was made in Dzika.
I was convinced...
No, it wasn’t. It was chosen for very definite photographic reasons. Ursynów, maybe you know it, is a very spread-out area. It seems to disperse. It’s big, with a lot of open spaces. You can never capture it in a closed shot. It’s simply not possible. That’s why we moved to Dzika. That was our base, though it wasn’t all shot there, but that doesn’t matter. The atmosphere was important. The Dzika area was built more in the style used before the war. The houses seal off the horizon. If you know the area, the buildings are positioned in such a way that wherever you place the camera you can get a closed shot.
The closed shot gives the impression that there’s no way out. If there’s space, you can always find a way out. Americans shoot those huge open spaces in road movies or Westerns and other types of films. There’s always this sense of freedom. You can always get out because it’s so big. But that huge space also means that you can die of thirst in that desert. Or freeze to death. But you can get out. A closed shot creates a sense of the inevitability of being there. You get that feeling subconsciously, of course. It’s why we looked for neighbourhoods like that. Dzika... no, Dzielna, is like that. Dzika or Dzielna? Which is it? A friend of mine lives there, so I’ll tell you exactly what it’s called [pauses to look up address]... it’s Dzika.
You’ve said you feel very Polish - that Poland has left a definite mark on your work. Is Decalogue really a reflection of your nationality?
I really don’t think it’s that important. I don’t see that as an issue. I see no reason to think about whether or not I’m Polish. Of course I’m Polish. I can’t be, and will never be anything else, no matter how hard I try. I am a Pole, I was born and bred here. I was raised on books in Polish. I’ve lived through bad times in my country. I carry that inside, I’ll never lose it.
So Decalogue is the work of a Pole?
That’s totally irrelevant. A Pole is a Pole. In the negative sense of the word, he thinks he’s the centre of the universe. Unfortunately, many Poles think that. Aside from the positive elements, like pride and a longing for freedom, this also has a number of negative elements: narrow-mindedness, provincialism, little attention to the people around us. We want things to be good, but in fact we love to be unhappy. We don’t want to accept that it can be worse somewhere else, or better. That’s very provincial, but I think I shed that quite a long time ago. Long ago I understood that, regardless of race, belief, and other matters like being rich or not, we actually struggle with one real problem. And if you understand that, it doesn’t matter where you place the camera. It doesn’t matter. Polish or not is not the issue. If the money is Polish, it’s Polish, if you must discuss it in those terms but if you want to talk about it on a higher level, you must consider that the conflict of the woman in Part Two could happen to a woman in New York: whether to keep a baby that’s not your husband’s. The woman in New York and the one in Warsaw face the same dilemma. The same goes for a woman in Tokyo. It doesn’t really matter.
I read in one of your interviews that during the making of Decalogue, you and [lawyer, screenwriter, politician and Kieślowski collaborator Krzysztof] Piesiewicz asked yourselves many existential questions. What is happiness? What is love?
Do you think there’s one universal morality, or are there different moralities depending on the people and the times?
I believe people know what’s good and what’s evil, if you call that morality. Actually, I don’t like the word morality, as I’m sure you’ve read. I think that if were to use that word, it would make me a moralist, someone who knows what it is. But I’m not someone who knows. Not exactly. So I’d rather ask questions than provide answers. I know what questions to ask, more or less. So I concern myself with ethics rather than morality. It’s broader. And avoid moralising, as it’s called. That’s what it’s called in Polish. In English as well. By moralising I mean preaching, lecturing and teaching what’s right and wrong. But I believe everyone has a barometer inside to tell the difference between the truth and a lie, between good and evil. And people follow this barometer, if they can. Very often they’re not able to, but given the chance, they will.
Did you find the answers?
No, because they don’t exist. That’s why the questions are interesting.
I don’t know the meaning of ‘freedom.’ Decalogue doesn’t deal with it much. It doesn’t deal with political freedom, or existential freedom, or even basic human freedom. To some extent, every film deals with it, just like every film is about love. You try to find a film anywhere that is not about love. Except maybe the films of Andy Warhol, but that’s a totally different genre. So films like that don’t exist, and that applies to Decalogue as well.
In Decalogue, none of the individuals long for freedom. I can’t think of one protagonist who long for freedom. The protagonist in Episode One wishes for his agonising son to die after he’s fallen through the ice. In Epidsode Two, the woman must decide if she’ll have her baby, and if you can love two men at once. And if so, how do you deal with it? Doe she want too much? That’s her problem. She doesn’t long for freedom. On the contrary, she depends on both her men. She stays with one, but bears the child of the other. Freedom is not the issue for her.
The problem for the man in Episode Three is to go home and not get involved in something that once made him happy. He wants peace and prefers staying home over going out with women, even if one of the women is special, and much more interesting than his own wife. That is his problem, not freedom. He wants to stay with his wife without hurting the other woman. That’s his problem. The protagonist in Episode Four doesn’t know if her father is really her father. Is the man she loves her father? And if so, can she break the taboo? Can you break a taboo and still be happy, or not? Will your happiness be clouded by that taboo, and make you bitter and hopeless? That’s her problem.
Nobody cares about freedom. Even the protagonist in Episode Five, who killed a man, is more concerned with understanding why he did it than with freedom. Of course he doesn’t want to be hanged, nobody wants that. Everybody wants to live. Or most people do, but it’s not like he’s longing for freedom. He wants to understand what he’s done and why. He doesn’t want to be hanged, but it’s not the same as longing for freedom.
And I can go on. I think you’ll find that none of the films deal with that longing for freedom. Not political freedom, or the existential personal freedom. The films are not about freedom. It’s either wrongly translated or misquoted.
You mentioned Ken Loach. The English press has often compared you to him. Has he influenced you at all visually and thematically?
I don’t know him personally. I like the film he made in the 60s, called Kes. Or maybe that was in the early 70s. I liked that film very much, because there was something about the film that I was very much interested in at the time. It had the look of a documentary, but it was a fictional film. I don’t know if you know it, but it’s about a boy who finds a kestrel. And this boy, no matter what you would’ve done to him, even if he ended up in a fictional world because of this film. This boy would still be the same. He was that boy. Not an actor. He was good, because it was him, the emotions were his. He didn’t have a real kestrel at home. A mouse maybe, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that need to have something of your own, in a world where you have nothing. He has nothing that belongs to him. Nothing he could say he has an absolute right to. His kestrel is killed by his brother, if I remember correctly. As revenge for not doing something he asked. To bet on a horse, or something. So it doesn’t matter what the boy really had, but in the film it was the kestrel. His emotions were real. Or Ken Loach made it look as if they were his own emotions. His personal feelings were used in the film, I thought that was very good. ■
Krzysztof Kieślowski: The Decalogue 25th Anniversary Retrospective runs at the ICA from 27 November to 9 December.
With thanks to Jason Wood and Eileen Anipare.